Monday, May 16, 2016
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).
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
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
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.
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:
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?
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.
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).
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.
Friday, March 4, 2016
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.
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.
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?
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 Eighth 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.
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.
On 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
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.
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
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.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
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].
Friday, September 18, 2015
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.)
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
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.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
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.'"
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!
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.
In short, Judge Leon found that "March for Life" was similarly situated to religious organizations given the HHS rationale for excluding religious organizations from the contraception mandate:
HHS has chosen to protect a class of individuals that, it believes, are less likely than other individuals to avail themselves of contraceptives. It has consequently moored this accommodation not in the language of conscientious objection, but in the vernacular of religious protection. This, of course, is puzzling. In HHS’s own view, it is not the belief or non-belief in God that warrants safe harbor from the Mandate. The characteristic that warrants protection——an employment relationship based in part on a shared objection to abortifacients—is altogether separate from theism. Stated differently, what HHS claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of human life. HHS may be correct that this objection is common among religiously-affiliated employers. Where HHS has erred, however, is in assuming that this trait is unique to such organizations. It is not.
In other words, the HHS's rationale - - - the government interest - - - was not specifically religious and thus should not be limited to religious organizations in keeping with principles of equal protection. Some of this reasoning is reminiscent of Hobby Lobby, of course, but there the level of scrutiny under RFRA was strict (or perhaps even stricter than strict) scrutiny, while Judge Leon is applying rational basis scrutiny.
Interestingly, Judge Leon states that "'religion' is not a talisman that sweeps aside all constitutional concerns," and quotes the classic conscientious objector case of Welsh v. United States (1970) for the "long recognized" principle that “[i]f an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content . . . those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning has the potential to eliminate - - - or at least ameliorate - - - the "special" protection of religious freedom.
In his application of RFRA, Judge Leon's opinion is on more well-plowed ground. He notes that while "March for Life is avowedly non—religious, the employee plaintiffs do oppose the Mandate on religious grounds." This brings the case within the purview of Hobby Lobby. As Judge Leon phrases it:
The ﬁnal question the Court must ask under RFRA is whether the current Mandate is the least restrictive means of serving this governmental interest. Assuredly, it is not!
While Judge Leon dismissed the free exercise claim, based upon the DC Circuit's opinion and denial of en banc review in Priests for Life v HHS, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection and RFRA claims (as well as a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act).
When this case reaches the DC Circuit, it will be interesting to see how the court - - - as well as religious organizations and scholars - - - views Judge Leon's potentially destabilizing equal protection analysis.
September 1, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Privacy, Religion, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
A few months after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, reversing the Sixth Circuit's opinion, and declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of same-sex marriage is again reaching the Sixth Circuit.
This time, however, the issue is whether a government employee, a court clerk in Kentucky, can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses - - - or any marriage licenses - - - based upon a claim of free exercise of religion. The claim of religious exemptions from state clerks is not new (consider events in New York in 2011); neither are objections to implementing the Court's decision in Obergefell (consider events in Alabama this summer). Nevertheless, this controversy has become particularly focused.
United States District Judge David Bunning's Opinion and Order last week in Miller v. Davis issued a preliminary injunction in favor of April Miller and Karen Roberts, enjoining Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from applying the "no marriage licenses" policy. The Judge rejected Davis' First Amendment claims. First, Judge Bunning found that Governor Beshear's directive to county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a general law of neutral applicability that "likely does not infringe on Davis' free exercise rights." Second, Judge Bunning further found that the issuance of the marriage license did not implicate Davis' free speech rights: the issuance of the license, even with the clerk's certification, is not an endorsement and furthermore is quite possibly government rather than individual speech, citing the Court's decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans from last Term. Judge Bunning also rejected Davis' third - and perhaps the most interesting - claim based upon Article VI §3 prohibiting a "religious Test" as a qualification for public office. Davis argued that this prohibition meant that her religious beliefs must be accommodated. Even as he rejected this interpretation, Judge Bunning drew attention to the "first half" of Article VI §3 requiring state officials to take an oath to defend the United States Constitution.
Davis predictably sought a stay of the preliminary injunction. In an Order late yesterday, Judge Bunning denied the stay, including in his 7 page opinion an extensive quote from Obergefell regarding the relationship of religious freedom to same-sex marriage. Yet Judge Bunning did stay the order denying the stay:
in recognition of the constitutional issues involved, and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate, the Court finds it appropriate to temporarily stay this Order pending review of Defendant Davis’ Motion to Stay (Doc. # 45) by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While decisions to stay and to issue preliminary injunctions involve equitable and other factors, of central prominence is the probable outcome on the merits. Thus, the Sixth Circuit is again poised to consider, albeit less directly, the issue of same-sex marriage.
Saturday, August 8, 2015
The Second Circuit this week became the latest court to reject religious organizations' challenge to the religious accommodation to the ACA's contraception mandate. The Second Circuit joined six other circuits in rejecting the surprising claim that a barely burdensome religious accommodation itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
With seven circuits now rejecting the novel claim (with no circuit accepting it), and with the accommodation designed around a Supreme Court order, one might reasonably wonder why plaintiffs keep bringing and appealing these cases. Surely they have better things to do with their time and money than to bring such transparently harassing and abusive claims. (Indeed, one might wonder: At what point should a court consider Rule 11 sanctions?) Still . . . .
The Second Circuit ruling is comprehensive and well analyzed, concluding that the accommodation (to simply notify HHS, either by form, or by letter) isn't substantially burdensome. But after 47 pages, here's the gist:
The burden that the accommodation places on Plaintiffs is merely one notification, equivalent to the burden historically placed on draft registrants to indicate their conscientious objections to military service. Once Plaintiffs avail themselves of the simple, non-burdensome means of opting out, the regulations do not require them to play any role in the provision of contraceptive coverage or to suffer punishments for not doing so. To the contrary, the accommodation relieves them of providing contraceptive coverage, and instead enlists third-party administrators to provide such coverage. If a regulatory scheme that might otherwise violate an objecting individual's rights under RFRA allows the objector to exempt himself from compliance via a simple, non-burdensome act of notification, there is no substantial burden. Furthermore, subsequent regulation of non-objecting parties in a manner that an objecting party finds offensive does not transform the act of opting out into a cognizable substantial burden. The rights conferred by the First Amendment and RFRA do not include a right to have the government or third parties behave in a manner that comports with an individual's religious beliefs.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Tenth Circuit today rejected statutory and First Amendment challenges to HHS's religious accommodation to its contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act. We most recently posted on the issue, in the Notre Dame case in the Seventh Circuit, here.
The plaintiffs in the case--Little Sisters of the Poor, Southern Nazarene, and Reaching Souls--argued that the HHS requirement that they notify their health insurance providers, third party insurers, or HHS (with a simple letter) in order to get out from under the contraception mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, free exercise and establishment of religion, and free speech.
The Tenth Circuit rejected the claims. In a lengthy opinion that comes with its own glossary and table of contents, the court ruled that it wasn't the plaintiffs' accommodation (the notification of their objection) that triggered the provision of contraceptions; it was the law. (Judge Posner arrived at the same conclusion with more colorful language in the Notre Dame case.) Given this, there was no substantial burden on religion under RFRA. Moreover, the court said that the accommodation met rational basis review under the Free Exercise Clause, that it didn't discriminate between religions and religious organizations in violation of the Establishment Clause, and that the accommodation didn't amount to compelled speech under the First Amendment.
Monday, July 6, 2015
Judge Posner explained (yet again) last week why HHS's contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act doesn't violate religious freedom, in particular, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. His previous explanation in the Notre Dame case is perhaps the best statement why the accommodation to the mandate doesn't violate religious freedom; his ruling in the continuing, and up-and-down, Wheaton College case is next best.
Wheaton College, a nondenominational evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, challenged HHS's accommodation to its requirement that colleges provide contraception as part of their health-insurance policies. Wheaton College doesn't object to all the contraception required under the mandate, only those that it considers abortifacients.Still, the College apparently wasn't satisfied with the Supreme Court's instruction to simply inform the government of its objections (at which point the government would tell the insurers to provide the contraception to Wheaton students and employees free of charge, reimbursed by the government)--a religious accommodation. The College argued that this accommodation itself meant that the government would take over its insurance plan, interfere with its contractual relationship with its insurer, and force it to be complicit in its insurer's provision of contraception. The College sought a preliminary injunction. But the Seventh Circuit rejected the motion.
Judge Posner explained why the accommodation (the requirement to tell the government of its religious objections to contraception) didn't violate RFRA:
Wheaton's antipathy is to having any contractual relations with insurers who provide emergency contraception to members of the Wheaton College community. Because they are "its" insurers, someone not in the know might think it "complicit" in the insurers' provision of a type of coverage that offends Wheaton's religious views. But where's the complicity?
In any event, termination of the [insurance] contracts would give Wheaton only temporary relief, since the government would notify any new insurers hired by Wheaton of their legal obligation to provide emergency-contraceptive coverage.
In short: It's the government, not Wheaton College, that mandates contraception coverage; and the accommodation only requires Wheaton to inform the government of its objection. How can you get an accommodation if you can't inform the government of your objection?
Thursday, July 2, 2015
After the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26 declaring that states are required by the Fourteenth Amendment to issue same-sex marriage licenses, a few state officials have not only voiced objections to the decision, but have voiced resistance to complying with the Court's declaration.
The situations in Alabama and Texas have been the most contentious.
ALABAMA: Recall that earlier this year when federal District Judge Callie V.S. Granade entered an injunction against the enforcement of the state's constitutional amendment and statutes banning same-sex marriage, the reaction of Alabama Supreme Court's controversial Chief Judge Roy Moore was an unusual letter to the Governor objecting to the federal judge's opinion on the basis that federal courts have no power in this Biblical area. This was followed by an opinion of the Alabama Supreme Court ordering judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The Eleventh Circuit, and then the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of the district judge's opinion.
When the Court took certiorari in Obergefell, however, Judge Granade stayed her order.
However, after the Court decided Obergefell, the Alabama Supreme Court's "corrected order" stated that because the US Supreme Court rules allow parties 25 days to file a petition for rehearing, the parties in the case - - - including two conservative Alabama organizations - - - were invited to submit briefs on the effect of Obergefell. Federal District Judge Callie Granade issued a one-page Order on July 1, referenced her earlier stay and then stated:
The United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 26, 2015. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ____ (2015). Accordingly, by the language set forth in the [previous] order, the preliminary injunction is now in effect and binding on all members of the Defendant Class.
Thus, the officials of Alabama are subject to a direct order by a federal judge.
TEXAS: The Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, who is reportedly facing criminal charges on unrelated matters, issued a six page opinion letter a few days after Obergefell which stressed the individual religious rights of county clerks and their employees, as well as justices of the peace and clergy, regarding their participation in same-sex marriages. Paxton's opinion was widely reported and concluded that county clerks retain religious freedoms that "may allow" accommodations depending "on the particular facts of each case." Paxton relied on the First Amendment as well as Texas's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), essentially similar to the federal RFRA at issue in the Court's decision in Hobby Lobby. This is not unique: the possibility of claims by individual public employees in clerk's offices was also raised after New York passed its Marriage Equality Act in 2011 and as that act made clear - - - as is generally understood - - - that religious officers have complete discretion in agreeing or refusing to solemnize marriages.
The Fifth Circuit issued a very brief opinion on July 1, noting that "both sides now agree" that the the injunction appealed from, originally issued in early 2014 by federal district judge Orlando Garcia in DeLeon v. Perry [now Abbott], "is correct in light of Obergefell," the Fifth Circuit ruled that the preliminary injunction is affirmed.
The Fifth Circuit's opinion makes clear - - - seemingly with state agreement - - - that Texas is bound by Obergefell, but does not mention individual religious accommodations.
In both the Alabama and Texas situations, there are echoes of resistance to the Supreme Court's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education; The Supremacy Clause and the Court's opinion in Cooper v. Aaron seem to answer the question of whether state officials simply may disagree with the Court's interpretation of the Constitution. This is true despite the dissenting opinions in Obergefell itself which argued that the Court should leave the resolution of same-sex marriage to individual states. The question of religious accommodations may be a closer one, but what seems clear is that if there is indeed an individual right to be accommodated - - - again, that itself is unclear - - - it cannot be a right of a government entity. While Hobby Lobby may have held that corporations have religious freedoms, it is hard to conceive of government entities having free exercise rights in a manner that does not violate the Establishment Clause.
July 2, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, News, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Oklahoma Supreme Court Declares Ten Commandments Monument at State Capitol Unconstitutional Under State Constitution
In a relatively brief opinion today in Prescott v. Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission, Oklahoma's highest court found that a Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds violated the state constitution, Article 2, Section 5, which provides:
No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.
While the monument was a gift and no public funds were expended to acquire the monument, the court agreed that its placement on the Capitol grounds constituted the use of public property for the benefit of religion, emphasizing that the constitutional provision included the words “directly or indirectly.”
The court noted that the Legislature and Governor authorized the monument relying on the United States Supreme Court’s decision Van Orden v. Perry (2005), but noted that Van Orden was decided under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Here, the Oklahoma Supreme Court interpreted the broader and more precise language of the Oklahoma state constitution. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s opinion contained the requisite language insulating it from United States Supreme Court review under the adequate and independent state grounds doctrine so important to federalism:
“Our opinion rests solely on the Oklahoma Constitution with no regard for federal jurisprudence. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1040-41 (1983).”
Two justices dissented, without opinion.