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.
In my last post on the subject, I wondered why there had not been more discussion on the part of advocates of the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause theory (abbreviated for convenience hereafter as SHTEC) regarding the application of that theory to the prison-beard case, Holt v. Hobbs. As Rick Garnett notes, the application of SHTEC theory to both Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs was recently addressed by Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman, and Richard Schragger. I will rapidly pass over the characterizations of the existing doctrine, as Rick discusses some of this and I’ve talked about it before, except to observe that whatever virtues SHTEC theory may have, its status as an “established principle of constitutional law” seems an improbable one. As I have explained before, SHTEC theory represents a major extension of current law. I also read the Hobby Lobby vote breakdown differently. If Justice Kennedy really accepted SHTEC theory, and believed that third-party rights in Hobby Lobby would have been violated by an accommodation for Hobby Lobby, then it is confusing to me that he would have joined the Court’s footnote 37. But he did join it (and of course he also said some very nice things about Justice Ginsburg).
On the application of SHTEC theory to Holt v. Hobbs, and to RLUIPA prison cases generally, I have some additional questions. My principal difficulties are terminological. I am having a hard time understanding what constitutes “significant” or “substantial” harm to “third party interests” and how that standard works in tandem with the RLUIPA standard.
First, the standard of significance seems elusive to me. With a slight tweak of the facts, maybe this becomes clearer. Suppose that the prison had a “No hair on the face or head longer than 1/4 inch” policy. And suppose it had evidence that exactly one person (or two, or five) had hidden a shank or a SIM card in their hair. What is the relationship for SHTEC purposes between frequency of harm and gravity of harm? Are one or two such instances enough to be “significant” because the gravity of the threatened harm is so great? Whatever one may think of the harm to third parties in Hobby Lobby, that harm is less grave than the third party harm I am positing (assuming one can agree that harm to life is graver than harm to access to employer-paid contraception), but of course the number of incidents of harm is greater in Hobby Lobby than in my modified Holt v. Hobbs hypo. SHTEC theory advocates can respond that Holt v. Hobbs didn’t deal with any of that. And so what is really going on is a failure of evidence. That’s fine, but that side-steps the issue. I’m less interested in the particular state of the evidence here than in understanding how SHTEC theory would apply in even a slightly more difficult prison case (surely these would fruitfully multiply after a favorable ruling for the prisoner in Holt v. Hobbs).
Second, I have difficulty with the distinction between third-party harms and government/state harms. Is there such a sharp difference? Or is it in the end all harm of various kinds to the state (that is to say, harms of multiple and varying kinds to the rest of us who are not being accommodated)? It may be some evidence in favor of the latter that there have been no separate SHTEC claims brought in the context of RFRA or RLUIPA actions. Everything has been analyzed pursuant to the statutory standard. Again, that’s because third party harm might be a kind of compelling interest that ultimately constitutes a state interest under RFRA or RLUIPA. Whether it rises to that level will depend on just how severely it burdens third parties (as Caldor put it, those accommodations which “take no account” of third parties are going to be in hot water). But notice what happens if one layers a SHTEC claim on top of the RFRA/RLUIPA compelling interest standard. Now it seems that third party harm claimants are on an equal footing with religious claimants. Religious claimants must allege a substantial burden; third party claimants can then allege a contravening “significant” burden; with the result that the government need not accommodate the religious claimant, and can circumvent its obligations to come forward with a compelling interest, by pointing to the SHTEC theory violation that would result from religious accommodation.
Third, in addition to administrative harms (which were not argued by the state in Holt v. Hobbs), there may be, as I’ve said before, symbolic harms of various kinds at issue (the state didn’t argue these either…but the state did a fabulously poor job of defending this case). Symbolic harms might affect the prison, the inmates, and the rest of us who support, in various ways, the system of criminal justice. As I indicated in my previous post, these are just as much harms to identifiable interests as are financial harms. They might include harms with respect to the equal treatment of prisoners and harms to the state’s interest (that is to say, to our interests, as well as the prisoners’ interests) in imposing discipline and uniformity on prisoners who very much need it. These are true harms. They are part of the purposes and functions of prisons in general. They even implicate certain important functions of punishment, including retributivism and rehabilitation, functions of punishment that Congress itself has recognized as important in the Sentencing Reform Act, among other places. Surely many state legislatures have done something similar in their own penological systems. To my mind, they may indeed be very significant. The egalitarian harms could be resolved in part by leveling up for non-believers, but that leveling up is extremely likely to produce other harms (resentments among those who cannot come up with a reason of “conscience” as well as rising administrative costs as more and more prisoners seek exemptions of various kinds).
Fourth, a final point of puzzlement: why is there no discussion in SHTEC theory of different standards of deference in a case like Holt as opposed to a case like Hobby Lobby. Under existing law, there is no deference at all in the latter (the standard is one of strict scrutiny), while there is great deference to the state in the former. Indeed, one of the primary points of uncertainty in the oral argument in Holt was how to reconcile strict scrutiny with this substantial deference to prison administrators (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger). But I have not seen this difference in the amount of deference accorded to the state discussed by SHTEC theorists (I may well have missed it). Does SHTEC theory incorporate a deferential posture with respect to prisons (and the military, and perhaps certain other institutions)? It certainly could, and it seems to me that such deference would take the form of giving a great deal more latitude to the state (or to third parties) on the issue of what is “substantial” or “significant” harm. Perhaps Arkansas still loses in Holt v. Hobbs. But it shouldn’t take much more at all for it to win.
In the latest issue of the Cato Supreme Court Review, there is a useful essay by Miguel Estrada and Ashley Boizelle discussing the upcoming Supreme Court term and some of the major cases that the Court will hear. As readers of the Forum are aware, one of these cases is Holt v. Hobbs, concerning a claim by an Arkansas prison inmate–who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery stemming from an incident in which he attempted to slash his girlfriend’s throat–that prison rules forbidding him to grow a 1/2 inch beard in accordance with his religious views violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. One interesting feature of the case is that the Solicitor General has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prisoner. The authors comment:
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed an amicus brief in support of Holt’s challenge, calling the no-beard policy “religious discrimination” and “a substantial burden on religious exercise.” Interestingly, this brief was filed only a few months after the government’s reply brief in Hobby Lobby, which insisted that the requirement that employers provide their employees with no-cost contraceptives did not constitute a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of those employers. In the government’s view, prisons can advance their legitimate safety objectives in some other way that is more respectful of the inmate’s religious beliefs; the federal government, on the other hand, need not be troubled to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs of business owners.
The federal government’s differential treatment of these two cases is odd because RLUIPA was intended to make available to prisoners protections that replicate those available to the general citizenry under RFRA. Whatever the relationship between the two statutes, it would be bizarre if those whose liberty is restricted on account of proven antisocial behavior were better protected from the government’s incursions on their religion than members of the law-abiding public. Be that as it may, given the Supreme Court’s disposition in Hobby Lobby, we should not be surprised to see a ruling invalidating the no-beard policy as an unjustified burden on Holt’s religion.
I’ve posted a new paper, Constitutional Contraction: Religion and the Roberts Court. Here’s the abstract:
This essay argues that the most salient feature to emerge in the first decade of the Roberts Court’s law and religion jurisprudence is the contraction of the constitutional law of religious freedom. It illustrates that contraction in three ways.
First, contraction of judicial review. Only once has the Roberts Court exercised the power of judicial review to strike down federal, state, or local legislation, policies, or practices on the ground that they violate the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses. In this constitutional context the Court has been nearly uniformly deferential to government laws and policies. That distinguishes it from its two predecessors—the Rehnquist and Burger Courts—both of which exercised judicial review more regularly.
Second, contraction in the range of voting patterns. The votes of the Justices in law and religion cases overwhelmingly are either unanimous or split 5-4, with relatively few separate dissents or concurrences expressing distinctive approaches, and with the split correlating with partisan political or ideological divisions. The “liberal” and “conservative” wings vote in bloc, and frequently reason in bloc as well. This again contrasts with the voting patterns of prior Courts in religious freedom cases.
Third, contraction in coverage. As a substantive matter, the Court is narrowing the religion clauses. Every member of the Court seems now to accept that Employment Division v. Smith properly interpreted the Free Exercise Clause. Matters are more complicated for the Establishment Clause, where there is far greater division among the Justices. Nevertheless, the essay claims that the Court is moving in a variety of ways toward a narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause as well.
Whether the Roberts Court’s contraction of the religion clauses, and its general preference for narrow readings of both, are positive developments will depend on one’s views about fundamental questions of constitutional interpretation. Yet there is a conceptual unity to the Court’s approach—logical and complementary, even if not inevitable: just as the Rehnquist Court narrowed the scope of constitutional protection for free exercise, so, too, is the Roberts Court narrowing the scope of constitutional prohibition under the Establishment Clause. In this corner of constitutional law, the Court is gradually withdrawing from the scene.
Comments are welcome!
The Huffington Post reports that The Satanic Temple believes that its religious rights are infringed when its members receive anti-abortion pamphlets and information in those states that require informed consent before proceeding with an abortion. The Satanists seem to believe that they can use the Hobby Lobby decision to press their claim. You can see some of the other beliefs of the Satanists at the link.
But the informed-consent laws that the Satanists object to are state laws. This is the document that the Huffington Post pastes onto its story purporting to evidence the claim. Although it does tend to be forgotten and get lost in the nonsense (even by some Supreme Court Justices who took part in the decision), it’s important to remember that Hobby Lobby was a decision under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA applies only against the federal government. Perhaps there are some federal abortion informed-consent laws that the Satanists object to as well (though the Huffington Post did not list any of those). At any rate, RFRA won’t be of much help to the Satanists if they are objecting to state informed-consent laws.
That’s of course all before getting to the test that RFRA actually sets out, even if RFRA applied (which it doesn’t). The Satanists would need to show that the mere reception of information about abortion intended to render their consent to an abortion informed imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise. That seems rather different to me than the threats of financial penalty imposed by the contraceptives mandate on Hobby Lobby. The Satanists would also need to counter the government’s compelling interest in ensuring that a person’s consent was indeed informed before proceeding with an abortion, as well as satisfy the least restrictive means analysis. That would be a challenging standard to meet as well.
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.”
The battle over the ACA’s Contraception Mandate continues. Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction to Wheaton College, a religious nonprofit that is challenging the mandate in federal court. As a religious nonprofit, Wheaton qualifies for a regulatory accommodation. It can avoid the mandate by completing a form stating that it opposes covering contraceptives for its employees and giving this form to its third-party plan administrator; the administrator must then provide contraceptive coverage to the employees at its own expense. Wheaton objects that completing the form and submitting it to the administrator would make it complicit in providing coverage for contraceptives, which it opposes on religious grounds. As a consequence, Wheaton argues, the accommodation itself violates RFRA.
Yesterday, by 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that the government may not enforce the mandate against Wheaton pending final disposition of Wheaton’s legal challenge. As a result, until the case is resolved, Wheaton need not complete the form or provide it to the plan administrator. The government, which obviously knows about Wheaton’s challenge, may arrange contraceptive coverage for Wheaton’s employees in the meantime. The Court expressly stated that its grant of a temporary injunction “should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits” of Wheaton’s challenge.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, dissented. Her dissent is puzzling. On the one hand, she makes a valid point about the standard for granting this sort of injunction. Traditionally, a high bar exists. The Court will grant an injunction only if the legal rights at issue seem “indisputably clear.” At this point, it’s hard to say that about Wheaton’s claim. There are arguments on both sides and, as Justice Sotomayor points out, the district court hasn’t yet determined the facts and adjudicated the case.
But Justice Sotomayor didn’t stop there, and the rest of her opinion is unfortunately problematic. Here are three quick examples:
As I say, Justice Sotomayor could simply have discussed the high standard for a temporary injunction and left it there; that would have made for a much stronger opinion. As it is, her dissent suggests a level of frustration that the Court’s ruling yesterday really doesn’t merit. Perhaps Justice Sotomayor knows something she’s not saying about how the Justices will likely decide the next challenge to the mandate that reaches them.
I have a comment on the Hobby Lobby case over at the Liberty Fund’s blog in which I offer some speculations about the case (I do not know that they are “deeper meaning” speculations; they’re just some thoughts). There you will also see other good comments on the case by former CLR Forum guest Steve Smith, John McGinnis, Peter Lawler (with whom I strongly agree about judicial minimalism), and Hadley Arkes.
In our most recent podcast, Center Director Mark Movsesian and Associate Director Marc DeGirolami discuss last week’s oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Contraception Mandate case. We address the background of the litigation, the rhetorical strategies adopted by each side, and the major doctrinal questions the Court will need to resolve. We also make predictions about how the Justices will ultimately rule. The podcast will be useful for students and others looking for an introduction to this extremely important case.
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.