Written by Don Byrd

I posted earlier my top ten religious liberty stories of 2018. But the new year is about looking forward, so here are some of the stories I am watching and waiting for in 2019.

Bladensburg Cross – The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in February for a challenge to the constitutionality of a large memorial cross on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland.The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled the display unlawful.

School Board Prayer Cases – A recent contentious decision by the 9th Circuit left in place a lower court’s ruling striking down a California school board’s practice of opening meetings with prayer as unconstitutional. Education Week speculates that the dissenting opinions in the case may have been directed at the U.S. Supreme Court and notes that the decision is in some ways in conflict with a controversial 5th Circuit ruling upholding prayer at school board meetings in a Texas district. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the California case is possible. The Supreme Court in 2017 declined to review that 5th Circuit decision.

What’s Next for State Legislation? – As I wrote in my year-end piece, numerous states enacted laws in 2018 requiring or permitting “In God We Trust” to be posted prominently on public school grounds. The laws appear to be part of a coordinated strategy to introduce legislation increasing the role of religion in public spaces, beginning with the least controversial approach. Will other states join in this year? Will some state lawmakers attempt to advance to Phase 2? Stay tuned.

Religious Exemption from Nondiscrimination Laws – Numerous cases will test the extent to which business owners with religious objections to same-sex marriage must comply with public accommodation laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, or whether the First Amendment requires the government to accommodate that objection under principles of religious free exercise. One early case to watch is in Arizona, where the owners of a printing design business have been found in violation of state law for refusing to create custom wedding invitations for a same-sex couple. The Arizona Supreme Court will hear oral arguments later this month.

Discrimination by government-funded foster care providers – There are a handful of disputes winding their way through courts over claims by religious child placement organizations receiving taxpayer funds that laws requiring them to place children with couples they object to on religious grounds violates their religious freedom rights. As law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote, “At the end of the day, kids are trapped in these debates. They’re the least powerful people, even though the entire system is supposed to be about them. My focus in 2019 is taking children out of the culture war around adoption.” A case heard in November, 2018 by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals could provide the earliest indication of how these disputes might be resolved.