The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”
Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the town of Greece, New York did not violate the First Amendment by its practice of inviting local clergy from different religious congregations to take turns in offering an opening prayer at the beginning of town board meetings. Because most of the local congregations were Christian, most of the prayers were Christian in nature. The citizens who brought the case against Greece argued that the town gave preference to Christians over other religions and thus violated the First Amendment. The Court’s opinion rejected this argument and ruled that as long as the town did not discriminate against non-Christian religions, it was not required to look outside of its town boundaries to find clergy from other congregations to offer prayers. The Court further recognized the value of opening prayers to lend gravity to law-making sessions:
From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds. These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a com¬munity of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and per¬haps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.
Later this year, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in another, more famous case with First Amendment implications. The company Hobby Lobby is seeking an order that parts of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are unconstitutional because of the requirement that employers provide birth control as part of an employee’s health care coverage. The owners of Hobby Lobby argue that the law infringes on their free exercise of religion since their religious beliefs prohibit them from providing contraceptive drugs and other devices that end human life after conception. Regardless of how the Court rules, the case will have far-reaching impacts in the area of First Amendment law and in how the exercise of religion is defined.
Arizona has its own protections regarding religious freedom. For example, the state’s Constitution provides that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment. No religious qualification shall be required for any public office or employment, nor shall any person be incompetent as a witness or juror in consequence of his opinion on matters of religion, nor be questioned touching his religious belief in any court of justice to affect the weight of his testimony.” And specific to the employment context, the law in Arizona makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to the individual’s compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual’s . . . religion.” A.R.S. § 41-1463.
However, it is not always clear how a court will apply the law in a given case, which is why decisions from courts are necessary to help further define and explain the law. Recently, a former state supreme court justice from a neighboring state made the observation that the law on religious freedom is not well-developed. “I would say to people who are interested in the free exercise of religion, get a lawyer and go to court and develop the law.”
What we are seeing in the Town of Greece case and in the Hobby Lobby case is part of the development of that law.