By / Apr 29

Every year the Supreme Court issues rulings in about a half dozen cases that have significant implications for religious liberty, human dignity, freedom of speech, and other concerns of special interest to Christians. Many Americans, though, find this process vague and mysterious and only hear about the decision the day it is reported by the news media. Here is what you should know about the process and when you can expect Supreme Court rulings. 

What are Supreme Court opinions?

An opinion announces a decision and provides an explana­tion for the decision by the court. It explains the legal rationale that the justices relied upon to reach the decision.

The main opinion is the binding decision of the court. If all justices agree to the ruling, it is a unanimous opinion. If at least half the justices agree, it is a majority opinion. If the decision is made by less than the majority (e.g., because one or more justices recuse themselves and didn’t vote), it would be a plurality opinion. 

The main opinion is typically written by one justice. The most senior justice in the majority gets to assign the author of the opinion, whether to themselves or to another justice.

Because the justices do not always completely agree about the reasons for an opinion, there are often multiple opinions issued. As the American Bar Association explains, “Jus­tices who agree with the result of the main opinion, or the resolution of the dispute between the two par­ties, but base their decision on a different rationale may issue one or more concurring opinion(s). Justices who disagree with the main opinion in both result and legal rationale may issue one or more dissenting opinion(s).”

When does the Supreme Court release opinions?

The Supreme Court operates on an annual rhythm known as the Term. The Term for the Supreme Court begins, by federal law, on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year. 

The Term is divided between “sittings,” when the justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening “recesses,” when they consider the business before the court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals.

Technically, the court recesses at the end of June, but the work of the justices continues around the year. During the summer they do such work as considering motions and applications, and make preparations for cases scheduled to be argued later in the year.

Opinions are typically released on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and on the third Monday of each sitting, when the court takes the bench but no arguments are heard. Opinion release days are highlighted in yellow on the calendar of the court’s website. They begin being released at 10 a.m. EST.

Decisions that are unanimous are released sooner than those that have concurring and dissenting opinions. In general, though, the earliest that opinions are released is in December. Most come in April, May, or June, with the most controversial tending to come nearer to the end of the sitting. Court sessions typically continue until late June or early July. 

How do we know which opinions will be released on a given day?

We can’t. The Supreme Court doesn’t announce in advance which cases will be decided, so no one knows until the ruling is handed down. The court doesn’t even notify any of the lawyers in a case before it issues an opinion. Unless it is the last day before the summer recess, the lawyers don’t know whether they will get a decision in their cases.

The court also doesn’t specify on a given day how many opinions will be released — and doesn’t even announce when it is finished issuing opinions for the day. Court watchers, though, have a useful rule of thumb — sometimes call the R-number system which helps them know when the court is done releasing opinions that day. As SCOTUSBlog explains:

When the opinions are eventually published in the U.S. Reports, the official bound version of the court’s opinions, they are published chronologically, with the opinions for a particular day published in order of seniority. The R number, which appears to the left of the opinion date/docket number/case name on the court’s website, refers to the order in which the opinion will appear in the U.S. Reports. But because opinions are announced in order of reverse seniority, the opinions on the court’s website can’t be assigned an R number until all of the opinions have been posted. Therefore, the posting of the R numbers is a sign that the court is done issuing opinions for that day.

How does the court decide the order in which opinions will be released on a given day?

The opinions are posted by the court in order of reverse seniority. The chief justice, John Roberts, is always the most senior. The other justices are ranked according to how long they’ve been with the court. The current order of seniority is Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer (who just heard his last case and will retire), Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Because of seniority, if Justice Barrett has any opinions, hers are released first, followed by Justices Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Kagan, and so on through the chief justice.

There are exceptions to this general reverse-seniority rule, for example, when the justices are announcing decisions in two or more cases involving similar issues and it makes more sense to announce one first.

Which opinions are the ERLC most concerned with this Term?

The ERLC has advocated on behalf of Southern Baptists in six different cases through filing amicus curie (friend-of-the-court) briefs with the Supreme Court. You can learn more about those cases at erlc.com/SCOTUS.

By / Apr 8

In this episode, Brent  and Lindsay discuss Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Senate confirmation, Oklahoma’s news on the abortion front, and news concerning SBC presidential candidates. They also talk about a seminary dean gunned down in Ukraine, and opening day for MLB. 

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  1. Senate confirms Ketanji Brown Jackson to Supreme Court in historic vote
  2. Oklahoma makes news on abortion front | ERLC.com/Dobbs
  3. Rice withdraws as SBC presidential candidate
  4. Bart Barber will be nominated for SBC President
  5. Gunned down seminary dean was trying to walk to safety, friend says
  6. Opening Day for MLB is here

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  • Dobbs Resource Page Prayer Guide | Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a major Mississippi abortion case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The ERLC and other pro-life organizations filed an amicus brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to overturn the disatrous Roe v. Wade decision. Members of our team also joined pro-life advocates on the steps of the Supreme Court when oral arguments were heard last December. As we approach the Supreme Court’s final decision in June of this year, it’s important for Christians to pray for this landmark case and begin preparing our churches to serve vulnerable women and children in a potential post-Roe world. Download our free prayer guide at ERLC.com/Dobbs.
  • Dobbs Resource Page | Many Christians are aware that an important case about abortion is being decided at the Supreme Court this June. But for many, this case is confusing and wrapped in a lot of legal jargon. The ERLC wants to help with that, so we’ve created a resource page that will help you and your church understand what this case means, what could happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and how your church can prepare to serve vulnerable women and children in the aftermath. To learn more about the Dobbs case and how you can pray, visit ERLC.com/Dobbs.
By / Mar 24

In an affirmation of religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Ramirez v. Collier on March 24 that Mr. Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Mr. Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

This is a significant win for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

Below are key quotes from both the majority opinion and concurrence as well as Thomas’ dissent, highlighting how the court reached its decision. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more details on the religious liberty issues present in this case, see our explainer here.

———-

From the Syllabus

“Ramirez alleged that the refusal of prison officials to allow his pastor to lay hands on him in the execution chamber violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. Ramirez sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief barring state officials from executing him unless they granted the requested religious accommodation.” (1)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” (2)

“The question before the Court is whether Ramirez’s execution without the requested participation of his pastor should be halted pending full consideration of his claims on a complete record. To obtain the relief Ramirez seeks—relief that the parties agree is properly characterized as a preliminary injunction—Ramirez ‘must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.’ ” (2)

“Given the current record, the State has not shown that it is likely to carry the burden of demonstrating that its refusal to accommodate Ramirez’s religious exercise is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests.” (3)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed in proving that his religious requests are ‘sincerely based on a religious belief.’ Both the laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise, and Ramirez’s pastor confirmed that prayer accompanied by touch is a significant part of their shared faith tradition. Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals doubted that Ramirez had a sincere religious basis for his requests. Texas’s argument to the contrary—which stems from a complaint Ramirez filed in 2020 in which he sought his pastor’s presence and prayer in the chamber, but disclaimed any need for touch—does not outweigh ample evidence of the sincerity of Ramirez’s beliefs. Respondents do not dispute that any burden their policy imposes on Ramirez’s religious exercise is substantial.” (3)

“The Court rejects the prison officials’ threshold contention that Ramirez cannot succeed on his claims because he failed to exhaust all available remedies before filing suit as mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. In the context of Texas’s grievance system, the Court finds Ramirez properly exhausted administrative remedies. Ramirez tried (unsuccessfully) to resolve the issue informally with a prison chaplain. He then filed a Step 1 grievance requesting that his pastor be allowed to “ ‘lay hands on me’ & pray over me while I am being executed.” Prison officials denied that grievance, and Ramirez timely appealed. His Step 2 grievance reiterated the same requests. Ramirez’s grievances thus ‘clearly stated’ that he wished to have his pastor touch him and pray with him during his execution.” (2)

“Timely resolution of RLUIPA claims in the prisoner context could be facilitated if States were to adopt policies anticipating likely issues and streamlined procedures for resolving requests. It should be the rare RLUIPA capital case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts.” (5)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinions” (22)

Majority Opinion: Chief Justice Roberts

“We are persuaded—at least in the current posture of the case—that Ramirez properly exhausted these administrative remedies.” (7)

“Respondents also argue that Ramirez failed to properly exhaust his request for audible prayer in the execution chamber. The gist of their argument is that while his grievances clearly requested prayer, they did not clearly requestaudible prayer. We disagree. Ramirez asked that prison officials permit his pastor to ‘lay hands’ on him and ‘pray over’ him during the execution. While it is true that this language did not explicitly reference ‘audible’ prayer, the language adequately conveyed such a request for several reasons. First, if Ramirez had merely wanted silent prayer, his grievance need not have mentioned prayer at all. He and his pastor could have prayed silently and no one would have been the wiser. Second, praying aloud is a common type of Christian prayer that people engage in together.” (8)

“Ramirez seeks to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray over him during the execution. Both are traditional forms of religious exercise. Pastor Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez for four years, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is ‘a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.’ (10-11)

“As for audible prayer, there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation. For example, at Newgate Prison—one of London’s most notorious jails—an Anglican priest would stand and pray with the condemned in their final moments…Prayer at the time of execution was also commonplace in the American Colonies. And during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that ‘prisoners under sentence of death’ ‘be attended with such Chaplains, as they choose’—including at the time of their execution…When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations.” (12-13)

Additionally, the balance of equities and public interest tilt in Ramirez’s favor. Ramirez ‘does not seek an open ended stay of execution.’ Rather, he requests a tailored injunction requiring that Texas permit audible prayer and religious touch during his execution. By passing RLUIPA, Congress determined that prisoners like Ramirez have a strong interest in avoiding substantial burdens on their religious exercise, even while confined. At the same time, ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence. Because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution, we conclude that the balance of equities and the public interest favor his requested relief.’” (19)

“If States adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. If such cases do arise and a court determines that relief is appropriate under RLUIPA, the proper remedy is an injunction ordering the accommodation, not a stay of the execution. This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.”(21)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” (22)

Concurring — Justice Sotomayor

“Under the [Prison Litigation Reform Act] PLRA, prison officials and incarcerated individuals share an obligation to act in good faith in resolving disputes: Incarcerated individuals must timely raise their claims through the prison grievance system, and prison officials must ensure that the system is a functioning one. To that end, the PLRA requires incarcerated individuals to exhaust the prison’s administrative grievance process before turning to the courts only where that process is actually ‘available.’” (1)

“Availability is a practical determination that requires considering both whether the administrative system is accessible as designed and whether concurring prison administrators and officers ensure meaningful access to it in practice.” (1-2)

“Timely notice of policies is essential to ensure the ability to timely raise, or seek informal resolution of, any claims related to those policies. It also raises questions that the prison took 39 days to deny Ramirez’s Step 2 grievance, even though the prison had considered and rejected his request previously and maintains that its established policies foreclosed it. Such delay creates an impression, whether valid or not, that the prison is trying to ‘thwart inmates from taking advantage of [the] grievance process’ and cut short their opportunity to obtain judicial review.” (2)

Concurring — Justice Kavanaugh

“The question of religious advisors in the execution room came to this Court three years ago as a question of religious equality. Some States had long permitted state-employed chaplains in the execution room. But those state-employed chaplains were mostly Christian. Those States did not allow inmates to have their own religious advisors in the room. Therefore, a Christian inmate could have the state-employed Christian chaplain in the room, but a Buddhist inmate, for example, could not have a Buddhist religious advisor in the room. The Court correctly determined that this practice constituted unlawful religious discrimination because it treated inmates of different religions differently.” (1)

“Importantly, however, the Court does not merely point to its own policy assessment of how much risk the State must tolerate in the execution room. The Court also relies in part on the history of religious advisors at executions. To be sure, the Court acknowledges that some of the history is not precisely on point because many executions historically were outdoor public hangings where the presence of religious advisors did not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity that their presence in a small execution room does. And some of the other history involved state employed chaplains, who arguably do not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity as outsiders in the execution room. Still, the history generally demonstrates that religious advisors have often been present at executions. And perhaps even more relevant, the Federal Government and some States have recently allowed inmates’ religious advisors into the execution room. Those religious advisors have been allowed to engage in audible prayer and limited touching of the inmate without apparent problems. See ante, at 13–14. As the Court explains, experience matters in assessing whether less restrictive alternatives could still satisfy the State’s compelling interest.” (6)

Dissenting — Justice Thomas

“This Court granted equitable relief in September, and today it grants further relief pending proceedings below. Ramirez presses two reasons why he merited—and continues to merit—our intervention in Texas’ enforcement of his capital sentence. First, he argues that the State would violate RLUIPA by prohibiting his pastor from ‘laying hands’ on him during his execution. Second, he argues that the State would violate the same statute by prohibiting his pastor from audibly praying during the execution. I do not think either claim warranted relief on September 8. Nor do I think either claim warrants further relief now.” (5)

“Because of the prevalence of vexatious death penalty litigation, a court sitting in equity ‘must’ consider whether a condemned criminal has made an ‘attempt at manipulation’ that would disqualify him from equitable relief. Federal courts faced with abusive litigation ‘can and should’ use their ‘equitable powers’ to protect state judgments and sentences.” (7-8)

“Today, this Court should have denied equitable relief to a prisoner who has acted inequitably—as both the District Court and Court of Appeals did before us. Ramirez’s shifting litigation position lays bare what he really wants: ‘to manipulate the judicial process’ to win further delay. The record all but speaks for itself. In August 2020, when Ramirez first demanded that Texas allow his pastor into the chamber, he explicitly avowed that his pastor ‘need not touch’ him ‘at any time in the execution chamber.’ Taking Ramirez at his word, Texas eventually acquiesced. But then Ramirez flipped his position and filed another administrative grievance and §1983 complaint demanding what he had earlier disclaimed: touching in the execution chamber. This is a textbook example of dilatory and abusive ‘piecemeal litigation’ against which we have warned courts in equity to guard. Like Chief Judge Owen, I think that the shift in Ramirez’s litigation posture alone justifies denying equitable relief because it ‘indicates that the change in position is strategic and that delay is the goal.’”(8)

“A court balancing the equities must consider that ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence.’” (11)

“The equitable balance here tilts decisively in favor of the State and Ramirez’s victims. Texans, acting through their elected representatives, have decided that certain crimes range so far beyond what a civilized society will accept that only a death sentence will suffice. Ramirez long has denied Texas its sovereign interest in seeing that sentence carried out ‘fairly and expeditiously.’” (12)

By / Mar 24

On March 24, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that John Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling, the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

The decision is a significant affirmation for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

What is this case about?

This case began in August 2021 when John Ramirez, a Texas inmate who was scheduled to be executed for murder, requested that Dana Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor, be allowed to minister to him while he is executed.  Moore serves the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, of which Ramirez is a member. Ramirez explained that he wanted his pastor “to be present at the time of his execution to pray with him and provide spiritual comfort and guidance in his final moments.” Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez since 2016, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is “a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.”

Prison officials refused to grant Ramirez’s request because, at the time, Texas’s execution protocol barred all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. Ramirez sued prison officials in response. On Sept. 8, just hours before Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution.

Ramirez asserted that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud violates both the Constitution and RLUIPA, the federal law that applies to those in prison and guarantees their religious rights will be respected. The question before the court was “whether the government has satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”

The Least Restrictive Means test “is a standard imposed by the courts when considering the validity of legislation that touches upon constitutional interests. If the government enacts a law that restricts a fundamental personal liberty, it must employ the least restrictive measures possible to achieve its goal.”

What is RLUIPA, and how does it apply to this case?

RLUIPA stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. RLUIPA law also protects incarcerated individuals and states that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA passed with strong bipartisan support, and RLUIPA affirms that incarcerated individuals ought to have religious protections while confined, and death row inmates ought to be permitted spiritual guidance, counsel, and comfort in their final moments.

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC was part of an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez and allow him to have his Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. Our brief asserted that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate’s request for audible prayer and laying on of hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. We 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.

Why does this case matter?

The right to have spiritual counsel and comfort is a centuries-old practice and must be respected and honored today. In Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, he rightly states that “A tradition of such prayer continued throughout our Nation’s history.” He goes on to give several examples:

“When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations. These “spiritual advisers” ministered to the condemned, and three spoke public prayers shortly before the prisoners were hanged. And in the aftermath of World War II, the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who “spoke” prayers on the gallows in the moments before death. The practice continues today. In 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious advisors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions. What’s more, Texas itself appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years.”

Every person, of every faith, ought to have the opportunity to have a spiritual advisor with them in their final moments. As ERLC Acting President Brent Leatherwood stated,

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for the Southern Baptist Convention. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

By / Mar 24

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 24, 2022—The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling today in Ramirez v. Collier, calling it a “significant affirmation of religious liberty.”

John ​​Ramirez, 37, sued Texas prison officials in August 2021 for refusing to permit Dana Moore, his pastor from Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him during his execution. The Supreme Court provided relief by granting a stay of the execution on Sept. 8, 2021, the same night Ramirez was scheduled to receive the death penalty, while the Court reviewed the merits of Ramirez’s claims.

The ERLC filed an amicus brief that month asking the court to uphold the sincere religious liberty requests of Ramirez, and allow him to have his pastor lay hands on and audibly pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. The ERLC also published an explainer last year with more information about the case.

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC. “The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Ramirez based his request for the stay on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the ERLC-endorsed brief argued the state failed a test established by that federal law. RLUIPA bars the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion not only by an inmate but by a person or institution in land-use cases. The government, however, can gain an exemption from the law if it can show it has a compelling interest and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for Baptists. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

By / Mar 21

On Friday, Feb. 25, President Biden named Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court. Breyer “will retire at the end of the 2021-22 term” after 28 years. Jackson’s nomination is historic in that, if confirmed, she would be the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Confirmation hearings for the nomination of Jackson are set to begin later this month.

Here is what you should know about Jackson, nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

Age: 51

Birthplace: Washington, D.C.

Education: A.B., magna cum laude, in Government from Harvard-Radcliffe College (1992); J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School (1996).

Current judgeship: U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (appointed by President Joe Biden in June 2021).

Previous roles: Jackson has served as a law clerk to three federal judges: Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States, Judge Bruce M. Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Following her clerkships, and after years as a public defender, Jackson was nominated by President Obama to serve as the Vice-Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she served from 2010-2014. From 2013 to 2021, Jackson served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Religious denomination: Unknown

Family: Jackson is married and has two daughters. Her parents were both public school teachers “and leaders in the Miami-Dade Public School System.”

Judicial philosophy: In the confirmation hearing after her nomination to the seat of United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, when asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar to “describe” and “characterize” her judicial philosophy,” JJackson said the following:

My judicial philosophy is to approach all cases with professional integrity, meaning strict adherence to the rule of law, keeping an open mind, and deciding each issue in a transparent, straightforward manner, without bias or any preconceived notion of how the matter is going to turn out.

As reported by The New York Times, Jackson has “not yet written a body of appeals court opinions expressing a legal philosophy,” but her earlier rulings “comport with those of a liberal-leaning judge.” It would seem that her judicial philosophy is reminiscent of that of Justice Stephen Breyer. 

What is Jackson’s history regarding life and religious liberty issues?

On matters of religious freedom, though Jackson’s judicial record is limited, she has publicly expressed support for religious liberty, “describing it as a foundational tenet of our entire government.” 

In 2017, Jackson issued an opinion in Tyson v. Brennan, a case alleging religious discrimination against a Christian worker by his employer, the United States Postal Service. In her opinion, Jackson allowed the discrimination claims to proceed. While the USPS sought to have the charges dismissed, Jackson argued that Mr. Tyson’s complaint was “sufficient to state a plausible claim for discrimination.” In this instance and others, the tenet of religious liberty was upheld. Thus, it seems likely that Jackson will seek to preserve First Amendment freedoms.

Her position on the issue of life seems more troubling, however. Because Jackson “hasn’t done a ton of rulings or work in the health-care space . . . it’s difficult to predict her judicial thinking on a wide array of issues,” including the issue of abortion. However, because she received strong statements of support from pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, one may logically assume that Jackson sides with the views held by these organizations, which are the predominant views among most within the Democratic party today. This is the opinion of Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post, who said, because “she was nominated by a Democratic President — one who has publicly committed to appointing judges that “respect foundational precedents like Roe [v. Wade].” She’s likely to vote with the more liberal justices on hot-button issues, like abortion . . . ” 

What’s next?

Now that Jackson has been nominated, “the President will seek the Senate’s consent to confirm Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court.” The confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin on March 21, “with Democratic leaders setting a goal of reaching a final Senate vote by April 8th,” just prior to the April 11 recess.

By / Jan 28

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss Justice Breyer’s retirement announcement, latest developments in Ukraine, and Omicron’s slow-down. They are talk about the critical work of pregnancy resource centers, the irony of the transgender revolution, and creation care. 

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  1. Justice Breyer to retire; Context of the announcement
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  3. Omicron loosening its grip
  4. Jeopardy winning streak for transgender woman 

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By / Dec 8

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Carson v. Makin, a key religious liberty case before the court this term. Here’s what you need to know about this case:

What is the case about?

This case arises out of the unique way that Maine provides free education to its 180,000 students. Every child in the United States is entitled to a free public education. In Maine, there are rural areas where students don’t have easy access to a public school. Given that limitation, some of the 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.

This case is a follow-up from Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which both dealt with the question of whether states can exclude organizations and schools from receiving public benefits simply because they are religious. Each case was decided favorably for religious liberty.

Why is this case important?

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court held, “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious” 140 S. Ct. 2246, 2261 (2020).

The Carson case is important because it would close a loophole the First Circuit opened when upholding Maine’s exclusion of “sectarian” schools from its public education system. As the brief ERLC joined on petition for certiorari explains:

Nor can a state justify discrimination against religious schools with the ploy that the First Circuit permitted here: labeling its benefit as a “substitute” for, or “rough equivalent” of, a free “secular public education,” and then arguing that such an education must be secular, so religious schools can be excluded. That result and rationale conflict with this Court’s ruling in Espinoza and would allow easy evasion of Espinoza in the context of many government benefits. This Court must reject that rationale before other states attempt to capitalize on it.

Maine had argued that it was not excluding religious schools from participating in a public education program because the public benefit offered was for a secular education. It is easy to see how states would be able to continue excluding religious organizations from public benefits simply by redefining the nature of the benefit offered.

How has the ERLC been involved?

The ERLC was involved with briefs at the petition for certiorari stage and when the case was before the Supreme Court on the merits.

The brief the ERLC joined on the merits argues that Maine’s public education system, especially in light of how Maine defended its system in the courts, does not merely exclude religious schools — it discriminates against them. The brief goes on to argue that the Supreme Court should adopt a per se rule against religious discrimination. In other words, where a state discriminates against religion, courts should immediately strike down the law rather than applying any kind of balancing test with state interests.

What’s next for this case?

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in this case on Dec. 8, 2021. The court will release its opinion later this term, likely in May or June of 2022. ERLC will continue to cover future developments on this case at ERLC.com.

The ERLC will always protect religious liberty before Congress, the courts, and in the public square. 

For Further Reading:

By / Dec 6

“The unwanted child.”

This disturbing phrase reverberates in one’s conscience after reading the U.S. Supreme Court opinion from the 1973 case, Roe v. Wade. Justice Harry Blackmun authored the opinion that seems more like a creative writing piece than a decision rooted in the American Constitution. If some legal analysts criticize judges for “legislating from the bench,” then Roe represents the creation, passage and implementation of a whole new frontier of law sans any legislative input.

As a consequence, Justice Blackmun laid the foundation for the modern abortion architecture we see around us in society to this day. The language and rationale he wielded has led to an unmitigated moral disaster: over 60 million preborn lives extinguished, vulnerable women and families preyed upon by predatory abortion clinics, and whole communities targeted by an unrelenting abortion industry.

With the oral arguments presented before the court last week in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the nine current justices have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit Blackmun’s catastrophic opinion, as well as that of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The court should not hesitate to completely do away with it –– assigning it the same place in infamy alongside such morally repugnant decisions as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857, regarding the constitutionality of citizenship for African-Americans) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896, creating the doctrine of “separate but equal”). In much the same way, the court can correct the grave mistakes of its past in ways that should hearten not only pro-life Americans, but all Americans.

What the court can correct 

For starters, the court could help begin to set aright what it damaged with the Roe ruling: the relationship between mothers and their children. As Christians who recognize the Genesis 3 reality in which we live, we understand nothing short of Christ’s return will truly repair the brokenness that affects our relationships in a fallen world, but we should not fail to recognize the ways Blackmun’s opinion did harm here. His reasoning essentially created a legal permission structure that pitted mothers against their children. Because of this, countless mothers have been sold the lie by the abortion industry that their lives will be burdened, less rich and rewarding, and, ultimately, less satisfying with a child in the picture. By overruling Roe and Casey, we can save a new generation of families from enduring these awful and false narratives.

In addition, the court would be taking a necessary step toward establishing a legal environment that views life as something to be protected, not discarded. Numerous experts agree that a favorable decision in Dobbs could return the question of abortion to the states where, it is estimated, upward of half the Union stands to affirm a range of prolife protections for preborn children. In some states, there will be an almost overnight effect that moves their legal posture from a culture of death to one of life.

Finally, the right opinion in this case could comport with the very best of America’s ideals. A number of citizens believe that, at its essence, America is synonymous with freedom. Whether one fully agrees with that statement or not, it is undeniable that our nation has played a role in expanding the definition of freedom around the globe. Even in our current moment, we are having a national conversation about the implications of that term for every individual. Yet it shouldn’t be lost on us that as we have this dialogue, our culture continues to steamroll the lives of millions of the tiniest individuals in our society each year. That cannot continue. The Dobbs case affords our nation a moment when we can finally decide to be consistent and loudly declare that the blessings of America’s “new birth of freedom” extend to born and preborn alike.

The reality is, it is past time for the court to dismantle the disastrous reasoning posited by Blackmun nearly 50 years ago. By affirming his words, the court robbed generations of preborn children of their dignity, an atrocity that must be rectified. And while that will go a long way toward correcting the errors of the past made by the state, it is up to Christians to realize such a decision, as momentous as it would be, is not the end of the challenge before us. In fact, it will represent the starting point for a new prolife generation. For all the good that a favorable court decision would do, there will still be mothers in crisis who are either unable or unwilling to give a child the love and care he or she needs.

It will be at this moment when the true test comes –– and the church must be ready. For it has a duty to look out for the child in all of this. To be her voice. To be her advocate. And we should stand ready to welcome her with open arms (Mark 10:14) and let her know the Author of life has wanted her all along.

By / Dec 6

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, one of the most important abortion cases in decades. Here are answers to a few questions you may have about this monumental case.

Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade?

While it is impossible to know how the Supreme Court will rule on any case, this case presents a unique opportunity to overturn the precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The ERLC submitted an amicus brief asking the court to do just that and set a new precedent that respects the dignity of every life. 

Here is a look at some of the issues raised by the justices. 

What is the Dobbs case about?

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court is reviewing a Mississippi law titled the “Gestational Age Act” that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks except in a medical emergency and in cases of severe fetal abnormality. This law replaces the ‘viability standard’ created by Roe with a limit on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The court is examining whether pre-viability restrictions on elective abortions are unconstitutional. 

What is the “viability standard?”

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court admitted that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting unborn human life, but concluded that that interest did not become compelling until viability, because at that point the unborn child “has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.”

However, the choice of viability as the point before which a state may not forbid abortion is entirely arbitrary. Even the author of Roe and two authors of Casey’s three-justice plurality have admitted this. When the “viability standard” was initially created in 1973, viability was around 28 weeks, but it is now around 21 weeks. The viability line will continue to move as our modern medicine continues to improve. No Supreme Court decision has ever provided a principled justification for the viability standard. 

Does the Constitution guarantee a right to abortion?

The ERLC’s amicus brief answers this question well:

“The Constitution does not create a right to an abortion of an unborn child before viability or at any other stage of pregnancy. An asserted right to abortion has no basis in constitutional text or in American history and tradition.” 

When will the Supreme Court rule on abortion?

While the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Dec. 1, 2021, a ruling is not expected until the end of the court’s term in June 2022. 

What happens if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade?

Even if the Supreme Court overturns the precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, abortion would not become illegal overnight. Instead, each state would then be free to set their own laws banning or allowing abortion. If Roe is overturned, an estimated 26 states will implement complete bans on abortion. 

If abortion becomes illegal in many states, many more vulnerable women and their preborn babies will need help and support. Christians must be ready to stand in the gap and provide love and care. Together, we must work toward a day when abortion is not only illegal but also unthinkable.