Religion according to the Supreme Court

According to the IRS, religion (or a ‘church’) has some mixture of attributes such as a ‘recognized creed and form of worship’, a ‘formal code of doctrine and discipline’, ‘literature of its own’, ‘regular religious services’, and so forth. This is a type of ‘family resemblance theory’ (see Andrew Henry’s video ‘What is Religion?’, starting about 3:40, for a good explanation) that understands religions as not having all the same characteristics but a limited range of shared characteristics.

More interesting is the chaotic reasoning of the Supreme Court. I was reminded of this while going over the topic with my ‘Religion in the United States’ students this week. The Freedom Forum Institute has a helpful summary of the various cases when the Court attempted to provide a working definition of religion titled ‘Has the Supreme Court Defined “Religion”?’ if you’d like more information but in gist it’s shifted from 1890 to 1972 as this list exemplifies:

  • ‘one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will’ (‘Davis v. Beason’, 1890)
  • ‘a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God’ (‘United States v. Seeger’, 1965)
  • ‘beliefs’ that are ‘deeply held’ and vaguely related to ‘religion’ (see ‘Welsh v. United States’, 1971; ‘Thomas v. Review Board’, 1981)

In spite of (or because of?) these vague definitions that variously require some belief in a Creator God, to beliefs that are as meaningful to the person as belief in a Creator God is to others, to beliefs that are generally ‘religious’ in nature, the Supreme Court, the recent courts this decade has been very friendly to claims that someone’s First Amendment rights are being violated…at least when it concerns religion. For example:

  • American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2019): a cross on public property maintained by tax dollar was allowed to stay
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018): a baker’s choice to not make a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage was upheld as a First Amendment right because of the baker’s religious objections to same-sex marriage
  • National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra (2018): ‘a pro-life entity’ offering ‘pregnancy-related services’ won their case against California when California attempted to enforce a law where this ‘entity’ has to disclose that weren’t a licensed clinic when advising them regarding contraception and abortion
  • Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017): a private religious preschool was allowed to receive state funds for a playground
  • Holts v. Hobbs (2015): A Muslim man was allowed to maintain a (one-half-inch) beard in prison in spite of the prison’s rules that people in the prison must be shaven
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014): Hobby Lobby was able to opt-out of providing contraception to their employees as required by the Affordable Care Act
  • Town of Greece v. Galloway (2013): a city council was said to not be violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment although they opened many of their sessions with prayer from a Christian clergy

The exception may be Trump v. Hawaii (2018) when it was determined that Trump Administration didn’t intend a ‘Muslim ban’

Most of these cases have to do with actions which shows things have changed drastically from 1890’s ‘Davis v. Beason’ which determined that the First Amendment didn’t protect Latter-day Saints practicing bigamy or polygamy because ‘in the context of the First Amendment, “religion” refers primarily to “one’s views of his relations to his Creator” and “modes of worship” and is not intended to be “invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of society.”‘


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