Saturday, May 23, 2015

Contraception Mandate Accommodation Opponents Rebuffed--Again

Federal appeals courts this week dealt two (more) blows to opponents of Obamacare's religious accommodation to the contraception mandate. A Seventh Circuit panel ruled that the accommodation did not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, and the full D.C. Circuit declined to re-hear an earlier panel ruling against opponents.

Together the rulings should put an end to this chapter of challenges to Obamacare. But by now we've learned never to say never . . . .

The cases grow out of religious non-profits' opposition to the government-created religious accommodation to Obamacare's contraception mandate. The accommodation requires a religious non-profit to complete a form to notify its health insurer (or third-party administrator) that the non-profit objects to providing contraception as part of its health insurance plan. The law then requires the insurer or third-party administrator to provide contraception coverage directly to plan participants, free of charge.

Opponents say that the accommodation--the form that notifies the insurance company of the religious objection--itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because it "triggers" the provision of contraception coverage to plan participants.

The Seventh Circuit categorically rejected that claim last February. But then the Supreme Court handed down Hobby Lobby, holding that the contraception mandate violated the RFRA as applied to a self-insured, closely-held, for-profit corporation, and requiring an accommodation. But Hobby Lobby also contained language suggesting that an accommodation of the type challenged by religious non-profits would skirt any RFRA problem. The Supreme Court then vacated the Seventh Circuit ruling and remanded for reconsideration in light of Hobby Lobby.

The Seventh Circuit panel this week again ruled against the challengers, citing the same problems in the original case (before Hobby Lobby)--under the law the non-profit doesn't act as a "conduit" for the provision of contraception (the law itself does this), and the case was under-developed at the trial level. As to Hobby Lobby, the panel said that the Supreme Court recognized the accommodation as valid, but that the Court "did leave open . . . the possibility that the accommodation sought and obtained there would not prevent religious beliefs or practices from being substantially burdened in some cases." But the Seventh Circuit said that those beliefs or practices weren't burdened here, by the accommodation. In particular, the court wrote that Notre Dame couldn't come up with any workable alternative to the accommodation that wouldn't "impede the receipt of [contraception] benefits," especially given the undeveloped factual record in the case.

The D.C. Circuit (also, and again) came to the same conclusion in denying a rehearing en banc. Its earlier panel ruling in Priests for Life came down after Hobby Lobby, so already considered any effects of that case.

The principal problem with the challenges is that, contrary to the challengers' claims, it's not the accommodation that triggers the provision of contraception; it's the law that does that. In the language of the Seventh Circuit, the non-profits don't act as a "conduit" for the provision of contraception, because the law itself requires insurers and administrators to provide contraception. And a mistaken interpretation of the law is not a burden on religion. Or, as Judge Pillard put it in her concurring opinion to the D.C. Circuit's denial of en banc review:

The dispute we resolved is legal, not religious. Under the ACA regulations, a woman who obtains health insurance coverage through her employer is no more entitled to contraceptive coverage if her employer submits the disputed notice than if it does not. The ACA obligation to provide contraceptive coverage to all insured women does not depend on that notice. Nothing in RFRA requires that we accept Plaintiffs' assertions to the contrary.

 

May 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Supreme Court Hears Same-Sex Marriage Arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges

The Court today heard oral arguments in two parts in the consolidated cases of Obergefell v. Hodges on certiorari from the Sixth Circuit opinion which had created a split in the circuits on the issue of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.   There have been a record number of amicus briefs filed in the cases highlighting the interest in the case.

For oral argument on the first certified question - - -does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? - - - Mary Bonauto argued for the Petitioners; Solicitor Donald Verrilli argued for the United States as amicus curiae supporting Petitioners; and John Bursh, as Special Assistant Attorney for Michigan argued for Respondents. 

For oral argument on the second certified question - - - 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? - - -Douglas Hallward-Driemeier argued for Petitioners and Joseph Whalen, Associate Solicitor General of Tennessee, argued for Respondents.

The Court and the advocates acknowledged that the second question is only reached if the first question is answered in the negative: Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan both posited this principle with Hallward-Driemeier and Whalen, respectively, agreeing. Chief Justice Roberts noted that" we only get to the second question if you've lost on that point already, if we've said States do not have to recognize same-­sex marriage as a marriage," and later raised the issue of whether the second question made practical sense:

It certainly undermines the State interest that we would, assuming arguendo, have recognized in the first case, to say that they must welcome in their borders people who have been married elsewhere. It'd simply be a matter of time  until they would, in effect, be recognizing that within the State.

 

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Donkey Hotey via

 The themes of the oral arguments held no surprising issues:

Is a same-sex marriage decision by the Court premature?  Interestingly, Justice Kennedy pointed out that it is "about the same time between Brown and Loving as between Lawrence and this case. It's about 10 years." 

Should it be the Court or the states that should decide?  The question of the proper role of judicial review has long preoccupied the courts in the context of same-sex marriage. Justice Scalia raised this issue several times, but when John Bursh raised it on behalf of Michigan, Justice Kagan responded that "we don't live in a pure democracy; we live in a constitutional democracy."

Is the race analogy apt?  Bursch distinguished Loving (as well as Turner v. Safley and Zablocki v. Redhail) because previous cases involved man-woman marriage and  "States' interest in linking children to their biological" parents.

Is there a slippery slope?  What about polygamous and incestuous marriages?  What about age of consent laws?

What about religious freedom?  How do we know that ministers won't be forced to perform "gay marriages"?

Should the case be resolved on Equal Protection or Due Process?  Justice Kennedy asked General Verrilli about Glucksberg,   Verrilli replied:

  1. GENERAL VERRILLI: Justice Kennedy, forgive me for answering the question this way. We do recognize that there's a profound connection between liberty and equality, but the United States has advanced only an equal protection argument. We haven't made the fundamental rights argument under Glucksberg. And therefore, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me not having briefed it to comment on that.

  2. JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, can you tell me why you didn't make the fundamental argument?

  3. GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, because we think ­­well, because we think while we do see that there is, of course, this profound connection, we do think that for reasons like the ones implicit in the Chief Justice's question, that this issue really sounds in equal protection, as we understand it, because the question is equal participation in a State conferred status and institution. And that's why we think of it in equalprotection terms

As an equal protection case, it is one about sexual orientation or sex discrimination?  One of the more interesting questions was posed by Chief Justice Roberts to Bursch:

Counsel, I'm ­­ I'm not sure it's necessary to get into sexual orientation to resolve the case. I mean, if Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can't. And the difference is based upon their different sex. Why isn't that a straightforward question of sexual discrimination?

How is the state's interest in procreation related to the ban on same-sex marriage?  Justice Ginsburg, as well as others, posed questions about the elderly not being barred from marriage.
 
Is marriage a changing institution or is a constant for millennia?  Justice Ginsburg predictably noted that marriage was once "a dominant and a subordinate relationship," with women being subordinate, while Chief Justice Roberts disputed the fact that women's subordination (or coverture) was a universal aspect of marriage.
 
Does the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Article IV, guarantee a state will recognize another state's marriage?  Justice Scalia noted he was "glad" to be able to quote Article IV, "a portion of the Constitution that actually seems to be relevant," although there remained a lack of clarity in its applications.  Is a marriage a public act?  record?  judgment? 
 

The open question is whether the Court's opinion will be as predictable as the questions.

April 28, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Oral Argument Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court Finds Opening Prayer at Town Meeting Unconstitutional

In a case with similarities to Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway decided by the United States Supreme Court last year, the Supreme Court of Canada today rendered its judgment in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) finding that a prayer at a municipal council meeting violated the constitution.

MapleleafAs the Court explains the underlying facts:

S regularly attended the public meetings of the municipal council of the City of Saguenay [Quebec]. At the start of each meeting, the mayor would recite a prayer after making the sign of the cross while saying [translation] “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The prayer also ended with the sign of the cross and the same words. Other councillors and City officials would cross themselves at the beginning and end of the prayer as well. In one of the council chambers, there was a Sacred Heart statue fitted with a red electric votive light. In another, there was a crucifix hanging on the wall. S, who considers himself an atheist, felt uncomfortable with this display, which he considered religious, and asked the mayor to stop the practice. When the mayor refused, S complained to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. He argued that his freedom of conscience and religion was being infringed, contrary to ss. 3 and 10 of the Quebec Charter, and asked that the recitation of the prayer cease and that all religious symbols be removed from council chambers.

The original Tribunal found the practice unconstitutional, but the Court of Appeal held that the prayer "expressed universal values" and "could not be identified with any particular religion."  It also reasoned that the "religious symbols were works of art that were devoid of religious connotation and did not affect the state’s neutrality." According to the Court of Appeal, S had not been discriminated against on the ground of freedom of conscience and religion; any interference with S's beliefs was "trivial or insubstantial."

While some of the issues before the Supreme Court of Canada involved procedural ones regarding the appeal, the Court was clear that the municipality's practice was unconstitutional.  Similar to an analysis under the US Constitution's First Amendment, the Supreme Court of Canada grappled with issues such as hostility to religion and the "slippery slope" of other religious practices:

The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on S’s sincere atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs. The latter could participate in municipal democracy in an environment favourable to the expression of their beliefs. Although non‑believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization. This impaired S’s right to exercise his freedom of conscience and religion. The attempt at accommodation provided for in the by‑law, namely giving those who preferred not to attend the recitation of the prayer the time they needed to re‑enter the council chamber, had the effect of exacerbating the discrimination. The Tribunal’s findings to the effect that the interference with S’s freedom of conscience and religion was more than trivial or insubstantial were supported by solid evidence, and deference is owed to the Tribunal’s assessment of the effect of the prayer on S’s freedom of conscience and religion.

  Barring the municipal council from reciting the prayer would not amount to giving atheism and agnosticism prevalence over religious beliefs. There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. Moreover, it has not been established in this case that the prayer is non‑denominational. The Tribunal’s findings of fact instead tend toward the opposite result. Be that as it may, the respondents themselves conceded at the hearing that the prayer is nonetheless a religious practice. Even if it is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers. As for the proposed analogy to the prayer recited by the Speaker of the House of Commons, in the absence of evidence concerning that prayer, it would be inappropriate to use it to support a finding that the City’s prayer is valid. Finally, the reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith. The preamble articulates the political theory on which the Charter’s protections are based. The express provisions of the Canadian Charter and of the Quebec Charter, such as those regarding freedom of conscience and religion, must be given a generous and expansive interpretation. This is necessary to ensure that those to whom these charters apply enjoy the full benefit of the rights and freedoms, and that the purpose of the charters is attained.

The Court explicitly linked the state's duty of neutrality - - - akin to the First Amendment's (anti-)Establishment Clause - - - to the maintenance of a free and democratic society. "This pursuit requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs."  This principle may have special resonance when one considers the largely French (and Catholic) Quebec as compared to the other largely English (and Protestant) other provinces.

Current-judges

Unlike the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Town of Greece, the Supreme Court of Canada's judgment is not closely divided; only one Justice writes separately to discuss some of the procedural issues, but otherwise concurs.  For US ConLawProfs, City of Saguenay is well worth a comparative read.

 

April 15, 2015 in Comparative Constitutionalism, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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. 

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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). 

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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)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Second Circuit Upholds NY's Vaccination Requirement

In a relatively brief per curiam opinion in Phillips v. City of New York the Second Circuit has upheld New York's vaccination requirement to attend public school, N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 2164(7)(a), against constitutional challenges.

The court rejected arguments that the statutory vaccination requirement and its enforcement by exclusion of students from school violates substantive due process, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Ninth Amendment, as well as state and municipal law.  Important to the court's rationale, and which the opinion took care to mention even in its description of the statute, the law includes medical and religious exemptions.

VaccineThe religious exemption is most interesting in the context of this litigation.  For one plaintiff, the court affirmed the rejection of the religious basis for her sought-for exemption, agreeing with previous determinations that "her views on vaccination were primarily health‐related and did not constitute a genuine and sincere religious belief."  For another plaintiff, who had a religious exemption, the court found that the exclusion of her children from school during a vaccine-preventable outbreak of chicken pox was constitutional: "The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” quoting and citing Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166‐67 (1944).

The centerpiece of the court's analysis was predictably and correctly the Supreme Court's 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, rejecting a constitutional challenge to a state vaccination mandate.

The issue of vaccinations and constitutional challenges has received renewed attention in light of outbreaks of childhood illnesses thought to be essentially eradicated.  For example, as the LA Times reported yesterday, a recent outbreak of measles in California could be connected to vaccine-resistance:

"The current pertussis and measles outbreaks in the state are perfect examples of the consequences and costs to individuals and communities when parents choose not to vaccinate their children," [Gil] Chavez [epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health] said.

Ther have also been widespread reports of illness outbreaks in Michigan, arguably attributable to its liberal opt-out allowance for school children.

[image via]

January 8, 2015 in Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Medical Decisions, News, Religion, Science | 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)

Friday, November 14, 2014

D.C. Circuit Upholds Contraception Opt-Out for Religious Nonprofits

The D.C. Circuit today upheld HHS accommodations to religious nonprofits that object to complying with contraception requirements under agency regs and the ACA. The ruling aligns with earlier rulings from the Sixth and Seventh Circuits and means that the accommodations stay on the books. (The case is not governed by Hobby Lobby, because the plaintiffs here challenge the accommodation, not the "contraception mandate" itself. Hobby Lobby had no accommodation option.)

The case represents yet another judicial attack against the ACA and its implementation. And this issue may eventually work its way (back) to the Supreme Court. (Notre Dame filed a cert. petition in October, after losing in the Seventh Circuit.)

The case is the latest challenge to HHS regulations that allow religious nonprofits to opt-out of the "contraception mandate" by filing a form with their insurer or a letter with HHS stating their religious objection to providing contraception. (The letter to HHS is the agency's regulatory answer to the Supreme Court's action this summer that enjoined the form and held that a religious nonprofit could instead file a letter with HHS.) Plaintiffs (religious nonprofits) argue that the accommodation itself violates the RFRA (among other things), because the accommodation "triggers" the provision of contraception by third parties.

The D.C. Circuit flatly--and quite thoroughly--rejected this claim. In sum:

We conclude that the challenged regulations do not impose a substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise under RFRA. All plaintiffs must do to opt out is express what they beleive and seek what they want via a letter or two-page form. That bit of paperwork is more straightforward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations' compliance with law in the modern administrative state. Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms. The ACA shifts to health insurers and administrators the obligation to pay for and provide contraceptive coverage for insured persons who would otherwise lose it as a result of the religious accommodation.

The court held that the accommodation was merely a de minimis requirement and not a substantial burden--and therefore not subject to RFRA's strict scrutiny. "In sum, both opt-out mechanisms let eligible organizations extricate themselves fully from the burden of providing contraceptive coverage to employees, pay nothing toward such coverage, and have the providers tell the employees that their employers play no role and in no way should be seen to endorse the coverage." The court emphasized that RFRA "does not grant Plaintiffs a religious veto against plan providers' compliance with those regulations, nor the right to enlist the government to effectuate such a religious veto against legally required conduct of third parties."

The court said that even if the accommodation were a substantial burden, the court would uphold it under RFRA's strict scrutiny.  That's because "[a] confluence of compelling interests supports maintaining seamless application of contraceptive coverage to insured individuals even as Plaintiffs are excused from providing it." Examples: the benefits of planning for healthy births and avoiding unwanted pregnancy, and the promotion of equal preventive care for women. "The accommodation requires as little as it can from the objectors while still serving the government's compelling interests."

The court also clarified some important aspects of the way the accommodation works. For one, exercising the accommodation doesn't "trigger" anything; instead, it works to take the religious nonprofit entirely out of the contraception-provision business. For another, religious nonprofits' contracts with providers don't authorize or facilitate contraceptive coverage; the federal regs do. Finally, exercising the accommodation doesn't turn a religious nonprofit's plan into a "conduit for contraceptive coverage"; instead, it takes the the religious nonprofit out of the contraceptive business entirely.

 

November 14, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | 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)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Third Circuit Upholds New Jersey's Ban on Sexual Conversion Therapy Against First Amendment Challenge

Robson

Professor Ruthann Robson, City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law

The Third Circuit has upheld the constitutionality of  New Jersey A3371 banning "sexual orientation change efforts" (SOCE), also known as sexual conversion therapy, on minors in its unanimous 74 page opinion in King v. Christie, Governor of New Jersey.  

The Third Circuit affirmed the district judge's extensive opinion from last November and reached the same conclusion as the Ninth Circuit did when reviewing a very similar California statute in  Pickup v. Brown, albeit on different grounds.

  640px-Nellie_Bly-Mad-House-07The Third Circuit's opinion by Judge D. Brooks Smith (and joined by Judges Vanaskie and Sloviter),  specifically disagrees with the Ninth Circuit's conclusion that SOCE is "conduct" rather than speech, a conclusion the New Jersey district judge essentially adopted.  The Third Circuit credits some of the reasoning of Ninth Circuit Judge O'Scannlain's "spirited dissent" from en banc review in Pickup as well the Supreme Court's Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  The Third Circuit rejected the principle that there is a sustainable line between utterances that are speech and those that are treatment:

consider a sophomore psychology major who tells a fellow student that he can reduce same- sex attractions by avoiding effeminate behaviors and developing a closer relationship with his father. Surely this advice is not “conduct” merely because it seeks to apply “principles” the sophomore recently learned in a behavioral psychology course. Yet it would be strange indeed to conclude that the same words, spoken with the same intent, somehow become “conduct” when the speaker is a licensed counselor.”  . . . .  As another example, a law student who tries to convince her friend to change his political orientation is assuredly “speaking” for purposes of the First Amendment, even if she uses particular rhetorical “methods” in the process.

Yet, the court concludes that although such utterances are speech, they are not "fully protected by the First Amendment" because they occur in a professional context.  In speech that occurs pursuant to the practice of a licensed profession - - - including fortune-tellers, a case on which the court relies - - - the speech is entitled to less protection. 

Nellie_Bly-Mad-House-15Precisely, it is entitled to the same level of protection as commercial speech, although importantly the Third Circuit is careful not to hold that this professional speech is commercial speech.   In applying the intermediate scrutiny type standard derived from commercial speech, the court finds that the statute "directly advances” the government’s interest in protecting clients from ineffective and/or harmful professional services, and is “not more extensive than necessary to serve that interest.”

The court's distinction between professional and nonprofessional speech, however, may  suffer from the same lack of bright lines that it finds with the conduct/speech distinction.  The court stresses that professional speech occurs in the context of "personalized services to client based on the professional's expert knowledge and judgement."  But in rejecting an argument that the New Jersey statute makes a viewpoint distinction, the court states that the statute

allows Plaintiffs to express this viewpoint, in the form of their personal opinion, to anyone they please, including their minor clients. What A3371 prevents Plaintiffs from doing is expressing this viewpoint in a very specific way—by actually rendering the professional services that they believe to be effective and beneficial.

The Third Circuit's opinion also considered the challenge that the statute was vague and overbroad, noting that the Plaintiffs themselves claim to specialize in the very practice they argue is not sufficiently defined.  Similarly, the Third Circuit rejected the Free Exercise Clause claim, affirmed the district judge's conclusion on lack of standing to raise the claims of the minor clients (with some disagreement as to reasoning), and also affirmed on the intervention of an organization.

However, it is the free speech claim that it is the center of this controversy, with the Third Circuit carving out a "professional speech" category, in a disagreement with the Ninth Circuit (and on similar issues with other circuits as it notes), but clearly upholding the statute.

 [images from "Ten Days in a Mad House, Nellie Bly, via]

September 11, 2014 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Utah District Judge Finalizes Judgment on Unconstitutionality of Polygamy Prohibition

In a brief  Memorandum and Judgment  in Brown v Herbert federal district judge Clark Waddoups has finalized his conclusion - - - and made appealable - - - his previous decision that Utah's anti-bigamy statute is partially unconstitutional.  

Recall that the Utah provision at issue criminalized bigamy as defined as including when a married person "purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person."  

Sister-wives-419-250x150The challengers to the statute, the Browns, are famous from the reality program Sister Wives and the accompanying book.  The show includes "commitment ceremonies" between Cody brown and subsequent wives.   They are represented by ConLawProf Jonathan Turley who blogs about this judgment, including the possibilities of appeal, here.

It does seem that given the breadth of the statutory proscription on "bigamy" that includes  cohabitation, an appeal might be ill-advised.   A strict enforcement of the statute would mean that anyone whose divorce was not final and who cohabited with another person might be guilty of bigamy. 

[image via]

August 28, 2014 in Due Process (Substantive), Fourteenth Amendment, 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)

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)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Second Circuit: No Establishment Clause Violation for Cross at the Ground Zero Museum

Affirming the opinion of United States District Judge Deborah Batts, the Second Circuit's opinion in American Atheists v. Port of Authority of NY and NJ held that there is no Establishment Clause violation when the National Museum at the former World Trade Center towers destroyed on September 11, often colloquially known as the "Ground Zero" Museum or the September 11 Museum, chose to display a large Latin cross.

Importantly, the cross is placed in the museum's Historical Exhibition in the section, “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” as part of the September 11 historical narrative.   On appeal, the American Atheists seemingly narrowed the original challenge and argued that the defendants  "impermissibly promote Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause and deny atheists equal protection of the laws by displaying The Cross at Ground Zero in the Museum unaccompanied by some item acknowledging that atheists were among the victims and rescuers on September 11."

The unanimous panel's 42 page opinion applies Lemon v. Kurtzman to the Establishment Clause issue and much more briefly considers the equal protection argument. 

Here's the court's summary of its conclusion:

1. Displaying The Cross at Ground Zero in the National September 11 Museum does not violate the Establishment Clause because:

a. the stated purpose of displaying The Cross at Ground Zero to tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy is genuine, and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular;

b. an objective observer would not view the display as endorsing religion generally, or Christianity specifically, because it is part of an exhibit entitled “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero”; the exhibit includes various nonreligious as well as religious artifacts that people at Ground Zero used for solace; and the textual displays accompanying the cross communicate its historical significance within this larger context; and

c. there is no evidence that the static display of this genuine historic artifact excessively entangles the government with religion.


2. In the absence of any Establishment Clause violation or any evidence of discriminatory animus toward atheists, the Museum did not deny equal protection by displaying The Cross at Ground Zero and refusing plaintiffs’ request to fund an accompanying symbol commemorating atheists.

 It would be doubtful if this case goes any further; the cross at the museum looks as if it is there to stay.

Ground_Zero_Cross

image via

August 1, 2014 in Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | 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)

Seventh Circuit Finds Indiana's Clergy-Only Marriage Solemnization Statute Violates the First Amendment

In its 11 page opinion  today in Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, a panel of the Seventh Circuit has held Indiana  Code §31-­11-­6-­1 violates the First Amendment.  The provision specifies who can solemnize a marriage and includes "religious officials designated by religious groups but omits equivalent officials of secular groups such as humanist societies."   The plaintiffs, a humanist group and a leader of the group deemed a "secular celebrant," were not allowed to solemnize a marriage unless they obtained clergy credentials or "called themselves a religion."

Judge Easterbrook, writing for the unanimous panel, stated that it is unconstitutional to make distinctions between "religious and secular beliefs that hold the same place in adherents’ lives," citing the well known conscientous objector cases of Welsh and Seeger, as well as Torasco v. Watkins, and the Seventh Circuit precedent regarding accommodations for atheists in prison.  There is not, Easterbrook wrote, an "ability to favor religions over non-­‐‑theistic groups that have moral stances that are equivalent to theistic ones except for non-­‐‑belief in God or unwillingness to call themselves religions."

The_solemnisation_of_the_marriage_of_Prince_James_Francis_Edward_Stuart_and_Princess_Maria_Clementina_Sobieska_(Montefiascone_1_September_1719)_by_Agostino_Masucci
The solemnisation of the marriage of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart and Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska (Montefiascone 1 September 1719) by Agostino Masucci via
 

As for Indiana's argument that the humanists were not actually being excluded from solemnizing marriages under the statute, the court had this to say:

Adherents to faiths with clergy can be married in two steps: first they obtain a license, Ind. Code §31-­11-­4-­1, and then they have the marriage solemnized by a priest or equivalent person in the list in §31-­11-­6-­1. (Plaintiffs do not challenge the licensure statute, because religion is irrelevant to that procedure.) Humanists could achieve the same result in three steps: first get a license, then have a humanist celebrant perform a public ceremony appropriate to their beliefs, and finally have a clerk of court or similar functionary solemnize the marriage. That’s true enough—but it just restates the discrimination of which plaintiffs complain. Lutherans can solemnize their marriage in public ceremonies conducted by people who share their fundamental beliefs; humanists can’t. Humanists’ ability to carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in a back office, does not address the injury of which plaintiffs complain.

 Interestingly, the opinion also had something to say about the equal protection problems of the statutory scheme, noting that the distinctions between religions that have clergy and those that do not as well as "the state’s willingness to recognize marriages performed by hypocrites," violate the Equal Protection Clause:

It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a “religion.” It is absurd to give the Church of Satan, whose high priestess avows that her powers derive from having sex with Satan, and the Universal Life Church, which sells credentials to anyone with a credit card, a preferred position over Buddhists, who emphasize love and peace. A marriage solemnized by a self-­declared hypocrite would leave a sour taste in the couple’s mouths; like many others, humanists want a ceremony that celebrates their values, not the “values” of people who will say or do whatever it takes to jump through some statutory hoop.

The court found Indiana's reliance on the Supreme Court's most recent Establishment Clause decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway inapposite, easily distinguishing Galloway as not being about the regulation of private conduct as the Indiana solemnization statute was.

The decision could pave the way for other First Amendment challenges to solemnization statutes that provide a special status for religious clergy.

July 14, 2014 in Equal Protection, Family, First Amendment, 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)

Monday, July 7, 2014

More on the Wheaton College Ruling

Tom Goldstein and Marty Lederman debated the impact of the Wheaton College ruling on contraception coverage for Wheaton College students and employees (and, by extension, other religious non-profits' employees) over at SCOTUSblog.  The back-and-forth provides a nice window into the more technical aspects of the somewhat mysterious ruling.

At the core of the debate: whether federal regs allow the government to treat Wheaton College's health insurer as a "plan administrator" under ERISA, even if Wheaton College doesn't file Form 700.  (Recall that the Court enjoined the government's use of Form 700 against Wheaton College and said that Wheaton College could instead file a letter stating its religious objections.  Wheaton College's health insurer is only required to provide free contraceptive coverage if it is a "plan administrator" under ERISA.)  Marty argues that it's complicated, and that without Form 700 there may be no regulatory trigger for the government to treat the insurer as a "plan administrator" and therefore to require it to provide free contraceptive coverage.  Tom argues that it's not so complicated: the regs allow the government to designate other forms (like the Court's letter) to treat an insurer as a "plan administrator."  All the government has to do is so designate the letter  (Underscoring Tom's interpretation: the Court wrote in its Order that "[n]othing in this order precludes the Government from relying on this notice [the letter by Wheaton], to the extent it considers it necessary, to facilitate the provision of full contraception coverage under the Act."  That seems to say that the Court sees its letter as potentially triggering the treatment of Wheaton College's insurer as a "plan administrator.")

In a separate post, Tom theorizes about Justice Breyer's position in the case.

July 7, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Court Enjoins Religious Exemption for Contraception Mandate

The Supreme Court this week enjoined the exemption for religious non-profits from the requirement that employer group-health insurance plans include contraceptives.  That exemption allowed a religious nonprofit to notify its health insurer or third-party administrator (using "EBSA Form 700") that it had a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage; at that point, the insurer or administrator would have to provide contraceptives directly to the organization's employees, free of charge.  This week's short, unsigned Order halted the use of EBSA Form 700 and said that petitioner Wheaton College, a religious college in Wheaton, Illinois, could instead write a letter to HHS informing the agency that it is a religious organization and that it has a religious objection to providing coverage for contraceptive services.

In short, the ruling replaced HHS's process for religious exemption (EBSA Form 700) with its own (a letter to HHS). 

The ruling strikes a second serious blow to the contraception requirement.  (The first came earlier this week in Hobby Lobby, which allowed closely-held, for-profit corporations to exempt themselves from certain contraceptives under the requirement, but almost certainly opened up a much wider hole in the requirement (and potentially in many other government regulations).)  The Court was careful to write that its ruling was not a conclusion on the merits.  But it's hard to read it any other way, particularly in light of the mertis discussion in the dissent, the fact that the Court drafted its own exemption procedure for religious non-profits (supplanting HHS's procedure), and the Court's suggestion that it'll take up the merits soon enough.

The ruling isn't clear on how religious non-profits' insurers or administrators will have to provide contraceptive coverage.  Here's the problem: The insurers or administrators only have to provide contraceptive coverage directly to employees upon learning that a religious non-profit objects, usually through receipt of the EBSA Form 700; but the Court's Order says that Wheaton College and by extension other religious non-profits don't have to complete that form.  This leaves it to HHS to figure out whether and how to require insurers and administrators to provide contraceptive coverage directly to the organization's employees.

The Order is strange on several levels.  For one, it replaced the HHS exemption (EBSA Form 700) with its own (a letter to HHS).  But it's not at all clear that the Court's exemption is any less intrusive on Wheaton College's freedom of religion (at least as the College has defined it in challenging EBSA Form 700): Why is writing a letter to HHS any less intrusive than filing Form 700 and sending it to the insurers and administrators?  Wheaton College claimed that the mere certification of its religious objection to the contraception requirement violated its religion (because it made Wheaton College complicit in someone else providing contraception), so why is the letter any better than the form? 

For another, it's also not clear why the Court would take such an aggressive action (essentially overruling a valid federal rule and replacing it with its own) at this stage of the litigation (on an application for an injunction), when the circuits are split on the issue (which, as the dissent points out, has been a basis for denying an injunction by some of the very justices who joined the Court in this Order (including Chief Justice Roberts)).  This hardly seems like a Court merely calling balls and strikes.

For yet another, the Order seems inconsistent with the Court's ruling just earlier this week in Hobby Lobby.  In that case, the majority pointed to HHS's exemption for religious non-profits (the exact same exemption at issue here) as evidence that the contraception requirement for closely held for-profits wasn't narrowly tailored--that is, that the exemption was a way that the government could achieve its interest in providing contraception while still giving closely held for-profits an out.  Yet in this later ruling, the Court stepped back from that exemption and replaced it with its own.

Finally, there's the strangeness that a government-created religious exemption could itself violate free religion.  This is the point that Judge Posner made so strongly in his opinion rejecting Notre Dame's challenge to the exemption.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a lengthy and vigorous dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, covering everything from the extraordinary relief the Court granted under the very high standard of the All Writs Act to the merits.  She also distinguished the Little Sisters case, in which the Court also allowed a letter to replace the EBSA Form 700: Little Sister's third-party administrator was itself a church plan and exempt from the contraception requirement, so nobody's access to contraception was affected.  Here, the Court's injunction risks depriving employees of Wheaton College of contraception, because the insurer or the administrator only have to provide it upon receipt of the EBSA Form 700.  But under the Court's Order, they won't receive the EBSA Form 700.

As with Hobby Lobby, it's clear that this ruling will extend far beyond the facts of this particular case, likely even farther than the Court itself thought.  How far?  As with Hobby Lobby, only time will tell.

July 5, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)