Religious Freedom Amid the Tumult
Forthcoming, University of St. Thomas Law Journal, volume 17 (2021)
17 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2020
Date Written: August 17, 2020
The Supreme Court Term ending in summer 2020 was action-packed for religious freedom. The Court decided six cases pertaining to the issue—double, even triple the usual number—in contexts from school choice to public-health closures of churches to clashes between religious liberty and nondiscrimination laws. The decisions also came at a time of extraordinary stress and turbulence in society, and they relate in striking ways to those forces of turbulence. This Article discusses religious freedom in relation to three Ps of turbulence: Pandemic, Polarization of culture and politics, and Protests over racial injustice.
In each of these areas, the Article aims to explain the Court's approach and defend religious freedom today as a vital aspect of human dignity.
Among many lessons from today’s crises is that religion, freely chosen and exercised, is a vital aspect of human identity. Religious exercise provides individuals with strength and comfort in the stresses of a pandemic. Religious belief motivates service to others in schools and social-service agencies; credible legal threats to those organizations aggravate our already dangerous polarization. Now as much as ever, it is vital to defend religious freedom for all. Despite some mixed signals, the current Supreme Court seems willing to shoulder that task.
But to defend religious freedom credibly means recognizing rights for others too. Christian conservatives must support religious liberty and equality for Muslims as well. A credible defense of religious freedom also calls for confronting rather than denying the problems of racial inequality. And it calls for drawing careful lines so that LGBT people can participate in economic life and traditionalist religious organizations can follow their religious identity.
Keywords: Free exercise of religion, neutral and generally applicable laws, religious discrimination, devaluing religion, government funding, neutrality toward religion, religious choice, polarization, LGBTQ nondiscrimination, religious exemptions, racial equality and justice, protests for racial justice
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