The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and UU World are following several U.S. Supreme Court cases this term that address core Unitarian Universalist principles and affect the rights of oppressed groups. The court will issue opinions on the undecided cases by late June, potentially altering the lives of millions of people in profound ways, yet many cases lack media attention commensurate with their impact. To keep our readers informed, we are offering a brief overview of several such cases below.
As Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, recently said, “Decisions by our Supreme Court not only define laws but often end up being moral documents. We hope UUs will inform themselves about key cases in which the court can either advance or obstruct justice and human rights, and use that knowledge to tell the world where our values point us as a progressive people of faith. We all have the power to side with love, to side with the oppressed, and shift the scales toward justice.”
In addition to various links provided following each case summary, you can find a comprehensive list of documents and curated reporting links for any case at SCOTUSblog.com.
Moore v. Harper
Becky Harper, a longtime Unitarian Universalist (UU) and member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., is a party to this vital election law case.
Unitarian Universalism asserts that true democracy must be accessible and equitable for all people and communities.
The case addresses the question of whether state lawmakers alone have the power to determine election maps and rules, or if state courts decide whether state legislation complies with state constitutions and federal law. In 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 along partisan lines to reject a severely gerrymandered map drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature. The court ruled Republican-drawn maps deprived voters of “substantially equal voting power on the basis of partisan affiliation.”
The North Carolina legislature simply argues the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause gives them power that lies beyond judicial review. A ruling validating that claim would enable widespread voter suppression by state legislatures across the country through tactics reaching far beyond gerrymandering.
Unitarian Universalism asserts that true democracy must be accessible and equitable for all people and communities. In a 2019 Statement of Conscience on uncorrupted democracy, UUs affirmed that “government by and for the people formally entails majority rule, with the majority’s power limited by protection of the rights of those in the minority.” Partisan gerrymandering for the sake of political gain by one party is incompatible with our belief in the democratic process--especially when the voting power of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voters is deliberately diminished. Election maps designed to entrench the power of a party rather than enable fair representation violate the intent of the Voting Rights Act and should be subject to judicial review.
Status: After two Republican justices were elected to the state supreme court in 2022 (In 2017, North Carolina’s legislature passed a law requiring candidates to run with partisan affiliations on the ballot), the court promptly recalled the case and, earlier this year, reversed the earlier ruling that SCOTUS was to decide. After the reversal, SCOTUS asked the principals to offer arguments for keeping or dropping the case, which was argued in December of 2022. A ruling may be issued but the Court also may decline to rule.
Learn more: UUWorld.org profiled Becky Harper and the case in December of 2022.
Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina (consolidated cases)
UUs recognize structural racism, its enduring impact on BIPOC communities, and the need for proactive measures to advance equity and justice.
Students for Fair Admissions filed lawsuits claiming the consideration of race as an affirmative action measure in admissions at Harvard and at the University of North Carolina constitutes racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The organization that brought the case claims that white and Asian-American applicants are harmed and that the schools ignore race-neutral alternatives for achieving a diverse student body. The court will decide whether to overrule its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision and outlaw race as a factor in admissions at colleges and universities.
UUs recognize structural racism, its enduring impact on BIPOC communities, and the need for proactive measures to advance equity and justice. In 1979, General Assembly delegates passed a Business Resolution that called for the encouragement of “appropriate public and private affirmative action." Furthermore, we value diverse communities and are working to fulfill commitments to advance racial equity within Unitarian Universalism by affirmatively addressing systemic bias. In our work to bring about institutional change across our association and congregations, we recognize the need to be explicit about race and inequity and to center the voices of BIPOC UUs to fully understand and dismantle the ways bias and oppression continue to live in our institutions. Similarly, we believe school officials should be free to employ affirmative action as a tool to enable student bodies to resemble the population they serve and to advance racial equity.
Haaland v. Brackeen
Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, and individual plaintiffs ask the court to declare the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) unconstitutional. Before the ICWA became law in 1978, Indigenous families regularly and systematically experienced children being removed from their homes and communities without sufficient cause. According to NICWA (National Indian Child Welfare Association), “research found that 25 to 35 percent of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85 percent were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available.”
As a matter of principle, UUs believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In 1998, delegates to the General Assembly supported an Action of Immediate Witness that called for fair treatment of indigenous communities and called on UUs “to urge the United States government to begin a program of reconciliation and renewal [to address historic harm].” Then, in 2012, GA delegates passed a Responsive Resolution that repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, and called on Unitarian Universalism “to expose the historical reality and impact of the Doctrine of Discovery and eliminate its presence in the contemporary policies, programs, theologies, and structures.”
UUs strive to create welcoming communities and congregations and our dedication to justice recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.
ICWA is integral to dismantling that racist legacy. The Act has been successful in helping to prevent the further erosion of the culture of Indigenous communities. Overturning ICWA could undermine efforts by Tribal Nations, Native organizations, and other advocates to protect their sovereignty. To honor the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and to ensure all communities have agency over their own lives and futures, SCOTUS should uphold the constitutionality of the ICWA and protect the sovereignty of tribes and their communities.
Status: In a June 15 ruling, SCOTUS upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act, providing a victory for Native sovereignty.
United States v. Texas
Texas and other states are challenging the priorities of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which directed agents to focus arrests and deportations on people who have committed legal offenses other than just undocumented border crossing. The court will decide whether the states can bring these types of challenges, and if so, whether ICE’s priorities are legal.
UUs strive to create welcoming communities and congregations and our dedication to justice recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, regardless of their nationality or immigration status. In 2013, UUs issued a Statement of Conscience that affirmed “all immigrants, regardless of legal status, should be treated justly and humanely” and called for a moral immigration policy. Additionally, in a 2018 Action of Immediate Witness, delegates to the UUA General Assembly urged UUs across the country to advocate for policies that reduce harm, end family separation, abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and implement an immigration system that understands the causes for migration. We work with partners to organize and advocate for immigration reform, reject the criminalization of immigrant communities, and know that militarized policing is incapable of keeping our communities safe.
303 Creative v. Elenis
The court will decide whether a public accommodation law compelling an “artist” (website designer) to provide services for a gay client violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Lorie Smith, a Colorado website designer doing business as 303 Creative, is preemptively seeking a right to refuse building a wedding website for gay couples (no one had asked for her services). Smith’s position conflicts with the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
UUs are longtime leaders in advancing equal rights for all LGBTQIA+ people and defending against escalating attempts to roll back civil rights advances and other attacks. Public accommodation laws - legal protections of access for all people to places used by the public, whether they are privately or publicly owned - are essential to preventing myriad forms of discrimination and should be upheld.
In 2018, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which sided with a baker who denied service to a gay couple, the UUA’s Uplift blog asserted that “ruling was a reminder of centuries of bigotry and hatred justified in the name of religion.” That is why we signed on to an amicus brief in that case in support of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. And as recently as 2021, in an Action of Immediate Witness, UUs supported human rights and dignity for the LGBTQIA+ community, including public accommodations laws. Allowing a professed religious belief to justify discrimination would endanger hard-won civil rights of not only LGBTQIA+, but BIPOC people, people with disabilities, and others.
Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, et al.
Miguel Perez is a 23-year-old deaf student in Michigan whose school assigned him an aide not trained in sign language or working with deaf students. The school notified Perez’ parents shortly before graduation that he did not qualify to receive a diploma. Perez filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education alleging the school denied him an adequate education, violating federal and state laws.
The SCOTUS weighed only a procedural question of whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act require a student to exhaust all administrative proceedings against the school district even when such proceedings would be futile.
The UUA is dedicated to deepening understanding of disability as an aspect of the human experience, changing society’s prejudices and barriers, and making congregations welcoming for people of all abilities. We strongly support protections like IDEA and are pleased the court unanimously advanced the rights of people with disabilities to enjoy equitable treatment in our schools.
Status: SCOTUS ruled (9-0) that Perez need not have pursued all administrative options to sue.
Arizona v. Navajo Nation
The Navajo Reservation, which spans Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, lies almost entirely within the Colorado River watershed. Rights to the Colorado River’s waters are allocated through a wide range of agreements, and demands exceed supply. In 2003, the Navajo Nation sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies for failure to consider their water rights in managing allocation of the Colorado River’s water. Arizona, Nevada, and several other entities intervened to protect their claims to Colorado River water.
The Navajo Nation argues that the U.S. has a treaty-based duty to plan for and protect its water interests. The various states, including Arizona, are making conflicting claims. The case will determine whether the U.S. Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction over the allocation of waters of the Colorado River.
As noted above, the UUA supports indigenous sovereignty and works broadly to dismantle white supremacy. We believe vigorous enforcement of indigenous treaty rights is a vital obligation of our federal government.