From big cases before the Supreme Court centering on free speech and religious liberty claims of a Christian baker to the ongoing investigations into transactions between abortion providers and biotech firms over fetal body parts harvested during abortion procedures, 2018 is already shaping up to be a significant year for religiously observant Americans and the unborn.
Here are five legal matters carrying significant implications that are expected to develop even more this year.
Decision to Be Handed Down in the Case of Christian Baker Jack Phillips at the Supreme Court
In what is considered a landmark religious liberty case before the High Court this year, in December the Court's nine justices heard arguments in the case of Colorado baker Jack Phillips whom the Colorado Civil Rights Commission sued for declining to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012.
Phillips maintains that his rights were violated to conduct his business according to the dictates of his faith and that to be forced to lend his creative abilities to an event with which he disagrees is state-coerced expression, also known as compelled speech. This, his lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom say, violates his free speech and religious freedom rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
As it has in years past when it comes to touchy cases — such as Hobby Lobby v. Burwell in 2014 — the Court is likely to hand down this decision on the last day of the session in late June.
The current Supreme Court bench is comprised of four conservatives, four liberals, and Anthony Kennedy, long regarded as the "swing vote" on controversial cases. Reports indicated that Kennedy appeared to favor Phillips' position during oral arguments, suggesting during questioning that the state showed disrespect for Phillips' faith and that true tolerance is a two-way street.
US Ambassador for Religious Freedom Nomination of Sam Brownback Nomination Stalled; Will He Be Renominated?
President Donald Trump nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in July to be the U.S. ambassador for Religious Freedom, a move that delighted religious freedom activists and social conservatives.
His appointment, however, has been delayed and has not yet been installed because Senate Democrats have blocked a confirmation vote due to concerns about Brownback's rescinding of a state executive pertaining to discrimination and LGBT government employees.
Because his nomination never got to the floor for a vote, Trump will have to either resubmit it in the new year or nominate someone else and it is at present unknown what will happen. CBN reported that unless Brownback is reappointed and confirmed before Jan. 9 the Kansas governor will have to give the State address to the Kansas state legislature despite having delivered a farewell address last month in anticipation of being confirmed to his ambassadorship. Congress returns to work on Jan. 3.
The particular ambassadorship for which Brownback was nominated is a critical post within the Department of State that focuses mainly on promoting religious freedom around the world, and calling out oppressive governments and non-state entities that oppress and persecute people on the basis of their faith.
Trump is considered to be one of the more friendly Republican presidents regarding LGBT issues. An early version of a federal executive order last year outlining religious liberty protections was reportedly scuttled because of the influence of Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a White House adviser, due to their concerns over LGBT rights. Trump ultimately signed a revised religious liberty executive order that was met with mixed reception on May 4.
Last month, the Trump administration renominated Chai Feldblum, a lesbian activist who joined the agency in 2010 under President Obama, to her post at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The move shocked and displeased social conservatives who have consistently supported the president.
Department of Justice Investigates Planned Parenthood
In December, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the largest abortion provider in the United States, Planned Parenthood, as a result of findings from a Congressional investigation into its financial dealings with biotech firms over fetal body parts procured during abortion procedures.
Despite undercover videos from a 2015 investigation by the Center for Medical Progress suggesting otherwise, Planned Parenthood insisted that it followed the law and made no money from fetal tissue donated during abortions and that any financial reimbursements it received were for transport expenses and handling costs.
Pro-life advocacy groups have long contended that the abortion giant, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants each year, be defunded. The closest Congress ever came to doing so was as part of a provision in the attempted repeal of Obamacare last summer, an effort which ultimately failed due to the Senate's failure to secure sufficient Republican votes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said in December 2016 that enough evidence was discovered showing how abortion providers had transferred the fetal body parts from aborted fetuses for research by charging amounts higher than they actually cost, according to Fox News.
"The report documents the failure of the Department of Justice, across multiple administrations, to enforce the law that bans the buying and selling of human fetal tissue," Grassley wrote in a letter, arguing the Justice Department and FBI should investigate.
"It also documents substantial evidence suggesting that the specific entities involved in the recent controversy, and/or individuals employed by those entities, may have violated that law."
David Daleiden Continues With Lawsuit Against Him in California; Biotech Tech Companies Settling Out of Court
Developments continue to emerge regarding the man behind the 2015 exposé of fetal body parts transactions between Planned Parenthood and biotech companies.
Although the federal government is now investigating the abortion giant and the biotech firms in question, David Daleiden is facing charges at the state level. The attorney general of California has filed a lawsuit against him and his colleague, Sandra Merritt, alleging criminal wrongdoing. Yet the judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals who is presiding over the case, Judge William Orrick III, has extrajudicial connections to the abortion group and Daleiden's attorneys recently filed a motion to disqualify him, arguing that he cannot be trusted to hear the case impartially.
Whether Judge Orrick will be removed from the case remains to be seen but the momentum does appear to be shifting away from Planned Parenthood and the biotechnology companies that did business with them in procuring fetal body parts for research purposes.
In a Dec. 14 editorial in The Hill, Daleiden recounted how an Orange County district attorney recently settled with two Southern California sister companies, DaVinci Biosciences and DV Biologics, in which they were ordered to close down operations, banned from ever doing business in the state, and forced to admit liability for violating state and federal laws.
"For over two years, Planned Parenthood has breathlessly asserted to anyone who would listen that their programs to allegedly sell aborted fetal organs and tissues were completely above reproach, arguing that they only receive legal reimbursements and follow all patient consent rules," he wrote.
"But the guilty plea by the DaVinci companies, which worked with a major Planned Parenthood abortion center in southern California, blows Planned Parenthood's dubious assertions of innocence completely out of the water."
Little Sisters of the Poor Face Court Battles in States Despite Favor in Federal Government
The Denver-based Roman Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor that the Obama administration sued over their moral objections to offering contraception as part of their insurance plans as was required through Obamacare have had some recent victories at the federal level. But they continue to face challenges in Democratic-leaning states.
In early October, the Trump administration issued a rule broadening the religious exemption for them and other groups but a Pennsylvania judge blocked it, arguing that the rule would do "serious and irreparable harm" to the state were it to be left in place. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro sued the nuns, attempting to remove the exemption. Such has also been the approach and posture of Attorney General Xavier Becerra in the state of California, who took the Sisters to court on Dec. 12.
Becket, the religious liberty firm that represent the sisters, have said that the attorneys general are trying to score political points.
"These men may think their campaign donors want them to sue nuns, but our guess is most taxpayers disagree," said Mark Rienzi, Becket's senior counsel, the Kaplan Herald reported Sunday.
"No one needs nuns in order to get contraceptives, and no one needs these guys reigniting the last administration's divisive and unnecessary culture war."