Thursday, October 29, 2015

En Banc Sixth Circuit Rejects "Heckler's Veto" in "Bible Believers" Protest at Arab-American Festival

The en banc Sixth Circuit's opinion in Bible Believers v. Wayne County clearly rejected the existence of a "heckler's veto" to inflammatory but protected speech under the First Amendment's speech clause, as well as finding the speech protected under the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The en banc court also found that the government was liable and that there was no qualified immunity.

Recall that last year a panel of the Sixth Circuit rejected the constitutional challenges of the Bible Believers group, affirming the district judge's grant of summary judgment for the government.

The underlying controversy arose when a group known as the "Bible Believers," Evangelical Christians, came to the Arab International festival on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan - - - as they had done the year before - - - to "preach."  Their speech included "strongly worded" slogans on signs, t-shirts, and banners (e.g., "Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder"),  a "severed pig's head

Repin, Demontsration 1905, via

on a stick" (intended to protect the Bible Believers by repelling observers who feared it), statements through a megaphone castigating the following of a "pedophile prophet" and warning of "God's impending judgment."  A crowd gathered, seemingly mostly of children and adolescents, who yelled back and threw items at the preachers.  A law enforcement asked the Bible Believers to leave, and - when pressed - saying they would be cited for disorderly conduct. They were eventually escorted out.

The Sixth Circuit's extensive en banc opinion, authored by Judge Eric Clay - - - and in which 8 (including Clay) of the 15 Sixth Circuit judges joined - - - resolutely "confirms" the free speech protections that should be accorded to a speaker even when "angry, hostile, or violent crowds" seek to silence that speaker. 

The opinion first finds that the Bible Believers' speech was protected, rejecting exception of incitement (to riot) and fighting words.  The "fighting words" discussion is regrettably short - - - a single paragraph - - - and summarily advances the "objective standard" requiring the insult to be likely to provoke the "average person" (emphasis in original) and moreover to be directed at an "individual."  In the context of the facts here, these principles deserved further exploration.

After a brief discussion of the public forum, the en banc opinion then discussed at length the "heckler's veto" doctrine and concluded it was not a viable doctrine.  Applying that conclusion, the opinion discussed law enforcement performance, citing the video record (which the court did at several points in the opinion): there was "next to no attempt made by the officers to protect the Bible Believers or prevent the lawless actions of the audience" and  it was not sufficient an effort "to maintain peace among a group of rowdy youths" - - - i.e., the crowd at the festival - - - if it consists of  a"few verbal warnings and a single arrest.  The court advised:

We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival. If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the WCSO [Wayne County Sheriff's Office] officers could have called for backup—as they appear to have done when they decided to eject the Bible Believers from the Festival—prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

In a very brief analysis, the court held that the free exercise claim "succeeds on the same basis as the free speech claim."  As for the Equal Protection Clause claim, the court's discussion is similarly summary, but its analysis seems much too conclusory:

The Festival included a number of other religious organizations that came to share their faith by spreading a particular message. There are several distinctions between the Bible Believers and these other groups. Mainly, the Bible Believers chose, as was their right, not to register for an assigned table under the information tent. Instead, they paraded through the Festival and proselytized, as was also their right, while carrying signs and a severed pig’s head. Although these actions set them apart from the other speakers and religious organizations at the Festival, they do not do so in any relevant respect. Any speaker could have walked the Festival grounds with or without signs if they chose to do so. The Bible Believers, like the other religious organizations at the Festival, sought to spread their faith and religious message. Although they declined to utilize the tent set aside for outside groups, their conduct was at all times peaceful while they passionately advocated for their cause, much like any other religious group. Wayne County did not threaten the Bible Believers based on their decision to march with signs and banners, but based on the content of the messages displayed on the signs and banners. The county’s disparate treatment of the Bible Believers was based explicitly on the fact that the Bible Believers’ speech was found to be objectionable by a number of people attending the Festival. Wayne County therefore violated the Bible Believers’ right to equal protection by treating them in a manner different from other speakers, whose messages were not objectionable to Festival-goers, by burdening their First Amendment rights.

The en banc court also held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity and that municipal liability was established.  On these issues, there were vigorous dissents.  And indeed, the en banc majority seems on tenuous ground, especially given its earlier discussion of Sixth Circuit precedent in Glasson v. City of Louisville decided in 1975:

In this Circuit, a modicum of confusion is understandable with respect to the prohibition against the heckler’s veto due to Glasson’s discussion of a good-faith affirmative defense.  . . . . Therefore, to the extent that Glasson’s good-faith defense may be interpreted as altering the substantive duties of a police officer not to effectuate a heckler’s veto, it is overruled.

Yet in the discussion of qualified immunity, the en banc court reasoned:

To the extent that Glasson’s discussion of a good-faith defense confused the issue of whether a heckler’s veto constitutes a constitutional violation, the facts and analysis in Glasson nonetheless alerted Defendants that removing a peaceful speaker, when the police have made no serious attempt to quell the lawless agitators, could subject them to liability.

That both the district judge and a previous panel of the Sixth Circuit had found that law enforcement's actions were constitutional, this seems a harsh conclusion - - - and is inconsistent with recent qualified immunity in First Amendment cases.  (For example, recall the unanimous Supreme Court 2014 opinion in Lane v. Franks, not cited in the Sixth Circuit opinions).

On the whole, the Sixth Circuit opinion validates the First Amendment right of provocative, offensive, and "challenging speech" - - - including symbolic speech such as marching with a pig's head on a stick - - - and requires law enforcement to protect such speech against (physically) hostile reactions by directing their efforts against those who are hostile rather than the speakers.   As Judge John Rogers, dissenting, suggested, one way to view the underlying controversy was that the "Bible Believers were hecklers seeking to disrupt the cultural fair" being held by the Arab-American community as an expressive enterprise.  The en banc majority clearly rejected that view - - - and held that the government should be liable for damages.

October 29, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Race, Religion, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Sharp Dissent in Little Sisters' Challenge to Contraception Mandate

The full Tenth Circuit today declined to grant an en banc rehearing of the panel's July 2015 ruling that HHS's religious accommodation to the ACA's contraception mandate violated statutory and First Amendment rights of Little Sisters of the Poor. We posted on the panel decision here.

No party called for an en banc rehearing; instead, the court decided sua sponte to consider it. But a majority voted no.

Judge Hartz wrote a dissent, joined by four other judges, arguing that the panel wrongly recast Little Sisters's religious beliefs. In particular, the dissent argued that the panel wrongly interpreted Little Sisters's belief "as being only opposition to facilitating the use and delivery of certain contraceptives to which they object." According to the dissent, "Under this reframing, the plaintiffs have no religious objection to executing the forms; it is just that executing the forms burdens their religious opposition to contraceptives."

Put another way, the panel majority may be saying that it is the court's prerogative to determine whether requiring the plaintiffs to execute the documents substantially burdens their core religious belief, regardless of whether the plaintiffs have a "derivative" religious belief that executing the documents is sinful. This is a dangerous approach to religious liberty.

Judge Hartz argued that "the doctrine of the panel majority will not long survive," because "[i]t is contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion."

If you're wondering how, under Judge Hartz's approach, an organization like Little Sisters might tell the government that it has a religious objection to the contraception mandate without violating its own religious beliefs (a question that stumped other courts: how can a religious accommodation itself violate free exercise?), Judge Hartz says that the dissent only goes to the "substantial burden" on religion (and thus triggers strict scrutiny). The certification might still satisfy strict scrutiny--a question that Judge Hartz would send back to the lower court on remand.

September 3, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

District Judge Finds "Obamacare" Contraception Mandate Unconstitutional as applied to "March for Life"

In an opinion that essentially extends religious protections to a nonreligious organization, Judge Richard Leon has ruled in March for Life v. Burwell that the so-called contraceptive mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or "Obamacare") cannot constitutionally be applied to a nonprofit anti-abortion employer.  While portions of Judge Leon's opinion predictably relied upon the Supreme Court's closely divided 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Judge Leon notably found that the contraception mandate's exclusion of religious organizations - - - but not other organizations - - - violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment.

Judge Leon applied rational basis review, but declared that

Were defendants to have their way here, rational basis review would have all the bite of a rubber stamp!

He continued:

Defendants contend that March for Life is not “similarly situated” to the exempted organizations because it “is not religious and is not a church.” Rational basis review is met, they argue, because the purpose served, “accommodating religious exercise by religious institutions,” is “permissible and legitimate.”  This not only oversimplifies the issue—it misses the point entirely! The threshold question is not whether March for Life is “generally” similar to churches and their integrated auxiliaries. It is whether March for Life is similarly situated with regard to the precise attribute selected for accommodation.  For the following reasons, I conclude that it most assuredly is.

[citations omitted]. 

image via "March for Life" about us

In short, Judge Leon found that "March for Life" was similarly situated to religious organizations given the HHS rationale for excluding religious organizations from the contraception mandate:

HHS has chosen to protect a class of individuals that, it believes, are less likely than other individuals to avail themselves of contraceptives. It has  consequently moored this accommodation not in the language of conscientious objection,  but in the vernacular of religious protection. This, of course, is puzzling. In HHS’s own  view, it is not the belief or non-belief in God that warrants safe harbor from the Mandate.  The characteristic that warrants protection——an employment relationship based in part on a shared objection to abortifacients—is altogether separate from theism. Stated  differently, what HHS claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is  protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of human life. HHS may be correct that  this objection is common among religiously-affiliated employers. Where HHS has erred,  however, is in assuming that this trait is unique to such organizations. It is not.

In other words, the HHS's rationale - - - the government interest - - - was not specifically religious and thus should not be limited to religious organizations in keeping with principles of equal protection.  Some of this reasoning is reminiscent of Hobby Lobby, of course, but there the level of scrutiny under RFRA was strict (or perhaps even stricter than strict) scrutiny, while Judge Leon is applying rational basis scrutiny. 

Interestingly, Judge Leon states that  "'religion' is not a talisman that sweeps aside all constitutional concerns," and quotes the classic conscientious objector case of Welsh v. United States (1970) for the "long recognized" principle that  “[i]f an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content . . . those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.”  Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning has the potential to eliminate - - - or at least ameliorate - - - the "special" protection of religious freedom.

In his application of RFRA, Judge Leon's opinion is on more well-plowed ground.  He notes that while "March for Life is avowedly non—religious, the employee plaintiffs do oppose the Mandate on religious grounds."  This brings the case within the purview of Hobby Lobby.  As Judge Leon phrases it:

The final question the Court must ask under RFRA is whether the current Mandate is the least restrictive means of serving this governmental interest. Assuredly, it is not!

While Judge Leon dismissed the free exercise claim,  based upon the DC Circuit's opinion and denial of en banc review in Priests for Life v HHS, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection and RFRA claims (as well as a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act).  

When this case reaches the DC Circuit, it will be interesting to see how the court - - - as well as religious organizations and scholars - - - views Judge Leon's potentially destabilizing equal protection analysis.

September 1, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Privacy, Religion, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kentucky Court Clerk's "No Marriage License Policy" Going to Sixth Circuit

A few months after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, reversing the Sixth Circuit's opinion, and declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of same-sex marriage is again reaching the Sixth Circuit. 

This time, however, the issue is whether a government employee, a court clerk in Kentucky, can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses - - - or any marriage licenses - - - based upon a claim of free exercise of religion.  The claim of religious exemptions from state clerks is not new (consider events in New York in 2011); neither are objections to implementing the Court's decision in Obergefell (consider events in Alabama this summer).  Nevertheless, this controversy has become particularly focused.

United States District Judge David Bunning's Opinion and Order last week in Miller v. Davis issued a preliminary injunction in favor of April Miller and Karen Roberts, enjoining Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from applying the "no marriage licenses" policy.  The Judge rejected Davis' First Amendment claims.  First, Judge Bunning found that Governor Beshear's directive to county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a general law of neutral applicability that "likely does not infringe on Davis' free exercise rights."  Second, Judge Bunning further found that the issuance of the marriage license did not implicate Davis' free speech rights: the issuance of the license, even with the clerk's certification, is not an endorsement and furthermore is quite possibly government rather than individual speech, citing the Court's decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans from last Term.  Judge Bunning also rejected Davis' third  - and perhaps the most interesting - claim based upon Article VI §3 prohibiting a "religious Test" as a qualification for public office.  Davis argued that this prohibition meant that her religious beliefs must be accommodated.  Even as he rejected this interpretation, Judge Bunning drew attention to the "first half" of Article VI §3 requiring state officials to take an oath to defend the United States Constitution. 

Davis predictably sought a stay of the preliminary injunction.  In an Order late yesterday, Judge Bunning denied the stay, including in his 7 page opinion an extensive quote from Obergefell regarding the relationship of religious freedom to same-sex marriage.  Yet Judge Bunning did stay the order denying the stay:

in recognition of the constitutional issues involved, and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate, the Court finds it appropriate to temporarily stay this Order pending review of Defendant Davis’ Motion to Stay (Doc. # 45) by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

While decisions to stay and to issue preliminary injunctions involve equitable and other factors, of central prominence is the probable outcome on the merits.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit is again poised to consider, albeit less directly, the issue of same-sex marriage. 

August 18, 2015 in Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Second Circuit is Latest Court to Reject Challenge to Contraception Mandate Accommodation

The Second Circuit this week became the latest court to reject religious organizations' challenge to the religious accommodation to the ACA's contraception mandate. The Second Circuit joined six other circuits in rejecting the surprising claim that a barely burdensome religious accommodation itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

We posted most recently on the Tenth Circuit's ruling here.

With seven circuits now rejecting the novel claim (with no circuit accepting it), and with the accommodation designed around a Supreme Court order, one might reasonably wonder why plaintiffs keep bringing and appealing these cases. Surely they have better things to do with their time and money than to bring such transparently harassing and abusive claims. (Indeed, one might wonder: At what point should a court consider Rule 11 sanctions?) Still . . . .

The Second Circuit ruling is comprehensive and well analyzed, concluding that the accommodation (to simply notify HHS, either by form, or by letter) isn't substantially burdensome. But after 47 pages, here's the gist:

The burden that the accommodation places on Plaintiffs is merely one notification, equivalent to the burden historically placed on draft registrants to indicate their conscientious objections to military service. Once Plaintiffs avail themselves of the simple, non-burdensome means of opting out, the regulations do not require them to play any role in the provision of contraceptive coverage or to suffer punishments for not doing so. To the contrary, the accommodation relieves them of providing contraceptive coverage, and instead enlists third-party administrators to provide such coverage. If a regulatory scheme that might otherwise violate an objecting individual's rights under RFRA allows the objector to exempt himself from compliance via a simple, non-burdensome act of notification, there is no substantial burden. Furthermore, subsequent regulation of non-objecting parties in a manner that an objecting party finds offensive does not transform the act of opting out into a cognizable substantial burden. The rights conferred by the First Amendment and RFRA do not include a right to have the government or third parties behave in a manner that comports with an individual's religious beliefs.

August 8, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tenth Circuit Rejects Challenge to Contraception Mandate

The Tenth Circuit today rejected statutory and First Amendment challenges to HHS's religious accommodation to its contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act. We most recently posted on the issue, in the Notre Dame case in the Seventh Circuit, here.

The plaintiffs in the case--Little Sisters of the Poor, Southern Nazarene, and Reaching Souls--argued that the HHS requirement that they notify their health insurance providers, third party insurers, or HHS (with a simple letter) in order to get out from under the contraception mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, free exercise and establishment of religion, and free speech.

The Tenth Circuit rejected the claims. In a lengthy opinion that comes with its own glossary and table of contents, the court ruled that it wasn't the plaintiffs' accommodation (the notification of their objection) that triggered the provision of contraceptions; it was the law. (Judge Posner arrived at the same conclusion with more colorful language in the Notre Dame case.) Given this, there was no substantial burden on religion under RFRA. Moreover, the court said that the accommodation met rational basis review under the Free Exercise Clause, that it didn't discriminate between religions and religious organizations in violation of the Establishment Clause, and that the accommodation didn't amount to compelled speech under the First Amendment.

July 14, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Judge Posner Explains Why Contraception Mandate Accommodation Doesn't Violate RFRA (Again)

Judge Posner explained (yet again) last week why HHS's contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act doesn't violate religious freedom, in particular, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. His previous explanation in the Notre Dame case is perhaps the best statement why the accommodation to the mandate doesn't violate religious freedom; his ruling in the continuing, and up-and-down, Wheaton College case is next best.

Wheaton College, a nondenominational evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, challenged HHS's accommodation to its requirement that colleges provide contraception as part of their health-insurance policies. Wheaton College doesn't object to all the contraception required under the mandate, only those that it considers abortifacients.Still, the College apparently wasn't satisfied with the Supreme Court's instruction to simply inform the government of its objections (at which point the government would tell the insurers to provide the contraception to Wheaton students and employees free of charge, reimbursed by the government)--a religious accommodation. The College argued that this accommodation itself meant that the government would take over its insurance plan, interfere with its contractual relationship with its insurer, and force it to be complicit in its insurer's provision of contraception. The College sought a preliminary injunction. But the Seventh Circuit rejected the motion.

Judge Posner explained why the accommodation (the requirement to tell the government of its religious objections to contraception) didn't violate RFRA:

Wheaton's antipathy is to having any contractual relations with insurers who provide emergency contraception to members of the Wheaton College community. Because they are "its" insurers, someone not in the know might think it "complicit" in the insurers' provision of a type of coverage that offends Wheaton's religious views. But where's the complicity?


In any event, termination of the [insurance] contracts would give Wheaton only temporary relief, since the government would notify any new insurers hired by Wheaton of their legal obligation to provide emergency-contraceptive coverage.

In short: It's the government, not Wheaton College, that mandates contraception coverage; and the accommodation only requires Wheaton to inform the government of its objection. How can you get an accommodation if you can't inform the government of your objection?

July 6, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Obergefell, Federalism, and Religion: Constitutional Issues Raised in Alabama and Texas

After the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26 declaring that states are required by the Fourteenth Amendment to issue same-sex marriage licenses, a few state officials have not only voiced objections to the decision, but have voiced resistance to complying with the Court's declaration. 

The situations in Alabama and Texas have been the most contentious.


ALABAMA:     Recall that earlier this year when federal District Judge Callie V.S. Granade entered an injunction against the enforcement of the state's constitutional amendment and statutes banning same-sex marriage, the reaction of  Alabama Supreme Court's controversial Chief Judge Roy Moore was an unusual letter to the Governor objecting to the federal judge's opinion on the basis that federal courts have no power in this Biblical area.  This was followed by an opinion of the Alabama Supreme Court ordering judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The Eleventh Circuit, and then the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of the district judge's opinion.

When the Court took certiorari in Obergefell, however, Judge Granade stayed her order.

However, after the Court decided Obergefell, the Alabama Supreme Court's  "corrected order" stated that because the US Supreme Court rules allow parties 25 days to file a petition for rehearing, the parties in the case - - - including two conservative Alabama organizations - - - were invited to submit briefs on the effect of Obergefell.  Federal District Judge Callie Granade issued a one-page Order on July 1, referenced her earlier stay and then stated:

The United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 26, 2015. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ____ (2015). Accordingly, by the language set forth in the [previous] order, the preliminary injunction is now in effect and binding on all members of the Defendant Class.

Thus, the officials of Alabama are subject to a direct order by a federal judge.

 TEXAS:   The Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, who is reportedly facing criminal charges on unrelated matters, issued a six page opinion letter a few days after Obergefell which stressed the individual religious rights of county clerks and their employees, as well as justices of the peace and clergy, regarding their participation in same-sex marriages.  Paxton's opinion was widely reported and concluded that county clerks retain religious freedoms that "may allow" accommodations depending "on the particular facts of each case."  Paxton relied on the First Amendment as well as Texas's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), essentially similar to the federal RFRA at issue in the Court's decision in Hobby Lobby. This is not unique:  the possibility of claims by individual public employees in clerk's offices was also raised after New York passed its Marriage Equality Act in 2011 and as that act made clear - - - as is generally understood - - - that religious officers have complete discretion in agreeing or refusing to solemnize marriages. 

The Fifth Circuit issued a very brief opinion on July 1, noting that "both sides now agree" that the  the injunction appealed from, originally issued in early 2014 by federal district judge Orlando Garcia in DeLeon v. Perry [now Abbott],  "is correct in light of Obergefell," the Fifth Circuit ruled that the preliminary injunction is affirmed. 

The Fifth Circuit's opinion makes clear - - - seemingly with state agreement - - - that Texas is bound by Obergefell, but does not mention individual religious accommodations. 

In both the Alabama and Texas situations, there are echoes of resistance to the Supreme Court's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education; The Supremacy Clause and the Court's opinion in Cooper v. Aaron seem to answer the question of whether state officials simply may disagree with the Court's interpretation of the Constitution.  This is true despite the dissenting opinions in Obergefell itself which argued that the Court should leave the resolution of same-sex marriage to individual states.  The question of religious accommodations may be a closer one, but what seems clear is that if there is indeed an individual right to be accommodated - - - again, that itself is unclear - - - it cannot be a right of a government entity.  While Hobby Lobby may have held that corporations have religious freedoms, it is hard to conceive of government entities having free exercise rights in a manner that does not violate the Establishment Clause.

July 2, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, News, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Guide to the Amicus Briefs in Obergefell v. Hodges: The Same-Sex Marriage Cases

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on April 28 in the same-sex marriage cases, now styled as Obergefell v. Hodges, a consolidated appeal from the Sixth Circuit’s decision in DeBoer v. Snyder, reversing the district court decisions in  Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee that had held the same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, and creating a circuit split.    

 Recall that the Court certified two questions:

    1)Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?

    2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? 

The case has attracted what seems to be a record number of amicus briefs.  As we discussed last year, previous top amicus brief attractors were the same-sex marriage cases of Windsor and Perry, which garnered 96 and 80 amicus briefs respectively, and the 2013 affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which attracted 92.  [Note that the "Obamacare" Affordable Care Act cases including 2012's consolidated cases of  NFIB v. Sebelius attracted 136 amicus briefs.]

The count for Obergefell v. Hodges stands at  139. 147  [updated: 17 April 2015]  149 [updated]  LINKS TO ALL THE BRIEFS ARE AVAILABLE ON THE ABA WEBSITE HERE.

 76  77 amicus briefs support the Petitioners, who contend that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.

58 66 67 amicus briefs support the Respondents, who contend that same-sex marriage bans are constitutional.

05 amicus briefs support neither party (but as described below, generally support Respondents).

According to the Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States, Rule 37, an amicus curiae brief’s purpose is to bring to the attention of the Court “relevant matter not already brought to its attention by the parties.”  While such a brief “may be of considerable help to the Court,” an  “amicus curiae brief that does not serve this purpose burdens the Court, and its filing is not favored.”

 An impressive number of the Amicus Briefs are authored or signed by law professors.  Other Amici include academics in other fields, academic institutions or programs, governmental entities or persons, organizations, and individuals, often in combination.  Some of these have been previously involved in same-sex marriage or sexuality issues and others less obviously so, with a number being religious organizations. Several of these briefs have been profiled in the press; all are linked on the Supreme Court’s website and on SCOTUSBlog.

Here is a quick - - - if lengthy - - - summary of the Amici and their arguments, organized by party being supported and within that, by identity of Amici, beginning with briefs having substantial law professor involvement, then government parties or persons, then non-legal academics, followed by organizations including religious groups, and finally by those offering individual perspectives.  [Late additions appear below]Special thanks to City University of New York (CUNY)  School of Law Class of 2016 students, Aliya Shain & AnnaJames Wipfler, for excellent research.


Continue reading

April 16, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Gender, History, Interpretation, Privacy, Profiles in Con Law Teaching, Race, Recent Cases, Reproductive Rights, Scholarship, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Standing, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Indiana Governor Signs Controversial State RFRA Law

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana  in a "private ceremony," signed the controversial Senate Act 101, a state RFRA, into law. 

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana via

Like the federal RFRA - - - the basis for the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell finding that the so-called "contraceptive mandate" of "Obamacare" was invalid - - - the Indiana RFRA provides in section 8:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.
(b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person:
    (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

 The Indiana statute makes clear that a if a person's exercise of religion "is likely to be substantially burdened," the person may "assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding." 

For many, this signals a religious exemption from anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ persons.  (Although Indiana does not include sexuality or gender identity in its discrimination laws, some localities and institutions do.)  Governor Pence alluded to this argument, even as he interestingly (and some might say misleadingly) highlighted the "government action" requirement in his signing statement:

“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana."

Nevertheless some companies are already reacting to a perception that Indiana has now sanctioned LGBTQ discrimination.

March 26, 2015 in Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Free Exercise Clause, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Court Rules in Favor of Prisoner's Half-Inch Beard

In its unanimous opinion today in Holt (Muhammad) v. Hobbs the Court decided that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, RLUIPA, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one—half—inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The Court's conclusion is predictable from the tenor of the oral arguments. Writing for the Court, Justice Alito found that Holt/Muhammad easily met his burden of showing that the beard ban substantially burdened his exercise of religion under RLUIPA, after which the burden shifted to the Department of Correction to show that its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a 1⁄2- inch beard “(1) [was] in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) [was] the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest” under RLUIPA."

The Court rejected the Department of Correction's beard ban as the least restrictive way of furthering prison safety and security including hiding contraband (an argument that was "hard to take seriously" in the context of the 1/2 inch beard) and concealing identities (an argument that suffered in comparison to other institutions and the allowance of 1/4 inch beards and mustaches). 

image via

Justice Alito's 16 page opinion for the Court is a model of clarity and concision.  It does beg the question, however, of why this was not the District Judge's opinion or the Eighth Circuit's opinion. As we previously discussed, the odds of this case getting before the Court were incredibly high, but the underlying pro se litigation exemplifies the difficulties of prison inmates vindicating their rights.

Indeed, Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to stress the role deference to prison administrators that should be afforded by courts.  Prison officials must offer a "plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them," rather than adopt policies based on "mere speculation."  Again, this begs the question of the reliance by the lower courts on the prison's arguments.

Finally, the very brief concurring opinion by Justice Ginsburg, and joined by Justice Sotomayor, distinguished the much more contentious Hobby Lobby:

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. ___ (2014), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. See id., at ___, ___–___, and n. 8, ___ (slip op., at 2, 7–8, and n. 8, 27) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting). On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.

Thus, Justice Ginsburg makes clear that she is not opposed to religious accommodation per se, even under the strict scrutiny standard, when the rights of others are not part of the analysis.

January 20, 2015 in First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Robson on Teaching the Religion Clauses

Check out ConLawProfBlog's own Prof. Ruthann Robson's (CUNY) piece about her innovative and engaging approach to teaching the Religion Clauses in the Fall 2014 Law Teacher. (Robson's piece begins on page 49.) In it, Robson gives a step-by-step for a replicable, pervasive method that promises huge pedagogical payoffs--exactly the kind of thing we need more of in the Con Law world.

RobsonRobson, a leader in innovative and effective teaching who was featured in What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard), starts her First Amendment class by requiring students to develop and adopt a role in one of three categories: a recognized religion, a quasi-religion, and a non-religion. Robson then conducts her Religion Clause classes with her students in role, for example: "What do you think of this outcome, Student X, as a Rastafarian?"

The approach comes with distinct benefits and allows the class better to critically assess and analyze Religion Clause cases. Robson: "This role pervasiveness often illuminates the subjectivity of the Court's recitation of facts, as well as the reasoning, doctrine, theoretical perspectives, and the invocations of history."

Robson uses role pervasiveness for problems, too, assigning students to traditional legal roles (attorneys, judges, clerks, and the like) while still maintaining their assigned religion.

For example, Student Y, as a Sikh, now also takes on the role of a law clerk to a judge considering the constitutionality of the seventeen foot "Latin cross" at the National September 11 museum. Or Student Z, as a Secular Humanist, is writing an opinion as an administrative law judge in a sexual orientation discrimination case against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

This not only enhances students' understanding of the Religion Clauses, but it also allows Robson to explore issues of professional identity.

Check it out; give it a try; tell us how it works for you.

December 17, 2014 in Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, News, Religion, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Oral Arguments on Prisoner's Religious Beard at Supreme Court

In today's oral argument in Holt (Muhammad) v. Hobbs, the Court considered the question on which it granted certiorari: whether the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one—half—inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

ConLawProf's own Steven Schwinn has penned a terrific preview for the ABA.  The case occurs under the RLUIPA statute, of course, rather than the First Amendment, because RLUIPA provides greater protections as we previously explained, in the same manner that the RFRA statute at issue in last Term's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

482px-Head_of_a_bearded_man,_India,_Madhya_Pradesh_or_Rajasthan,_c._9th-10th_century_CE,_sandstone,_HAAIf the oral arguments are any indication, the result in Holt/Muhammad will be the same as in Hobby Lobby, but much less divisive and contentious. 

As I argue over in The Guardian, the issue of grooming raises larger issues, which the Justices mostly skirted,  but the Justices clearly struggled with the argument that Arkansas had a compelling governmental interest served by prohibiting short beards.  This discussion was marked by the vast majority of other states that allow prisoners to have beards (40) and the fact that Arkansas allows a medical exemption.  Counsel for the Arkansas Department of Corrections explained that Arkansas had a different system of incarceration than other states (preferring barracks) and had an interesting doctrinal explanation for accommodating the medical condition but not the religious one:

The doctor's prescriptions invariably are get a clipper shave.  And that brings a second point up, Your Honor, is that the policy's rationale was follow doctor's orders.  And we think that is fundamentally of a different nature than a religious reason, because the Eighth Amendment law of deliberate indifference and the like admits a no countervailing security interest that come into play. Our policy is we follow doctor's orders and that's the end of the matter. 

There was some discussion of the slippery slope variety, with Justice Kagan asking:

So whether it's a full beard or whether it's long hair or whether it's a turban, there will be some ability to say, even though it's just teeny tiny, there is some increase in prison security that results from disallowing this practice. And I guess I want to know, and this really fits in with several of the other questions that have been asked here, is how do we think about that question in the context of this statute?

Or as Chief Justice Roberts stated it:

But I ­­ mean, you're really just making your case too easy. I mean, one of the difficult issues in a case like this is where to draw the line. And you just say, well, we want to draw the line at half inch because that lets us win.

And the next day someone's going to be here with one inch. And maybe it'll be you. And then, you know, two inches.

It seems to me you can't avoid the legal difficulty just by saying, all we want is half an inch.

As ConLawProf Douglas Laycock appointed to argue on behalf of Holt/Muhammad, noted, Holt/Muhammad

made a pro se decision to limit his request. The Court expressly limited the question presented. So this case is only about half an inch.

That Holt/Mohammad's case is before the Court is one of statistical improbability.  Kali Borkoski over at SCOTUSBlog has a terrific audio slideshow that demonstrates some of the difficulties of litigating RLUIPA claims.  In Holt/Muhammad, the petition for certiorari was pro se from a negative Eighth Circuit decision; the vast majority of the 20,000 or so pro se petitions filed in federal courts each year do not reach the appellate level.  Interestingly, the Eighth Circuit specifically ruled that the dismissal of the case "does not count as a “strike” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g)" the Prison Litigation Reform Act which limits pro se prison petitions to "three strikes."  Later in the Term in Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson, the Court will be considering a construction of the three strikes limit; but perhaps Holt/Muhammad points to a larger issue with the limitation.  

[image via]

October 7, 2014 in Free Exercise Clause, Gender, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

RFRA Frustrates Child Labor Investigation

Senior Judge David Sam (C.D. Utah) ruled last week that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prevented the court from compelling a FLDS Church member from answering questions related to a Labor Department investigation into child labor violations.

The ruling does not necessarily end the Labor Department investigation, though. Indeed, as Judge Sam wrote, DOL may be able to get the information from other sources.

The case arose when DOL sought an order compelling a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, to answer questions in the course of an investigation over the use of child labor in harvest activities at a pecan ranch in Hurricane, Utah. The FLDS member, Vernon Steed, invoked the First Amendment (free exercise), objecting to DOL's questions about the internal affairs of the FLDS Church. Judge Sam wrote that the claim sounded more like a Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim, and applied the higher level of scrutiny under the RFRA.

Judge Sam wrote first that a court order would substantially burden Steed's religious beliefs, because Steed said that he made a vow "not to discuss matters related to the internal affairs or organization of the [FLDS]," and that giving testimony would violate that vow. DOL challenged the sincerity of this belief, but Judge Sam, citing Hobby Lobby, didn't question it.

Judge Sam then wrote that DOL failed to satisfy the RFRA standard (again citing Hobby Lobby) because it had other ways to get the information it sought. For example, DOL could get information from the corporation or individuals who contracted to manage the ranch.

The ruling may not shut down the investigation, because DOL may, indeed, be able to get the information it needs from these other sources. But even if it can, the ruling underscores the heightened, strict scrutiny standard under the RFRA (over the lower, rational basis standard in Smith) , and illustrates its reach.

September 16, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sixth Circuit Rejects First Amendment Challenge by "Bible Believers" Excluded From "Arab International Festival"

A divided Sixth Circuit considered the problem of the hecklers' veto, as well as free exercise and equal protection claims, in its opinion today in Bible Believers v. Dearborn County, with the majority of the panel finding that the district judge's grant of summary judgment in favor of the government should be affirmed.

450px-Megaphone-redThe controversy arose when a group known as the "Bible Believers," Evangelical Christians, came to the Arab International festival on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan - - - as they had done the year before - - - to "preach."  Their speech included "strongly worded" slogans on signs, t-shirts, and banners (e.g., "Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder"),  a "severed pig's head on a stick" (intended to protect the Bible Believers by repelling observers who feared it), statements through a megaphone castigating the following of a "pedophile prophet" and warning of "God's impending judgment."   A crowd gathered, seemingly mostly of children, who yelled back and threw items at the preachers.  A law enforcement asked the Bible Believers to leave, and - when pressed - saying they would be cited for disorderly conduct: "You need to leave. If you don’t leave, we’re going to cite you for disorderly. You’re creating a disturbance. I mean, look at your people here. This is crazy!”  They were eventually escorted out. 

On the free speech claim, the opinion written by Judge  Bernice Donald found there was little disagreement that the Bible Believers "engaged in protected speech" and "that the Festival constituted a traditional public forum." 

More contentious, however, was whether the  government's actions were "content neutral."  The court first concluded that the operations plan was to "ensure safety and keep the peace" and thus to be evaluated under the standard of Ward v. Rock Against Racism.   But the court also extensively analyzed whether the heckler's veto principle was operative: "[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation,” citing Forsyth Cnty. v. Nationalist Movement (1992).  Yet raising listener "reactions" circles back to the issue of whether the speech was protected and the court  discussed two Supreme Court cases from the mid-twentieth century—Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), and Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315 (1951)— as providing "some initial boundaries for the heckler’s veto doctrine."   In applying these cases, as well as Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940) (as Sixth Circuit precedent), the court, referencing a video from Festival incident, found that there was actual violence and that law enforcement was simply discharging their duty to maintain the peace and removing the speakers for their own protection.

For Judge Eric Clay, dissenting, "law enforcement is principally required to protect lawful speakers over and above law-breakers."  Judge Clay also notes that it was the government that moved for summary judgment and that reliance on a video is problematical:

The key fact in our case, by contrast, is the question of Plaintiffs’ intent. That is not a fact shown on the videotape—it is an idea that existed in the mind of the speakers. Jurors might conceivably find an intent to incite based on inferences drawn from Plaintiffs’ sermonizing. We judges are prohibited from doing so.

While there are free exercise, equal protection, and municipal liability isses, the majority treats these summarily, and clearly the central issue is speech that provokes - - - and may be intended to provoke - - - a violent reaction from a crowd. 

August 27, 2014 in Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Religion, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

State May Require Provider to Accompany Developmentally Disabled Client to Church

The Ninth Circuit ruled last week in Williams v. State of California that a state law requiring residential community care service providers to accompany developmentally disabled clients to religious services did not violate the First Amendment.  The very brief per curiam ruling simply incorporated the district court's order granting the state's motion to dismiss.

The plaintiffs in the case, residential community care facilities and employees, sued the state after the state cited the plaintiffs for violating their obligations to a client--in particular, for failing to accompany a client to Jehovah's Witness services in violation of the state's Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act.  Several of the service providers' employees objected to accompanying the client to services, because, they argued, to do so would violate their own religious freedom.

The district court's opinion, adopted in whole by the Ninth Circuit, took the plaintiffs to task for sloppy pleading and argument, and went on to reject their Free Exercise and Establishment Clause claims.  As to the Free Exercise claim, the district court held that the Lanterman Act was a law of general applicability, and had a rational basis--"to allow developmentally disabled persons to approximate the lives of nondisabled persons."  As to the Establishment Clause claim, the court said that the Act had a secular purpose (same as above), a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion (because it applies to all manner of community activities, religious or not, and to all religions equally), and no excessive government entanglement with religion. 

The plaintiffs' claims were weak, even non-starters, from the get-go, but they didn't help themselves with sloppy pleading, undeveloped arguments, and an apparent complete lack of response to certain court requests.  All this made it easy for the Ninth Circuit simply to adopt the district court's ruling as its own and to affirm the dismissal of the case.

August 24, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Second Circuit Finds NYC's MBP Circumcision Regulation Merits Strict Scrutiny

Reversing the district judge's decision rendered more than 18 months ago which we discussed here, the Second Circuit's  opinion in Central Rabbinical Congress v. NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene holds that the NYC regulation targeted at a certain circumcision practice is essentially one that as targeted at a certain religion and thus merits strict scrutiny under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

The NYC regulation, §181.21, amended the NYC Health Code, by requiring specific consent and a warning for "oral suction" circumcision.   The Second Circuit's unanimous panel, in an opinion authored by Judge Debra Ann Livingston, disagreed with the district judge and found that the regulation was not a neutral and generally applicable law. [*]

The opening of the court's opinion is telling:

In Judaism, the “bris milah,” or ritual circumcision of infants, which has been practiced for millennia, celebrates a covenant with God and“derives explicitly from a commandment . . . in the Hebrew Bible.” 11 Encyclopedia of Religion, “Rites of Passage: Jewish Rites,” at 7818 (2d ed. 2005). As part of this ritual circumcision, some Orthodox Jews, particularly Satmar, Bobov, Lubavitch, and other Hasidic groups, perform direct oral suction of the circumcision wound in a ritual act known as metzitzah b’peh (“metzitzah b’peh” or “MBP”).

Relying on  Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), the court reaches the conclusion that the

Regulation is not neutral because it purposefully and exclusively targets a religious practice for special burdens. And at least at this preliminary stage, the Regulation is not generally applicable either, because it is underinclusive in relation to its asserted secular goals: the Regulation pertains to religious conduct associated with a small percentage of HSV infection cases among infants, while leaving secular conduct associated with a larger percentage of such infection unaddressed.

Indeed, the court held that the question of whether the NYC Regulation singles out a specific religious practice is "simpler to address" than was true in Lukumi "in light of the Department’s own admission that metzitzah b’peh 'prompted' § 181.21 and that metzitzah b’peh is 'the only presently known conduct' covered by the Regulation."

 The court notes that "the conclusion that the Regulation is subject to strict scrutiny does not mean that § 181.21 is constitutionally deficient, for strict scrutiny is not invariably fatal in the context of free exercise claims." 

The Department has asserted interests that are substantial and may prove, on analysis, to be compelling. And the means it has chosen to address these interests (means that fall short of outright prohibition of MBP and that may further the goal of informed parental consent) may be appropriately tailored, albeit intrusive on a longstanding religious ritual. Mindful of the serious interests at stake on both sides, we express no view as to whether the plaintiffs have borne their burden of establishing a likelihood of success on the merits.

The court remanded, but denied the request for a stay of the enforcement of the regulation.  The district judge's original 93 page order and opinion was largely devoted to the empirical evidence regarding the health effects of the practice; it looks as if she will be hearing the evidence on those very issues, but applying a heightened standard.

[*] updated: The Second Circuit did not reach the compelled speech argument; h/t Josh Blackman.

August 18, 2014 in First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Second Circuit Says Required Urine Test Substantially Burdens Religious Freedom

The Second Circuit ruled last week in Holland v. Goord that prison authorities substantially burdened a Muslim prisoner's free exercise of religion when they punished him for failing to complete a urine test within a three-hour window during fasting time for Ramadan.  The plaintiff couldn't complete the test because he refused to drink water during his fast.  (H/t to reader Jeff Wadsworth.)

The ruling means that the case goes back to the trial court to determine whether the prison authorities had a sufficient penalogical interest in requiring the urine test (and the water drinking, in order to facilitate the test) under Turner v. Safley.  But that doesn't look good for the state: the Second Circuit noted that there was no good reason why the authorities couldn't administer the test (and require the plaintiff to drink water) after sundown (indeed, the plaintiff suggested this option himself).  It also noted that the prison subsequently changed its own regulations to allow a religious accommodation to urine testing.

The Second Circuit rejected the plaintiff's invitation to disregard the "substantial burden" test from Employment Division v. Smith.  Instead, the court ruled that the urine test met that requirement, drawing on its own cases saying that the denial of a religious meal is a substantial burden on religion.

The court also rejected the trial court's conclusion that the urine test and water drinking were mere de minimis burdens (because the plaintiff could have made up a drink of water during the fast with one extra day of fasting).  The court said that the plaintiff sufficiently showed that this would have been a "grave sin," even if he could have made up for it.

Because the state changed its rules on urine testing to allow a religious accommodation, the court denied the plaintiff's request for injunctive relief under both his free exercise claim and his RLUIPA claim.  The court rejected other claims, too.  But it remanded the free exercise claim for determination whether the state had a sufficient penalogical interest in conducting the urine test the way that it did, and, if not (as is likely), for money damages.

July 14, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Stone on the Constitutionality of Religious Tests for Public Office

Geoff Stone (Chicago) writes over at Huffington Post that religious tests for public office, which are still around in eight state constitutions, may well be upheld by the Roberts Court, should they ever be tested.

Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all have these provisions, though they go unenforced.  That's because the Court struck these tests in 1961 in Torcaso v. Watkins.  But Stone says if the issue were to return to this Court, testing one of the eight state constitutional provisions, the five conservative justices may well reverse Torcaso and uphold the religious test.

But why would they disagree with Torcaso?  After all, the reasoning of that unanimous decision seems clearly correct.  But the five conservative justices on the Court today clearly do not share the general constitutional understandings of the Court in 1961.  This is so across a range of issues, but perhaps most conspicuously in the realm of religion.  Indeed, the Court's five conservative justices have consistently taken positions that come out quite aggressively in support of the interests of religion.

Stone cites Hobby Lobby and Town of Greece as just two recent decisions supporting this conclusion.  Stone also argues that these five justices have already demonstrated their willingness to overturn well settled precedent.  See Citizens United; Heller; Gonzales v. Carhart.

July 14, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hobby Lobby Aftermath: Does "Person" in RFRA Include a Guantanamo Bay Detainee?

In an emergency motion for a Temporary Restraining Order filed today in Hassan v. Obama in the District Court for the District of Columbia, the petitioner relies on Monday's controversial decision by the United States Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Petitioner, Imad Abdullah Hassan, a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to prevent the federal government from depriving him of " the right to participate in communal prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan," a tenet of his religious faith. 



As the motion outlines, the DC Circuit had previously held in Rasul v. Myers, 563 F.3d 527, 532-33 (D.C. Cir. 2009), that the Guantánamo Bay detainees are not protected “person[s]” within the meaning of the RFRA.  The court in Rasul "bypassed the dictionary definition of “person” and instead looked to prior case law prescribing the scope of the word “person” for purposes of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments— which did not, in the Rasul court’s view, apply to nonresident aliens." 

However, the motion argues this is a "dead letter" after the Court's decision in Hobby Lobby which "eviscerates the reasoning in Rasul and makes clear that Petitioner, as a flesh-and-blood human being, is among the 'person[s]' protected by the RFRA."  Indeed, the court in Rasul held that in RFRA Congress merely "intended to incorporate the standard governing free exercise claims that prevailed before the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith," and that such claims did not include resident noncitizens.  But in Hobby Lobby, the Justice Alito's opinion for the Court explicitly states:

the results would be absurd if RFRA merely restored this Court’s pre-Smith decisions in ossified form and did not allow a plaintiff to raise a RFRA claim unless that plaintiff fell within a category of plaintiffs one of whom had brought a free-exercise claim that this Court entertained in the years before Smith. For example, we are not aware of any pre-Smith case in which this Court entertained a free-exercise claim brought by a resident noncitizen. Are such persons also beyond RFRA’s protective reach simply because the Court never addressed their rights before Smith?

[Opinion at 33].

Thus, the motion argues that

a nonresident alien Guantánamo Bay detainee, who inarguably has constitutional rights in what is de facto sovereign U.S. territory, see Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008), must also enjoy the protections extended by the RFRA.


Hobby Lobby leads inexorably to the conclusion that the nonresident alien detainees at Guantánamo Bay are “person[s]” protected by the RFRA. The Dictionary Act definition of “person” includes “individuals.” 1 U.S.C. § 1. The Dictionary Act does not confine “individuals” to U.S. citizens, just as it does not confine “corporations” to U.S. corporations; nor does it confine “individuals” to U.S. residents. The Guantánamo Bay detainees, as flesh-and- blood human beings, are surely “individuals,” and thus they are no less “person[s]” than are the for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby or the resident noncitizens whom Hobby Lobby gives as an example of persons to whom the RFRA must apply. The fact that the detainees are at Guantánamo Bay changes nothing, for Hobby Lobby makes clear that a “person” whose religious free exercise is burdened under color of law need not be a U.S. citizen or resident in order to enjoy the RFRA’s protections.

The application of Hobby Lobby to "persons" who are detainees at Guantánamo Bay might be an unforeseen consequence of the decision, but the motion makes a convincing argument that it is a logical one grounded in the Court's holding and language.


July 3, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Recent Cases, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)