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Supreme Court Term Touches on Prayer, Religious Liberty

Mark Fischer

Adelaide Mena - Catholic News Agency - published on 10/17/13 - updated on 06/08/17

The current Supreme Court term is set to address freedom of speech for pro-life demonstrations, prayer in legislative settings, and religious freedom.

The 2013-2014 Supreme Court term, which began Oct. 7, will address several prominent issues in the public square, including freedom of speech for pro-life demonstrations, prayer in legislative settings, and religious freedom.

Limits on pro-life protests outside of abortion clinics are being challenged in the upcoming case “McCullen v. Coakley.” The petitioners argue that a Massachusetts law limiting sidewalk counseling for women entering abortion clinics violates the First Amendment.

They claim that limiting the enforcement of a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics to pro-life counselors and other non-employees is an example of a selective exclusion law targeting a specific viewpoint in a public space.

The ruling will affect the interpretation of First Amendment rights for protestors, and could implicitly reveal the court's interpretation of the importance of abortion, its view of the procedure as “health care,” and the value of individuals' freedom of speech in public spaces.

If the “buffer zone” is ruled to be unconstitutional, it would likely expand pro-life counselors' ability to offer sidewalk counseling services in front of abortion clinics.

Another case of note coming to the Supreme Court will be November's “Town of Greece v. Galloway,” which will address the constitutionality of prayer in legislative settings. The case challenges the town of Greece, N.Y.'s 14-year-long practice of beginning town meetings with prayers from a variety of traditions and faiths. The town places no limits on who can say the public prayers, nor what the prayers contain.

The town argues that the practice of prayer in the government, and more specifically in legislative areas, is a practice present in all levels of government, and one that has been exercised throughout the nation's history.

However, petitioners argue that the prayer sessions, though they are not regulated or limited to certain faiths, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and coerce participation in religious prayer.

The court's decision is expected to clarify whether religious petitions in legislative settings constitute “an establishment of religion,” or if they are a licit means of religious expression in a public arena.

Other notable cases the Supreme Court will address are “Fisher v. University of Texas,” which will revisit the question of affirmative action in colleges; “McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” regarding the constitutionality of individual political campaign contributions; “National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning,” which will address the president’s ability to appoint government officials when the Senate is not in session; and “Medtronic Inc. v. Boston Scientific Corp,” a patent law case.

Court observers have speculated that one or more cases dealing with the federal contraception mandate may also be heard in the near future.

The controversial mandate requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraceptive, sterilizing and abortion-causing products and procedures, even if doing so violates their conscience or religious beliefs.

Several cases regarding the mandate have been filed with the Supreme Court, all concerning the ability of owners of private companies to run their organizations in accordance with their deeply-held religious convictions.

In each case – “Autocam v. Sebelius,” “Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius,” and “Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores,” the government has argued that the right to freely exercise religion does not apply to the owners of for-profit companies. The owners have largely argued that participating in for-profit business should not mean separating their religious beliefs from their public action.

If the cases are taken, the decision will determine whether or not companies must obey the mandate at the expense of their religious convictions, and it could set a precedent for establishing the range of freedom of religion in the public square.

Originally published by Catholic News Agency on 15 October 2013.

Tags:
PoliticsPrayerReligious Freedom
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