Chief Justice John Roberts

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Who gets to define 'sin'? Press caught up in debate over a narrow freedom of 'worship'

Who gets to define 'sin'? Press caught up in debate over a narrow freedom of 'worship'

Long ago, the mid-1980s to be precise, I covered a Colorado dispute involving religious freedom. The spark that lit the fuse was a state tax official's decision to rule that the "worship" that took place inside church doors was "religious," and thus tax exempt, while what happened inside non-profit religious ministries (think day-care centers) was not truly "religious."

This claim produced a scream of legal rage from leaders in religious denominations and groups, both on the left and right. Everyone agreed that state officials had no right to get entangled (there is that word again) in determining what was "religious" and what was not (outside the usual limits of fraud, profit and clear threat to life and health). The state was not supposed to decide that "worship" was religious, while caring for children (and teaching them Bible lessons) was not.

Obviously, America has evolved since then, especially on issues linked to the doctrines of the Sexual Revolution. The latest round of Obamacare debates at the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to have focused on this question: Can churches and other houses of worship decide what is "sin" for members of their voluntary associations, while doctrinally defined ministries and schools cannot make this kind of ruling?

I would add to that last sentence: These religious ministries and schools cannot defend their own doctrines defining "sin," even for employees and/or students who have -- to join this religious association -- voluntarily signed covenants in which they promise to live by these doctrines (or at least not to publicly attack them). In other words, the state now gets to define what is "sin" for these employees/students, not the doctrinally defined ministries and schools they have voluntarily joined.

I cannot find a mainstream news report about this Obamacare debate that even mentions these doctrinal covenants, so it is safe to assume (a) that journalists do not know (or care) that they exist or (b) that the freedom to form voluntary associations no longer applies to religious groups, outside of actual houses of worship.

How do you read this passage from The New York Times, containing a key quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy?

On this point, at least, Justice Kennedy seemed to take the government’s side. “It’s going to be very difficult for this court to write an opinion which says that once you have a church organization” entitled to an exemption, “you have to treat a religious university the same.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Los Angeles Times omits a key (ghost!) detail in John Roberts retrospective

The Los Angeles Times omits a key (ghost!) detail in John Roberts retrospective

One odd innovation during the most recent GOP presidential candidates debate was how many candidates trashed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Wasn’t he the savior for all conservatives some 10 years ago? Didn’t he trash the recent majority ruling on same-sex marriage in June?

Which is why I was interested to read a recent Los Angeles Times story on Roberts’ fall from grace, as it were. 

Several publications ran similar 10th anniversary pieces on Roberts' ascent to the high court this past week. The chief justice, by the way, just turned 60, so his influence on the court should last at least another 20 years, if he sticks around as long as some of the current 80-something justices.

Here is a crucial section of the Los Angeles Times piece. Might there be a crucial element of his work and worldview missing?

When a divided Supreme Court handed down six major rulings in the last week of June, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. came down firmly on the conservative side in five of them.
He voted against gay marriage, in favor of weakening a federal law against racial bias in housing and for the Arizona Republicans who challenged the state’s independent panel that draws election districts. He joined 5-4 majorities to block an Obama administration clean-air rule and to uphold a state's use of substitute drugs to carry out lethal injections.
But as Roberts this week marks the 10th anniversary of becoming chief ustice, he finds himself in the cross hairs of right-leaning pundits and GOP presidential hopefuls who brand him a disappointment and openly question his conservative credentials because of the one case of the six in which he voted with the court’s liberals.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Once again, I was on the road when all heckfire broke out on the religion-news beat, leaving other GetReligionistas to dive into the breach after the U.S. Supreme Court's long-predicted 5-4 decision -- complete with majority opinion sermon from Justice Anthony Kennedy -- approving same-sex marriage from coast to coast.

Much of the coverage was a celebratory as one could have expected in this post-Kellerism age, especially in the broadcast news coverage.

Click here for an online summary of that from the conservative Media Research Center which, to its credit, offered readers transcripts of some of the broadcast items so they could read the scripts for themselves and look for signs of journalistic virtues such as fairness and balance. A sign of things to come? Among the major networks, the most balanced presentations on this story were at NBC. Will that draw protests to NBC leaders?

At the time of the ruling, I was attending a meeting that included some lawyers linked to Christian higher education, one of the crucial battleground areas in American life in the wake of this ruling. There, and online, it quickly became apparent that the key to the decision -- in terms of religious liberty -- is whether one accepts Kennedy's general, not-very-specific acceptance of First Amendment freedoms linked to religion or whether, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, one noted that Kennedy left unsaid.

Journalists must note this, if they want to prepare for the next round of battles in -- as described in previous coverage of the HHS mandate wars -- the tense church-state territory located between the secular market place and actual religious sanctuaries. That middle ground? Voluntary associations that are defined by stated doctrines, while interacting with public life to one degree or another. Think colleges, schools, hospitals, day-care centers, parachurch ministries, adoption agencies that have, for students and staffs, doctrinal covenants that define their common lives and teachings.

Think Little Sisters of the Poor. Think Gordon College.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

On same-sex marriage: What is the chief justice thinking?

People who study the dynamics of this U.S. Supreme Court have, from the get-go, assumed two or three things about Chief Justice John Roberts.

Please respect our Commenting Policy