Near the end of the first “Star Wars” movie, just before the Millennium Falcon is about to jump into hyperspace, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker find themselves in a dogfight with some of the Empire’s pesky little jets (called TIE Fighters, if you care). Luke scores a couple of “kills” and is jubilant, but Han Solo brings him back to earth (or Alderaan, or wherever) with a line that has become one of the enduring memes from this classic movie: “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.”
I thought about this scene as I was tempted to gloat over some recent court decisions that favor religious liberty.
Take, for example, the 7-2 decision by the Supreme Court that Trinity Lutheran Church could, in fact, accept material provided by the state for its playground. Lower court rulings said that supporting the church in this way was preferential treatment of the church and amounted to the “establishment” of one religion over another. The High Court said that Trinity Lutheran received no benefit not available to all other nonprofit organizations, and that it should not be excluded merely because it was a religious organization.
Additionally, the High Court agreed to hear the case of Colorado cakemaker Jack Philips. Philips believes that making a cake for a same-sex ceremony amounts to affirming or participating in the event, and he has refused to do so. Two men filed an anti-discrimination complaint against him, and the case has been winding its way through the legal process for the past couple of years. It appears to many court observers that Philips has a strong case and that the outcome could set precedent for many similar cases now in lower courts or before commissions in towns and counties across the country.
In deciding a North Carolina case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected an appeal of the lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s Senate Bill 2, also known as the “Magistrates Bill.” This 2015 law says magistrates and registers of deeds employees can, according to NC Family (formerly the North Carolina Family Policy Council), “recuse themselves from performing duties related to marriages due to a sincerely held religious belief.”
John Rustin, NC Family’s president, said, “This is a significant victory for religious freedom. Senate Bill 2 ensures that the fundamental religious liberties of magistrates and registers of deed’s staff are accommodated and protected, and this ruling acknowledges that the government cannot force public servants to surrender those rights simply because they seek a job that allows them to serve their fellow citizens.”
These victories are welcome, especially after a long string of significant defeats, including the 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the February 2017 Washington Supreme Court decision against florist Baronelle Stutzman’s objection to participating in a same-sex ceremony.
But it is too early to declare victory and go home. Jack Philips, for example, hasn’t yet won his case. He was merely given the opportunity to make his case. I would also add, as someone who has been writing about religious liberty cases for more than 20 years, this arena of the law resembles nothing so much as a game of Whac-a-Mole. About the time you whack one of these cases back into the hole from which it came, another case pops up elsewhere.
We should note, too, that those on the other side of these cases include the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, and—sadly—our own government, using hate-speech or anti-discrimination laws as their excuses for pouring virtually unlimited legal firepower into the cases.
All of which takes me back to where I started, to make this observation: While these recent religious liberty victories are welcome, we should not revel in them. Rather, we should consider these victories a brief reprieve, a moment in which we can prepare for the next fight.
The Empire will strike back. In the words of Han Solo, “Don’t get cocky.”
Image courtesy of YouTube.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.