Our Top Stories: Ten Prominent Church-State Flaps From 2015

Here's a list of the top church-state stories from 2015.

As 2015 winds down, you’ll encounter a lot of lists – best movies of the year, what’s hot and what’s not and so on. Well, here’s our version of that: a list of what we at “The Wall of Separation” consider to be the Top Ten church-state stories of 2015:

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds marriage equality; Religious Right backlash is swift and severe. A 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court in June extended marriage equality nationwide. Although nothing in the decision requires houses of worship to perform or even acknowledge such unions, Religious Right groups went ballistic. The ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges also led to a round of “refusal” cases – government officials (such as county clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky) and business owners insisting that they have a religious-freedom right to refuse service to LGBT people. In response, Americans United launched a new project, Protect Thy Neighbor, to assist people whose rights have been denied on religious grounds.

Republican presidential hopefuls play to the Religious Right. GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump unleashed a variety of proposals that would likely violate the First Amendment, including suggestions to shut down mosques and bar Muslims from traveling to the United States. Trump and other Republican hopefuls attempted to placate the Religious Right by making proposals that many observers consider extreme. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) vowed to overturn marriage equality and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said only people of faith should serve as president. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson attacked the teaching of evolution in public schools. Religious issues roiled the race as candidates attempted to appeal to an increasingly far-right party base.

Fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling on legislative prayers accelerates. Communities nationwide grappled with how to implement a 2014 Supreme Court decision permitting local governments to open their meetings with prayers. The high court’s ruling called for diversity, but in some communities, officials attempted to bar Muslims, atheists and others. Americans United filed a lawsuit in Brevard County, Fla., on behalf of a humanist group that wants to give an invocation. In Coolidge, Ariz., AU attorneys persuaded the city council to drop a blatantly discriminatory policy that allowed only Christians to deliver opening prayers.

Courts issue a mixed bag of rulings on school vouchers. The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld that state’s voucher plan, even though most of the money goes to private religious schools. But the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated a plan in Douglas County. In Nevada, legislators passed a wide-reaching, statewide voucher plan. Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging it in court. (In a non-courtroom victory, an attempt to add a sweeping voucher program to a new federal education bill failed.)

Ten Commandments monument is removed from Oklahoma Capitol grounds. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol violated the state constitution and must be removed. State lawmakers grumbled about the matter and have threatened to alter the constitution, but the monument was removed and taken to private property. (The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the lead plaintiff was Bruce Prescott, a former member of the American United Board of Trustees.)

‘Ark Park’ flap in Kentucky goes to court: Creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis filed a federal lawsuit demanding that a fundamentalist-oriented theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark receive a package of tax breaks and financial incentives from the state. Americans United sought to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of taxpayers. Although the court didn’t allow this, it did permit AU to file a brief in the Ark Encounter v. Stewart case.

Efforts to portray crosses as war memorials fail. Controversy arose in the small city of Knoxville, Iowa, after Americans United told officials there to remove a cross from a public park. The cross had been erected without permission and was allegedly a war memorial. The issue dragged on for months before the city council voted to remove the sectarian symbol. A secular monument was subsequently erected. In a separate story, long-running litigation over a towering cross atop a mountain near San Diego came to a close when the land was sold to a private group. Although the cross was originally erected for clearly religious purposes, supporters later claimed it was a war memorial.

Police departments nationwide place “In God We Trust” signs on patrol cars. A fad took hold of police and sheriff’s departments posting “In God We Trust” signs on patrol cars. It’s hard to determine where the trend started, but it had spread to several states by the end of the year. Critics said the signs give the impression that religious people are more important to law enforcement than non-religious ones. Defenders said it’s not a big deal since “In God We Trust” is the national motto.

Creationism controversies continue to plague public schools: Christian fundamentalists continued their efforts to water down the teaching of evolution in public schools. In Maine, a state education official was criticized for promoting creationism. Activist Zack Kopplin found evidence of creationism in many Louisiana public schools. A federal court rejected a strange lawsuit that attempted to ban the teaching of evolution in West Virginia public schools. In Glendive, Mont., officials at a public school called off plans to take third-graders to a local creationist attraction after Americans United wrote a letter of complaint. School officials cancelled the trip but made it clear they weren’t happy about it. Americans United said the incident, and others like it, are proof that anti-evolution forces have not given up, despite a string of courtroom loses.

The Supreme Court rules on two religious-liberty cases. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in two cases concerning individual religious-freedom claims. One case involved a prisoner in Arkansas who wanted to wear a short beard for religious reasons. The other concerned a Muslim woman who was denied a job in an Abercrombie & Fitch store because she wore a headscarf. Americans United pointed out that both of these situations involved religious liberty claims that affected individuals only and that they didn’t infringe on the rights of others.

P.S. “The Wall of Separation” will be on hiatus until Jan. 4. Happy New Year!