Monday, November 5, 2012
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit ruled in In re Navy Chaplaincy that Navy chaplains have standing to lodge their Establishment Clause claims against the Navy's chaplain promotion policies. The court also ruled that the lower court issued insufficient factual findings for it to review the chaplains' likelihood of success on the merits in evaluating their motion for a preliminary injunction. The court thus reversed the lower court ruling and remanded for further findings. In short, the ruling means that the case will go back to the lower court for additional findings related to one of the chaplains' Establishment Clause claims on their motion for a preliminary injunction.
The chaplains argued that Navy policies violated the Establishment Clause in two ways. First, they argued that the Navy improperly delegated government authority over promotion decisions to a religious entity by allowing chaplains themselves to make promotion decisions without sufficient, secular standards. Next, they argued that the Navy's promotion procedure--small selection boards, secret votes, and the appointment of the Chief of Chaplains as president--have resulted in denominational discrimination and, if not, will likely result in such discrimination in the future.
The district court ruled that the chaplains lacked standing (because they alleged future speculative harms, not imminent harms) and that they were unlikely to succeed on either substantive claim. It thus dismissed the case and alternatively rejected the chaplains' motion for a preliminary injunction.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. It ruled that the chaplains had standing, because they challenged actual policies that the Navy planned to use in the future, and because at least some chaplains will probably appear before selection boards in the near future. Comparing the case to City of Los Angeles v. Lyons the court wrote, "Unlike in other cases, like Lyons, where plaintiffs speculated about the very existence of the unwritten discriminatory practices at issue, here the Navy acknowledges that the challenged policies and procedures not only exist, but will continue to govern the conduct of future selection boards." Op. at 9.
The court agreed with the district court that the chaplains were unlikely to succeed on their first substantive claim--the one about delegation of authority to a religious entity without standards. (The court wrote that there were standards, making this case a "far cry from the 'standardless' delegation scheme at issue in [Larkin v. Grendel's Den, Inc.]." Op. at 14. But the court said that the lower court didn't issue sufficient facts for it to evaluate the second claim--the one about the likely discriminatory effects of the promotion procedure. It thus remanded the case for findings on this claim.