As we have seen in my previous posts, the Supreme Court has decided on a plethora of cases regarding religious freedom and its extent under the law. Major issues that the Court has ruled on include access to contraception, state-supplied financial aid for students attending religious colleges and the public acknowledgment of religious doctrine on a monument. After Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in February 2016, there was a vacancy on the bench, and the election of Donald Trump later that year meant that he would have the opportunity to shape the path of the judiciary for years to come. The Senate recently approved Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s selection for a new justice, to fill the void left by Scalia. He will begin hearing cases very soon, which brings us to this question: how will Gorsuch impact this Court and the decision-making process in the coming years, specifically in religious freedom cases?
Neil Gorsuch hails from Colorado originally, and he most recently served on the Court of Appeals in the 10th Circuit. He is conservative in ideology, and he firmly believes in the narrow interpretation of laws. He also views himself as an originalist, as evidenced by his opinions in previous cases, and this is the same vein that Scalia operated in while he was on the Court. For all intents and purposes, Scalia and Gorsuch have the same ideology, which means that the Court will essentially be returned to the same balance that was present when Scalia was alive. The Court has a history of leaning to the right, and this will remain the same with Gorsuch on the bench.
A major fear of Democrats surrounding the Donald Trump presidency was the ability to select a new justice for the Court, as significant victories like Roe v. Wade stand to be challenged in a right-leaning court. But what does Gorsuch stand for regarding religion? As a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, he had the opportunity to rule on several influential cases, including Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. These cases eventually got to the Supreme Court but as one case: Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. They address access to contraception that would be covered under an employer’s health insurance as a part of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare was criticized by religious organizations such as Hobby Lobby for forcing them to provide the contraceptives that may been contrary to their religious beliefs.
As I have previously written, the Hobby Lobby decision was problematic for several reasons, and Gorsuch served on the appeals court that ultimately made the determination for that case; the United States Supreme Court affirmed their ruling when they decided it. Gorsuch was one of the justices who found that Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs were being violated and ruled in their favor. He also upheld the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and discussed the importance of protecting religious beliefs and being tolerant of all religions. Bringing Gorsuch in signifies the desire on the part of Trump to protect religious exercise.
Interestingly enough, Gorsuch will have the opportunity to have an immediate impact on this area, as one of the first cases coming before the Court is a religious freedom case; Trinity Lutheran Church runs a Christian-oriented preschool in Columbia, Missouri, and the school applied for state funding to renovate the school’s playground. However, the state denied their application on the grounds that giving them money would be endorsing a religion, which is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This case has made its way up to the Supreme Court, and it will be interesting to see what Gorsuch has to say about it when the Court starts hearing arguments and ruling on the merits of the case.
*All information for this post was taken from the following sources:
Ellis Kim, “What we know — and don’t — about Neil Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy”. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/know-dont-neil-gorsuchs-judicial-philosophy/
Mark Sherman, “Neil Gorsuch could be the decisive vote in these Supreme Court cases”. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/neil-gorsuch-decisive-vote-supreme-court-cases/