Tag Archives: Religious Exemptions

Garnett on Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions

Rick Garnett has a very good short piece over at the Washington Post on a newly controversial issue: tax exemptions for religious institutions. It’s one in a series of short essays on the subject. Here is the beginning:

Instead of asking whether churches and religious organizations deserve to be tax-exempt, we should ask why governments should be able to tax them at all. Taxation, after all, involves interference by the state, and in a free society such interference needs to be justified.

The power to tax involves the power to destroy, as Daniel Webster argued in the Supreme Court nearly two centuries ago. While our government does have the right to levy taxes, it’s only because “We the People” have authorized it to do so — in order to raise the funds needed to provide for the common good. But should we give our government this “power to destroy” over churches and religious institutions?

Rick contends that the answer to this question is ‘no.’ For a contrary view, contending that because Americans are “abandon[ing] organized religion,” it is time to tax churches, see this effort in the same series by David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. Mr. Niose’s essay contains a few errors, such as the suggestion that a “non-Christian” homeless person would be denied care by a Christian charity on religious grounds. But it does accurately reflect the increasingly popular view that tax exemption for religious institutions is an “extraordinary handout.”

For some reflections of my own on the historical premises of tax exemption for religious organizations, and the breakdown of those premises (as reflected, in part, in Niose’s piece), see this post.

Garnett, Inazu, and McConnell on FADA and Religious Nonprofits

very interesting comment authored jointly by Rick Garnett, John Inazu, and Michael McConnell on the recently introduced First Amendment Defense Act. A bit:

Today, tens of thousands of religious organizations, and tens of millions of Americans, continue to believe and teach that the proper understanding of marriage is a union of one man and one woman. But they do far more than believe and teach this and other views.

They also give food, clothing, shelter, counsel, and comfort to millions of Americans in need. They offer some of the most important and desperately needed health, educational, and social services in the country. And they provide billions of dollars and thousands of full-time workers for international relief aid that serves vulnerable migrants, refugees, and persecuted minorities. The work of religious organizations has long been and continues to be central both to religious believers’ lives and to the welfare of others. Our communities—and, indeed, communities around the globe—would be much worse off without these organizations and their faith-informed good works.

Despite the crucial role that religious organizations and individuals have long played in our country, some voices now suggest that they and their work are somehow tainted because of their beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Some argue that the time has come to push religious believers out of the public square and confine them to the quiet, private realm of personal prayer and worship. This despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which not only required states to legally recognize same-sex marriages but also said, “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”

Nonetheless, because of their traditional views on human sexuality, religious organizations have already been threatened with heavy-handed government action….

Some members of Congress have now introduced the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) in an effort to ensure that overheated rhetoric and political opportunism do not endanger the important work of faith-based organizations. The core of FADA would require the federal government to honor its longstanding commitments to treat all such organizations with an even hand. It would prevent federal officials from attempting to strip tax-exempt status, from denying equal access to federal facilities and entitlements, or from taking adverse actions related to licensing or accreditation….

We understand that new versions will address many or all of these issues. We think the best approach is to tailor FADA to the core area of concern: religious nonprofits. That focus would serve the cause of religious freedom by making it more likely that this important legislation can move forward.

One thought that has occurred to me on the issue of “tax exemption” of nonprofit institutions is that the entire discussion seems askew. It generally begins from the premise that the government can and should be able to tax anyone and anything that it pleases. The tax base is limitless. Amenability to taxation, however, ought not to be the default posture, as if the government simply gets to decide at its pleasure and election whom and what it wishes to tax. Income taxation only follows from the fact of income generation, and though nonprofits generate income they do not distribute it to individuals for private use but spend it in ways that promote public functions and purposes. Nonprofit actors are not appropriate objects of this kind of taxation at all. Consider, for example, the way in which the Connecticut Supreme Court in an 1899 decision discussed Yale University’s tax exempt status (not an income tax decision, of course):

The non-taxation of public buildings is not the exception but the rule. The corporations, whether municipal or private, which own and are by law charged with the maintenance of such untaxed buildings, are not the recipients of special privileges, in any sense obnoxious to the law. The seats of government, State or municipal, highways, parks, churches, public school-houses, colleges, have never been within the range of taxation; they cannot be exceptions from a rule in which they were never included.

Yale University v. Town of New Haven, 42 A. 87, 91 (1899). These institutions are, as the authors of the piece put it, actors within “civil society” that should in general not be touched by the government’s taxing power. Moreover, a government decision not to tax is emphatically not the same as a government decision to grant money or subsidize. We use the language of “exemption” when we speak of the taxable status of nonprofits, but it would be better instead to think of their nontaxable status as marking a boundary of the government’s power to tax.

[Update: I’ve amended some things in the post for clarity.]

Panel: “Religious Exemptions After Hobby Lobby: Where Do We Go From Here?” (New York, May 14)

The New York City Bar will host a panel discussion, “Religious Exemptions After Hobby Lobby: Where Do We Go From Here?” on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

This panel presentation will review the legal and policy implications of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in the areas of religious accommodations generally, reproductive rights, health care, and employment law.

The event will run from about 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM, and attendance is free. Visit here to register.

Obama Administration Announces Plans to Revise the Contraceptives Mandate

This CNN story reports that the White House has announced “revisions” to the contraceptives mandates that was the subject of both the Hobby Lobby and more particularly the Wheaton College litigation. But after reading the body of the story, it may be more precise to say that the White House has announced that it plans to revise the mandate. Here’s a quote from an Administration official: “In light of the Supreme Court order regarding Wheaton College,” said the official, “the Departments intend to augment their regulations to provide an alternative way for objecting nonprofit religious organizations to provide notification, while ensuring that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate coverage of contraceptive services without cost sharing.” Though the Wheaton College order was not a final disposition on the merits but only a preliminary injunction, the announcement suggests that the Administration believes that it may lose on the merits as well.

The story reports that the revised rule will be issued “within the month.”

Rogers, “The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children”

Next month, the University of Massachusetts Press will publish The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children by Alan Rogers (Boston College). The publisher’s description follows.

When a four-year-old California girl died on March 9, 1984, the state charged her mother with involuntary man-slaughter because she failed to provide her daughter with medical care, choosing instead to rely on spiritual healing. During the next few years, a half dozen other children of Christian Science parents died under similar circumstances. The children s deaths and the parents trials drew national attention, highlighting a deeply rooted, legal/political struggle to define religious freedom.

Through close analysis of these seven cases, legal historian Alan Rogers explores the conflict between religious principles and secular laws that seek to protect children from abuse and neglect. Christian Scientists argued often with the support of mainline religious groups that the First Amendment s free exercise clause protected religious belief and behavior. Insisting that their spiritual care was at least as effective as medical treatment, they thus maintained that parents of seriously ill children had a constitutional right to reject medical care.

Congress and state legislatures confirmed this interpretation by inserting religious exemption provisos into child abuse laws. Yet when parental prayer failed and a child died, prosecutors were able to win manslaughter convictions by arguing as the U.S. Supreme Court had held for more than a century that religious belief could not trump a neutral, generally applicable law. Children s advocates then carried this message to state legislatures, eventually winning repeal of religious exemption provisions in a handful of states.

Does RFRA’s Least Restrictive Means Test Violate the Constitution?

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.

Continue reading

On the Claim That Exemptions From the Contraception Mandate Violate the Establishment Clause

I am glad to see that in the wake of the cert. grants for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, there has been a frothing up of interest in the issues presented by these cases, issues that we here have been discussing for quite some time at CLR Forum. In this post, I want to address one such new claim.

Professors Nelson Tebbe and Micah Schwartzman (T&S) recently argued that an exemption from the contraception mandate under RFRA for employers like Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood would violate the Establishment Clause. They elaborate on their claim here and here. Many of the arguments are derived from this paper by Professor Fred Gedicks and Rebecca Van Tassell. The core of the argument is that granting an exemption from the mandate would privilege or favor religion inasmuch as it would shift the burden of purchasing contraception to third parties–i.e., the employees of the exempted corporations. The key to understanding the argument is their reliance on a Burger Court case, Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, which involved an exemption for employees from working on their Sabbath day. A Presbyterian who wished not to work on Sunday sued Caldor after the company dismissed him from a management position because he would not work Sunday. Because the law took absolutely no account of the secular interests of third parties (the employers), the law was found to violate the Establishment Clause. The “unyielding weighting in favor of Sabbath observers” resulted in a major burden on employers. T&S rely especially on this quote of Judge Learned Hand cited in Thornton: “The First Amendment … gives no one the right to insist that, in pursuit of their own interests, others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities.” T&S (as well as Gedicks and Van Tassell) note that the principle of Thornton was restated in dicta in a more recent case, Cutter v. Wilkinson, which involved the application of RLUIPA. Justice Ginsburg, in dicta, said that in applying RLUIPA, “courts must take adequate account of the burdens a requested accommodation may impose on nonbeneficiaries.”

I think the argument is interesting, but mistaken. In truth, I have never understood Thornton very well at all and find it to be a difficult case. So I’ll start with a few basic points about exemptions and RFRA.

First, any exemption in this context will be directed toward benefiting some religious practice, and by being so directed, it will necessarily not benefit all others–i.e., “third parties.” If all choices to protect a specific form of religious exercise violate the Establishment Clause, then all exemptions for religion are Establishment Clause violations. The only thing that would be left for legislators is a law like RFRA, which accommodates religious exercise generally. Could it really be the case that the only thing the Establishment Clause permits is all or nothing? I don’t think so, and the Court has never said so. Professor Schwartzman, in other contexts, has questioned whether religion is a special category at all. If that argument were accepted and given constitutional force, then even laws like RFRA would be unconstitutional, because if the choice to protect religious exercise over non-religious ethical belief advances religion, then both specific and general accommodations are unconstitutional. The Court has not adopted that view. As Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos (1987) put it, “This Court has long recognized that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices, and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause.”

Second, all exemptions burden third parties in one way or another. An exemption from laws proscribing peyote smoking imposes social costs of various kinds on third parties. An exemption from compulsory school attendance laws does so as well. An exemption for prisoners from wearing prison uniforms will burden prison officials and guards, and ultimately, everyone who is invested in a uniform system of penal justice. Indeed, one could go much further: all rights have costs that fall on third parties (you pick the context–the speech clause, Miranda rights, etc.). Thornton does not say that any time there is any shifting of burdens, the Establishment Clause is violated. Chief Justice Burger’s opinion was much, much narrower than that. It left open the possibility that a more carefully crafted Sabbath exemption law would be constitutional. That is more or less the upshot of Sherbert v. Verner (which was treated as good law by Thornton), where the Court held that a Seventh-day Adventist could not be denied unemployment compensation benefits because she refused to work on the Sabbath. In affirming that case, the Thornton Court is also affirming that it is perfectly constitutional for a state to exempt employees from Sabbath work on religious grounds, thereby imposing the costs of that exemption on third parties. All that Thornton is saying is that a law which imposes extremely severe burdens on secular interests through an “unyielding weighting of” religious interests over those other interests, and which takes no account of the secular interests at all, is constitutionally problematic. Consider an example. Under the Connecticut law at issue in Thornton, a school that is open only 5 days a week would have to provide Sabbath day exemptions to any teacher that asked for it. The burden on the school might be so severe as to impede its ability to function–compelling it even to close. The Thornton Court said that it had to “take pains not to compel people to act in the name of any religion.” (emphasis mine). It’s that kind of extreme burden on secular interests that rendered this law unconstitutional. Another obvious example might be an accommodation that interfered with a third party’s religious freedom–compelling the third party to engage in religious activities. Yet while the Court has said that “[a]t some point, accommodation may devolve into ‘an unlawful fostering of religion,'” Amos, only an extreme and absolute imposition on third party interests would justify that conclusion.

Third, both Thornton and a case like Texas Monthly v. Bullock seem to suggest that the burden imposed on secular interests must be state-imposed. Here the question is somewhat complicated inasmuch as the “burden” on employees is said to result from the combination of private claims and state power. Nevertheless, what these cases concerned is the alleviation of burdens on religious or secular beliefs imposed by the state.

Fourth, T&S wonder why nobody has made much of the Establishment Clause claim. But I think there is a good reason. RFRA incorporates certain limits to accommodation. That is, it would be a very rare RFRA (or RLUIPA) accommodation indeed which was constitutionally problematic under Thornton, because all RFRA (and RLUIPA) accommodations need to satisfy the substantial burden, compelling interest, least-restrictive-means threshold. The law at issue in Thornton, according to the Court required an accommodation “no matter what burden or inconvenience this imposes” on third parties. But the standard for RFRA accommodations is not, “you must grant the accommodation no matter what burden or inconvenience this imposes.” Accommodations must pass the government compelling interest threshold. If they do, they seem very much not to be violations of the Establishment Clause rule laid out in Thornton. In fact, many of the arguments about third party harms that T&S make have already been briefed by mandate advocates as part of the RFRA calculus. So they haven’t been ignored. They just haven’t been analyzed under the Thornton Establishment Clause framework, because Congress already saw to that in the statutes.

But let’s consider the Establishment Clause precedents on their own.

Continue reading

NYPD Beard Policy Violates the Free Exercise Clause

I am a little late in noting this decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York involving a Free Exercise Clause challenge to the New York Police Department’s facial hair policy by a NYPD probationary police officer. The probationary officer is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish community, and his faith prohibits him from cutting his facial hair. The NYPD’s policy generally prohibits the wearing of beards but makes exceptions for undercover duties, medical conditions, and religious reasons, but the last two exceptions require written approval. In practice, however, even accommodated beards may only be 1 millimeter or less in length, and the plaintiff’s natural beard grew to 1 inch. So the accommodations would not work for the plaintiff, because they would require him to trim his beard.

After his request for exemption was denied and he was eventually fired, the plaintiff sued under the Free Exercise Clause. One might think that the plaintiff would lose, because the policy was neutral as to religion and applied generally (see Employment Division v. Smith). But the plaintiff won. The City argued that the beard policy and the 1 millimeter exemption was a neutral, generally applicable rule, but the court disagreed. It said: “‘[f]acial neutrality is not determinative’ when the record shows that Plaintiff was terminated pursuant to a policy that is not uniformly enforced.”

What is particularly interesting is the nature of the exemptions that the court found trigger strict scrutiny. It isn’t just the stated exemptions in the policy. It’s the  fact that “the undisputed record demonstrates that de facto exemptions to the one-millimeter rule abound.” There were temporary exemptions to the one millimeter rule granted for religious reasons and family reasons. And there was under-enforcement of the one millimeter rule against officers who violated the policy for unspecified reasons. The court also rejected the City’s claim that shaving is necessary in order to render effective the fitness testing apparatus used by the Department, which is fitted over the officers’ mouth and needs to sit flush against the face. There was evidence that some officers were accommodated as to this requirement for medical reasons, and so strict scrutiny applied when plaintiff’s request for accommodation on religious grounds was denied. Here the court relied on then-Judge Alito’s famous police-beard case in Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge #12 v. City of Newark, in which the court held that where the government has made a “value judgment” that medical reasons are more important than religious reasons, strict scrutiny applies.

I’ve written before several times about the gaping hole (see Chapter Eight) in Smith that is being broadened all the time by the problem of the general applicability exception carved right into Smith itself. In this case, it isn’t only explicit exemptions to the policy that trigger strict scrutiny, but the “de facto” exemptions and accommodations in implementation and administration of the policy. If discretion in enforcement of a policy, and the exceptions that governments make all the time to their rules, really do trigger strict scrutiny, then one should expect to see the number of free exercise claims greatly increase in the coming years. Smith’s rule will look a whole lot less rule-like than it actually appears. What free exercise effect this expanding exception to Smith may have on other sorts of cases in which executive and administrative discretion as to the enforcement of the law is high remains to be seen.

Conversations: Marc DeGirolami

This summer, Harvard University Press published The Tragedy of Religious Freedomby our very own Marc DeGirolami (left), CLR’s Associate Director. In the book, Marc argues for a “tragic” understanding of religious freedom, one “that avoids the twin dangers of reliance on reductive and systematic justifications, on the one hand, and thoroughgoing skepticism about the possibility of theorizing, on the other.” This week, Marc answers some questions about his book. Among other things, he discusses the differences between “tragic” and “comic” legal theories; the value of history and tradition in judicial decision-making; and the inevitability of judicial discretion. He also explains why the Court got religious freedom wrong in Employment Division v. Smith and right in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. 

CLR Forum: Marc, explain what you mean by “comic” and “tragic” approaches to law generally. Why do you think religious freedom, in particular, should be addressed from a tragic perspective?

DeGirolami: The terms comic and tragic are ancient and have been used in classical, literary, and philosophical settings. I draw on some of these meanings in the book, but I use comic in the legal context to mean two things: (1) a preference for systematic ordering of the law by reducing legal values either to one or to a small set, in the belief that human society is progressively improved by that reduction; and (2) the marginalization of the loss of other values in the process of accomplishing (1). Tragic approaches to the law resist both of these points. A tragic approach to law says that the reasons we value a practice like religious freedom are plural and cannot be reduced. Each value struggles to avoid absorption and subordination by the others. The clash of values results both from the limits of human reasoning and from the conflict of human interests and aspirations. So in the face of conflict in law, a tragic approach affirms that the comic impulse to reduce legal values, and systematically to marginalize those that are subordinated, will exacerbate conflict and end up deforming, and perhaps eventually destroying, important social practices and institutions.

CLR Forum: You single out Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia’s famous opinion in the peyote case, as an example of the misguided “comic” approach and argue that it should be gradually dismantled. What’s so wrong with Smith? And why not just overrule it? 

DeGirolami: Yes, I am critical of Smith and believe it to be an example of a comic approach. Smith reduced all possible values of free exercise under the Constitution to a single value: formal neutrality. A neutral rule that is applied generally no longer can violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution after Smith, no matter how severely the rule burdens the religious free exercise of an individual or a group and no matter how insubstantial the government’s interest in enforcing the rule on a religious claimant. The Smith decision attempted to accomplish both of the comic points I listed above. It wanted to bring system Continue reading

Thoughts on the Political Psychology of Compromise

Professor Thomas Berg (St. Thomas) posted a very thoughtful comment a few days ago on two pieces about same-sex marriage written respectively by Professors Michael Perry and Rick Garnett. I’ve reprinted my thoughts about Tom’s comment below, in case it is of interest to readers here.

Reading Tom’s thoughtful comment below is a pleasure. He takes each of Michael’s and Rick’s respective pieces, notes and elaborates on areas of agreement, and proceeds to explain with care where he may have a different view. I should also say that I very much respect and admire the work that he, Professor Laycock, Professor Wilson, Rick, and Michael (among others) have been doing on the issue of religious exemptions and same-sex marriage.

The tail end of Tom’s post caught my eye: “In fact, in the long run, I think, the best hope for arguing for religious liberty is not to refuse sympathy for gay couples’ efforts to live out their deep, pervasive commitments–but rather to accord them sympathy and claim similar sympathy for the deep, pervasive commitments of religious believers individually and in their institutions.  It is frequently argued that activists for SSM, “aggressive and uncompromising,” will never return that sympathy.  But the struggle here is, as in so many other cases, to convince those in the middle.  My own judgment is that as time goes on, the effort to refuse same-sex marriage will increasingly alienate those in the middle, forfeiting the chance to win them to a “live and let live” approach that will protect traditional religious organizations’ ability to maintain their identities.”

Here are a few friendly questions for Tom about this paragraph, offered up in an appreciative spirit. The overarching question is: Why is this your judgment? More specifically, what is the basis for the judgment that, as a predictive matter, a metaphorical cessation of hostilities on the substantive question of same-sex marriage will, as time goes on, result in a metaphorical cessation of hostilities on the substantive question of religious exemption? It seems to me that in order to reach that conclusion, one would have to believe certain other things, too–things which are not necessarily particular to this debate but may reflect more general beliefs about political psychology. It is those more general beliefs that I want to explore and think about in this post.

First, it seems to me that one would need to believe in a theory of what I’ll call sympathetic reciprocity in politics (the word “sympathy” appears several times in Tom’s comment), which might go something like this: in the realm of politics or policy-making, over the long-term, people remember and respect concessions, and they respond to those concessions with concessions of their own. They reward sympathy with sympathy. And eventually, with time and good faith, a people that holds radically different beliefs about the good life can achieve a modus vivendi–a ‘live and let live’ ethic–by observing a policy of sympathetic reciprocity.

Setting aside this particular controversy, though, I wonder whether that is an accurate description of the reasons that political concessions generally get made. We do not accept a ‘live and let live’ ethic for many issues of public concern; we do accept them for others; and the issues for which we do and do not accept such an ethic are relatively stable but always changing. But is the extent to which we accept such an ethic in turn dependent on a theory of sympathetic reciprocity–that is, on the extent to which those with whom we disagree have previously extended sympathy toward the policy that we champion and that they disavow? Does politics have a sympathetic memory in this way, and does it reward those who moderate their views with reciprocal concessions? Or is the acceptance of a ‘live and let live’ ethic more dependent on considerations of public salience, political prestige and influence, effective rhetoric, cost, the vagaries of public opinion, cultural trends–in sum, is it far more dependent on considerations of cultural and political power? I grant that this is a gloomier view than I think is at work in Tom’s comment. I’m not sure that I endorse it in an unqualified way. But I hope Tom might say a little bit more about why–on what grounds–he holds (or seems to hold) to the comparatively sunny view of sympathetic reciprocity in politics.

Continue reading