Religious freedom is a right, given by God and guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that allows individual people or groups to practice a religion—or to practice no religion at all—both in private and also in public with a minimal amount of interference from the local, state, or federal government. The Constitution and other federal and state laws protect this right to determine both what we believe and, in a more limited sense, how we act on those beliefs.
Despite this being our first freedom, challenges to the right of individuals and organizations to practice this liberty arose frequently over the past decade. Here are seven of the most important cases involving religious freedom from 2010 to 2019:
The Case: Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010)
What It Was About: The Christian Legal Society filed a lawsuit after the University of California’s Hastings College of Law denied official recognition to the organization. The school refused to recognize the Christian group because it requires its voting members and officers to abide by an extensive, faith-based pledge that includes a prohibition on all premarital and extramarital sex. The Supreme Court ruled that a public college does not abridge the First Amendment by declining to acknowledge a student group that refuses to permit all students to join the group, in accordance with state law.
Why It Matters: In a dissenting opinion, four conservative justices called the decision “deeply disappointing” and a “serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.” In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Brushing aside inconvenient precedent, the Court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups. . . . I can only hope that this decision will turn out to be an aberration.”
The Case: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014)
What It Was About: The Green family, which owns and operates Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., challenged the Affordable Care Act’s Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate that required all for-profit companies to cover abortion-inducing drugs. The Court found that the HHS mandate violated RFRA by imposing a substantial burden on companies and by failing to satisfy the least restrictive-means standard.
Why It Matters: The ruling was considered a significant win for the religious liberty of companies and business owners. If the mandate had been allowed to stand, it would have set a precedent that the government can not only force citizens to violate their most deeply held beliefs but also that we can also be sanctioned for refusing to do so. As John Leo noted at the time, today it is contraceptives and abortifacients, but “down the road it will be about suicide pills, genetic engineering, abortion and mandatory abortion training, transgender operations, and a whole new series of morally problematic procedures about to come over the horizon.”
The Case: Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
What It Was About: This case challenged two issues concerning whether the Fourteenth Amendment must guarantee the right for same-sex couples to marry. The Supreme Court ruled the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. Same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.” This ruling made same-sex marriages the law of the land in all 50 states.
Why It Matters: Although not directly considered a religious liberty case, Obergfell has affected other cases, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene’s Flowers, since the legalization of same-sex marriage has led states to attempt to force Christians to serve same-sex weddings even when it violates their beliefs.
The Case: Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton (2016)
What It Was About: From 2013 to 2017, as Becket Law notes, class-action lawyers “brought nearly 100 lawsuits against various Catholic and Protestant hospitals around the country, arguing that these nonprofit hospitals had broken the law by participating in nonprofit church pension plans instead of using lower-benefit pension plans designed for large for-profit corporations like Exxon and Walmart.” Three federal district courts and the Court of Appeals agreed with the employees who filed these lawsuits, and held that to qualify as a church plan a church must establish the plan.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed lower court decisions and held that under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a pension plan controlled by or associated with a church for the administration or funding of a plan for the church’s employees qualifies as a “church plan.”
Why It Matters: The underlying question addressed by the case was whether the First Amendment allowed civil courts and government agencies to determine whether mercy ministries, such as homeless shelter or hospitals, should be considered as a part of the church. Had the lower courts ruling been allowed to stand, the precedent could have affected other issues in which church structure affects how they carry out their mission.
The Case: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017)
What It Was About: The case involved a religious preschool that was rejected from a state program that provides reimbursement grants to purchase rubberized surface material (i.e., tire scraps) for children’s playgrounds. The preschool was initially denied the grant for its playground solely because the playground belongs to a religious organization. The Supreme Court ruled the state of Missouri violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution when it excluded a church from a general program to purchase recycled tires and resurface its playground because it was a religious institution.
Why It Matters: At its core, the Trinity Lutheran playground case strikes at the heart of American jurisprudence, said Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that defended the case before the Supreme Court. The underling questions were: What is fair play in a pluralistic society? Can a state prohibit police from responding to a burglary at a Catholic school? Can a city stop the fire department from putting out a fire at a church?
In their decision on the Trinity Lutheran case the Court answered these questions, ruling that the government can’t discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.
The Case: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018)
What It Was About: In 2012, an expert baker and devout Christian named Jack Phillips told a same-sex couple that he could not create a custom cake for their wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
At the time, Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriage, and Phillips believed he was under no legal obligation to bake a special cake for the ceremony. However, he agreed that he would sell them other baked goods that did not require him to use his artistic talents in a way that violated his conscience. The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission claiming that Phillips had violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in a “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.”
The Supreme Court said comments made by a commissioner during a hearing on the case—which were not objected to by other commissioners or even mentioned in later state-court rulings—cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the commission’s adjudication of Phillips’s case.
Why It Matters: While the ruling was an important win for Jack Phillips and for religious liberty, it didn’t address the underlying issue of whether in the future Christians will be forced by government to “bake the cake” (i.e., use their artistic talents in a way that violates their conscience). Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the majority, made it clear that “the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above.”
“Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day,” Justice Thomas wrotes. “But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to ‘stamp out every vestige of dissent’ and ‘vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”’
The Case: State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers (2018)
What It Was About: Facing the loss of everything she owns, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, has been targeted by her state’s attorney general because she politely declined a long-time customers request to create a floral arrangement for his same-sex wedding. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court that upheld the states hostility toward her beliefs, sending the question back to the state court to be revisited in light of the Court’s ruling in Masterpiece.
In 2019, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Stutzman again, repeating verbatim much of what it said in its original decision. The Supreme Court may take up the case again in the future.
Why It Matters: This was the second case in two years where the Supreme Court put a check—albeit a temporary or limited one—on a state government’s hostility to religious belief. Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior vice president of U.S. legal division and the lawyer who argued on Stutzman’s behalf before the Washington Supreme Court in 2016 and for Phillips before the U.S. Supreme Court, said the cases are similar. “In [the Masterpiece] ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court denounced government hostility toward the religious beliefs about marriage held by creative professionals like Jack and Barronelle,” Waggoner said. “The state of Washington, acting through its attorney general, has shown similar hostility here.”