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Supreme Court sides with athletes over the NCAA: What might this ruling tell us about future religious liberty cases?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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A college football player makes a diving catch
© Melinda Nagy/stock.adobe.com

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a ruling that challenged the NCAA’s approach to student athletes, stating that the existing rules violate antitrust laws by placing limits on the education-related benefits that schools can provide.

Yesterday’s decision does not mean that schools can begin outright paying players, giving them luxury cars, or doling out many of the other frivolities and benefits that have gotten universities in trouble in the past. 

In writing the concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh was clear that “the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules also raise serious questions under the antitrust laws.” Kavanaugh went on to add that “the NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

Despite the legalities and logic behind the court’s ruling, however, there are still many who lament their decision as the first step down a path that will fundamentally alter the sports and entertainment they hold so dear. 

But the presence of such concerns, in conjunction with the court’s unanimous decision, offers a helpful insight into how the Supreme Court is supposed to work that could prove important as we look to issues of religious liberty in the years ahead. 

How much does the culture influence the Supreme Court?

When it does its job well, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide cases on the basis of law rather than public opinion. And while religious liberty is clearly a more nebulous concept to many on the court than blatant violations of antitrust laws, it is still encouraging to be reminded that cultural whims do not have the final word on these issues.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that these shifts in NCAA rulings did not occur until they gained momentum with the populace at large. While the law of the land is meant to be above public opinion, the justices are still human. Moreover, because the cases they see have to work their way up through the less-insulated lower courts first, which cases arrive before the Supreme Court is often dictated to some degree by which issues are most important to the masses. 

Twenty years ago, it’s unlikely that challenges to the NCAA’s compensation of student athletes could have gotten the necessary momentum to make it all the way before the country’s most powerful court. But here we stand. 

Recent challenges to religious liberty have often followed a similar course. 

How will the Supreme Court decide religious liberty cases?

Many of the recent cases pertaining to LGBTQ rights, for example, are based on new interpretations of laws that date back much farther than the current outrage. It was only when they began to generate greater public support that they worked their way up through the legal system.

As such, while there is some room for encouragement in remembering that the justices who will ultimately pass judgment on these issues can, and should, be willing to do so in the face of powerful opposition, we should not take for granted that they always will. Moreover, they can only pass judgment on the laws brought before them, meaning what happens further upstream will always dictate, to some extent, the areas of the culture over which they will yield the most influence. 

That’s why the primary lesson we should take from this story is that it is, and always will be, foolish to place our hopes in the hands of other fallen people or the institutions they create. 

And that’s fine. 

In the roughly two thousand years since the time of Christ, God’s people have worked with varying degrees of help or opposition from their government. And while help is usually preferable, it’s not necessary. 

The advancement of his kingdom is not dependent upon friendly courts or laws that align with Scripture. It’s dependent on the faithfulness and obedience of his people. 

That should be good news. 

Is it for you?