The Supreme Court begins its 2014-15 term today. The 2013-14 session was a disaster for separation of church and state, and there’s a general sense among defenders of that principle that it would be best if the high court simply avoided such cases.
The court has agreed to accept two religious freedom cases that center on questions of individual rights. One, Holt v. Hobbs, will be argued tomorrow. It concerns a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who wants to grow a short beard for religious reasons. The other case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., deals with a young Muslim woman who was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store because she wore a head scarf.
Unlike the Hobby Lobby case from last term, these legal challenges focus on individuals seeking a religious accommodation that does not affect third parties. In Holt v. Hobbs, Americans United has no problem supporting the inmate because allowing him to grow a half-inch beard doesn’t affect anyone else’s rights. (Before you say it might present a danger to a correctional officer, get a ruler and look at half of an inch. There is no way anyone could hide a homemade weapon in a beard that short. Plus, inmates at this prison are allowed to have long hair. If they want to hide something, they’ll do it on the top of their heads, not the bottom.)
AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case urging the court to adopt a standard for religious-freedom cases that more seriously examines the possible damage done to third parties. Potentially millions of women could lose access to birth control thanks to the Hobby Lobby ruling. The court should not be blind to this fact.
There is a sense among many court watchers that another shoe is going to drop. Many observers, for example, believed the court would take up the issue of marriage equality this term. Several states have asked the court to hear the matter, but this morning the court turned them all down.
Generally speaking, the court is much more likely to take up an issue when there is a split among lower federal appeals courts. That has not happened yet with marriage equality. Every federal appeals court that has examined the issue has ruled in favor of it. But some observers believe the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to rule against marriage equality, which could put this issue back before the high court later this term.
Other “culture war” issues are looming. A number of states have passed restrictions on abortion, including Texas, where new laws have forced many abortion clinics in the state to close. The court may also be confronted with more cases related to access to contraceptives. And there are always cases in the court pipeline dealing with issues related to religion in public schools.
Keep your eye on the headlines. You never know what might happen.
P.S. Yesterday was the “Red Mass” here in Washington, D.C. Officials of the Catholic Church sponsor a special religious service for judges and members of the legal community every year the Sunday before the Supreme Court returns to work. Six justices attended this year’s mass: Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. Although clergy have used the mass in the past to lecture the justices on hot-button issues like religion in public life, abortion, same-sex marriage and tax aid to religious schools, it appears that didn’t happen this year. Longtime Supreme Court reporter Tony Mauro of Legal Times reported that the service “was completely devoid of hot-button references, political or social. It focused instead on the virtues of insight, inspiration and wisdom that are enhanced by religious faith.” That’s good, but I’m still not a fan of this event.