Supreme Court’s religion rulings accelerating or relieving culture wars?

    Source: BJC.

That the recent Supreme Court decisions on church-state issues will have an impact on American religion in upcoming years seems to be taken for granted. But opinions vary as to just what these landmark rulings will mean for the role of religion in public life and the sharp polarization of American society, according to one’s take on church-state separation and the culture wars. In the first case, Carson v. Makin, the court ruled that if a state (Maine) could provide taxpayer dollars to support education at non-public schools, it must also fund religious schools—even those that exclude students of minority religions. In the second case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it ruled that a public high school football coach in Washington State could deliver a religious prayer on the field immediately after a game. As might be expected, strict church-state separationists have viewed these decisions in a negative light, seeing both as deleterious to religious freedom and government neutrality regarding religion. In The Hill newspaper (July 28), Steven Freeman of the Anti-Defamation League writes that both decisions mark an acceleration of a trend brought about by “years of efforts by those on the religious right to claim their religious views should take precedence…The common understanding and mutual respect for religious differences that have held us together as a diverse and pluralistic society [are] falling apart and being replaced by an American version of ethnonationalism at a tremendous cost to the present and future health of our democracy.”

Even in the liberal Catholic Commonweal magazine (July 6) the Kennedy decision struck a raw nerve, with Fordham University theology professor Michael Peppard arguing it could allow teachers and other school officials to pressure students to participate in religious activities. He adds that it may also create an environment where each school principal is forced to establish “his or her own religion policies and surveillance” in order to avoid “an excessive entanglement” of government and religion. The conservative National Catholic Register (June 27) struck back with an unqualified endorsement of the Kennedy ruling, saying it protected the right to the free exercise of religion. Seton Hall University theologian John Grondelski argues that no coercion or social pressure figures into private religious expressions like the coach’s prayers on the football field. He agrees that the ruling is part of a movement reversing 75 years of Supreme Court decisions where, as he writes, “religion itself must be shunted off the public square, especially from public schools. According to this line of thinking, impressionable young minds incapable of critical thinking may be fooled into thinking the government endorses religion if it recognizes that religion is and has been part of our social fabric.”

The Kennedy and especially the Carson rulings are widely viewed as intensifying religious strife and polarization in the U.S. But in the Deseret News (June 26), George Mason University law professor, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, Ilya Somin argues that Carson will be more likely to reduce religious strife. While the establishment clause of the Constitution bars targeted government support of religion, “it has never been interpreted as requiring categorical exclusion of religious institutions,” he writes. Other critics say that the ruling may advance the desires of “Christian nationalists” who will use the power of the state to impose their views on others. But Carson’s “nondiscrimination rule bars discrimination in favor of Christian institutions (or religious institutions generally) no less than discrimination against them. By requiring inclusion of both religious and secular schools in state-funded voucher programs for private institutions, the court empowers parents to choose schools in accord with their values and minimizes the risk that anyone will be forced into an institution that is inimical to their beliefs,” Somin writes. He adds that “broadly inclusive school choice programs” can reduce the risk of discrimination that racial, ethnic, and religious minorities have historically faced from state public education systems.