Religious conservatives often lament they have been on the losing end of recent social trends, and they’re not entirely wrong about that. Same-sex marriage has become legal nationwide. Church attendance is down. About 30 percent of Americans identify as having no religion.
But there are also several ways in which organized religion has been on a political winning streak. Abortion is the most obvious example, and yesterday brought another instance in a different realm: education.
State officials in Oklahoma approved the local Roman Catholic archdiocese’s request to operate a public charter school. It will be the first explicitly religious public school in the U.S. in modern times, experts say. Supporters of the school hope to use it as a test case to take to the Supreme Court and win a clear right for charter schools to offer religious instruction.
Charter schools are public schools, financed by taxpayer dollars, but given the freedom to operate more flexibly than traditional schools. Nationwide, 8 percent of public schools are charter schools. Advocates of religious charter schools argue that church groups should have the same right to manage schools as other organizations.
Opponents argue that religious charter schools erase the separation between church and state by using government funds to support religious instruction. Over time, opponents say, the growth of church-affiliated charter schools could starve traditional schools of funding and lead to increased segregation of children along religious lines. Rachel Laser, the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized the Oklahoma decision as “a sea change for American democracy” and promised to file legal action against it.
The Oklahoma board that oversees charter schools voted 3-2 to approve the new school, which will be called St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. It will focus on students in rural areas. You can read more about the decision in this story by my colleague Sarah Mervosh.
And at the court
Whatever happens with the Oklahoma case, the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority has already expanded the reach and influence of religious groups. “The Supreme Court has over the last few years issued an extraordinary series of decisions expanding the role of religion in public life, sometimes at the expense of other values, like gay rights and access to contraception,” Adam Liptak, who covers the court for The Times, told me.
Between the 1950s and mid-1980s, the court sided with religious interests roughly half the time, an academic study found. Since John Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the share has jumped to more than 80 percent. By some measures, Roberts and the five other current conservative justices appear to be the six most pro-religion justices in the court’s history.
The kinds of cases the court is hearing have changed, too, Adam notes. When Earl Warren was chief justice in the 1950s and 1960s, all of the rulings in favor of religion benefited minority groups or dissenting practitioners. In the Roberts court, the winners tend to be mainstream Christians.
In cases over the past several years, the court has ruled that:
In coming weeks, as the court’s current term winds down, the justices are expected to rule on two more religion cases.
One considers whether a website designer can refuse to work with same-sex couples on the grounds that forcing her to celebrate same-sex marriages would violate her free-speech rights. The justices’ comments during oral arguments suggested they were likely to side with the designer, a decision that would effectively prioritize religious rights and free speech over L.G.B.T.Q. equality. It would also suggest that L.G.B.T.Q. rights were more vulnerable than some other forms of civil rights.
In the second case, the Supreme Court seems similarly poised to rule for religion, although the oral argument suggested that the ruling might be narrow. In that case, a postal worker has asked for the right not to work on Sunday — his Sabbath — without losing his job.
For more: Adam Liptak explained the academic research about the court’s new pro-religion stance in this column.
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