Religious liberty cases could land on Supreme Court docket this term

Challenges to a law prohibiting conversion therapy, COVID-19 vaccine mandates and buffer zones around reproductive health clinics are some of the cases that could land on the U.S. Supreme Court docket this term. File Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI

Oct. 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court begins its 2023 term Monday and the justices are considering which cases to hear, including some that could impact religious liberty.

Those cases include challenges to a law prohibiting conversion therapy, COVID vaccine mandates and buffer zones around reproductive health clinics.

Decisions on whether to hear these cases are pending.

The Supreme Court has not granted review for any religion case but the justices can continue to add to its docket, said Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

"After several terms in which the court's docket has reflected an increased interest in religion cases, this is an unusual state of play for the court," Hollman said. "In recent decisions, the court has changed standards for determining constitutional and statutory issues that affect religious liberty. We expect the impact of those decisions to become clearer as lower courts apply these recent cases to new controversies."

She cited two decisions from the 2022 term, including a ruling in 303 Creative LLC vs. Elenis that the First Amendment protects an artist and wedding website designer from being compelled to create designs celebrating same-sex marriage.

And in the case of Gerald Groff vs. U.S. Postal Service, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that made it easier for employees to get religious accommodations at work. Groff, a postal carrier, wanted Sundays off to attend church and honor the Sabbath.

In addition, Hollman cited decisions in the 2021 term in Carson vs. Makin that Maine had to include private religious schools in its state-funded tuition assistance program and in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District that the Washington state district violated the First Amendment rights of a football coach when he was disciplined after praying on the field after games.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the "ultra-conservative" majority of the Supreme Court has undermined church-state separation, diminished religious freedom and weakened democracy.

"With no religion cases on the court's docket so far for the upcoming term, we welcome a reprieve from these attacks," Laser said. "But we're monitoring cases that could be granted in the future, including those that urge the court to weaponize religious freedom and further limit reproductive freedom, curtail LGBTQ+ rights and harm public health."

This term, healthcare workers in Maine who say they were fired after their requests for a religious exemption from a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied are asking the Supreme Court to review their case, Alicia Lowe, et al. vs. Janet Mills et al.

The plaintiffs say their sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from receiving the shots because of the connection between the available COVID-19 vaccines and the cell lines of aborted fetuses. Their suit, which named as defendants healthcare providers and state officials and alleged religious discrimination, was dismissed by a federal judge.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which is representing the workers, said the case involves "zero consideration" of anybody's religious accommodation request and denials across the board because of the shot mandate. The mandate permits workers to seek exemptions for medical reasons, but not for religious ones.

A request also is pending for the justices to hear a challenge to a Westchester County, N.Y., law that makes it illegal to get within eight feet of another person for the purpose of engaging in counseling within a 100-foot radius of a reproductive healthcare facility without the person's explicit consent.

The law was modeled on a Colorado law that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Debra Vitagliano, a Catholic "sidewalk counselor" who says she wants to talk to women approaching clinics about alternatives to abortion, is asking the court to overturn that law.

"Religious liberty and free speech are central to our ability to live together in peace," Mark Rienzi, Becket president and CEO, said in a statement. "The court has an important role in protecting the First Amendment rights for people of all faiths."

Another case where free speech and religious liberty intersect is Tingley vs. Ferguson. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are seeking to reverse a ruling that affirmed a judge's decision to throw out a challenge by marriage and family counselor Brian Tingley of a Washington state law that bans therapy or counseling that seeks to alter a gay, lesbian or transgender minor's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The law violates Tingley's freedom of speech and infringes on his religious faith, as well at that of his clients, by censoring certain of their conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity that the government disfavors, Alliance Defending Freedom argues.

Among other cases that could have an impact on religious liberty if they are selected for review are Craig vs. Solorzano, a divorce judgment giving sole parental rights to the mother allegedly because of the father's religious views of the husband-wife relationship; and Missouri Department of Corrections vs. Finney, a challenge of the exclusion of conservative Christians from a jury because the plaintiff was a lesbian.

This article has been updated to correctly attribute quotes to Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.