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The Supreme Court:
Religion and the First Amendment
2011-2012 Term


During its 2011-2012 term (from October 3, 2011 to October 1, 2012), the Supreme Court ruled on a controversial case concerning ministerial exceptions to anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in the workplace.  It declined to hear several other cases involving religion, effectively validating lower court rulings on those cases.

Supreme Court Rulings (2011-2012 Term)

  • Religious Organizations Are Exempt from Employment Discrimination Laws
    On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  In this case, the Justices ruled unanimously that churches and other religious organizations are exempt from laws designed to prevent discrimination against employees.  This ruling validated a “ministerial exception” to employment laws, thus allowing religious organizations to hire and dismiss ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders without regard to government policy.

Cases the Supreme Court Declined to Hear (2011-2012 Term)

  •  A 43-Foot Cross Standing within a Veterans Memorial on Public Lands Amounts to an Unconstitutional Endorsement of a Religion
    On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review two related court cases, Mount Soledad Memorial Association v. Trunk and United States v. Trunk.  The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear these cases leaves in place a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that a 43-foot Christian cross standing as part of a veterans memorial in San Diego violates the First Amendment’s ban on government endorsement of religion. 

    In a statement accompanying the Supreme Court’s denial of the petition to hear the cases, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that the final disposition of the cross remains unresolved.  In its 2011 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court remanded the dispute to a U.S. District Court to devise a solution, which could include modifying the cross so that it remains, but does not amount to endorsing a particular religion.  Because the federal government, which owns the land on which the memorial rests, could potentially come up with such a solution, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the two cases at this time does not resolve the issue.
  • A Student's Right to Freedom of Religious-Oriented Speech in School Must Be Balanced Against the Requirement that Schools not Promote Religion

    On June 11, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review two interrelated cases, Morgan v. Swanson and Swanson v. Morgan, concerning the First Amendment rights of school children.   By declining to hear the two cases, the Supreme Court let stand a previous ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In September 2011, the Appeals Court ruled that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech prevented elementary school officials from banning the distribution of religious materials due to their religious content (i.e. non-curricular student speech cannot be discriminated against solely on the basis of its religious content). 

    However, the Appeals Court also recognized that school officials must balance this right to freedom of speech against the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.  In the Appeals Court’s view, the law is not clearly settled on how schools should balance these sometimes competing First Amendment principles.  As a result, the school officials in this case were entitled to “qualified immunity,” which protects government employees from being sued for job-related actions that violate the Constitutional rights of others, unless they can reasonably be expected to have known that these actions were unconstitutional.

  • Religious Organizations Are Exempt from some Laws Designed to Protect Employees, but not from Sexual Harassment Law Suits
    On April 16, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Mary Linklater v. the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, letting stand a 2009 ruling by the Court of Appeals of Maryland.  Linklater, the church’s minister for music, claimed the church’s pastor sexually harassed her and, after she complained to church officials, the church retaliated against her.  She sued the church both for sexual harassment and for retaliation.  The Maryland Appeals Court disallowed her law suit for retaliation on the grounds that religious organizations are shielded from the reach of laws interfering with employment practices.  The Appeals Court allowed Linklater’s lawsuit alleging sexual harassment to go forward.
  • California School District Can Ban Displays of Religious Statements in the Classroom
    On March 26, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Johnson vs. Poway Unified School District.  This decision leaves in place a previous ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Appeals Court ruled in September 2011 that high school officials could prohibit a teacher from posting banners in his classroom that stated “In God We Trust” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee.”
  • Charter School Cannot Sue the State of Idaho for Banning the Use of the Bible in School Curriculum
    On March 26, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Nampa Classical Academy v. Goesling.  In this case, Nampa Classical Academy, a charter school, challenged a decision by the state of Idaho to bar the school from using the Bible as part of its curriculum.  The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case leaves in place a ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that charter schools cannot sue the state because they are state entities (i.e. the state cannot sue itself) and the “curriculum presented in such a school is not the speech of teachers, parents, or students, but that of the Idaho government.”
  • First Amendment Shields Religious Organizations from Accountability for Negligent Hiring of Employees Who Sexually Abuse Children
    On March 19, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of John Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis.  The Supreme Court’s decision leaves in place a ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District, which stated that the Catholic Church could not be held legally accountable for hiring and inadequately supervising a priest who later sexually abused a boy in his parish.  The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case affirms the archdiocese’s claim that the First Amendment shields religious organizations from having their hiring and supervisory practices reviewed by the courts.
  • Officially Recognized Collegiate Religious Organizations May Not—in Violation of College Rules—Discriminate on the Basis of Religion
    On March 19, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Alpha Delta Chi-Delta Chapter v. Reed.  This decision leaves in place a ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that California state universities could prevent officially recognized campus organizations from discriminating on the basis of religion or sexual orientation.  A Christian fraternity and sorority unsuccessfully challenged the policy, claiming that—because it prevented them from selecting their members on the basis of religious beliefs—the policy violated their freedom of religion. 
  • Churches Lose Public School Space
    On December 5, 2011, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education.  This action leaves in place a lower court ruling, from the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that an evangelical congregation in New York City could not—in violation of a city regulation—hold religious services in a public school.
  • Religious Displays Disallowed on Government Property
    On October 31, 2011, the Supreme Court declined to review the case of Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American Atheists, with Justice Clarence Thomas offering a dissenting view in favor of hearing the case.  The Court’s decision leaves in place a ruling by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that placing crosses along Utah highways to honor fallen state troopers violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.