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Report on Two US Supreme Court Cases Impacting Adventists

Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Three recent decisions handed down by the US Supreme Court before its summer recess have significant implications for issues frequently covered by Spectrum—religious liberty, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice in college admissions policies. Last week, I wrote about Groff v. DeJoy, which opens the door to enhanced protections for employees wishing religious accommodations in the workplace. But two other recent cases have also interested Adventists and elicited varying responses from the Adventist Church itself and concerned members.

Adventists Respond to 303 Creative v. Elenis

On June 30, the Supreme Court gave its decision on 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case about whether a Colorado state law can prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Lawyers for Lorie Smith, a website designer, argued that the anti-discrimination law would force Smith, if requested, to create wedding websites for same-sex couples against her beliefs, which would violate her free speech rights. In a 6-3 decision split between the liberal and conservative justices, the court sided with Smith, saying that her work producing websites is protected by the First Amendment and that forcing her to serve all patrons equates to the government compelling speech.

In the leadup to oral arguments, many religious and advocacy groups expressed their opinions on the case. The General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, along with several evangelical groups, joined an amicus brief from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The brief sided with Smith and asked the court to invalidate anti-discrimination laws such as Colorado’s. “Our culture and our politics have become increasingly polarized, leading to regulations and policies that would force minority voices to choose between violating their conscience or being pushed from the public square,” it said.

Not all Adventist groups agreed. Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum, joined with SDA Kinship International and several dozen concerned Adventist individuals to ask the court to protect anti-discrimination laws. Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP, acting as pro bono counsel, filed the brief in August of last year. “We’re truly honored to present amici’s perspective on marriage to the Supreme Court and to relay their concern that allowing discrimination against same-sex couples actually undermines religious freedom and opens the door to other forms of harmful discrimination,” Curtis partner Juan Perla said at the time.

The brief asserted that though the General Conference endorsed the opinion authored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, its view “does not represent the views of many Adventists.”

While the court’s majority brought to fruition the result advocated for by the GC, an interesting detail in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent appears to reference a passage from the Adventist Forum et al. brief. Sotomayor discusses the hypothetical example of a photography business refusing to take corporate headshots of women because the owner believes a woman’s place is in the home—an example originally given in that document. On page 28 of the dissent, she writes:

If the business offers school photos, it may not deny those services to multiracial children because the owner does not want to create any speech indicating that interracial couples are acceptable. If the business offers corporate headshots, it may not deny those services to women because the owner believes a woman’s place is in the home. And if the business offers passport photos, it may not deny those services to Mexican Americans because the owner opposes immigration from Mexico.

Following the decision, many legal experts have raised alarms about the potential implications for the LGBTQ community. “While Smith asserted religion as her motivation, this is a speech case, so it won’t matter whether business owners are motivated to discriminate by sincere religious values, secular bigotry, or no reason at all,” wrote law professor Elizabeth Sepper. “Antidiscrimination law equally will be seen as targeting their speech. They may deny service and post ‘No Gay Weddings Served,’ reminiscent of the ‘No Dogs or Jews’ signs in businesses of our not-so-distant past.”

The decision is a “devastating blow to members of the LGBTQ community,” said Juan Perla, “especially to those who are themselves people of faith, because it allows businesses to stigmatize and demean their relationships by subjecting them to unequal treatment.”

Alexander Carpenter, executive director of Adventist Forum and editor of Spectrum, reflected on the impact for communities such as Adventism. “This ruling continues a wedge-driving legal approach to the tensions that exist in religious communities around ethical issues,” he said. “The brief that Curtis submitted on our behalf offered a constructive framework that recognized the reality that many people of faith reject these political divisions.”

Affirmative Action Ruling Threatens Diversity Work

In another impactful decision delivered at the end of June, the Supreme Court said race can no longer be used as a factor in college admissions. Since the civil rights movement, affirmative action policies have sought to help alleviate the effects of racism on the education system and establish diversity as a compelling educational good that benefits all students. Proponents say that race-conscious admissions help to make up for a lack of minority representation due to historical inequality, while opponents have criticized such policies as perpetuating their own form of racism. Again through a 6-3 split, the court ruled that the policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Center for Law and Public Policy at Washington Adventist University and Liberty Magazine hosted a discussion on June 30 about Adventist responses to affirmative action and other recent Supreme Court rulings.

John Ashmeade, the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty associate director for the Atlantic Union Conference, expressed concern over the effects of the decision, citing the empowering role of education in three generations of his own family’s history of overcoming adversity in both Jamaica and the US. “This is the opportunity that education provides,” he said. “For the court to take the position that they are going to limit these kinds of opportunities going forward, I think, is troubling. It really highlights for us that elections matter.” Reflecting on the majority’s assertion that affirmative action is no longer necessary, he added, “It is an arbitrary decision [to end affirmative action now] that has been made without looking at the context of the pervasiveness of racism that continues in this country.” 

Nicholas Miller, an attorney and professor who specializes in church-state issues, pointed out how Adventist views toward political engagement have changed since the church’s founding. “For the last 50 to 75 years, Adventists have generally been very quiescent and quiet in terms of political engagement,” he said, “much less [engaged] than our pioneers who were very active in abolition, anti-slavery, anti-racism, anti-alcohol—engaged not just in the public square but in political processes themselves.” Miller also suggested that Adventists have not been as active on affirmative action issues because some prominent schools such as Andrews University and La Sierra University rank among the most diverse in the United States. “We have created a community that is diverse,” he said. “And yet, we need to have that diversity reflected more in our public policy positions and in our advocacy for our membership on these questions.”

The affirmative action decision coming down on the same day as Groff v. DeJoy—which Adventists have been celebrating for enhancing Sabbath worship protections for employees—“forced us to think more broadly about how we as Adventists relate not just to our own religious freedom but to the civil liberties of many of our members,” Miller said.

Bettina Krause, editor of Liberty Magazine, also emphasized the need for action and reflection that accompanies diversity. “We are a diverse religious community. We are politically, we are racially diverse. So, the views of our members are all over the place on this issue. We may disagree on what the most effective way forward is to address these issues of basic justice and equality, but what we cannot do as Seventh-day Adventists is to back away from the issue and refuse to engage with it,” she said. “As Adventists, that’s our mandate. I think we need to get busy.”

Ashmeade concurred about the opportunity for Adventists to engage with social issues and suggested that Adventist education has an imperative to pursue this mission in spite of the court’s decision. “There is nothing more powerful [in] lifting someone from a condition of poverty than to educate them. And we have a full educational system that is set up to do just that thing,” he said. “We should seek those who have been disenfranchised and bring them into our community and open opportunities for them to build on. To me, that is fulfilling the mission of the gospel.”


Alex Aamodt is editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here

Title image by Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.

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