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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
At the Religion News Service site, Cathy Lynn Grossman discusses the overheated rhetoric about for-profit corporations in the Contraception Mandate case, quoting my recent post on the subject at the Cornerstone site. As I’ve said, the Court could easily avoid the slippery slope by limiting its holding to close corporations like Hobby Lobby itself. Stay tuned — we’ll know pretty soon.
The most important recent development in American religion is the rise of the “Nones,” the increasing number of Americans–it may now be 20% of all adults and 30% of young people–who tell pollsters that they have no religious affiliation. Perhaps surprisingly, most Nones are believers. They reject organized religion, not faith. In fact, the Nones overlap greatly with another much-discussed category of Americans, the “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or SBNRs.
Even the SBNR label doesn’t completely capture things. It’s necessary to dig a little deeper. At the Oxford University Press blog, theologian Linda Mercadante, author of the recently released Belief Without Borders, has a helpful guide to the various kinds of SBNRs in America today. Mercadante has interviewed hundreds of SBNRs over a five-year period, she reports, and a very large number are best described as “casual” SBNRs. For them,
religious and spiritual practices are generally approached on an “as-needed” basis and discarded or changed when no longer necessary. Spirituality is not felt to be the organizing center of their lives. Many of the “casuals”—especially younger ones—had little or no religious exposure either as children or adults.
In other words, it would be wrong to understand SBNRs or Nones principally as “seekers.” Nor are they hostile to religion. They just don’t care much about it. Better, perhaps, to call these people something else–something more descriptive. “Religious Indifferents” is a phrase that comes to mind.
If we really are looking at a significant and growing percentage of Religious Indifferents in America, the implications for religious liberty could be profound. Consider the politics of religious accommodations. A minority religion that seeks an accommodation in the legislative process needs allies, people who understand why it is important to honor the minority’s religious convictions. Sometimes, the best friends a minority can have are adherents of other religions, who see it in their interest to lobby on behalf of the minority. By banding together, religions can achieve results they might not be able to achieve on their own. This dynamic, as well as the traditional American commitment to religious liberty as a fundamental right, explains how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993.
Large numbers of Religious Indifferents would change this dynamic. First, Indifferents are unlikely to seek accommodations for themselves. If you don’t care very much about religion, you’re not likely to oppose state action for religious reasons. Second, and more important, Indifferents will not likely feel much affinity for believers who do have religious objections to government policy. If you don’t take religion seriously, yourself, you’re not likely to understand why others do. What’s the big deal, anyway?
Some observers, like Rodney Stark at Baylor, think the numbers of Nones/SBNRs are exaggerated. And many younger Americans who are Indifferents now will no doubt join religions as they get older. If Mercadante is correct, though, the politics of religion in America could be in for a significant change.
Those pressing the claim that an exemption in the contraception mandate cases before the Supreme Court would violate the Establishment Clause face a few challenges–doctrinal, textual, and historical. The one that interests me in this post is that the test they favor is in considerable tension with the RFRA framework. Under the interpretation of the Establishment Clause being pressed, it seems to me that the least restrictive means test that represents the third prong of the strict scrutiny standard in RFRA and RLUIPA is constitutionally suspect.
Recall the theory: religious accommodations are unconstitutional if they shift “significant burdens” onto a “focused and identifiable class of third parties.” For the moment, leave aside the “focused and identifiable” component. We know that under RFRA, the religious claimant must allege a substantial burden on religious exercise. If it does so, the burden shifts to the government to show that the substantial burden on religious exercise it has imposed is justified by a compelling governmental interest. But the government must also show that it is using the least restrictive means to achieve its interest. So, for example, the government cannot simply say that the contraception mandate is supported by its compelling interest in good health care, full stop. Its statement of its interest is invariably focused and refined by the need to demonstrate that it has used the narrowest means available–that means which least burdens the religious claimant–to achieve its interest. And the least restrictive means component of the RFRA test is, in fact, one of the points on which it has been argued that the government’s case for the contraception mandate is weakest.
Suppose one accepts the claim that any “significant” burden resulting from cost shifting onto third parties triggers an Establishment Clause claim (again, for the moment, set to the side the question of what constitutes a “focused and identifiable” group). It seems to me that one would also be saying that the least restrictive means test is at least presumptively constitutionally suspect. The more narrowly tailored a means is so as to avoid burdens on religious objectors, the more probable it becomes that the means selected will burden third party interests. There may perhaps be rare occasions when an accommodation imposes no costs at all on third parties. But very often this will look like a sliding scale: as the imposition on the religiously burdened party decreases, the imposition on third parties increases. And by the time that one gets to the least restrictive means, the sliding scale is very much calibrated against the third party interests. By that point, it will have become highly probable–in some cases verging on certain–that the means chosen will impose “significant” burdens on third parties.
Take these cases.