Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.
Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.
Not too much to add to Rick Garnett’s analysis of Holt v. Hobbs. A short and precise opinion from Justice Alito. Here are just a few other questions and comments about the opinion and concurrences:
1. Rick quotes Justice Ginsburg’s one-paragraph concurrence, which states that she only joins the Court’s opinion “on th[e] understanding” that the accommodation here “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.” I guess she felt she had to use the occasion to say something pejorative about Hobby Lobby, which she also quotes. It seems she has bought the line pressed by those who claim that the Establishment Clause prohibits third-party burdens, yet she articulates the standard that they champion rather expansively. There may be a big difference between arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that impose “significant burdens on identifiable third parties” (if memory serves, this was the standard favored by academic defenders of this argument) and arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that “detrimentally affect” anybody who doesn’t share the claimant’s religious beliefs. I don’t believe the former is a correct reading of the Establishment Clause. But the latter formulation seems a good deal broader. What constitutes a “detrimental effect” under that approach? Might symbolic harms count? I don’t see why they wouldn’t. And as Justice Alito points out, Arkansas made no argument that an exemption was not feasible as a matter of cost or other resources (“the Department has not argued that denying a petitioner an exemption is necessary to further a compelling interest in cost control or program administration”). Had the Department made an argument about cost control (with evidence, which was seemingly in short supply on its side), would any evidence of increased cost (no matter how small) not only been enough to find against the claimant as a RLUIPA matter, but actually have triggered an Establishment Clause violation had the prison accommodated the inmate? Suppose I am a prison inmate who thinks 1/2 inch beards are beautiful as a fashion statement, or because I come from a long line of bearded ancestors and it is important to me to observe the tradition (not so far from the truth in my case, other than the bit about being a prison inmate). Am I not “detrimentally affected” by the inequality of treatment that results from Holt’s accommodation, but not mine? Surely I am. It seems to me that this sort of standard, as well as its more careful academic progenitor, strikes at the heart of these religious accommodation statutes.
2. Following from that point, the heart of these statutes (as Rick also notes) is to provide “very broad protection for religious liberty” or “expansive protection for religious liberty,” as the Court says right at the start of the opinion. This case was an easy one according to that standard, even with a thumb on the scale of deference toward prison administrators, which the Court reaffirms (it rejects “unquestioning deference” but it acknowledges the “respect” that is due the prison administrators’ “expertise”). Should not Hobby Lobby, in which there was no such presumptive deference or “respect” accorded to the government, also have been an easy case according to that standard? Should it at least have been as easy, in light of the absence of deference toward the government in the latter? And yet Holt was unanimous while Hobby Lobby split 5-4.
3. The breadth of protection for religious freedom contemplated by the statutes (RFRA and RLUIPA) and affirmed by the Court was notable, but so was the rigor with which the least restrictive means portion of the analysis was applied. In Holt, the prison argued that its concerns about the shaving of facial hair and escape were unique because of the particular sort of prison it operated, and that its rule was therefore the least restrictive means of securing against the possibility of escape. But the Court rejected that argument for the simple reason that the prison had not done enough to distinguish itself from other prisons that allow facial hair and that had managed these concerns. Other prisons, that is, whose situation was analogous to the Arkansas prison (even if not identical) used less restrictive means to achieve their security interests. The Court looked to the variety of less restrictive means on offer out there in the national universe, and found that the Department should have used one or more of those. This is perhaps a useful elaboration of the least restrictive means test. Unless the government can prove that its burden is truly unique, the Court will look to analogous (even if not identical) solutions to similar problems reached by other governmental entities. If those other solutions seem to have worked without an imposition on religious freedom, then the government has not used the least restrictive means.
The Supreme Court today handed down Holt v. Hobbs, the RLUIPA case involving an Arkansas prisoner who complained of a state prison policy disallowing him to grow a beard in accordance with his understanding of his religious obligations.
The opinion was unanimous, with two separate, short concurrences by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. I’ll save analysis for a later moment (it was a rather straightforward application of RLUIPA in Justice Alito’s majority opinion, though with some interesting language about the individual components of the test).
For now, though, I’ll just note the fact of another unanimous opinion in this area from the Roberts Court. Holt v. Hobbs continues to follow the Roberts Court pattern of either unanimity or 5-4 outcomes in law and religion jurisprudence, as I discuss in greater detail at Part II of this article. The figures are now four unanimous law and religion decisions as against six 5-4 law and religion decisions. The article speculates about a few reasons that we might be seeing this particular voting pattern, contrasting it with the patterns of Supreme Courts past.
Mark and I will have a podcast on the decision in a few days.
The Supreme Court’s January calendar begins next week with argument in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, a law and religion case that has gotten very little attention. The case relates to some of the issues that Mark Movsesian and Perry Dane have been talking about involving the New York City subway regulations concerning advertising. I found Perry’s phrase, “mental maps,” to be useful in thinking through the categories that we use to divide up both meanings and the motivations for expressing certain meanings. This case tests our mental maps.
It seems that the Town of Gilbert has a complex set of regulations governing the display of signs. It categorizes signs into five groups: political signs, ideological signs, “qualifying event” signs, homeowners’ association temporary signs, and real estate signs. Different rules regarding the size, duration, and location of the sign (among other variables) apply depending on the category of sign that one wishes to display.
The petitioners in the case are representatives of the Good News Community Church, a small Christian church that “holds services on Sundays, where attendees worship and fellowship together, learn biblical lessons, sing religious songs, pray for their community, and encourage others whenever possible.” Good News depends on signs to advertise its presence and invite people to join.
The Town has classified Good News as the sort of organization entitled to “qualifying event signs.” A “qualifying event sign” is a “temporary sign intended to direct pedestrians, motorists, and other passersby to a ‘qualifying event.’ A ‘qualifying event’ is any assembly, gathering, activity, or meeting sponsored, arranged, or promoted by a religious, charitable, community service, educational, or other similar non-profit organization.”
By contrast, a “political sign” is a “temporary sign which supports candidates for office or urges action on any other matter on the ballot of primary, general and special elections relating to any national, state or local election.”
And an “ideological sign” is a “sign communicating a message or ideas for non- commercial purposes that is not a Construction Sign, Directional Sign, Temporary Directional Sign Relating to a Qualifying Event, Political Sign, Garage Sale Sign, or a sign owned or required by a governmental agency.”
The petitioners’ basic complaint is that by lumping the Church in with organizations entitled only to a “qualifying event” sign, the Town is engaging in viewpoint discrimination against it, because it is only entitled to a tiny sign of very limited duration that can only be displayed in limited locations. The Town’s justification for this highly reticulated set of requirements and classifications? “Safety and aesthetics.” Also of interest is that at some point in the procedural history (which looks rather involved), the Town amended certain locational requirements for “qualifying events signs,” replacing them with a requirement that “qualifying events signs” must “relate to events in the Town of Gilbert.” That requirement does not apply to political or ideological signs. The Church claims that this amendment was made specifically to target it for unfavorable treatment.
At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the argument goes. Here is an interesting contrast contained in the Petitioners’ Brief:
I used to think that the annual Christmas Wars were strictly an American thing, like corn dogs and and attorneys’ contingency fees. Only in America, I thought, do people seriously argue about whether to allow Christmas trees in public parks or to permit public school choirs to sing “Silent Night” at holiday concerts. The issues become more and more bizarre. This year, a Maryland school district decided to remove even a reference to “Christmas” in the school calendar–as though the reference amounted to religious oppression and removal would make people forget what holiday comes round every 25th of December.
Our Supreme Court, whose Establishment Clause jurisprudence focuses on factors like the presence of plastic reindeer and talking wishing wells, bears much blame for this state of affairs. But judges in other countries seem eager to replicate our model. Last week, a French administrative court ruled that the town of La Roche-sur-Yon–located, appropriately, in the historically royalist, counter-revolutionary region of the Vendee–must remove a Christmas crèche from its city hall. The court held that the crèche violates the 1905 French Law on the Separation of Church and State, which, according to the court, forbids religious displays like crèches on public property. According to news reports (in French), the court concluded the display was incompatible with the principle of state religious neutrality, or laïcité.
I don’t know enough about French administrative law to evaluate the decision. What I find fascinating, as an outsider, is how closely the French debate tracks the American. The lawsuit seeking removal of the crèche was brought by a secularist group called the “Fédération de la Libre Pensée,” which, I gather, is analogous to American groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists. The group argues that the crèche “fails to respect the conscience of the citizen” by “imposing” on him a religious display whenever he enters city hall. In response, the town’s supporters evoke cultural traditions more than Christianity. Religious neutrality, they say, does not require abandoning longstanding French customs. What’s next, they ask? Church bells and Christmas lights? They’ve started a popular hashtag campaign, #TouchePasAMaCreche.
Each side has to live with its ironies. Notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to laïcité, French law allows a great deal of entanglement between church and state–more, in some respects, than we would tolerate in the US. (Guess who owns Notre Dame and all other church buildings that existed as of 1905? Hint: it’s not the Church). On the other hand, the defense of tradition in this case rings somewhat hollow. La Roche-sur-Yon only began displaying the crèche 22 years ago.
The city has vowed to appeal the decision. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, here’s a thought. If France has adopted the Christmas Wars, can Black Friday be far behind?
Our friend, Paul Horwitz, has just published his essay, The Hobby Lobby Moment, in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review. The piece is well worth reading and reflecting on. It is written in Paul’s characteristically thoughtful and insightful manner, and it makes many points about the social and cultural context of the case that cut much deeper than most of the commentary on what has been, to put it mildly, a controversial decision. Even on those issues where I see things a little differently than Paul (for example, I am much more skeptical than is Paul about the degree to which there was ever consensus about the good of religious free exercise in the legal academy, and therefore about whether there is any substantial fragmentation of that consensus today), the points he makes are interesting, original, and thought-provoking.
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.
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.
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.
This month, LFB Scholarly Publishing releases “First Amendment Religious Liberties: Supreme Court Decisions and Public Opinion, 1947-2013” by Tracy L. Cook (Central Texas College). The publisher’s description follows:
Cook analyzes the relationship between Supreme Court decisions and public opinion concerning First Amendment religious liberties. Overall, the Court has issued opinions consistent with public opinion in a majority of its decisions dealing with the First Amendment’s religion clauses, with a level of congruence of almost seventy percent when a clear public opinion expression is present. She also provides a new perspective for understanding the long and contentious debate about prayer in public school by identifying an area of agreement between the Court and public opinion that has not received much attention.