Top religious liberty stories of 2023 and issues to watch in 2024
With a presidential election on the horizon, an ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, and democracy itself being questioned, 2024 promises to be a pivotal year with many significant areas to monitor.
What do those issues have to do with religious liberty? Plenty.
As we saw in 2023, current threats to our democracy are inextricably linked to Christian nationalism, which was central to the effort to reject President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Meanwhile, religious hostility, particularly directed at Jewish and Muslim Americans, is on the rise. It is a time for Christians to stay vigilant and vocal in support of religious liberty for all, clearly and unequivocally.
Here is a look back at the top religious liberty stories of 2023 and a preview of the stories I’m watching most closely as 2024 gets underway.
- Israel/Hamas war sparks surge in religious persecution.
Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israel was a shocking, wanton act of coordinated cruelty, targeting civilians — including women, children, and the elderly — with unspeakable violence. Israel’s deadly bombing campaign in response has created a dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. As BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler wrote in the winter Report from the Capital, “[o]ur world is in a perilous place.” Sadly, the tragic conflict has enflamed hatred, misunderstanding, and hostility along familiar religious faultlines in the United States.
Crimes rooted in antisemitism were already on the rise in the United States. In the aftermath of the Israel/Hamas war, we have seen a further surge in both antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric, hostility, and even violence, prompting President Biden to issue a strong statement to the nation in October. “In recent years, too much hate has been given too much oxygen,” he noted. “We can’t stand by and stay silent.”
Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Tyler called on Christians to be “extremists for justice, extremists for love” in this “extreme moment” we are living through. It goes without saying that the way in which this war unfolds, and the impact it has on peace, love, and understanding here in the United States and around the world, will be a major concern in 2024; a significant challenge for us all to navigate in our advocacy, in our worship, and in our conversations with friends and family.
- As new House Speaker is sworn in, the shadow of Christian nationalism continues to grow.
Following the removal of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as Speaker of the House and weeks of stalemate with no Speaker in place, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., was sworn in as his replacement. Although relatively unknown on the national stage, Speaker Johnson was quickly identified as a proponent of Christian nationalism. As Religion News Service reported, Speaker Johnson suggested his election as speaker was “ordained by God.” Sarah Jones, senior writer for the Intelligencer, reported that Speaker Johnson blames school shootings on the teaching of evolution. He has also argued against the institutional separation of church and state, associating himself with the controversial views of David Barton, an evangelical activist and pseudo-historian. As Amanda Tyler said on X in response to this revelation, “BJC has opposed David Barton’s views on church-state separation for decades,” sharing this link to a resource written by former BJC Executive Director Brent Walker that critiques some of Barton’s work.
As we enter 2024, Speaker Johnson’s priorities as Speaker of the House should be monitored closely. So, too, should we monitor his willingness to protect democracy itself, a central pillar in America’s commitment to religious freedom for all. According to RNS, he “supported the effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.”
- U.S. Supreme Court clarifies, strengthens religious liberty protections in the workplace.
In June, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, a workplace religious accommodation case brought by a postal worker who objected to working on Sundays. The Court clarified that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer can deny an employee’s request for a religious accommodation only if it would “result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” As BJC pointed out in an amicus brief, many courts were applying a much lower standard, allowing employers to deny requests for minimal burdens. The Court further clarified that a religious accommodation’s impact on co-workers’ feelings about religion or religious practices is not sufficient to justify denying a religious accommodation request. BJC’s Holly Hollman called the ruling a “victory for religious minorities” and the new standard an “improved test for applying Title VII.”
- Texas enacts troubling chaplain bill.
A controversial new Texas law authorizes public school districts to replace counselors with chaplains. The measure allows school districts to hire chaplains to fill certain roles such as student counselors without any definition or standards for who could claim the title “chaplain.” This fight moved to the local level as each school district is required to vote on whether to have chaplains as employees or volunteers. Baptist News Global’s Mark Wingfield reported that the effort is part of a larger national campaign to introduce chaplains into public schools. As BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks explained in that article, replacing licensed counselors with an unlicensed religious title threatens to insert religious indoctrination into public education.
In an episode of BJC’s Respecting Religion podcast, Amanda Tyler and Holly Hollman discussed their concerns about school officials proselytizing, and they explained how local communities in Texas are organizing to urge their school districts against hiring unqualified chaplains to do the work of school counselors. BJC brought together more than 100 Texas chaplains who have called on school districts in the state to reject the idea. BJC has a resource page and petitions that people of faith can sign to say “no” to this misguided idea.
- Oklahoma approves religious charter schools, prompting lawsuit.
In June, the Oklahoma Charter School Board approved a Catholic school’s application for charter school funding, making it the first religious charter school in the country and setting the stage for a legal battle to determine whether the Oklahoma Constitution or the U.S. Constitution allows – or perhaps even requires – direct taxpayer funding of religious schools. The board’s 3-2 vote ignored legal advice from Oklahoma’s own attorney general, Gentner Drummond, who warned that funding a religious charter school would violate state law. In October, Drummond filed suit seeking to block the board’s action. A group of parents also filed suit in July challenging the action as unconstitutional.
While BJC has long supported public schools, BJC opposes government-funded religion. This issue is likely to make its way through the courts, possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court, in what will be a key test of a longstanding religious liberty protection once thought unassailable.
- New guidance on religion in public schools reiterates religious liberty protections after Kennedy v Bremerton.
In May, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on prayer and religious expression in public elementary and secondary schools. The guidance emphasizes that although their private religious expression is protected, “teachers, coaches, and other public school officials acting in their official capacities may not lead students in prayer, devotional readings, or other religious activities, nor may they attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities or to refrain from doing so.” A Respecting Religion podcast covered the guidance at length.
The guidance comes at a time of great uncertainty in that area of the law thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton. There, the Court held that public school officials must accommodate a football coach’s religious exercise on the school’s field at the conclusion of games while he was still on duty. The Court also overturned a longstanding test championed by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, leaving little of substance in its place to guide courts in evaluating Establishment Clause claims brought against school officials. As BJC noted at the time, the Kennedy decision undermined religious freedom by failing to protect students against government pressures. The guidance from the Biden administration reassures parents and students that the Kennedy decision did not alter the First Amendment’s core religious liberty protections.
Despite that reassurance, states and school districts across the country are exploiting the Kennedy decision in support of efforts to promote Christianity in public schools. Meanwhile, courts are wrestling with how to reckon with the Kennedy decision in Establishment Clause cases, bringing to fruition BJC’s predictions that the decision creates more problems than it solves. In 2024, these cases are worth watching closely, but so too are the state legislative initiatives and school board decisions that have followed in Kennedy’s wake.
- As spotlight on Christian nationalism grows, polls show majority disapproves of the ideology.
The growing threat of Christian nationalism – to our democracy and to religious liberty for all – is an era-defining challenge. The extent to which Christians unite and reject it will largely determine whether Christian nationalism is dismantled or whether it overwhelms our democratic institutions. That is why BJC leads the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign, and BJC has spoken out clearly and consistently to bring attention to the dangers posed by the ideology.
In 2023, we learned that the more Americans learn about Christian nationalism, the less they like it. Two large surveys released last year – one by the Public Religion Research Institute; the other by Neighborly Faith – yielded similar results. Only 10-11% of Americans were characterized as “adherents” of the ideology, while another 19% are “sympathetic” to the views of Christian nationalism. The rest are either staunchly opposed, believe in the separation of church and state, are undecided, or are unengaged politically.
In a podcast episode last season, Amanda Tyler and Holly Hollman discussed why polls on Christian nationalism matter.
- Biden administration strengthens religious liberty protections for beneficiaries of government-funded services.
Early last year, nine agencies of the Biden administration announced new rules that would strengthen religious liberty protections for beneficiaries of federally funded social services. The proposed rules seek to “ensure that all beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries have access to federally funded services and programs without unnecessary barriers and free from discrimination.” BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman praised the proposals as “an important return to religious liberty principles that protect all Americans.” Final rules following the public comment period have not yet been issued, but they should come this year.
- U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of wedding website designer who objects to providing services for same-sex marriages.
In a closely watched Free Speech Clause case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment bars the state of Colorado from enforcing its nondiscrimination law against a website designer who wants to create custom wedding websites as part of her business but not for same-sex marriages, which she opposes on religious grounds. In a 6-3 opinion, the majority argued that unlike the goods and services offered by many other businesses, the custom websites proposed at issue in this case are “expressive speech” protected by the Constitution.
BJC’s Holly Hollman issued a statement in response to the disappointing decision. “While Americans are free to express their religious and secular views about marriage,” she said, “BJC continues to believe that protecting religious freedom does not require granting broad exemptions that would undermine expectations for fair treatment in the commercial marketplace.”
- Courts wrestle with disputes over students’ preferred pronouns in public schools.
In 2023, a handful of legal disputes arose out of public school teachers refusing — for religious reasons — to comply with policies requiring them to use a student’s preferred pronouns. The teachers claimed enforcement of such policies violated their religious liberty rights, while school districts argued that granting exceptions to the policy would jeopardize student well-being and undermine the schoool’s commitment to nondiscrimination.
In April, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an Indiana high school music teacher’s claim that his dismissal for refusing to use transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns violated his religious liberty rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Then in August, the appeals court vacated that ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Groff v. DeJoy clarifying the standard for establishing that an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on an employer (see #3 above). The appeals court returned the case to the trial court to reconsider under that new standard.
Meanwhile, in December, a sharply divided Virginia Supreme Court revived a teacher’s claim that his religious liberty rights were violated when he was fired for refusing to comply with policy requiring him to use a student’s preferred pronouns. The case had been dismissed by a lower court, but the state’s Supreme Court held that under state law a religious accommodation can only be denied if the religious exercise in question “is an overt act against peace and good order,” a standard the dissent argues is improper and nearly impossible to meet. Similar cases seem certain to make their way through federal and state courts in 2024.
Stay tuned as we enter 2024, as we see where these stories continue and where new ones arise.