Category Archives: Marc O. DeGirolami

Conference at EUI (Florence) on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States

I am delighted to be participating this Wednesday in a conference at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States, organized by Center friends Olivier Roy and Pasquale Annicchino. Regretfully, my intervention will be virtual rather than in person. Here’s the description of the conference (in Italian) and the program:


John Glover Roberts Jr. è stato nominato Chief Justice della Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti il 22 settembre 2005, nomina confermata una settimana dopo dal Senato con 78 voti favorevoli e 22 contrari. In questi 9 anni si sono succedute numerose decisioni di assoluto rilievo del massimo organo giurisdizionale statunitense. Tra queste alcune hanno portato a definitivo compimento una nuova interpretazione ed una differente applicazione delle due clausole del primo emendamento costituzionale che si occupano di libertà religiosa: la Free Exercise Clause e la Establishment Clause. Dopo aver inquadrato nel contesto storico e politico la presidenza Roberts, questo workshop intende esaminare le principali pronunce della Corte Suprema sulla libertà religiosa.

Ogni relatore sarà chiamato a commentare una pronuncia e, mediante un approccio di “law in context” a darne una interpretazione nell’ambito del più ampio sviluppo della giurisprudenza della Corte.

L’obiettivo è quello di realizzare un volume collettivo (in italiano) che possa offrire agli studiosi nuovo materiale di riflessione e studio su un argomento che tocca gli interessi scientifici sia dei costituzionalisti che dei cultori delle materie ecclesiasticistiche.

Funded by European Research Council 7th Framework Programme


12.00-12.05 Introduzione

12.05-13.00 La Corte Roberts e la tutela della libertà religiosa 

Fred Gedicks | BYU, USA

Marc De Girolami | St John’s University, USA (intervento via Skype)

13.00-14.00 Pranzo di lavoro 

14.00-15.30 Discussione casi – I sessione 

Valentina Fiorillo | Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Italia

Adelaide Madera | Università di Messina, Italia

Pasquale Annicchino | EUI, Italia

Discussione generale

15.30-15.45 Pausa caffé 

15.45-17.00 Discussione casi –II sessione 

Marco Ventura | KU Leuven, Belgio

Susanna Mancini | Università di Bologna, Italia

Diletta Tega | Università di Bologna e Corte costituzionale italiana, Italia

Discussione generale

17.00-18.15 Discussione finale

More Questions on the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause Theory

In my last post on the subject, I wondered why there had not been more discussion on the part of advocates of the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause theory (abbreviated for convenience hereafter as SHTEC) regarding the application of that theory to the prison-beard case, Holt v. Hobbs. As Rick Garnett notes, the application of SHTEC theory to both Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs was recently addressed by Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman, and Richard Schragger. I will rapidly pass over the characterizations of the existing doctrine, as Rick discusses some of this and I’ve talked about it before, except to observe that whatever virtues SHTEC theory may have, its status as an “established principle of constitutional law” seems an improbable one. As I have explained before, SHTEC theory represents a major extension of current law. I also read the Hobby Lobby vote breakdown differently. If Justice Kennedy really accepted SHTEC theory, and believed that third-party rights in Hobby Lobby would have been violated by an accommodation for Hobby Lobby, then it is confusing to me that he would have joined the Court’s footnote 37. But he did join it (and of course he also said some very nice things about Justice Ginsburg).

On the application of SHTEC theory to Holt v. Hobbs, and to RLUIPA prison cases generally, I have some additional questions. My principal difficulties are terminological. I am having a hard time understanding what constitutes “significant” or “substantial” harm to “third party interests” and how that standard works in tandem with the RLUIPA standard.

First, the standard of significance seems elusive to me. With a slight tweak of the facts, maybe this becomes clearer. Suppose that the prison had a “No hair on the face or head longer than 1/4 inch” policy. And suppose it had evidence that exactly one person (or two, or five) had hidden a shank or a SIM card in their hair. What is the relationship for SHTEC purposes between frequency of harm and gravity of harm? Are one or two such instances enough to be “significant” because the gravity of the threatened harm is so great? Whatever one may think of the harm to third parties in Hobby Lobby, that harm is less grave than the third party harm I am positing (assuming one can agree that harm to life is graver than harm to access to employer-paid contraception), but of course the number of incidents of harm is greater in Hobby Lobby than in my modified Holt v. Hobbs hypo. SHTEC theory advocates can respond that Holt v. Hobbs didn’t deal with any of that. And so what is really going on is a failure of evidence. That’s fine, but that side-steps the issue. I’m less interested in the particular state of the evidence here than in understanding how SHTEC theory would apply in even a slightly more difficult prison case (surely these would fruitfully multiply after a favorable ruling for the prisoner in Holt v. Hobbs).

Second, I have difficulty with the distinction between third-party harms and government/state harms. Is there such a sharp difference? Or is it in the end all harm of various kinds to the state (that is to say, harms of multiple and varying kinds to the rest of us who are not being accommodated)? It may be some evidence in favor of the latter that there have been no separate SHTEC claims brought in the context of RFRA or RLUIPA actions. Everything has been analyzed pursuant to the statutory standard. Again, that’s because third party harm might be a kind of compelling interest that ultimately constitutes a state interest under RFRA or RLUIPA. Whether it rises to that level will depend on just how severely it burdens third parties (as Caldor put it, those accommodations which “take no account” of third parties are going to be in hot water). But notice what happens if one layers a SHTEC claim on top of the RFRA/RLUIPA compelling interest standard. Now it seems that third party harm claimants are on an equal footing with religious claimants. Religious claimants must allege a substantial burden; third party claimants can then allege a contravening “significant” burden; with the result that the government need not accommodate the religious claimant, and can circumvent its obligations to come forward with a compelling interest, by pointing to the SHTEC theory violation that would result from religious accommodation.

Third, in addition to administrative harms (which were not argued by the state in Holt v. Hobbs), there may be, as I’ve said before, symbolic harms of various kinds at issue (the state didn’t argue these either…but the state did a fabulously poor job of defending this case). Symbolic harms might affect the prison, the inmates, and the rest of us who support, in various ways, the system of criminal justice. As I indicated in my previous post, these are just as much harms to identifiable interests as are financial harms. They might include harms with respect to the equal treatment of prisoners and harms to the state’s interest (that is to say, to our interests, as well as the prisoners’ interests) in imposing discipline and uniformity on prisoners who very much need it. These are true harms. They are part of the purposes and functions of prisons in general. They even implicate certain important functions of punishment, including retributivism and rehabilitation, functions of punishment that Congress itself has recognized as important in the Sentencing Reform Act, among other places. Surely many state legislatures have done something similar in their own penological systems. To my mind, they may indeed be very significant. The egalitarian harms could be resolved in part by leveling up for non-believers, but that leveling up is extremely likely to produce other harms (resentments among those who cannot come up with a reason of “conscience” as well as rising administrative costs as more and more prisoners seek exemptions of various kinds).

Fourth, a final point of puzzlement: why is there no discussion in SHTEC theory of different standards of deference in a case like Holt as opposed to a case like Hobby Lobby. Under existing law, there is no deference at all in the latter (the standard is one of strict scrutiny), while there is great deference to the state in the former. Indeed, one of the primary points of uncertainty in the oral argument in Holt was how to reconcile strict scrutiny with this substantial deference to prison administrators (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger). But I have not seen this difference in the amount of deference accorded to the state discussed by SHTEC theorists (I may well have missed it). Does SHTEC theory incorporate a deferential posture with respect to prisons (and the military, and perhaps certain other institutions)? It certainly could, and it seems to me that such deference would take the form of giving a great deal more latitude to the state (or to third parties) on the issue of what is “substantial” or “significant” harm. Perhaps Arkansas still loses in Holt v. Hobbs. But it shouldn’t take much more at all for it to win.

What’s Happening in Houston?

When I first saw the story, I dismissed it as a hoax. The City of Houston had served subpoenas on local pastors who had participated in a petition drive against a city ordinance, known as HERO, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT persons. The subpoenas demanded that the pastors turn over “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

What could justify such an intrusive request? Not only the pastors’ own statements – that would be troubling enough – but statements the pastors had revised, or approved, or just kept in their possession, about homosexuality and gender identity. And about the mayor herself. There must be more to the story, I thought.

It turns out there is a bit more to the story— but the episode is nonetheless very unsettling. When the city rejected the petition on the ground that the signatures were invalid, some opponents of HERO – not the pastors themselves – challenged the city’s decision in court. The city issued the subpoenas in connection with that litigation. The theory, as I understand it, is that because these pastors helped organize the petition drive and hosted meetings, the pastors’s statements about the petition are important. I guess the idea is that the pastors may have said something that induced phony signatures.

Now, given the rules of pretrial discovery, one must concede that there is some plausibility in the city’s argument – some. In an American lawsuit, attorneys can ask for all sorts of information before trial, even if that information is not strictly relevant to the litigation, as long as the information seems reasonably likely to lead to relevant and admissible evidence. This broad standard is meant to allow parties to uncover all the facts. So when the city says it would like to know what the pastors may have said about the petition drive itself, that’s not a completely untenable position, given the freewheeling rules of American pretrial litigation.

But there are other very important considerations. The broad standard for discovery can lead to so-called “fishing expeditions” that seek to harass and intimidate litigants and encourage them to back off. As a result, courts generally have wide discretion to reject requests for information that are overly broad and unduly burdensome to the opposing party. In a context like this one, which raises very sensitive First Amendment concerns, courts must be especially careful.

The pastors have moved to quash the subpoenas. They should and will likely succeed, largely if not completely. Indeed, in response to complaints, including from some defenders of LGBT rights, Mayor Parker and the Houston City Attorney have already indicated that they think the subpoenas are too broad and should be rewritten. (They blame the misunderstanding on pro-bono attorneys the city retained to handle the litigation.) Maybe the court will allow subpoenas with respect to statements directly related to the petition drive, but that’s as far as it’s likely to go. I wonder if the court will allow even that.

Still, even if these pastors succeed in resisting the subpoenas, significant damage has been done. It’s hard to see how this episode will not chill religious and political expression. Most people, quite rationally, want nothing to do with lawsuits and subpoenas. They don’t want to make legal history. The lesson they will draw from the episode is this: if you want to avoid trouble, don’t make politically-charged statements about religious convictions that the government doesn’t approve, even if you’re at a private meeting in your own church. In fact, don’t revise or retain such statements. Otherwise, who knows? You may one day have to lawyer up.

Stendhalian Interlude

I’m listening to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in the car, a wonderful

Farnese Tower, Castell'Arquato, Parma

Farnese Tower, Castell’Arquato, Parma

work of novelistic “realism” set in the early 19th century world of Italian city-state court life. Stendhal’s portrait of these small time courts is none too flattering, but neither is its chief alternative: “From the whole business one can derive this moral, that the man who mingles with a court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and, in any event, makes his future depend on the intrigues of a chambermaid. On the other hand in America, in the Republic, one has to spend the whole weary day paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the street, and must become as stupid as they are; and there, one has no Opera.”

The hero of the story, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a figure of perfect aristocratic early Romantic integrity–the sort of man who brashly leaves his suffocating palace life in Como to join the army of Napoleon, only to reach him right as the Battle of Waterloo is concluding. For Fabrizio, the only thing that matters is to get confirmation that he has actually participated in a battle–any battle–something about which he is never quite certain.

Since prisons and prison life (and even prison escape!) have been a subject of discussion here at the Center for Law and Religion Forum this past week, and since a large portion of the key section of The Charterhouse of Parma occurs in a prison (the Farnese Tower in Parma, at right), I thought the following was interesting. The prison warden, a General Fabio Conti, is a detestable person and fairly universally hated, including by many of the guards (to say nothing of the prisoners). At one point, it appears that he may have died by poisoning. But he revives. Yet rather than feeling crushed by the news, the prisoners sing his praises. Stendhal writes:

Fabio Conti was a jailer who was always uneasy, always unhappy, always seeing in his dreams one of his prisoners escaping: he was loathed by everyone in the citadel; but misfortune inspiring the same resolutions in all men, the poor prisoners, even those who were chained in dungeons three feet high, three feet wide and eight feet long, in which they could neither stand nor sit, all the prisoners, even these, I say, had the idea of ordering a  Te Deum to be sung at their own expense, when they knew that their governor was out of danger. Two or three of these wretches composed sonnets in honor of Fabio Conti. Oh, the effect of misery upon men! May he who would blame them be led by his destiny to spend a year in a cell three feet high, with eight ounces of bread a day and fasting on Fridays!

Podcast on Holt v. Hobbs

Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.

Holt v. Hobbs and the Third-Party-Harms Establishment Clause Theory

Readers may recall that during the course of the Hobby Lobby litigation, some contraceptives mandate supporters argued that religious accommodations that impose “significant” harms or burdens on third parties constitute violations of the Establishment Clause. In this post, I argued that this view of the reach of the Establishment Clause was not convincing. It was based on a misreading (and substantial extension) of the relevant case law but also on a controversial conceptual view of the permissible scope of religious accommodation that, I claimed, should be rejected.

Virtually all accommodations impose harms or burdens of some kinds on others, though both the nature and the degree of the harms will vary. Some harms are financial, others are symbolic, and still others are to value systems more generally. Some harms are acute and others are mild. Yet it would reflect an impoverished conception indeed of what is valuable in life to claim that only financial costs are real or cognizable harms: it simply isn’t true that the only way in which a person can be harmed or burdened is through the pocketbook. Some financial burdens may be much less harmful than some symbolic harms, and vice versa, depending on factors too numerous to list. Whether money is involved or not, choices to accommodate or not to accommodate are often choices between ways of life that specify totally different virtues, or if they specify the same virtues, weigh them completely differently. In Goldman v. Weinberger, for example, a choice to accommodate Goldman would have been a choice against the set of values that the military was bringing to bear, and there were many of them. Ultimately I disagree with the outcome in Goldman. But the reason is not that the military would not have been harmed at all by accommodating him. In fact, it’s only by ignoring, flattening out, or misdescribing the military’s interests and concerns that we can say that the only issue in the case was accommodating Goldman, and the military was simply being obtuse. Perhaps there are rare situations in which the costs on third parties are so small as to be invisible (O Centro?). But in the main, it is in the nature of these kinds of conflicts that when one side loses, so does its way of life to some greater or lesser degree. The Hobby Lobby majority discussed the third-party-harm theory briefly at footnote 37, where it made the point that if all that was required to invalidate a religious accommodation was that a law conferred a benefit on a third party, and consequently that the deprivation of that benefit would be a burden, then the effect might (depending on what exactly “significant” means) be to destroy RFRA and render many religious accommodations unconstitutional.

Now that Holt v. Hobbs is in the offing (argument is scheduled for today, I believe), I am curious why nobody is making the third-party harm claim. Perhaps it is because the degree of deference ostensibly due to prison authorities in the Arkansas system is so great. Still, I would have thought that for somebody who subscribed to the third-party-harm theory of the Establishment Clause, Holt v. Hobbs would present a far clearer case than Hobby Lobby in which there might be serious, or significant, or at the very least cognizable, or tangible, harms to third parties–and a class of readily or easily identifiable third parties at that. I am writing this in haste (for a much more thorough treatment, see this excellent student note by Taylor Stout, The Cost of Religious Accommodation in Prisons), but I can think of three:

1. Increased risk of prison escape, harm to other inmates, and harm to those who must be in physical contact with the prisoner. This is a particularly vicious prisoner, who has shown himself capable of very violent behavior using a knife. He slashed at a woman’s throat with a knife. And while in prison, he held a knife to another prisoner’s throat as a result of a religious dispute. Though Arkansas prisons do not themselves have experience with prisoners hiding weapons and other contraband in their facial hair (naturally, since they don’t allow beards) other state prison systems do (see page 25 and following of this brief). Again, I recognize that it is perhaps the total deference to prison administrators which makes this particular prison policy specially objectionable. But I would have thought that these sorts of harms—harms to the personal security and safety of other people in physical proximity to the prisoner—are not obviously less “significant” than the harms to third parties in Hobby Lobby.

2. Administrative and financial harm to the prison system. The administration of religious accommodations in a prison system is burdensome. It requires more decision-making, more exercise of discretion, more manpower in the monitoring of the exceptions, and therefore more cost. One can dismiss these costs as de minimis, or unimportant, but that seems to me a cavalier view that can be bought rather cheaply at a great distance (which is where most of us are privileged to live) from the actual operations of prisons.

3. Symbolic harm, including harm to the idea of equality in the treatment of prisoners. A prison’s legitimacy depends in part on treating its prisoners equally and fairly, without privilege or favor. Dissimilarity of treatment can breed resentment on the part of the “disadvantaged” prisoners and on the part of the prison population more broadly. Moreover, prisons have important interests in uniformity of treatment that go not to equality concerns, but instead to interests in order and discipline. Prisons are dangerous places. They are populated with people who have been convicted of crimes. Sometimes, as in the case of this particular prisoner, those crimes are extremely violent. Prisons therefore need systems to regularize and impose discipline on such people. It is at least a symbolic harm—but quite possibly much more than that—to burden the efforts of prisons to cultivate uniformity in the service of prison discipline.

To be clear, I believe that the prisoner should win in this particular case. But the reason is certainly not that the prison is simply being obtuse inasmuch as accommodations of this kind are harmless or nothing at all to it. Yet the absence of the third-party-harms theory of the Establishment Clause in general public debate has puzzled me. Setting aside the issue of the remoteness of the potential harms, the nature of the potential harms relating to accommodation under RLUIPA in a case like this goes to deeply important interests in personal and institutional safety—interests that do not seem categorically less important than those of the third parties at stake in Hobby Lobby.

Estrada and Boizelle on the Obama Administration and Religious Accommodation

In the latest issue of the Cato Supreme Court Review, there is a useful essay by Miguel Estrada and Ashley Boizelle discussing the upcoming Supreme Court term and some of the major cases that the Court will hear. As readers of the Forum are aware, one of these cases is Holt v. Hobbs, concerning a claim by an Arkansas prison inmate–who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery stemming from an incident in which he attempted to slash his girlfriend’s throat–that prison rules forbidding him to grow a 1/2 inch beard in accordance with his religious views violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. One interesting feature of the case is that the Solicitor General has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prisoner. The authors comment:

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed an amicus brief in support of Holt’s challenge, calling the no-beard policy “religious discrimination” and “a substantial burden on religious exercise.” Interestingly, this brief was filed only a few months after the government’s reply brief in Hobby Lobby, which insisted that the requirement that employers provide their employees with no-cost contraceptives did not constitute a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of those employers. In the government’s view, prisons can advance their legitimate safety objectives in some other way that is more respectful of the inmate’s religious beliefs; the federal government, on the other hand, need not be troubled to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs of business owners.

The federal government’s differential treatment of these two cases is odd because RLUIPA was intended to make available to prisoners protections that replicate those available to the general citizenry under RFRA. Whatever the relationship between the two statutes, it would be bizarre if those whose liberty is restricted on account of proven antisocial behavior were better protected from the government’s incursions on their religion than members of the law-abiding public. Be that as it may, given the Supreme Court’s disposition in Hobby Lobby, we should not be surprised to see a ruling invalidating the no-beard policy as an unjustified burden on Holt’s religion.

The Roberts Court Has Contracted, Not Expanded, Religious Rights

Linda Greenhouse has a column purporting to reflect on the Roberts Court’s first nine years that doubles as an occasion to offer the hope that Chief Justice Roberts will “moderate” in the next decade–a hope then despaired of at the end of the column.

She also says this:

It has been an eventful nine terms for the court and its chief. Samuel A. Alito Jr., Justice O’Connor’s eventual replacement, is well to her right and has provided Chief Justice Roberts with a reliable if narrow majority for the court’s steady regression on race and its deregulatory hijacking of the First Amendment. Along with ever-expanding accommodation of religious interests, these are the areas in which the Roberts court has made its increasingly predictable mark.

But on the issue of religious interests, Greenhouse is, I believe, mistaken, at least insofar as constitutional law is concerned. As I show in this article, the defining mark of the Roberts Court in the area of religious rights has been contraction, not expansion. One of the very cases cited by Greenhouse herself involving the religion clauses–Town of Greece v. Galloway–is much more plausibly conceived as a contraction of the Establishment Clause, not an expansion. The Court’s exercise of judicial review, the range of views among the Justices about religious rights, and the substance of the Clauses themselves–all of these, contra Greenhouse, have contracted over the last decade.

Coke on the Virtues of Obedience to the Common Law

Sir Edward Coke was a lawyer, an MP, Attorney General, and Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of the King’s Bench. He is widely considered one of the fathers of the common law. Here is a fragment of the preface to Part Two of his Reports. I was struck by the terms in which he discusses the common law:

To the learned Reader

There are (sayeth Euripides) three Virtues worthy [of] our meditation; To honor God, our Parents who begat us, and the Common Lawes of Greece: The like doe I say to thee (Gentle Reader) next to thy dutie and pietie to God, and his annointed thy gracious Soveraigne, and thy honor to thy Parents, yeeld due reverence and obedience to the Common Lawes of England: For of all Lawes (I speak of humane) these are most equall, and most certaine, of greatest antiquitie, and least delay, and most beneficiall and easie to be observed; As if the module of a Preface would permit, I could defend against any man that is not malicious without understanding, and make manifest to any of judgement and indifferency, by proofes pregnant and demonstrative, and by Records and Testimonies luculent and irrefragable: Sed sunt quidam fastidiosi, qui nescio quo malo affectu oderunt Artes antequam pernoverunt [MOD trans.: But there are some disdainful types who hate every high calling with which they are unfamiliar, I know not for what reason]. There is no Jewell in the world comparable to learning; No learning so excellent both for Prince and Subject as knowledge of Lawes; and no knowledge of any Lawes, (I speak of humane) so necessary for all estates, and for all causes, concerning goods, lands, or life, as the Common Lawes of England….

Their example [that of the "Sages of the Law"] and thy profession doe require thy imitation: for hitherto I never saw any man of a loose and lawlesse life, attaine to any sound and perfect knowledge of the said lawes: And on the other side, I never saw any many of excellent judgement in these Lawes, but was withall (being taught by such a Master) honest, faithfull, and vertuous.

If you observe any diversities of opinion amongst the professors of the Lawes, contend you (as it behoveth) to be learned in your profession, and you shall finde that it is Hominis vitium, non professionis [MOD trans.: the vice of man, not of the profession].

New Bill of Rights App!

From the National Archives comes this cool new app, Congress Creates the Bill BoR Appof Rights, for the iPad (h/t Don Drakeman). Pretty neat for learning all kinds of things about the history of the drafting of the Bill of Rights, with markups and other fun stuff. Here’s a description:

Explore the proposals, debates, and revisions that shaped the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Why did the U.S. need a Bill of Rights? How did Congress produce the Bill of Rights? What would it be like to participate in the process? Dive into these questions and more with this app from the U.S. National Archives.