On the Claim That Exemptions From the Contraception Mandate Violate the Establishment Clause

I am glad to see that in the wake of the cert. grants for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, there has been a frothing up of interest in the issues presented by these cases, issues that we here have been discussing for quite some time at CLR Forum. In this post, I want to address one such new claim.

Professors Nelson Tebbe and Micah Schwartzman (T&S) recently argued that an exemption from the contraception mandate under RFRA for employers like Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood would violate the Establishment Clause. They elaborate on their claim here and here. Many of the arguments are derived from this paper by Professor Fred Gedicks and Rebecca Van Tassell. The core of the argument is that granting an exemption from the mandate would privilege or favor religion inasmuch as it would shift the burden of purchasing contraception to third parties–i.e., the employees of the exempted corporations. The key to understanding the argument is their reliance on a Burger Court case, Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, which involved an exemption for employees from working on their Sabbath day. A Presbyterian who wished not to work on Sunday sued Caldor after the company dismissed him from a management position because he would not work Sunday. Because the law took absolutely no account of the secular interests of third parties (the employers), the law was found to violate the Establishment Clause. The “unyielding weighting in favor of Sabbath observers” resulted in a major burden on employers. T&S rely especially on this quote of Judge Learned Hand cited in Thornton: “The First Amendment … gives no one the right to insist that, in pursuit of their own interests, others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities.” T&S (as well as Gedicks and Van Tassell) note that the principle of Thornton was restated in dicta in a more recent case, Cutter v. Wilkinson, which involved the application of RLUIPA. Justice Ginsburg, in dicta, said that in applying RLUIPA, “courts must take adequate account of the burdens a requested accommodation may impose on nonbeneficiaries.”

I think the argument is interesting, but mistaken. In truth, I have never understood Thornton very well at all and find it to be a difficult case. So I’ll start with a few basic points about exemptions and RFRA.

First, any exemption in this context will be directed toward benefiting some religious practice, and by being so directed, it will necessarily not benefit all others–i.e., “third parties.” If all choices to protect a specific form of religious exercise violate the Establishment Clause, then all exemptions for religion are Establishment Clause violations. The only thing that would be left for legislators is a law like RFRA, which accommodates religious exercise generally. Could it really be the case that the only thing the Establishment Clause permits is all or nothing? I don’t think so, and the Court has never said so. Professor Schwartzman, in other contexts, has questioned whether religion is a special category at all. If that argument were accepted and given constitutional force, then even laws like RFRA would be unconstitutional, because if the choice to protect religious exercise over non-religious ethical belief advances religion, then both specific and general accommodations are unconstitutional. The Court has not adopted that view. As Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos (1987) put it, “This Court has long recognized that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices, and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause.”

Second, all exemptions burden third parties in one way or another. An exemption from laws proscribing peyote smoking imposes social costs of various kinds on third parties. An exemption from compulsory school attendance laws does so as well. An exemption for prisoners from wearing prison uniforms will burden prison officials and guards, and ultimately, everyone who is invested in a uniform system of penal justice. Indeed, one could go much further: all rights have costs that fall on third parties (you pick the context–the speech clause, Miranda rights, etc.). Thornton does not say that any time there is any shifting of burdens, the Establishment Clause is violated. Chief Justice Burger’s opinion was much, much narrower than that. It left open the possibility that a more carefully crafted Sabbath exemption law would be constitutional. That is more or less the upshot of Sherbert v. Verner (which was treated as good law by Thornton), where the Court held that a Seventh-day Adventist could not be denied unemployment compensation benefits because she refused to work on the Sabbath. In affirming that case, the Thornton Court is also affirming that it is perfectly constitutional for a state to exempt employees from Sabbath work on religious grounds, thereby imposing the costs of that exemption on third parties. All that Thornton is saying is that a law which imposes extremely severe burdens on secular interests through an “unyielding weighting of” religious interests over those other interests, and which takes no account of the secular interests at all, is constitutionally problematic. Consider an example. Under the Connecticut law at issue in Thornton, a school that is open only 5 days a week would have to provide Sabbath day exemptions to any teacher that asked for it. The burden on the school might be so severe as to impede its ability to function–compelling it even to close. The Thornton Court said that it had to “take pains not to compel people to act in the name of any religion.” (emphasis mine). It’s that kind of extreme burden on secular interests that rendered this law unconstitutional. Another obvious example might be an accommodation that interfered with a third party’s religious freedom–compelling the third party to engage in religious activities. Yet while the Court has said that “[a]t some point, accommodation may devolve into ‘an unlawful fostering of religion,'” Amos, only an extreme and absolute imposition on third party interests would justify that conclusion.

Third, both Thornton and a case like Texas Monthly v. Bullock seem to suggest that the burden imposed on secular interests must be state-imposed. Here the question is somewhat complicated inasmuch as the “burden” on employees is said to result from the combination of private claims and state power. Nevertheless, what these cases concerned is the alleviation of burdens on religious or secular beliefs imposed by the state.

Fourth, T&S wonder why nobody has made much of the Establishment Clause claim. But I think there is a good reason. RFRA incorporates certain limits to accommodation. That is, it would be a very rare RFRA (or RLUIPA) accommodation indeed which was constitutionally problematic under Thornton, because all RFRA (and RLUIPA) accommodations need to satisfy the substantial burden, compelling interest, least-restrictive-means threshold. The law at issue in Thornton, according to the Court required an accommodation “no matter what burden or inconvenience this imposes” on third parties. But the standard for RFRA accommodations is not, “you must grant the accommodation no matter what burden or inconvenience this imposes.” Accommodations must pass the government compelling interest threshold. If they do, they seem very much not to be violations of the Establishment Clause rule laid out in Thornton. In fact, many of the arguments about third party harms that T&S make have already been briefed by mandate advocates as part of the RFRA calculus. So they haven’t been ignored. They just haven’t been analyzed under the Thornton Establishment Clause framework, because Congress already saw to that in the statutes.

But let’s consider the Establishment Clause precedents on their own.

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Symposium on State-Sponsored Religious Displays Now in Print

Just in time for the Christmas Wars, the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies has published papers from a symposium on state-sponsored religious displays that the Center co-sponsored with our our sister school, the Libera Universita Maria SS Assunta (LUMSA), in Rome last year. The papers compare the treatment of such displays in the United States and Europe. Contributors include Silvio Ferrari  of the University of Milan (“State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols In The Public Space”); Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas (“Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?”); Monica Lugato of LUMSA (“The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation And Subsidiarity”); and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals (“Religious Symbols and the Law”). There’s also an introduction by me. You can download the articles here