Monday, September 19, 2016

Divided Fourth Circuit Upholds County Commissioner's Prayer

In its divided opinion in Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit has held that the identity of the person leading a prayer opening the county Board of Commissioners meeting is irrelevant - - - even a prayer led by a Board member is within the ambit of Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) and without a First Amendment Establishment Clause problem.

As the majority opinion, authored by Judge Steven Agee and joined by Judge Dennis Shedd, describes it:

At most Board meetings, the chairperson would call the meeting to order and invite the Board and audience to stand for the ceremonial opening. A designated commissioner would then deliver an invocation of his or her choosing followed by the pledge of allegiance. The content of each invocation was entirely in the discretion of the respective commissioner; the Board, as a Board, had no role in prayer selection or content. The overwhelming majority of the prayers offered by the commissioners invoked the Christian faith in some form. For example, prayers frequently included references to “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Lord.”  It was also typical for the invocation to begin with some variant of “let us pray” or “please pray with me.” Id. Although not required to do so, the audience largely joined the commissioners in standing and bowing their heads during the prayer and remained standing for the pledge of allegiance.

Louis-Émile_Minet_Les_CharitonsThe litigation was begun before the United States Supreme Court issued its sharply divided opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway upholding the practice of the town beginning its meetings with invited religious leaders providing prayers.  The Court essentially extended Marsh v. Chambers (1983), regarding legislative prayer in the Nebraska legislature, to town meetings despite their quasi-legislative and quasi-adjudicative function.  The Fourth Circuit extends Town of Greece to prayers by the elected officials (and arguably adjudicators) themselves: "the Supreme Court attached no significance to the speakers' identities in its analysis" of either Town of Greece or Marsh.  Indeed, as the Fourth Circuit majority notes, Justice Kennedy writing for the plurality in Town of Greece averred that the "principal audience" for the prayers is not the public but "lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing."  The Fourth Circuit therefore found that the district judge's conclusion that legislative prayer led by a legislator violates the Establishment Clause.

Judge Agee's opinion for the Fourth Circuit majority then took up the question of whether "some other facet" of the Board of Commissioner's praying practice took it "outside the protective umbrella of legislative prayer."  These four "guideposts" included the selection of the legislative prayer, the content of the prayer, selection of the prayer-giver, and the effect of the prayer "over time" as advancing a particular religion.  Judge Agee's opinion rejected each of these concerns.  First, the selection of the legislative prayer was not done by the "Board as a whole," but each of the five commissioners was in effect "a free agent."  Second, the majority found the content not objectionable because it did not cross the line into proselytizing: "There is no prayer in the record asking those who may hear it to convert to the prayer-giver’s faith or belittling those who believe differently. And even if there were, it is the practice as a whole -- not a few isolated incidents -- which controls." Third, the selection of the prayer-givers was not problematic, even though it was limited to the five commissioners.  The majority opinion here comes close to requiring a type of specific motive: "Absent proof the Board restricted the prayer opportunity among the commissioners as part of an effort to promote only Christianity, we must view its decision to rely on lawmaker-led prayer as constitutionally insignificant."  Fourth and last, the majority found no problem based on its analogies to Town of Greece and Marsh, in which the prayers were overwhelmingly Christian.

All-falling-faithsFor Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, dissenting, the prayer practices of the Rowan County Commissioners crossed the constitutional line into a violation of the Establishment Clause. Wilkinson, whose forthcoming book argues that the 1960s  were damaging "to our need for the sustenance of faith," here concludes that Rowan County is not welcoming to various faiths. He does not argue that the commissioner as prayer-leader is determinative, but it is one of the factors that distinguishes the Rowan County practice from Town of Greece, that makes it "a conceptual world apart."  For Wilkinson:

I have seen nothing like it. This combination of legislators as the sole prayer-givers, official invitation for audience participation, consistently sectarian prayers referencing but a single faith, and the intimacy of a local governmental setting exceeds even a broad reading of Town of Greece. That case in no way sought to dictate the outcome of every legislative prayer case.

Wilkinson's opinion provides several examples that the plaintiffs, all non-Christians, found "overtly sectarian," including:

Our Heavenly Father, we will never, ever forget that we are not alive unless your life is in us. We are the recipients of your immeasurable grace. We can’t be defeated, we can’t be destroyed, and we won’t be denied, because of our salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. I ask you to be with us as we conduct the business of Rowan County this evening, and continue to bless everyone in this room, our families, our friends, and our homes. I ask all these things in the name of Jesus, Amen.”

Judge Wilkinson noted that the "closed universe" of prayer-givers - - - the five Commissioners - - - over a period of years had led to a constriction in the religious identities represented that could communicate a message of non-belonging to citizens coming before the Board.  But Wilkinson's concern also extended into a concern about representative secular democracy itself:

Entrenching this single faith reality takes us one step closer to a de facto religious litmus test for public office. When delivering the same sectarian prayers becomes embedded legislative custom, voters may wonder what kind of prayer a candidate of a minority religious persuasion would select if elected. Failure to pray in the name of the prevailing faith risks becoming a campaign issue or a tacit political debit, which in turn deters those of minority faiths from seeking office. It should not be so.

The United States Supreme Court's now-eight Justices may not be eager to welcome another government prayer case into the docket so soon after the 5-4 decision Town of Greece, especially one that might result in a 4-4 split, affirming the Fourth Circuit's opinion.  And yet?  Perhaps the Rowan County Board of Commissioners prayer practices might be a step too far for one of the Justices who joined the Court's majority in Town of Greece?  Or perhaps for the Fourth Circuit en banc? 

 

[image via]

September 19, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ninth Circuit Upholds Upholds California Ban on Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy Against Religion Clauses Challenge

In a sequel to the Ninth Circuit's 2013 decision in Pickup v. Brown upholding California's SB 1172, prohibiting licensed therapists from performing what is known variously as sexual conversion therapy, reparative therapy, or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) on minors under the age of 18, the Ninth Circuit upheld the same law against a facial challenge based upon the First Amendment's Religion Clauses in its relatively brief opinion in  Welch v. Brown.

The panel in Welsh - - - the same panel as in Pickup - - - held that the SB 1172 violated neither the Establishment Clause nor the Free Exercise Clause.  The panel rejected the challengers' interpretation of the law as applying to members of the clergy because the law specifically exempts religious clergy "as long as they do not hold themselves out as operating pursuant" to any therapist licenses. 

The panel also rejected the contention that the law has the primary effect of inhibiting religion. That some minors who seek sexual orientation conversion may have religious motivations does not rise to the level of an inhibition of religion, especially given that the law was not targeted at religious motivated conduct.  The panel noted that the law's legislative findings focused on "social stigmatization" and "family rejection" rather than religiosity.  The panel likewise rejected the Free Exercise Clause claim that the law was not neutral as to religion based on the same rationales and cited the Third Circuit's similar conclusion regarding New Jersey's prohibition of sexual conversion therapy in King v. Christie.

The court also reiterated its rejection of any "privacy" claim based on its previous analysis in Pickup.

So far, challenges to state prohibitions of sexual conversion therapy for minors have had little success.

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 [image via]

 

August 24, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Disability, Due Process (Substantive), Establishment Clause, Family, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

District Judge Rules RFRA Exemption in Transgender Title VII Case

In his opinion and order in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, United States District Judge Sean Cox of the Eastern District of Michigan, the judge held that the funeral home is "entitled to a RFRA exemption from Title VII and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it."

The funeral home, a for-profit closely-held corporation, relied upon the United States Supreme Court's closely-divided and controversial decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) which allowed a religious exemption under RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to a federal requirement in the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) that employers provide health insurance to employees that includes contraceptive coverage. 

800px-Snow_White_Coffin_CarriedRather than contraception, the issue in Harris Funeral Homes is the funeral home's sex-specific dress code and its termination of Stephens, an employee transitioning from male to female for failure to wear the mandated male-specific clothing.  The primary shareholder of the funeral home, Thomas Rost, stated his beliefs that the Bible teaches "that a person's sex is an immutable God-given gift" and "that is wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman."  More importantly for his RFRA claim, Rost stated that he himself “would be violating God’s commands” if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home’s biologically-male-born funeral directors to wear the skirt-suit uniform for female directors while at work, because Rost “would be directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

Recall that under RFRA, a threshold question is whether the person's religious belief are sincerely held.  Hobby Lobby having determined that a company's major shareholder's belief is the relevant one, the EEOC conceded that the "Funeral Home's religious beliefs are sincerely held."  The next question is whether the neutral law of general applicability - - - here, Title VII - - - is a substantial burden on the person's religious beliefs.  The district judge found that allowing an employee to wear a skirt would impose a substantial burden on the ability of Rost to conduct his business in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs and that the economic consequences of back pay would be "severe."  The burden then shifts in RFRA to the government to satisfy strict scrutiny as well as a least restrictive means requirement.  Recall that the stated purpose of Congress in passing RFRA was to "restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner" (1964),  which Congress believed the Court had departed from in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), although Congress also added the "least restrictive means" language.

And in his Harris Funeral Homes decision, Judge Cox ultimately relied on the least restrictive means requirement. However, first Judge Cox treated the traditional strict scrutiny questions.  Judge Cox assumed "without deciding" that the EEOC had a compelling governmental interest, although Judge Cox expressed doubts whether this was true.  Indeed, Judge Cox interpreted the passage in Hobby Lobby stating that the decision provided "no such shield" to equal employment laws (and thus refuting a claim made by the dissent) as essentially dicta:

This Court does not read that paragraph as indicating that a RFRA defense can never prevail as a defense to Title VII or that Title VII is exempt from the focused analysis set forth by the majority. If that were the case, the majority would presumably have said so. It did not.

Moreover, Judge Cox relied on Hobby Lobby to contend that a general interest in ending employment discrimination is not sufficient, it must be focused on the particular person burdened: "even if the Government can show that the law is in furtherance of a generalized or broad compelling interest, it must still demonstrate the compelling interest is satisfied through application of the law to the Funeral Home under the facts of this case." (italics in original).  Although Judge Cox wrote that he "fails to see how the EEOC has met its requisite 'to the person'-focused showing," he nevertheless stated he would assume it was met.

As to the least restrictive means, Judge Cox's solution is a gender-neutral dress code:

Yet the EEOC has not challenged the Funeral Home’s sex-specific dress code, that requires female employees to wear a skirt-suit and requires male employees to wear a suit with pants and a neck tie, in this action. If the EEOC were truly interested in eliminating gender stereotypes as to clothing in the workplace, it presumably would have attempted to do so.

Rather than challenge the sex-specific dress code, the EEOC takes the position that Stephens has the right, under Title VII, to “dress as a woman” or wear “female clothing” while working at the Funeral Home. That is, the EEOC wants Stephens to be permitted to dress in a stereotypical feminine manner (wearing a skirt-suit), in order to express Stephens’s gender identity.

If the EEOC truly has a compelling governmental interest in ensuring that Stephens is not subject to gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of required clothing at the Funeral Home, couldn’t the EEOC propose a gender-neutral dress code (dark-colored suit, consisting of a matching business jacket and pants, but without a neck tie) as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here? Both women and men wear professional-looking pants and pants-suits in the workplace in this country, and do so across virtually all professions.

[footnotes omitted].

Of course, the courts have not ruled favorably on challenges to sex-specific dress and grooming codes in the employment context. 

Interestingly, Judge Cox also rejected the EEOC's gender discrimination claim based on the funeral home company's clothing allowance policy: there is a monetary clothing allowance to male employees but not female employees.  Judge Cox found that this issue was not properly brought by the EEOC. 

The EEOC is sure to appeal.  If individual employers can claim exemptions to Title VII under RFRA, it could have widespread consequences.

Although it is also possible that a new Congress could amend RFRA.

 [image via]

August 18, 2016 in Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Texas Attorney General Opinion: Prayer to Start Court Is Constitutional

Controversial Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued an opinion today that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause is not violated if court were opened with a prayer.  He stated:

A court would likely conclude that a Justice of the Peace's practice of opening daily court proceedings with a prayer by a volunteer chaplain as you describe is sufficiently similar to the facts in Galloway such that the practice does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Galloway is the United States Supreme Court's sharply divided 2014 opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway which involved a town board meeting. Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court in Galloway repeated referred to the issue as whether the "legislative prayer" approved by the Court in Marsh v. Chambers (1983) as part of a historical practice extended to a local legislature, despite the fact that some non-legislative functions occurred at the town board.  In the dissent for four Justices, Justice Kagan essentially argued that a prayer at the beginning of a trial was clearly unconstitutional.  Indeed, in his separate concurring opinion, Justice Alito seemingly agreed:

I am troubled by the message that some readers may take from the principal dissent’s rhetoric and its highly imaginative hypotheticals. For example, the principal dissent conjures up the image of a litigant awaiting trial who is asked by the presiding judge to rise for a Christian prayer, of an official at a polling place who conveys the expectation that citizens wishing to vote make the sign of the cross before casting their ballots, and of an immigrant seeking naturalization who is asked to bow her head and recite a Christian prayer. Although I do not suggest that the implication is intentional, I am concerned that at least some readers will take these hypotheticals as a warning that this is where today’s decision leads—to a country in which religious minorities are denied the equal benefits of citizenship.

Nothing could be further from the truth. All that the Court does today is to allow a town to follow a practice that we have previously held is permissible for Congress and state legislatures. In seeming to suggest otherwise, the principal dissent goes far astray.

At least for Attorney General Ken Paxton,  Justice Kagan's hypothetical was not as "highly imaginative" as Justice Alito averred.  Paxton's opinion recognizes that the only United States Circuit court opinion to directly consider the issue, North Carolina Civil Liberties Union Legal Found. v. Constangy (4th Cir. 1991), found opening court with prayers unconstitutional, but Paxton opines "other courts deciding the issue may disagree with Constangy that prayer in judicial settings lacks historical foundation."  Thus, Paxton states that "a Justice of the Peace's practice of opening daily court proceedings with a prayer by a volunteer chaplain," would  not violate the Establishment Clause.

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[image: Henry VIII at prayer with Black Book of the Garter via ]

 

August 15, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Interpretation, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Federal Judge Issues Preliminary Injunction Against Mississippi Law Seeking to Protect LGBT Discrimination

In a 60 page opinion in Barber v. Bryant, United States District Judge Carlton Reeves (pictured below) found Mississippi HB 1523, set to become effective July 1, constitutionally problematical under both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, and thus preliminary enjoined its enforcement.

The bill, Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," sought to insulate the specific "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions" that:
(a)  Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b)  Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c)  Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

Judge Reeves characterized HB 1523 as a predictable overreaction to the Court's same-sex marriage opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges a year ago.  In discussing the debates around the HB 152 and its texts, Judge Reeves also noted that the challenges to HB 1523 were also predictable, providing his rationale for consolidating the four cases.

Judge Reeves then considered standing of the various plaintiffs as well as Eleventh Amendment immunity, followed by the established preliminary injunction standards which have at their heart the "substantial likelihood of success on the merits."

On the Equal Protection claim, Judge Reeves relied on Romer v. Evans, and found that the legislative history established animus in intent:

The title, text, and history of HB 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell. The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions. LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were “put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres” to symbolize their second-class status.

CarltonReeves
Judge Carlton Reeves via

Judge Reeves also found that the law would have a discriminatory effect.  Judge Reeves applied the lowest level of scrutiny, but found that even "under this generous standard, HB 1523 fails." He agreed  with the State's contention that HB 1523 furthers its “legitimate governmental interest in protecting religious beliefs and expression and preventing citizens from being forced to act against those beliefs by their government" is a "legitimate governmental interest."  But concluded that the interest is "not one with any rational relationship to HB 1523."  Indeed, the court declared that "deprivation of equal protection of the laws is HB 1523’s very essence."

On the Establishment Clause claim, Judge Reeves rehearsed the history of the Clause before focusing on two conclusions: HB 1523 "establishes an official preference for certain religious beliefs over others" and "its broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens."For this latter point, Judge Reeves interestingly relied on and distinguished the recent controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby construing RFRA to confer a religious conscience accommodation to closely-held corporations:

The difference is that the Hobby Lobby Court found that the religious accommodation in question would have “precisely zero” effect on women seeking contraceptive coverage, and emphasized that corporations do not “have free rein to take steps that impose disadvantages on others.” The critical lesson is that religious accommodations must be considered in the context of their impact on others.

Unlike Hobby Lobby, HB 1523 disadvantages recusing employees’ coworkers and results in LGBT citizens being personally and immediately confronted with a denial of service.

[citations omitted].

 Judge Reeves opinion is careful and well-reasoned, but is nevertheless sure to be appealed by Mississippi officials unless they alter their litigation posture.

 

July 1, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Daily Read: Clay v. United States (1971)

With the reported death of Muhammad Ali, f/k/a Cassius Clay, a look back at Clay v. United States (1971) seems appropriate. 

In Clay, the Court reversed Ali's conviction for "willful refusal to submit to induction into the armed forces." 

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Bust photographic portrait of Muhammad Ali in 1967. World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg via

The Department of Justice had asserted that Ali's claim for conscientious objector status did not meet the "religious" requirement, even as it had previously been expanded in the now-classic cases of United States v. Seeger (1965) and Welsh v. United States (1970).  The Department of Justice had stated:

‘It seems clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad. * * * It is therefore our conclusion that registrant's claimed objections to participation in war insofar as they are based upon the teachings of the Nation of Islam, rest on grounds which primarily are political and racial.’

However, the Department of Justice abandoned that argument before the United States Supreme Court:

In this Court the Government has now fully conceded that the petitioner's beliefs are based upon ‘religious training and belief,’ as defined in United States v. Seeger,  ‘There is no dispute that petitioner's professed beliefs were founded on basic tenets of the Muslim religion, as he understood them, and derived in substantial part from his devotion to Allah as the Supreme Being. Thus, under this Court's decision in United States v. Seeger, his claim unquestionably was within the ‘religious training and belief’ clause of the exemption provision.' [quoting the DOJ Brief].  This concession is clearly correct. For the record shows that the petitioner's beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them. They are surely no less religiously based than those of the three registrants before this Court in Seeger. See also Welsh v. United States.

[citations and footnote omitted]

A unanimous Supreme Court thus reversed the conviction in a per curiam opinion. (Thurgood Marshall, who had been Solicitor General, recused himself).

Justice William Douglas, in his inimitable style, concurred separately with a discourse on the Koran and the meaning of “jihad.” Douglas concluded:"What Clay's testimony adds up to is that he believes only in war as sanctioned by the Koran, that is to say, a religious war against nonbelievers. All other wars are unjust."

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America, the 2000 book by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace and subsequent 2013 HBO televised drama center on the litigation.

 

 

June 4, 2016 in Books, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Religion, Sports, Supreme Court (US), Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Dodging Merits, Court Sends Contraception Mandate Cases Back to Circuits

The Supreme Court today issued a per curiam opinion in Zubik v. Burwell, dodging the question whether the government's accommodation to its contraception mandate under the ACA violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and remanding the case to give the parties a chance to settle in a way that would satisfy everybody's interests. Here's our last post on the case.

The ruling means that religious nonprofits and the government will have a chance to work out their differences and arrive at an accommodation that would both (1) "accommodate[] petitioners' religious exercise" and (2) "ensur[e] that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'" But the parties will do this separately in the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits, leading to the possibility that the results will be different, and possibly come back to the Supreme Court next Term.

Whatever happens in the lower courts, however, today's ruling virtual ensures that the issue won't resurface for a ruling at the Supreme Court before the fall elections.

Today's result came about after the Court asked the parties, post-argument, to brief whether "contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners' employees, through petitioners' insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners." Both parties said this could happen. In particular, the non-profits said that their religious freedom wouldn't be infringed if they didn't have to do anything "more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception," even if their employees would receive free contraception coverage from the same insurance company. The government, for its part, said that it could modify its accommodation and still ensure that women get seamless contraceptive coverage.

The Court was quite careful to say that this is not a ruling on the merits.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred, underscoring that this isn't a ruling on the merits--or even a signal on the merits--and that lower courts would be wrong to interpret it as such. She also underscored the Court's statements that the parties could fashion an accommodation seamlessly--that is, without establishing a new, separate policy for contraception.

The ruling sends the cases back to the lower courts, gives everyone a chance to figure out how to accommodate everyone's interests, and puts the issue off until after the fall elections (at least).

May 16, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tenth Circuit: Utah's Ban on Polygamous Cohabitation and Marriage Stands

The Tenth Circuit has ruled that the Browns - - - of Sister Wives reality television fame - - - cannot challenge Utah's ban on polygamous cohabitation and marriage under Article III judicial power constraints.  In its opinion in Brown v. Buhman, the unanimous three judge panel found that the matter was moot. 

Recall that federal district judge Clark Waddoups finalized his conclusion from his previous opinion that Utah's anti-bigamy statute is partially unconstitutional. The statute, Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101, provides:

  •             (1) A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.
  •             (2) Bigamy is a felony of the third degree.
  •             (3) It shall be a defense to bigamy that the accused reasonably believed he and the other person were legally eligible to remarry.

 [emphasis added].  Judge Waddoups concluded that the "the cohabitation prong does not survive rational basis review under the substantive due process analysis."  This analysis implicitly imported a type of equal protection analysis, with the judge concluding:

Adultery, including adulterous cohabitation, is not prosecuted. Religious cohabitation, however, is subject to prosecution at the limitless discretion of local and State prosecutors, despite a general policy not to prosecute religiously motivated polygamy. The court finds no rational basis to distinguish between the two, not least with regard to the State interest in protecting the institution of marriage.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit panel held that the district judge should not have addressed the constitutional claims because the case was moot.  Even assuming the Browns had standing when the complaint was filed, any credible threat of prosecution was made moot by a Utah County Attorney's Office (UCAO) 2012 policy which stated that "the UCAO will prosecute only those who (1) induce a partner to marry through misrepresentation or (2) are suspected of committing a collateral crime such as fraud or abuse."  The opinion stated that nothing "in the record" suggested that Browns fit into this category and additionally, there was an affirmation from the defendant that "the UCAO had 'determined that no other prosecutable crimes related to the bigamy allegation have been or are being committed by the Browns in Utah County as of the date of this declaration. ' ”

The opinion found that the "voluntary cessation" exception to mootness was not applicable because that was intended to prevent gamesmanship: a government actor could simply reenact the challenged policy after the litigation is dismissed. 

Yet the problem, of course, is that the statute remains "on the books" and the policy is simply not to enforce it except in limited cases.  The court rejected all of the Browns' arguments that the UCAO statement did not moot the challenge to the constitutionality of the statute including a precedential one; the possibility that a new Utah County Attorney could enforce the statute; the failure of defendant, the present Utah County Attorney, to renounce the statute's constitutionality; and the tactical motives of the defendant, the present Utah County Attorney, in adopting the policy.  The court stated:

The first point misreads the case law, the second is speculative, the third is minimally relevant, and the fourth may actually assure compliance with the UCAO Policy because any steps to reconsider would almost certainly provoke a new lawsuit against him. Such steps also would damage Mr. Buhman’s credibility as a public official and might even expose him to prosecution for perjury and contempt of federal court for violating his declaration. Assessing the veracity of the UCAO Policy must account for all relevant factors, which together show no credible threat of prosecution of the Browns.

Thus, like other criminal statutes that are said to have fallen into "desuetude," the statute seems immune from constitutional challenge.

In a very brief section, the court does note that the plaintiffs no longer live in Utah, but have moved to Nevada, another rationale supporting mootness.  The Nevada move is discussed in the video below featuring some of the children involved.

 

 

 

 

April 12, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Mootness, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexuality, Standing, Television | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Not Much New in Oral Arguments in Contraceptive-Requirement Accommodation Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Zubik v. Burwell, the case testing whether the government's accommodation to the contraceptive requirement for religious nonprofits violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our preview is here.

The big news is, well, that there's no big news. Nothing new came out in oral arguments, and the justices' questions seemed only to put their positions on public display or to help them write their mostly-already-decided decisions. The Court spent plenty of time on how the accommodation works (and therefore whether it's a substantial burden), and whether there are other ways the government can achieve its interests (and therefore whether the accommodation is narrowly tailored). The number and types of exceptions already built into the requirement will clearly play a part in the decisions (because they show, or don't, how the accommodation isn't narrowly tailored, depending on your view). The question where the government does, or can, draw the line between religious nonprofits and churches will also be important (for the same reason). But none of this is really new.

The justices seemed to divide four-four, traditional progressives for the government and traditional conservatives for the nonprofits. Justice Kennedy may have left himself a small (very small) opening to go with the progressives; but if he does, it'll be on narrowly tailoring. (Justice Kennedy bought the nonprofits' theory that the government accommodation "hijacked" their insurance coverage--"hijack" being the word of the day for the nonprofits and the conservatives--and therefore created a substantial burden on their religious practice.)

If there's a four-four split, the lower courts' decisions will stand. This means, without some other action by the Court, that the accommodation will be invalid only in the Eighth Circuit--the only one to rule for the nonprofits so far--and valid in the rest of the country.

March 24, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Argument Preview: Does the Accommodation to the Contraception Requirement Violate Religious Freedom?

The Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in, Zubik v. Burwell, the case challenging the government's accommodation to the Affordable Care Act's contraception requirement under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Here's my preview of the case for the ABA Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

ISSUE

Does the federal accommodation to the contraceptive-coverage requirement for religious nonprofits substantially burden their religious practices, and, if so, is the accommodation the least restrictive way to promote a compelling government interest?

FACTS

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “Act,” “Affordable Care Act,” or sometimes called “Obamacare”) requires health insurers and employer-sponsored group health plans to provide certain preventive services to their customers without imposing copayments, deductibles, or other cost-sharing charges. Congress included this requirement in order to encourage individuals to get appropriate preventive care and, as a result, to improve public health. But the Act did not specify the exact preventive services to be covered; instead, Congress provided for coverage of services according to recommendations of medical experts.

The requirement included preventive services specific to women’s health. Congress included these gender-specific services in order to remedy a particular problem—that women pay significantly more for preventive care and thus often fail to seek preventive services. As with the more general preventive services, the Act did not specify the exact gender-specific preventive services to be covered; instead, Congress left this task to the experts, providing for coverage of “preventive care and screenings” specified in “comprehensive guidelines support by the Health Resources and Services Administration” (or “HRSA”), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”).

In developing the guidelines, HRSA relied on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (“IOM”), a part of the National Academy of Sciences. IOM recommended including the full range of contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), including oral contraceptive pills, diaphragms, injections and implants, emergency contraceptive drugs, and intrauterine devices. IOM based this recommendation on extensive medical literature establishing that contraceptives greatly decrease the risk of unintended pregnancies and negative health outcomes. IOM cited the deterrent effect of copayments on the use of contraception, and concluded that “[t]he elimination of cost sharing for contraception therefore could greatly increase its use, including the more effective and longer-acting methods.”

HRSA adopted IOM’s recommendations and included all FDA-approved prescription contraceptive methods in its guidelines. The relevant federal agencies (HHS, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury) incorporated the HRSA guidelines in their regulations.

The Act’s preventive-services requirement applies to individual health insurance plans and employer-sponsored group plans. (The Act exempts a small and declining percentage of plans from certain reforms, including the preventive-services requirement. About 25 percent of plans were exempt in 2015.) The requirement is enforced against health insurers by state insurance regulators and HHS; it is enforced against employer-sponsored group health plans through the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) and a tax penalty on employers with noncompliant plans.

Recognizing that some employers have religious objections to contraceptives, but at the same time that their employees should receive the same access to FDA-approved contraceptives as other individuals in employer-sponsored plans, the relevant departments created an accommodation. This accommodation applied specifically to religious nonprofits that opposed covering contraceptive services on religious grounds. The regulations allowed an objecting employer to opt out of any requirement by sending a simple form (EBSA Form 700) to the plan’s health insurer or third-party administrator (for self-insured plans), or by providing written notification to the Secretary of HHS. (The government adopted the latter procedure in light of the Court’s ruling in Wheaton College v. Burwell, 134 S. Ct. 2806 (2014). In that case, the Court granted an injunction pending appeal to Wheaton College, halting the use of the form, but requiring the plaintiff to inform HHS in writing that it satisfied the requirements for the accommodation. The latter procedure (the letter) is simply an extension of this procedure to all religious nonprofits.) Either method (EBSA Form 700, or written notification to the Secretary) requires an objecting employer to provide only essential information—the basis for its accommodation, the type of plan it offers, and contact information for the plan’s insurer or third-party administrator.

If an objecting employer opts out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement, either the employer’s insurer (for insured plans) or third-party administrator (for self-insured plans) must provide contraceptive coverage to the employer’s employees directly, independently of the objecting employer, and without additional cost to the employees. (Health insurers have to provide contraceptive services, anyway. But the accommodation requires them to provide those services under a plan that is separate and distinct from the objecting employer’s plan. As to third-party administrators to objecting employers: the Act gives them sole legal responsibility for providing contraceptive coverage under ERISA.)

A good number of religious nonprofits have taken advantage of the accommodation. In 2014, HHS provided user-fee reductions to compensate TPAs for making contraceptive coverage available to over 600,000 employees and beneficiaries. In 2015, more than 10 percent of all nonprofit organizations with 1,000 or more employees took advantage of the accommodation.

At the same time, however, more than two-dozen nonprofits objected. These included religious colleges and universities, other religious nonprofits (like Little Sisters), and three Catholic dioceses. (The Catholic dioceses are automatically exempt from the contraceptive-coverage requirement as houses of worship.) They brought nine separate suits in various federal courts around the country, arguing that the accommodation violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or “RFRA.” The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits rejected these claims. (The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits agreed, although those cases are not part of this consolidated appeal.) Only the Eighth Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs.

CASE ANALYSIS

The federal RFRA says that the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling government interest.” 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000bb-1(a) and (b)(2). The Act thus has two prongs: the “substantial burden” prong, and (2) the “fitness” prong, which requires a close fit between the means (here, the accommodation) and the government interest. The courts only consider the fitness prong if the plaintiffs can satisfy the substantial burden prong.

All the lower courts (with the sole exception of the Eighth Circuit) have ruled that the accommodation is not a “substantial burden” under RFRA. As a result, those courts have not even considered whether the accommodation is the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest. Here, the parties argue both.

The plaintiffs argue first that the accommodation is a substantial burden on their religious exercise, because it implicates them in the provision of contraception, contrary to their religious beliefs. In particular, the plaintiffs claim that the accommodation requires them to submit a document that authorizes their own insurance companies or TPAs to provide contraceptive coverage to their own employees and students, in violation of their religious beliefs. They say that the accommodation then requires them to maintain an ongoing relationship with an insurer or TPA that continues to provide contraceptive coverage, again in violation of their religious beliefs. The plaintiffs contend that the accommodation violates their sincerely held religious belief, and that the Court should defer to them on this question.

The plaintiffs argue next that the accommodation is not the least restrictive way that the government can further a compelling government interest. They claim that the government has already granted a number of exemptions from the contraceptive-coverage requirement, leaving out millions of people, for both religious and other, less important, and nonreligious reasons. They say that this shows that the government’s interest in applying the requirement to them (even with the accommodation) cannot be compelling. Moreover, they contend that the government has other ways to provide contraceptive coverage. For example, they claim that the government could provide contraceptive coverage through insurance exchanges, certain existing federal programs, or tax subsidies. Because the government has no compelling interest, and because it has alternative ways to provide contraceptive coverage, the accommodation fails the second prong of the RFRA test.

The government argues first that the accommodation is not a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. The government claims that the accommodation allows the plaintiffs to entirely opt out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and that the government itself then directly requires insurers or TPAs to provide contraceptive coverage, completely independently and separately from the coverage provided by the plaintiffs. (In this way, according to the government, the accommodation doesn’t force the plaintiffs to authorize the coverage; instead, the law itself requires coverage.) Moreover, the government contends that the plaintiffs’ sincere objections to the government’s independent requirement of third parties (the insurers and TPAs) cannot constitute a substantial burden under the RFRA. If it were otherwise, any religious accommodation could subject countless government programs to RFRA’s stringent second prong and “profoundly impair the government’s ability to accommodate religious objections.”

The government argues next that even if the accommodation amounts to a substantial burden, the accommodation serves a compelling government interest. In particular, the government says that it has a compelling interest in protecting the health of female employees, and that contraceptive coverage advances that interest. The government claims that the plaintiffs are wrong to argue that other exemptions mean that the government lacks a serious compelling interest. After all, it says, most laws have exceptions, and they don’t take away from a law’s purposes. Moreover, the government contends that other exemptions to the contraceptive mandate do not undermine its core purpose and compelling interest. Finally, the government argues that the accommodation serves its interest in the least restrictive way, because it ensures that female employees can automatically receive contraceptive coverage and that they can receive contraceptive services through their regular medical care, without having to sign up for a new and different plan or program (which does not currently exist in federal law).

SIGNIFICANCE

This is a strange case to wrap one’s head around. That’s because the plaintiffs are not complaining that the contraceptive coverage requirement itself violates their religious freedom. That claim might be understandable. And it would probably be an easy case, in light of the Court’s decision just two Terms ago in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding that the contraceptive-coverage requirement violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as to a closely-held for-profit corporation.

But instead, the plaintiffs claim that the government’s effort to exempt them from the contraceptive-coverage mandate violates their religious beliefs. More particularly, they claim that the accommodation violates their religious beliefs, because it triggers the offending government policy. On the face of it, this kind of claim seems to turn the idea of an accommodation on its head. And moreover, as the government argues, it potentially subjects other religious accommodations in other policy areas to similar religious freedom challenges. This could put the government between the Scylla of a policy that might burden a religious practice and the Charybdis of an accommodation to that policy—with a result of forcing the government ship in the future to turn away from a policy altogether. It seems strange and surprising that the RFRA could frustrate this and other government policies this way.

Still, the question is open. The Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby identified the accommodation (the very one at issue here) as an example of how the government might exempt a closely-held, for-profit corporation from the contraceptive-coverage requirement. (The Court used this to show that the government had other, less restrictive ways to further its purpose under the fitness prong of RFRA.) But the Court consciously declined to say whether the accommodation violated the RFRA. As a result, the Court seemed to sanction the accommodation, even as it also seemed to invite this challenge to it.

And speaking of challenges, this is the fourth challenge to the ACA to reach the Court. The first involved challenges to the individual coverage requirement and Medicaid expansion. The Court in NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. __ (2012), upheld those provisions, with one caveat: the government could not withhold a state’s entire Medicaid budget if the state declined to expand Medicaid (although the government could withhold additional funding for the expansion itself). The second involved a challenge to the contraceptive coverage requirement. The Court in Hobby Lobby ruled that the requirement violated the First Amendment as applied to closely-held, for-profit corporations, although the government could create an accommodation. The most recent challenge involved the subsidies to help lower-income individuals purchase health insurance on the government exchanges. The Court in King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015), upheld those subsidies. As a result, ACA challengers have gone 0 and 3, even as they have forced some important changes to implementation of the Act along the way.

There are more challenges in the pipeline, however. One of those involves a challenge to the tax penalty that enforces the individual coverage requirement. Challengers argue that the ACA did not originate in the House of Representatives (as the Constitution requires for revenue-raising bills), and thus the tax penalty is unconstitutional. Another involves a challenge to the government’s subsidies to health insurers to offset their costs in providing certain benefits under the Act. Challengers in the House of Representatives argue that the government spent money for this program without a congressional appropriation. There are others, too.

None of these (including the present case) is likely to threaten the Act in its entirety. But each one (again, including the present case) has the potential to chip away at, or significantly alter, a portion.

March 23, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Alabama Supreme Court on Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court of Alabama has issued its opinions- - - totaling 170 pages typescript - - - in Ex parte State of Alabama ex rel. Alabama Policy Institute, Alabama Citizens Action Program, and John E. Enslen, in his official capacity as Judge of Probate for Elmore County dismissing all pending petitions and motions that seek relief from having to issue marriage licenses.  And yet, the lengthy concurring opinions in the case contradict rather than support this dismissal.

Recall that in January, controversial Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore issued an Administrative Order forbidding probate judges from issuing same-sex marriage licenses "contrary to the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment or the Alabama Marriage Protection Act" since those laws "remain in full force and effect." Earlier, after an Alabama federal judge issued an opinion finding the denial of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Justice Moore argued that the Alabama was not bound by the federal courts on the same-sex marriage issue.  In a March 2015 opinion  in  this same case - - - Ex parte State of Alabama ex rel. Alabama Policy Institute - - - known as API,  the court, without Justice Moore and over a dissent by Justice Shaw held  that the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, art. I, § 36.03, Ala. Const. 1901, and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act, § 30-1-9, Ala. Code 1975, are constitutional. Recall that the United States Supreme Court declined to stay the federal judge's judgment.  A few months later, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges holding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In today's opinions, Chief Justice Moore is center-stage and plays a confusing part.

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First, he provides a "statement of nonrecusal."  He discusses his own participation in various aspects of this continuing litigation and concludes he is not reviewing his own Administrative Order but instead "the effect of Obergefell."  

Second, in his own "specially concurring" opinion, his ultimately conclusion is that Obergefell is incorrectly decided and that the Alabama Supreme Court is under no duty to obey it.  He writes quite personally:

I took my first oath to support the Constitution of the United States in 1965 at the United States Military Academy on the banks of the Hudson River at West Point, New York. On this very site General George Washington defended the northwest territory against British invasion during the Revolutionary War. I repeated that oath many times during my military service in Western Europe, Vietnam, and locations in the continental United States. Following my military service and upon graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law, I again took an oath to "uphold and support" the United States Constitution. As a private practitioner, deputy district attorney, circuit judge, and Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court on two separate occasions, I took that oath and have administered it to other Judges, Justices, Governors, and State and local officials. In both civilian and military life the oath of loyalty to the Constitution is of paramount importance. **** The oath I took as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West

Point stated, in part, "that I will at all times obey the legal orders of my superior officers, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice." 57 Bugle Notes, at 5 (1965) (emphasis added). Later, as a company commander in Vietnam, I knew the importance of following orders. The success or failure of a mission and the lives of others depended on strict adherence to the chain of command. The principle of obedience to superior orders is also crucial to the proper functioning of a court system. Nevertheless, the principle of obedience to superior officers is based on the premise that the order given is a lawful one.

He then discusses "Lt. William Calley, a unit commander at My Lai in Vietnam who was convicted of killing 22 innocent civilians," to support his "military analogy" that one should not simply "follow orders" when the orders are immoral.

Third,  Chief Justice Moore's opinion is the major, if not majority opinion. 

The opinion garnering the most Justices - - - three - - - is by Justice Stuart and is quite short, but speaks volumes.  It reads in full:

Motions and petitions are dismissed without explanation by this Court for numerous reasons as a matter of routine. When a Justice issues a writing concurring in or dissenting from an order summarily dismissing a pending motion or petition the writing expresses the explanation for the vote of only the Justice who issues the writing and of any Justice who joins the writing. Attributing the reasoning and explanation in a special concurrence or a dissent to a Justice who did not issue or join the writing is erroneous and unjust.

Justice Greg Shaw also concurs specially, but his is the opinion that supports the conclusion. Justice Shaw had dissented from the March 2015 Order.   He now concludes that given Obergefell, the March 2015 Order "no longer has a field of operation or any legal effect."  

It is the accepted legal doctrine and the historic legal practice in the United States to follow the decisions of the Supreme Court as authoritative on the meaning of federal law and the federal Constitution. Arguments have been put forth suggesting that this doctrine and this practice are incorrect. Those arguments generally have not been accepted by the courts in this country. For example, in Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958), the Supreme Court of the United States rejected the argument by certain state officials that they were not bound by that Court's decisions.

The idea that decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are to be followed is not something new or strange. Thus, the members of this Court who would follow the Obergefell decision would not, as either Chief Justice Moore or Justice Parker suggests, be "bow[ing their] knee[s] to the self-established judicial despots of America," "blindly follow[ing] the unsubstantiated opinion of 'five lawyers,'" "'shrink[ing] from the discharge'" of duty, "betray[ing]" their oaths, "blatantly disregard[ing] the Constitution," standing "idly by to watch our liberties destroyed and our Constitution violated," participating in the "conversion of our republican form of government into an aristocracy of nine lawyers," or be adhering to a perceived "evil."  They would, quite frankly, be doing what the vast majority of past and present judges and lawyers in this country have always assumed the Constitution requires, notwithstanding the unconvincing arguments found in the requests before us and in the specially concurring opinion of Chief Justice Moore. I charitably say the arguments are "unconvincing" because virtually no one has ever agreed with their rationales.

 [footnote omitted].

Justice Shaw certainly seems to have the better view and the citation of Cooper v. Aaron is exactly on point.  But given the result, it does not seem as if the National Guard will be marching into Montgomery any time soon.

Could this part of the saga be concluded?

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March 4, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Supremacy Clause, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

United States Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Free Exercise State Funding Case: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo.

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Pauley regarding a Free Exercise and Equal Protection challenge to a denial of state funding that was based on a state constitutional provision prohibiting state funds be given to religious organizations. 

As the Eighth Circuit opinion ruling for the state, had phrased it, "Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling -- that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church."  The Eighth Circuit relied in part on Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), in which "the Court upheld State of Washington statutes and constitutional provisions that barred public scholarship aid to post-secondary students pursuing a degree in theology."  For the Eighth Circuit, "while there is active academic and judicial debate about the breadth of the decision, we conclude that Locke" supported circuit precedent that foreclosed the challenge to the Missouri state constitutional provision.  

There are actually two Missouri constitutional provisions, Art. I §7 and Art. IX §8, which as the Eighth Circuit noted, are "not only more explicit but more restrictive than the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution,” quoting a Missouri Supreme Court decision.  The provisions were initially adopted in 1870 and 1875, and re-adopted in the Missouri Constitution of 1945, the current constitution.  The first provision is the one at the heart of this dispute.  Placed in the state constitution's "Bill of Rights," Art. I §7 provides:

That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect, or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.

It was in reliance on this state constitutional provision that the state Department of Natural Resources denied the grant application of Trinity Lutheran Church for funds to purchase of recycled tires to resurface its preschool playground.  To supply such funds, the state officials decided, would violate the state constitution. 

Trinity Lutheran Church articulated the issue in its petition for certiorari as

Whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.

It argues that the Eigth Circuit's decision was not "faithful" to Locke v. Davey because the playground resurfacing program was purely secular in nature, unlike in Locke.  But this might mean that the state constitutional provisions defining their own boundaries regarding "establishment" of religion are unconstitutional.

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January 16, 2016 in Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Religion, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 15, 2016

New York State Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim in Same-Sex Wedding Discrimination Case

In its opinion in Gifford v. McCarthy, an appellate court in New York upheld the decision of the State Division of Human Rights that the owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, a wedding venue, were guilty of an unlawful discriminatory practice based upon sexual orientation when they refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding.  Writing for the unanimous five judge panel, Presiding Justice Karen Peters concluded that the venue was clearly a place of public accommodation within the anti-discrimination law and that discrimination based upon sexual orientation clearly occurred. 

16yr-logo-2015-revOn the constitutional issues, Justice Peters found the arguments under both the First Amendment and New York's similar provisions without merit.  Regarding the First Amendment Free Exercise of religion claim, Justice Peters concluded that "the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his [or her] religion prescribes (or proscribes)," citing  Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v Smith (1990). She noted that the "fact that some religious organizations and educational facilities are exempt from the [state] statute's public accommodation provision does not, as petitioners claim, demonstrate that it is not neutral or generally applicable." 

Applying New York's Free Exercise provision under which the infringement is balanced against the state interests, and Justice Peters wrote:

While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords' right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so. To be weighed against the Giffords' interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York's long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination."

Thus the court rejected the free exercise claims.  Similarly, the court rejected the free speech claims of compelled speech and free association.  On compelled speech, Justice Peters' opinion for the court concluded that the provision of a wedding venue was not expressive: 

Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would "broadcast to all who pass by the Farm" their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Like all other owners of public accommodations who provide services to the general public, the Giffords must comply with the statutory mandate prohibiting discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Under such circumstances, there is no real likelihood that the Giffords would be perceived as endorsing the values or lifestyle of the individuals renting their facilities as opposed to merely complying with anti-discrimination laws.

The court also held that Liberty Farms was not an "expressive association" but a business with the "purpose of making a profit through service contracts with customers." However, the court added that even if Liberty Ridge were to be deemed an expressive enterprise, "a customer's association with a business for the limited purposes of obtaining goods and services – as opposed to becoming part of the business itself – does not trigger" expressive association.

In upholding the application of the anti-discrimination law against First Amendment challenges, the New York appellate opinion joins other courts that have reached the same conclusion: the New Mexico courts in Elane Photography to which the United States Supreme Court denied certiorar and the Colorado courts in Masterpiece Cakeshop.  The UK Supreme Court's decision in Bull v. Hall is also consistent with this trend.  Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled and more decisions likely.

UPDATE:  The owners of Liberty Ridge will reportedly not appeal.

January 15, 2016 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Family, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Speech, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Supremes Take Up Contraception Mandate Accommodation

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear the cases testing whether the government's accommodation to the "contraception mandate" violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The move was expected. The Court will likely hear oral arguments in March 2016.

The cases involve HHS's requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers' health insurance plans include certain kinds of contraception, and the government's accommodation to that requirement for religious non-profits. (Religions are already exempt.) The accommodation simply requires non-profit that objects to providing contraception on religious grounds to so notify the government (a letter will do, or the non-profit can use a government form). At that point, the government requires the insurer or third-party administrator to provide contraception, free of charge, directly to the non-profit's employees.

Some religious non-profits argue that the accommodation itself violates the RFRA, because their notification to the government triggers the provision of contraception. Seven circuits have rejected that claim; only the Eighth Circuit has accepted it. We posted most recently, on the Eighth Circuit's ruling, here.

The accommodation isn't a new idea. The Court itself identified it as a possible solution to objecting closely held for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby. But the Court didn't say whether it would violate the RFRA--that issue simply wasn't before the Court.

The parties in the case will argue whether the accommodation creates a "substantial burden" on their religious freedoms and, if so, whether it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.

The non-profits' arguments push the bounds of the RFRA. After all, if an accommodation can be a "substantial burden"--and one that operates in such a minimally intrusive way--it's hard to see what couldn't be a substantial burden on some religion. Moreover, to get to the non-profits' result, the courts have to accept their view of how the law works--that the accommodation triggers the provision of contraception (in contrast to the view that the law itself triggers the requirement that insurers provide contraception). The Eighth Circuit (and the Eighth Circuit alone) got there, but seemingly by deferring to the non-profits' view of their own religion, as I explained here. Under RFRA, the courts certain defer to a religion on its own tenets and beliefs, but it's hard to see why the courts should extend that deference to a religious belief about the way the law works.

November 7, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

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

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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)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Third Circuit Reinstates Constitutional Claim Against NYC for Muslim Surveillance

The Third Circuit's 60 page opinion today in Hassan v. City of New York reverses and remands the terse dismissal of the complaint in February 2014 by United States District Judge William Martini.  The original complaint alleged that the New York City Police Department’s surveillance program targeted New Jersey Muslims solely on the basis of religion, thereby violating their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The district judge found that there was no standing - - - in part because the plaintiffs did not know about their surveillance until it was revealed by the press and thus had no injury - - - and that the complaint did not state a plausible claim - - - in part because the "police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself."

The unanimous opinion by Judge Thomas Ambro, joined by Julio Fuentes, and with a very brief concurrence by Jane Roth regarding the standard of equal protection scrutiny to be applied, comes complete with a Table of Contents.  (Query whether opinions are increasingly availing themselves of a brief-like TOC: compare District Judge Shira Scheindlin's opinion in the NYC stop and frisk lawsuit, although her opinion is more than 3 times as long with many more footnotes.  Or perhaps there is something about NYC police practices that calls for a TOC?).

After a rehearsal of the NYC surveillance program and its disclosure, the court considers the problem of Article III standing.  For the Third Circuit, the "injury in fact" requirement of standing is satisfied by the plaintiffs' allegation of the denial of equal treatment on the basis of their religion under the Equal Protection Clause, as well as the First Amendment.  The court rejected NYC's arguments that there needed to be a tangible benefit denied, that there needed to be an overt condemnation (interestingly contrasting Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education); and that the injuries were not sufficiently particularized.  As to the "fairly traceable" causation requirement, the court soundly rejected the contention that it was the only disclosure of the surveillance by the press rather than the surveillance itself that caused the injury. Finally, in its brief discussion of "redressability," the court, quoting an Eleventh Circuit case, noted that "While we cannot predict 'the exact nature of the possible relief . . . without a full development of the facts, an order enjoining the policy and requiring non-discriminatory investigation and enforcement would redress the injury.'"

On the equal protection issue, the Third Circuit held that the complaint plausibly alleged that the NYC surveillance program made a facial religious classification.  It further held that this religious classification does not require an "invidious motive.": 

While the absence of a legitimate motive may bear on whether the challenged surveillance survives the appropriate level of equal-protection scrutiny, “intentional discrimination” need not be motivated by “ill will, enmity, or hostility” to contravene the Equal Protection Clause.

The court here interestingly cites the district judge's decision in the NYC stop and frisk case. 

The Third Circuit thus finds that the NYC surveillance program was facially religious, but then discussed the tier of scrutiny that religious classifications should merit:

Perhaps surprisingly, neither our Court nor the Supreme Court has considered whether classifications based on religious affiliation trigger heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. . . .

Although the answer to this question is not found in binding precedent, we hardly write on a clean slate. To start, it has long been implicit in the Supreme Court’s decisions that religious classifications are treated like others traditionally subject to heightened scrutiny, such as those based on race.  [Citations omitted]

This line of comment can be traced back to the famous footnote four of the Supreme Court’s 1938 decision in Carolene Products, where the Court suggested that discriminatory legislation should “be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment” if “directed at particular religious, or national, or racial minorities.”

After discussing a number of appellate court decisions, the Third Circuit panel held:

Today we join these courts and hold that intentional discrimination based on religious affiliation must survive heightened equal-protection review. Before turning more fully to our reasoning, however, we pause to reiterate that the term “heightened scrutiny,” as we use it, encompasses both “intermediate scrutiny” and “strict scrutiny.”

The panel stated that it need not - - - and should not - - - "determine in connection with its motion to dismiss which of the two applies, and we leave that question for the District Court in the first instance when and if it becomes necessary to decide it."  However, the court does engage in a Carolene Products-type of analysis to substantiate its conclusion, devoting some discussion to the "immutability" factor (which of course was not in the Carolene Products footnote).  It also noted that the "history of religious discrimination in the United States is intertwined with that based on other protected characteristics, including national origin and race," and that the allegations of the complaint reflected this intertwinement.

It is on this point that Judge Roth differs, arguing in her concurrence that intermediate scrutiny should apply and providing a somewhat personal explanation:

In my opinion, “intermediate scrutiny” is appropriate here. I say this because “intermediate scrutiny” is the level applied in gender discrimination cases. I have the immutable characteristic of being a woman. I am happy with this condition, but during my 80 years on this earth, it has caused me at times to suffer gender discrimination. My remedy now for any future gender discrimination would be reviewed with “intermediate scrutiny.” For that reason, I cannot endorse a level of scrutiny in other types of discrimination cases that would be stricter than the level which would apply to discrimination against me as a woman.

The Third Circuit did acknowledge the national security interest, but added that "it is often where the asserted interest appears most compelling that we must be most vigilant in protecting constitutional rights," explicitly invoking Korematsu and Hirabayashi.

The court's relatively brief First Amendment conclusion similarly rejects NYC's claim that animus must be proven.

The court concludes:

What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight—that “[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed, or color.” [citation omitted].

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image via

 

 

October 13, 2015 in Equal Protection, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eighth Circuit First to Strike Accommodation of Contraception Mandate

The Eighth Circuit yesterday became the first federal circuit court to rule that the government's accommodation of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act likely violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The ruling upholds a lower court's preliminary injunction against the contraception mandate as applied to objecting religious non-profits.

The ruling is notable not only because it's the first federal appellate court (of eight) to so hold, but also because it seems to grant deference to the plaintiffs' beliefs about how their religion works, but also their religious beliefs about how the law works. That could have far reaching impacts for other cases under RFRA, at least in the Eighth Circuit.

The court said that the government's accommodation--that an objecting religious non-profit complete a Form 700, or certify to the government that it has a religious objection to certain contraception--itself was a substantial burden on the non-profits' religious beliefs. According to the court, that's because the accommodation "triggers" the provision of contraception to employees by the non-profits' insurers or third-party administrators.

This contradicts the holdings in other circuits, which have said that it's not the accommodation that "triggers" contraception, but the law itself.

But the Eighth Circuit rejected that approach, based on the deference that it says it owes to the non-profits' interpretation of their own religious beliefs:

Instead, we must accept a religious objector's description of his religious beliefs, regardless of whether we consider those beliefs "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible." In other words, a religious objector is entitled to "dr[a]w a line" regarding the conduct that his religion deems permissible, and once that line is drawn, "it is not for [a court] to say that the line . . . was . . . unreasonable."

The Eighth Circuit extended the deference traditionally granted to a plaintiff over his or her religious beliefs to the plaintiffs' interpretation of law. In other words, the court didn't look to the way the ACA actually worked (in requiring insurers and TPAs to provide contraception when an employer files the accommodation), as the other circuits did; instead, it simply accepted the plaintiffs' interpretation of the law--based on its deference to the plaintiffs' sincerely held religious belief--that their certification "triggered" contraception. The court explained:

As Hobby Lobby instructs, however, we must accept CNS and HCC's assertion that self-certification under the accommodation process--using either Form 700 or HHS Notice--would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The court went on to say that the accommodation didn't meet strict scrutiny (under RFRA), because there were other ways for the government to achieve its objective of providing contraception: the government could provide contraception directly, itself; or it could use a simple notice requirement consistent with the Supreme Court's requirement in Wheaton College. (The court said that the government's notice requirement was broader, and more burdensome, than what the Supreme Court approved in Wheaton College.)

September 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Seventh Circuit (again, and again) Upholds Contraception Accommodation

The Seventh Circuit yet again upheld the ACA's accommodation to the contraception mandate for religious non-profits against a RFRA challenge. The decision last week in Grace Schools v. Burwell reversed a lower court's ruling that the challengers were likely to succeed on the merits. But the Seventh Circuit also kept the lower court's injunction in place for 60 days in order to allow the lower court to consider additional arguments made by the plaintiffs but not addressed in the appeal (a First Amendment claim and an Administrative Procedures Act claim). (These claims probably have even less traction than the RFRA claim.)

The ruling says that the government's accommodation to the contraception mandate for religious non-profits doesn't violate the RFRA. This is consistent with the rulings of every other circuit that's addressed the question.

Recall that the accommodation now allows a religious non-profit that objects to the contraception mandate either to complete a government form or to simply inform the government that it has a religious objection to the mandate. If so, the government then informs the non-profit's health insurer or third-party administrator that the insurer or TPA has to provide contraception directly to the non-profit's employees and students free of charge. (Insurers are happy to do this, by the way, because contraception coverage is cheaper for an insurer than not including contraception as part of an insurance package.)

Non-profits have sued, arguing (curiously) that the accommodation itself violates their religious freedom, because it makes them complicit in the provision of contraception. ("But for" their certification, they say, their insurers or TPAs wouldn't be required to provide contraception. Moreover, they claim a religious objection to doing business with insurers or TPAs who provide contraception to their employees, even if required by the government.)

This case zeroed in on the substantial burden requirement in RFRA. (In order to trigger RFRA's strict scrutiny, a government action must first create a substantial burden to a religious practice.) The challengers argued that the accommodation created a substantial burden on their religious practice (for the reasons mentioned above)--and that they, not the courts, got the final word on whether the accommodation was a substantial burden. (They claimed that Hobby Lobby said this.) This was the really important question in the case: Who gets to say whether a government action, as a legal matter, creates a substantial burden?

The Seventh Circuit panel flatly rejected the plaintiffs' arguments. The majority said what every other circuit has said: contraception is triggered by government regulation, not by the non-profit's exercise of the accommodation--and, importantly, that the courts, not the challengers, get to interpret how the law operates. Because there was no substantial burden, the majority didn't reach the question whether the accommodation satisfied RFRA's strict scrutiny.

Judge Manion dissented sharply, arguing that the majority misinterpreted the law and misunderstood how the accommodation actually worked. Judge Manion also argued that the accommodation failed strict scrutiny.

This case follows closely on a decision last week by the Tenth Circuit to deny en banc review of a panel's decision upholding the accommodation. That decision also came with a sharp dissent. It also follows the Seventh Circuit's own ruling in Notre Dame II, also (again) upholding the accommodation.

September 9, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ninth Circuit OKs Jesus Statute on Public Land

A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit today upheld a U.S. Forest Service decision to renew a permit for the Knights of Columbus's Jesus statute on public land. The ruling means that Jesus stays on the USFS's Big Mountain.

Judge Owens wrote that the statute didn't violate the Establishment Clause, because the USFS's decision to renew the statute's permit reflected a primarily secular purpose (despite its portrayal of Jesus), and because USFS's permit didn't endorse religion. (According to Judge Owens, several factors suggest that the permit didn't endorse religion, including "the flippant interactions of locals and tourists with the statute [including] decorating it in mardi gras beads, adorning it in ski gear, taking pictures with it, high-fiving it as [mountain-goers] ski by, and posing in Facebook pictures.") Judge Owens also distinguished Trunk v. City of San Diego, where the court ruled that a giant cross violated the Establishment Clause.

Judge N.R. Smith concurred, but argued that the case should be analyzed as private speech in a public forum. Judge Smith wrote that the permit should be upheld so long as the government didn't discriminate in granting it, and it didn't. Moreover, the Knights (not the government) maintains the statute.

Judge Pregerson dissented, arguing that "a twelve-foot tall statute of Jesus situated on government-leased land cannot realistically be looked upon as 'predominantly secular in nature,'" and that "a 'reasonable observer would perceive' the statute situated on government land 'as projecting a message of religious endorsement.'"

September 1, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

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]. 

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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)