School Is Out! Or Is It? Supreme Court to Consider School’s Constitutional Capacity to Discipline Student’s Off-Site Online Speech


Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al., No. 20-255 (S. Ct.).  Oral argument scheduled for April 28, 2021 at 10 a.m.


Student B.L., who was all in on cheerleading activities, was distressed to learn that a less senior student had jumped the line to the varsity squad, while she, with a year’s experience to her credit, remained on the junior varsity squad.  As is normative among digital natives, B.L. made her views known online on the social media application Snapchat.  B.L. did not have a good word to say, and indeed she used some words that a grandmother might kindly term “unladylike.”

Soon thereafter the school was abuzz with the news of B.L.’s postings.  School administrators, displeased with her having posted material that it considered disrespectful and disruptive of school and school-related activities, determined that she ought to sit the cheerleading season out.  This was fiercely protested by B.L. and her family.  The school would not budge, and this case, which questions how much off-site speech a school may discipline, ensued.

During the Viet Nam War, students protesting the United States’ participation in that conflict came to school wearing black arm bands to signify their disagreement.  When a school tried to countermand this activity, the Supreme Court disciplined the school instead.  In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Court concluded that minor students are not without Constitutional rights, including speech and expressive rights.  Schools may not interfere with students’ speech and expressive activities except where the ordinary activity of the school or the rights of others may be substantially disrupted thereby.

Life today is no longer constrained geographically as in the past.  Communication is instant online and that communication may reach an audience any time and any where.   Boundaries as they once were known are no more, leaving schools to wonder how they might navigate the shoals of order and expression.

The petitioning school district argues that it was error for the trial and appellate courts to interpret Tinker as inapplicable to off-site activity.  Schools, responsible for so much of students’ lives in the day to day, must be able to maintain civility when offsite online behavior interferes with order or threatens others.

B.L. counters that the First Amendment rights recognized in Tinker would be meaningless if students, fearful of condemnation and harsh consequences from school authorities, were not able to communicate online as they would wish.

The United States, as amicus with a bit more clout than many other amici, while favoring the school’s position, suggests that there are several lenses with which to evaluate the interests of the parties, but asks the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower courts for further developments.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Joint Appendix

Mahanoy Area School District v B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Respondents

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Reply Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 United States’ Amicus Curiae Brief

Funny Things Have Happened on the Way to the Fora: Justice Thomas Proffers Adapting Common Carrier Law to Digital Media to Address Speech Concerns

Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, No. 20-197 (April 5, 2021).


Former President Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari review of a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held that his use of his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump for administration messages made the account a public space.  As such, the former president could not block others’ or their responses without violating the First Amendment. 

 

In view of the change in presidents, the Supreme Court granted the petition but remanded it to the Second Circuit to vacate its opinion and dismiss the case as moot.

 

While in agreement with the Court’s determination, Justice Thomas has written separately that subsequent events and a more careful analysis of the balance of powers between digital media platforms and its users calls into question the applicability of First Amendment analysis.  

 

Justice Thomas is of the view that the time has arrived for a close look at digital platforms, particularly where it now appears that extraordinarily broad powers reside in the hands of a few individuals and entities that control the internet. 

 

Twitter banned former President Trump from its platform, which Twitter may do, according to Twitter’s rules of use, for any reason or for no reason.  This, in Justice Thomas’ view, highlights how extensive the digital platforms’ powers are.  It is less readily apparent that an individual has created a public forum, traditionally defined as a ‘“government controlled” space, when a private individual or entity can unilaterally deny access to its digital platform.

 

If First Amendment analyses become an uneasy — if not wholly inappropriate — fit in such circumstances, Justice Thomas has suggested that resort to the common law and subsequent developments concerning regulation of common carriers may present opportunities for legislative action.  Where common carriers such as communications and transportation entities receive special privileges as a result of government regulation, they also must, as a result, adopt responsibilities, including limitations on a private entitiy’s rights of exclusion such that common carriers must treat clients and customers equally.  While market power has traditionally been a part of common carrier analyses, it is not a determining factor:  entities of differing sizes and contours may be “common carriers” responsible for transport, whether on highways or rails or telephone wires or otherwise.  



This framework, grounded in common carrier constructs as well as civil rights concepts applicable to public accommodations, might offer an opportunity to make inroads in the nation’s understanding of how best to adapt the law to the digital area. Perhaps best of all, Justice Thomas has observed, this approach could aid all concerned without requiring that digital platforms sacrifice their own First Amendment rights or be perceived to have endorsed any of the speech presented on its platforms.  


Supreme Court Determination 

20-197 Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia Univ. (04_05_2021)

Second Circuit Decision Regarding Rehearing en banc:

Knight First Amendment Inst at Columbia Univ v Trump 953 F3d 216 Mem 2nd Cir 2020

Second Circuit Decision on Appeal:

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 928 F3d 226 2nd Cir 2019

Opinion of the United States District Court

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 302 F Supp 3d 541 SD NY 2018


 



 

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

From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 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

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

From the Same Hymnal: Message of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuo to Be Adopted in Ninth and Tenth Circuits


High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 592 U.S. ___ , December 15, 2020; Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir.), December 15, 2020.


This week both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the recent New York determination that pandemic restrictions on public gatherings cannot be more restrictive for religious gatherings than for others.  

In the Calvary Chapel case, the Ninth Circuit has concluded that petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits in their challenge to Nevada’s pandemic-related public gathering restrictions because the disparate treatment accorded to secular and religious groups cannot survive strict scrutiny analysis,  Permitting secular activities at 50% of capacity while limiting religious gatherings to 50 persons without reference to capacity unduly burdens religion.  Pending review in the federal trial court, the Ninth Circuit has granted injunctive relief ordering that no more harsh restriction than 25% of fire code capacity may be attached to in-person religious gatherings.  

The Supreme Court has reiterated that the decision and analysis applied to restrictions on religious services announced in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20A87, 592 U.S.  _____, November 25, 2020, and has directed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to address the challenge to Colorado’s pandemic-related restrictions accordingly.  

Three justices dissented because they believe that the case is moot, as Colorado removed the challenged restrictions following the Court’s November determination concerning New York’s emergency measures.  

JustLawful Observation:  Some may be consoled that Christmas and Chanukah gatherings may have been saved by the Supreme Court’s intervention in New York, which will be applied elsewhere, while others may question why it required the intervention of the nation’s highest court to do what custom and practice, even in a public emergency, once might have dictated.  The more comforting lesson may be that the Supreme Court has rejected the states’ arguments that the Court’s early 20th century views of states’ expansive emergency powers permits unequal treatment of religious and secular activities.   Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)  was and remains good law, but Jacobson did not decide the questions presented in the present cases, and the Court is not willing to expand states’ powers beyond the limits of the First Amendment. 

High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis 20A105 December 15, 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir.) December 15, 2020

Roman Catholic Diocese of New York v. Cuomo 20A87 (U.S.) November 25 2020

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)

The Constitution Is Not Under Quarantine: U.S. Supreme Court Enjoins New York’s Pandemic Restrictions on Religious Gatherings



Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No 20A87; Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20A90, 592 U.S.  _____. Injunctions pending appeal entered November 25, 2020.


The Supreme Court has enjoined the operation of New York’s executive orders limiting religious gatherings pending resolution of Free Exercise challenges in the Second Circuit or regulation of any petition for certiorari.  The court’s ostensibly per curiam opinion is accompanied by two separate concurrences and three separate dissents.

Executive Orders concerning public health have been issued and been modified and remain in effect or subject to further modification since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic.  These emergency measures, in board brush, are an admixture of geographic zones of danger combined with purportedly correlative restraints on public gatherings for secular or religious purposes.  The measures may be enhanced or relaxed as the perception of prevalence or risk changes. 

Both Orthodox Jewish and Catholic organizations have challenged the imposition of restraints on attendance at religious services in New York during the Covid-19 pandemic as violative of the  Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The restrictions apply to the religious entities more harshly than the more liberal constraints on ‘essential’ or commercial entities, they have argued.  The measures have no bearing on reality, the petitioners submit, as there is no reason for limiting the numbers of those who may attend services to an inordinately small number where in fact churches and synagogues have the capacity to accommodate hundreds.  

There is no question of compliance and there have been no known incidents of illness relating to the operation of the synagogues and services. 

Both petitioners were denied relief in the district and appellate courts.  Decision on the merits in the Second Circuit awaits briefing and argument in December.

Immediately after petitions were filed in the United States Supreme Court, the Governor relaxed restraints that had applied.  

The Governor has argued that the pandemic restrictions favor churches and that no relief is necessary as the measures complained of are no longer in effect.

The Supreme Court has disagreed.  

The Supreme Court has concluded that strict scrutiny must be applied to the emergency measures, and that these measures cannot withstand this scrutiny, as there is no doubt of the impact on religion and no support for the capacity of the measures to serve the government’s ends.  Because the measures recently relaxed may be just as suddenly enhanced, the threats to the religious groups remain real and palpable.  As the groups have established a likelihood of success on the merits, and as the harm to first amendment interests is present and ongoing, relief pending review in the Second Circuit is appropriate. 

The Court’s per curiam opinion makes plain that the latitude accorded the political branches to act to ensure public health during crises is not unlimited:  “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” particularly where the restrictions in question strike at core constitutional concerns.  Slip Op. at pp. 5-6.  

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to stress the vitality of the Constitution during the pandemic, stressing that “Government is not free to disregard the First amendment in times of crisis.”  Slip. Gorsuch dissent  at 2.  The particular orders in issue, subject by their nature to strict scrutiny analysis, merit the observation that public health has uncannily allied with secular convenience.  If the Constitution  has “taken a holiday” during the pandemic, this may not be permitted to become “a sabbatical.”  Gorsuch dissent at 3.  

Justice Gorsuch takes particular aim at the Supreme Court’s and the lower courts’ reliance on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11  (1905 ) as support for plenary emergency powers during crises that must be accorded judicial deference.  Jacobson involved different rights and offered the affected a range of options, which the restrictions upon churches do not.  As the current restrictions involve core constitutional concerns, Jacobson does not control.  Even if deference is due the political branches, all emergency measures must measure up to Constitutional commands.  

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate concurrence, noting that New York’s restrictions are more stringent than those of other locations.  Once discriminatory measures are imposed, it is not good enough to not that they apply to others, he observed.  Once a favored class is created, the state must say why those who are less favored are excluded.  

Justice Kavanaugh takes a programmatic view of the Court’s offer of relief.  If the recently relaxed regulations are abandoned, the petitioners will be protected but if there is not change there is no impact.  The petitioners will at least be permitted some clarity during the pending appellate process.

Chief Justice Roberts has dissented, opining that there is no injunctive relief required where the challenged measures are no longer in effect.  If that were to change the petitioners could return to the court. An order instructing the governor not to do what is not being done cannot be said to meet the standards required for awarding injunctive relief.  

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have joined in dissent to emphasize that there is no present need for intervention and that if intervention was needed, the parties could return and the need for relief could be promptly assessed and addressed.  The justices opine that it is not clear that the restrictions violate the Free Exercise clause and that the interests of public health  and  safety must be balanced against religion.  The courts have and must continue to recognize that assessments and interventions affecting public health crises, with their concomitant likely needs for prompt action, are the province of the political branches.  

Justice Sotomayor, with Justice Kagan, wrote a separate dissent, expressing fear that further suffering may follow from the Supreme Court’s order.  The worry is that success of the stringent measures has rendered them inapplicable, yet because of the court’s intervention, the more stringent measures may not be revived if they are needed. In Justice Sotomayor’s view, New York’s actions fall comfortably within the confines of prior analyses that hold that a law is not necessarily constitutionally infirm if it impacts religion provided there is reasonable parity with secular restrictions.  

Here, where it has been shown that New York has preferred religious gatherings over others, neither intervention nor heightened scrutiny appears apt, the justice offers.

Disregarding or second guessing the governor with respect to matters of public health is a “deadly game,” in this dissenting view.  And the mere reference to religion within the measures will not suffice to make them discriminatory.  Any statement by the governor mentioning a particular religion likewise cannot establish discrimination, where statements by the President about a religious or ethnic group were set aside by the Court in reviewing the neutrality of travel measures in their entirety.  

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 20A87 Order November 25, 2020

Agudath Israel et al. v. Cuomo 20A90 Order November 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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