As I review the news over the past week, I see action in a trio of cases in our federal court system that warrant watching from a religious freedom perspective. All three ask the courts to apply and interpret relatively recent decisions of the Supreme Court. Here’s a quick rundown of the cases I’m looking at:
Cambridge Christian School, a private religious high school in Florida, appealed a district court ruling upholding the state athletic association’s refusal to allow a pre-game prayer to be broadcast on the PA system before a state championship game involving two Christian schools. In March of this year, the district court granted summary judgment to the athletic association and dismissed the school’s case because the court found that the speech at issue was government speech and that the restrictions do not therefore do not violate the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Fe vs. Doe (2000) in which a school’s practice of broadcasting pregame prayers over a loudspeaker was found to be unconstitutional.
Since then, the Supreme Court has issued its decision in Kennedy vs. Bremerton, in which the Court sided with a football coach whose practice of praying on the 50-yard line after games was banned by his school district. The Court found that the coach’s speech was protected private speech and not government speech, despite continuing with his official duties after the game. Cambridge Christian argues that kennedy supports their position that their loudspeaker prayer is protected private speech, even if kennedy involved a coach’s prayer at the 50-yard line and not a prayer played over the PA system. The case is one of the first significant tests of the impact of the Kennedy decision.
Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard argument in a case brought by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes challenging a California school district’s requirement that club officers must agree to abide by a policy prohibiting religious discrimination in determining eligibility for student leadership positions. A district court previously upheld the policy, pointing out that it applies to all groups equally and does not treat religious groups any differently than secular groups. The court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez (2010). One of the issues before the 9th Circuit in this case is whether Martinez applies in this case. You can watch a recording of the pleadings here.
Finally, the State of Colorado filed its brief with the United States Supreme Court in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a case brought by web designer Lorie Smith’s company challenging Colorado’s First Amendment non-discrimination law. Among other things, the law requires businesses to serve customers regardless of their sexual orientation. Smith, who designs websites for weddings, declines for religious reasons to design a wedding site for same-sex couples. The United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals previously upheld Colorado’s law, writing that the non-discrimination requirement is justified by the compelling state interest in “protecting both the dignity interests of members marginalized groups and their material interests in accessing the commercial market”. For its part, the state argues that “the company is free to decide what design services to offer and whether or not to communicate its vision of marriage through Bible quotes on its wedding websites. The law only requires the company to sell any product or service it offers to everyone, regardless of the protected characteristics of its customers. »
If this all sounds familiar, it might be because this same Colorado law has already been before the United States Supreme Court. In Masterpiece pastry (2018), the Court ruled in favor of pastry chef Jack Phillips, who was charged with breaking the law because he refused to make a personalized cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court determined that the commission deciding Phillips’ case made disparaging remarks about religion and therefore could not properly consider his religious freedom claim, avoiding the central question of whether the refusal to bake the cake violates the law. The appeals court in this new case, however, found “no evidence that Colorado will enforce [the law] in a non-neutral way. Oral arguments in the case, which focuses on free speech and not free exercise issues, are expected to take place before the end of this year.