As Ms. Wright reports below, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has issued its latest decision in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York. For lots of background on the case, which involves equal access to a limited public forum–public school classrooms–after hours for a religious organization that engages in, among other things, “worship,” just type “Bronx” into the search tool at right, and see this post in particular. The court found for the City, with a dissent by Judge Walker.
Writing for the panel majority, Judge Leval framed the case in these terms:
This appeal raises the question whether the Board of Education of The City of New York (the “Board”), in making the City’s school facilities available outside of school hours for use by outside users and subsidizing such use, may, in furtherance of interests favored by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, refuse to permit the holding of religious worship services.
The trouble ought to be evident already. What exactly are “interests favored by the Establishment Clause”? Are they the same as interests the violation of which would be unconstitutional? Clearly not. If they were such interests, then it would be unconstitutional for the City to permit Bronx Household of Faith to use its facilities. But it isn’t unconstitutional for the City to do so. So what are these “interests”? How is the City acting consistently with “its constitutional duties” here? What “duties”? The City has no “constitutional duties” to exclude this organization.
After resurrecting the hoary distinction between “expression” and “conduct” (never mind that the Free Exercise Clause protects “exercise”), the court continues:
the Hialeah ordinances [in the Lukumi Babalu case] were motivated by the city council’s disapproval of the targeted religious practice. The Board has no such motivation. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Board disapproves of religion or any religion or religious practice, including religious worship services. Its sole reason for excluding religious worship services from its facilities is the concern that by hosting and subsidizing religious worship services, the Board would run a meaningful risk of violating the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse religion. This difference is of crucial importance in determining the reach of Lukumi’s reasoning that a burdensome regulation focused on a religious practice is constitutionally suspect and therefore subject to strict scrutiny. This reasoning makes perfect sense when the regulation’s focus on religion is gratuitous, and all the more so when it is motivated by disapproval of religion (or of a particular religion or religious practice). On the other hand, it makes no sense when the regulation’s focus on religion is motivated by the governmental entity’s reasonable interest in complying with the Establishment Clause….The Establishment Clause prohibits government from engaging in conduct that would constitute an establishment of religion, such as endorsing, or seeming to endorse, a religion. It is only to the extent that governmental conduct affects religion that the restrictive force of the Religion Clauses is operative. Accordingly, rules and policies designed to keep a governmental entity in conformity with its obligations under the Religion Clauses must of necessity focus on religious subject matter. If the focus is not religious, the Religion Clauses have no application. Such focus on religion is neither an invidious discrimination nor constitutionally suspect. To the contrary, it is inevitable.
(12-13, emphasis added). I see. So a municipality can exclude religious people and organizations from access on equal terms to a limited public forum such as a public school classroom if including them would be not only “endorsing” religion but also “seeming to endorse” religion.
What does it mean to “seem to endorse religion”? I’m reminded of triple inchoate crimes in criminal law, like attempting to attempt to solicit somebody to commit a crime. What government exclusion of religion would be impermissible under a standard that protects an interest in appearing or seeming to favor religion? The court says that it would not be constitutionally impermissible for the government to issue the following rules: “This city shall not adopt any rule or practice that constitutes an improper burden on the free exercise of religion, or that constitutes an establishment of religion.” Or, “No school or teacher shall compel any student to participate in religious exercises, or seek to persuade any student to alter his or her religious beliefs.” I don’t understand the point of these examples. Of course those rules would be permissible. Those rules reflect what the Religion Clauses actually prohibit, not what they “appear” or “seem” to prohibit.
There are other debatable features of the majority opinion, including the extension of Locke v. Davey, which involved state subsidies, to this limited public forum case. More to the point, however, appearance of endorsement is not the standard under the Establishment Clause as misguidedly interpreted by the Supreme Court even since the Allegheny case. But as I have explained before, the endorsement test, with its emphasis on hurt feelings, offenses taken (and given), and the delicacy of personal sensibilities is at least partly to blame for what is an “inevitable” and deeply regrettable bloating of the Establishment Clause.