Tag Archives: Religious Accommodation

Podcast on Oral Argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

In our latest podcast, Mark and I discuss last week’s Supreme Court oral argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Title VII headscarf case. We analyze the legal issues, discuss implications for religious accommodations generally, and predict the outcome.

Movsesian at Federal Bar Council

L-R: Noel Francisco, MLM, Judge Brian Cogan, David Schaefer

On Monday, I participated in a panel discussion, “The Evolution and Implications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” at the Federal Bar Council’s annual Winter Bench & Bar Conference. (Honor compels me to reveal that the conference took place at the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic, where the February weather is much nicer than in Queens. But I returned to Queens right after my panel to teach my classes. The sacrifices scholars make). Founded in 1932, the Council is an organization of lawyers who practice in federal courts within the Second Circuit. The winter conference attracts not only lawyers, but also judges–Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is on the program this year–and discussions are substantive and enlightening.

My panel concerned a topic we’ve covered often here at the Forum, namely, religious accommodations under RFRA. I gave a twenty-minute overview of the topic, addressing the history of religious accommodations in American law, RFRA itself, the Court’s decisions last term in Hobby Lobby  and Wheaton College, and their immediate aftermath. Moderator Judge Brian Cogan (EDNY) then led the discussion, which included a mock argument on a hypothetical case involving the federal Family and Medical Leave Act–attorneys Steven Edwards (Hogan Lovells) and Steven Hyman (McLaughlin & Stern) took opposite sides–and interventions by Noel Francisco (Jones Day) and David Schaefer (Brenner Saltzman & Wallman). We wrapped up with audience Q&A.

I wasn’t the only member of the Center family to participate in the conference. Board member Mary Kay Vyskocil (Simpson Thacher) worked hard to coordinate the RFRA panel, though she unfortunately could not attend the conference, and Board member Judge Richard Sullivan (SDNY) will appear on a panel later this week.

Thanks to the Council for inviting me and to my fellow panelists for an engaging discussion!

 

Vaccination, the Nones, and Hobby Lobby

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Map from the New York Times

Measles is back. In recent weeks, an outbreak that originated in Southern California has spread across the nation (above). Public health officials seem confident the outbreak is explained, in large part, by the fact that significant numbers of parents no longer have their children vaccinated. These parents rely on exemptions that state laws, like California’s, provide for parents who object to mandatory vaccination programs. Perhaps surprisingly, the resistance is disproportionately high in wealthier, better educated, bluer neighborhoods, the sort of communities that pride themselves on their enlightened, progressive outlook.

The outbreak has obvious, unsettling public health implications. We are witnessing the recurrence of a serious, highly contagious disease we thought we had eradicated. In this post, though, I’d like to discuss some important cultural and legal implications. Culturally, the outbreak suggests the growing influence of the Nones—those Americans, maybe as many as 20% of us, without a formal religious affiliation. As I’ll explain, many of the parents who object to vaccination reflect the spirituality of the Nones. Legally, the outbreak seems likely to provide ammunition for opponents of last term’s decision in Hobby Lobby, the Contraception Mandate case. As I’ll explain, though, Hobby Lobby wouldn’t allow parents to claim religious exemptions in this context.

Let’s start with the cultural implications. To understand why the measles outbreak suggests the growing influence of the Nones, consider the reasons parents give for refusing to vaccinate their children. Some parents, it’s true, worry about the threat of toxins and an alleged link with autism. But the link with autism has been debunked; scientifically, there’s nothing to it. Some parents belong to religions that oppose vaccination. But the number of religions that forbid or even discourage vaccination is actually quite small. Conventional religious teachings cannot explain the widespread resistance we’re seeing, particularly in those blue, progressive neighborhoods.

Based on media accounts, much of the resistance comes from parents who object to vaccination, not because of science or conventional religion, but “personal belief.” Indeed, California law speaks in terms of a “personal belief exemption.” Many of the objectors have an intuitive conviction that vaccination is not right, natural, or wholesome. They associate it with capitalism and anti-environmentalism, which they see as morally deficient. Immunization makes these parents sincerely uncomfortable on a gut level. One told the New York Times, simply, “Vaccines don’t feel right for me and my family.”

Now, it’s impossible to hear these objections without thinking of the Nones. The Nones are a diverse group with varied commitments and philosophies. But sociologists have identified a common characteristic. Nones reject organized religion, not faith. In fact, they tend to be quite comfortable with spirituality, as long as it is personal and authentic: they are the “Spiritual but Not Religious.” So when a parent says vaccination seems wrong to her on a visceral level, and that she therefore refuses to allow her children to go through the procedure, she is reflecting the spirituality of the Nones. Of course, I don’t claim that all Nones reject vaccination, or even that all the parents who object to vaccination are Nones. But the Nones’ worldview pretty clearly provides the anti-vaccination movement with much of its considerable force.

Next, the legal implications. It seems to me very likely that opponents will use the outbreak to attack the Court’s decision last term in Hobby Lobby, the Contraception Mandate case. In fact, in her Hobby Lobby dissent, Justice Ginsburg argued that that, under the Court’s reading of RFRA, employers with religious objections could refuse to cover vaccinations for employees. This argument is a bit ironic, since, as I say, most religions don’t object to vaccinations. But some religions do object, and anyway, under Supreme Court precedent, the personal, anti-vaccination beliefs of Nones could be treated, for legal purposes, like traditional religious convictions. So Justice Ginsburg’s argument has a surface plausibility.

The Hobby Lobby Court expressly declined to address the implications of its holding for vaccination requirements. But Justice Ginsburg’s argument is misleading. Under RFRA, the government must offer an accommodation where a less restrictive alternative exists, that is, one that would allow the government to fulfill its compelling interest without substantially burdening the claimant’s exercise of religion. In Hobby Lobby, an alternative did exist. The government could have allowed the employer to opt out of coverage and have the plan administrator itself pay for the contraception. A similar accommodation could be worked out for vaccinations. If an employer didn’t want to pay, the plan administrator could be required to do so.

But here’s the important point: the vaccinations would take place. Hobby Lobby would not allow parents with religious objections to refuse to have their kids vaccinated at all. This is because there is no less-restrictive alternative to a mandatory vaccination protocol. For vaccination to work in preventing the spread of serious disease –surely a compelling government interest—more than 90% of a population must be vaccinated. (Scientists refer to this as the percentage necessary to create “herd immunity”). If the government allowed exemptions for people with religious objections, the percentage of vaccinated children could quickly fall below this number, endangering the whole population. In one California location, for example, the Times reports that exemptions have allowed 40% of schoolchildren to skip their measles vaccination.

Now, there is a complication. All states allow parents to claim exemptions from mandatory vaccination requirements for medical reasons. In some very rare cases, vaccination can endanger the health of a child, and in those circumstances, parents can decline to have their child vaccinated. Well, you might ask, doesn’t the possibility of medical exemptions suggest that the government doesn’t have a compelling interest in vaccinating absolutely everybody? And doesn’t that mean the government must also allow religious exemptions?

Maybe—some lower court caselaw does suggest that outcome. But I doubt it. No medical protocol is ever completely categorical; we don’t insist that doctors carry out a course of treatment even if it’s not medically indicated. It’s hard to imagine the Supreme Court would hold that allowing any medical exemption at all would necessarily require an exemption for religious reasons. It wouldn’t make sense.

Anyway, an outbreak of the sort we’re experiencing now is not an inevitable consequence of Hobby Lobby. It’s worth keeping that in mind in the weeks ahead.

Holt v. Hobbs Podcast

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.

 

When Doesn’t a Religious Accommodation “Detrimentally Affect Others”? And a Few Other Holt v. Hobbs Thoughts

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.

Another Unanimous Roberts Court Law and Religion Opinion

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.

“Catholic Midwives Must Supervise Abortions, Supreme Court Decides”

That’s the title of this report, though I would welcome more information from readers who may have it. The Supreme Court is that of the United Kingdom, and the case involves the issue of accommodation for objection to performing abortions on the basis of religious conscience. The statute interpreted by the Court is the Abortion Act of 1967, which provides that “no person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.” The issue before the Court was the scope of the statute: it is clear that the objecting midwives would be under no obligation to participate in abortions themselves, but it was not clear whether they could be compelled to supervise other staff who did participate in abortions. “Participate,” ruled the Court, demands a “hands on” role in the abortion, and any supervisory role was insufficiently “direct” to come within the statutory definition.

The midwives claimed that it would have been very easy to accommodate them, because the number of abortions on their ward was only a very small fraction of the work, supervision of which could readily have been assigned to others with no risk that anyone desiring an abortion would go without care. But that sort of compromise was unavailing to Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service: “[E]xtending this protection to tasks not directly related to the abortion would be to the detriment of women needing to end a pregnancy and the health care staff committed to providing that care. There are enough barriers in the way of women who need an abortion without further obstacles being thrown in their way.”

UPDATE: More information on the case may be found at Religion Clause Blog.

FURTHER UPDATE: A thorough statement of the case and arguments at Frank Cranmer’s blog.

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.

What Explains the Reaction to Hobby Lobby?

I confess I’ve been surprised at the vitriol last month’s decision in Hobby Lobby has drawn from the Left. To me, the case seems a narrow victory in favor of religious freedom. But critics, including some on the Court, see the case as a major defeat for freedom and equality. In their view, the Court has allowed religious zealots–for, in truth, who else would object to the contraceptives at issue?–to impose their beliefs and affect the life choices of their women employees. Once again, the forces of regression have attempted to coerce women. And the Court has allowed it.

This is perplexing. It’s worth repeating: Hobby Lobby objected to covering only four contraceptives out of the 20 HHS mandated. It did not threaten to fire or discipline women employees who used one of the contraceptives; it objected only to paying for the contraceptives itself. Moreover, the Hobby Lobby Court endorsed an accommodation that allows employees who wish to obtain the contraceptives to do so at no cost. In short, no Hobby Lobby employee who wishes to use one of the four contraceptives will be prevented from doing so.

So why all the vitriol? Why all the talk of coercion? In a very insightful post at Bloomberg View, blogger Megan McArdle (left) explains the situation. In fact, it’s one of the better posts I’ve seen on the controversy.

McArdle says three factors are involved. First, the Left cannot understand why religion should merit this sort of deference. Although “the religious right views religion as a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience,” she writes, “the secular left views it as something more like a hobby.” For the Left, therefore, “it’s as if a major administrative rule was struck down because it unduly burdened model-train enthusiasts.” In fact, although McArdle doesn’t put it this way, the Court has allowed religion to interfere with sex, which really is “a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience.” It just seems crazy.

Second, about coercion. From the classical liberal perspective, in which rights are principally negative rights, the Hobby Lobby case does not involve coercion. As McArdle writes, “How is not buying you something equivalent to ‘imposing’ on you”? But if we consider that our society confers many positive rights as well as negative ones, the situation becomes much more complicated:

“Do what you want, as long as you don’t try to force me to do it, too” works very well, which is why this verbal formula has had such a long life. But when you introduce positive rights into the picture, this abruptly stops working. You have a negative right not to have your religious practice interfered with, and say your church forbids the purchase or use of certain forms of birth control. If I have a negative right not to have my purchase of birth control interfered with, we can reach a perhaps uneasy truce where you don’t buy it and I do. But if I have a positive right to have birth control purchased for me, then suddenly our rights are directly opposed: You have a right not to buy birth control, and I have a right to have it bought for me, by you.

Third, she writes, the classically liberal distinction between the state and civil society has broken down. Classical liberalism accepted a large public space that did not belong to the government. Now, however,

For many people, this massive public territory is all the legitimate province of the state. Institutions within that sphere are subject to close regulation by the government, including regulations that turn those institutions into agents of state goals — for example, by making them buy birth control for anyone they choose to employ. It is not a totalitarian view of government, but it is a totalizing view of government; almost everything we do ends up being shaped by the law and the bureaucrats appointed to enforce it. We resolve the conflict between negative and positive rights by restricting many negative rights to a shrunken private sphere where they cannot get much purchase.

In this context, it’s possible to believe that Hobby Lobby’s founders are imposing their beliefs on others, because they’re bringing private beliefs into the government sphere — and religion is not supposed to be in the government sphere. It belongs over there with whatever it was you and your significant other chose to do on date night last Wednesday. In that sphere, my positive right to birth control obviously trumps your negative right to free exercise of religion, because religion isn’t supposed to be out here at all. It’s certainly not supposed to be poking around in what’s happening between me and my doctor, which is private, and therefore ought to operate with negative-right reciprocity: I can’t tell you what birth control to take, and you can’t tell me.

McArdle agrees with the Hobby Lobby decision, by the way (as do I), which makes her willingness to see things from the opposite perspective all the more welcome. Read the whole thing.

A Pretty Narrow Decision

That’s my first read on today’s opinion in the Hobby Lobby case: narrow and pretty much as expected. Indeed, Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court says as much (“our holding is very specific”). It’s a 5-4 decision; a 5-2 decision on one important point. Still, a win’s a win, and Hobby Lobby, its lawyers, and those who filed amicus briefs in its behalf have a right to be pleased–as do all those who value religious freedom.

Some first impressions:

  • The Court does not address Hobby Lobby’s First Amendment claims; Hobby Lobby wins on RFRA grounds. No surprise there.
  • In holding that a for-profit corporation can exercise a religion for RFRA purposes, the Court takes the route that Chief Justice Roberts suggested at oral argument. It expressly limits its holding to closely-held corporations like Hobby Lobby and declines to discuss whether large, publicly traded corporations also can exercise a religion for RFRA purposes. That, as lawyers say, is a question for another day. (Self-promotion alert: this is what I predicted). The vote was 5-2 here; two dissenters, Justices Breyer and Kagan, would not have reached the issue.
  • The Court makes clear its ruling does not mean it will necessarily rule the same way in other cases where employers seek relief under RFRA, for example, where employers object to covering immunizations. Different governmental interests could be involved in those cases, the Court says.
  • The Court goes out of its way to say that its holding would not allow employers to justify racial discrimination on religious grounds. It says nothing about other sorts of discrimination, however. Surely this is intentional. As everyone knows, a major lurking issue is whether RFRA allows employers to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, especially homosexuality. The Court obviously wishes to avoid any allusions to that issue–perhaps to keep Justice Kennedy on board. The dissent does raise the issue, though.
  • The qualifications in the Court’s opinion are obviously meant to answer the dissent’s “parade of horribles.” Seems a pretty good answer to me–but the dissenters are not impressed. The Court’s logic extends to publicly traded corporations, Justice Ginsburg writes, and there is little doubt, notwithstanding the Court’s reassurances,  that RFRA claims will “proliferate” in future. In particular, the dissent raises the issue of religiously-based objections to sexuality. As I say, the Court studiously avoids that issue.
  • In its least-restrictive means analysis, the Court notes that an accommodation of the sort the government has offered to certain religious non-profits would have achieved the government’s end in this case as well, and would have imposed less on Hobby Lobby’s religious exercise. That is, an alternative to the mandate is available. Is the Court hinting at what it thinks about the Little Sisters of the Poor case? I don’t think so; the Court went out of its way to reserve that issue. But the language here is a bit opaque and may cause trouble in future.
  • Not clear what the point of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence is, except to highlight that he sees this as a close case, to say nice things about the dissent, and to expound a little more about his view that religious liberty is about protecting people’s “dignity and … striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts.”

We’ll have further analysis here at CLR Forum as we digest the opinion a little more. But, bottom line: a narrow decision and a win for religious liberty.