- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

The ink has barely dried on the U.S. Supreme Court’s final rulings this term, but already advocates on both sides of the church-state divide are looking at the religious freedom cases lining up to be heard later this year.

Contraception coverage for nonprofits, church signage, gay marriage and even facial hair are expected to appear on the docket later this year, according to First Amendment watchdogs.

“It’s very likely that the cases involving nonprofit religious organizations that are challenging health care regulations will reach the court,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It also seems same-sex marriage cases are very likely to come before the court next year, which also brings in religious liberty issues because most of these bans on same-sex marriages were enacted primarily based on religious motives.”

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund, said a case to watch in the coming term is the Holt v. Hobbs case, which involves an Arkansas inmate who has declared himself a Muslim and wants to grow a half-inch beard behind bars.

“That case is going to get argued some time in the fall,” Mr. Rassbach said. “I think going forward we’re very likely to see a good opinion on Holt v. Hobbs.”

Among the most notable “good opinions,” according to religious rights activists, handed down by the high court this term was the Town of Greece v. Galloway and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The former was a 5-4 vote cast that held that a small-town government in upstate New York had the right to offer an invocation before its official board meetings. In the landmark Hobby Lobby case, which was also decided in a 5-4 split vote, the justices determined that the administration could not force closely-held private corporations to pay for contraception in their health insurance plans if it violated their religious beliefs.

SEE ALSO: Supreme Court decides Hobby Lobby birth-control dispute

The Supreme Court also struck down a Massachusetts law setting up “buffer zones” restricting protesters at state abortion clinics, a win for pro-life supporters.

Looking at the court’s decisions this term, Mr. Luchenitser argued that the decisions were “terrible for religious liberty” and for the principle of the separation of church and state.

“Both rulings failed to respect the rights of religious minorities and allow religious majorities to impose their religious beliefs on people who don’t follow those beliefs,” he said. “The government certainly needs to put its best foot forward in dissenting those [future] cases.”

Mr. Rassbach, however, said the rulings were a sign that the idea of religious freedom as a civil rights issue is starting to sink in.

“People don’t think of it as civil rights law, but it’s right next to other civil rights laws in the code books,” he said. “I do think one party being the loser in this is the [Obama] administration. It’s taken an extremely aggressive and polarizing … position in all of these cases. It’s an aggressively regulatory position. They keep taking this extreme position and keep losing.”

Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said he also saw the administration’s losses stem from taking an “aggressive, radical position against religious and pro-life activities and expressions.”

SEE ALSO: Religious leaders want exemption from hiring LGBT people after Hobby Lobby ruling

“The combination of those two [cases] leads to a dramatic string of victories for freedom, and losses for the Obama administration,” he said, adding that the Alliance is working on a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear next term challenging signage regulations for a church in Arizona.

“I think the Supreme Court is recognizing the legitimate role religious freedom and religious speech have played in our history,” he said.

It wasn’t just the government that took hits this year, explained Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“In the Greece case, obviously for those who care about a robust Establishment Clause it was a setback, allowing sectarian prayer in public settings where government business is being done,” said Mr. Saperstein, who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and teaches First Amendment church-state law issues. In the Hobby Lobby case, “those religious claims came at the expense of women’s rights to be treated equally in terms of government benefits and protections.”

“So there are all these trade-offs in these cases,” he said, “but [they] came at some cost.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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