Tag Archives: Recent Cases

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Wedding Photographer Dispute

The Supreme Court today denied certiorari in Elane Photography v. Willock, the case involving a claim by a photography business that it was compelled to create images celebrating a gay wedding pursuant to New Mexico’s public accommodations statute, in violation of the business owner’s First Amendment rights.

The decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case leaves in place the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision against Elane Photography.

Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Oral Argument: On the Establishment Clause Claim

It is of course always difficult to predict how the Court will rule on any issue, and this is certainly true in the Hobby Lobby case. From my read of the transcript of the oral argument, the least restrictive means analysis stole the show. There sure was a lot of discussion about the accommodation to religious nonprofits as a less restrictive means than what the administrative agency had decided on for for-profits. Justice Kennedy asked repeatedly about the issue of regulatory, as opposed to legislative, exemptions as a Free Exercise Clause and RFRA problem. See, e.g. 56 (“Now what–what kind of constitutional structure do we have if the Congress can give an agency the power to grant or not grant a religious exemption based on what the agency determined?”).

On another matter, though, there was greater clarity in the argument. The government rejected the specific claim that an exemption in this case would violate the Establishment Clause. Here is the colloquy:

Justice Alito: Well is it your argument that providing the accommodation that’s requested here would violate the Establishment Clause

General Verrilli: It’s not our argument that it would violate the Establishment Clause. But it is our argument that you–in any RFRA case, including this one, you have to consider the impact on third parties, because otherwise, you will be skating on thin constitutional ice.

43. I am not quite sure what this means. But what it seems to mean is that, first, the government takes the position that this exemption, if granted, would not violate the Establishment Clause. And second, it seems to mean that RFRA itself, properly interpreted and applied, incorporates within itself Establishment Clause limits that relate to third party interests. That’s the claim I have made here. It is also the claim that this amicus brief makes. It also reflects the language in Cutter v. Wilkinson. It is a claim about the interpretation of a statute. It is not a claim that the statute violates the Establishment Clause if it violates a particular externally imposed threshold that is not spelled out in the statute itself. Solicitor General Verrilli went on to say that whatever third party interests are contemplated by RFRA are subsumed within the compelling government interest analysis right within RFRA: “[C]ertainly compelling interest analysis certainly does require consideration of the interests of third parties.” 44

Of course, that the government disavows a claim does not mean that the Court can’t go retrieve it on its own. But it was really only Justice Ginsburg who said anything at all about the Establishment Clause, and what she said seems also to be consistent with the point that RFRA (like RLUIPA) incorporates certain Establishment Clause limits. Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Clement how he “would suggest that we think about the position and the rights of the–of the employees[.]” Justice Kennedy then remarked that “the employees are in a position where the government, through its healthcare plans is…allowing the employer to put the employee in a disadvantageous position. The employee may not agree with these religious–religious beliefs of the employer. Does the religious beliefs just trump?” 33

After a response from Mr. Clement, here’s what Justice Ginsburg said:

But, Mr. Clement, you made the analogy to RLUIPA. And the one thing that has not been mentioned up till now is the Establishment Clause. The Court was very clear when it came to RLUIPA, which you said is similar to RFRA, that the accommodation must be measured so it doesn’t override other significant interests. And that was true of Sherbert and that was true of Yoder. The–and the Cutter case, and this Court made it very clear, that the accommodation has to be balanced and you have to take into account other significant interests.

34. Later in the discussion, Justice Kagan referred specifically to the “tangible harm[]” that women will suffer who don’t get the benefit of the statute. But neither Justice Kagan nor Justice Kennedy specifically talked about the Establishment Clause. And the discussion of tangible harms on third parties then turned toward the issue of alternative means of accommodating those interests without burdening the religious objector.

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Muslim Prisoner Beard Case

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear Holt v. Hobbs, the case of a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who claims that prison officials violated his religious freedom under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when they enforced their grooming policy against him. The policy forbids the growing of a beard. Here’s the opinion of the 8th Circuit.

The case is important because it zeroes in on the government’s burden under RLUIPA, and whether it needs to consider alternatives to its policy as well as policies that other prison systems have tried in order to satisfy the least restrictive means leg of RLUIPA. In 2005, the Supreme Court held unanimously in Cutter v. Wilkinson that RLUIPA does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Constitutional Scholars’ Brief in Hobby Lobby

I was pleased to join this amicus brief filed by several constitutional law scholars in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood litigation (thanks to Nathan Chapman for taking up the pen). The brief argues against the view that the Establishment Clause prohibits an accommodation of the religious claimants. My own views on the matter, reflected in various portions of the brief, are also contained here and here. A post by Kevin Walsh raising an important problem is here. Opposing views may be found here, here, and here. Here is the Introduction and the Summary of the Argument of the amicus brief:

This brief argues that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq. (RFRA), properly applied, complies with the Establishment Clause. The brief responds to the recent proposal by several scholars that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from accommodating “substantial burdens” on religious exercise, as RFRA does, when the accommodation imposes “significant burdens on third parties who do not believe or participate in the accommodated practice.”2 This brief does not address the issues directly before the Court, i.e., whether RFRA protects for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, and whether either of those parties has a valid RFRA claim.3

The scholars’ proposed doctrine is contradicted by precedent, would needlessly require courts to analyze three speculative Religion Clause questions in most religious accommodation cases, and would threaten thousands of statutes that protect religious minorities.

First, precedent strongly supports the constitutionality of statutory religious accommodations, like RFRA, that allow courts to weigh the government’s “compelling” interests against claimant’s interests in religious exercise.

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Supreme Court Order Keeps Injunction in Place in Little Sisters Case

The Supreme Court has issued the following order in the case of Little Sisters of the Poor et al. v. Sebelius:

The application for an injunction having been submitted to Justice Sotomayor and by her referred to the Court, the Court orders: If the employer applicants inform the Secretary of Health and Human Services in writing that they are non-profit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and have religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services, the respondents are enjoined from enforcing against the applicants the challenged provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and related regulations pending final disposition of the appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. To meet the condition for injunction pending appeal, applicants need not use the form prescribed by the Government and need not send copies to third-party administrators. The Court issues this order based on all of the circumstances of the case, and this order should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits.

It’s always hard to interpret all that much from an order as short as this, but a few things are clear.

First, the injunction stays in place. The Little Sisters can just send the government a copy of their complaint. Second, and notwithstanding the final sentence of the order, at least some of the Court seems to have understood the Little Sisters’ argument–that is, that signing the certification and designation of a third party administrator to provide contraceptive products is a violation of their religious liberty under RFRA. If the Court had not understood it, or had disagreed with it, the injunction would not have remained in place. Third, and in consequence, this order represents another victory, albeit a cryptic one and one of uncertain duration, for the plaintiffs in these nonprofit cases.

Contraception Mandate “Accommodation”: The State of Play

Both because of the fast pace of the developments (lots of action before the new year) and because of the holidays, I am behind on reporting the state of play with respect to the contraception mandate litigation concerning non-profit entities that have not been exempted by the government. Such entities, as I noted here, have received the government’s so-called “accommodation,” which requires that they certify to the government their religious objections to the mandate. There are special rules for “accommodated” self-insured non-profits who self-certify, which details are discussed in full here. Note finally that these suits are distinct from the question of for-profit challenges to the contraception mandate, which the Supreme Court will take up shortly in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood litigation.

The Becket Fund reports that the tally now stands at 19-1 in favor of the challengers and against the government. Here’s a breakdown which elaborates a little bit on the present procedural posture of the cases (of course with the caveat that the situation is fluid and that I may well have missed additional cases or changes to the cases I list).

I. Number of cases in which an injunction has been issued at the district court level, or where denial of an injunction at the district court level has been overturned by an appellate court (Court of Appeals or United States Supreme Court), barring enforcement of the contraception mandate against “accommodated” entities: 19.

1. E.D.N.Y. (RC Archdiocese v. Sebelius)

2. W.D. Pa. (Zubik v. Sebelius)

3. W.D. Pa. (Persico v. Sebelius)

4. W.D. Pa. (Geneva College v. Sebelius)

5. D.D.C. (as to Thomas Aquinas College in Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Sebelius)

6. N.D. Indiana (Diocese of Fort Wayne v. Sebelius)

7. N.D. Indiana (Grace Schools v. Sebelius)

8. S.D. Texas (East Texas Baptist University v. Sebelius)

9. W.D. Oklahoma (Southern Nazarene University v. Sebelius)

10. W.D. Oklahoma (Reaching Souls International, Inc. v. Sebelius)

11. E.D. Mich. (Legatus v. Sebelius)

12. E.D. Mich. (Ave Maria Foundation v. Sebelius)

13. E.D. Missouri (CNS Int’l Ministries v. Dept. of HHS)

14. E.D. Tex. (Catholic Diocese of Beaumont v. Sebelius)

15. N.D. Tex. (Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth v. Sebelius)

In an additional three lawsuits, district courts had ruled against the religious claimants. But circuit court decisions have reversed those findings and granted emergency motions for injunctions pending appeal (which requires a finding of likelihood of success on the merits as well). Those are:

16. D.C. Circuit (Priests for Life v. US Department of Health and Human Services)

17. Sixth Circuit (Catholic Diocese of Nashville v. Sebelius)

18. Sixth Circuit (Michigan Catholic Conference v. Sebelius)

Finally, in one law suit, both the district court and the Tenth Circuit had denied injunctive relief. But Justice Sotomayor granted emergency injunctive relief on December 31, 2013. The government has now filed its brief and the religious claimant (the Little Sisters of the Poor) has filed its reply:

19. United States Supreme Court (Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius)

II. Number of cases in which an injunction has been denied at both the federal district and circuit court levels: 1.

1. N.D. Indiana and Seventh Circuit (University of Notre Dame v. Sebelius)

UK Supreme Court: Religion Does Not Require God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom–since 2009, the highest court in the UK–handed down what looks to be a significant decision on the meaning of “religion” in English law. The decision suggests that, for legal purposes, religion does not require a belief in God.

The case involved a couple who wished to marry in a Scientologist church in London. Under English law, marriages performed in a “place of religious worship” are considered valid. Nonetheless, the couple faced a problem. In 1970, an English court concluded that Scientology is not a religion, because Scientology does not hold a belief in God. So, when the couple sought to have their church certified as a place where marriages might take place, the relevant government official refused: if Scientology is not a religion, a Scientologist church cannot be a “place of religious worship.” The couple then sued.

Last week, the Supreme Court sided with the couple. The 1970 opinion was wrong, the court held. Scientology is indeed a religion. For one thing, Lord Toulson’s opinion explained, Scientology does hold a belief in a supreme deity, albeit an impersonal and abstract deity. Anyway, belief in a deity is not necessary. Religion, Lord Toulson wrote, means:

a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system…. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the sense or from science.

On this definition–and Lord Toulson made clear he was not announcing a categorical test for all circumstances–Scientology qualifies as a religion. The court ordered the government to certify the couple’s church as a place where valid marriages could take place.

There’s a lot going on in Lord Toulson’s opinion, and I can’t do it justice in a short post. Three observations, though. First, it seems entirely correct to say that “religion” does not necessarily mean a belief in God. Some versions of Buddhism do not hold a belief in a deity, for example, and it would be very odd to have a definition of religion that excluded Buddhism. I don’t know enough about Scientology to know whether it should be considered a religion, but the fact that it is not conventionally theistic shouldn’t be dispositive.

Second, it seems correct that religion must have some supernatural component. Otherwise, religion collapses into philosophy. Of course, we might protect strong secular convictions in addition to religion. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights protects both religious and secular convictions. But the relevant English law in this case speaks of “religious worship,” not “secular convictions,” and pretty much everybody knows the difference between the two. It doesn’t do any good to pretend a law is vaguer than it is.

Finally, note Lord Toulson’s insistence that religion involves a group of adherents. This is very significant. Religion is inherently communal, and some of the most important benefits the state derives from religion–for example, greater civic participation–depend on religion’s being a group activity. In America, some people have begun to argue for a very individualistic definition of religion, one in which a sole practitioner, following her own inner voice, can qualify as a religion for legal purposes. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected this view, and there are good reasons to do so. I’ll have more to say about all this is a forthcoming paper, to be published next month by the European University Institute. I’ll post more on this subject then. 

The case is R (on the application of Hodkin and another) v. Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Dec. 11, 2013).

What is the “Church Plan” Issue?: An Explanation from Matt Bowman

In response to my post on the Eastern District of New York’s decision striking down the contraception mandate, and specifically my statement and questions about the third party administrator issue noted at the end of that post, reader Matt Bowman (with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Conestoga Wood) wrote me with the following helpful explanation (posted with his permission). If others have more information about the “church plan” issue, I’d welcome it, as it has been insufficiently considered.

As background, self-insured plans by religious non-profit entities have to fill out a different kind of “certification” under the final regulation’s “accommodation.” Their certification doesn’t merely declare a religious objection.  It doesn’t even merely mean that upon that certification, as you say, the TPA “assumes the obligation of providing the objected-to products to the employees.” The self-insured certification contains language that specifically designates the TPA to provide the objectionable coverage (also described as promised “payments”). The final regulation even points out that this added language is legally operative: the designation words themselves are what cause the TPA’s obligation to go get the coverage. Without the designation telling the TPA to go get that coverage, the TPA wouldn’t have any duty to be involved. The designation has legally operative power because of preexisting rules in ERISA. So it’s important to observe that for self-insured religious non-profits, there’s a “certification,” but there’s also a “designation”….This designation requirement also gives lie to the government’s mantra that religious non-profits don’t need to “contract or arrange for” objectionable coverage. The designation is, by definition, an act of contracting and arranging for the coverage….Because the designation constitutes legal “magic words,” the regulation goes on to specifically censor self-insured religious groups, by banning them from engaging in additional speech towards their TPAs to persuade them not to provide the objectionable coverage, for fear that such evangelical speech might negate the designation’s magic words. Finally, the regulation tells TPAs that if they get a self-insured certification+designation, and if they provide the birth control coverage, they will get reimbursed plus 10%.

In this context, the government has recently dropped somewhat of a bombshell into the non-profit lawsuits. It has declared that [it] didn’t realize until now that [its] penalty on TPAs does not apply in a “church plan,” because church plans are exempt from ERISA. (It’s important to note that “church plans” are not the same as a church’s plan. A church, which is exempt from the mandate, might have an insurance plan. But “church plans” are a defined category that enroll thousands of non-exempt non-churches, like universities, hospitals, charities, etc., who merely share a religious affiliation.) The government’s revelation has led to bizarre results. The government insists that entities enrolled in self-insured church plans must still file their designations, which contract and arrange for their TPA to obtain the exact coverage the organization objects to. But the government admits that the designation is false: it does not, as claimed on the face of the language, actually trigger ERISA duties on a church plan’s TPA, because these plans are exempt from ERISA.The designation does, however, trigger the TPA’s reimbursement plus 10% if they choose to cover the items. And the government vaguely says it will consider “fixing” this oversight (three years, six regulations, and 1 million public comments later). Of course all of this could have been “fixed” and avoided if religious objectors were exempt at the outset.

The impact of this revelation was on grand display in the EDNY case.

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EDNY: Contraception Mandate Violates RFRA

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York has issued a decision holding that the HHS contraception mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (see here for a previous post on this case). Certain plaintiffs in the case are Catholic non-profit organizations that qualify for the “accommodation” offered by government. Other plaintiffs are Diocesan–the lead plaintiff is the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York–and qualify for the exemption. All plaintiffs are self-insured. The exempted plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed.

The remainder of this post will focus on the non-exempted but “accommodated” plaintiffs (for more on exactly who falls into this group, see Points 2B and 3 in this post), whose claims succeeded. The government’s “accommodation” is to allow non-exempted non-profits to fill out a self-certification indicating that they have religious objections to providing the objected-to products to their employees. In the case of self-insured, non-exempted non-profits (such as these plaintiffs) the government demands that such organizations notify a third-party administrator (TPA) of their self-certification, at which time this TPA assumes the obligation of providing the objected-to products to the employees (there is an important wrinkle here that I will note at the end of this post).

In granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, the court first held that plaintiffs satisfied the substantial burden prong of the RFRA test. In so holding, it applied a “substantial pressure” standard to evaluate whether plaintiffs suffered a “substantial burden”: “Rather than whether the pressure is indirect or direct, it seems that the more important distinction for the case at bar is between government action that pressures an individual to act inconsistently with his beliefs, and government action that discourages a plaintiff from acting consistently with those beliefs.” The court held that the self-certification requirement imposed by the “accommodation” on non-exempted non-profits was a substantial burden and rejected the government’s proposed test that a court should evaluate whether the burden was “de minimis” or should evaluate whether the self-certification is “too attenuated” to constitute a substantial burden.

The court also found that the government had not provided a compelling interest in mandating contraception coverage in the fashion it has selected. The government offered “the promotion of public health, and ensuring that women have equal access to health-care services” as its compelling interests. Though the court accepted these interests as important in the abstract, it rejected the government’s claim that granting exemptions to these plaintiffs would undermine the government’s ability to administer its regulation so as to achieve its aims uniformly.

Critically, it distinguished United States v. Lee–a case rejecting an Amish plaintiff’s request for exemption from paying taxes into Social Security–on the ground that the whole contraceptive mandate system would not collapse if exemptions were granted in these cases and the government’s application of the mandate is not uniform. Lee is a case on which proponents of the mandate have been placing great emphasis, but the death spiral dynamics at issue in Lee do not seem present here, in large part because of the government’s own exemptions. Here is the key language from the decision:

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The Polygamy (aka “Religious Cohabitation”) Decision

Just a few words about the decision a few days ago in Brown v. Buhman, in which a federal district court judge in the District of Utah struck down a portion of Utah’s bigamy statute.

The Utah statute provides that:

A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.

At its core, this statute, like all bigamy statutes, criminalizes knowing efforts by a married person to enter into another state-licensed, state-sanctioned, marriage.  Such marriages are both criminally punishable and void.  (This might seem like a paradox, but it’s not.  Many illegal contracts are both punishable and void).  But in the light of Utah’s distinct history with polygamy, both the language of the statute and its interpretation by courts go a step further than most other states:  They also seek to punish persons who “purport to marry” even by entering into purely “private” or religious marriages. without trying to get a license, and without demanding any legal benefits or rights from the state.  On the other hand, the Utah courts have also held that the statute only covers relationships that hold themselves out to be “marriages” of one sort or another.  Thus, despite the “cohabitation” language, the statute does not cover simple adultery, even when the adulterers live together.  Nor does it cover someone like Hugh Hefner, who often lived with several women in one household, but was never married (or held himself out to be married) to more than one at a time.

The district court upheld what I’m calling the core application of the statute.  It really had no choice given Reynolds v. United Statesthe famous 1879 United States Supreme Court decision that denied Mormon polygamists religion-based exemptions from territorial bigamy laws.  But the district court struck down the extended application of the statute.  It held that (1) the state had no legitimate interest trying to regulate purely “religious cohabitation” and (2) that the law unconstitutionally discriminated between such “religious cohabitation” (in which the parties held themselves out to be in some sense “married”) and other extra-marital or multiple-partner arrangements.

I don’t want to discuss the opinion at length here.  I don’t want to discuss whether the district court played fast and loose with the precedents.  Nor do I want to discuss whether there should be a constitutional right to religiously-based polygamy.  

But I do think one point deserves emphasis:  This opinion is yet another instance of a serious and damaging failure, which I’ve discussed in other contexts here, here, and here, to appreciate the distinctively interwoven, intertwined, character of marriage in the United States.  Marriage as we know it carries a complex combination of governmental, religious, cultural, sociological, psychological, and maybe even “natural” meanings.  And those meanings have never been, and probably cannot be, kept hermetically sealed off from each other. Continue reading