Post written with Daniel Bennett
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has not appeared to shy away from hearing cases involving religion: this term it was Holt v. Hobbs and Reed v. Town of Gilbert, and last term it was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. But is this attention to religion an anomaly, or indicative of a larger trend?
Using a new search engine, we searched for oral arguments that mention the religion clauses of the First Amendment (the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause). The graphs below show the number of cases mentioning each clause per year, and then the total number of cases since 1950.
Here are three takeaways:
- Cases mentioning the religion clauses swelled during the 1980s. One explanation for this is the rise of the Christian Right during this period, a movement that tends to emphasize protecting religion in the public square.
- Aside from one spike during the 2000s, neither clause has been mentioned in more than two cases per year in the 21st century. In the 1980s, such a year would have been an outlier.
- Over time, the Establishment Clause has garnered mentions in nearly twice as many cases as the Free Exercise Clause. And cases mentioning the Free Exercise Clause have led the way only in only two years, compared to 19 years for the Establishment Clause.
So while the Supreme Court has indeed been paying attention to religion lately, this is in no way a new phenomenon. And according to these graphs, this trend of attention is actually on par with average levels over the past 50 years.
In other words, the Court’s recent attention to religion is not that impressive.
Daniel Bennett, PhD, researches the conservative legal movement. He is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University. You can follow him on twitter at @BennettDaniel.