Wednesday, July 8, 2020

SCOTUS Broadens Ministerial Exemption from Anti-Discrimination Laws

In its opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, consolidated with St. James School v. Biel, the Court extended the application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, to the teachers at schools run by religious organizations in the cases, and seemingly to all teachers employed by religiously-affiliated schools. 

Writing for the Court, Alito's opinion — joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — held that although the teachers in these cases were not actually "ministers" by title and did not have as much as religious training as the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, they are encompassed in the same exception from enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.  The Court stated that the First Amendment protects a religious institution's independence on matters of "faith and doctrine" without interference from secular authorities, including selection of its "ministers." But who should qualify as a "minister" subject to this exemption? Recall that the factors of Hosanna-Tabor figured in the oral argument (and recall also that they figured in the Ninth Circuit's opinions). But here, the Court stated that while there may be factors,  "What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does," rather than what the employee is titled. Moreover, the "religious institution's explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion" is important. Indeed, the religious institution's "explanation" seems determinative. The Court rejected a "rigid formula" for determining whether an employee is within the ministerial exception, concluding instead that:

When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.

The brief concurring opinion by Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, argues that the Court should go further and essentially make the implicit more explicit: the Court should decline to ever weigh in "on the theological question of which positions qualify as 'ministerial.' "

Sotomayor dissenting opinion, joined by Ginsburg, begins:

Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly. Purporting to rely on this Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), the majority shields those employers from disability and age-discrimination claims. In the Court’s view, because the employees taught short religion modules at Catholic elementary schools, they were “ministers” of the Catholic faith and thus could be fired for any reason, whether religious or nonreligious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse. The Court reaches this result even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic. In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school- teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.

For the dissent, the Court's conclusion has "grave consequences," noting that it is estimated that over 100,000 secular teachers employed by religiously-affiliated schools are now without employment protections. Further, it contrasts Esponiza v. Montana Dept of Revenue, decided this Term, in which the Court "lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion,'" but here "it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs." The dissent concludes with a hope that the Court will be "deft" enough to "cabin the consequences" of this ministerial exception, but given the current composition of the Court, that hope seems a narrow one.

July 8, 2020 in Disability, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

SCOTUS Holds Free Exercise Clause Bars Application of State's No-Aid to Religious Institutions Clause in State Constitution

In its opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding a state tax credit scheme for student scholarships, the majority held that the scheme must be afforded to religious schools so that the Free Exercise Clause was not violated.

Recall that the Montana Supreme Court held that the tax credit program's application to religious schools was unconstitutional under its state constitution, Art. X §6 , which prohibits aid to sectarian schools. This type of no-aid provision is often referred to as (or similar to) a Blaine Amendment and frequently appears in state constitutions. 

In a closely-divided decision, the Court decided that the Montana Supreme Court's decision that the tax credit program could not be extended to religious schools should be subject to struct scrutiny under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and did not survive. (The Court therefore stated it need not reach the equal protection clause claims). The Court essentially found that this case was more like Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017) (involving playground resurfacing) and less like 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. The Court distinguishes Locke v. Davey as pertaining to what Davey proposed "to do" (become a minister) and invoking a "historic and substantial” state interest in not funding the training of clergy. Instead, the Court opined that like Trinity Lutheran, Esponiza "turns expressly on religious status and not religious use."

The Court's opinion, by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, is relatively compact at 22 pages.  In addition to taking time to distinguish Locke v. Davey, the opinion devotes some discussion to federalism, invoking the Supremacy Clause and Marbury v. Madison in its final section. But the opinion also engages with the dissenting Justices' positions in its text and its footnotes. Along with the concurring opinions, the overall impression of Espinoza is a fragmented Court, despite the carefully crafted majority opinion.

The concurring opinion of Thomas — joined by Gorsuch — reiterates Thomas's view that the Establishment Clause should not apply to the states; the original meaning of the clause was to prevent the federal establishment of religion while allowing states to establish their own religions. While this concurring opinion criticizes the Court's Establishment Clause opinions, it does not confront why a state constitution would not be free to take an anti-establishment position.

Gorsuch also wrote separately, seemingly to emphasize that the record contained references to religious use (exercise) and not simply religious status. Gorsuch did not discuss the federalism issues he stressed in his opinion released yesterday in June Medical Services.

Alito's thirteen page concurring opinion is an exegesis on the origins of the Montana constitutional provision as biased. Alito interestingly invokes his dissenting opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana decided earlier this Term in which he argued that the original motivation of a state law should have no bearing on its present constitutionality: "But I lost, and Ramos is now precedent. If the original motivation for the laws mattered there, it certainly matters here." 
(Noteworthy perhaps is that Roberts joined Alito's dissenting opinion in Ramos and Roberts's opinion in Esponiza does spend about 3 pages discussing the Blaine amendments' problematical history, but apparently this was insufficient for Alito).

Ginsburg's dissenting opinion, joined by Kagan, pointed to an issue regarding the applicability of the Court's opinion:

By urging that it is impossible to apply the no-aid provision in harmony with the Free Exercise Clause, the Court seems to treat the no-aid provision itself as unconstitutional.  Petitioners, however, disavowed a facial First Amendment challenge, and the state courts were never asked to address the constitutionality of the no- aid provision divorced from its application to a specific government benefit.

Breyer, joined in part by Kagan, essentially argued that the majority gave short-shrift to Locke v. Davey and its "play-in-the-joints" concept authored by Rehnquist as expressing the relationship between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Breyer's opinion is almost as long as the majority opinion, and the majority takes several opportunities to express its disagreement with Breyer, including in a two paragraph discussion, his implicit departure from precedent (e.g., "building on his solo opinion in Trinity Lutheran").

Sotomayor's dissent, also criticized by the majority in text, argues that the Court is "wrong to decide the case at all" and furthermore decides it wrongly.  The Court's reframing incorrectly addressed (or seemingly addressed?) whether the longstanding state constitutional provision was constitutional. Thus, she argues, the Court has essentially issued an advisory opinion.  On the merits, she contends, "the Court’s answer to its hypothetical question is incorrect." She concludes that the majority's ruling is "perverse" because while the Court once held that "the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs,” it now departs from that balanced view.

The Court's opinion is much more divided than it seems at first blush. And the future of state constitutional provisions that prohibit taxpayer money from being used to support religious institutions remains in doubt.

 

June 30, 2020 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 30, 2020

SCOTUS Denies Emergency Injunction by Church Challenging California COVID-19 Order

A closely divided Court in South Bay United Pentacostal Church v. Newsom denied the application for emergency injunction relief sought by the church from California Governor Newsom's Executive Order placing numerical restrictions on all gatherings to combat the spread of the highly infectious corona virus causing COVID-19. The Ninth Circuit panel and the district judge had similarly denied the church's motion for a preliminary injunction.

There is no opinion from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts, who joined the majority in rejecting the emergency application, filed a brief concurring opinion.  On the merits, Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.

The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts “[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the States “to guard and protect.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11, 38 (1905). When those officials “undertake[ ] to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,” their latitude “must be especially broad.” Marshall v. United States, 414 U. S. 417, 427 (1974). Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an “unelected federal judiciary,” which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people. See Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U. S. 528, 545 (1985).

That is especially true where, as here, a party seeks emergency relief in an interlocutory posture, while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground. The notion that it is “indisputably clear” that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.

In short, religious gatherings were not being treated any differently under the California Order and the judiciary should defer to the politically accountable entities in health situations, especially when these are uncertain and changing.

Justice Bret Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch — but interestingly not Justice Alito — concluding that the California Order did not treat the religious institutions the same as "comparable secular businesses" such as grocery stores. Kavanaugh argues that given this differential treatment, struct scrutiny should apply, and California has not advanced a sufficiently compelling reason to treat religious gatherings differently.

As the pandemic continues, there is certainly sure to be more litigation, but for a majority of the Court, gatherings including those that are religious can be limited in service to public health.

May 30, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Science, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Sixth Circuit Says Governor's Shut-Down Order Likely Violates Free Exercise

The Sixth Circuit ruled earlier this week that Kentucky Governor Beshear's business shut-down order likely violates the Free Exercise Clause as applied to religious services. The ruling prevents the government from enforcing the shut-down order against religious services while the case moves forward. At the same time, however, the ruling tells the Governor how to regulate religious services consistent with free exercise (simply impose social distancing requirements, e.g.).

The court recognized that religiously-neutral, generally-applicable laws are usually upheld (under rational basis review). But it said that the shut-down order wasn't generally applicable, as demonstrated by the many "life-sustaining" "exceptions" to shut-down:

Do the four pages of exceptions in the orders, and the kinds of group activities allowed, remove them from the safe harbor for generally applicable laws? We think so. As a rule of thumb, the more exceptions to a prohibition, the less likely it will count as a generally applicable, non-discriminatory law. "At some point, an exception-ridden policy takes on the appearance and reality of a system of individualized exemptions, the antithesis of a neutral and generally applicable policy and just the kind of state action that must run the gauntlet of strict scrutiny. . . .

The exception for "life-sustaining" businesses allows law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions. But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services.

The court went on to say that the Governor's order would likely fail strict scrutiny, because it wasn't narrowly tailored. "There are plenty of less restrictive ways to address these public-health issues," for example, "insist[ing] that the congregants adhere to social-distancing and other health requirements and leave it at that--just as the Governor has done for comparable secular activities[.]"

May 15, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 11, 2020

SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in Ministerial Exemption Cases

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments (telephonically) in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel

Recall that these cases involve an application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.  In the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that the school teacher Cheryl Perich was tantamount to a minister. Thus, under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as a "minister" her employment relations with her church school employer were eligible for a "ministerial exception" to the otherwise applicable employment laws, in that case the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

But how far such this extend and who should qualify as a "ministerial" employee subject to the exemption from employment laws?  The factors that courts have derived from Hosana-Tabor include:

  • (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title;
  • (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training;
  • (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and
  • (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”

Throughout the oral argument, the question was which of these factors should be the test.  Morgan Ratner, on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae argued that the sole factor of  the employee performing an "important religious function" should be the test.  And yet, the very determination of whether an employee was performing "important religious functions" implicates an Establishment Clause issue should the court make such determinations. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch pressed on whether the court should simply accept the religious organization's statement that it had a sincere religious belief.

Nevertheless, the United States argued that this "important religious functions" factor should govern,  even if the employee was not terminated for a religious reason, but — as is the allegation in these cases — for a health issue or for age discrimination. Both Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor repeated the broadness of the exemption sought. And further, the fact that the teacher need not share religious identity with the organization should not be relevant to a determination of "important religious functions":

KAGAN: [A]nd if a position can be filled by any old person, not by a member of a faith, isn't that a pretty good sign that the employee doesn't have that special role within the religious community?
MS. RATNER: No, Justice Kagan, I don't think so. And -- and there are really several reasons. The -- the most important one is that's essentially a religious judgment about who is qualified to perform certain important religious functions and how much of the creed of that religion you need to share to perform that function.

Arguing for the teachers who had been terminated, Jeffrey Fisher pointed out the number of teachers employed in religious schools, and the number of other employees in religious hospitals. Fisher argued the expansiveness of the religious organization's argument:

So it really is a sea change – even as to teachers, leaving everything else aside, it is truly a sea change that is being requested by the other side here today in terms of how teachers and schools are classified and whether they have any employment rights at all or -- or, in fact, whether at least if you follow the way the lower courts have -- have implemented the ministerial exception, you basically have employment law-free zones in all religious schools.

Fisher also contended that many other laws were at stake, not only discrimination laws, but wage and hour and equal pay acts, as well as teacher credentialing laws including specific provisions such as criminal background checks.

Thus, while the ministerial exemption as rooted in the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment originally excepted only "ministers," there is a chance that it will be broadened to include all - - - or almost all - - - employees at religious organizations.

 

May 11, 2020 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Disability, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Oral Argument Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 24, 2020

SCOTUS Grants Certiorari on First Amendment Challenge to Anti-Discrimination Foster Care Policy

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

Recall that a unanimous panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against Philadelphia for stopping its referral of foster children to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in their certification of foster parents. Much of the litigation centers on Catholic Social Services (CSS) which will not certify same-sex couples, even those who are legally married to each other, as foster parents. Writing for the panel, Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that the Free Exercise Clause does not relieve one from compliance with a neutral law of general applicability, which the court found the nondiscrimination law to be.  Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission  and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), there was no hostility towards religion evinced in the case.  As the court stated:

CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous. It runs directly counter to the premise of  [Employment Division v. ] Smith [1990] that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements. That CSS’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that the City’s desire to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs. If all comment on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against the religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well. As the Intervenors rightly state, the “fact that CSS’s non- compliance with the City’s non-discrimination requirements is based on its religious beliefs does not mean that the City’s enforcement of its requirements constitutes anti-religious hostility.”

The litigation attracted much attention and the grant of certiorari may indicate that some of the Justices are willing to overturn Smith or to extend the holding of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

February 24, 2020 in Establishment Clause, Family, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments on Montana Blaine Amendment for School Scholarship

The Court heard oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding a state tax credit scheme for student scholarships as violating the First Amendment's religion clauses and the equal protection clause.

Under the original Tax Credit Program, the law provided a taxpayer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit based on the taxpayer’s donation to a Student Scholarship Organization. However, Montana has a constitutional provision, Art. X §6, which prohibits aid to sectarian schools, so the department of revenue added "Rule 1" to the state tax credit scheme excluding from the definition of "qualified education provider" eligible under the scheme "a church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, literary or scientific institution, or any other sectarian institution owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination."  Parents challenged the constitutionality of Rule 1, but when the litigation reached the Montana Supreme Court, it held that the Tax Credit Program was unconstitutional under Art. X §6 and therefore it did not need to reach the issue regarding Rule 1:

Having concluded the Tax Credit Program violates Article X, Section 6, it is not necessary to consider federal precedent interpreting the First Amendment’s less-restrictive Establishment Clause. Conversely, however, an overly-broad analysis of Article X, Section 6, could implicate free exercise concerns. Although there may be a case where an indirect payment constitutes “aid” under Article X, Section 6, but where prohibiting the aid would violate the Free Exercise Clause, this is not one of those cases. We recognize we can only close the “room for play” between the joints of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses to a certain extent before our interpretation of one violates the other.

In the oral argument, Justice Ginsberg characterized the option exercised by the Montana Supreme Court as leveling down: "When a differential is challenged, the court inspecting the state law can level up or level down. And here it leveled down." (This "leveling down" approach occurred in Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court in Sessions v. Santana-Morales (2017)). And here that leveling down effected questions of standing which troubled Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan in their early questions to the attorney for the petitioners — the parents and original plaintiffs — who are "three levels removed" from any injury as Sotmayor stated.

The Montana Supreme Court assumed center stage at times, with Justice Alito for example questioning not simply whether the court was wrong but whether it was discriminatory:

isn't the crucial question why the state court did what it did?

If it did what it did for an unconstitutionally discriminatory reason, then there's a problem under Village of Arlington Heights.

So I'll give you an example. The state legislature sets up a scholarship fund, and after a while, people look at the – the recipients of the scholarships, and some people say: Wow, these are mostly going to blacks and we don't like that and that's contrary to state law. So the state supreme court says: Okay,that discrimination is -- we're going to strike down the whole thing.

Is that constitutional?

The attorney for Montana, Adam Unikowsky rejected "the race analogy" stating that "we just don't think that race and religion are identical for all constitutional reasons."

Justice Breyer explained, "what he's saying is that, look, the court took the case in the Prince Edward County thing -- " or "the equivalent and said they couldn't do that. They can't shut down all the schools, even though the Constitution they didn't say had a right and so that's the similarity."

This question of the race-religion analogy persisted, with the motivation behind the Montana state constitutional provision, often known as a Blaine Amendment, being "rooted in -- in grotesque religious bigotry against Catholics," as Justice Kavanaugh phrased it. Justice Kagan seemingly rejected the notion that the court's striking down the entire program must be motivated by animus towards religion:

And I can think of many reasons why you would strike down the whole program that have nothing to do with animus toward religion. You might actually think that funding religion imposes costs and burdens on religious institutions themselves. You might think that taxpayers have conscientious objections to funding religion. You might think that funding religion creates divisiveness and conflict within a society, and that for all those reasons, funding religious activity is not a good idea and that you would rather level down and fund no comparable activity, whether religious or otherwise, than fund both. Now, none of those things have anything to do with animus towards religion . . . .

Yet soon after, Chief Justice Roberts returned to the race analogy. Later, Justice Breyer would ask:

can we--can you or could I say this: Yes, race is different from religion. Why? There is no Establishment Clause in regard to race.

The specific doctrinal arguments revolve around the extension of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer, decided in 2017, involving Missouri's state constitutional Blaine Amendment and the denial of funds to a church school playground.  And more deeply, the "play in the joints" notion from Locke v. Davey — which was itself divisive in Trinity Lutheran — is implicated. At stake is the possibility that Free Exercise Clause will now overwhelm any anti-Establishment concerns.

 

January 23, 2020 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Oral Argument Analysis, Race, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 23, 2019

SCOTUS to Hear Ministerial Exception Cases

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to two Ninth Circuit cases and consolidated them: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel

Both cases involve an application of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" first accepted by the Court in 2012 in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.  In the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that the school teacher Cheryl Perich was tantamount to a minister. Thus, under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as a "minister" her employment relations with her church school employer were eligible for a "ministerial exception" to the otherwise applicable employment laws, in that case the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

But who is a "ministerial" employee subject to the exemption from employment laws?

Chief Justice Roberts' opinion for the Court in Hosanna-Tabor declined to provide a test for deciding whether or not an employee was within the ministerial exception. However, the Court did extensively analyze Cheryl Perich's employment. And the lower courts have been struggling with how to analogize to the Court's conclusions regarding the "called teacher" Perich.

In the unpublished and very brief panel opinion in Morrisey-Berru, the court stated that the Court in Hosanna-Tabor considered four factors in analyzing whether the exception applied:

  • (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title;
  • (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training;
  • (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and
  • (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”

Applying those factors, the Ninth Circuit panel stated:

Considering the totality of the circumstances in this case, we conclude that the district court erred in concluding that Morrissey-Berru was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. Unlike the employee in Hosanna-Tabor, Morrissey-Berru’s formal title of “Teacher” was secular. Aside from taking a single course on the history of the Catholic church, Morrissey-Berru did not have any religious credential, training, or ministerial background. Morrissey-Berru also did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister.

Morrissey-Berru did have significant religious responsibilities as a teacher at the School. She committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, as evidenced by several of the employment agreements she signed, led her students in daily prayer, was in charge of liturgy planning for a monthly Mass, and directed and produced a performance by her students during the School’s Easter celebration every year. However, an employee’s duties alone are not dispositive under Hosanna-Tabor’s framework. See Biel v. St. James Sch. (9th Cir. 2018). Therefore, on balance, we conclude that the ministerial exception does not bar Morrissey-Berru’s ADEA claim.

Biel, relied upon in Morrisey-Berru's unpublished opinion, was much more contentious. Reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit panel's opinion in Biel similarly considered four factors from Hosanna-Tabor and applying them to the school teacher Kristen Biel concluded that she was not a ministerial employee. For the panel in Biel, she

by contrast, has none of Perich’s credentials, training, or ministerial background. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential. St. James had no religious requirements for her position. And, even after she began working there, her training consisted of only a half-day conference whose religious substance was limited. Unlike Perich, who joined the Lutheran teaching ministry as a calling, Biel appears to have taken on teaching work wherever she could find it: tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school.

***

Also in contrast to Perich, nothing in the record indicates that Biel considered herself a minister or presented herself as one to the community. She described herself as a teacher and claimed no benefits available only to ministers.

Only with respect to the fourth consideration in Hosanna-Tabor do Biel and Perich have anything in common: they both taught religion in the classroom. Biel taught lessons on the Catholic faith four days a week. She also incorporated religious themes and symbols into her overall classroom environment and curriculum, as the school required. We do not, however, read Hosanna-Tabor to indicate that the ministerial exception applies based on this shared characteristic alone. If it did, most of the analysis in Hosanna-Tabor would be irrelevant dicta, given that Perich’s role in teaching religion was only one of the four characteristics the Court relied upon in reaching the conclusion that she fell within the ministerial exception.

And even Biel’s role in teaching religion was not equivalent to Perich’s.. . .

The panel's opinion in Biel was not unanimous. A dissenting judge would have held that Biel was a minister in large part because her teaching duties at a Catholic school included religious teachings; the judge was "struck by the importance of her stewardship of the Catholic faith to the children in her class. Biel’s Grade 5 Teacher title may not have explicitly announced her role in ministry, but the substance reflected in her title demonstrates that she was a Catholic school educator with a distinctly religious purpose."

The petition for rehearing en banc was denied, but with a lengthy dissenting opinion  by Judge R. Nelson joined by an addition eight Ninth Circuit Judges - - - that's nine Judges dissenting.  Judge Nelson's opinion argues that the panel opinion in Biel (as well as the opinion in Morrisey-Berru) had taken the narrowest possible interpretation of Hosanna-Tabor, so narrow as to have "excised the ministerial exception, slicing through constitutional muscle and now cutting deep into core constitutional bone." For the dissenting judges, 

In turning a blind eye to St. James’s religious liberties protected by both Religion Clauses, we exhibit the very hostility toward religion our Founders prohibited and the Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed us to avoid.

Chalk_Lessons_or_The_Blackboard_in_the_Sunday_School_by_Frank_Beard_1896With the Court's grant of certiorari in Biel and Morrisey-Berru, perhaps there will be more clarity regarding the factors of Hosanna-Tabor and how they should be applied to teachers in private schools run by religious organizations. 

The facts of Biel may strike many as particularly sympathetic: Kristen Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer and terminated when she said she would have to take some time off work when she underwent chemotherapy. St. James's principal, Sister Mary Margaret, told Biel it was not "fair" "to have two teachers for the children during the school year.” If she had worked for a nonreligious school, Biel would have been protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Court is set to decide whether Biel and seemingly almost every teacher at a private school operated by a religious organization should be excluded from the employment protections afforded other workers.

[image "Chalk Lessons, or the Black-board in the Sunday School. A Practical Guide for Superintendents and Teachers" by Frank Beard (1896), via]

December 23, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Disability, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 6, 2019

SCOTUS Terms Begins With LGBTQ Title VII Cases

The United States Supreme Courts 2019 Term begins with oral arguments in three cases that will impact LGBTQ equality.  To be clear, the Court is not considering constitutional law issues.  Instead all three cases involve statutory interpretation of the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et. seq.

The two consolidated cases both involve sexual orientation discrimination. In Altitude Express v. Zarda, the Second Circuit en banc held that sexual orientation discrimination constituted a form of discrimination "because of sex" under Title VII, overruling previous Second Circuit decisions, and provoking the dissent of four judges.  Reaching the opposite conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit in Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, clung to its previous precedent, first in an unpublished opinion affirming the dismissal of the complaint, and then in a denial of rehearing en banc requested by a member of the court, with two judges issuing a dissenting opinion. 

In deciding whether or not sexual orientation discrimination is included in Title VII's "because of sex" language, the primary precedent for the Court is its unanimous opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998), authored by the late Justice Scalia.  The claim involved same-sex sexual harassment and the Court held:

We see no justification in the statutory language or our precedents for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII. As some courts have observed, male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits “discriminat[ion] . . . because of . . . sex” in the “terms” or “conditions” of employment. Our holding that this includes sexual harassment must extend to sexual harassment of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.

The third case LGBTQ Title VII case to be considered by the Court in the Term's opening days is R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC.  The Sixth Circuit, in its unanimous panel opinion reversing the district judge, found that discrimination "against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII" under the "because of sex" discrimination prohibition. The court found that the "Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex" and that the religious claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RFRA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1, raised by the funeral home's owner failed because "Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination."

While the Court has not previously decided a case of transgender discrimination under Title VII, the Court's opinion in Price Waterhouse  v. Hopkins (1989) held that sex-stereotyping is included within the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" under Title VII.  Hopkins is a fractured opinion, and none of the Justices who decided the case remain on the Court.

These statutory interpretation cases will provide an indication of the Court's views on LGBTQ equality, a subject last at the Court in the closely-divided same-sex case Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), decided under the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, these three Title VII cases may illuminate how the Court is considering precedent.

Finally, no matter how the Court decides these Title VII issues, Congress retains ultimately authority. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed "The Equality Act" which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include prohibitions of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Senate has yet to take up this legislation.

 

October 6, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Third Circuit Upholds Philadelphia's Refusal to Refer Foster Children to Organizations that Discriminates on Basis of Sexual Orientation

In its opinion in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a unanimous panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against Philadelphia for stopping its referral of foster children to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in their certification of foster parents.

Much of the litigation centers on Catholic Social Services (CSS) which will not certify same-sex couples, even those who are legally married to each other, as foster parents.  Once Philadelphia became aware of the CSS policy, through investigative reporting, the city eventually suspended foster care referrals to CSS in accordance with the city's nondiscrimination policy which includes sexual orientation.  The plaintiffs, including individuals about whom the Third Circuit had standing doubts, sued for a preliminary injunction, which the district judge denied after a three day hearing.  On appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on their First Amendment claims under the Free Exercise Clause, as well as the Establishment Clause and the Speech Clause.

Writing for the panel, Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that the Free Exercise Clause does not relieve one from compliance with a neutral law of general applicability, which the court found the nondiscrimination law to be.  Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission  and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), there was no hostility towards religion evinced in the case.  As the court stated:

CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous. It runs directly counter to the premise of  [Employment Division v. ] Smith that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements. That CSS’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that the City’s desire to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs. If all comment on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against the religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well. As the Intervenors rightly state, the “fact that CSS’s non- compliance with the City’s non-discrimination requirements is based on its religious beliefs does not mean that the City’s enforcement of its requirements constitutes anti-religious hostility.”

On the Establishment Clause, Judge Ambro briefly concluded that there was no evidence that Philadelphia was attempting to impose its preferred version of Catholic teaching on CSS.

And in a similarly brief discussion of the free speech claim, Judge Ambro's opinion found there was no viable compelled speech claim or retaliation claim.

Finally, the Third Circuit opinion considered whether there was a possibly successful claim under Pennsylvania's RFRA statute and found that there was little chance of success on the merits, even given the higher standard of review.

This litigation has attracted much interest, with intervenors and amici, and the plaintiffs filed an emergency application to the Supreme Court for an injunction pending appeal or an immediate grant of certiorari in 2018, which was denied.  Another certiorari petition is almost sure to follow the Third Circuit's decision.

 

 

April 23, 2019 in Establishment Clause, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Fourth Circuit Rebuffs Rastafarian-Prisoner's Claim for Communal Feasts

The Fourth Circuit ruled today that a Rastafarian prisoner in North Carolina couldn't show that prison officials denied his religious-exercise rights when they rejected his request to celebrate Rastafarian holy days through communal feasts and gatherings. 

The case, Wright v. Lassiter, arose when a Rastafarian prisoner asked for communal feasts as part of his religious practice. When officials declined, he sued, arguing that officials violated his free-exercise rights under RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause.

But according to the court there was one problem: The plaintiff was the only Rastafarian, and the only prisoner who would attend the communal feasts and gatherings, in the prison. This meant that the officials didn't cause or impose a substantial burden on his religious exercise (the trigger for both RLUIPA and free exercise claims); instead, the absence of any other Rastafarian did:

Wright's causation problem stems from the fact that he has requested communal gatherings and feasts. There is no such thing as a community of one, and Wright agreed at oral argument tha the was not seeking a feast for himself alone. He therefore had to show that, but for the policies that allegedly prohibit the requested holiday gatherings, other inmates would join in the gatherings. To put it in the negative, if other inmates would not join in his gatherings, then the prison's restrictive policies would not be a factual cause of the burden he claims to have experienced.

Absent causation, the court said, it didn't even need to evaluate under strict scrutiny (under RLUIPA) or rational basis review (under the Free Exercise Clause). 

April 17, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

D.C. Circuit Denies Injunction Against Transit Rule Banning Religious Content

The D.C. Circuit ruled yesterday in Archdiocese of Washington v. WMATA that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority rule that bans religious content advertising on buses did not likely violate free speech. The court denied the Archdiocese's motion for a preliminary injunction.

Judge Kavanaugh was an original member of the panel, but recused himself from the ruling.

The ruling sides with the government on a key free-speech question: Is religious content necessarily a viewpoint? The court said no.

The case involves WMATA's Guideline 12, which closes the public-transit authority's advertising space to issue-oriented ads, including political, religious, and advocacy ads. (Importantly, the Guideline banned by pro- and con- ads on each topic.) When WMATA, acting pursuant to the Guideline, rejected the Archdiocese's request to place religious ads on buses, the Archdiocese sued, arguing that the denial violated free speech, the Free Exercise Clause, and RFRA, among others. The Archdiocese moved for a preliminary injunction, but yesterday the D.C. Circuit rejected that request.

The court ruled that the Archdiocese was unlikely to succeed on its free speech claim, because buses are a non-public forum, and Guideline 12 permissibly discriminates based on the content, not viewpoint, of the message.

The court rejected the Archdiocese's argument that any content restriction on religious speech was necessarily a viewpoint based restriction on speech because there's a religious viewpoint on any matter. "Notably, there is no principled limit to the Archdiocese's conflation of subject-matter restrictions with viewpoint-based restrictions as concerns religion. Were the Archdiocese to prevail, WMATA (and other transit systems) would have to accept all types of advertisements to maintain viewpoint neutrality, including ads criticizing and disparaging religion and religious tenets or practices."

The court distinguished Rosenberger, Lamb's Chapel, and Good News Club--all of which struck government bans on religious speech as viewpoint-based discrimination. The court said that those cases involved religious-viewpoint discrimination within a defined content of speech. But here, the government simply banned the content of all religious speech, again, both pro- and con- (or otherwise). 

[F]ar from being an abrogation of the distinction between permissible subject matter rules and impermissible viewpoint discrimination, each of these cases represents an application of the Supreme Court's viewpoint discrimination analysis, of which Guideline 12 does not run afoul. In each, the Court held that the government had engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination because the challenged regulation operated to exclude religious viewpoints on otherwise includable topics. An examination of each case demonstrates the contrast between the breadth of subjects encompassed by the forums at issue and WMATA's in which, unlike the restrictions struck down by the Court, Guideline 12 does not function to exclude religious viewpoints but rather proscribes advertisements on the entire subject matter of religion.

The court also said that the Archdiocese didn't demonstrate a likelihood of success on its other claims. As to Free Exercise, the court said that Guideline 12 was merely a religiously-neutral rule of general applicability, with no evidence of religious animus, and therefore valid under rational basis review.

August 1, 2018 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 25, 2018

SCOTUS Remands Arlene's Flowers on Same-Sex Wedding Refusal

The Court, without opinion, in Arlene's Flowers v. Washington, granted the petition for writ of certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court, and remanded the case for consideration in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n.

Recall that in 2017 the Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Washington Law Against Discrimination including sexual orientation as applied to a business that refused to provide wedding flowers for a same-sex wedding. Artlene's Flowers had several First Amendment claims and on the Free Exercise claim, the court rejected Arlene's Flowers' argument that the Washington ant-discrimination law was not a neutral one of general applicability and should therefore warrant strict scrutiny.  Instead, the court applied the rational basis standard of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, which the Washington anti-discrimination easily passed. 

Philippe_de_Marlier_Nelkenstrauss_in_GlasvaseShortly after the Court's decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which the Court found that the Colorado  Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of the case had "some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his [the cakemaker's] objection," the florist in Arlene's Flowers, Baronnelle Stutzman, filed a Supplemental Brief seeking "at least" remand and alleging:

in ruling against Barronelle, the state trial court—at the urging of Washington’s attorney general—compared Barronelle to a racist “owner of a 7-Eleven store” who had “a policy” of refusing “to serve any black[]” customers. Pet. App. 107a–109a & 108a n.16 (emphasis added). The state, in short, has treated Barronelle with neither tolerance nor respect.

Thus the Washington Supreme Court is now tasked with determining whether there was hostility towards the Arlene's Flowers woner's religion, and if so, applying strict scrutiny.

Relatedly, in a challenge to Arizona's non-discrimination statute by a company, Brush & Nib, that sells "pre-fabricated and design artwork for home décor, weddings, and special events," an Arizona Court of Appeals found that there would be no Free Exercise claim in its opinion in Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix. Yet because Brush & Nib was a pre-enforcement challenge, the emphasis was on the statute rather than on Brush & Nib's actions.

 

 

June 25, 2018 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 4, 2018

SCOTUS Finds Colorado Civil Rights Commission Hostile to Religion in Masterpiece Cakeshop

In its opinion today authored by Justice Kennedy in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court found that the cakeshop owner's First Amendment Free Exercise Clause right was infringed upon by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Recall that the Civil Rights Commission had found the cakemaker violated the state equal accommodations statute protection on the basis of sexual orientation when the cakemaker refused to be employed for a same-sex wedding cake.

Justice Kennedy's opinion decides the controversy on the basis of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), in which the Court found that the City of Hialeah's prohibition of killing animals was aimed at the religion of Santeria, especially given the numerous exceptions in the ordinance. Here, Kennedy's opinion for the Court rejects the ALJ's conclusion that the Colorado anti-discrimination statute was a neutral law of general applicability (and thus should be evaluated under a rational basis test), finding instead that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in its adjudication of this case was not neutral but expressed hostility:  "The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his [the cakemaker's] objection."

These expressions of hostility surfaced in the oral argument as we noted in a specific statement from Kennedy  quoting one of the civil rights commissioners ( "freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric") which Kennedy asked counsel to disavow. This foreshadowed the opinion's quotation of the commissioner  "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.”

The opinion then stated:

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare [cakemaker] Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti- discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.

With the decision based on this, the Court admittedly sidesteps the more contentious issues and widespread issues of the case:

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.

Perhaps another limiting factor is that the Court observes that the cakebaker's refusal occurred before Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) when Colorado law did not authorize same-sex marriages. However, the Court also pointed to language in Obergefell that religious objections to same-sex marriage are protected by the First Amendment.

Yet there is also the issue of arguably inconsistent rulings from the civil rights commission.

Justice Kagan, in a brief concurring opinion joined by Justice Breyer, stressed the fault found with the Civil Rights Commission that did not give the cakemaker's religious views “neutral and respectful consideration.” She argued that any "inconsistent" rulings could be explained: the cakemakers in other cases objected to placing words on the cakes that they found offensive; in Masterpiece, the cakemaker objected to the customers who were purchasing sentiments he would provide for others.

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concluded that there was not sufficient evidence of "hostility" neither in the arguably inconsistent rulings nor in the statements.  As to the statements,

Whatever one may think of the statements in historical context, I see no reason why the comments of one or two Commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins. The proceedings involved several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.

First, the Division had to find probable cause that Phillips violated CADA. Second, the ALJ entertained the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Third, the Commission heard Phillips’ appeal. Fourth, after the Commission’s ruling, the Colorado Court of Appeals considered the case de novo. What prejudice infected the determinations of the adjudicators in the case before and after the Commission?

For Ginsburg, then, this was "far removed from the only precedent upon which the Court relies, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), where the government action that violated a principle of religious neutrality implicated a sole decisionmaking body, the city council."

Certainly, the Court's opinion rests on narrow grounds, perhaps unique to this case. But it nevertheless represents the Court chipping away at equality on the basis of sexual orientation.

 

 

 

 

June 4, 2018 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 1, 2018

Seventh Circuit Upholds "In God We Trust" on Currency

The Seventh Circuit this week rebuffed a First Amendment challenge to the phrase "In God we Trust" on our currency by a non-theistic Satanist. The unsurprising ruling allows the government to continue to print that phrase on money.

The plaintiff challenged the phrase under the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, and the Speech Clause, among others. The court rejected each.

As to the Establishment Clause, the court said that the phrase wasn't an endorsement of religion, that it didn't coerce religious beliefs, and that it wasn't based on a forbidden religious purpose. In short, the court said that the phrase is simply a part of our nation's heritage:

The inclusion of the motto on currency is similar to other ways in which secular symbols give a nod to the nation's religious heritage. Examples include the phrase "one nation under God," which has been in the Pledge of Allegiance since 1954, as well as the National Day of Prayer, which has existed in various forms since the dawn of the country and is now codified [in the U.S.C.]. Moreover, when the religious aspects of an activity account for "only a fraction," the possibility that anyone could see it as an endorsement of religion is diluted. In the case of currency, the motto is one of many historical reminders; others include portraits of presidents, state symbols, monuments, notable events such as the Louisiana Purchase, and the national bird. In this context, a reasonable observer would not perceive the motto on currency as a religious endorsement.

As to free exercise, the court said that the plaintiff's "claim fails because the motto's placement on currency has the secular purpose of recognizing the religious component of our nation's history."

As to free speech, the court rejected the plaintiff's claim that the phrase amounted to forced speech, because nobody would regard the phrase as the plaintiff's own speech.

The court also rejected the plaintiff's RFRA claim (no substantial burden on the plaintiff's practice of Satanism) and his equal protection claim (because the government had at least one legitimate objective, "acknowledging an aspect of our nation's heritage").

June 1, 2018 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Massachusetts High Court on Public Funding of Churches and the State Anti-Aid Amendment

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled last week on the constitutionality of local grants going to church improvements under the state Anti-Aid Amendment. The ruling balances the interests behind the Anti-Aid Amendment, on the one hand, and the Free Exercise Clause under Trinity Lutheran, on the other, and comes out with a cautious thumb on the scale in favor of anti-aid.

The case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, arose when a local church applied for and received two grants of public funds for church improvements--one for a "Master Plan for Historic Preservation," covering several renovation and preservation projects on the facilities, and one for restoration and preservation of the church's religious-themed stained-glass windows. Taxpayers sued under the state private-attorney-general provision, arguing that the grants violated the state constitutional Anti-Aid Amendment. That Amendment prohibits the "grant, appropriation or use of public money . . . for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society."

Two questions came to the court. First, does the Anti-Aid Amendment categorically bar the grants, or are the grants subject to a three-factor test that the state uses for a companion provision in the Amendment? (A categorical bar would prohibit the grants without further inquiry, whereas the three-factor test could permit the grants if they met certain factors.) Next, if the three-factor test applies, do the grants satisfy it?

The court ruled that the Anti-Aid Amendment isn't categorical, and is instead subject to its three-factor test. (That test looks to whether a motivating purpose of each grant was to aid the church; whether the grant would have the effect of substantially aiding the church; and whether the grant avoid the risks of the political and economic abuses that prompted the passage of the Amendment.) The court gave three reasons: (1) because the three-factor test applies to a companion provision in the Amendment, it made sense to apply it to this provision, too; (2) the Amendment by its own terms requires a case-by-case analysis, which is consistent with a three-factor test (but not a categorical approach); and (3) a categorical approach "invites the risk of infringing on the free exercise of religion" under Trinity Lutheran. As to that last reason, the court said that the three-factor test allowed it to account for the Amendment without violating free exercise, Trinity Lutheran style.

As to the application of the test, the court ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their challenge to the stained-glass window grant, but remanded the case on the "Master Plan" grant.

Two justices concurred, and one dissented, arguing in different ways how the Amendment and the grants stacked up against Trinity Lutheran.

March 14, 2018 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Seventh Circuit Applies Ministerial Exception to Hebrew Teacher at Jewish School

The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that the First Amendment's ministerial exception barred a Hebrew teacher's Americans with Disabilities Act claim against her employer, a Jewish school. The ruling is the first time the Seventh Circuit applied the ministerial exception.

The case, Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, arose when Grussgott, a Hebrew teacher at the school, suffered memory and cognitive issues as a result of medical treatment for her brain tumor. During a call from a parent, Grussgott couldn't remember an event, and the parent taunted her about her memory loss. Grussgott's husband, who happens to be a rabbi, sent an e-mail from Grussgott's work account criticizing the parent for being disrespectful. The school fired her, and she sued under the ADA, arguing that she was fired because of her cognitive issues resulting from the brain tumor.

The Seventh Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception applied and dismissed the case. Applying the "fact-intensive analysis" of Hosanna-Tabor, the court held that while Grussgott's title and the "substance reflected in that title" both tilted against applying the ministerial exception, Grussgott's use of the title and the religious functions she performed both tilted in favor. The court explained:

But Hebrew teachers at Milwaukee Jewish Day School were expected to follow the unified Tal Am curriculum, meaning that the school expected its Hebrew teachers to integrate religious teachings into their lessons. Grussgott's resume also touts significant religious teaching experience, which the former principal said was a crucial factor in the school hiring her in 2013. Thus, the substance of Grussgott's title as conveyed to her and as perceived by others entails the teaching of the Jewish religion to students, which supports the application of the ministerial exception here.

***

Grussgott undisputedly taught her students about Jewish holidays, prayer, and the weekly Torah readings; moreover, she practiced the religion alongside her students by praying with them and performing certain rituals, for example.

The court was careful to say that its analysis is holistic and fact-intensive, and not a rigid and mathematical application of the four "factors" from Hasanna-Tabor. On the other hand, the court also rejected "a purely functional approach to determining whether an employee's role is ministerial."

We read the Supreme Court's decision to impose, in essence, a totality-of-the-circumstances test. And it is fair to say that, under the totality of the circumstances in this particular case, the importance of Grussgott's role as a "teacher of [] faith" to the next generation outweighed other considerations.

February 14, 2018 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

ACLU Sues to Halt Trump Administration Roll-Back of ACA's Contraception Benefits

The ACLU filed suit yesterday in the Northern District of California challenging the Trump Administration's roll-back of the contraception benefit under the Affordable Care Act. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit also illustrates the new approach to religion under this administration as stated yesterday in AG Sessions's principles of religious liberty.

The suit, which also includes SEIU-UHW as a plaintiff, argues that the roll-back in HHS's interim final regulations would permit religiously affiliated organizations that currently get an exemption from the contraception-coverage requirement to back out of the requirement altogether. (The exemption permits religiously affiliated organizations to pass the implementation off to their insurer or third-party administrator, so that the organization itself doesn't have anything to do with contraception, but so that employees and students of the organization still get direct and free access through the insurer or third-party administrator. The interim final rules would permit those organizations to deny contraception coverage entirely.)

The complaint argues that the move violates the Establishment Clause, equal protection, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the ACA itself:

By authorizing businesses, non-profit organizations, and universities to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and students, and rob women of health coverage that is otherwise guaranteed by law, the Religious Exemption [interim final rule] violates the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, by authorizing employers to block contraception coverage based on religious or other grounds, both [interim final rules] violate the right to equal protection guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, because the [interim final rules] were promulgated without good cause for foregoing notice and comment and without providing a reasoned basis for the change in agency position as required by the Administrative Procedure Act, they violate federal statutory requirements that agencies not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner and observe procedures required by law. Finally, the [interim final rules] exceed the statutory authority given to the agencies by the Affordable Care Act.

As to the Establishment Clause, the complaint argues that the purpose and effect of the interim final rules were to advance religion, and that they foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

It's no coincidence that the interim final rules came out the same day as AG Sessions's principles on religious liberty.

But note that while the ACLU complaint speaks in terms of the Lemon test (purpose, effect, entanglement), AG Sessions's principles don't mention the case. The principles instead discuss the Establishment Clause barely (privileging free exercise) and only in terms of "establishing a religion and coercing Americans to follow it," "restrict[ing] government from interfering [in religion]," "prohibit[ing] government from officially favoring or disfavoring particular religious groups," and "neutrality towards religion."

In other words, AG Sessions's principles back off the Establishment Clause concerns about religious purpose and effect, and even excessive entanglement, and instead emphasize only more blunt forms of government establishment of religion (and downplay even those, in favor of free exercise concerns). It's thus hardly a surprise that HHS would issue these interim final rules, even with a religious purpose and effect: they fall squarely within AG Sessions's free exercise interpretation, and do not violate his (lesser important) establishment interpretation.

In yet other words, these interim regs are just a preview of what's to come under the Sessions approach to religion.

October 7, 2017 in Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 26, 2017

SCOTUS in Trinity Lutheran Finds Missouri's Denial of Funding to Church Playground Violates First Amendment

 In its opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer, involving a First Amendment Free Exercise Clause challenge to a denial of state funding that was based on Missouri's state constitutional provision, a so-called Blaine Amendment, prohibiting any state funds from being awarded to religious organizations. 

Recall that at the oral arguments, most Justices seemed skeptical of Missouri's argument.  However, recall that the Eighth Circuit had concluded that Trinity Church sought 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.  

St_Joseph_MO_1st_Presby_PHS1031
Church Interior, Missouri, image via

In the Trinity Lutheran opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court characterized the Missouri policy as one that "expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character."  Relying on the Free Exercise precedent it had discussed, it concluded that if such cases "make one thing clear, it is that such a policy imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny."  The Court added that "Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government program without disavowing its religious character."

Yet the question of subsidy or funding caused some consternation amongst the Justices who joined the Chief Justice's opinion for the Court.  Footnote 3, which provides in full "This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination" is joined only by a plurality - - - Justices Thomas and Gorsuch explicitly exempted this footnote.  In two brief concurring opinions, one by Thomas joined by Gorsuch and one by Gorsuch joined by Thomas, the continued vitality of Locke v. Davey is questioned.

In the Court's opinion, Locke v. Davey is distinguished because "Davey was not denied a state-funded scholarship of who he was but because of what he proposed to do - to use the funds to prepare for the ministry." (emphasis in original).  For Gorsuch, this status-use distinction is not sufficient.

Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, and almost twice as long as the Chief Justice's opinion for the Court, is rich with originalist history as well a discussion of Locke v. Davey and a citation to the 38 state constitutional provisions similar to the Missouri one.  For Sotomayor,

Missouri has recognized the simple truth that, even absent an Establishment Clause violation, the transfer of public funds to houses of worship raises concerns that sit exactly between the Religion Clauses. To avoid those concerns, and only those concerns, it has prohibited such funding. In doing so, it made the same choice made by the earliest States centuries ago and many other States in the years since. The Constitution permits this choice.

Sotomayor points to the possible ramifications of the opinion, including the troublesome footnote 3:

The Court today dismantles a core protection for religious freedom provided in these Clauses. It holds not just that a government may support houses of worship with taxpayer funds, but that—at least in this case and perhaps in others, see ante at 14, n. 3—it must do so whenever it decides to create a funding program. History shows that the Religion Clauses separate the public treasury from religious coffers as one measure to secure the kind of freedom of conscience that benefits both religion and government. If this separation means anything, it means that the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment. I dissent.

It dies seem that Trinity Lutheran opens the floodgates for claims by religious entities that they are being "discriminated" against whenever there are secular provisions for funding.

June 26, 2017 in Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, History, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church Free Exercise Challenge

The nine Justice Court heard oral arguments this morning in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer, involving a First Amendment Free Exercise Clause challenge to a denial of state funding that was based on Missouri's state constitutional provision prohibiting any state funds from being awarded to religious organizations. 

The state Department of Natural Resources had denied the grant application of Trinity Lutheran Church for funds to purchase of recycled tires to resurface its preschool playground.  The state officials had reasoned that supplying such funds would violate the state constitutional provision, a provision often called a Blaine Amendment, and which the attorney for Trinity Lutheran Church noted was often rooted in "anti-Catholic bigotry."  In upholding the Missouri denial of resources the Eighth Circuit had relied in part on Locke v. Davey (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.   

Locke v. Davey arose frequently in the argument. The attorney for the church argued that Locke's "play in the joints" was pertinent, but distinguished the program in Locke as being more inclusive of religion.  Justice Kennedy seemed to distinguish Locke v. Davey, stating that "this is quite different than Locke, because this is a status-based statute."  Later, Chief Justice Roberts broached Locke, in a colloquy with James Layton, representing Missouri, who argued that Locke was a closer case than the present one because here the state's money was a "direct payment" to the church rather a scholarship to a student as in Locke.  But Justice Kagan, evoking Locke, seemed troubled by Missouri's argument:

JUSTICE KAGAN: But here's the deal. You're right that this is a selective program. It's not a general program in which everybody gets money. But still the question is whether some people can be disentitled from applying to that program and from receiving that money if they are qualified based on other completely nonreligious attributes, and they're disqualified solely because they are a religious institution doing religious things. Even though they're not --they could --they could promise you, we're not going to do religious things on this playground surface, and you're still saying, well, no, you --you can't get the money.

Soon thereafter, Justice Kagan stated:

JUSTICE KAGAN: But I don't understand -I --I think I understand how the States' interests might differ some, but essentially this is a program open to everyone. Happens to be a competitive program, but everyone is open to compete on various neutral terms, and you're depriving one set of actors from being able to compete in the same way everybody else can compete because of their religious identification.

Layton, representing the State, also had his own status and the status of the litigation to discuss.

    [Sotomayor]:  Mr. Layton, I'm --I'm --I know the Court is very grateful that you took up the request of the Missouri Attorney General to defend the old position, but I --I am worried about the, if not the mootness, the adversity in this case. If the Attorney General is in favor of the position that your adversary is taking, isn't his appointment of you creating adversity that doesn't exist?
MR. LAYTON: Well, I don't know the answer to that --that, but let me --let me give some of the factual background here.
The Attorney General himself is recused because he actually appears on one of the briefs on the other side. The first assistant in this instance is the Acting Attorney General, and the Acting Attorney General, at a time before governor --the governor gave his new instruction, asked me to defend the position, because at that point, it was still the position of the State, and was not being disavowed.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, but that's the question. It doesn't appear to be the position of the State right now. Reading through the lines of the Acting Attorney General to us, it doesn't appear that he believes that you're taking the right position.

The problem of whether the case is moot because the Governor of Missouri announced this week a change of policy was the subject of a Court instruction to the attorneys to respond by letter regarding the issue.  It dominated very little of the discussion, but Chief Justice Roberts did ask this:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You --do you agree that this --this Court's voluntary cessation policies apply to the mootness question?
MR. LAYTON: I agree . . .

Justice Gorsuch, new to the bench this week, then brought the matter back to the substantive issue.

Whether or not the Court will dismiss the case or rule on the merits was not evident from the oral argument, although it did seem as if there was not much enthusiasm for Missouri's now-previous position that prevailed in the Eighth Circuit.

 

April 19, 2017 in Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Oral Argument Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)