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The religion cases to watch in the Supreme Court’s new term

How many religion-related cases will the Supreme Court end up hearing this term?

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Ready or not, a new Supreme Court term is here.

The justices heard their first cases of the fall Monday, and they’ll have their hands full with conferences, oral argument sessions and decision writing for at least the next nine months.

I, however, have a much shorter to-do list than normal, since the court has only taken up one religion-related case so far. 303 Creative v. Elenis centers on a website designer who argues the state of Colorado can’t force her to design sites for same-sex weddings since doing so would violate her religious beliefs.

“(Lorie) Smith does not want to design websites for same-sex weddings, and she wants to post a message on her own website to explain that. But a Colorado law prohibits businesses that are open to the public from discriminating against gay people or announcing their intent to do so,” SCOTUSblog reported in February when the court agreed to hear the case.

Interestingly, the justices declined to consider Smith’s religious freedom claims and, instead, have chosen to focus on free speech. But many faith groups are still watching the case closely as communities across the country struggle to balance religious freedom and LGBTQ rights.

There are plenty of other religions cases seeking the Supreme Court’s attention, but the justices haven’t yet agreed to hear one. Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told me last week that it’ll be fascinating to see what ends up on this term’s docket, and I can’t help but agree.

Here’s a look at some other cases the Supreme Court may hear this term:

Cases on the Supreme Court’s doorstep

Gerald Groff, an evangelical Christian, believes that working on Sunday is against his religion. He resigned from his job with the U.S. Postal Service rather than pick up shifts on his Sabbath day and then sued, alleging religious freedom violations.

After losing in the lower courts, Groff appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to revisit a 1977 ruling that severely limited the faith-based protections offered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, SCOTUSblog reported.

The justices received Groff’s request to hear the case in August, but they are still waiting on a response from the U.S. Postal Service — It’s due Oct. 26 — before they decide whether or not to hear the case.

Like 303 Creative, this case centers on the rights of wedding-related business owners. Melissa and Aaron Klein, who owned a bakery before they shut it down amid the legal battle, say the First Amendment protects them from having to design cakes for same-sex weddings.

The Supreme Court has been asked to consider this case before, but sent it back to the lower courts for reconsideration after ruling in a similar case in 2018. The Kleins’ latest request for help is currently awaiting action from the justices.

In 2006, a government highway project in Oregon led to the destruction of sacred burial grounds. The Slockish case was brought by Native American leaders seeking remediation of that sacred land.

“The government could allow them to rebuild the stone altar, replant native vegetation and resume their religious practices at the site,” attorney Luke Goodrich told the Deseret News last year.

The Native American leaders filed their request for help with the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Oct. 3, so it will be a while before the justices weigh in.

Cases that will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court

This battle over a patch of sacred land in Arizona pits a coalition of Native Americans called Apache Stronghold against the U.S. government. Members of the former group argue that officials violated their religious freedom rights when they agreed to transfer the land, called Oak Flat, to a mining company.

After losing in front of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Apache Stronghold announced an intention to appeal to the Supreme Court sometime this fall.

A group of religious organizations filed this case to push back against a New York law requiring employers to cover abortion in their employee health insurance plans. In its current form, the law offers only a narrow religious exemption.

Last December, the Supreme Court sent this case back to the lower courts for reconsideration in light of its 2021 ruling in favor of a Catholic foster care agency.


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Term of the week: Kirpan

A kirpan is one of the five articles of faith that Sikhs are required to either carry with them (the physical objects) or maintain (uncut hair covered by a turban) at all times. It resembles a dagger or sword, but it’s not necessarily as sharp as one, according to The Sikh Coalition.

The kirpan “acts as a reminder to its bearer of a Sikh’s solemn duty to protect the weak and promote justice for all,” the fact sheet from The Sikh Coalition says.

Because the kirpan looks like a weapon, carrying one can get Sikhs in legal trouble. Just last month, a University of North Carolina student was detained by police after officers received a report of someone with a knife in the student center, as USA Today reported. University officials eventually apologized for the incident, the article said, noting that such an outcome is typical for Sikhs who run into kirpan-related issues.

“In all the cases we’ve handled we’ve been able to favorably resolve them, because courts around the country recognize that kirpans are first and foremost articles of faith, and in this country we allow people to practice their faith,” said Harsimran Kaur, senior counsel for the Sikh Coalition, to USA Today.


What I’m reading ...

In recent decades, New Jersey’s Catholic population has shrunk, fueling closures of churches, community centers and schools. Now, with the help of both religious and secular leaders, some of those buildings are getting a second life as restaurants, affordable housing and event spaces, NJ.com reports.

Since she comes from an Orthodox Jewish background, New York Times’ editorial assistant Michal Leibowitz is more familiar than most with faith-based courtship rituals. In a recent column, she argued that such “old school” practices could improve singles’ dating lives.

Public Religion Research Institute released a fascinating survey last week on Americans’ views of tearing down confederate monuments. As Religion News Service highlighted in its coverage, religion helps predict feelings about the Confederacy. “Majorities of Protestants, Catholics and Latter-day Saints support such efforts to preserve Confederate monuments and memorials, with white evangelicals besting all others at 76%,” the article said.


Odds and ends

I enjoyed an awesome surprise at the aquarium this weekend.