THREE INTERESTING court cases were in the news last week, and they have a common thread. In each case, the courts were asked to settle controversies arising when religious belief and government policy appear to be at odds.
* The first case, decided Tuesday by the Supreme Court, involved the Amish and the Social Security tax. The plaintiff in the case is a member of the Old Order Amish sect, which believes that there is a religiously based obligation to provide to other members of the sect the same benefits and assistance most of us expect from Social Security. Because of this conviction, the Amish believe that both payment of taxes and receipt of benefits under the Social Security program are forbidden by their faith.
In an effort to accommodate this view, Congress has provided a special exemption from the Social Security tax for self-employed persons holding such a religious conviction. However, the exemption does not apply to employers, who--notwithstanding their own beliefs--are obligated to withhold employee taxes and to pay the employer share.
A unanimous Supreme Court held that such a law is perfectly constitutional even though it may impose a burden on religion. "To maintain an organized society that guarantees religious freedom to a great variety of faiths," wrote the chief justice, "requires that some religious practices yield to the common good. . . . Because the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such a high order, religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the tax."
* The second case involves Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the university should be denied tax-exempt status because it engages in racial discrimination, which, university officials contend, is an article of religious faith. There are some black students at Bob Jones, but the university prohibits interracial dating or marriage and would expel a student who broke these rules. While federal courts have already decided that tax-exempt status may be denied to institutions that engage in practices --such as racial discrimination--which are against public policy, they have never squarely addressed the question of whether religious belief is ever a defense for such conduct.
* Finally, Georgetown University has been taken to court by two homosexual student organizations demanding the right to receive student activity funds. Last week, in Superior Court, Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy testified that while the university does not discriminate against homosexuals, financial support of their organizations would constitute endorsement and would violate the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In all three cases, the courts must strike a balance between First Amendment freedoms and the public policy of secular governments. Any decisions will be controversial, because they involve questions of religion, justice and social policy about which most Americans feel deeply and personally. Judges charged with this responsibility would be well advised to clasp the Constitution and pray for guidance.