Wednesday, July 8, 2020
The Supreme Court today upheld the Trump Administration's rules substantially broadening the religious exemption and expanding it to those with a "moral" objection to the Affordable Care Act's contraception guarantee.
The ruling in Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania means that a dramatically expanded group of employers--those with a religious objection or moral objection to contraception--get an automatic free pass on the requirement that employers provide their female employees with health-insurance coverage that includes contraceptives. Covered employers need not file for an self-certified exemption or accommodation; they just have to, well, not provide coverage.
This could mean that between 70,500 and 126,400 women would lose access to contraceptive services under their employer-provided health insurance plans. (This is the Administration's estimate.)
The Court's ruling leaves open another challenge to the rules, however, and the plaintiffs could raise the argument on remand, that is, that the rules are arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Justice Thomas wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. The Court ruled that the Departments had statutory authority to adopt the rules under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 300gg-13(a)(4), which provides that "with respect to women," group health plans must "at a minimum, provide . . . such additional preventive care and screenings not described in paragraph (1) as provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by [HRSA]." The Court said that the "as provided for" clause "grants sweeping authority to HRSA to craft a set of standards defining the preventive care that applicable health plans must cover," leaving the HRSA with "virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings." The Court held that this authority included the power "to identify and create exemptions" like the ones in the challenged rules.
The Court also held that the Departments complied with the procedural requirements in the Administrative Procedure Act in adopting the rules.
The Court expressly declined to say whether RFRA compelled the exemptions in the rules, as the Administration argued. Still, the Court did say that the Departments were within their powers to consider RFRA in writing the rules, and even that "[i]t is clear from the face of the statute that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating RFRA."
Justice Alito concurred in full, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Alito argued that the Court should have resolved the RFRA question in favor of the Administration--that is, that RFRA compelled the rules. According to Justice Alito, this would have meant that the rules were not impermissibly arbitrary and capricious under the APA, and thus foreclosed that argument on remand.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment. Justice Kagan argued that HRSA had statutory authority to exempt certain employers from the contraceptive guarantee, but (different than the Court) because the HRSA was entitled to Chevron deference in its interpretation of the ambiguous statutory language. She also argued that the rules could be arbitrary and capricious--an issue for the lower court on remand.
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. Justice Ginsburg pointed to an earlier provision in the Act that specifies that group health plans and health insurance issuers "shall" cover specified services. She argued that this provision mandates who is required to provide specified services--and that it doesn't include any exemptions. (She argued that the section that the Court relied on only went to what services must be provided, not who must provide them. And yet the rules provide exemptions for who must provide services.) She also argued that the rules weren't compelled by the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.
Saturday, May 30, 2020
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)
Thursday, January 23, 2020
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
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.
With 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]
Sunday, October 6, 2019
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, September 17, 2019
Arizona Supreme Court Finds Religious Exemption for Same-Sex Wedding Invitations Despite Nondiscrimination Ordinance
In lengthy and sharply divided opinion in Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix, the Arizona Supreme Court has held that a custom wedding invitation company and its proprietors have a right to refuse to express to make invitations for same-sex weddings under article 2, section 6 of the Arizona Constitution, providing that "Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right," as well as Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (“FERA”), A.R.S. § 41-1493.01. This right prevailed over the City of Phoenix’s Ordinance, as amended in 2013, which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating against persons based on their status in a “protected” group, which includes a person’s sexual orientation. Phx., Ariz., City Code (“PCC”) § 18-4(B). As the majority made clear, however, its holding was " limited to Plaintiffs’ creation of custom wedding invitations that are materially similar to those contained in the record," and did not "recognize a blanket exemption from the Ordinance for all of Plaintiffs’ business operations," or reach the question of other wedding services. The court appended illustrative samples in the appendix (and see below).
The opinion rests on the independent ground of the state constitution and is thus insulated from federal review (given that no other constitutional right is at issue). The majority notes that the free expression provision of the state constitution "by its terms" "provides broader protections for free speech than the First Amendment."
Nevertheless, the majority extensively relies upon United States Supreme Court cases. The citations include the Court's 2018 opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, although in Masterpiece there was a conclusion that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, enforcing its state nondiscrimination statute, expressed hostility on the basis of religion in its adjudication of the case - an issue that is not raised by the multiple opinions in Brush & Nib. The majority traces some of the rationales in the Masterpiece arguments: finding that the same-sex wedding invitations with their art and calligraphy (like the cake-baking) is "art" and speech, and finding that nondiscrimination ordinance seeks to compel their speech in support of beliefs they do not hold, such as same-sex marriage. The majority thus applies strict scrutiny, holding that a nondiscrimination public accommodations law is not a compelling governmental interest, and that such laws target conduct rather than speech and it is therefore not narrowly tailored.
Three of the seven Justices of the Arizona Supreme Court dissented. The dissenting opinion that all three Justices joined found that there was a tension between "our fundamental values of liberty and equality," but because "the interest in preventing discrimination is compelling, equality prevails when we are dealing with public accommodations such as businesses serving the public." The dissenters also argued that "the majority implausibly characterizes a commercially prepared wedding invitation as “pure speech” on the part of the business selling the product and discounts the compelling public interest in preventing discrimination against disfavored customers."
And while this case is not suitable for certiorari to the Supreme Court, this issue will most likely recur in Arizona given the majority's attempt to limit the decision and the sharp divisions on the court; just as it will be recurring elsewhere.
Friday, June 7, 2019
In its unanimous opinion in State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, the Washington Supreme Court concluded there was no First Amendment infringement when the state found Arlene's Flowers violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), by refusing to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.
Recall that in June 2018, the United States Supreme 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 its decision earlier than month in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n. Given the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, or one specific commissioner, exhibited "hostility" to the cakemaker in that case, the Washington Supreme Court was now tasked with determining whether there was a similar hostility towards the religion of the florist in Arlene's Flowers, Baronnelle Stutzman, and if so, applying strict scrutiny.
The Washington Supreme Court, on page 2 of its 76 page opinion, proclaimed: "We now hold that the answer to the Supreme Court's question is no; the adjudicatory bodies that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled that the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination . . . ."
The Washington Supreme Court's lengthy opinion admittedly includes passages from its 2017 opinion which thoroughly discussed and applied the First Amendment standards, but it also carefully delves into the question of government hostility toward religion. The court found irrelevant one contested incident involving the Attorney General of Washington which occurred after the Washington Supreme Court's 2017 opinion, noting that the issue was one of adjudicatory animus and not executive branch animus; any claim that there was selective prosecution lacked merit. The Washington Supreme Court also rejected Stutzman's claim that the scope of the injunction in the 2017 opinion mandated that Stutzman "personally attend and participate in same-sex weddings."
The Washington Supreme Court's opinion concludes that "After careful review on remand, we are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop. We again affirm the trial court's rulings."
It is a solid well-reasoned unanimous opinion, but given this hard-fought and well-financed litigation, it's likely that Arlene's Flowers will again petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.
image: Vincent Van Gogh, Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase, circa 1887, via.
June 7, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Sexual Orientation, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 6, 2019
Here's the Trump Administration's new rule, rolled out in its final version last week, providing religious "conscience protections" for health-care providers who, because of their religious beliefs, decline to provide abortion-related services and training, sterilization, and assisted-suicide related services, among others. The rule provides that health-care institutions could lose federal funding if they fail to enforce the protections.
While the precise impact is now unknowable, the rule will likely affect access to these services and health-care access for the LBGTQ community.
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
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).
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
In oral argument in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, consolidated with Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, the Court considered whether a 40 foot "Latin Cross" situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of an acre at the busy intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Md., erected to honor the dead of World War I, violates the Establishment Clause.
Recall that a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit held that the cross violated the Establishment Clause, applying Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) as a "useful guidepost" augmented by the plurality in Van Orden v. Perry (2005) regarding passive monuments.
Michael Carvin, arguing for the American Legion, proposed replacing the Lemon test with a very broad standard that made all sectarian symbols erected or maintained by governments presumptively constitutional, except in "the rare case in which they've been misused to proselytize." Carvin's argument would essentially vitiate the Establishment Clause and the Justices did not seem inclined to go that far. However, there was much discussion regarding whether the endorsement inquiry under Lemon — or any portion of Lemon — was appropriate or workable.
In considering whether the Latin cross was exclusionary of non-Christians, Neal Katyal, arguing for the Maryland state government party, stated that "factually, one of the main proponents for fundraisers of this particular cross was J. Moses Eldovich, who himself was a Jewish veteran." Later in the argument, Chief Justice Roberts returned to this point in a colloquy with Monica Miller (pictured right) arguing on behalf of the American Humanist Association:
CJ ROBERTS: Well, but that’s one of the main criticisms of the - - - of the Lemon test - - - that different people are going to process that [the relationship between Christianity and citizenship virtues] in different ways.
I mean, you heard from one of your friends on the other side that one of the major fund-raisers of this was a Jewish individual. So he was obviously observing it or anticipating it in a different way.
MILLER: Well, Your Honor, I think that we cannot take one person's example, again, someone who is probably one of maybe the only Jewish people in that county at a time when there was an active clan [Klan] burning crosses, burning Jewish buildings or Jewish, you know, businesses at a time when atheists couldn't run for office, Jews had to swear that they believed in an after-life in order to qualify, I mean —
Justice Kagan, attempted to ask a question, “why does it even matter?” But Justice Alito, overriding Kagan, pointed out that there were 12 African-American soldiers’ names on the cross, and then asked Ms. Miller:
JUSTICE ALITO: And do you think that the -- that the situation of -- of African Americans in Prince George's County at that time was worse -- was better than the situation for Jews?
Ms. Miller responded by stating that it was unclear how the names actually were chosen to be on the cross and that not all of them were from Prince George’s county.
While predictions from oral argument are always fraught, the majority of the Court seems poised to depart from Lemon and rather than articulate a new standard, stress the longstanding nature of the "monument" as in Van Orden.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Check out Leah Litman's piece at Take Care on the Court's orders last week in June Medical (granting a stay of the Fifth Circuit's rejection of a challenge to Louisiana's admitting-privileges requirement for doctors who perform abortion) and Dunn v. Ray (granting a stay of the Eleventh Circuit's stay of execution for an inmate who was denied an imam to attend his execution). Litman argues that these rulings "are not really about the district court's general role as fact-finders. They are, instead, about the factual, procedural, and equitable standards that courts hold different kinds of plaintiffs to--who they indulge, and who they hold to increasingly insurmountable or prohibitively difficult standards."
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Judge Wendy Bettlestone (E.D. Pa.) yesterday issued a preliminary injunction halting the government's final rules that provide sweeping exemptions to the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act.
Judge Bettlestone's ruling is the second in two days halting the rules. But unlike Sunday's ruling, which applied just to the plaintiffs, Judge Bettlestone's injunction applies nationwide. The ruling strikes yet another significant blow against the administration's efforts to eviscerate the contraception mandate and means that the government can't enforce its new rules unless and until it successfully appeals or wins a stay. The second ruling also makes it more likely that the issue will sooner-or-later end up at the Supreme Court.
The court held that the religious and moral exemptions violated the Administrative Procedure Act, for both procedural and substantive reasons. As to procedure, the court held that the government's earlier failure to apply APA procedures to the interim rules "infected" its adoption of the final rules. As to substance, the court ruled that the final rules "exceed the Agencies' authority under the ACA" and cannot be justified by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court recognized the controversies around nationwide injunctions, but wrote that a nationwide injunction was justified here for three reasons:
For one, anything short of a nation-wide injunction would likely fail to provide the States "complete relief." . . .
Second, it is far from clear how burdensome a nation-wide injunction would be on Defendants, given that when "agency regulations are unlawful, the ordinary result is that the rules are vacated--not that their application to the individual petitioners is proscribed."
Third, one of the risks associated with a nation-wide injunction--namely, "foreclosing adjudication by a number of different courts"--is not necessarily present here, as the parallel litigation in the Ninth Circuit evidences.
Fundamentally, given the harms to the States should the Final Rules be enforced--numerous citizens losing contraceptive coverage, resulting in "significant, direct and proprietary harm: to the States in the form of increased use of state-funded contraceptive services, as well as increased costs associated with unintended pregnancies--a nation-wide injunction is required to ensure complete relief to the States.
Monday, January 14, 2019
Judge Haywood S. Gilliam, Jr., issued a preliminary injunction yesterday that halts the government's implementation of its sweeping exemptions to Obamacare's contraception requirement in the plaintiff states.
The ruling is a blow to the administration's attempts to allow organizations to opt-out of the contraception requirement on their own say-so, and without informing the government.
Recall that just last month the Ninth Circuit affirmed an injunction barring the government from enforcing interim exemptions, but limited the injunction to plaintiff states.
Yesterday's ruling halts the final rules (not the interim ones). But as Judge Gilliam noted, they're more or less the same, except that the final rules went through notice-and-comment procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act. Those rules include a religious exemption and a moral exemption that permit any organization that has a religious or moral objection to unilaterally opt-out of the contraception requirement, without filing an exemption or even noting an objection to the government.
The court ruled that the religious exemption likely violated the APA, because it's contrary to the ACA's contraception mandate. (The court rejected the government's position that the ACA's mandate is really just a suggestion.) The court also held that the government's final rule isn't required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because no authority says that simply informing the government of a religious objection (by writing a letter, for example) is a substantial burden. The court noted that there's much work to be done on these issues, however, when the case goes forward.
The court also ruled that the moral exemption likely violated the APA, also because it's contrary to the ACA. Among other problems, the court noted that the Senate rejected a statutory moral exemption when it passed the ACA.
The ruling temporarily halts enforcement of the government's new final rules in the plaintiff states--California, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, and Washington, D.C.
Friday, November 2, 2018
The Court has granted certiorari in Maryland-Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association centered on the constitutionality of a 40 foot "Latin Cross," owned and maintained by the state of Maryland and situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of an acre at the busy intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Md.
Recall our earlier discussion regarding the divided decision in which the Fourth Circuit concluded that the government cross violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, reversing the district judge. In essence, the majority found that while there may be a legitimate secular purpose to the cross, considering that it was erected to local soldiers who died in World War I, the cross is specifically Christian and "the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones" in the display. A "reasonable observer" most likely viewing the 40 foot cross from the highway would fairly understand the Cross to have the primary effect of endorsing religion and entangles the State with religion.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
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.
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
In its opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, a closely divided United States Supreme Court found that the so-called "travel ban" or "Muslim ban" did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Recall that the Court granted certiorari to the Ninth Circuit's opinion in Hawai'i v. Trump regarding Presidential Proclamation 9645, entitled “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats”of September 24, 2017, also known as E.O 3, or Travel Ban 3.0, or Muslim Ban 3.0. The Ninth Circuit, affirming a district judge, found Travel Ban 3.0 unlawful under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Court also took certiorari on the Establishment Clause issue. There were also constitutional issues involving standing.
The Court's majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, spends substantial space on the statutory issue, ultimately concluding that the Proclamation is within the President's authority under 8 U.S.C. §1182, a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
On the constitutional issues, Chief Justice Roberts writing for the majority finds there is standing, but concludes that the Proclamation does not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court rehearses some of the President's statements regarding a "Muslim ban," but — in a passage which will be oft-quoted — states that
the issue before us is not whether to denounce the statements. It is instead the significance of those statements in reviewing a Presidential directive, neutral on its face, addressing a matter within the core of executive responsibility. In doing so, we must consider not only the statements of a particular President, but also the authority of the Presidency itself.
In making this assessment, the majority, finds the statements essentially insignificant. The Court applies the rational basis standard derived from Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972) which the majority stated applies "across different contexts and constitutional claims" when considering Executive authority. Thus, according to the majority, as long as the Executive act "can reasonably be understood to result from a justification independent of unconstitutional grounds" it will be upheld. The majority briefly considered its equal protection cases involving animus (interestingly, the majority does not discuss McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005), an Establishment Clause case involving intent), but rejected the equal protection cases' applicability:
The Proclamation does not fit this pattern. It cannot be said that it is impossible to “discern a relationship to legitimate state interests” or that the policy is “inexplicable by anything but animus.”
Instead, the majority states that the Proclamation results from a worldwide review process (echoing the opening words of the Solicitor General at oral argument), and three "additional features" including removal of three nations since the first ban, significant exceptions, and a waiver process.
Noteworthy in the majority is also its disavowal and essential overruling of Korematsu v. United States (1944), one of the so-called Japanese internment cases, and states that it is "wholly inapt to liken that morally repugnant order [in Korematsu] to a facially neutral policy denying certain foreign nationals the privilege of admission."
Four Justices dissented. The dissenting opinion by Breyer, joined by Kagan, argues that the Proclamation's "elaborate system of exemptions and waivers" points to the conclusion that "religious animus" played a significant role in the Proclamation. Breyer recommended that the issue be remanded for further factfinding, but on balance, the evidence of antireligious bias was now sufficient to find the Proclamation unconstitutional.
The dissenting opinion by Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg, devotes itself entirely to the Establishment Clause issue and concludes that the Proclamation, which "masquerades behind a facade of national-security concerns," is nevertheless motivated by anti-Muslim bias and "runs afoul of the Establishment Clause's guarantee of religious neutrality." Sotomyor's opinion critiques the majority for providing a "highly abridged account" of the President's public statements regarding Muslims that does not "tell even half the story," and provides almost seven pages of statements, tweets, and retweets, and also notes that "despite several opportunities to do so, President Trump has never disavowed any of his prior statements about Islam."
In addition to comparing this situation with Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993, in which the Court found unconstitutional the city's prohibition of animal sacrifice as motivated by bias against the Santeria religion, and Korematsu v. United States (1944), as discussed above, Sotomayor's dissenting opinion stated:
Just weeks ago, the Court rendered its decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, which applied the bed rock principles of religious neutrality and tolerance in considering a First Amendment challenge to government action. (“The Constitution ‘commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state inter vention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures’” (quoting Lukumi); Masterpiece(KAGAN, J., concurring) (“[S]tate actors cannot show hostility to religious views; rather, they must give those views ‘neutral and respectful consideration’ ”). Those principles should apply equally here. In both instances, the question is whether a government actor exhibited tolerance and neutrality in reaching a decision that affects individuals’ fundamental religious freedom. But unlike in Masterpiece, where a state civil rights commission was found to have acted without “the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires,” the government actors in this case will not be held accountable for breaching the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious neutrality and tolerance. Unlike in Masterpiece, where the majority considered the state commissioners’ statements about religion to be persuasive evidence of unconstitutional government action, the majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant. That holding erodes the foundational principles of religious tolerance that the Court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country “‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’ ”
The majority did not cite Masterpiece. Neither did Kennedy's brief concurring opinion which closed with what seemed to an attempt at an admonition:
An anxious world must know that our Government remains committed always to the liberties the Constitution seeks to preserve and protect, so that freedom extends outward, and lasts.
Monday, June 25, 2018
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.
Shortly 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.
Thursday, June 7, 2018
Check out Adam Winkler's piece on Masterpiece Cakeshop over at Slate. Winkler argues that the case may not be so narrow, after all--but for a different reason: it may (his emphasis) "enable future businesses to assert that they too have been victims of religious discrimination." (You might ask, didn't this already happen in Hobby Lobby? Answer: No, that case was statutory (RFRA), not constitutional.)
Monday, June 4, 2018
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.