The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday affirming the religious rights of private for-profit businesses is just one sign of many that the relationship between religion and a much more diverse state is being renegotiated.
To some it feels like the place of religion is being demeaned or threatened, but church-state experts say the truth is more subtle, that U.S. society is simply becoming more complicated, and that major cases today sometimes boost religion and sometimes limit it.
“If there was ever a time when it was possible to talk about a separate sphere, that time has long since passed. So now we have to
ask more nuanced questions,” said Robert Tuttle, a church-state expert at George Washington University Law School. “We don’t have a wall of separation between church and state. Religious organizations already get funding and are subject to lots of regulations already. Today we have to learn to make finely grained judgments.”
The ruling often short-handed as “Hobby Lobby” — after the evangelical-owned crafts chain that was one of the parties suing the White House — impacts New York City in at least one way, and members of U.S. clergy in another.
Parsonages, for example.
There are just two categories of people who get a special housing exemptions on their income taxes: military members and pastors. But now the “parsonage exemption” is being challenged in federal appeals court after a Wisconsin judge in the fall said the benefit is unconstitutional.
In a ruling that Agudath Israel of America greeted with “great dismay,” U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in November that the exemption “provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.”
This would strongly impact tens of thousands of clergy who are allowed to set aside from their federal income taxes money related to housing — as much as 50 percent of their salary in some cases.
Another place where the chips of Hobby Lobby are falling is in allowing religious gatherings in public school buildings or holding public events in religious buildings.
The Supreme Court earlier this month declined to hear the case of an Illinois school district that was challenged for holding its graduation in a church. But the issue of how public schools and religious institutions mix is very much alive.
The center of the dispute in recent years has been New York, where the city’s Department of Education bans religious services from being held (off-hours) in public schools. A federal panel in April said the policy is constitutional.
The church at issue — Bronx Household of Faith — argued that the city was violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise. The backdrop is the city’s sky-high real estate costs, and the church said it needed an affordable space. But the federal panel of judges wasn’t convinced by the district, or lower, court’s thinking.
A majority of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that “the Free Exercise Clause … has never been understood to require government to finance a subject’s exercise of religion.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would change the policy but it wasn’t clear when that would begin.