11 significant domestic religious liberty events of 2021

December 10, 2021

The ERLC engages our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square to protect religious liberty and promote human flourishing. One of the ways we do this is by advocating for religious liberty and monitoring its progress, both in the U.S. and around the world. 

Throughout 2021, the ERLC wrote about ​the most significant threats and victories related to freedom of ​religion and conscience. Here are 10 of the most notable that occurred in the U.S. this year. 

Supreme Court strikes down California’s ban on indoor worship 

In February, the Supreme Court responded to California’s ban on all indoor religious gatherings by granting injunctive relief to the churches challenging the overburdensome pandemic restriction. The court’s 6-3 order overturned the ban, replacing it with a 25% capacity limit on indoor worship. However, litigation continued regarding the state’s ban on singing and chanting, as the justices were split on that particular policy.

The Supreme Court sides with a former college student on religious free speech

In March, the Supreme Court ruled that governments can be held accountable for past violations of First Amendment freedoms. The 8-1 ruling in a case entitled Uzuegbunam et al. v. Preczewski et al. held that a “request for nominal damages” may be used to establish legal standing to address a previous violation of a constitutional right. The court disagreed with lower courts, saying this case was not moot and that nominal damages can be used to redress a past injury.

This case provides additional legal tools for religious liberty and free speech advocates to hold governments accountable for violating the First Amendment. This case represents a crucial victory at a time when colleges and other government entities have acted without fear of accountability or consequences in burdening constitutional freedoms.

Gordon College loses religious liberty case at Massachusetts Supreme Court

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously against Gordon College, a non-denominational Christian school in the state of Massachusetts, about whether it can be sued by a former professor for employment discrimination.

In a significant and misguided ruling, the court determined that the ministerial exception does not apply in this case, as Boyd’s teaching responsibilities were insufficient grounds to consider her a “ministerial employee.” If not overturned, such a standard would have seismic implications for religious institutions in education from pre-schools to universities — at least in Massachusetts — by imperiling their ability to hire and retain teachers and faculty dedicated to their institution’s mission and beliefs.

The Supreme Court affirms faith-based foster care and adoption providers

In a decisive win for religious freedom in June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions.

Unfortunately, this ruling may have a narrow application and, as one Supreme Court justice noted, might not even provide lasting protection for Catholic Social Services.

Federal Court strikes down discrimination against religious student groups on college campus

In a unanimous decision handed down in July, the federal court for the 8th Circuit held that administrators at the University of Iowa are violating the First Amendment by removing Christian, Muslim, and Sikh student organizations for choosing student leaders who share the group’s mission and values. The court’s ruling of InterVarsity v. University of Iowa follows a series of recent decisions that uphold the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and specifically rejects skewed applications of anti-discrimination policies based on a leader’s viewpoints.

Department of Justice drops lawsuit against University of Vermont Medical Center

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office for Civil Rights issued a Notice of Violation stating that “after a thorough investigation and prolonged attempts to resolve the matter,” it was determined that UVMMC “violated the Church Amendments (42 U.S.C. 300a-7) by forcing a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objections.” In response to these findings, “the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division”, on Dec. 16, 2020, “filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont federal court against the University of Vermont Medical Center” for its egregious act of discrimination.

However, the Department of Justice and HHS took the unusual step of dropping “a duly authorized lawsuit after it has been investigated and filed.” Since the violation, investigation, and eventual lawsuit all occurred under the previous administration, and seemed headed for some sort of lawful resolution, it is difficult to explain this move except as a decision made by the Biden administration.

Federal court blocks controversial transgender mandate for healthcare professionals

A federal court in Texas ruled in August that it is unlawful to force healthcare professionals to violate their consciences for gender transition procedures. This is good news for children, families, and Christians who want to continue serving in roles without conforming to “the latest fashionable ‘right side of history’ cause.”

This is now the second court ruling blocking the administration from enforcing the policy. The first ruling was handed by a federal court in North Dakota.

Federal court rules in favor of religious freedom rights of Indiana Catholic high school

In August, in the case of Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a federal court in Indiana ruled in favor of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, upholding its right to “provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education.” Along with other recent positive rulings, this decision is yet another win reaffirming the rights of individuals and institutions seeking to exercise fidelity to their religious beliefs without government infringing on their constitutional rights. This decision is good news for religious schools, the faculty, and families who send their children to those schools.

Religious liberty case for Texas inmate heard at the Supreme Court

In November, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for a case titled Ramirez v. Collier. This is an important case for the religious liberty of death-row inmates and their ability to receive spiritual counsel in their last moments on earth.

The ERLC filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez, and allow him to have a Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. The brief asserted that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate audible prayers and laying on of hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. It also asserted that there is little evidence that spiritual advisors present underlying security risks that would necessitate banning them from engaging in audible prayer or touching the prisoner.

HHS rescinds waivers that protect religious freedom

In November, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced the rescission of waivers issued by the Trump administration that protect the religious freedom and consciences of millions of Americans. Notably, HHS is rescinding waivers given to South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, including child welfare agencies in those states.

This action is deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs. The waivers granted to these states protect the religious freedom of faith-based groups serving vulnerable children.

Supreme Court heard arguments for Carson v. Makin

On December 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Carson v. Makin, a key religious liberty case before the court this term. 

This case arises out of the unique way that Maine fulfills its obligation to provide free education to students. Because there are rural areas where students don’t have easy access to a public school, some of Maine’s school districts allow parents to choose a private school in the area to teach their children. In order for a school to be able to participate in this program — and receive government funding — the private school must meet the state’s minimum requirements and it must be “nonsectarian.” Functionally, this excludes a private religious school from participating in Maine’s public education program, because any school that provides religious instruction is considered “sectarian.”

In this case, three families sent their children to private schools that are accredited but do not meet the nonsectarian requirement because they are religiously affiliated. The schools aren’t approved by the State of Maine, and the families did not qualify for tuition assistance. They filed a lawsuit stating that Maine’s nonsectarian requirement violates the Constitution.

The ERLC was involved with briefs at the petition for certiorari stage and when the case was before the Supreme Court on the merits. We argue that Maine’s public education system does not merely exclude religious schools but ultimately discriminates against them.