Not Quite Down Pat: New First Amendment Bivens Action Emerges from TSA Employees’ Interference with Recording of “Pat Down” Search

Dyer v. Smith et al., No. 3:19-cv-921 (E.D. Va.) February 23, 2021


The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently denied transportation security agents’ motion to dismiss in a suit precipitated by the agents’ insistence that a travelling couple stop  video recording agents patting down — physically searching outside the clothes — one partner, and that anything already recorded be destroyed. 

The federal district court reviewed and rejected factors cautioning against expansion of Bivens actions, observing that the law is clear not only through decisions but also by custom that there exists a recognized First Amendment right to gather news and, as a corollary proposition, to record officials in the conduct of official business.  The court concluded that in the absence of any available remedy, the couple’s Bivens action may proceed.  

JustLawful Observation:  This straightforward summary may provoke an “of course!” response, but that response might be a bit hasty, given that the court recognized a new Bivens action, when in the wake of Hernadez v. Mesa, 528 U.S. ____ (2020), decided during the last Supreme Court term, it was thought that Bivens actions would soon be unicorns:  fanciful but imaginary.

Counsel for the transportation agents thinks so, too, and is pursuing interlocutory review.E.D. Virginia Opinion:

Dyer v Smith, No. 3:19-cv-921 (E.D. Va.) February 23, 2021

Request for Interlocutory Review:

Dyer v. Smith, No. 3:19-cv-921. Defendants’ Memorandum Supporting Motion to Certify Interlocutory Review

Recent U.S. Supreme Court Consideration of Bivens Actions:

Hernandez v Mesa, 528 U.S. , 140 SCt 735, 206 LEd2d 29 (2020)

Commentary on the Future of Bivens Actions

SCOTUS Sharply Limits Bivens Claims—and Hints at Further Retrenchment. Robertson, C. ABA Practice Points. April, 2020.

The Preacher Talked to Me and He Smiled: Supreme Court Upholds Injunction Permitting Minister’s Presence at Alabama Prisoner’s Execution

Commissioner v. Smith, No. 20A128, 592 U.S. ____ (February 11, 2021).


Justice Kagan, with three others, has opined that Alabama failed to meet the strict scrutiny test applicable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Alabama’s global prohibition on ministerial presence at execution substantially burdens a prisoner’s religious exercise, and Alabama failed to demonstrate that this preclusion is the least restrictive means of advancing the compelling state interest in prison security.  As such, the injunction permitting the prisoner to have a religious presence at execution is proper and will not be dissolved.

Justice Thomas, without writing separately,  would have granted the petition to dissolve the injunction.

Justice Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts would grant the petition as reflecting a non-discriminatory policy, but would encourage states to implement measures that would fulfill requests such as the inmate’s here and thereby avoid protracted litigation. 

 

Commissioner v. Smith, 20a128, 592 U.S.__(February 11, 2021)




Supreme Court Holds Federal Officials May Be Liable Individually for Damages for Violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act


Tanzin, et al. v. Tanvir, et al., No. 19-71.  Opinion issued December 10, 2020.


The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) was Congress’ attempt to re-introduce the highest standard of review for analyses of the constitutionality of laws that burden religion.  To survive a RFRA challenge, a measure that substantially burdens religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means. 

Prior to the enactment of RFRA, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), a decision that remains both widely criticized and widely discussed, held that in general there is no constitutional offense to be found in generally applicable neutral laws that may incidentally burden religion. Enacted in 1993, RFRA was intended to restore the higher standard of review that Smith was perceived to have eroded.  

The scope of available remedies provided but not enumerated in RFRA is the subject of the case just decided, in which the plaintiffs objected to the government’s having placed them on “no fly” lists because, they asserted, they refused to act as informants for religious communities for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  

Plaintiffs sued federal officials in their individual capacities.  Claims for injunctive relief were mooted by their removal from “no fly” lists, but plaintiffs would not abandon their claims for money damages.

The trial court that dismissed the claims for monetary damages was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which concluded that the language of RFRA providing “appropriate relief” to claimants and permitting actions against “the government” includes federal officials in their individual capacities.  The Supreme Court has agreed. 

Justice Thomas has proffered a textual analysis in support of the Court’s decision to reject the government’s argument that “government” as used in RFRA is limited to acts of officials in their official capacities, and that “government” cannot extend to the individual assets of federal employees which would be reached to satisfy judgments.

An ordinary and limited meaning of a word in a statute changes where Congress chooses to change the use of the word, Justice Thomas observed.  RFRA expands the definition of “government” to include officials or persons acting under color of law.

Officials are “persons” who are answerable under RFRA and judgments against them can be considered to be relief against the government.

Moreover, the “under color of law” language that appears in RFRA echoes the language of a principal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which has been interpreted to apply to suits against officials in their official capacities. 

In general, “appropriate relief” may be fashioned according to context, but from common law forward money damages against officials have been available even where the sovereign itself is immune from suit.

In addition, although the 1988 Westfall Act precludes common law claims against federal officials, constitutional and statutory remedies are preserved.

Just as the language of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is an appropriate source of comparison for analysis of the scope of a cause of action under RFRA, so does the availability of money damages under Section 1983 serve as support for recognizing claims for money damages under RFRA. 

This is all the more apt, Justice Thomas states, where Section 1983 permits relief for violations of First Amendment interests.  In that RFRA was intended to return the law to the status quo ante Smith, monetary damages should be available in service of that end, to re-establish and to maintain a full panoply of relief.  

Congress did not limit redress under RFRA to equitable remedies, although it could have, and it is plain that such remedies will not be adequate, and hence not appropriate, Justice Thomas concluded, where costs have been incurred and losses occasioned which cannot be cured by any form of injunctive relief.

Neither the spectre of separation of powers concerns nor the desire for a presumption against monetary damages, as raised by the government, can transform those questions into matters for judicial intervention, the Court continued, where addressing such questions is the province of the legislative branch. 

With policy soundly committed to Congress, the Court noted that its decision does not in any way diminish the availability of qualified immunity defenses. 

JustLawful Observation:  The brevity of this opinion ought not be confused with the scope of its potential reach.  At a minimum, it will have all officialdom on its toes when it comes to matters impacting religion.

19-71 Tanzin v. Tanvir (12_10_2020)

Back to Bakke: First Circuit Finds No Error in Harvard’s Admissions Practices


Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 19-2005 (1st Cir.)  November 12, 2020.


An advocacy group, questioning whether Harvard College’s admissions practices were unlawfully racially based, brought suit in federal district court.  The group was unsuccessful there and that result has not been disturbed on appeal.  

In general, racial ‘balancing’ in admissions practices is impermissible, as it is little other than impermissible racial “quota” practices by another name, but the same ratio of applicants to admissions over time does not necessarily reflect a quota.

Over a ten year period, Harvard’s racial percentages fell within a narrow range.  Harvard utilized one page summaries to illustrate the racial composition of classes.  

The court found that the number of admitted Asian applicants increased from 3.4% in 1980 to 20..6 in 2019 while applicants ranged from 4.1% in 1980 to 22.5% in 2014.  Without elaboration, the court concluded that this is inconsistent with a quota.  The court observed that the proportion of asian applicants to Asian admissions remained consistent over time.  

The court observed that stasis in the composition of classes reflects stasis in the pool of applicants.  Without more, the First Circuit found no error in the district court’s determination that neither quotas or balancing were in play in Harvard’s admissions procedures.  

The First Circuit found unobjectionable Harvard’s continuous monitoring of admissions as permissible in supporting its diversity goals without evidencing balancing or quota practices

The student advocacy group argued that Harvard applied race as a “mechanical plus” precluding individual considerations and permitting race as a decisive factor in admissions.

Where race can benefit any applicant and where race is individualized, mechanica arguments fail.  The court observed that racial diversity is not exclusive and has no more prominence than other diversity in Harvard’s contextualized admission practices.  The court found Harvard’s practices, which do not employ an impermissible fixed “points” practice, to be holistic with race, neither mechanical nor decisive.

The First Circuit upheld rejection of the argument that race was decisive because other racial groups were admitted in greater numbers than Asians of high academic achievement.  

The First Circuit noted that Supreme Court precedent has permitted racial impact greater than that evidenced by Harvar.  In one case, eliminating race as an admissions criteria would cause a 72.4% decrease in minority admissions, while in this case the change would be 45%, less than that permitted in the first case. 

The First Circuit stressed that race cannot be decisive for minimally qualified applicants but in this case race is not decisive for highly qualified applicants in a competitive process.  

The First Circuit rejected the perception of the United states government as amicus that Harvard considers race at every step of its admissions process.  The First Circuit rejected the United States’ premise that race may be considered only at only point in the admissions process and found that holistic considerations, including race, may be part of the admissions process throughout.  

Similarly, the First Circuit found unavailing the argument that the Supreme Court has found that race as a consideration must have a  stopping point because this exhortation was never mentioned in subsequent Supreme Court opinions.  

Precedent has never required universities to define an end point for the utilization of race as an admissions criteria and there is no error in Harvard’s not setting a ceiling on admissions.

Harvard’s having crafted, considered, and yet rejected as unworkable proffered alternatives to race in its admissions process does not mean that its evaluations were defective or inadequate.  

The First Circuit rejected the claim that Harvard impermissibly treated Asian students less favorably than others.

The presence of some subjectivity in admissions will not establish intentional discrimination, the First Circuit found, citing early discussion fo flexible admissions systems.  Any risk of subjective bias training the admissions process is mitigated by the requirement that admission cannot occur except through the vote of a majority of forty members of an admissions committee.  

The appellate court found unobjectionable the district court’s failure to find flawed as stereotypical references to Asians as “quiet,” “flat,” or other terms where such language was used concerning applicants from other groups. 

The court found no error in changes to admissions rating guidance to employees that race may not be considered an admissions rating criteria, nor was an increase in Asian admissions after the initiation of litigation as guidance is reviewed probative of discrimiation, as admissions guidance is reviewed and revised annually and Asan admissions have been increasing steadily over time.

Worries over inclusion or exclusion of personal ratings were dismissed by the court although the student advocacy group attempted to demonstrate that while inclusion of personal rating did not impact the likelihood of an Asian applicant’s admission the exclusion of this information would have a negative impact.

The essence of correlation between the rating and admission does not compel a finding of causation or ‘influence.’  

The district court did not err in considering several sources of evidence indicating that correlation but not causation was established.  The First Circuit upheld the district court’s conclusion that whether or not the personal rating is included in admission has no material effect, varies over time, and is not always negative.  

The district court opined that implicit bias was possible for unsupported and speculation about the explanation for significant variance in modes. The First Circuit found this exploration would not compel setting aside, as plain error, the conclusion that there was no intentional discrimination.  

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College, No. 19-1-01A (1st Cir.) November 12, 2020

Faith in the Not So Hot Zone: Second Circuit Denies Synagogues and Churches Relief from New York’s Pandemic Measures

Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3572; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3590 (2nd. Cir.)  Stay pending appeal denied on November 9, 2020.

New York has restricted gatherings by size according to perceived geographic intensity of COVID-19 infections.  Religious groups have appealed a federal district court’s denial of injunctive relief that would preclude enforcement of New York’s order.  

Noting first that the Jewish petitioners failed to request a stay pending appeal in the federal district court, the Second Circuit then denied relief from operation of the pandemic measures pending appeal to Jews and Catholics alike

The Second Circuit commenced by stating that strict scrutiny does not apply to neutral and generally applicable laws.  The religious groups have been unable to establish that the pandemic restrictions are not neutral.  The restrictions on gatherings affect religion and secular groups similarly, and are premised on the prevalence of infection.  

The Supreme Court recently denied similar relief, the Second Circuit judges found, and the dissent in the appeal in this case has not persuaded the deciding justices that the standard of “reasonableness” at the time of the issuance of the pandemic orders must be viewed in light of changed circumstances. 

Dissenting Judge Park offered that the deciding judges have ruled based on a skewed perception of the zones.  The zone restrictions are not neutral.  Within zones only religious institutions remain restricted while “essential” operations are not.  

The measures not only specifically single out religious entities for special treatment but they also impose burdens that are substantially heavier than those imposed on other entities, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

The overtly different treatment of religious groups with an unmistakably disparate impact on these groups cannot be other than intentional. This is supported by the governor’s threat to close Orthodox Jewish institutions should they refuse to comply.

The dissent rejected the Governor’s argument that only rational basis review is needed as in the Governor’s view religious groups are treated more rather than less favorably than others,

The Governor’s position concedes non-neutrality, the dissenting judge observed. 

In the dissent’s view, the characterization of businesses as ‘essential’ and religious entities as ‘inessential’ facially targets religion.  Strict scrutiny is required as more than incidental burdens are evident.

The recent Supreme Court summary decision concerning California’s pandemic measures is not precedent, the dissent stated, because such orders are precedentail only where decided issues are identical.  The standards for relief in the Second Circuit and the temporal considerations are significantly different. 

New York has maintained the same restrictions since the inception of the pandemic notwithstanding marked reduction of disease.  

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.s. 11 (19050 lacks the significance the Governor wishes it had, as Jacodbson was decided before the First Amendment was incorporated against the states and did not concern free exercise.   

Just as Jacobson does not support deference to indefinite exercise of emergency powers, but rather demands consideration of constitutional constraints, the facts of this case show that the absolute limits imposed on religious gatherings are not narrowly tailored.

The zone restrictions are the same — ten persons — for churches that can hold one thousand persons and those that can hold forty persons and the additional identified risks of singing or chanting make assumptions about religious gatherings not applicable to others.

The court has issued its briefing schedule for the merits with hearing to be scheduled as early as December 14, 2020. 

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020)

Keep Your Shirt On! Wisconsin Students Successfully Argue that the First Amendment Protects Wearing Controversial T-Shirts in School


N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend, No. 20-C-227; Lloyd v. Kaminski, No. 20-C-276 (E.D. Wis.) November 6, 2020.


Two Wisconsin students attending separate schools came to school wearing clothing advocating individual gun rights.  School authorities took action against the students for violating the schools’ dress codes.  One school rejected a parent’s attempt to provide an alternative t-shirt advocating patriotism.  

In 1969, the Supreme Court recognized that students have some protected expressive rights, the denial of which must be supported by evidence that the expression in question materially interferes with school functioning.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 509 (1969). 

In this case the schools did not focus on disruption but argued that the shirts were not protected because no particularized message was conveyed and some messages were advertisements.

The students assert that even if the shirts were commercial they nonetheless merit First Amendment protections.

While clothing itself is not generally protected, the court has rejected the school’s view that a particular and recognizable message must be present for First Amendment protections to attach.  The court noted that while one shire did contain commercial elements, the message concerning the right to bear arms was clear.  The court also rejected the argument that the message was not clear because the messages themselves are what precipitated the school’s intervention.

The shirts are entitled to First Amendment protection, the court concluded, but not absolute protection. The dimensions of any proper time and place restrictions remain open for exploration, but judgement that constitutional protection is lacking is denied.  

N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend (E.D. Wis. 2020)

When Civil Rights and Tort Wrongs Collide: Supreme Court Directs Fifth Circuit to Seek State Court Guidance on Liability for Injury Incurred at Protest

McKesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108, 592 U.S. _____ (S. Ct.)  November 2, 2020.


During an event protesting a police shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, protesters blocked the highway in front of police headquarters. One protester threw concrete or a rock at a police officer who was clearing the highway. Having lost teeth and suffered brain trauma, the officer sued the protest event organizer.

A federal trial court dismissed the case, finding that the First Amendment barred the action A divided Fifth Circuit revered, finding some possibility for recovery under Louisiana tort law.

The Fifth Circuit did not attach precedential value to a Supreme Court case establishing that there is no liability for speech related violence unless it was deliberately intended.

The Fifth Circuit did not find the First Amendment to be a ban to tort recovery. Where petitioner directed obstruction of a highway and if the attack on the police officer was a consequence of the petitioner’s activity, the potential for tort liability could be found.

The Fifth Circuits’ dissent denounced the result, observing that a new tort of “negligent protest” could not be squared with the First Amendment.

Rehearing en banc was not granted, its denial accompanied by multiple opinions.

Petitioner McKesson asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth circuit because liability for violence during protected activity must be closely circumscribed. McKesson argued that his activity was protected even if it was a misdemeanor and he had no relationship to the protester who injured the officer.

The Supreme Court has concluded that the Fifth Circuit’s analysis cannot be supported unless state law would support the action. Certification of the novel tort law question to the Louisiana Supreme court prior to ruling on any Constitutional question would have been prudent.

The Supreme Court entered a “GVR” order, granting the petition for certiorari, vacating the first Circuit judgment, and remanding to the Fifth Circuit for further proceedings in accordance with the Supreme court’s opinion.

McKesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108 (S. Ct.) November 2, 2020

Called to Congregate: Federal Court Forbids Enforcement of Current Public Gathering Restrictions Against Capitol Hill Baptist Church


Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, Mayor of the District of Columbia, No. 20-02710 (TNM).  Order granting preliminary relief entered October 9, 2020.


The United States District Court for the District of Columbia has enjoined enforcement of the District of Columbia’s prohibitions on certain public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic because those restrictions may be found to violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) because the rules substantially burden the free exercise of religion and because the District of Columbia has not demonstrated that sweeping pandemic-related measures, designed and enforced unevenly, are the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.

At the outset of the perceived public emergency precipitated by the contagious COVID-19 virus, the Mayor of the District of Columbia promulgated orders restricting public gatherings.  Over time some restrictions have been relaxed, permitting some resumption of restaurant commerce, for example, while others, such as those restricting the size of gatherings, have not been.  And notwithstanding the restrictions, the District has permitted and the Mayor has participated in, sizable protest gatherings.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church believes that its congregants are biblically bound to gather in person weekly, a practice begun in 1978 and continuing until March of 2020, with a brief interruption during the influenza outbreak of 1918.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has asserted, and a federal district judge has agreed, that the District of Columbia’s current prohibition on indoor or outdoor gatherings of more than 100 persons, even if masked and ‘socially distancing’ substantially burdens congregants’ religious freedoms.

It is no answer, the Court has found, that substitutes for gatherings may exist or that the congregation has left the District of Columbia in order to gather, precluding the attendance of some who are without transportation.  

The “substitution” arguments are unavailing, the court concluded, as they do not fairly demonstrate that the District of Columbia has enacted the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.

The questions to be asked in RFRA review are not confined to generalities but to the impact of burdens on individuals as well as institutions.  

The government cannot meet its burden where it has freely abandoned the very restraints it designed, as where the Mayor participated in large public protests.  

The federal court noted that it has declined to address the question of the applicability of an enhanced standard for mandatory injunctive relief, as the relief requested and granted requires restraint from enforcement which does not compel the government to act.  The court observed that in any case the higher standard, if applied, could be met.

The Court also noted that it has declined to address First Amendment claims at this time because it has proceeded with RFRA analysis.

The Court rejected the District of Columbia’s untimely filings and rejected its argument that the church was itself untimely in seeking judicial relief, as the Court felt that the church ought not be penalized for first attempting negotiation before commencing litigation.

For the removal of doubt, the order is appealable.

The case has attracted a chorus of elected officials as amici, as well as a religious liberty advocacy group, which has compiled a summary of state pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings.

CHBC v, Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_2020 10 09 Memorandum

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_2020 10 09 Order

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-07210_34 Senators’ Amicus Brief

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_ Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Amicus Brief

Still Standing, Yet at a Standstill. Federal Court Lauds Attorney’s Efforts to Call to Account the Kentucky State Supreme Court and Bar Administrative Committee But Decides Federal Relief is Precluded as Either Speculative or Barred by Sovereign Immunity

Doe v. Supreme Court of Kentucky, et al., No. 3:19-cv-236 (JRW).  Memorandum and Order granting dismissal entered August 28, 2020.

Doe sought admission to practice law in Kentucky after having done so successfully in Florida for nine years.  During that time, Doe was diagnosed with a mental health condition.  She agreed to practice with a monitor and complied with clinical recommendations.

Kentucky made multiple inquiries about Doe’s condition, demanding all medical records, convening hearings, requiring over-reaching contractual obligations but finally, after nearly two years, relenting in its insistence on conflating a mental condition with a deficit of character. Doe was admitted to practice.

Doe promptly commenced suit against the state court and bar authorities for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, defamation, and for other wrongs she asserted were inflicted upon her in the course of her pursuit of a license to practice law.

The federal court hearing her case praised her diligence in pursuing her licensure as doing so conferred a benefit not just to her but to the profession and society in general.  Where it is known that attorneys suffer a disproportionately higher incidence of stress, depression, addiction and suicide than others in society, hounding and threats of disqualification by the state and the bar serve only to invite harm, the court observed, as those fearing loss or denial of licensure or the oppression of the state will not seek help, and where help is not sought, some will lose not only their cases but their lives

Nonetheless, the court determined that it could not grant Doe relief.  Prospective relief could not be awarded as it would be speculative.  Other relief requested by Doe, even though she had standing, could not be awarded in federal court because immunity principles forbade doing so.  

Doe v. Supreme Court of Ky. (W.D. Ky. 2020)

Sectarian Versus Secular Civil Rights: Supreme Court Permits Church Employers Latitude in Defining Employee Roles and Rights

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 (July 8, 2020); St. James’ School v. Biel, No. 19-348 (July 8, 2020).


In this challenge to churches’ capacity to determine their own rules of employment, Justice Alito wrote for the Court’s majority; Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separately in concurrence; and Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.


Teachers at the religious schools in the cases now before the Court have responsibilities similar to those described in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).   These teachers do not, however, have titles associated with professed religious persons or functions.

Mid-twentieth century precedent established that religious institutions have the capacity to decide matters of church governance without state interference.  Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).

Here, one elementary school teacher who taught all subjects, including religion, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) that the school administration’s determination to change her to part-time status was age discrimination.  The other plaintiff claimed discrimination in discharge because of her need for breast cancer treatment.  Both responding employers stated that their decisions were bawsed on employee performance.

The question is how the principles of independence constitutionally assured in church governance apply to church autonomy in employment decisions, in which churches enjoy a “ministerial exception” to otherwise applicable laws for religious positions.  An individual’s role in conveying the church’s mission and the trust conferred on that individual are significant, but the title “minister” in itself will not require exemption nor is it necessary to confer exemption.  Where both teachers in these cases were entrusted with performance of religious duties, the ministerial exception appropriately applies. The determination whether the exception applies cannot be made by rote review of titles and checklists as ultimately a court, unschooled and unskilled in religious matters, must look to what an individual does, not what he or she is called.

The hiring exemption permitting churches to prefer members of their religion in hiring decisions is of a different character than the ministerial exception, and the principle applicable there do not need to be imported to the ministerial exemption.  Judicial inquiry into who is a member of a faith and who is not would impermissibly intrude on a church’s definition of participation.

A rigid formula for characterizing employment as religious is inapt.  “When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teachers threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”  (Slip Op. at 26-27.)

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concur.  Justice Thomas asserts that courts must defer to church determinations of what is ministerial, as this is inherently a theological question that cannot be answered by civil law.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissent.  The dissenting justices point to the predominantly secular functions performed by the teachers in these cases, their lack of religious training, and the absence of any religious requirement attaching to their positions.  Employers are required to conform to generally applicable laws and Congress has created exemptions where appropriate.  The ministerial exception is judge made law.  Because of its sweep, which would permit religious animus, the exception must be narrow, as it is subject to abuse.  It is to be preferred to make constitutional determinations on a case by case, holistic, basis.  The “functional status” analysis adopted here, focused on what an employee does, rewrites Hosanna-Tabor, making a two justice concurrence in that case into the prevailing opinion.

Where the civil rights of thousands of employees in religious organizations are in issues, analytical vagueness and deference to religious entities determinations invites abuse, permitting religious bodies to determine for themselves what the law is ad absolving the institutions of responsibility for religious animus.  Justice Sotomayor’s application of Hosanna-Tabor would lead to a conclusion contrary to that of the majority.  Biel was a teacher who participated in religious functions with a half day’s training in religious pedagogy. Morrissey-Berru taught various subjects and taught religious matters from a workbook chosen by the church.

Neither plaintiff ought to have bee barred from asserting claims based on a ministerial exception.  Neither was a minister, neither was trained as such, neither had a leadership role in the faith community, and both function predominantly as academic teachers. Depriving them of civil rights based o a small amount of time engaged in religious activity is harsh, especially where no religious reason was proffered for the churches’ acts concerning plaintiffs’ employment.

Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 July 8, 2020