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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19-71 Tanzin v. Tanvir (12_10_2020)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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)

 

 

 

 

 

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

Federal Court in Maryland Upholds Law Precluding Licensed Professionals from Practicing “Conversion” Therapy on Minors

Doyle, et al.  v. Hogan, et al., No. 19-cv-00190 (D. Md.) Motion to Dismiss Granted September 20, 2019.


A Maryland statute governing the provision of mental health services precludes provision of “conversion” therapy to minors.  Violation of the statute carries the risk of professional censure. 

“Conversion” therapy is the name applied to interventions intended to reorient an individual’s sexual identity, presumably from same sex or other preferences to heterosexual interest.  “Conversion” therapy has received substantial disapprobation from professional groups, and some professionals advocate that even if there were evidence to support the efficacy of conversion therapy, it should not be offered to minors.

Plaintiff Doyle asserted in federal court that the preclusion of delivery of conversion therapy to minors unconstitutionally impaired his speech rights and his religious liberty. 

The court disagreed, finding that while the conversion therapy involved speech, the administration of therapy was in fact conduct outside the realm of constitutional concern.  

Moreover, the court observed, the therapist’s freedom to speak of or about conversion therapy remains untouched by the statute.  A mental health services provider may provide information about or express an opinion about conversion therapy without fear. 

Central to the court’s determination was the inability of minors to provide informed consent for treatment. As the state interest in the health and well being of minors is at least substantial, if not compelling, imposing limitations on professional conduct to which the minor is legally unable to consent is not unreasonable.  In that minor children are not capable of autonomously exercising informed consent and in that others may exercise consent on their behalf, the state is not wrong in protecting minors from treatment to which they could not accede as a matter of law.

The court concluded that as therapist’s speech interests are not within the statute’s purview, neither were free exercise rights abridged, as the prohibition on “conversion” therapy for minors is a law of general applicability which does not substantially interfere with any belief or practice of religion.

The statute applies only to those who are licensed practitioners within Maryland.

Doyle v. Hogan (D. MD.) September 20, 2019

The Constitutional and Cultural Clash Between Compelled Speech and Commercial Equanimity Continues: Arizona Holds Municipal Human Rights Act Unconstitutional As Applied to E-Commerce Custom-Made Wedding Invitations and Recognizes Claim Under State Free Exercise of Religion Act

Brush & Nib, LLC v. Phoenix, No. 18-cv-0176-PR. (Az.) September 16, 2019.


The Arizona Supreme Court has concluded that the Phoenix ordinance requiring equal treatment for all persons cannot be applied to compel the creation of wedding invitations for same-sex couples in view of the protections afforded pure speech and those afforded sincerely held religious beliefs under state law. 

A Product-Specific Decision. The court recognized the design and handmade productions of wedding invitations to be artistic creations protected as pure speech while refusing to opine concerning other aspects of plaintiffs’ business.  

An As-Applied Challenge. A portion of the municipal law that forbade statements that persons within protected classes would be unwelcome in a place of public accommodation was declared unconstitutionally vague by the Arizona Court of Appeals, leaving only an as-applied challenge before the Supreme Court.

Speech Doctrines, Protections, and Their Limits. The court noted that although the Arizona Constitution offers greater speech protections than does the United States Constitution, the distinction does not disturb the result in this case. 

The “compelled speech” doctrine developed by the United States Supreme Court establishes that the First Amendment forbids the government from demanding that an individual speak where to do so would offend his deepest beliefs.  This protection of autonomy and against compulsion extends to any requirement that an individual adopt the speech of others where to do so would offend his deepest beliefs.  

Not all speech enjoys the protection of the “compelled speech” doctrine, but “pure speech,” which includes original artwork, is protected by the First Amendment because of its self-expressive nature and not because of the medium chosen or the presence or absence of a particular message.

While a business does not forfeit First Amendment protections because it operates for profit, neither does it enjoy a blanket exemption from the laws generally applicable to commerce because the business involves speech or creative expression.  

Accordingly, plaintiffs’ business is not insulated by the First Amendment, but the particular custom made designs and products in issue do enjoy constitutional protection. 

Artistic Expression, Not Discriminatory Conduct. The court rejected the city’s argument that discriminatory conduct and not protected creation were in issue, and in particular rejected the suggestion that the plaintiffs’ position is a proxy for discrimination, for even if some protected groups were affected more than others by plaintiffs’ position, that does not cause plaintiffs’ to forfeit First Amendment protections.  Plaintiffs have no issue with same sex customers but aver that same sex marriage falls outside the Christian faith that is central to their enterprise.

It does not matter, the majority observed, that the creative process is collaborative with the customer or that no “endorsement” of same sex marriage is involved.

Ordinance Not Content Neutral As Applied. The court concluded that the ordinance, while content neutral, became content based as applied, and that, notwithstanding that a compelling state interest in fairness and equality in commerce are embodied in the ordinance, the breadth of the statute was fatal when strict scrutiny analysis was undertaken.  An ordinance aimed at inhibiting discriminatory conduct which includes speech within its sweep cannot be said to be sufficiently narrowly tailored to the government goal to be upheld. Speech regulations, where permissible, must be approached as “minimums, not maximums”

A Pointed Clash.  The majority chastened the dissenting judges for what it perceived to be hyperbolic revivification of history and stressed that the court’s conclusions in no way may be seen as permitting any merchant to fail to comply with the Phoenix public accommodations law. 

Religious Free Exercise Claim Valid. The majority concluded that plaintiffs articulated a viable claim under the state religious freedom act which, like its federal analog, provides that an individual may be exempted from a generally applicable law if compliance with the law would unduly burden the individual’s religious beliefs and the state may otherwise accomplish its legitimate ends.  

Plaintiffs are inarguably Christian and the compelled creation of work contrary to their beliefs would burden the exercise of their faith, the court observed.  The state would not similarly suffer if plaintiffs were exempted, for the surviving provisions of the public accommodations ordinance remain undisturbed.  

Conformity to Uniformity Not Outcome-Determinative. The need for uniformity in the administration of the law cannot be permitted to deny essential First Amendment rights, and the city’s speculation about flood-tides of applications for exemption is hypothetical and, in any case, it is the obligation of the courts and administrative bodies to make the sorts of determinations about claims that permitting exemptions would require.

Phoenix Not Without Armature. Neither has the city been forced to forfeit its general interest in public welfare at the altar of personal religious liberty, the majority observed, for the city may contest the sincerity of any asserted religious belief, may challenge any religious assertions as pretextual and reflective of an overarching discriminatory intent.  Finally, the city may show that any exemption contemplated would create too great a burden on the city to be permissible.

Litigative Burden Ameliorated. That plaintiffs have prevailed on their state free exercise law  claim entitles them to an award of attorneys’ fees.

Concurrence Cheers State Constitutional Protections.  One judge wrote separately to encourage the celebration of Arizona’s constitutional speech protections, which are thought to be more extensive than those of the U.S. Constitution.  The concurrence urged that the court consider its own state’s constitution rather than too readily looking to federal decisions. 

Errors Noted and Civil Rights Regression Decried. Dissenting judges have opined that the majority has erred in permitting anodyne and uniform wedding invitations providing the same information for all customers to become art subject to First Amendment protection and to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  

Going Too Far to No Good End. The dissent questioned the majority’s need to reach constitutional questions where they need not be in addressing the application of this municipal ordinance.  

There Are No Less Restrictive Means. The dissent stressed that at issue is a content neutral conduct regulation for which no less restrictive means of application can be found:  either merchants are precluded from discriminating on the basis of protected status, or they are not. If they are permitted to discriminate, the statute fails of its essential — and recognized — compelling end. 

Infected with Bad Thinking. The dissent scorned the majority for embracing the pernicious idea that a refusal to sell to certain customers is protected expression and that the public interest in equality is insufficient to require a business to serve all customers where an element of expression is involved. 

Equanimity and Equal Treatment Cannot Be A Substantial Burden. The dissent noted that the concept of a “substantial burden” on religious exercise is not clearly defined, but found it difficult to imagine that such a burden could be found where enforcement of the ordinance would require only that the plaintiffs make and sell the same product for same sex couples as it does for others.

In the Business of Serving the Public, Not the Business Owners Beliefs. Businesses cannot be permitted to discriminate based on the business owners’ views, or the entire public accommodations law scheme will be defeated.  

Offering the Same to All Cannot Be So Different. A dissenting judge writing separately takes issue with the idea that any speech is being compelled where the plaintiffs are being asked only to create  the same product for all, and also observes that no part of the plaintiffs’ beliefs are being burdened by being asked to treat all customers equally. Plaintiffs are not facing a forced choice between their beliefs and their livelihood, as they are not being asked to support same sex marriage, only to treat all customers equally.  

Suggestive of Diametrically Opposed Weltanschauungs. The majority and the dissenting justices in this case appear to hold fundamentally different intellectual and legal constructs of the issues central to the case, with each compelling the exact opposite ordering of constitutional and statutory priorities. The majority holds sacrosanct the principles of individual autonomy and freedom from government interference in speech, expression and faith.  The dissent does not see this case as one in which the government is compelling the plaintiffs to act in disharmony with their beliefs, but one in which the plaintiffs seek to conduct their business in a way that discriminates against certain customers,which conduct cannot enjoy First Amendment protection. For the dissenting justices, the recognition of plaintiffs’ claims undermines the primacy of the protections accorded to equal consideration for all in the marketplace.

Brush & Nib, LLC, et al. v. City of Phoenix, S.Ct. AZ, September 16, 2019

Video of Oral Argument in Brush & Nib LLC v. City of Phoenix

Court of Appeals Opinion:

Brush & Nib LLC v. City of Phoenix, 1 CA-CV 16-0602