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‘Every classroom is a courtroom’ – how recent US Supreme Court decisions are eroding the divide between church and state

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Actors dressed up as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as part of a nativity scene walk past the front of the Supreme Court. Photo: Reuters/Jim Young

Actors dressed up as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as part of a nativity scene walk past the front of the Supreme Court. Photo: Reuters/Jim Young

Actors dressed up as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as part of a nativity scene walk past the front of the Supreme Court. Photo: Reuters/Jim Young

The conservative-majority US Supreme Court has chipped away at the wall separating church and state in a series of new rulings, eroding legal traditions intended to prevent government officials from promoting any particular faith.

In three decisions in the past eight weeks, the court has ruled against government officials whose policies and actions were taken to avoid violating the US Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on governmental endorsement of religion – known as the “establishment clause.”

The court on Monday backed a Washington state high school football coach who was suspended by a school district for refusing to stop leading Christian prayers with players on the field after games.

On June 21, it endorsed taxpayer money paying for students to attend religious schools under a Maine programme in areas lacking nearby public high schools.

On May 2, it ruled in favor of a Christian group that sought to fly a flag emblazoned with a cross at Boston city hall under a programme aimed at promoting diversity and tolerance among the city’s communities.

The court’s conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority, in particular have taken a broad view of religious rights.

They also delivered a decision on Friday that was hailed by religious conservatives – overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalised abortion nationwide – though that case did not involve the establishment clause.

Cornell professor Michael Dorf said the court’s majority appears sceptical of government decision-making based secularism.

“They regard secularism, which for centuries has been the liberal world’s understanding of what it means to be neutral, as itself a form of discrimination against religion,” he said.

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In the three recent rulings, the court decided that government actions intended to maintain a separation of church and state had instead infringed separate rights to free speech or the free exercise of religion also protected by the First Amendment.

Most of the religious-rights rulings in recent years involved Christian plaintiffs.

But the court also has backed followers of other religions including a Muslim woman in 2015 who was denied a retail sales job because she wore a head scarf and in 2019 a Buddhist death row inmate who wanted a spiritual adviser for his execution in
Texas.

Nicole Stelle Garnett, a Notre Dame professor who backed the football coach, said the court was merely making clear that governments must treat religious people the same as everyone else.

“Every classroom,” Garnett said, “is a courtroom.”


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