American courts give good and bad news for Humanists

  • post Type / Members and partners
  • Date / 12 January 2012

Two court decisions announced this week have received contrasting responses from American Humanists. A decision ordering the removal of a religious banner from a state school in Rhode Island was applauded by Humanists, whereas a Supreme Court decision to exempt religious groups from laws against employment discrimination was strongly criticized.

Prayer banner banned

The order to remove a prayer banner from a public high school in Rhode Island was issued on January 10 by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux. The banner, hanging in the auditorium of Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, is labeled “School Prayer” and begins with “Our Heavenly Father”.

The suit was brought by school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the ruling supports her claim that the banner violates church-state separation legal principles.

“We are so proud of Jessica for fighting to protect church-state separation,” said American Humanist Association (AHA) executive director Roy Speckhardt. “She recognized injustice, stood up for what is right, and persevered in the face of harassment. She fought for the rights of nonbelievers and religious minorities and is an example for everyone.”

Judge Lagueux stated in the ruling that the “guiding principle” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is “government neutrality” and that “no amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.”

The judge also noted that the open meeting conducted to get public input about Ahlquist’s request to remove the banner “at times resembled a religious revival.” In addition, Lagueux rejected the claim that the banner should stay for reasons of tradition—because it had been there since 1959—stating that “no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.”

Religious discrimination

On January 11, the US Supreme Court ruled against a teacher at a religious school who was fired from her job in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When she threatened to bring suit under the ADA, the school claimed a suit would violate a religious requirement that internal disputes not be brought before courts.

The AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, urging the Court to apply federal anti-discrimination statutes to all employers.

“Today, the Supreme Court has read the First Amendment’s Religions Clauses as giving religious employers a special right to violate the law,” said the AHA’s legal coordinator Bill Burgess, attorney and the AHA’s legal coordinator. “In doing so, it has undermined the principle that we are all, secular and religious alike, equally required to comply with the law. Federal statutes banning employment discrimination embody and protect a critical and hard-won democratic value: equality of opportunity for all Americans. This protection has now been lost by those who work for religious organizations.”

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