Supreme Court Ends Term with Blows to Voting Rights and True Religious Freedom

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On July 1, 2021, one of the most unusual Supreme Court terms of recent memory drew to a close. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the building itself remained shuddered but members of the public had unprecedented access to oral arguments taking place by phone and broadcast live. Decisions, typically announced from the bench and physically delivered to a waiting crowd, were instead posted on the Court’s website for instant analysis.

Now, as the 2020-2021 Supreme Court term draws to a close, we’re taking a closer look at a few major cases that will have a lasting impact on our democracy and the guarantee of equal treatment under law. Interfaith Alliance advances religious freedom through strategic “friend of the court” advocacy and by spotlighting federal cases that impact the boundary between religion and government. Here’s what you need to know about the most significant decisions issued this spring.

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee

Issue: Voting Rights

Decided: July 1, 2021

In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive pre-clearance for major changes to voting procedures. Following the Shelby County v. Holder decision, states once bound by this requirement have made significant changes to their voting rules. One such state, Arizona, adopted restrictions in 2016 on who can return a ballot on behalf of a voter and how ballots submitted in the wrong precinct are treated.

The Democratic National Committee and others challenged Arizona’s restrictions under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, asserting that these measures effectively disenfranchised Black and other minority voters. In a 6-3 decision divided along ideological lines, the Supreme Court ultimately held that these changes do not violate the VRA, with Justice Alito writing, “having to identify one’s own polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the ‘usual burdens of voting.’”

For our democracy to work for all of us, it must include all of us. Arizona’s restrictions, upheld by the court, are only one example of efforts to impose increasingly restrictive voting procedures that disproportionately impact voters of color, young people, seniors, people with disabilities, and rural communities. National standards are urgently needed to prevent future attacks on voting rights so that we pick our leaders – not the other way around.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

Issue: Religious Exemptions, Foster Care and Adoption

Decided: June 17, 2021

Like many cities and states across the country, Philadelphia requires all contracting agencies that seek to perform services on behalf of the city to abide by nondiscrimination requirements. Catholic Social Services previously held a contract to provide foster care and adoption services but, upon refusing to work with LGBTQ+ prospective parents, were dropped from the program. CSS then sued claiming a violation of the agency’s First Amendment free exercise rights, effectively seeking a license to discriminate with taxpayer funds.

In a narrow but unanimous decision, the Supreme Court sided with CSS. The day before the decision was released, Interfaith Alliance hosted a conversation with advocates and policy experts about what’s at stake for foster youth, LGBTQ+ people, religious minorities, and more when contracting agencies discriminate in this way. We later joined partner organizations on the steps of the court to affirm that every child deserves a family. Learn more about the campaign to secure federal nondiscrimination protections through the John Lewis Every Child Deserves a Family Act.

California v. Texas

Issue: Health Care

Decided: June 17, 2021

In the third major challenge to the Affordable Care Act to reach the Court, the justices again rejected an effort to dismantle the law that secured healthcare coverage for millions of Americans in 2010. After Congress reduced the ACA’s tax penalty for failing to obtain health insurance to $0 in 2017, Texas led a group of states and two individuals challenged the remaining provisions as unconstitutional because they could no longer be linked to a tax. A decision in their favor would have ended the ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, the Medicaid expansion, and the civil rights protections under Sec. 1557.

We’re often at our most vulnerable when we seek the assistance of a healthcare provider. By allowing the ACA to remain in place this decision will enable patients across the country to receive the care they need, according to their own religious beliefs and circumstances.  

Religious Gatherings and Public Health Restrictions

Issue: Religious Exemptions

Decided: Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

To address the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic, state officials issued temporary orders limiting in-person activities to slow the spread of the virus. Though the terms of these orders varied in nature and applicability, a number of religious groups challenged these restrictions as a violation of their free exercise rights under the First Amendment. The most common arguments pointed to exemptions for other types of venues, like supermarkets and liquor stores, and sought similar treatment as these “favored” businesses. They rarely contended with the higher risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with gathering for extended periods to worship, sing together, and sit in close proximity indoors compared to a quick trip to the grocery store.

A handful of these challenges reached the Supreme Court as emergency applications for injunctive relief, which would permit religious groups to continue gathering until the constitutionality of the orders could be determined. After denying two of these petitions, the court granted a total of five, creating dangerous precedent for free exercise claims that would endanger public health. Despite appearing before the Court as part of its “shadow docket” decisions like Tandon v. Newsom, which created a new test for assessing free exercise claims, will likely have a tremendous impact on religious freedom litigation for years to come.  

Looking Ahead

Following the close of the term, the Supreme Court will sit in recess through the summer though preparations are already underway for Fall 2021. The Court’s docket will include a number of contentious issues including access to abortion, gun rights, free speech, and more. As the only national interfaith organization committed to protecting religion and democracy, Interfaith Alliance will continue to advocate for policies that protect people of all faiths and none, including the freedom to believe as we choose and live in safety and security.  

Learn more about our work to advance true religious freedom for all.