Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

More on the Establishment Clause, "third-party harms", and RFRA

My friends Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman, and Richard Schragger have a post up at Balkinization in which they discuss the aftermath of Hobby Lobby and the recently argued Holt v. Hobbs.  Among other things, they state that "longstanding Establishment Clause doctrine prohibits the government from accommodating religious actors when that means shifting significant burdens to third parties who may not share those beliefs."  And, they continue, "there are five votes on the Court for the proposition that depriving Hobby Lobby’s employees of contraceptive coverage because of the company’s religious objection violates the Establishment Clause. And that is exactly what is happening right now."

It could be, I suppose, that there would be five votes for that proposition (based on Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion) but, in any event, I continue to disagree with the claim -- a claim that, I realize, other very smart friends of mine accept -- "longstanding Establishment Clause doctrine prohibits the government from accommodating religious actors when that means shifting significant burdens to third parties who may not share those beliefs."  As I wrote, in this short essay, the argument that it would violate the Establishment Clause to accommodate Hobby Lobby (or Notre Dame, or the Little Sisters, etc.) pursuant to RFRA  relies on an overly broad reading of a few relatively short and thinly reasoned opinions, like Estate of Thornton v. Caldor.   This and the other cases relied on do not, in my view, "stand for a broad rule about the impermissibility of costly or cost-shifting accommodations.  And, to the extent that the Establishment Clause does place limits on accommodations that are excessively burdensome to the public or to identifiable nonbeneficiaries, RFRA would seem to incorporate those limits into its standard of review."  And, I added:

[T]here is broad agreement that the Constitution places some limits on the ability of governments to accommodate religious believers and institutions through exemptions from otherwise applicable rules.  An accommodation could be unconstitutional, for example, if it were not "administered neutrally among different faiths." And, again, it is true that in a few cases the Court has treated the burdens that an accommodation would impose on third parties or on the government as relevant to the question whether the accommodation is constitutionally permissible. At the same time, it is worth remembering that any imaginable legislative accommodation will benefit some (i.e., those whose religiously motivated practices are being burdened and from whom that burden is being lifted by the accommodation) more or rather than others. There is no constitutional requirement that the accommodation of religion, "permissive" or "mandatory," be entirely uncomplicated or completely cost-free."

(For a response to my essay, see Andy Koppelman's and Fred Gedick's paper, here.) 

As I see it, Nelson, Rich, and Micah are staking out a claim, and developing what is really a political-morality argument, about what ought to be the case and about how religious objections ought (or ought not) to be accommodated.  It does not seem to me that much in their argument really depends on the Court's authority, or on the binding authority of Caldor, Cutter, etc.  Caldor is just a few pages long, and contains just a few paragraphs of Chief Justice Burger's reasoning, and is devoted mainly to identifying the particular and very unusual features of the challenged law.  As I see it, it tells us very little either about what the Establishment Clause generally means and requires, and even less about the demands of political morality in a pluralistic society.

https://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2014/10/more-on-the-establishment-clause-third-party-harms-and-rfra.html

Garnett, Rick | Permalink