(RNS) — If culture war is your thing, the U.S. Supreme Court just made your week. In three successive decisions, the court’s conservative majority ensured that the country’s faith-based divide will deepen in the years to come.
On Tuesday there was Carson v. Makin, a case involving the state of Maine’s policy of paying private schools to educate secondary school students in parts of the state where middle schools and high schools are too far away. Advancing a line of cases that has put religious schools on the same footing as non-religious ones, the court decided that the state could no longer exclude them from the program.
Maine’s concern, it turns out, was not that a religious school might inflict its theological tenets on students but that it might discriminate against them based on gender identity and sexual orientation. At least, in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision, the state passed an amendment to its education law barring such discrimination on the part of any private school receiving public funds.
And, lo and behold, the schools in question said they wouldn’t take the money under those conditions. I’m betting, however, that a lawsuit will be filed challenging the amendment. And that there will be states that take advantage of the decision to make funds available to religious schools without anti-discriminatory restrictions.
Handed down on Thursday was New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, by which the justices tossed out New York’s century-old policy of requiring those who want to carry a concealed handgun outside their homes to demonstrate a “proper cause” for doing so. Nope, said the court, the Second Amendment gives citizens a constitutional right to concealed carry.
In response to the decision, an angry Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that she would call a special session of the state legislature to hem in the decision with rules regarding background checks and other limits that, she hopes, pass constitutional muster. But you can be sure that there are states with now-forbidden concealed carry rules that won’t follow New York’s suit.
Finally, on Friday, with Dobbs v. Jackson, the court declared that women no longer have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion, a right they’d enjoyed for half a century. Even if Justice Samuel Alito’s draft of the decision had not been leaked to Politico two months ago, this decision had been widely anticipated, with red states passing increasingly restrictive laws on abortion and blue states ramping up protections for it. There’s now every reason to expect more of the same from both sides.
Of course, it’s not only that the gulf between red and blue states will deepen on religious liberty, guns and abortion. Cultural combat will intensify in many places — at the ballot box, in state legislatures, in the courts.
How much further the Supreme Court will go to advance the conservative social agenda is anyone’s guess. In his concurrence in Dobbs, Clarence Thomas singles out prior decisions on contraception, sodomy and same-sex marriage as ripe for reconsideration. As of now, abortion law is in the hands of the states, but there’s no shortage of pro-lifers who would like to ban it nationally.
In that regard, it may be instructive to recall that back in the year 313, Christians were overjoyed when the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion to one and all. But having established their spiritual dominance by the end of the century, they did not hesitate to get the emperors to bring the hammer down on all faiths but their own.
Today, conservative activists are feeling their oats, and they’re definitely in the mood to bring the hammer down.