Dec 11, 2020

The Supreme Court Is Colliding With a Less-Religious America

Justices’ drive to promote “religious liberty” may only become more intense.
The Atlantic
DECEMBER 3, 2020

Justices’ drive to promote “religious liberty” may only become more intense.

"The Supreme Court’s decision last week overturning New York State’s limits on religious gatherings during the COVID-19 outbreak previewed what will likely become one of the coming decades defining collisions between law and demography.

The ruling continued the conservative majority’s sustained drive to provide religious organizations more leeway to claim exemptions from civil laws on the grounds of protecting “religious liberty.” These cases have become a top priority for conservative religious groups, usually led by white Christians and sometimes joined by other religiously traditional denominations. In this case, Orthodox Jewish synagogues allied with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn to oppose New York’s restrictions on religious services.

But this legal offensive to elevate “religious liberty” over other civic goals is coming even as the share of Americans who ascribe to no religious faith is steadily rising, and as white Christians have fallen to a minority share of the population.

That contrast increases the likelihood of a GOP-appointed Court majority sympathetic to the most conservative religious denominations colliding with the priorities of a society growing both more secular and more religiously diverse, especially among younger generations.

While most conservative analysts have cheered the Court’s moves in this area, centrist and liberal critics see the ingredients for a political explosion as the Court backs religious-liberty exemptions to laws on employee rights, health care, education, and equal treatment for the LGBTQ community.

“What we are seeing today is this effort to turn religious freedom into religious privilege,” Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me. Religious institutions and individuals are being given “the right to wield religious freedom as a sword to harm others, and frankly to dial back social progress in light of our changing demographics and progress toward greater equality.”

Indeed, the succession of recent religious-liberty rulings by the conservative Court majority may represent another manifestation of the fear of cultural and religious displacement that helped Donald Trump amass huge margins among white Christian voters in both of his campaigns. “We are dealing with a majority-conservative Court that suffers from the same Christian-fragility disease as we are seeing in Trump’s base—as though Christianity is what’s under attack when others are asking for equal treatment,” Laser said."

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