Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Ballard and “Sincere” Religious Beliefs

Marc DeGirolami kindly referred me to United States v. Ballard on the question of how, or whether, courts should analyze a person’s “sincere” religious beliefs. The defendants in Ballard had been convicted of fraud. The misrepresentations concerned the religious “I AM” movement, which the Ballards had founded. The court instructed the jury not to consider whether the defendants’ beliefs were true or false, but whether the defendants believed them to be true. If so, they were to be acquitted. The jury convicted them of a scheme to defraud. The Court of Appeals reversed, arguing that the question of truth or falsity also needed to be presented to the jury.

The Supreme Court reversed, and found the district court had properly excluded the question of truth from the jury. The majority opinion (written by Justice Douglas) affirmed that “[t]he law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.”  Yet the majority found that the defendants could be convicted of fraud for not really believe what they said, even if the content of that belief was outside judicial notice. Justice Jackson, in dissent, stated that he could “not see how we can separate what is believed from what is ‘believable’” and warned of the potential for religious persecution. He would have affirmed the reversal of the conviction.

Ballard is regularly cited (for example in the contraceptive mandate cases) for the proposition that courts cannot question the sincerity of religious beliefs. That is true, but the result in Ballard was upheld nonetheless. The Supreme Court determined that a court could rule on the acts of the plaintiffs (there, misrepresentations) without caring whether their belief was true. Cases like the Third Circuit Zubik case are doing something similar when they hold that “free exercise jurisprudence instructs that we are to examine the act the appellees must perform—not the effect of that act—to see if it burdens substantially the appellees’ religious exercise.” There, the Court found that requiring religious institutions to fill out the accommodation form was not prohibited, because it disagreed that doing so interfered with the exercise of their religious beliefs, as the Court interpreted them.

So although the strict terms of the balance-shifting test may seem to support those seeking the accommodation, that is only a matter of drafting a statute that is better tailored to further government interests. The more basic question – who gets to decide “substantial burden” and on what grounds – still weighs against believers.

Another Mandate Defeat Teed up for the Supreme Court

Another defeat for the government. The Becket Fund is reporting that the Eighth Circuit, in two decisions released last week, affirmed a lower court’s grant of a preliminary injunction in favor of Dordt College and Cornerstone University, both religious nonprofits, among other entities, against enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, as well as the so-called “accommodation,” which permits religious entities not to comply with the direct provision of contraceptive coverage by signing a certification (the “Form 700”) that is then sent to a third-party administrator. That administrator then notifies the objecting party’s insurer, who then is supposed to arrange for coverage. This accommodation has its own problems, most clearly that many religious organizations do not feel comfortable appointing a third-party to do something which they themselves find objectionable.

The decision found that “by coercing Dordt and Cornerstone to participate in the contraceptive mandate and accommodation process under threat of severe monetary penalty, the government has substantially burdened Dordt and Cornerstone’s exercise of religion.” Because of that substantial burden, the government was required to show that the ACA mandate and accommodation served compelling government interests and did so through means least restrictive of the constitutional protection of free exercise. Relying on a similar, recent case, the appellate panel determined that the government had not used the least restrictive means, but did not rule on whether the government was furthering a compelling interest.

Significantly, the Court did not question Dordt and Cornerstone’s “sincere religious beliefs” that opposed them to the mandate and accommodation. This is in contrast to the case we looked at last week, where the dissenters argued that was precisely what the panel did in rejecting similar claims.

A number of religious non-profit petitions are now waiting Supreme Court review, though it is unclear whether the differing Circuit opinions are going to move the Supreme Court to take a case so soon after Hobby Lobby. However, the fault lines of the decisions are clear. It seems difficult to believe that the government would prevail on whether the ACA mandate and accommodation is the least restrictive means of achieving its interests, whatever the Court’s view of what those interests are. It is worth noting that those interests are not without challenge, including by federal appellate courts, as in a 2013 opinion by Judge Janice Brown, although they were assumed for the purposes of argument only in Hobby Lobby. Yet the stubborn, unknown fact on which the decision may hinge is not strictly a legal one: can the Justices understand that the accommodation itself can burden religious freedom, even if the government does not think it does? That in turn will require them to decide whether the challengers’ beliefs are sincere and given their place in the “scribal” hierarchy, that conclusion may be too much to expect.

Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court: A Conversation with Judge Richard Sullivan (Oct. 27)

220px-Richard_J._SullivanThe Center for Law and Religion invites you to join us for a conversation with United States District Judge Richard J. Sullivan (left) about current and potential issues before the U.S. Supreme Court involving religious freedom. Topics will include the ongoing contraception mandate litigation, conflicts between the rights of same-sex couples and rights of religious conscience, and the future of religious freedom in the United States. Light refreshments will be provided.

The event will take place on  Tuesday, October 27, 2015, from 6-8 p.m., at the offices of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett,  425 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017. It will be hosted by Mary Kay Vyskocil, St. John’s Law Class of ’83. The event is free, but space is limited and advance registration is required. To attend, please RSVP to Jean Nolan at 718-990-8059 or nolanj@stjohns.edu by October 21, 2015.

Same-Sex Marriage and Our New Religious Politics


Photo from Wikimedia

In the last week, two interesting polls have appeared, one from the Associated Press and the other from the Washington Post, on Americans’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Taken together, the polls reveal that America is more divided on the question than first appeared. And the polls reflect an unfortunate, new religious dimension in American politics.

Notwithstanding the widespread acclaim for the decision in the days following Obergefell, it turns out that many Americans do not favor making same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In the AP poll, only 39% said they approved of the Court’s ruling, while 41% said they disapproved. In the Washington Post poll, a bare majority, 52%, said they approved the Court’s decision, while 44% disapproved. These results are much closer than one would have expected, given the immediate media reaction to the ruling.

Now, the fact that many Americans disapprove of the Court’s decision doesn’t mean the decision is wrong. Constitutional law doesn’t turn on opinion polls. (As it happens, I think the Court’s opinion is wrong as a constitutional matter, for reasons I explain here). And one must be careful about reading too much into polls, especially polls that follow an unusual recent event. In time, public opinion may settle in favor of the Court’s decision, especially given the fact that younger Americans apparently support same-sex marriage in significant numbers. Besides, people could disapprove of the Court’s decision for reasons that do not directly relate to the merits. Americans are generally in a bad mood about the state of our country these days, and the polls may simply reflect that dissatisfaction.

All that said, these polls seem significant to me, for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that opposition to the Court’s decision is not a fringe phenomenon. Forty-four percent of the country is not an insignificant group. Dissenters may be reticent about expressing their opinion publicly—or, indeed, to pollsters, which suggests the percentage of opponents may be even higher—but they are not a trivial proportion of the population. America is apparently still divided on the question of same-sex marriage, and this division will doubtless make itself apparent in our politics. More on this below.

Second, the results hint that some people who oppose the Court’s decision may do so out of concern for religious freedom. In the AP poll, for example, 56% said that religious liberty should take precedence over gay rights, the implication being that people anticipate a conflict between the two. They should. At oral argument in Obergefell, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli himself acknowledged the potential for conflict, on questions like tax exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, there is an unmistakable partisan divide. In the AP poll, a large majority of Democrats gave priority to gay rights, while a large majority of Republicans said religious freedom is more important. The extent of the divide is truly startling. “By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict,” the AP reports. “Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.”

This polarization is worrisome. Up till now, America has been spared the bitterness of religious politics. Unlike some countries in Europe, we have not had clerical and anti-clerical parties. True, particular religious groups have gravitated toward one or another political party. In New England, for example, Irish Catholics were historically Democrats and mainline Protestants Republicans, a conflict memorialized in films like John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.

But we have never had secular and religious parties as such. Both parties saw religion, in general, as a good thing, and religious liberty as a fundamental American value. Tocqueville noticed this and found it refreshing. “In the United States,” he observed, “if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.”

Perhaps the political consensus on the value of religion is breaking down. More and more, one of our two major political parties is identifying itself as secular, and the other as religious. That’s not to say that all Democrats are secularists and all Republicans religious believers—of course not. Just ask the folks at Secular Right. And people could value religious freedom but believe other interests outweigh it in particular cases. Still, there seems a clear trend: religious freedom is becoming a partisan issue. That’s a very bad thing for America. You might even say it’s un-American. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue.

Bill Kristol Interview with Samuel Alito

This item is getting some deserved attention: Bill Kristol has posted a long-form, uninterrupted interview with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on his “Conversations with Bill Kristol” site. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the inner workings of the Court and the intellectual debates that have informed American law for the past generation. Justice Alito’s discussion of his dissent in Obergefell, which you can access here, will particularly interest readers of this site. Alito argues that the case represents a return to an unmoored jurisprudence of unenumerated rights, divorced both from constitutional text and national history and tradition. Worth watching.

The Same-Sex Marriage Case

For those who are interested, my quick reaction to yesterday’s ruling in Obergefell is in a symposium today at the First Things website. I discuss the Court’s reasoning and the implications for religious liberty. Here’s a snippet:

First, although some commentators predicted that the Court would issue a narrow, pro-gay marriage ruling, the reasoning of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion is actually quite sweeping, returning the Court to the heady days of substantive due process and unenumerated rights. Forget about textualism and originalism. As Chief Justice Roberts points out in his dissent, even the restraints of “history and tradition,” a limit Justice Harlan once suggested, are effectively shunted aside. A five-justice majority believes that same-sex marriage is a fundamental element of personal liberty, and that makes it a constitutional right.

For constitutional conservatives, this is very disheartening—whatever one’s views on the merits of same-sex marriage as a policy matter. After thirty years and more of trying assiduously to end, or at least limit, substantive due process, the doctrine still carries the day. As Justice Alito writes in his dissent, “Today’s decision shows that decades of attempts to restrain this Court’s abuse of discretion have failed. A lesson that some”—actually, anyone paying attention—“will take from today’s decision is that preaching about the proper method of interpreting the Constitution or the virtues of judicial self-restraint and humility cannot compete with the temptation to achieve what is viewed as a noble end by any practicable means.” Incidentally, today’s ruling demonstrates again how important the 1987 defeat of Robert Bork was, and how much Senate Democrats gained in putting up such a fight against him. It was the defeat of Bork that led to the nomination of Anthony Kennedy.

You can read my analysis, along with the other contributions to the symposium, here.

Supreme Court Unanimously Strikes Down Arizona Municipality’s Sign Code as Violating Speech Clause

A busy First Amendment day at the Court today. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court unanimously strikes down the town’s byzantine sign ordinance as violating the Speech Clause, and in particular as being content-based regulations that do not survive strict scrutiny. Justice Thomas writes the opinion for the Court in which everybody joins except Justice Breyer (who concurs in the judgment only) and Justice Kagan (who concurs in the judgment only and is joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer).

The majority holds that the town’s sign code was content-based on its face, permitting larger signs for political and ideological messages than for other sorts of messages, such as the plaintiff’s desired sign concerning its church services. The Court had some rather pointed words for the Ninth Circuit, whose justifications for the restriction the Court rejected emphatically. I previously discussed the case here.

Perhaps of interest only to Supreme Court watchers, but note that this is yet another law and religion case decided 9-0 by the Roberts Court. True, there were a few concurrences in the judgment only, but it’s still an interesting feature of the case. As I discuss at greater length in this paper, the Roberts Court’s uniform pattern is 9-0 or 5-4 in this context. I speculate about why in the article.

Specialty License Plate Case Decided by the Supreme Court on Government Speech Grounds

The Supreme Court today decided Walker v. Sons of Confederate Victims, which dealt with a state’s capacity to deny a specialty license plate to a group that wanted to feature a Confederate flag and the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans.” In an opinion by Justice Breyer (and joined by Justice Thomas), the Court holds 5-4 that speech on license plates is “government speech,” and therefore that the First Amendment does not stop the state of Texas from choosing what sort of message it will endorse. It would be one thing, said the Court, if the state were demanding that individuals “convey the government’s speech”–in essence acting as the government’s mouthpiece. But “as a general matter, when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position. In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.” The Court relied extensively on Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, another government speech case concerning a municipality’s rejection of a religious organization’s proposed monument in a public park that contained a Ten Commandments monument as well as several others. In Summum, the Court held that the municipality had not made the park available for private speech; all of the displays were government speech. The majority opinion here held that such was the case with the speciality license plates as well (oddly enough, since Texas had accepted applications from other organizations for specialty plates). Justice Alito dissented on the ground that Texas in fact does authorize specialty plates with distinctive messages that are obviously not government-endorsed speech (do see the Appendix beginning at page 18 of his opinion).

Religious Belief and Executive Power: A Thought on Zivotofsky v. Kerry

One prominent theme in Barack Obama’s presidency is that of the escalation of conflict between traditional religious belief and executive power–in particular the executive/administrative powers brought to bear against religious believers and institutions in a variety of contexts. One can agree with this description, of course, while seeing that escalation of conflict as either a favorable or regrettable development. A recent essay by Adam White in The Weekly Standard takes the latter view; more than a few other commenters and scholars take the former.

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry does not obviously concern this issue. It instead involved a separation of powers question: whether a congressional statute permitting a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem to request a designation of his place of birth as “Israel” on his passport unconstitutionally interfered with the Executive’s power to recognize sovereign nations (while Israel has been recognized, the national status of Jerusalem remains unresolved). Ultimately the Court held, inter alia, that the Executive’s power to receive ambassadors gives him the exclusive power of recognition, and that this statute interfered with that power. So in a tussle between Congress and the President, the President won.

And yet this was not simply an inter-branch heavyweight fight. Consider the question of Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s status is not only a matter of geopolitical disagreement, but of deep geo-religious contention. That contention stretches back through the past millennia to innumerable wars and religious controversies. The function of this particular statute is plain: to allow those U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem and who, for religious reasons (that is, reasons that may implicate religious convictions), believe that Jerusalem is properly described as an Israeli city, the right to note that association on their passports. As Justice Scalia notes in his dissent: Zivotofsky’s parents believed “as a matter of conscience” that it was important to note “their son’s birthplace as part of Israel” and that his “Israeli nativity ‘not be erased’ from his identity documents.” In defending Congress’s power to enact the statute (under the Naturalization Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause), Scalia continued: “[Congress may conclude] that regardless of international politics, a passport or birth report should respect its bearer’s conscientious belief that Jerusalem belongs to Israel.”

Whoever has the better of the argument as a matter of constitutional interpretation, one can see in this case another example of the conflict between Executive power and religious conscience: the Obama Administration refused to permit an individual citizen with a religious belief in the importance of listing Israel as the place of birth of his son to do so. It took an aggressive view of Executive power (both as to whether sovereign recognition powers are exclusive to the Executive and as to whether this particular designation of an individual citizen counts as sovereign recognition) in a context in which it was, once again, opposed to traditional religious conscientious belief. A notation by a private U.S. citizen on his passport, motivated by religious belief in the importance of the designation, is thus transformed into a usurpation of Executive power.

Justice Scalia cited Bowen v. Roy (1986), a religious liberty case where parents objected to government use of the Social Security number of their daughter, “Little Bird of Snow,” and to having to supply that number when they applied for benefits. According to the parents’ Native American beliefs, a person needs control over his life for spiritual reasons and use of the number would have “rob[bed] the spirit” of their daughter.” Ultimately the Court had no occasion to balance the government’s interest against a possible religious burden, because it held that the government can use the number for its own internal purposes without impairing anyone’s religious conscience. But a majority of five justices held that the parents should not be required to supply the number, because the government’s asserted interest in combating welfare fraud would not be much compromised if those with religious objections did not have to supply Social Security numbers.

Obviously Justice Scalia is not suggesting that the Zivotofsky parents have a religious freedom claim here. So why the citation to Bowen?

Perhaps for this reason. The argument is not about constitutional compulsion, but about religious (and other sorts of) accommodation. The government is not forced by the Constitution to make an exception for the Zivotofskys. But Congress did–here, and in other contexts (allowing those who wish to specify “Belfast,” rather than “United Kingdom,” to do so on their passports, for example). It grants these exceptions not because it is thereby recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem (as it is not thereby de-recognizing the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over Belfast), and not because the Constitution commands it, but because it understands that for some American citizens, religious and identity-based convictions about Jerusalem’s status are deeply important, and because people care about what the federal government says about them on official documents. The Obama Administration’s position, instead, was that this sort of conscience-based designation trenches on Executive authority. And in staking out that position (and now in vindicating it before the Supreme Court, in a ruling about which I have no comment) the Administration repeated the pattern of conflict with traditional religious belief that it has established in several other controversies and that have characterized its years in power.

Supreme Court Rules Against Abercrombie & Fitch in Headscarf Case

The Supreme Court yesterday decided a case we’ve discussed here at CLR Forum (including in this podcast), EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, concerning the department store’s decision not to hire a job applicant because her head scarf conflicted with the store’s “look policy,” which prohibited all “caps.”  The rejected applicant sued pursuant to a federal nondiscrimination provision that prohibits “disparate treatment” on the basis of religion, among other categories. There was a dispute in the case about what the employer knew about the applicant’s reasons for wearing the headscarf and about whether the prospective employee must so inform the employer before bringing a claim.

The decision is short and not especially interesting. In an opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court held (8-1, with Justice Alito concurring only in the judgment and Justice Thomas concurring in part and dissenting in part) that in order to prevail on a disparate treatment claim under the “disparate treatment” provision of Title VII, a plaintiff need not show that a defendant had “actual knowledge” of the plaintiff’s need for a religious accommodation. The plaintiff need only show that the need for an accommodation was a “motivating factor” in the decision. Much of the rest of the majority’s opinion was consumed with interpreting the meaning of “because of” in the statutory phrase, “fail or refuse to hire…any individual…because of such individual’s…religion….” According to the Court, the provision prohibits certain motives, irrespective of the actor’s state of knowledge. The decision accords with what many scholars believe is the primary function of antidiscrimination statutes–to smoke out and punish illicit motivations, irrespective of what is known or not known as a factual matter.

One mildly interesting section of the opinion responds to Abercrombie’s claim that a religion-neutral policy like the Look Policy cannot “intentionally discriminate” against religion. As in the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Title VII, said the Court, requires more than a neutral policy:

But Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices—that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not “to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s” “religious observance and practice.” An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no- headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an “aspec[t] of religious . . . practice,” it is no response that the sub- sequent “fail[ure] . . . to hire” was due to an otherwise- neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.

Justice Alito concurred only in the result, arguing that the statute does impose a knowledge requirement but that there was sufficient evidence in the record to defeat summary judgment on the question whether Abercrombie knew that the applicant needed a religious accommodation. Justice Thomas dissented on the ground that application of a religion-neutral policy cannot constitute “intentional discrimination.”