Hemant’s note: Brittany Meyer is a guest-blogger who will be writing exclusively about law-related issues. You can read her bio here.
Church and State cases are often very difficult, legally and constitutionally, and the “right” answer is always elusive. It’s almost impossible to completely comply with the establishment clause, “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” without infringing on the free exercise clause, “ or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Church and State law isn’t the only area where protecting the freedom of one group will infringe on those of another. Take criminal procedure, for example. A maddeningly frustrating course in law school, this body of law pits the rights of the individual against the rights of the greater society. Is forcing a person to remove their jacket to search for weapons too invasive? What about a general pat down of outside clothing? What if the former would provide vital evidence and the latter will leave a murderer free? In other words, what personal freedoms should the Supreme Court make us give up for the safety of the whole?
Similarly, church and state law juggles the protection of one’s right to practice religion against unlawful government entanglement and the appearance or actuality of government endorsement of religion.
Sometimes this is an easy equation — most people will agree that the 10 Commandments shouldn’t be at our Courthouse steps and that students shouldn’t be forced to pray in public schools. But often cases are not so simple. A good example of this is the recent Supreme Court Case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. This case’s facts questioned whether a rule forbidding discrimination is itself discriminatory against a group’s honestly held religious belief that they should discriminate against atheists and gays.
On the other side, we wonder whether a government body granting the group a special exemption and allowing discrimination then results in government endorsement of that discrimination, or the faith-based beliefs motivating them. As a strong advocate for the separation of Church and State I had, at first glance, a hard time choosing a side. It’s an extremely difficult line to draw, and cases with nearly identical facts sometimes result in random and seemingly irreconcilable decisions. See, for example, Lynch v. Donnelly (nativity scene on public property ok) and County of Allegheny v ACLU (nativity scene on public property not ok).
And so my mission in contributing to this blog is not only to provide links and descriptions of the cases relevant to church and state separation law, but also to help readers appreciate the nuances inherent in them. If I miss a hot case, please let me know and I’ll try my best to look into it. I may also occasionally go back in time to describe and explain how and why old cases came out the way they did and why that’s important in the bigger picture.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts on this fascinating, confusing and passionately-contested constitutional issue. Thanks for reading, and please check in and comment frequently.