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

 

Federal District Court in New York Enjoins Pandemic Precautions Restraining Religious Gatherings

Soos, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., No. 1:20-cv-651 (N.D.N.Y.) (GLS/DJS).  (Order granting injunctive relief entered June 26, 2020).


Since the inception of public health concerns about potential harms should coronavirus (COVID-19) contamination be left unchecked, New York state and city officials have issued not less than seventeen orders dictating who may congregate where and for what purposes.  Religious services fell among the most rigidly curtailed events.

Notwithstanding harms predicted to ensue from close unprotected contact with others, in June mass protests erupted across the United States.

Thousands gathered in New York without official objection.  The governor counseled citizens to be “smart” by practicing social distancing.  It has been reported that, apparently without further elaboration, the Mayor of New York opined that protesting racism presented a “different  question” than did religious events, certain of which he had previously vociferously condemned.

On motion brought by religious leaders, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York declined to find the public health orders to be “neutral laws of general applicability” presumed to be constitutionally sound even if such laws incidentally burden religion.

The state and local course of conduct created de facto exemptions specifically inhibiting the free exercise of religion, the court found.  The court could not identify a compelling interest which would justify any distinction that would permit public gatherings for some purposes but not for religious purposes. Where irreparable harm could be presumed to flow from the prevention of religious free exercise rights, the court enjoined enforcement of any indoor restrictions greater than those imposed on non-essential entities and any outdoor restrictions.  In both indoor and outdoor settings, social distancing precautions are to be employed.

Soos v. Cuomo No. 20-cv-00651 (N.D.N.Y.) Order June 26 2020

 

 

Time and Tide and Textualism: Supreme Court Holds “Sex” in Civil Rights Act Includes Orientation and Transexual Status

GERALD LYNN BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA, No. 17-1618; ALTITUDE EXPRESS, INC., ET AL. v. MELISSA ZARDA AND WILLIAM ALLEN MOORE, JR., CO-INDEPENDENT EXECUTORS OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD ZARDA, No 17-1623; R.G. & G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES, INC. v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION,ET AL., No. 18-107 (June 15, 2020)


Today the United States Supreme Court held that interpretation of the statutory language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, compels the conclusion that sexual orientation and transexual status, inextricably bound to sex, are within the meaning of the statute prohibiting discrimination because of sex.

The decision will undoubtedly be hailed as a great victory for rights activists while the opinion of the majority and the opinions of the dissenting justices will undoubtedly provide grist for the jurisprudential mill for years to come.

Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, observed that what Congress foresaw when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mean that the legislation must be myopically interpreted according to that time:

“…the limits of the drafters’ imaginations supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.  When the express terms of a statute give us our answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest.  Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Slip. Op. at 2.

Each of the plaintiffs was a long term employee and each was terminated from employment because of sexual orientation or transgender status.  Employers argued that neither orientation nor transgender status are part of Title VII and that, therefore, the terminations were not discriminatory. Three federal circuit courts of appeal interpreted Title VII without consensus.

Statutory construction looks to the “ordinary public meaning” of words at the time of a law’s enactment.  This inhibits judicial meddling in legislative affairs and promotes soundness in public perception of rights and obligations.

Assuming that in 1964 “sex” meant biological sex, the majority wrote, then “because of sex” meant “by reason of” or “on account of” sex.  This establishes but-for causation and obviates the need for parsing concomitant or serial causes.  Once an employment decision is made that would not be made if an individual’s sex were different, liability attaches and it is immaterial if other causes are present.  It does an employer no good to point to other reasons once sex is a reason for a decision.  Indeed, over time the Congress has amended the Civil Rights Act to include liability where sex is a “motivating factor” in a decision.

The Court rejected the employers’ argument that discrimination could only be in reference to others similarly situated, as the statute repeatedly references individuals.  It is of no moment if an employer generally treats women well if in an individual case a decision was based unlawfully on sex.

If sex cannot be relevant to employment decisions, the Court reasoned, then neither can sexual orientation or status, as both are inextricable from sex.

Since enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination “because of sex” has come to include discrimination based on habitual perceptions or stereotypes or actuarial assumptions.

It is no answer to say that Congress could not or did not foresee sexual orientation or status as a concern at the time of enactment when the statutory language addresses sex and orientation and status are inseparably related to sex.

It makes no difference, the majority found, that orientation or status was not included in the statutory language where those traits are inextricably interwoven in sex.

Concluding that orientation or status is not within Title VII based on Congress’ failure to amend Title VII where it has directly considered sexual orientation in other statutes would be speculation.

Asserting that meanings have changed since 1964 is unavailing where the plain meaning of the statute supplies the answer needed. The breadth of Title VII as it has been interpreted over time cannot be denied.  As such, the Court’s decision in this case is not unusual in light of the many unanticipated decisions flowing from the Civil Rights Act in the more than half century since its passage.

Three Dissenting Justices, Two Dissenting Opinions.   Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, chastised the majority for having confused textualism with legislation, performing the former poorly and usurping Congress’ function in the latter.

The majority has engaged in a “false flag” textualist operation, as neither sexual orientation nor transgender status appear in the text and the form of ‘textualism’ which would permit the legislative updates provided by the majority was denounced by textualism’s primary proponent, Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Alito notes that an exhaustive review of dictionaries failed to disclose any incorporation of orientation or status within the meaning of “sex.” Moreover, orientation and status are in fact separable from “sex.”  Plaintiffs’ counsel conceded at oral argument that if an employer were to prohibit hiring on the basis of gay or transgender status but hiring would be without knowledge of biological sex, this practice would not be discrimination “because of sex.”

This very concession makes the majority’s reasoning all the more lacking, Justice Alito found. Moreover, if an employer is unaware of a potential employee’s sexual orientation or status, that employer cannot be found liable for intentional discrimination on that basis.

Justice Alito sees a rich irony in the majority’s effective statutory amendment under the guise of ‘textualism’.  Although the majority purports to interpret the statutory language as it is written, the majority overlooks more than a half century’s interpretations of that text, all the while declaring its ‘judicial humility’.

The ramifications of the Court’s decision cannot be overlooked.  The decision may impact facilities access, sports participation, housing, religious employment, and health insurance coverage for gender reassignment.  Speech freedoms may be implicated by forms of address and language.

Writing separately in dissent, Justice Kavanaugh opined that Congress and not the Supreme Court must address the question before the Court.  While stressing his position that sexual orientation and transgender stratus must fall within the law, the decision maker on this policy belongs to the legislative branch.

Justice Kavanaugh questioned the utility of the literalist textualism that he saw in the majority’s view, as the law requires that interpretation look to the ordinary, not the literal, meanings of words and phrases.  A rigid literal approach is not a good textual approach, according to textualism’s proponents.  And literal interpretations, disregarding as they may the everyday meaning of words, fail to perform the essential work of the law, which is to put the citizenry on notice of what the law is.

Equally problematic is the majority’s decision to rewrite history in creating its new interpretation.  To disregard history serves no goal well, no matter how laudable in principle that goal may be.  Historically sexual orientation discrimination has been seen as a form of discrimination separate from sex discrimination.

While it is understandable that those affected and those who support them would find joy in the majority’s decision, Justice Kavanaugh fears that the majority’s methodology will be questioned by many, and that, as a result, many will simply not buy it. A lack of confidence in the opinion is of little aid to those supporting the conclusion and undermines confidence in the Court as an institution.

17-1618 Bostock v. Clayton County (06_15_2020)

 

 

 

 

 

Some Kind of Hearing, Updated: UConn Student’s Suspension Permanently Vacated, Parameters of New Investigation and Hearing Envisioned, and Student Deemed to Have Prevailed.

John Doe v. University of Connecticut, et al., No. 3:20-cv-00092 (D. Conn.)


A student accused of conduct violations and the University of Connecticut and its officials have reached agreement to dissolve permanently the student’s suspension and to refashion rules and procedures for a new investigation and hearing on the allegations.  The new proceedings, to be completed not later than this month, are intended to provide some due process safeguards seen to have been lacking in initial proceedings. 

The U.S. District Court has entered judgment in accordance with the Consent Order submitted by the parties, with the court to retain jurisdiction to hear any matters relating to that order. 

The university defendants concede that John Doe is the prevailing party in the case and as such is permitted to recoup attorneys’ fees.  The process of determining the amount of the fee award is underway.  

Just Lawful Observation:  The case exemplifies the hazards of college and university administration of investigations and discipline having life long consequences yet operating without the constitutional guarantees promised in federal and state courts. 

The consequences to an accused student deprived of due process are life altering.  To this may be added the financial pressures on universities to be compliant with federal gender parity laws, violation of which will result in loss of funding.  Some believe this pressure has rendered schools incapable of operating without bias.  Moreover, social pressure to vindicate individuals who complain of sexual misconduct is everywhere felt, no less so in colleges and universities.

It occurs to Just Lawful that if ever there were cases that cry out for restorative or reparative justice, it is these cases in which students’ lives implode when activity viewed as consensual by one is viewed as assault by another.   Where remedies may be devised through mediation or learned interventions for both parties, this may be worthy of exploration.  

The costs of these proceedings to students, whether accused or accuser, are not academic in any sense:  at this time John Does’ attorneys’ fees request approaches one hundred thousand dollars.  Few students or their families could shoulder such costs without hardship.

2020 3 20-cv-00092 Consent Order

2020 3 20-cv-00092 Judgment

 

Suitable Accommodations Must Await Another Day: Supreme Court Declines Review of Walgreen Employee’s Religious Discrimination Claim

Patterson v. Walgreen, No. 18-349, 549 U.S. ____ (cert. denied February 24, 2020).


A decades-old Supreme Court case offhandedly announced that the “undue burden” that would relieve employers of any obligation to accommodate an employee’s religion need only be more than de minimus.  Joining in denial of certiorari of an employee’s case against Walgreen, Justices Alito and Thomas would like to revisit the standing precept, particularly where the old decision relied not on the civil rights statute but on federal agency guidance which predated statutory refinements of the definition of ‘religion’.

 

The Solicitor General suggested that other issues are of concern that need review, but the Court does not consider this case to be the proper vehicle.  The Solicitor General has asked whether an employer must offer a partial accommodation where a full accommodation would pose an undue hardship, or whether speculative harm can establish undue harm.  

 

Patterson alleged that Walgreen’s discriminated against him because his religion forbade working on his sabbath.  Walgreen’s routinely accommodated him in scheduling his work but declined to do so when an urgent need arose and it was thought that  accommodation would work an unairmness to another employee.

 

Patterson failed to appear for the requested Saturday work, which precipitated a delay in training Walgreen employees.  Discussion with Patterson was not fruitful. Patterson wanted a guarantee that he would never be asked to work on his sabbath.  He declined consideration of other positions where the issue would not arise. Walgreen’s suspended and later terminated Patterson.

 

The 11th Circuit observed that Patterson had established a prima facie case, leaving for decision on whether Walgreen failed to offer a reasonable accommodation or that Walgreen’s could not offer a reasonable accommodation which would not pose an undue hardship, which hardship can embrace both direct and indirect costs.  

 

An accommodation need not be the one requested by an employee, nor need the employer offer an array of accommodations from which to choose.  The duty to accommodate his match by a countervailing duty on the employee’s part to work with the employers as the employer suggests.

 

The 11th Circuit declined to address in depth the issue of undue hardwhip because Walgrehaten’s had offered Patterson the opportunity to change schedules when practicable or to obtain another position.  Even if undue hardship were considered, however, Patterson would not prevail because Walgreens would have incurred undue hardship had it been forced to rearrange its business schedule and that of other employees’ to accommodate Patterson.

 

The 11th Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s rejection of Patterson’s retaliation claim.  It cannot be said, the appellate court observed, that Patterson’s termination subsequent to his rejection of all reasonable accommodations was retaliatory.  An employee cannot both reject proffered reasonable accommodations and then claim retaliatory termination.  

 

Although the case will not be heard by the Supreme Court, the opinion accompanying denial of certiorari establishes that at least some of the associate justices are not at ease with the low standard that applies to employers concerning religious accommodations nor are they pleased with the continued existence of outdated definitions of religion.  The denial of certiorari means that the 11th Circuit’s view that an employee must cooperate with an employer concerning accommodations stands. As the 11th Circuit sees it, an employee seeking a religious accommodation cannot insist on the employee’s choice of accommodation, nor can the employee complain of retaliation where reasonable accommodations were offered and the employee rejected them.  

 

JustLawful prognostication:  This case was continued on conference lists for nearly a year, indicating its significance to the Court was not insubstantial but, as the concurring justices noted, the case did not present squarely the open issues that ought, in their views, to be addressed.   With the opinion below undisturbed, the balance of power in employer – employee relations in religious accommodations, at least in the 11th Circuit, rests with the employer. An employer may terminate an employee who refuses a reasonable accommodation, and may demonstrate that accommodation presents an ‘undue burden’ by offering only that the accommodation would cause more than slight harm.  

These issues will not diminish but only expand as the nation moves toward embracing a more expansive notion of religion and religious observances, and as the population of the United States grows ever more diverse in its demographics and in its religious practices.  The push and pull of employer and employee needs will likely not abate any time soon, making the hope for an apt case to serve as a vehicle to review will be presented sooner rather than later. Of course, there is nothing that stands in the way of legislative correction or executive and/or administrative refinement, perhaps obviating judicial intervention, should the coordinate branches’ respective spirits be so inclined.

 

Patterson v. Walgreen 18-349_7j70 February 24, 2020

Patterson v. Walgreen 11th Cir. March 9 2018

“Leveling Down:” Dismantling Problematic Programs to Remediate Constitutional Conflict: Attractive to Some Supreme Court Justices, Insufficient to Others

Espinoza v. Montana, No. 18-1195.  Oral argument held January 22, 2020.


Oral argument for the Espinoza case shed little light on its outcome, although it did underscore that the Supreme Court justices hold divergent views on what is appropriate not only constitutionally, but with respect to addressing constitutional error.  

Justice Ginsburg intimated that the parents who brought suit have no taxpayer standing as they are not directly involved with the Montana tax credit in issue.  She further suggested that the state supreme court was not unreasonable in “leveling down,” or avoiding constitutional problems by dispensing with the scholarship program entirely.  

Justice Sotomayor signaled disdain for any state involvement in religion, pointing to history for support, much as others point to history for support for the opposite view, that the framers would abhor hostility toward religion but rather sought to guard against preferential government treatment for one faith over another.

Other justices asked how the circumstances of the Espinoza case would even conceivably be acceptable if the issue were race rather than religion. Justice Alito reminded counsel that it is not really possible to overlook the coincidence of the enactment of Blaine Amendments with the wave of immigration that accompanied the Irish potato famine. 

Justice Breyer noted that there is no Establishment Clause respecting race, demolishing the “no distinction” point of view respecting race and religion.  The justice likewise worried about how a determination that the state might permissibly be involved in religion by means of the tax credit would impact subsequent funding decisions.  His principal worry seemed to be that a determination that religion could not be excluded would compel inclusion of religion in all state funding.  

Justice Kagan, noting her joinder in the Trinity Lutheran decision, asked whether the Espinoza case was not distinguishable from Trinity LutheranTrinity Lutheran concluded that it is unconstitutional to preclude participation in neutral and generally available government programs because of religion.  In this case, she stated, religion is directly involved: the issue is payment of money to religious institutions.

Justice Gorsuch interjected for clarity the question whether a federal court may aptly intervene where a state court has made an error under federal law, intimating that the question whether the state court error was active or passive is a red herring.

The Chief Justice questioned the role of intent in discrimination cases, suggesting, without more, that there may be some relevance for Espinoza. Thee Chief Justice cited a 1977 case holding that an ordinance with discriminatory impact was nonetheless constitutional because its enactment was without discriminatory intent.  

There are no certainties in the law, but it is not irrational to speculate that there will be no unanimity in any determination the court makes. The divergence in thought will not unlikely be reflected in a multiplicity of opinions.

Viral Publication and Opinion in a Divided Nation: CNN Settles with High School Student Said to Have Been Defamed by Broadcast of Video of Confrontation with Native American Protester on the National Mall

Sandmann v. Cable News Network, et al., No. 2:19-cv-00031 (E.D. Ky.).  Related matter:  Sandmann v. Washington Post Company, No. 2:19-cv-00019 (E.D. Ky.)


Nicholas Sandmann visited the National Mall on January 18, 2019, joining with fellow Catholic High School students in a March for Life event.  There Sandmann was confronted, face to face, by Nathan Phillips, a Native American participating in a separate event, subsequent to what appears to have been a series of taunts exchanged among protest groups. 

The video confrontation, published nationally by mainstream media, including Cable News Network (CNN), precipitated officials, news commentators, church officials, and others to characterize Sandmann, shown in a “MAGA” (“Make America Great Again”) hat, a symbol of the current executive administration, as a racist. 

Sandmann filed complaints against several media entities separately, two of which, against the Washington Post Company and CNN, have been assigned to the same senior federal judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky.  

Following dismissal with prejudice of the complaint against the Washington Post, Sandmann was granted reconsideration which set aside the dismissal in part and granted Sandmann leave to amend his complaint against the Washington Post.  

In October, 2019, CNN’s motion was denied to dismiss and Sandmann’s motion to amend his complaint were granted. 

A proposed discovery and pretrial schedule was submitted to the court in the Eastern District of Kentucky in both cases on  January 3, 2020. The parties to the CNN case reported publicly on January 7, 2020 that settlement with CNN without trial, on undisclosed terms, had been reached. 

Whether the settlement signals a change of course among other media defendants will likely unfold in the not distant future. 

Notwithstanding — and perhaps particularly in light of — the rhetoric accompanying this case, the legal issues, while well grounded in history, seem to call for particular examination in the age of instant worldwide publication and the simultaneous formation of opinions.  Whether a matter is one of fact, and therefore actionable in defamation, or of opinion, and therefore not, is a longstanding principle. Whether this is changed or modified or subject to new refinement in the age of instant worldwide transmittal and simultaneous formation and publication of opinions remains to be seen.

CNN’s account of the settlement may be found at:

CNN Settles Lawsuit Stemming from Viral Video Controversy

The opinion dismissing Sandmann’s initial complaint against the Washington Post, of some historic note, may be found here:

2019 07 26 Sandmann v. WP Company__Memorandum and Order Granting Motion to Dismiss

When Constitutional Clauses Collide:  Citizens’ Challenge to Montana’s Tax Advantaged School Choice Plan Seeks First Amendment and Equal Protection Review.

Espinoza, et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue, et al. No. 18-1195.  Oral argument set for January 22, 2020.


Many families hope that education will pave the way to successful adulthood.  Frequently private schooling is sought to serve that end, but many families find that no matter how arduously they work, the funds necessary to obtain that private schooling remain elusive:  scholarship help is a necessity for many who want to send their children to private school.   

In 2015, Montana enacted legislation providing a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $150.00 annually, for donations to scholarship providing non-profit entities.  The non-profit entities would in turn use the donations to award scholarships, paid directly to the schools.  

Some 28 states have enacted at least 57 programs similar to Montana’s, called “school choice” programs.   Almost all private schools in Montana were qualified recipients of these tax advantaged scholarships. Yet very many of these schools were directly or indirectly affiliated with religious institutions.

Montana’s Constitution, Article X, Section 6, Part 1 prohibits the payment of state money, directly or indirectly, to fund religious activity.  This limitation was incorporated in the tax credit statute. Following enactment of the tax credit, state tax authorities promulgated a regulation echoing the preclusion of the use of tax money for religious entities.

Fearing that scholarships were in jeopardy, parents sued the state to enjoin it from precluding awards of scholarships to religious educational institutions, asserting that precluding aid would violate their First Amendment and Equal Protection rights.  The state countered that permitting the scholarships would run afoul of the state’s First Amendment and state constitutional obligations. 

The parents prevailed in the trial court but on appeal the Supreme Court of Montana, unable to split the constitutional baby between sectarian and nonsectarian beneficiaries of the tax credit program, declared the entire statute unconstitutional.  

The matter is now before the Supreme Court. 

Petitioners’ Challenges.  Petitioners urge the United States Supreme Court to reject the Montana Supreme Court’s wholesale invalidation of the entire tax credit statute as in violation of the federal religion clauses.  The parents ask the Court to determine the Montana state constitutional amendment forbidding aid to religion to be unconstitutional as applied to them, and to find Montana’s actions to be discrimination against religion in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Petitioners point out that Montana’s prohibition on state funding of any religious activity had its origins in the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments of the 19th Century.  As religion is an inherently suspect clause, the state constitution as applied offends the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause, petitioners argue.  

The wholesale ban on any and all state aid to religion does not support government neutrality but rather evinces hostility toward religion and, as such, cannot survive constitutional review, petitioners argue.  This is true, petitioners assert, whether any of the tests of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) or Lemon v. Kurtzman,   403 U.S. 602 (1971) or the teachings of the recent Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012  (2017) are applied.

Zelman requires only a religiously neutral program with choice centered in the individual, not the state, which petitioners assert is true of the 2015 Montana legislation.  In contrast, the state’s ban of all aid is hostile, not neutral, and works to deprive individual families of choice. Petitioners submit that however awkward it may be in application, Lemon in no sense endorses the antipathy to religion that Montana’s actions evince.

Montana’s dismantling of the tax credit program, which was available to all without respect to religion, advances no secular purpose where, petitioners argue, its only effect is to trample the rights of the religious with no concern for students.  Petitioners urge that the preclusion of state funding of religious professionals’ training, found to be unconstitutional in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), is inapposite, for that case concerned direct aid to churches in developing their clergy, which is not true of the Montana case.   

Montana’s Response.  Montana does not argue mootness, but does argue that the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the tax advantaged school choice plan does away with constitutional concerns.  All aid has been precluded: no hostility, disparity or discrimination can be found where the statute no longer exists.  

Montana perceives that Espinoza spotlights the intersection of church/state traditions:  non-discrimination is crucial to religious freedom. The Establishment Clause permits but does not compel aid to religion. If the state is opposed to aiding religious schools the state can, as it has done here, decline to offer any aid at all.  Because petitioners concede that this is true, Montana argues, no constitutional claim remains.  

There can be no intrusion on the Free Exercise of religion where no program exists at all, the state submits.  Invalidation of the entire program works no coercion, as  the invalidation restrains the government, not the individual.

Montana denies that the 1972 re-enactment of the state constitutional no-aid clause ratified or endorsed the religious antipathy that gave rise to the 19th century Blaine Amendments.  Montana offers that the new constitution, enacted in 1972, sought to protect religious liberty by means of strict state separation from religion.  

In this case the state supreme court has protected religious freedom by enforcing the structural barrier between religious schools and the government that the no-aid clause contemplates.  Striking down the tax credit in its entirety ensures that no one is preferred and that no one is penalized for exercising their faith. 

Historic opposition to state funding of religious entities demonstrates the constitutionality of such prohibitions, the state contends.  Trinity Lutheran is not on point, for the tax credit plan does not involve a generally available benefit.

The state has not banned aid to education.  Moreover, where thirty eight states fall in line with Montana’s position, this is history to which the U.S. Supreme Court ought to defer.

The U.S. Supreme Court should not interfere with the constitutional and judicial authority of the state by enforcing a statute that the state Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional, the state submits.   If it is conceded — and it is — that the state could decline to provide a school choice program, then it cannot be correct that if a school choice program is forbidden by the state constitution, then the application of the state constitution must be in violation of the federal constitution, and, therefore, a void statute must be enforced.

As there is no longer a school choice tax credit program, there is no unequal treatment, and therefore no Equal Protection clause violation.  Nor is there any Establishment Clause issue whether the state chooses to offer greater separation than the federal religion clause requires.

The state offers that the Supreme Court cannot recognize an amorphous “free exercise” violation where petitioners have not identified any violation. The Free Exercise clause inhibits the government: that some difficulty in exercising religion might beforeall individuals does not rise to the level of unconstitutional government prohibition on the free exercise of religious rights.

The operation, or not, of a tax advantage works no prohibition on free exercise.  Anyone can give to scholarships as they see fit: they just will not receive a tax credit.

There is no generally available benefit from which petitioners have been excluded because the tax credit program has been declared void ab initio

Without more, the state constitution’s no-aid close does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In all, the fact that the Establishment Clause may allow a measure does not mean that the Free Exercise Clause compels it.  The state notes that where school choice is concerned, Justice Beyer has inquired of the fate of the interests of the families who would not wish to fund religious education at all.

Montana cautions that if the Supreme Court were to invalidate Montana’s no aid clause, grave constitutional concerns would arise.  Zelman does not require a single answer to whether  a “no aid” provision helps or hinders religion  Petitioners’ position lacks good sense: it is unimaginable that a statute declared unconstitutional under state law can spring back to life following federal constitutional review.

Zelman observed that choice that includes religion need not violate the Establishment Clause but declining funding is not the establishment of religion.  Lemon poses no problem because there are no unconstitutional effects created by the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the school choice program.  Entitlement to a tax preference is not an establishment clause issue. Similarly, across the board disentitlement works no entitlement. 

Petitioners’ Reply.  Petitioners liken the state’s position to that of the authorities who shuttered schools rather than conform to the constitutional command to desegregate. 

Where the state emphasizes that petitioners concede that the state need not offer an aid program, the petitioners point to a comparable concession by the state:  the state cannot avoid the reality that the provision of a program that excluded religious schools would violate the federal constitution. Where protected classes are concerned, the Supreme Court has recognized that invalidating a program to prevent inclusion is just as discriminatory as exclusion from the start.  

It is not true that the Montana Supreme Court ‘harmonized’ federal and state constitutional interests.  Rather, the state understood that severability — permitting secular while forbidding sectarian aid — was a constitutional impossibility.  Eliminating a program to avoid unconstitutional results does not avoid constitutional concerns but confirms them.

Trinity Lutheran cautions that the Court ought not engage in a wooden application of Free Exercise principles:  indirect coercion or indirect penalties are within the ambit of the Free Exercise clause.  

The only reason the school choice tax credit was eliminated was concern over aid to religious schools.  The result in this case is worse than that in Trinity Lutheran, for the Espinoza petitioners have already relied on the availability of aid.  The additional financial burden and potential educational exclusion imposed on the petitioning parents falls within the concerns the Free Exercise Clause contemplates.

Locke concerned direct funding of professional clergy education, a circumstance not present here.  Further, petitioners argue that there is no “use” limitation on Trinity Lutheran’s holding.  Such an argument is irrelevant, nonetheless, where status discrimination exists: aid will be denied based only on religious status.  If religion and religious education cannot be disentangled, the state disproves its own argument: status v. use is a distinction without a difference.

Contrary to the state’s assertions, the weight of history is not on the state’s side, petitioners counter.  Most early considerations of government involvement in religion concerned direct aid to churches. This is not the case here, and there is no overwhelming reason to believe that aid that could benefit religious and secular schools would be objectionable to the founders. 

The proffered reasons for the wholesale reenactment of the Blaine Amendment in 1972 are of no moment, petitioners insist, where the significance of the measure is that of singling out religion for different treatment, which strikes at the core of Equal Protection clause concerns.  Even if it were accepted that a law’s constitutionality, or not,  cannot be determined by the motives of its enactors, the effects of a statute are reasonably evaluated in addressing constitutional concerns.  

As Montana has entirely banned aid to students seeking religiously affiliated private education, Zelman’s principles of neutrality and individual choice are decimated.

The question is not of “resurrection” of a defunct statute:  the issue is that Montana’s Supreme court determination forever precludes aid.  Similarly, the state’s resuscitation rhetoric must fail, as statutes are routinely revived following judicial review: so doing works no “inverse federalism.”

Petitioners submit that the federalism fears described by the state are phantasms.  There exists ample room for Montana to work within the “play in the joints” of the religion causes.  Montana may enact a school choice program without violating the Establishment Clause but it need not, and this would not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In contrast, adopting a wholesale ban on aid to religion would violate both religion clauses.  

Principal Briefs

Brief for Petitioners

Brief for Respondents

Reply Merits Brief

Joint Appendix

Amicus Submissions:  Note that the United States, as Amicus for Petitioners, Will Participate in Oral Argument 

The United States

Petitioners’ Amici

131 Current and Former State Legislators

Agudath Israel of America

Alliance for Choice in Education

American Center for Law & Justice

Americans for Prosperity and Yes Every Kid

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association et al.

Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence

Center for Education Reform et al

Christian Legal Society et al

EdChoice, Reason Foundation, and The Individual Rights Foundation

Forge Youth Mentoring

Foundation for Moral Law

Georgia Goal Scholarship Program Inc

Honorable Scott Walker

Independence-Institute

Jerry and Kathy Armstrong et al

Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty

Justice and Freedom Fund et al

Liberty Justice Center and American Federation for Children

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Montana Catholic School Parents, Catholic Association Foundation, and Invest in Education Foundation

Montana Family Foundation

Oklahoma et al

Opportunity Scholarship Fund

Pioneer Institute

Rusty Bowers Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives et al

Senator Daines et al

The Becket Fund For Religious Liberty

The Rutherford Institute

Respondents’ Amici

American Federation of Teachers et al

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Colorado et al

Freedom from Religion Foundation et al

Montana Association of Rabbis

Montana Constitutional Convention Delegates

Montana Northern Wyoming Conference United Church of Christ

National Disability Rights Network et al

National School Boards Association et al.

Public Funds Public Schools

Religion Law Scholars

Religious and Civil Rights Organizations

State of Maine

Tennessee Education Association