Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Resolving the Tension Between Religious Liberty and Equality

In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court confronted the issue of whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permits a business owner to refuse service to individuals – in violation of a state anti-discrimination statute – if providing such service would violate the business owner’s religious beliefs.[1] By way of background, the Petitioner, a small business owner in Colorado, refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because doing so would have violated the business owner’s religious beliefs.[2] The Respondent, Colorado Civil Rights Commission, later held that the business owner’s refusal to serve the same-sex couple violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. In so holding, the Commission rejected the Petitioner’s religious liberty claim.

Unquestionably, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. implicated the tension between liberty (i.e., permitting individuals to freely exercise their religious beliefs) and equality (i.e., the statutory and, in some situations, constitutional right to freedom from discrimination), and underscored the difficulty in balancing these competing interests. Indeed, how should this tension be resolved and what standard or criteria should be adopted to guide lower courts in future cases?

In its decision, the Court did not answer these questions. Instead, the Court issued a narrow decision in which it held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s decision was procedurally unfair because the Commission displayed impermissible hostility toward religion during the hearing.[3] Thus, the underlying legal issue remains unresolved, although it will likely only be a matter of time before the Court again confronts this question.

The purpose of the Free Exercise Clause, and the Court’s jurisprudence, has established several principles that may help to address the question presented in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. and guide lower courts in future cases.[4] To begin with, a core purpose of the Free Exercise Clause is to ensure that individuals can freely exercise their religious beliefs without undue interference, and absent coercion or fear of reprisal. Indeed, the right to religious freedom is essential to safeguarding individual liberty. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in City of Boerne v. Flores, “[g]iven centrality of freedom of speech and religion to the American concept of personal liberty, it is altogether reasonable to conclude that both should be treated with the highest degree of respect.”[5]

Importantly, however, the right to religious freedom is not absolute. In limited circumstances, laws infringing on religious liberty will be upheld if they further compelling government interests, are narrowly tailored, and constitute the least restrictive means of achieving the stated interests.[6] The Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles that clarify the extent to which the government may restrict religious liberty.

First, the Court distinguishes between religious beliefs and practices, the latter of which is subject to restriction. As the Court held in Reynolds v. United States, “[l]aws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”[7]

Second, any law that coerces individuals into acting contrary to their beliefs violates the Free Exercise Clause. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, the Court emphasized that states “may make it more difficult to practice certain religions,” provide that state laws “have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs do.”[8]

Third, states may not enact laws that target specific religions or religious practices. For example, in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, the Court invalidated a law banning the ritual sacrifice of animals because the record indicated that the law was aimed at suppressing core aspects of a worship service conducted by the Santeria religion.[9] As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, states “may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.”[10]

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that generally applicable laws do not violate the Free Exercise Clause if they only incidentally burden religious practices.[11] Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “[i]t is a permissible reading of the text … to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion … is not the object … but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.”[12] The Court’s holding in Smith overruled its prior decision in Sherbert v. Verner, where the Court held that individuals may seek exemptions from laws that infringe on their religious freedom.[13]

In response to Smith, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that any law resulting in a “substantial burden” on religious practices violates the Free Exercise Clause unless it furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.[14] However, in City of Boerne, the Court held that the Act does not apply to the states.[15] Thus, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Act was not relevant to the Court’s decision.

Ultimately, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule when, in all likelihood, it is confronted with this or a very similar issue in the future. In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd., Justice Kennedy suggested that “while … religious and philosophical objections are protected … such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”[16] However, Justice Kennedy retired from the Court in 2018 and it is by no means certain that his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or the majority of justices, would agree with this proposition.

If the Court does decide this issue in the future, Smith will be highly relevant. Specifically, the justices will likely address whether Smith should be overruled or modified. If the justices decline to overrule Smith, they will probably consider whether the law at issue only incidentally burdens religious liberty or is sufficiently burdensome that it violates the Free Exercise Clause. Additionally, the Court will likely examine whether the law coerces individuals into violating their religious beliefs or impermissibly targets specific religious practices.

As stated above, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule. Whatever the result, the Court will hopefully adopt a workable standard that clarifies the appropriate balance between liberty and equality, and that effectively guides lower courts, thus avoiding confusion regarding how these interests are balanced in future cases. However, given the fact-specific nature of cases in this area, the Court’s desire to maintain institutional legitimacy, and its understandable reticence to issue broad and sweeping decisions, the Court will most likely issue a narrow ruling that leaves to the lower courts the task of clarifying and developing the law in future cases.

[1] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).

[2] See id.

[3] See id. (Specifically, the Court highlighted the following language as evidence of the Commission’s hostility toward religion: “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others”). 

[4] U.S. Const., Amend. I (providing in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of] religion”).

[5] 521 U.S. 507, 564-65 (1997).

[6] See id. at 555 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“[T]he right to free exercise was viewed as generally superior to ordinary legislation, to be overridden only when necessary to secure important government purposes”).

[7] 98 U.S. 145, 166 (1878).

[8] 485 U.S. 439 (1988).

[9] 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

[10] Id. at 547.

[11] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[12] Id. at 878.

[13] 374 U.S. 398 (1963).

[14] 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a)(2012).

[15] 521 U.S. 507.

[16] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).

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