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Why the Supreme Court cited the Doctrine and Covenants in this week’s key religious liberty decision

In underscoring the vital role teachers play within religion, Justice Alito reached for a scripture familiar to Latter-day Saints

The Supreme Court, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington. “The Supreme Court issued on Wednesday a series of vitally important opinions protecting religious freedom,” writes Hal Boyd in the Deseret News Opinion section. “Only one of them, however, referenced scripture from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

The Supreme Court issued on Wednesday a series of vitally important opinions protecting religious freedom. Only one of them, however, referenced scripture from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, is a 7-2 decision penned by Justice Samuel Alito. It centers on the question of whether teachers at a Catholic school fit under the court’s definition of the “ministerial exception,” which is a carveout from certain civil rights and nondiscrimination laws. The ministerial exception, the court held in its decision, does in fact apply to “key” employees within religious organizations beyond just pastors and ministers. This might include, for instance, teachers at religious institutions.

To underscore the vital role teachers play within religion, Alito points out the way in which instruction and learning pervade faith-based traditions. Referencing Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, Islam and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Alito notes that, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long tradition of religious education, with roots in revelations given to Joseph Smith. See Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints §93:36.”

Many Latter-day Saints will recognize the scriptural reference as one of Brigham Young University’s unofficial mottos: “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” This, of course, isn’t the first time the church’s name or its teachings have been cited in the high court’s reasoning.

Legal scholars point out that the early foundations of religious freedom law in America spring from no less than 12 Supreme Court cases related to Latter-day Saint polygamy during a 15-year period in the late 1800s.

But beyond these early decisions, devout religious believers of all stripes have made essential contributions to securing religious rights and defining their contours in the law. From the Baptist minister who sought to be a delegate to his state’s constitutional convention in McDaniel v. Paty to the worker who refused to labor on the sabbath in Sherbert v. Verner; from the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Christian cake baker, to the Muslim inmate in Holt v. Hobbs who desired to keep his beard; from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who brought literally dozens of cases before the Supreme Court during the mid-20th century to the parochial schools that were part of Wednesday’s decisions, these and many other devout believers have continued to shape our public ordering for the better.

While there are legitimate reasons to be careful about mixing faith and politics, or violating important boundaries between church and state, those who say the religious should simply retreat from the public square must consider the continuing contributions of citizens inspired by their God and their conscience.

In part, this is why the Constitution provides unique First Amendment protections for faith.

Writing the majority opinion in yesterday’s opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Justice Alito underscores how the Constitution protects “the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.” Such protections carry an implied “autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.”

This freedom and space allow faith-based institutions and individuals to flourish. It allows people of faith to seek out and contribute greater light and truth — to seek out the glory of God.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.