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Supreme Court religious cases: what happened in 2021 and what’s next


This article was first published in the State of the Faith Bulletin. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Monday evening.

The Supreme Court is now on summer recess, but before signing, the judges gave us homework to do.

On Friday, the court announced 10 new additions to its list of cases for the next term, including a battle between a religious family and the state of Maine over whether public funds to help with tuition fees can be used. in private “sectarian” schools.

I’m sure I won’t be the only person spending the next few months researching and thinking about the types of decisions to make next year. This term reminded us that the tribunal is full of surprises, even when a group of judges – at the moment it is the Conservatives – has the numbers on their side.

Here is an overview of the major religious decisions made this year:

  • Tanzin v. Tanvir: Judges ruled 8-0 in favor of Muslim men who have been placed on the FBI no-fly list. As a result, people of faith will now be able to seek damages from government employees who violate their religious rights.

  • Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski: The court has created new opportunities for victims of alleged violations of freedom of expression or religious freedom to seek justice in this case involving Christian students fighting against their school’s policy of expression. The judges ruled 8-1 that prosecutions can continue even after the government abandons the policy or behavior that prompted the prosecution.

  • Tandon v. Newsom: In a so-called shadow case decision, the court granted restitution to places of worship challenging the state of California’s foreclosure rules. As I noted in a recent newsletter, Tandon v. Newsom described a new approach to free exercise litigation.

  • Fulton v. City of Philadelphia: Judges unanimously ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services, allowing faith-based foster care agency to continue partnering with city despite agency refusal to terminate assessments of same-sex couples. The court said the government cannot refuse to offer religious accommodations to laws when it is ready to offer other types of exceptions.

Given the court’s conservative majority, it’s no surprise that the religious plaintiffs won in all four cases.

However, it is interesting to watch the margins of victory; Tandon was the only trial decided along ideological lines.

“In a time of division with a lot of conflict, we have seen the tribunal again and again make decisions by qualified majority and often unanimity” in its cases related to religion, said Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a July 1 press call.

Will it be the same next year? Only time will tell. But looking at the faith-related cases the tribunal has already agreed to hear and those it is still reviewing, I can’t help but predict much closer and more contentious decisions in 2022.

Here are some cases to watch for the next term:

  • Carson v. Makin: On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it would take up this clash over the rules governing Maine’s tuition assistance program. Currently, some private religious schools are not eligible for the funds due to state concerns about the use of public funds to fund religious activities. Last year, the court overturned similar rules in Montana in a 5-4 decision.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga: Last month, judges agreed to hear a case questioning the government’s ability to withhold certain types of evidence under its state secrets privilege. The lawsuit was brought by a group of Muslim men who say the FBI targeted them after refusing to help spy on their religious community.

  • Dignity Health v. Minton: The Supreme Court has yet to announce whether it will hear this case involving a Catholic hospital and a transgender man. The man, Evan Minton, filed a complaint after the hospital, citing religious concerns, canceled his appointment for a hysterectomy. If accepted, judges would have to decide how to balance the hospital’s religious freedom protections with LGBTQ anti-discrimination law.

  • Diocese of Albany c. Lacewell: Do you remember the previous battles over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate? This case is similar except that instead of presenting federal law and insurance coverage for contraception, it is New York State law and insurance coverage for contraception. ‘abortion. The Supreme Court has not yet decided to take up the case.

  • Apache Stronghold v. United States: This case is one of two involving Native Americans that I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. It focuses on Oak Flat, a site sacred to the Western Apache people that is in danger of becoming a copper mine. The 9th Circuit appeals court will hear this case later this year and, depending on the timing of the ruling and the decision itself, the case could be taken to the Supreme Court by spring.

Fresh from the press

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of two nonprofits challenging the state of California’s donor disclosure rules, and I wrote about the ruling. Although the case did not involve religious freedom law, several faith-based organizations, including Becket, have filed briefs in support of the claims of the nonprofits.

Term of the week: Certiorari

Certiorari refers to the process by which an individual or organization asks the Supreme Court to review their case. They petition for a “writ of certiorari” explaining why their lawsuit deserves the judges’ attention.

If the court agrees to consider the case, it means that the judges have “granted certiorari” or “granted cert”.

What I’m reading …

Canada’s political, religious and Indigenous leaders are currently grappling with an unspeakable tragedy: the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves at the former sites of residential schools for Indigenous children. “From the 19th century to the 1970s, over 150,000 children were forced to attend publicly funded Christian residential schools in an attempt to assimilate them into Canadian society,” the Associated Press reported. Indigenous leaders are now asking Pope Francis for an apology, as many schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The Pew Research Center has released its long-awaited look at how various religious, ethnic, and age groups voted in the 2020 election. Researchers found that former President Donald Trump won the support of 84% of White Evangelical Protestants. President Joe Biden, on the other hand, received more votes from atheists and agnostics in 2020 than Hillary Clinton in 2016.


If you are a fan of romantic comedies like “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Holiday” check out the book “Would Like to Meet” by Rachel Winters. I read it last week and found it absolutely delicious.


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