Cultural Issues in the Courts: April 2017 Update

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April 5, 2017

Judicial ethics and same-sex marriage; Christmas Nativity scenes; sexual orientation and sex discrimination; prayers before school board meetings; and a free-speech case heading to the Supreme Court are all subjects of this issue of the Executive Briefing Judicial Update.

Religious Freedom, Same-Sex Marriage ― Wyoming

A small-town Wyoming judge has been censured by that state’s Supreme Court for telling a local news reporter in 2014 that, hypothetically, she couldn’t perform a wedding ceremony for a homosexual couple because that would violate her deeply-held religious beliefs. The state ethics commission that brought the charges against the judge requested her removal from office, but the Court imposed a lesser sanction.

Religious Freedom, Nativity Scenes ― Indiana

A live Nativity scene portrayed in a public high school for several years, as part of an annual Christmas musical, violates the First Amendment, a federal judge has ruled. However, the school has already changed the live scene to a shorter length presentation involving mannequins, and the judge approved the new version. For more on the complicated issue of government displays of religion in schools and elsewhere in the public square, read here.

Sexual Orientation, Federal Employment Law ― Georgia

Federal employment law prohibiting discrimination based on sex (known as “Title VII”) does not cover sexual orientation, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has ruled. A fired lesbian prison guard sued the state for sexual-orientation discrimination. In rejecting her claim, the 11th Circuit joined other federal circuits around the country, which have refused to legislate from the bench to redefine the meaning of “sex discrimination.” One of the judges in this case was Judge Bill Pryor, who was considered for the Supreme Court nomination that ultimately went to Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Religious Freedom, Student-Led Prayer ― Texas

Student-led prayers at the beginning of school board meetings do not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, a federal court of appeals has ruled. School boards act as legislative bodies when they meet, and invocations at such meetings have long been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Religious Freedom, Free Speech, Abortion ― California

Can a state government force pro-life pregnancy resource centers to promote abortion by informing pregnant women where they can obtain an abortion? Or, is there a First Amendment freedom from being compelled to “speak” in ways that are contrary to the mission of an organization? This essential First Amendment issue in a case from California has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has not indicated yet whether it will agree to hear the case.