After handing down a series of momentous decisions in Spring 2022, a growing number of Americans are voicing their disapproval of the Supreme Court. As the impact of devastating opinions on gun safety, abortion rights, prayer in schools and more become increasingly apparent, the justices returned to the bench this week to tackle a new slate of cases.
Interfaith Alliance champions an inclusive vision of religious freedom through strategic “friend of the court” advocacy and by spotlighting federal cases that impact the boundary between religion and government. As a new Supreme Court term begins, here’s what you need to know about four cases that could directly impact freedom of belief and the integrity of our democratic institutions in the coming months.
Discrimination Under the Guise of Religious Freedom
In 2018, the Supreme Court rejected a wedding cake baker’s request to turn away same-sex couples as a matter of religious freedom. But the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision was ultimately narrow, dealing only with the baker’s experience in an initial proceeding before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Privately-owned businesses like restaurants and bakeries are still covered by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting segregation in public places, as well as other federal, state, and local non-discrimination laws. The personal religious beliefs of an owner or their employees cannot be used to refuse service to customers who look, believe, or live differently than they do.
Yet the Court will hear a request this term from a Colorado wedding website designer who seeks a similar exemption under the guise of freedom of expression. But unlike the Masterpiece case, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis doesn’t involve a specific couple that was turned away. Instead the designer seeks a preemptive license to discriminate by posting a notice on her website about the types of customers she’s willing to serve. Interfaith Alliance joined 30 faith-based and civil rights partners in an amicus brief before the Court emphasizing the risk such an exemption would pose to religious minority and nonreligious communities, as well as LGBTQ+ people. Read our amicus brief.
Tribal Sovereignty and the Future of the Indian Child Welfare Act
Another major case also threatens the rights of a historically marginalized group. Brackeen v. Haaland centers on a challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), which prioritizes maintaining family and tribal connections in child welfare cases involving Native American youth. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Indian children were removed from their homes and sent to “boarding schools” for cultural and religious indoctrination. These practices evolved through the development of the modern foster care system, severing family bonds and destabilizing entire communities.
Rebecca Nagel, Cherokee citizen and host of This Land, notes that “a tribe without children doesn’t have a future.” Yet the Brackeens, a non-Native family seeking to adopt a Native child, make the case to the Supreme Court that ICWA violates the Equal Protection Clause by racially discriminating against families like theirs in an effort to address this legacy of harm. Native scholars and activists note that this argument falsely conflates race and tribal sovereignty, while making an ahistorical “race blind” claim about the 14th Amendment. A decision for the Brackeens could undermine the authority of tribal governments, lands, and more for decades to come.
Gerrymandering Schemes Pose an Existential Threat to Democracy
The freedom to vote is a hard won right for millions of Americans, secured through generations of organizing and agitation. Yet the Court will soon hear two cases that could undermine the fundamental tenet of our democracy: one person, one vote.
Through gerrymandering, the practice of drawing congressional voting districts that strategically concentrate or distribute groups of voters, various state legislatures have limited the voting power of particular communities. In Merrill v. Milligan, plaintiffs accuse the Alabama state legislature of approving a voting map that dilutes the power of Black voters. As a result, white voters, who make up 63% percent of the population, control over 86% of the state’s congressional seats. A lower court recommended the creation of two “opportunity” districts to ensure that Black residents have their concerns represented at the federal level.
“If the Supreme Court rejects Alabama’s responsibility to draw two opportunity districts, the court would be ruling against the right of Black people to self-determination,” write Evan Milligan and Khadidah Stone. “Alabamians in the Black Belt will continue to struggle for access to basic resources as elected officials fail to fully represent their interests.”
In a related case, Moore v. Harper, the Court will entertain the novel “independent legislatures theory” which would allow state legislatures to approve gerrymandered voting maps with no oversight from their co-equal branches of government. Taken together, Merrill v. Milligan and Moore v. Harper could radically transform elections in states across the country.
Across faith and place, we share the belief that all people have inherent dignity and worth. The freedom to vote – to make our voices heard through the democratic process – is a sacred duty and not one that we take lightly. Measures that dilute or deprive our friends and neighbors of meaningful participation in our democracy are an affront to our common cause.
Interfaith Alliance advances an inclusive vision of religious freedom, protecting people of all faiths and none, in service of a pluralistic democracy. Learn more about our work.