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June 17th – Victory for religious freedom at the Supreme Court

Yesterday, June 17, 2021, is a day that should be celebrated and cherished by lovers of religious freedom and defenders of traditional religious values across this nation and beyond.

In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the US. Supreme Court ruled decidedly in favor of what had been traditional understandings of the religious free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

Richard Land
(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

There are several important aspects of this decision that are very encouraging to those who cherish religious freedom. First, the decision was unanimous (9-0). Given the fractious nature of this Court, particularly on issues involving the LGBTQ community, this fact alone signals a significant Court shift on this issue. Second, the fact that the unanimous opinion was written by the Court’s Chief Justice, John Roberts, adds to the signaled significance of this opinion given the Chief Justice’s perceived reticence in recent years to take decisive and bold action on such contentious culture war issues.

Third, the decision amplifies the fact that elections have consequences. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election, Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett would not be Supreme Court Justices and a President Clinton would have appointed justices who would have ruled in a very different fashion and would have exercised a gravitational pull on the more liberal justices: Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

Instead, we have a unanimous decision affirming the free exercise of religious rights of Americans and refuting the drumbeat of articles in law school journals and other venues over the last two decades. The argument was that when LGBTQ rights conflict with traditional religious beliefs, religious free exercise rights must always give way as if every issue was, and is, a “zero sum” game where one side must win and the other side must lose.

Many of those defending exceptions that respect genuine religious convictions (including myself) have argued that this is not the case and that the rights of the LGBTQ community could be recognized while still respecting the religious convictions of their fellow citizens.

The Fulton decision proves the “zero sum” belief of complete winners and complete losers was fallacious.

John Roberts, the Chief Justice, writes in his unanimous opinion that “the City has burdened the religious exercise of CSS through policies that do not meet the requirement of being neutral and generally applicable.”

The Chief Justice then notes significantly that the decision “prohibits no one from serving children,” but rather “simply ends a state discrimination” against those with deeply held religious convictions. Roberts is arguing here that both the LGBTQ and Catholic Social Services (CSS) community can be accommodated and more needy children can be served. What a “civilized” and civil solution.

As the Chief Justice also noted, CSS “seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”

One could only wish that the LGBTQ community were as tolerant and as accommodating of their fellow citizens as Catholic Social Services has demonstrated itself to be.

This is indeed a day and a decision to greatly encourage those who love and believe in freedom of conscience from government coercion in matters of religion.

How big a victory is it? Given the recent history of this issue, it was a huge, perhaps game-changing victory. If this signals a sea change in Supreme Court thinking, enabled and energized by the Trump Triumvirate (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) of Justices, then it very well may signal a decision as significant as Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, (good) or Roe v. Wade, 1973, (bad).

At the very least, it signals that “momentum” has changed jerseys and the wind is at freedom’s (and civility’s) back. I pray that is so.

*For those readers expecting the second part of my column on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I have postponed that column until next week in order to address this very important strategic victory at the Supreme Court for defenders of religious liberty and “soul freedom.”

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches. He is the author of The Divided States of America, Imagine! A God Blessed America, Real Homeland Security, For Faith & Family and Send a Message to Mickey.

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