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Recent SCOTUS Decisions On Religion Open Up New Questions


With its final flurry of opinions this week, the U.S. Supreme Court has set down some important new legal guidelines about religion. The justices considered questions about the First Amendment, religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten on what the court concluded and what it left unanswered.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: By taking up religion cases, the court waded into hotly debated territory - how to balance the rights of LGBTQ people, for example, with the right of religious institutions to defend traditional views on sexuality and how to balance the Constitution's support for the free exercise of religion with its prohibition against the government establishing a religion. Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, thinks these questions are of special concern to conservatives.

HOLLY HOLLMAN: I think there's high interest on the court - the more conservative majority - in sort of clarifying, cleaning up what's been known as a very complex area of law.

GJELTEN: Whether its succeeded in clarifying the law may be disputed. The court said LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under civil rights law. Then, in another opinion, it made an exception to discrimination rules for religious organizations. Krystal Brazel was fired from her job as an athletic trainer at a lutheran school in Indianapolis for being gay, so she had an interest in the court rulings.

KRYSTAL BRAZEL: What the Supreme Court has said about LGBT rights and equality in the workplace is amazing. It's a step forward. Unfortunately, the majority of the places that are discriminating are religious entities.

GJELTEN: Which means from her perspective, some of the places where equal rights are most important are the very places where the rights won't apply - religious schools or hospitals, for example.

BRAZEL: They have the ability to still pull the religion card and not be subject to the same terms as other entities.

GJELTEN: Still, the court rulings were a compromise between LGBTQ advocates and religious conservatives. They encapsulated a legislative proposal called Fairness For All that some groups had been pushing in Congress. Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Virginia, says the court rulings effectively made such legislative action irrelevant.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: What I expect is the two sides will fight it out under existing law. We're not likely to see new legislation helping either side.

GJELTEN: If Democratic and Republican legislators had worked out a compromise deal, the court wouldn't have had to step in, but the lawmakers couldn't do it. John Inazu, professor of law at Washington University, says that shows the current level of partisanship in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government.

JOHN INAZU: You could think of the court operating as the least broken of the three branches right now when it comes to political compromise and, therefore, may be trying to take the lead on its own.

GJELTEN: But because courts rule on a case-by-case basis, their decisions don't cover every possible scenario. The Supreme Court said this week that religious schools are free to hire and fire whom they want but only with respect to people who have religious responsibilities in the schools. Does that include algebra teachers or athletic trainers? Inazu says it's not yet clear.

INAZU: The complicated cases are going to be those organizations that say everybody who's part of our organization is part of the culture and leadership of the organization. And we'll have to see those cases litigated.

GJELTEN: So more court cases to come. All these opinions relate to the broader issue of what it means to separate church and state. The court said governments should treat private secular schools and private religious schools equally when it comes to funding. By the majority's reason, that just means the state is being neutral. To the dissenters, that is support for religious teaching. Another question still open for debate. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANTOMPOWER'S "CLOUD NEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.