Coach May Take a Knee: Supreme Court Holds Termination for Private Prayer in Public at Public School Event Is Impermissible



Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.  Opinion released June 27, 2022


Joseph Kennedy, a football coach for the Bremerton School District in Washington, lost his job because he knelt in prayer at the football field midpoint after games.

No formal proceedings or games were underway at the time.  

Fearing violation of the Establishment Clause, the school district disciplined the coach because the school district believed that observers would think that the school district endorsed the coach’s beliefs.

The Court found the school district erred in its perception of the law.  Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch commenced:

Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

After several years of what appeared to be unobjectionable prayer at practice, positive feedback from another school caused Kennedy’s school district to be concerned about the impression he was creating with ‘inspirational talks,’ on-field prayer, and locker room prayer.  The school forbade Kennedy to engage in any religious activity to “avoid the perception of endorsement.”  Slip Op. at 3.  The school opined that school employees’ Free Exercise rights must yield to the school’s interest in precluding a perception of endorsement.

The coach ended his prayer practices after receiving correspondence spelling out the school’s position.  Nonetheless, after a game, he return alone to pray on the football field because he sensed that he had broker his commitment to God.

No one was in the studio at the time.

Kennedy asked that the school district permit him to continue his post game solitary prayer practice.  

The school district denied his request, reiterating that the couch could not while on duty engage in activities that might suggest endorsement. 

Media coverage was sparked when the coach bowed his head at midfield after the game.  Others joined the coach in prayer, while the Bremerton team was occupied singing the school fight song.

The School District posted notices forbidding public access to the filed, while discussions among officials observed that the issue was changing from the coach leading the students to the coach engaging in private prayer.  

Several rounds of testing and resetting prayer limits and accommodations ensued.  The School District issued a public explanation of its choices and rationales.

Coach Kennedy’s annual performance evaluation for 2015 was poor and rehire was not recommended.  The evaluation said that the coach failed to follow policy and failed to supervise student athletes after games.  Slip Op. at 8.

Kennedy sued the school district.  He was denied injunctive relief on his Free Speech and Free Exercise claims at the trial and appellate level. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, cautioning that denial of the petition did not indicate agreement with the courts below. 

Another round of litigation ensued.  The coach’s free speech claim was denied and he was again denied relief for his Free Exercise claim at the trial and appellate level.  The trial court held that the school district had a compelling interest in prohibiting post-game prayers which if permitted would violated the Establishment Clause. Slip Op. at 9. 

The Ninth Circuit, observing that the coach was on the football field only because of his position with the school, held that the School District would have violated the Establishment Clause if it failed to stop the prayer.  Avoidance of Establishment Clause violation was seen as a compelling state interest. 

Rehearing en banc in the Ninth Circuit was denied, with concern that it was error to hold that had the school not disciplined the coach, the school district would have violated the Establishment Clause. Others dissenting from the denial of rehearing questioned the perception that the Establishment Clause comes into play in any case in which a “reasonable observer” could perceive endorsement. Slip Op. at 10. 

The Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy stresses that the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses work together, and that the Free Speech clause protects expressive religious activities, while the Free Exercise clause protects religious exercise as such. 

The added protection for free religious expression int he free speech clause reflects the Founder’s distrust of government attempts to regulate religion.

If a plaintiff meets his initial burdens, the state must show its justification is in compliance with case law.

The school district admitted its intent was to suppress Kennedy’s religious activity and its policies were not neutral. The performance evaluation included standards not generally applicable, such as post-game supervision of students.

Precedent recognizes that First Amendment rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Distinct, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

Precedent also suggests a two-step inquiry will help to understand how free speech and government employment are to be approached.  At times, state efficiency in managing its services may outweigh a public employee’s free speech interests.  Slip Op. at 16.

Coach Kennedy’s prayers were not related to his public duties.  Any mantle of public investment in his role as a teacher had limits, including limits that would prevent private activity.  Slip Op. at 19.

Although generally the school district must satisfy strict scrutiny to justify its actions, in this case the school district could not prevail under a more lenient standard.

The Supreme Court has rejected the idea that the school district was justified in disciplining the coach, for to have forgone discipline, in the school’s view, would have violated the Establishment Clause.  Such a reading suggests a Constitution at war within its clauses, rather than acting in a complementary fashion. Slip Op. at 21. 

The Court announced that it has not only rejected Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), but also the extension of Lemon to an “endorsement” component featuring the perceptions of a “reasonable observer.”  Slip Op. at 22.  

The Establishment Clause cannot serve as a “hecklers’ veto” to proscribe religion based on “perception or “discomfort.”  Id.  

The government has no obligation to purge any material that an observer might consider to involve religion.  

History, practice, and understanding are to serve to analyze Establishment Clause claims in lieu of Lemon.  Slip Op. at 23.  

The Court was unpersuaded by what it perceived to be an 11th hour argument that petitioner coerced students to pray with him, as no support for this can be found in the record.  Slip Op. at 24-27.  Assertions of tacit or implied authority, relying on hearsay, offer no substantiation for such a claim.  Slip Op. at 27.  Coercion cannot be manufactured by ‘deeming’ any religious behavior to be coercive.  Slip Op. at 28. 

The Court vigorously rejected the nation that the First Amendment compels conflict among constitutional guarantees, concluding;

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. 

Slip Op. at 31-32.

Justice Thomas concurred to question whether the Court ought to consider the limited “public concern” Free Speech protection accorded public employees.  The Court does not indicate what an employer must do to justify any restriction on religious activity.  As there was no need to do so because the Court found the school district  could offer no constitutionally sound reason for its behavior,  Justice Thomas questions the intimation that the “balancing” test applied in free speech cases might be imported to srve in free exercise claims.

Justice Alito concurred to observe that the decision at hand does not establish what standard ought to apply to expression under the Free Speech clause, only that retaliation for expression “cannot be justified on any of the standards discussed.” 

Dissenting Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan found no authorization in the Constitution which would permit the conduct at issue in this case.  Moreover, overruling Lemon in this decision is of great consequent, as in doing so the Court rejects decades of concerns about endorsement. 

The majoriey read the record far too narrowly, Justice Sotomayor writes, overlooking the real community disruption caused by the petitioner. 

The issue was incorrectly framed, in her view.  The question is not the protection of private prayer at work but whether persona religious beliefs may be incorporated into a public school event. Sotomayor, dissent, Slip Op. 13-14.

The majority has overlooked that the public prayer at a public school comes close to being speech within the coach’s official duties, winch view would cause the speech to lose any First Amendment protections without regard to the conflict between the  clauses.

Permitting an individual’s religious practice in the context described violates the Establishment Clause,  particularly where public schools must maintain neutrality to fulfill their obligations.

Failure to address the tension between the constitutional clauses silently elevates one constitutional interest over another, an undesirable practice.

The idea that the perceptions of a reasonable observer ought to be considered in evaluating Establishment Clause claims ought not be so handily dismissed, for it is that very perception that has give rise to much concern in public schools.  Nor should the question of coercion be dismissed, as it is not unreasonable to consider whether by their very nature public schools, in structure and administration, embody at least a modicum of coercion. 

21-418 Kennedy v. Bremerton School Dist. (06_27_2022)

 

If Maine Subsidizes Secondary Schools, It May Not Exclude Sectarian Schools, Supreme Court Concludes


CARSON, AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF O. C., ET AL. v. MAKIN, No.  20-1088.  U.S. Supreme Court June 21, 2022.


Maine is the most rural state in the nation.  Some geographic “School Administrative Units” have no public secondary schools through which to provide the education promised by the state. To ameliorate the strain families who must make arrangements for their children, Maine offers tuition assistance to parents so that their children may access secondary education through qualified schools outside the geographic confines of the School Administrative Units.

At one time, Maine did not distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian schools for purposes of funding parents’ preferences.  In 1981, Maine determined that this practice was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Parents who selected schools with religious orientation challenged Maine’s denial of tuition assistance as violative of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, triggering what appears to be an annual (or at least semi-annual) head on collision between the Establishment Clause, which precludes government endorsement of religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which forbids government interference with religious practice.

While the petitioners’ litigation was pending, the Supreme Court struck down a Montana statute that forbade aid to any church controlled school as offensive to the Free Exercise Clause.   Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 591 U. S. ___ (2020).  While this removed from the consideration of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit any reliance on prior precedent that would affirm Maine’s refusal to provide tuition assistance that would permit students to attend sectarian schools.

Nonetheless, the First Circuit distinguished away Espinoza because Maine, unlike Montana, concerned itself with religious use of funds as opposed to a blanket prohibition based on religious identify. Moreover, the First Circuit perceived another distinguishable difference between Montana and Maine, because Maine intends to provide the equivalent of a public school education not otherwise available in a student’s location.  As public school education is secular, no constitutional harm is done by limiting tuition assistance to parents whose children will attend secular schools.

The Supreme Court’s majority has concluded that the Maine tuition assistance scheme fails to comport with the Free Exercise Clause because it conditions the availability of an otherwise available public benefit based on a requirement of ‘non-sectarianism’ within accredited schools.

That the Free Exercise Clause prohibits indirect burdens on religious exercise has recently been re-emphasized by the Court, not only with respect to participation in public contracts, as in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U. S. ___ (2017), but also with respect to providing funding assistance to private education, as in Espinoza, supra.  In neither case can religion be interposed as a disqualifier precluding access to benefits otherwise available to all. 

The Court noted that a state need not fund private education.  If a state chooses to do so, however, the state may not preclude participation because of religious affiliation. 

In dissent, Justice Breyer expressed fear that the majority view — which requires other citizens to subsidize, through taxation — aid to religious views they might find objectionable — threatens to foment the kind of discord that the tension between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses were intended to inhibit.  This is all the more so in this case, where not just religious affiliation but religious instruction within the curriculum is in issue. 

In Justice Breyer’s view, the Religion Clauses serve the nation well by precluding state involvement in religion and by prohibiting state restraint of religion.

Justice Breyer sees the majority’s decision as introducing religion into public education, the provision of which is contemplated by Maine’s statutory scheme.  

Notwithstanding the not infrequent tension between the religion clauses, their overall purpose is to function as complements in creating a government that is benevolently neutral. The Court has previously expressed that the Religion Clauses ”permit religious exercise..without sponsorship or interference,” as this would “insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited.” Walz v. Tax Comm’n of the City of New York, 397 U.S. 664, 669 (1970).  

Separately dissenting, Justice Sotomayor has expressed dismay that the Court has chartered a dangerous course, essentially eviscerating the Establishment Clause in service of the Free Exercise Clause.  Justice Sotomayor observes that, rather than stressing that the government need not fund religious activity, the Court has embraced the idea that the states may now be compelled “to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”  Sotomayor, J., Dissent, Slip. Op. at 3.

Carson v. Makin, 596 U.S. ____ (2022)

At the Hour of Our Death: Supreme Court to Consider Prisoner’s Plea for Prayer and Touch in Execution Chamber


Ramirez v.  Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, et al., No. 21-5592.  Oral argument set for November 9, 2021.   


The Supreme Court will soon consider whether Petitioner Ramirez, sentenced to death for a capital crime, may prevail in his claim that the State of Texas’ has violated the Religious Land Use and Religious Persons Act by refusing Ramirez’s request that his spiritual advisor not only be present in the execution chamber but also be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during the execution.

 

RLUIPA was enacted after the Supreme Court concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could not apply to the states.  Both statutes provide protections for religious exercise that may exceed the guarantees of the First Amendment, by shifting burdens of proof and persuasion and by permitting latitude in what may be considered a religious exercise.  

 

Thus a prisoner need not establish that a requested religious accommodation refers to a normative practice in any spiritual practice adhered to by the prisoner.  The state, however, must establish not only that its practices support a compelling government interest and that the state has employed the least restrictive means in furtherance of that goal.  

 

The presence of ministers in the death chamber has been permitted in Texas, in other states, and in the federal system.  At this time, Texas’ rules and regulations appear not to preclude such a presence, but interpretive guidance, some apparently issued in response to Ramirez’ requests, rule out vocalization and laying on of hands during and following the administration of lethal injections.

 

On its face Ramirez’s request appears compelling and its denial cruel.  What possible end could be served by denying a prisoner the solace of prayer and touch at death?  Safety and security, says the state.  

 

The state, through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice  opines that past procedures permitting religious attention at execution were supported by safety protocols permitting state employees, not volunteers, to provide religious support.  Sabotage and the creation of chaos in the execution room cannot be ruled out, the state argues, as such events are not without a basis in history and the likelihood of a disruptive occurrence is enhanced  if a volunteer minister would be so close to the prisoner that the disruption of the flow of medication or to removal of needles or restraints.  

 

Moreover,  the state argues that its practices and prohibitions respect the dignity of the prisoner by permitting audio surveillance from outside the execution chamber of the administration of lethal substances and the dying process.  Audible prayer would thwart that process, making it more likely that the state could not remediate the execution timely and enhancing the chance of an agonizing death.

 

Religious advocacy groups and scholars of religious freedoms have aligned with Ramirez, particularly in service of precluding interpretations of RLUIPA that would permit accommodations only if the state were affirmatively precluding a recognized religious practice.  

 

Several states have asserted that the states must be deferred to in fashioning acceptable execution chamber protocols.  The states fear a flood tide of litigation intended only to forestall executions, all in defiance of the Prison’ Litigation Reform Act, which would hamstring the state in administering sentences, thereby undermining the criminal justice system and principles of federalism. 

 

The United States has urged the Supreme Court to remand the case for resolution, particularly for further articulation of the parties’ interests.

 

Joining in advocating for bringing to a conclusion Ramirez’ litigation are the survivors of Carlos Ramos, who died after having been stabbed twenty-nine times by the Petitioner.   Ramos’ children, now grown, ask that the Court not be unmindful that at each stage of litigation the trauma of their loss is revived.  The Ramos family asks how it is that media attention appears to cast Ramirez as heroic, where their father was denied a sacramental death.  


JustLawful note:  This comment omits consideration of the exhaustion of remedies argument that is also presented in this case.

JustLawful Comment: Leaving aside the flood tides of dilatory claims, administration of justice, and federalism questions, which are not insignificant, it is difficult to believe that the requested ministerial presence and prayer and touch practices could not be accommodated through prison protocols protecting the interests of all.   “Accommodation” by definition suggests that each party yield — by inches if not by yards — to the other.  The parties seem disinclined toward such a perspective, yet the Court may order remand in furtherance of such a result, which would likewise aid the Court in avoiding unnecessary decisions.


Case Materials:

Brief of Petitioner Ramirez September 27, 2021

Brief for Respondents October 15, 2021

Reply Brief For Petitioner October 25, 2021

Ramirez v. Collier Joint Appendix Vol. I

Amicus Submissions in Support of Petitioner Ramirez

Amicus First Liberty Institute September 27, 2021

Amicus Scholars of the PLRA and Prison Grievance Systems September 27, 2021

Amicus The United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops September 27, 2021

Amicus Religious Liberty Scholars September 27, 2021

Amicus Becket Fund for Religious Liberty September 27, 2021

Amicus Christian Legal Society, et al. September 27, 2021

Amicus Spiritual Advisors and Former Corrections Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Former Prison Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Alliance Defending Freedom September 27, 2021

Amicus Protect the First Foundation September 27, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of the Respondents

Amicus Arizona, et al. in Support of Respondents October 15, 2021

Amicus Pablo Castro’s Children October 15, 2021

Amicus Criminal Justice Legal Foundation October 15, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of Neither Party

Amicus the United States September 27, 2021

Amicus Freedom from Religion Foundation et al. September 27, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Justices’ Disappointments Surround Supreme Court’s Decision that Free Exercise Clause Permits Exemption from Philadelphia’s Foster Placement Policies

Fulton, et al., v. City of Philadelphia, et al., No. 19-123.  Opinion of the Court by Roberts, C.J., issued June 17, 2021.


The Catholic Church has long been involved in providing services to children in need.  Until recently, Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia, under contract with the city, evaluated potential foster parents and made recommendations to the city for placement.  However, when Catholic Social Services disclosed that it would not certify same-sex couples for placements, Philadelphia determined that it would not enter into another contract with Catholic Social Services unless Catholic Social Services would agree to certify same sex couples for foster care service.

Litigation ensued, notwithstanding that no same sex couple has ever requested or been denied certification by Catholic Social Service.

A federal district court denied  Catholic Social Services request for injunctive relief, finding that the agency was unlikely to prevail on either a Free Exercise or Free Speech claim, as a neutral law of general applicability is not subject to Free Exercise challenges, and Free Speech principles were inapplicable where the social services agency was certifying for a government agency.

The Third Circuit agreed.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari, having in mind whether or not it ought to overrule Employment Division of the Department of Human Services of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

Employment Division of the Department of Human Services of Oregon v. Smith (“Smith”), supra, held that neutral laws of general applicability are not subject to Free Exercise challenges.

In this case, the Supreme Court declined to revisit Smtih, deciding instead that because Philadelphia’s contract with Catholic Social Services included the potential for exemption from same-sex services, the possibility of exemption removes the agreement from consideration as would apply to “neutral laws of general applicability”.  

The Supreme Court found it unquestionable that Philadelphia’s refusal to enter into an agreement with Catholic Social Services, and its retroactive rejection of certifications already made, substantially burdened religious exercise by forcing Catholic Social Services to exercise its faith and refrain from providing services to the city, or by abandoning its faith and providing those services.

The Court could find no compelling reason for rejecting Catholic Social Services, particularly as no harm could be envisioned from continuing to accept their services.  If a request for certification of a same-sex couple were presented, that request could be presented instead to another agency that could accept the couple. 

The Court rejected Philadelphia’s arguments that it ought to have more latitude and received more deference in Free Exercise matters when the city acts in a managerial capacity.  The Court found no basis in the law for abandoning constitutional principles on the basis of the City’s role.

Heckling the Umpire.  The Court’s narrow decision in this case precipitated the issuance of three separate concurrences, each reflecting the joining justices’ disappointment in not overruling Smith.  Justice Alito has published a 77-page history of Free Exercise jurisprudence, which includes a scathing assessment of the Court’s opinion, offering that it might as well have been written in disappearing ink.  All Philadelphia needs to do to avert the Court’s decision is remove the exemption language.  This would place petitioners back at the beginning, with another cycle of litigation ahead.

Fulton v. Philadelphia, No. 19-123 (S. Ct.) June 17, 2021  

 






Pronouns and Principles: Sixth Circuit Holds that University Faculty Member’s Speech and Religious Beliefs Enjoy First Amendment Protections

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al, Jane Doe, and Sexuality and Gender Acceptance, No. 20-2389 (6th Cir.).  March 26, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, observing that the trial court had lost sight of fundamental First Amendment principles, has vacated dismissal of a professor’s case alleging that his employer, state university, impermissibly infringed on his First Amendment speech rights and impinged on his Free Exercise interests.  

 

Accepting solely for purposes of its review that plaintiff Meriwether’s allegations are true, the court recounted that in the course of teaching that Meriwether, a professor at Shawnee State University for 25 years, referred to a student as a male.  That student approached Meriwether after class and demanded to be referred to as a female.  Meriwether demurred based on religious principles and an inability to affirm that which he believes to be untrue.  The student uttered a coarse epithet and promised to have Meriwether fired.

 

After reporting the incident, one colleague opined that religion ought not be taught at the school, knowing that Meriwether had done exactly that for a quarter of a century.   The school insisted that Meriwether conform to its anti-discrimination policies by conforming his language to the student’s preference or by not using pronouns at all.  As Meriwether stated he could not on principle do the first nor in practice do the second, the school administrators attempted to reach a compromise in which Meriwether would address the student with neutral terms.  

 

The student complained repeatedly, prompting Title IX review, which concluded that Meriwether had created a hostile environment in violation of that law, which guarantees equal treatment in education.  Meriwether presented a grievance through the faculty union which prompted laughter from the hearing official, who would later be the reviewing official on appeal.  That reviewing official’s delegate determined that Meriwether was undeserving of an accommodation based on religious principles perceived to be bigoted, and therefore unworthy of legal protection. 

 

Meetings were held and memoranda were generated and the compromise offered to Meriwether was revoked.  He was instructed to conform to the school’s speech policies or face discipline, which might include termination or suspension without pay.  A written warning to that effect was added to his official file.  

 

Meriwether sued and lost in federal district court.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit has stressed that teachers at public universities do not lose First Amendment rights by virtue of that status. The university’s interest in administration, premised on inchoate fears, did not outweigh the faculty member’s speech rights.  Statutes and policies intended to ensure the fair treatment of all are not superior to all other statutes and policies, the court observed.  The finding of a violation of Title IX was in error where there was no pervasive culture making student life intolerable. 

 

The Sixth Circuit concluded that the school had compelled speech by demanding that Meriwether use pronouns deemed acceptable according to policy, and compelled silence in that speech without pronouns was impossible, and an explanation of his views on his syllabus was denied, as was his request for religious accommodation, none of which, subject to development of the record, may be constitutionally tolerable.  Equally problematic was the school’s failure to treat Meriwether’s beliefs even-handedly.  The court found the hostility displayed toward Meriwether troubling and contrary to Supreme Court precedent.  

 

The case has been remanded to the federal trial court for further proceedings.  

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al. No. 20-3289 (6thCircuit).Opinion March 26, 2021

Going to the Chapel (Again): Supreme Court Enjoins California’s Restriction on Indoor Worship, Chastising Ninth Circuit for Failing to Reach Result “Clearly Dictated” by Supreme Court’s Decision Just Days Earlier

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 (U.S.) February 26, 2021.

In early February the United States Supreme Court enjoined California’s wholesale preclusion of indoor worship, while leaving in place percentage of capacity limitations and restrictions on singing and chanting indoors during services. South Bay United Petecostal Church v. Newsom, No. 20A136, 592 U.S.       (February 5, 2021).   Four opinions issued, as outlined below

  • Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would grant all the relief sought by the church.  
  • Justice Alito would enjoin the capacity and vocalizing restrictions but would stay the injunction on percentage of capacity restrictions to give California an opportunity to demonstrate that only the restrictions in controversy could halt indoor contagion to the same degree as those in place in activities the state deems essential.  
  • Chief Justice Roberts wrote to reiterate the Court’s earlier expression of the importance of deference to political officials in fashioning pandemic relief, but concluded that “deference has its limits,” observing that the issue of singing indoors may be founded in public health but the conclusion that all indoor public worship is unsafe seems ill-considered.
  • Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh opined that the church had not established entitlement to relief from the singing ban, the scope and applicable tests for which are not, in their views, clear.
  • Justice Gorsuch, with Justices Thomas and Alito, would grant all injunctive relief as California’s imposition of more stringent restrictions on churches than on secular activities cannot survive Free Exercise challenge.
  • Justice Gorsuch opined that California could not demonstrate that its unequally applied measures — including a ban on all indoor worship — were the least restrictive means to achieve the government’s inarguably compelling interest in inhibiting the spread of disease.
  • California cannot demonstrate any cognizable difference between personal crowding and mingling in church versus commercial settings and cannot support a total prohibition of worship, Justice Gorsuch concluded.  
  • The inexplicable imposition of more stringent measures on religious activities than on secular gatherings cannot survive strict scrutiny, Justice Gorsuch opined, commenting that the present case ought not have come before the Court, as the Court’s earlier decisions on the same questions compelled the same results in this case.
  • Justice Gorsuch noted that the focus of the present order is on the wholesale preclusion of indoor worship and that additional challenges might be brought concerning other measures.
  • Justice Gorsuch cautioned against championing the singing exclusion as a reasonable deterrent to disease where the entertainment industry has obtained an exemption from it. 
  • Nor is the scope of the singing exclusion comprehensible:  even if an entire congregation singing together might raise risks, what of a single cantor?  California’s confusing regulations do not deserve particular deference. 
  • Whie California offers that some enterprises have adopted self-help in the form of testing requirements, Calfirnai fails to explain why such adaptations would not be permitted to churches. 
  • In all, Justice Gorsuch concluded, Californaita “must do more to tailor the requirements’ of public health to the rights of its people.”  Statement of Gorsuch, J., slip op. at 6.
  • The ”temporary” justification proffered by California rings hollow where “temporary” bans have been in place for months and the nation is entering a second year of restrictions.
  • Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, observing that as justices they are neither scientists nor experts in public health, into which territory the majority wrongly ventured in this case. The state granted worship parity with similar secular assemblies:  the Court erred in compelling the state to apply rules to churches that apply to less risky gatherings. 
  • The dissenting justices observed that while those who are similarly situated ust be treated similarly, it is not true that those who are not must be compelled to conform to each other, as the Court has done here.  The dissenting justices assert that the same measures such as masking, distancing, singing, and capacity apply to religious and secular activities alike in California.
  • The determination that Free Exercise principles must prevail is faulty in fact, for some religious and secular gatherings are similarly treated, and in law, for the Court has impeded the state in meeting its obligation to promote the health and safety of its people  
  • The Court’s earlier decisions do not compel the present result, the dissent found, because no group was singled out here for inferior treatment  
  • Moreover, as a practical matter, the intrusion of the Court into California’s operations open up entirely new questions to be addressed when time and resources are scarce. If the Court has erred and lives are endangered, the Court will pay no price, the dissent observed, as the justices are insulated by lifetime tenure and physically protected against harm.  

One week after the order was entered in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, supra, the Ninth Circuit denied relief to Gateway City Church, upholding the ban on indoor worship, and concluding that where secular and religious entities were subject to the same restrictions, no constitutional violation could be found, particularly, where houses of worship were not singled out for unfavorable treatment.  Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 21-15189 (9th Cir.) February 12, 2021. 

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that there had been no showing that the prohibition on indoor gathering was other than a neutral and generally applicable law, requiring no more than rational basis review.  Id.  

Gateway City Church sought relief from the Ninth Circuit’s order in the Supreme Court.  The request was opposed but one day after the opposition was filed that state advised the Supreme Court that the challenged regulations would soon end.

The Supreme Court declined the tacit invitation to allow the church’s request to become moot, and issued an order declaring the Ninth Circuit to have erred, and in particular erred in denying relief to the church when a contrary result was “clearly dictated” by the decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church.  

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom No. 20A136 , 592 U.S. ___(February 5, 2021)

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, 9th Cir. Order February 12, 2021

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 , U.S. Sup.Ct. Order February 26, 2021

Where Two Or More Have Gathered, Litigation Has Ensued: Maine Church Argues That Recent Decisions Compel The Conclusion That Maine’s Pandemic Capacity Restrictions On Assembly Violate The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment


 

Calvary Chapel of Bangor v. Mills, Governor of the State of Maine, No. 1:20-cv-00156-NT (D. Maine).

Calvary Chapel Church of Bangor, Maine has challenged pandemic-related capacity restrictions on church attendance since shortly after the state imposed those restrictions nearly a year ago.  

The church believes that Maine’s are now the most restrictive assembly limitations in the nation.

Following an appeal to the First Circuit and remand to the federal district court in Maine, Calvary Chapel now argues that recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court and the federal circuit courts of appeals compel the issuance of an injunction against the governor’s restrictions on church attendance.

The church asserts that the state’s pandemic related imposition of limits on church assembly, where similar limits are not imposed on secular entities and activities, unlawfully discriminates against Calvary Chapel of Bangor, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  Moreover, the state’s restrictions impermissibly interfere with the church’s management of its own affairs and, as the restrictions preclude participation in religious services, they violate the Establishment Clause.  

Calvary Chapel of Bangor differs from other congregations that have engaged in challenges to pandemic-related measures.   Calvary Chapel not only serves as a church for community congregants, but also operates a residential program for persons seeking to renew their lives and recover from life-limiting conditions through, among other things, participation in religious assembly.

The pastor of Calvary Chapel of Bangor notes that not only is assembly commanded by scripture, but also that greater fervor is commanded during times of trouble  

The pastor submits that because almost 50 residents are always in place at the residential program, when those residents are called to church services, then community congregants cannot attend, as the gathering would exceed the Governor’s order’s limits.  

Conversely, if congregants were permitted to attend services, the residents would be precluded from doing so. Such a choice diminishes the dignity of all and undermines the effect of the residential treatment program, which envisions full acceptance within the larger community after completion of the program.

The pastor states he finds himself in an untenable situation, as he must choose between violating the law, which has criminal penalties, and violating his beliefs and obligations as minister.

The pastor points out that this choice is an impossible one, and is particularly troubling in a nation founded on principles of freedom of religious worship.

The governor of Maine’s response to the newly filed motion for injunctive relief has not yet been submitted, nor is there any date for hearing established


What follows are links to the Calvary Church brief and the pastor’s declaration and copies of opinions considering challenges to restrictions on Church attendance during the pandemic.

 

Here are links to Calvary Church’s recent submission to the court:

Calvary Chapel v. Mills Renewed Motion for Injunctive Relief

Calvary Chapel v. Mills Declaration of Ken Graves, Pastor

And here are links to recent opinions:

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 592 US (Feb.5, 2021)

Calvary Chapel Bangor v Mills 1st Cir 2020

S Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom (SD Cal 2020) (Dec.)

High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 592 U.S. ( ) Dec. 15, 2020

Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain v Sisolak 9th Cir 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v Sisolak 9th Cir 2020

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v Sisolak 140 S Ct 2603 2020

S Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom 140 S Ct 1613 207 L Ed 2d 154 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)




No Place Like Stay-at-Home for the Holidays: New York Continues to Defend Against Free Exercise Challenges to Restrictions Imposed on “Houses of Worship”


Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3571; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3520 (2nd Cir.) December 28, 2020.


New York continues to contest the application of strict scrutiny review to portions of an order entered last October singling out “houses of worship” for particular capacity restrictions notwithstanding the determination of the U.S. Supreme Court that this most rigorous review is apt for these circumstances. On Monday, the Second Circuit directed a trial court to enjoin enforcement of the restrictions and to conduct further proceedings in light of the Supreme Court’s and the Second Circuit’s determinations.

In conformity with the United States Supreme Court’s analysis, the Second Circuit found the New York orders are subject to strict scrutiny analysis and are not narrowly tailored to serve the important goal of deterring the spread of COVID-19.

Both Jewish and Catholic entities have challenged, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the New York Governor’s orders that are alleged to be unduly harsh toward religion while favoring “essential” secular enterprises and activities.

The state has limited attendance in churches or synagogues on either a fixed number of attendees or a fixed percentage of capacity basis Although the Governor no longer defends the fixed capacity limits, the percentage of capacity limits remain contested, as the Governor has recently asserted that building code calculations differ for certain activities and this may produce different results for secular and religious activities.

The Second Circuit noted that the Free Exercise Clause will not relieve religious groups or individuals from neutral general laws but where a law unduly burdens religion, that law must be subjected to strict scrutiny.

In these cases, the appellate panel held, the Governor’s action on its face singles out religion for different treatment in the absence of any reason for so doing, and there has been no evidence adduced that lesser risks predominated in designating activities as ‘essential.’

Both the fixed number and percentage of capacity measures failed in the Supreme Court’s view, as the distinction between religious and secular groups is premised on an impermissible view of religion as inessential.

The Governor has never argued that its orders are narrowly tailored to inhibit disease, the appellate court observed, and has conceded that the limits on houses of worship are more severe than needed. The absence of any relationship between the number of persons admissible to a house of worship and its overall capacity only underscores this deficiency in the

Governor’s policy.

The notion that the percentage of capacity rules may be salvageable under rational basis analysis has arisen late in the day and will be reviewed on remand.

Similarly consistent with the Supreme Court’s review of these cases, the Second Circuit stressed that Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), is not controlling. Not only were different interests involved in Jacobson, but Jacobson itself stressed that exercises of emergency powers must nonetheless be constitutional.

It is not the law that houses of worship are exempt from constraints during public health emergencies. They are subject to emergency regulations but religious entities cannot be subjected to regulations that are different from and more harsh than those that apply to other entities because of their religious nature.

Denial of First Amendment rights is presumptively harmful, the Second Circuit observed. Moreover, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in its earlier suggestion that observant religious persons could work around some of the restrictions. It is not for courts to interpret or to inject themselves into the meaning of any religious practices, or to suggest that religious groups ought to abandon their practices in favor of equivalents or substitutes in order to avoid constitutional harm.  Such intrusions by the courts would only compound harms to religious interests.

If the Governor’s arguments concerning percentage of capacity limitations are not persuasive on remand, the appellate panel noted, it will be fair for the trial court to presume there has been harm.

The Second Circuit concluded by noting that the public interest is not served by policies that deny constitutionally secured rights where alternatives exist that could avoid such injuries.

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020) December 28, 2020

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)