Thursday, July 2, 2020
Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue is an important win for the principle of choice in religious matters, as well as for choice-based programs in education. Its specific holding is somewhat limited, but its implications are broader. Doug Laycock and I have a piece on SCOTUS Blog analyzing the decision, drawing from our amicus brief in the case (for the Christian Legal Society, the USCCB, the Southern Baptists, the Orthodox Union, the Latter-Day Saints, and others) and from our work over the years. Our piece emphasizes a couple of points, with representative excerpts here:
First, although the decision specifically forbids only exclusions from benefits based on a school's status as religious, its reasoning points toward forbidding exclusions even when they allegedly rest on a school's religious use of the funds. Among other things,
the [status-use] distinction collapses in the context of religious K-12 education. Religious schools typically teach the same secular subjects as other schools — English, history, science, math — while also teaching a religion class or integrating relevant religious perspectives into the secular subjects. The religious elements could be characterized as religious “uses.” But if a state denies otherwise-available funds for classes on secular subjects because the school also offers these religious elements, then it goes beyond not funding religion. It imposes a penalty on the secular educational activity — potentially a large penalty, if all funds are denied — because of the religious teaching accompanying it. It penalizes the school, and those it serves, because of its religious identity, its religious functions, and some of the uses to which its money is put.
Second, we explain that equal access for religious providers to government educational benefits promotes both formally neutral treatment of religion (no religious classifications) and substantively neutral treatment (respecting voluntary choice in religious matters, minimizing incentives for or against it). Then we look to other upcoming cases where those goals may conflict; in such cases, we argue, "neutral incentives and voluntarism should be the fundamental goal." The religion clauses treat religion differently from other activities in order to promote freedom of private individuals and communities in religious matters. This is how we approach the subject of religious exemptions:
Critics have sometimes asked whether it is consistent to require equal provision of funds for religious and secular service providers while also allowing, or even requiring, exemptions for religious conduct in the face of generally applicable laws or regulations. Next term the court will take up the question of whether to overrule its decision in Employment Division v. Smith and once again require exemptions in some cases.
If a law creates a conflict with a sincere religious practice, it prevents people from exercising voluntary religious choice and thus violates substantive neutrality. The threat of civil or criminal penalties or loss of government benefits profoundly discourages the prohibited religious practice. Exempting the religious practice from regulation eliminates that discouragement, and it rarely encourages the exempted practice.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
As many readers know, Title VII's provision requiring employers to make "reasonable accommodation" of their employees' religious practices, when they conflict with the employer's workplace rules, suffered a major blow early on from the Supreme Court's 1977 decision in TWA v. Hardison. There the Court indicated that an employer can show "undue hardship," the statutory phrase that allows denial of accommodation, merely by showing that the accommodation would cause it something more than a "de minimis" burden. Although the statement in Hardison was dicta strictly speaking on the statute's interpretation, lower courts have followed it for more than 40 years. As a matter of ordinary language, "anything more than de minimis" is an indefensible reading of the phrase "undue hardship." And Hardison, as so interpreted, has undermined protection for employees' religious practices, at the very least in cases involving conflicts between work rules and Sabbath observance--the precise conflict that prompted enactment of the accommodation language in 1972. Attempts to correct Hardison by new legislation have failed.
Recently, however, several justices have shown interest in revisiting Hardison. Earlier this year, when the Court denied certiorari in Patterson v. Walgreen Co., Justice Alito, joined by Thomas and Gorsuch, wrote in support of reconsidering the "de minimis" rule in a case cleanly presenting the issue. The Solicitor General had also supported reconsidering the de minimis rule in Patterson itself. Finally, the simple textualist point against Hardison--that "undue hardship" is quite different in meaning from "anything more than de minimis"--has taken on new force because the Court resolved the Title VII issues in the LGBT-rights cases, Bostock etc., on simple textualist grounds.
So the issue is teed up for two new petitions filed in recent days, which present solely the "de minimis" rule uncomplicated by any other interpretive matters. Small v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water involves a Jehovah's Witness elder whose employer's rigid mandatory-overtime rule prevented him from attending both Sunday services and Wednesday meetings. Dalberiste v. GLE Associates involves a Seventh-Day Adventist employee whose offer of employment was rescinded when the company found he could not work throughout the weekends; the petition recounts that the employer gave no consideration to any of several alternatives for staffing.
Among their arguments, both petitions emphasize how minority religious faiths raise accommodation claims far out of the proportion to their share of the population and thus suffer the most from an anemic standard. Both petitions cite a statistical analysis that my St. Thomas Religious Liberty Clinic students and I presented in our amicus brief in Patterson (filed for the Christian Legal Society and other Christian and Muslim groups). From that brief (pp. 23-25):
These disproportionate effects appear, for example, in the cases listed in the appendix to the petition: reported religious accommodation cases decided on summary judgment motions concerning “undue hardship” from 2000 to the present....
Muslims, a classic religious minority, constitute 18.6 percent of this large set of accommodation decisions (19 of 102), even though, according to a comprehensive 2014 study, they constitute only 0.9 percent of the population. [Citing Pew Research Center, America’s Changing Religious Landscape (2015).] Overall, claims by members of non-Christian faiths (Muslims, idiosyncratic faiths, Jews, Hebrew Israelites, Rastafarians, Sikhs, and African religions) make up 34.3 percent of the accommodation cases (35 of 102), even though non-Christian faiths made up only 5.9 percent of the population in 2014 (and significantly less than that in earlier years). The percentage of cases in the appendix involving religious minorities climbs to 62 percent when one combines the various non-Christians (34.3 percent of the cases) with sects that follow the minority practice of Saturday Sabbath observance: Seventh-day Adventists (22 of 102, or 21.6 percent of 25 the cases) and other small Saturday-observing sects (6 of 102, or 5.9 percent of the cases).
Steffen Johnson and Michael McConnell at Wilson Sonsini and Jim Sonne at the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic represent Mr. Small; Gene Schaerr and Schaerr Jaffe, Mark Rienzi and the Becket Fund, and Todd McFarland of the Seventh-Day Adventists represent Mr. Dalberiste.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
In Fulton v. Philadelphia, the case about foster care, religious liberty, and LGBT nondiscrimination, the Supreme Court is (among other things) reconsidering Employment Division v. Smith. As most MOJ readers will know, for 30 years Smith has served as a precedent limiting the fundamental civil liberty of religious exercise, for everyone but particularly for a wide range of minority and unpopular faiths (which can include familiar religious minorities but also larger groups whose views are deeply unpopular in particular locations and institutional settings).
Doug Laycock and I have written, with co-counsel Kim Colby, an amicus brief arguing for overruling Smith. We filed on behalf of the Christian Legal Society and other groups Christian and Jewish. From the beginning of the summary of argument:
I. Smith’s unprotective rule conflicts with constitutional text. When a law as applied makes a religious practice illegal, it is a law “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion],” whether or not it also has other applications.
II. If the Free Exercise Clause doesn’t apply to neutral and generally applicable laws, it cannot serve its original purposes. Those purposes include protecting individual conscience and preventing human suffering, social conflict, and persecution.
A. In the eighteenth century, every colony found that free exercise required exempting dissenters from oaths, military service, and other requirements that burdened their religious practices. Those laws, although neutral and generally applicable, overrode conscience, caused psychological suffering and loss of liberty or property, inflamed social conflict, and discouraged people from settling or remaining in the colony.
B. Free-exercise exemptions are still needed today. Generally applicable laws without exemptions coerce conscience and cause Americans to suffer for their faith. In today’s atmosphere of cultural and political polarization, exemptions are needed to calm fear and resentment and reduce social conflict.
We then summarize other sections of the brief. But on the final quoted sentence above, let me quote a little from the full argument (below; cites in footnotes omitted). America's commitment to religious liberty was a response to the coercion and violence stemming from the fear- and resentment-based polarization of the 16th to 18th centuries.
Resentment and fear certainly operate in today’s political and cultural environment. Americans of different political parties now distrust each other more than at any time in the last fifty years. “[P]oliticians need only incite fear and anger toward the opposing party to win and maintain power.” “Confrontational politics” causes “voters to develop increasingly negative views of the opposing party.” Religious disagreements are an important component of this polarization.
These developments make strong constitutional protections for religious liberty as important as ever. First, in an atmosphere of fear and distrust, people are especially likely to perceive threats to their religious practices as threats to their overall identity. Historic religious minorities fear that laws restricting their practices reflect the growing hostility of the majority. Conservative Christians fear that some applications of antidiscrimination laws pose existential threats to their institutions and to individuals in business and the professions.
Vigorous protection of religious liberty calms polarization by reducing people’s “existential fear that a hostile majority will successfully attack their core commitments.” Protecting religious practice gives people space in civil society, not just to hold beliefs but to live by them.
Second, negative polarization reduces the likelihood that the political process will accommodate the
needs of religious minorities. The side of the political divide that holds power often has no sympathy for the
predicament the other side faces. Culturally conservative places have little sympathy for Muslims, Native Americans, or other historic religious minorities. Culturally progressive places have little sympathy for conservative Christians. Thus, even when balanced solutions to religious-liberty conflicts exist, the political process doesn’t reach them. In recent years, even state versions of RFRA—laws that once passed with near unanimity—have been blocked by the polarization over LGBT rights and religious liberty.
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
That's the title of a short piece I did some weeks back for the Berkley Center at Georgetown (and somehow forgot to hawk here on MOJ at the time). It talks about polarization during the Reformation and then today:
[V]igorous protection of religious liberty is intended to calm fears and reduce polarization, by giving people of fundamentally different deep beliefs ample space not just to hold their beliefs but also to live consistently with them....
Fear of the other side likewise drives today’s polarization. How, it’s asked, could 81% of white evangelicals vote in 2016 for a man with glaring character defects? A Wheaton College survey of those Trump voters found that religious liberty worries ranked third or fourth most frequent as the chief reason for their vote—higher than abortion and LGBTQ issues. The solicitor general’s statement [in Obergefell, refusing to rule out conservative institutions being stripped of tax exemptions] and the  California college bill [which would have stripped modest-income students at conservative religious colleges of their state grants] received extensive evangelical attention.
Religious liberty can calm such existential fears and reduce polarization. But it will instead aggravate polarization if it simply replicates struggles over underlying issues. Religious liberty must be strong enough to protect unpopular views, and it must recover some bipartisan status.
1. The Murphy Institute at St. Thomas has posted video from Asma Uddin's excellent presentation, "When Islam is Not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom." I was glad to moderate the session, which concerns respecting religious liberty for Muslim Americans and for everyone and is based on Asma's book of the same title. A variety of good questions from a large online audience (going online creates real possibilities for increasing outreach for organizations that are outside the Beltway hothouse). My own recent thoughts on religious freedom for Muslims, evangelical Christians, and everyone are here.
2. The Berkley Center at Georgetown sponsored a video discussion of the issues concerning COVID-19 and religious worship and other gatherings, with Marty Lederman, Asma Uddin, Robin Fretwell Wilson, and me. Thank you to Michael Kessler for arranging and leading the discussion, to the Berkley Center for sponsoring it, and to my friends and co-panelists for a lively, productive discussion.
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
As recent posts have noted, there is no shortage of religious freedom cases at the Supreme Court this May. However, another significant religious freedom case continues its fight in the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Gregory Holt has returned to federal court after his historic success in Holt v. Hobbs, now more than five years ago. Once again, he is represented by Professor Doug Laycock. Holt now claims that the Arkansas Department of Corrections failed to accommodate his Islamic religious practices by unlawfully preventing its Muslim inmates from observing separate prayer services according to their faith and movement. Instead, prisoners are effectively forced to choose between combining their religious services with other Islamic groups or abstaining from group services altogether.
Specifically, Holt claims that the Department of Corrections violated RLUIPA, as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments, by prohibiting separate Jumu’ah services for its inmates. Practitioners of various Islamic groups must pray together as one group, or not at all. Furthermore, the prison prohibits its Muslim prisoners from wearing kufis outside of their religious worship.
At its core, this case raises questions about religious accommodation, the extent of deference to prison officials, and the need to distinguish between sincerely held beliefs. It has the potential to address some of the most fundamental religious protections for prisoners. For now, the case fights on in federal district court. It is worth keeping an eye on “Holt II,” even with the Supreme Court’s busy docket and live oral arguments.
See Holt v. Kelley, No. 5:19-cv-00081 (E.D. Ark. filed Mar. 1, 2019).
Saturday, May 9, 2020
In anticipation of the "ministerial exception" cases being argued on Monday, a reminder about our brief from the St. Thomas Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, which shows that colonies' narrow definitions of minister, including required education credentials, helped spur founding-era religious-liberty protests by Baptists and others, ultimately contributing to adoption of the First Amendment. There is a little more scholarly detail in this article by my students, Nathaniel Fouch and Erik Money, and me.
Religious-school teachers who have significant functions in teaching religion classes or religious approaches to other subjects, or in planning, leading, or overseeing religious exercises, fit within the proper definition of "minister"--regardless of whether they have a ministerial training or formal title as the 9th Circuit required in these cases. Founding-era religious-liberty objections ran specifically against credentialing requirements that prevented organizations from extending leadership to laypersons with the gifts and commitment to teach or lead in religious matters.
In his "Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty" (1773),Isaac Backus, leader of the Massachusetts Baptists, attacked New England colonial laws that required “each parish to settle a minister” but then disqualified teachers who lacked the government’s preferred training: a college degree. The laws, Backus said, violated the principle that God “gives gifts unto men in a sovereign way as seems good unto him." Religious groups, not the civil judiciary, should determine the relevant gifts, talents, and credentials for their teachers and leaders.
Sunday, April 26, 2020
I have a post, up at the Religious Freedom Institute's Cornerstone Forum, entitled "Institutional Religious Freedom Includes Freedom in Serving Others." It's about issues that are still relevant notwithstanding the recent focus on the legitimate public-health limits to religious freedom. A bit from the beginning:
Today’s most vexing problems about freedom of religious institutions in the United States concern religious nonprofits that provide social or educational services to others. Such problems, like many others, are currently superseded by the overwhelming health and economic effects of COVID-19. But the issues will return. And the services religious nonprofits provide will be important in responding to and recovering from the pandemic.
Nonprofits pose complex religious freedom questions because they often straddle the perceived boundary between public and private. Decisions by houses of worship and decisions about clergy get very strong protection because they are regarded as private, involving ministry to the faithful, not the general public. Conversely, some religious organizations serve the public with no conflicts between their own norms and those required by law.
Some organizations, however, employ or serve people outside their faith but also encounter religious freedom issues because their tenets clash with general laws on immigration, nondiscrimination, or other matters. Consider progressive groups that provide sanctuary or aid to undocumented immigrants, or Catholic adoption or foster agencies that decline to certify same-sex households for child placement, or religious colleges that assign student rooms by biological sex at birth. I call such organizations “partly acculturated”—they provide services of secular value to the broader culture, but some of their religious norms clash with dominant cultural values reflected in law.
I’ve argued previously that partly acculturated activities deserve significant protection. Religious freedom includes freedom in serving others. The law should not force organizations to be either wholly unacculturated—serving only their own members—or wholly acculturated—subject to all regulations no matter how serious the clash with their beliefs.
The piece includes brief, entirely non-comprehensive evaluations of three proposed pieces of legislation addressing the conflict between nondiscrimination rights of LGBT persons religious freedom rights of institutions serving others: the Equality Act, the First Amendment Defense Act, the Fairness for All Act.
On the quick mention above of how religious institutions are vital in helping people weather the pandemic--physically, emotionally, and spiritually--Byron Johnson and Thomas Kidd have a good article in the Dallas Morning News, also summarized by RFI here. They make an important reminder in the face of all the attention to a very small number of congregations that have behaved irresponsibly.
A federal district judge in Mississippi who's handled a couple of cases about restrictions on religious gatherings writes an opinion setting forth a generally sensible distinction between in-person services (still too risky at this point) and drive-in services with the window cracked in the car enough to hear the sermon/homily or other proceedings (some risk but outweighed by the importance of free exercise of religion). As "re-opening" proceeds and more and more establishments open, it will probably become more complicated to justify prohibitions on small in-person religious gatherings practicing social distancing, but the nature of religious gatherings, and the difficulty of fully enforcing social distancing in them, may provide a justification for a while.
In noting that drive-in services, while protected, are still not "risk-free," the district judge writes:
While it may be imagined that many attendees of such services would be family members who have already been exposed to each other, that will not always be the case. Indeed, it seems quite likely that, as with regular church services, many such attendees will be elderly parishioners who require the assistance of friends or non-resident family members to take them to the service. It is well known that the Covid-19 virus disproportionately kills elderly individuals, and it may therefore be assumed that, if the holding of such “drive-in” services becomes a nationwide trend, that a significant (and possibly large) number of deaths will result. This court believes that preachers and parishioners would be well advised to take this into consideration when deciding whether or not to hold or attend such services.
The judge does not make clear whether, in saying that these risks exist but aren't sufficient to justify legal bans on drive-in services, he is saying (a) there won't be enough such cases of transmission to elderly persons (and eventually deaths) to warrant entirely shutting down drive-in services for everyone, or (b) those cases would result from the person's own voluntary choice to attend the service (and paternalistically overriding her religious choice as to her own health is not a sufficient interest), or (c) some combination of the two. (Obviously, if an elderly resident traveled from and back to a nursing, long-term care, or assisted-living community, there could be more than just her health at stake: some nursing homes have prohibited elderly residents from returning once they leave the facility for any reason unless they're quarantined first.)
Saturday, April 11, 2020
In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, how much power should the state have to enforce limits on church gatherings this Easter? As we watch the showdown unfold in Kansas, Kentucky and Florida, I am also commenting on my students’ reflections on this topic, which was a perfect storm of a problem for our current Georgetown Law seminar on Religion, Morality & Contested Claims for Justice.
In our class discussion (over Zoom) last week, my first reaction was one of intense frustration and anger with what are probably the outliers – the religious and political leaders who seem to deliberately ignore the gravity of the crisis, or who seem callous to the health implications for the people of their communities and the broader public.
But on further reflection, I wonder if there is at least a tiny bit of room for dialogue across difference, in some circumstances. To what extent is some of the insistence on gathering grounded in the lack of trust that marks our polarized landscape?
At some point in my seminars we do an exercise in pairs entitled, “What is at Stake for You?” The goal is to create a space where each person can express in their own words, with their own categories, what are their stakes and/or what worries or concerns them most as we enter into conversation about an otherwise polarizing topic. The pair is then invited to jot down on a single index card a few words that capture their stakes, and to hold those thoughts throughout the conversation with the larger group. Generally, the exercise helps quite a bit in preparing a terrain for a more open, sincere and productive seminar conversation.
I still believe strongly that the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic presents appropriate circumstances for the strong exercise of state power to limit and/or regulate the size of gatherings of any kind – including religious gatherings. But I wonder: if each “side” of this debate felt that others were trying to understand their stakes, might that lead, in some circumstances, to more openness to the kind of creative problem-solving that might also ultimately help to “flatten the curve”?