Does RFRA’s Least Restrictive Means Test Violate the Constitution?

Those pressing the claim that an exemption in the contraception mandate cases before the Supreme Court would violate the Establishment Clause face a few challenges–doctrinal, textual, and historical. The one that interests me in this post is that the test they favor is in considerable tension with the RFRA framework. Under the interpretation of the Establishment Clause being pressed, it seems to me that the least restrictive means test that represents the third prong of the strict scrutiny standard in RFRA and RLUIPA is constitutionally suspect.

Recall the theory: religious accommodations are unconstitutional if they shift “significant burdens” onto a “focused and identifiable class of third parties.” For the moment, leave aside the “focused and identifiable” component. We know that under RFRA, the religious claimant must allege a substantial burden on religious exercise. If it does so, the burden shifts to the government to show that the substantial burden on religious exercise it has imposed is justified by a compelling governmental interest. But the government must also show that it is using the least restrictive means to achieve its interest. So, for example, the government cannot simply say that the contraception mandate is supported by its compelling interest in good health care, full stop. Its statement of its interest is invariably focused and refined by the need to demonstrate that it has used the narrowest means available–that means which least burdens the religious claimant–to achieve its interest. And the least restrictive means component of the RFRA test is, in fact, one of the points on which it has been argued that the government’s case for the contraception mandate is weakest.

Suppose one accepts the claim that any “significant” burden resulting from cost shifting onto third parties triggers an Establishment Clause claim (again, for the moment, set to the side the question of what constitutes a “focused and identifiable” group). It seems to me that one would also be saying that the least restrictive means test is at least presumptively constitutionally suspect. The more narrowly tailored a means is so as to avoid burdens on religious objectors, the more probable it becomes that the means selected will burden third party interests. There may perhaps be rare occasions when an accommodation imposes no costs at all on third parties. But very often this will look like a sliding scale: as the imposition on the religiously burdened party decreases, the imposition on third parties increases. And by the time that one gets to the least restrictive means, the sliding scale is very much calibrated against the third party interests. By that point, it will have become highly probable–in some cases verging on certain–that the means chosen will impose “significant” burdens on third parties.

Take these cases.

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