2017 was an exciting year for religious liberty. Amid the chaos of an historic election and the naming of a new Supreme Court Justice, victories for religious liberty were won across the country, protecting the freedoms of people of all faith, and no faith at all. As the year draws to a close let’s look back on a few of these triumphs. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s learn from them. Let’s also prepare for a new year and new opportunities to protect our first freedom.
Here are the top religious liberty victories of 2017:
1. Sikh soldiers beat beard ban
In January, Sikh American soldiers successfully reversed a three-decade ban barring them from serving in the U.S. Army while maintaining their articles of faith. The new Army regulations ensure that Sikh soldiers are no longer forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards to serve their country. The new accommodation was a result of a legal battle led by West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, along with three other Sikh soldiers, who were forced to choose between serving their country and their faith. Becket, a non-profit, public interest law firm, along with the Sikh Coalition and McDermott, Will and Emory worked tirelessly to secure this victory for the Sikh community. Now they are free to serve and live out their faith. Victory for freedom and pluralism!
2. Religious schools have the right to choose their leaders
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit protected the right of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and St. Anthony Catholic School to choose their own religious leaders, free from government intrusion. The ruling strengthens a 2012 unanimous Supreme Court decision in Hosanna Tabor and reiterates that churches – not the state – get to choose who teaches their faith. Because if the government can control who teaches what you believe, it ultimately controls what you believe.
3. Supreme Court saves students from scraped knees
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t blacklist a school from a widely available public program simply because it is religious. Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center, a Christian preschool, wanted to upgrade its gravel playground. The preschool applied to a state grant to use recycled shredded tires for a softer and safer playground surface. But their application was rejected because of an antiquated state provision, known as a Blaine Amendment, which prohibits religious organizations from participating in public programs. But kids deserve safe playgrounds no matter where they go to school. The Supreme Court agreed. The victory inTrinity may also ensure that houses of worship are able to apply for FEMA aid following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
4. A New Jersey Mosque wins equal treatment
A New Jersey town agreed to treat all houses of worship equally and pay $3.25 million in damages and attorneys’ fees, after a federal court ruled that the town had illegally discriminated against a local mosque. In 2012, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge filed a building permit application for a small mosque. Four years of bureaucratic quagmire ensued. The Township of Bernards Board held a record 39 public hearings during which time the Society faced hostility and vandalism from members of the local community. In March 2016, the Society sued the town for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Ultimately, the Township settled the lawsuits, agreeing to treat all houses of worship equally.
5. After 6 years, Native Americans in Oregon get their day in court after govt. bulldozes sacred land
In October, members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes, whose sacred burial sites were bulldozed to expand a highway, finally had their day in court. In 2008 the Federal Highway Administration destroyed a sacred site located off Highway 26 near Mount Hood that included a stone altar, ancient burial grounds, a campground, and trees and medicine plants used for religious rituals. Becket attorneys, on behalf of the tribes, argued in court that the Government could have widened the highway and simultaneously protected the sacred site by widening the opposite side of the road or using a retaining wall—as it did to protect nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor. The court did not seem to take kindly to the government’s extreme argument that it can destroy Native American sacred spaces with impunity.
6. Justice Gorsuch and religious liberty
In April, Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Justice Gorsuch has a track record of protecting religious liberty for all, most notably in the Hobby Lobby case. Judge Gorsuch stood up for the Green family that faced massive government fines unless they violated their religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby proved a landmark victory not just for a Christian family but also for a Muslim prisoner, a Native American feather dancer and a Sikh soldier. It was, in short, a victory for people of all faiths. Gorsuch’s confirmation to the court is, too.
7. Families and doctors defeat an intrusive transgender mandate
On the eve of 2017, families and their doctors successfully defended their right to make personal medical decisions for their children, free from government intrusion. The court ruling came after eight states, an association of almost 18,000 doctors, and a Catholic hospital system challenged the transgender mandate, a federal regulation that forced doctors to perform gender transition procedures on children – even if the doctor believes the treatment could harm the child. It was a common-sense victory that will ensure that children’s deeply personal medical decisions, such as gender transition procedures, remain between families and their doctor.