Thanks in large part to the Supreme Court, 2020 was a good year for American religious liberty.
By the time our Constitution was ratified Americans had reached general agreement that the country would have religious freedom and it was obvious that the Constitution would have to guarantee it to be ratified. Therefore, the first amendment to it, adopted in 1791, stated “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The language was chosen in order to guarantee that (1) there would be no national Church of the United States, (2) the federal government would not interfere with the existing New England town churches, and (3) the federal government would not interfere with individual religious liberty. Later the Fourteenth Amendment would extend the same protection to protect the people against interference with religious liberty by the individual states.
The first great challenge to this liberty came from a group known as the “No Nothings.” This group wanted to end the Catholic school system and to ban or limit immigration from Catholic countries. It strongly supported Lincoln in the four-way presidential election of 1860 and emerged from the ensuing Northern victory greatly strengthened. During reconstruction, Sen. James G. Blaine proposed an amendment against government aid to religious schools. Although this failed, most states adopted similar Constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court found some similar restrictions in the First Amendment.
In Esponoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case vindicating the right of parents of children in religious schools, on June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court made the very important decision that Blaine Amendments may sometimes be unconstitutional as prohibitions of the free exercise of religion.
In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, decided on July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court put an end, at least for the time being, to the more than six-year attempts by various levels of government to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide insurance to their employees for abortion like contraception. The Little Sisters of the Poor are a world-wide group within the Catholic Church that leads a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, wears habits, and cares for the poor, especially the elderly poor. There is no evidence that a single one of its employees wants the insurance at issue. It is a mystery why anyone would want to pick a fight with the Little Sisters. Biden probably will not, but if he does he will most probably lose in the Supreme Court.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, decided November by the Supreme Court on Nov. 25, 2020, is the most important of several victories over regulations limiting the size of congregations at churches more severely than the attendance allowed at other events.
All in all, the Supreme Court is now treating the free exercise of religion as broadly as the framers of the Constitution intended it.