Cultural Issues in the Courts: December, 2015 Update

Courthouse with the year 2015 overlayed

December 4, 2015

Religious conscience issues top this update, including: Another HHS mandate challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court; Nativity scene troubles; and state denials of assistance to religious schools. Also, federal courts reject state attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Religious Freedom, HHS Mandate — U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear seven appeals involving religious nonprofit organizations' objection to the HHS mandate, requiring them to provide possible abortion-causing drugs in their employee health plans. Little Sisters of the Poor, a ministry to the poor and elderly, is the most recognizable name in these cases; however, denominations, religious colleges and other types of religious nonprofits are also involved. Oral argument is expected in March, and a decision by the end of June, 2016. Read our religious freedom resource that explains what's at stake.

Life, Abortion Funding — Louisiana, Alabama

Federal district judges in Louisiana and Alabama have rejected those states' attempt to defund Planned Parenthood (PP) with respect to Medicaid funds. Appeals are likely. The rulings are not entirely unexpected, as several state attempts to take away Medicaid funding for PP have failed in recent years. While other types of state and federal funding give states more freedom to pick and choose health providers, Medicaid is patient-based, meaning federal law allows patients to make their own choice of a qualified provider, and any state attempts to redefine "qualified provider" to exclude abortion sellers like PP have previously failed in the courts.

Religious Freedom, Separation of Church and State — Missouri

A Lutheran daycare and pre-school in Columbia, Mo. has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a state program that helps to make school playgrounds safer by providing recycled tire rubber for their surfaces. The state turned down the Lutheran school's request for the tires because of a state constitutional amendment that prohibits state aid to religion.

Religious Freedom, Nativity Scene — Arkansas

A 40-year old tradition of putting a Nativity scene on a corner of the Baxter County, Ark. courthouse lawn was ended by a federal court, which ruled the practice unconstitutional in a lawsuit brought by the American Humanist Association. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there must be a secular purpose for such government displays, which has led to the practice of including snowmen, Santa Clauses and other non-religious figures, along with Nativity scenes on public property, as part of "holiday" displays. The Baxter County display included only a crèche.