Barry McNamara  |   Published July 14, 2021

Supreme Study

Monmouth College students focus on ‘landmark’ Supreme Court case on religion.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – When the United States Supreme Court made its ruling last month on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a group of Monmouth College students was among those paying very close attention to the landmark case.

LANDMARK CASE: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia drew plenty of interest in Washington, D.C. (pictur... LANDMARK CASE: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia drew plenty of interest in Washington, D.C. (pictured), as well as in the Monmouth classroom of political science professor Andre Audette.As they have for three consecutive spring semesters, students in political science professor Andre Audette’s “Constitutional Law” class were assigned to monitor a current case before the Supreme Court, writing final papers that offered a legal decision on the case as well as the students’ prediction about how the Court would decide the case.

This year’s case was Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, in which a Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia refused to place foster children in the homes of same-sex couples. In response, the City of Philadelphia canceled the contract with the Catholic agency, which the agency claimed was a violation of its exercise of religion.

“The Supreme Court agreed and said that the City of Philadelphia’s laws were not ‘neutral and generally applicable,’ instead targeting CSS on the basis of their religious beliefs,” said Audette. “Despite some widespread division on the court about religious liberty issues, the case was decided unanimously in favor of Fulton and CSS.”

One of Audette’s students, Riley Dulin ’22 of Monmouth, is an accounting major who said he chose to enroll in the class because of his interest in U.S. history and contemporary politics.

“After reading the Supreme Court’s verdict, I agreed with the ultimate decision that sided with Catholic Social Services, but I did not agree with the Court’s reasoning,” said Dulin, touching on an issue upon which Audette elaborated.

“This was one of the main takeaways I had from taking Andre’s class – the reality that the reasoning behind a verdict is just as important as the side that the Court chooses.” Riley Dulin

“A second issue in the case caused more division among the justices: whether the Supreme Court should overturn the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith, a case in which the Court denied relief to two individuals who claimed a religious exemption from drug laws prohibiting the use of the drug peyote,” said Audette.

The Smith case was extremely controversial, and many legal commentators across the political spectrum have criticized the decision. Three associate justices – Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas – indicated that they would have overturned Smith, while the other six justices decided not to revisit it at this time.

“The concurring opinion by Alito was extremely lengthy and will likely be a point of conversation and citation for all free exercise cases to come,” said Audette. “The most telling comment is where Alito wrote ‘this decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops.’ Alito and his two colleagues suggest that the court will likely see many more of these types of cases in the future, as the Supreme Court remains somewhat unclear on the test used to decide cases on religion.”

“Moving forward, this will be one of the landmark cases on religion. It will have major impacts on how legislators try to write laws and the role of religion.” Andre Audette

Dulin said: “Personally, I felt like the Court’s decision to pursue unanimity from all the justices at the expense of not addressing Employment Division v. Smith was a mistake, and thus Smith remains as precedent, which sets a high bar for religious individuals and institutions to clear when alleging violation of their rights. This was one of the main takeaways I had from taking Andre’s class – the reality that the reasoning behind a verdict is just as important as the side that the Court chooses.”

Audette believes his students were exposed to a “landmark case.”

“Moving forward, this will be one of the landmark cases on religion,” he said. “It will have major impacts on how legislators try to write laws and the role of religion – via social services, hospitals, schools, employees, etc. – in debates over anti-discrimination in public life.”

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