Analysis Law and Policy

How a Decades-Old Decision Shows the Supreme Court’s Shift Toward White Christian Supremacy

Kira Shepherd

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, which the Court cited in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Right Commission, actually supports the argument that the Court should have ruled against the travel ban because of Trump's comments made against Muslims.

Falling in line with the Trump administration, the U.S. Supreme Court has appeared to embrace the idea of white Christian supremacy—the view that conservative Christianity and mainstream white culture are superior to other religious systems and cultural norms, respectively. It has done so at the expense of more democratic values that reflect the United States as an inclusive, diverse society founded on a commitment to equality and liberty.

This term, the Court allowed racist gerrymandering in Texas and sided with a number of Christian-affiliated anti-choice organizations that withhold critical information from patients seeking reproductive care. Two cases in particular clearly show the Court has shifted toward Christian white supremacist values: Trump v. Hawaii (the travel ban case) and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Right Commission (the case of a baker refusing to serve a gay couple). But the case that actually highlights how much the Court’s norms have shifted is more than two decades old: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.

In Trump v. Hawaii, the Court willfully overlooked the overtly discriminatory comments Trump made about Muslims in deciding that the travel ban was constitutional. Only a few weeks earlier, the Court ruled in favor of a white Christian baker in Masterpiece Cakeshop based on evidence that a member of the Civil Rights Commission made comments that, in the Court’s view, showed religious animus toward him. The Court rested its decision in Masterpiece on Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. Ironically, Lukumi has more similarities to the travel ban case than to Masterpiece—and it actually supports the argument that the Court should have ruled against the travel ban because of the comments made against Muslims, a religious minority group.

In Lukumi, practitioners of the Santeria religion challenged three ordinances that had been passed by the City Council of Hialeah, Florida. Lukumi is an ancient religion that originated in Southern Nigeria. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, many of its practitioners were enslaved and brought to Cuba, where their religious practice was outlawed. To avoid the stigma and social penalties that came with practicing their religion in a land ruled by Christians, Lukumi devotees disguised their faith through the use of Catholic saints and symbolism. These devotees brought their religion to Florida in the 1950s and ’60s.

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In the late 1980s, followers of Lukumi sought to establish a church in the city of Hialeah. Subsequently, the city passed several ordinances prohibiting animal sacrifice. Because sacrifice is a central practice of Lukumi devotee, these ordinances would have essentially prohibited them from practicing in Florida. The Church accused the city of violating its practitioners’ religious freedom rights; the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. The Court held that the city had done so, basing part of its decision on comments made by councilmembers that it found to be blatantly hostile toward the Lukumi religion.

The type of blatant hostility that the Hialeah City Councilmembers displayed towards a religious minority group (many of whom were also immigrants) bears a far greater resemblance to the Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric motivating the travel ban than the comments made by the Civil Rights Commission in Masterpiece. However, under a Trump-era Supreme Court, these facts mean little because the Court is now upholding a new set of U.S. values.

For example, one member of Hialeah City Council stated at a public council meeting that “people were put in jail for practicing” the Lukumi religion in Cuba, which was met by applause from those present. Another council member stated in the same meeting that Lukumi devotees “are in violation of everything this country stands for.” Moreover, the president of the city council asked what it could do to “prevent the Church from opening.”

These comments resemble some of the comments made by Trump about Muslims, including “Islam hates us” and “[y]ou’re going to have to watch and study the mosques, because a lot of talk is going on at the mosques,” as well as a public statement released by his campaign that announced, “Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

In contrast, the statement made by the commissioner from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the agency that previously handled the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, was that religious freedom had been “used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust …  And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.” This comment doesn’t target religion at all; it is simply a factual statement. However, the Trump-era Court deemed this statement, when directed at a white Christian male, as hostile toward religion, while ignoring the overtly malevolent statements that Trump made about Muslims.

Lastly, the religious practitioners in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye and the travel ban case are predominantly people of color. The majority of Lukumi devotees are Afro-Cubans, and the Muslims targeted in Trump’s travel ban are from African and Arab nations. Both groups have been victims of colorism, racism, and xenophobia rooted in white supremacy and nationalism. These groups are particularly vulnerable to racial discrimination and animus and the Court should scrutinize such discrimination when considering whether a government official treats a member or members of these groups in a hostile manner. On the other hand, the religious practitioner in Masterpiece was white and has therefore not endured historical racial discrimination and oppression in the United States. He does not need special protection from the Court, but was apparently given it.

At a time when many in the United States fear the undemocratic policies that are coming out of the White House, some had hoped that the Court would use its power to protect the most vulnerable. The Court, instead, decided to follow the lead of an administration that is rooted in white Christian supremacy, shifting itself further to the right. In the process, it made already marginalized groups even more vulnerable. And now that Justice Kennedy has retired, things will only become worse.

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Human Rights, Politics, Supreme Court

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