Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Movsesian at Federal Bar Council

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vaccination, the Nones, and Hobby Lobby

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Map from the New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holt v. Hobbs Podcast

Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.

 

Who Speaks on Your License Plate?

The Supreme Court recently granted cert in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. The issues presented in that case are whether specialty license plates are a form of government speech, and whether Texas engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it rejected the SCV’s plate design featuring the Confederate battle flag. In a 2011 article in the Tulane Law Review, I wrote about license plate speech more extensively from a perspective slightly different than that presented in the Walker v. SCV case. My focus was on the question of Establishment Clause responsibility for religious messages on license plates. But the issues raised overlap significantly.

Imagine a state decides to display religious symbols or text on a license plate. South Carolina, for instance, created a specialty plate featuring a stained glass window with a superimposed cross and the words “I Believe.” Efforts to create a plate with a similar design failed in Florida. A federal court ultimately permanently enjoined South Carolina from issuing the plates.

Does a state’s specialty license plate program create a public forum for speech? If religious messages are displayed on the license plates, is the message purely private religious speech, or is it attributable to the state for Establishment Clause purposes?

Continue reading

Interesting Law and Religion Case Before the Supreme Court Next Week

The Supreme Court’s January calendar begins next week with argument in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, a law and religion case that has gotten very little attention. The case relates to some of the issues that Mark Movsesian and Perry Dane have been talking about involving the New York City subway regulations concerning advertising. I found Perry’s phrase, “mental maps,” to be useful in thinking through the categories that we use to divide up both meanings and the motivations for expressing certain meanings. This case tests our mental maps.

It seems that the Town of Gilbert has a complex set of regulations governing the display of signs. It categorizes signs into five groups: political signs, ideological signs, “qualifying event” signs, homeowners’ association temporary signs, and real estate signs. Different rules regarding the size, duration, and location of the sign (among other variables) apply depending on the category of sign that one wishes to display.

The petitioners in the case are representatives of the Good News Community Church, a small Christian church that “holds services on Sundays, where attendees worship and fellowship together, learn biblical lessons, sing religious songs, pray for their community, and encourage others whenever possible.” Good News depends on signs to advertise its presence and invite people to join.

The Town has classified Good News as the sort of organization entitled to “qualifying event signs.” A “qualifying event sign” is a “temporary sign intended to direct pedestrians, motorists, and other passersby to a ‘qualifying event.’ A ‘qualifying event’ is any assembly, gathering, activity, or meeting sponsored, arranged, or promoted by a religious, charitable, community service, educational, or other similar non-profit organization.”

By contrast, a “political sign” is a “temporary sign which supports candidates for office or urges action on any other matter on the ballot of primary, general and special elections relating to any national, state or local election.”

And an “ideological sign” is a “sign communicating a message or ideas for non- commercial purposes that is not a Construction Sign, Directional Sign, Temporary Directional Sign Relating to a Qualifying Event, Political Sign, Garage Sale Sign, or a sign owned or required by a governmental agency.”

The petitioners’ basic complaint is that by lumping the Church in with organizations entitled only to a “qualifying event” sign, the Town is engaging in viewpoint discrimination against it, because it is only entitled to a tiny sign of very limited duration that can only be displayed in limited locations. The Town’s justification for this highly reticulated set of requirements and classifications? “Safety and aesthetics.” Also of interest is that at some point in the procedural history (which looks rather involved), the Town amended certain locational requirements for “qualifying events signs,” replacing them with a requirement that “qualifying events signs” must “relate to events in the Town of Gilbert.” That requirement does not apply to political or ideological signs. The Church claims that this amendment was made specifically to target it for unfavorable treatment.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the argument goes. Here is an interesting contrast contained in the Petitioners’ Brief:

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Pantagruel Comes for the Establishment Clause

That is the title of an essay I have up at the Library of Law and Liberty. Here’s the beginning:

In the second book of the sixteenth century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.” When the lawyers and jurists propose to give Pantagruel the relevant texts, writs, historical records, learned treatises, and legal authorities, he orders all of this “scribble-scrabble foolscrap” immediately burned. These materials, he scoffs, are “pure subversions of equity,” for “the law grew up out of the field of natural and moral philosophy.” After a perfunctory hearing and by the light of “philosophical and evangelical justice,” Pantagruel rules with swift panache, and his judgment is hailed as wiser than Solomon’s.

Pantagruel is coming for the Establishment Clause. He comes today bearing the standard of equality, and the manifestations of equality that he would have courts superimpose on the Constitution. In several disputes ostensibly involving the constitutional prohibition on “laws respecting an establishment of religion,” courts are interpreting this provision of the First Amendment to require adherence to a kind of pure principle of equality, or its close cousin, neutrality. And just as Pantagruelic justice beguiled Rabelais’ fictional Parisian intelligentsia, so, too, is the egalitarian justice of today’s courts extolled by the legal professoriate. Yet though certain forms of unequal treatment by the state on the basis of religion surely do create questions of constitutional dimension, we now face something like the obverse situation: courts so rigorously adhere to notions of egalitarian justice that the Establishment Clause is bloated to the point of collapsing of its own weight.

Winer & Crimm, “God, Schools, and Government Funding: First Amendment Conundrums”

In January, Ashgate Publishing will release “God, Schools, and Government Funding: First Amendment Conundrums” by Laurence H. Winer, (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University) and Nina J. Crimm (St. John’s University School of Law). The publisher’s description follows:

In recent years, a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, over vigorous dissents, has developed circumventions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that allow state legislatures unabashedly to use public tax dollars increasingly to aid private elementary and secondary education. This expansive and innovative legislation provides considerable governmental funds to support parochial schools and other religiously-affiliated education providers. That political response to the perceived declining quality of traditional public schools and the vigorous school choice movement for alternative educational opportunities provokes passionate constitutional controversy. Yet, the Court’s recent decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn inappropriately denies taxpayers recourse to challenge these proliferating tax funding schemes in federal courts. Professors Winer and Crimm clearly elucidate the complex and controversial policy, legal, and constitutional issues involved in using tax expenditures – mechanisms such as exclusions, deductions, and credits that economically function as government subsidies – to finance private, religious schooling. The authors argue that legislatures must take great care in structuring such programs and set forth various proposals to ameliorate the highly troubling dissention and divisiveness generated by state aid for religious education.

Conference at EUI (Florence) on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States

I am delighted to be participating this Wednesday in a conference at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States, organized by Center friends Olivier Roy and Pasquale Annicchino. Regretfully, my intervention will be virtual rather than in person. Here’s the description of the conference (in Italian) and the program:

Contesto 

John Glover Roberts Jr. è stato nominato Chief Justice della Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti il 22 settembre 2005, nomina confermata una settimana dopo dal Senato con 78 voti favorevoli e 22 contrari. In questi 9 anni si sono succedute numerose decisioni di assoluto rilievo del massimo organo giurisdizionale statunitense. Tra queste alcune hanno portato a definitivo compimento una nuova interpretazione ed una differente applicazione delle due clausole del primo emendamento costituzionale che si occupano di libertà religiosa: la Free Exercise Clause e la Establishment Clause. Dopo aver inquadrato nel contesto storico e politico la presidenza Roberts, questo workshop intende esaminare le principali pronunce della Corte Suprema sulla libertà religiosa.

Ogni relatore sarà chiamato a commentare una pronuncia e, mediante un approccio di “law in context” a darne una interpretazione nell’ambito del più ampio sviluppo della giurisprudenza della Corte.

L’obiettivo è quello di realizzare un volume collettivo (in italiano) che possa offrire agli studiosi nuovo materiale di riflessione e studio su un argomento che tocca gli interessi scientifici sia dei costituzionalisti che dei cultori delle materie ecclesiasticistiche.

Funded by European Research Council 7th Framework Programme

Programma 

12.00-12.05 Introduzione

12.05-13.00 La Corte Roberts e la tutela della libertà religiosa 

Fred Gedicks | BYU, USA

Marc De Girolami | St John’s University, USA (intervento via Skype)

13.00-14.00 Pranzo di lavoro 

14.00-15.30 Discussione casi – I sessione 

Valentina Fiorillo | Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Italia

Adelaide Madera | Università di Messina, Italia

Pasquale Annicchino | EUI, Italia

Discussione generale

15.30-15.45 Pausa caffé 

15.45-17.00 Discussione casi –II sessione 

Marco Ventura | KU Leuven, Belgio

Susanna Mancini | Università di Bologna, Italia

Diletta Tega | Università di Bologna e Corte costituzionale italiana, Italia

Discussione generale

17.00-18.15 Discussione finale

Podcast on Holt v. Hobbs

Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.

Holt v. Hobbs and the Third-Party-Harms Establishment Clause Theory

Readers may recall that during the course of the Hobby Lobby litigation, some contraceptives mandate supporters argued that religious accommodations that impose “significant” harms or burdens on third parties constitute violations of the Establishment Clause. In this post, I argued that this view of the reach of the Establishment Clause was not convincing. It was based on a misreading (and substantial extension) of the relevant case law but also on a controversial conceptual view of the permissible scope of religious accommodation that, I claimed, should be rejected.

Virtually all accommodations impose harms or burdens of some kinds on others, though both the nature and the degree of the harms will vary. Some harms are financial, others are symbolic, and still others are to value systems more generally. Some harms are acute and others are mild. Yet it would reflect an impoverished conception indeed of what is valuable in life to claim that only financial costs are real or cognizable harms: it simply isn’t true that the only way in which a person can be harmed or burdened is through the pocketbook. Some financial burdens may be much less harmful than some symbolic harms, and vice versa, depending on factors too numerous to list. Whether money is involved or not, choices to accommodate or not to accommodate are often choices between ways of life that specify totally different virtues, or if they specify the same virtues, weigh them completely differently. In Goldman v. Weinberger, for example, a choice to accommodate Goldman would have been a choice against the set of values that the military was bringing to bear, and there were many of them. Ultimately I disagree with the outcome in Goldman. But the reason is not that the military would not have been harmed at all by accommodating him. In fact, it’s only by ignoring, flattening out, or misdescribing the military’s interests and concerns that we can say that the only issue in the case was accommodating Goldman, and the military was simply being obtuse. Perhaps there are rare situations in which the costs on third parties are so small as to be invisible (O Centro?). But in the main, it is in the nature of these kinds of conflicts that when one side loses, so does its way of life to some greater or lesser degree. The Hobby Lobby majority discussed the third-party-harm theory briefly at footnote 37, where it made the point that if all that was required to invalidate a religious accommodation was that a law conferred a benefit on a third party, and consequently that the deprivation of that benefit would be a burden, then the effect might (depending on what exactly “significant” means) be to destroy RFRA and render many religious accommodations unconstitutional.

Now that Holt v. Hobbs is in the offing (argument is scheduled for today, I believe), I am curious why nobody is making the third-party harm claim. Perhaps it is because the degree of deference ostensibly due to prison authorities in the Arkansas system is so great. Still, I would have thought that for somebody who subscribed to the third-party-harm theory of the Establishment Clause, Holt v. Hobbs would present a far clearer case than Hobby Lobby in which there might be serious, or significant, or at the very least cognizable, or tangible, harms to third parties–and a class of readily or easily identifiable third parties at that. I am writing this in haste (for a much more thorough treatment, see this excellent student note by Taylor Stout, The Cost of Religious Accommodation in Prisons), but I can think of three:

1. Increased risk of prison escape, harm to other inmates, and harm to those who must be in physical contact with the prisoner. This is a particularly vicious prisoner, who has shown himself capable of very violent behavior using a knife. He slashed at a woman’s throat with a knife. And while in prison, he held a knife to another prisoner’s throat as a result of a religious dispute. Though Arkansas prisons do not themselves have experience with prisoners hiding weapons and other contraband in their facial hair (naturally, since they don’t allow beards) other state prison systems do (see page 25 and following of this brief). Again, I recognize that it is perhaps the total deference to prison administrators which makes this particular prison policy specially objectionable. But I would have thought that these sorts of harms—harms to the personal security and safety of other people in physical proximity to the prisoner—are not obviously less “significant” than the harms to third parties in Hobby Lobby.

2. Administrative and financial harm to the prison system. The administration of religious accommodations in a prison system is burdensome. It requires more decision-making, more exercise of discretion, more manpower in the monitoring of the exceptions, and therefore more cost. One can dismiss these costs as de minimis, or unimportant, but that seems to me a cavalier view that can be bought rather cheaply at a great distance (which is where most of us are privileged to live) from the actual operations of prisons.

3. Symbolic harm, including harm to the idea of equality in the treatment of prisoners. A prison’s legitimacy depends in part on treating its prisoners equally and fairly, without privilege or favor. Dissimilarity of treatment can breed resentment on the part of the “disadvantaged” prisoners and on the part of the prison population more broadly. Moreover, prisons have important interests in uniformity of treatment that go not to equality concerns, but instead to interests in order and discipline. Prisons are dangerous places. They are populated with people who have been convicted of crimes. Sometimes, as in the case of this particular prisoner, those crimes are extremely violent. Prisons therefore need systems to regularize and impose discipline on such people. It is at least a symbolic harm—but quite possibly much more than that—to burden the efforts of prisons to cultivate uniformity in the service of prison discipline.

To be clear, I believe that the prisoner should win in this particular case. But the reason is certainly not that the prison is simply being obtuse inasmuch as accommodations of this kind are harmless or nothing at all to it. Yet the absence of the third-party-harms theory of the Establishment Clause in general public debate has puzzled me. Setting aside the issue of the remoteness of the potential harms, the nature of the potential harms relating to accommodation under RLUIPA in a case like this goes to deeply important interests in personal and institutional safety—interests that do not seem categorically less important than those of the third parties at stake in Hobby Lobby.