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How Far Should The Courts Intervene In Freedom of Religious Exercise?

Dr. Emily Gill
Dr. Emily Gill

A retired Bradley University professor says the Supreme Court is increasingly intervening in religious exercise. 

Dr. Emily Gill is Caterpillar Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bradley University. Her new book, Free Exercise of Religion in the Liberal Policy: Conflicting Interpretations, compares and contrasts two views of religious neutrality.

Formal neutrality involves the government taking a hands-off approach to religion, while substantive neutrality holds that interventions and exemptions are sometimes needed to keep the playing field level. When it comes to the Supreme Court, Gill said there's a clear preference. 

"In my mind, they're leaning towards positive or substantive neutrality. In other words, they think that religion has gotten a raw deal. That religious institutions have gotten a raw deal," she said." 

Gill says recent decisions like a 2014 ruling allowing for-profit corporations to hold religious views, and another decision allowing public funding for a religious school's playground, show the court was moving in a more interventionist direction on religious matters even before conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the court.

She says this interpretation of neutrality may bear on upcoming decisions on LGBT rights expected next June.

For her part, Gill believes there's a better course. 

"I think there are too many religious exemptions, as such, that are given out these days or tend to be given out. In other words, I think there are other ways to reach the same goal," she said. 

For example, the Supreme Court overruled an Oregon law in the 1920s that barred parents from sending children to parochial schools. She said the court's reasoning was that parents have the right to direct their child's education. While the decision benefitted Catholic schools in particular, she said it also didn't carve out an exemption for them. 

Gill said she hopes her book will soon be available in local libraries. 

Listen to WCBU's full interview with Dr. Emily Gill on her new book.

Copyright 2021 WCBU. To see more, visit WCBU.

Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.