America promises its citizens in the First Amendment that they will always be free to practice their religious beliefs in public and private. Thirty years ago, all that changed when the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Employment Division v. Smith case. Together we asked the court to restore this sacred promise.
As one of the litigants in this case, Galen Black knows how damaging it can be when the promise of religious freedom is broken. After serving in the Navy, Galen struggled with addiction, tried and failed to find sobriety. Although he has been sober for 40 years now, his life changed after working in a treatment center that introduced him to Native American spirituality.
There he learned about the interconnectedness of life. His participation in religious ceremonies like the sweat lodge helped him find sobriety and a stronger spiritual connection. His religious practice saved his life. In return, he joined the State of Oregon as an addiction counselor to provide much needed treatment programs for substance abuse.
But in an ironic twist of fate, Galen’s faith cost him his job. Officials in Oregon found that the use of peyote-a non-addictive substance extracted from cacti-was not consistent with his employment as part of his Native American religion. Then as now, many officials do not understand the long history of discrimination against Native American religion and the use of peyote for addiction treatment.
Unfortunately, when the Oregon Supreme Court approved the Oregon decision to dismiss Galen in the Employment Division, it was aimed precisely at the promise of religious freedom found in the First Amendment. The case has now been used to prevent a Jehovah’s Witness from receiving a liver transplant in a manner that protected both her health and faith, to justify the dismissal of a Sikh woman for wearing a kirpan for religious reasons, to deny relief to a Hmong family whose son was defiled after his tragic death, and in perhaps hundreds of other situations where religious practice has been downgraded to second-class status.
In Philadelphia, the same judgment is used to prevent two black women from providing a loving home for children, 80 percent of whom are minority children. They work with a foster care agency that affirms their Catholic faith and are excluded because city officials want the Catholic Church to start supporting marriages they cannot approve. But the City of Philadelphia says it must change its faith if it wants to partner with the city to find homes for its most needy children.
Whether or not you agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, which is similar to the teaching of many Indian tribes and still applies to Indian history, Indian history proves that there is no good in restricting religious practices just because they are unpopular or poorly understood by those in power. State officials do not have the right to privilege one religious belief and exclude another, while calling themselves “neutral” and “tolerant.
Fortunately, in the case of Fulton v. the City of Philadelphia, the Supreme Court will reconsider its decision in the employment department after 30 long years. Galen and the First Liberty Institute have joined forces to remind the court of the importance of keeping the promises of the First Amendment. The judges seem willing to give due consideration to this decision.
Just a few weeks ago, Judge Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued a statement in which they disagreed with the court’s decision to refuse to review a case outside the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “By deciding to give preference to a novel constitutional right over the interests of religious freedom, which are explicitly protected in the First Amendment,” the judges stated, “and by acting undemocratically, the court has created a problem that only it can solve.
Galen Black found well-being, connection and power through a religious practice that the state of Oregon thought was not worthy of consideration. Thirty years ago, U.S. Supreme Court judges who were out of reach of democratic accountability and beyond the will of their