The faith-related cases to watch in the Supreme Court’s new term

The Supreme Court’s latest term began this week

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When I first started tracking the Supreme Court’s religious liberty cases, it didn’t amount to much work. The justices typically heard just one such suit each term, which meant there was only one set of legal briefs, one day of oral arguments and one ruling for me to follow and cover.

My goodness, how things have changed.

Over the past year, I reported on three fully briefed and argued religious liberty cases and several more emergency orders related to COVID-19 gathering rules.

In the term that starts this week, the court will hear at least four lawsuits involving religious freedom claims, and likely even more.

In other words, I have a long Supreme Court-related to-do list, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Here’s a look at the cases you can expect to hear a lot more about in the year ahead:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga: In the wake of 9/11, Muslim Americans faced intrusive and often unjustified surveillance, as I reported last month. However, the people affected generally struggled to challenge the government’s practices in court, in part because officials could claim “state secrets privileges” and refuse to turn over significant evidence. In Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga, the Supreme Court will examine the limits of these privileges and determine whether the government has been given too much leeway. Oral arguments will take place on Nov. 8.
  • Ramirez v. Collier: This case grew out of a death row inmate’s quest to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray for him as he’s put to death by the state of Texas. Under the state’s current policy, religious advisers cannot touch or pray with inmates in their final moments. Last month, the Supreme Court put John Ramirez’s execution on hold in order to weigh his religious freedom concerns. The justices will hear oral arguments in this case on Nov. 9.
  • Carson v. Makin: This case centers on a tuition assistance program in Maine that’s currently unavailable to students at some private, religious schools. The justices will consider whether it’s unlawful to use public money to fund faith-based education, as state officials believe it is. Oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 8.
  • Shurtleff v. City of Boston: Can faith-related flags fly on public flagpoles? That’s one of the key questions in this clash between Boston officials and a Christian group. The group alleged religious discrimination after the city turned down its request to use a city hall flagpole that had been shared with a variety of other organizations. The Supreme Court will have to decide if Boston officials were right to worry that flying the flag would represent unlawful religious expression. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in this case.

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: Clergy hospitality

Over the weekend, I stayed at a hotel that offers a unique perk to Catholic priests. Under its “clergy hospitality program,” priests get a room for free if they agree to lead Mass at the on-site chapel during their stay.

I was tickled by the program, so I did a little more research. It turns out that lots of hotels offer special discounts to faith leaders in recognition of their important work.

What I’m reading...

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is facing a lawsuit over its handling of requests for religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate. The two employees behind the suit argue that school officials are discounting exemption claims based on personal religious beliefs in violation of the Constitution. “This idea that you have to have a centralized authority to get a religious exemption, it strikes against everything we know about the First Amendment,” said Peter Breen, vice president of the law firm representing the employees, to The Associated Press.

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, is in the midst of a reckoning over sexual assault. Although most members of the SBC’s executive committee agree that such a reckoning is needed and deserved, they can’t come to an agreement on how much access to give to the third-party organization investigating their handling of abuse allegations. Religion News Service recently published an overview of the complex situation.

Odds and ends

Pew Research Center has released its annual look at social hostilities and governmental policies harming faith groups around the world. Researchers found that, for the fifth year in a row, the number of countries seeing religion-related terrorist activity has declined.

In other research news, Public Religion Research Institute recently reported that the share of U.S. adults who support federal LGBTQ rights legislation (82%) has risen more than 10 percentage points since 2015. However, researchers also discovered that the share of Americans who believe the country already has such anti-discrimination protections in place is also rising.