The Atrophic Free Exercise Clause

The Supreme Court has had essentially nothing of substance to say about it over the last 23 years. The contraction of whatever rights are protected by it proceeds apace. In this article a couple of years ago, I noted that religious accommodation–

one of the most vital issues of religious free exercise that at one time implicated the Free Exercise Clause directly—has by now largely become entirely statutory. The Roberts Court has decided or issued substantive orders in 4 cases involving either RFRA or RLUIPA [excluding the nonprofit contraception mandate litigation]. In the same period it has decided only one case (perhaps) partially about the Free Exercise Clause, a case in any event that is arguably not about religious accommodation at all and that represents a carve-out from general free exercise principles. The single case that brought both statutory and free exercise claims was resolved solely on the basis of the statutory claim without any decision as to free exercise.

It is tempting to attribute the reason for this transition from the Free Exercise Clause to statute law entirely to the holding of Employment Division v. Smith, which ostensibly precluded judicial review as to laws that are neutral and of general application. To be sure, the rule announced in Smith has contracted the number of Free Exercise Clause challenges. And yet there are features of Smith—most notably the issue of the meaning of “general applicability” and the scope of what I have elsewhere described as the “individual-assessment exception” to Smith—that have suggested to several lower courts that accommodations are constitutionally required far more often than may appear under Smith. To date, however, the Supreme Court has declined to hear any cases raising a direct challenge to Smith.

The enfeeblement of the Free Exercise Clause continues. Last week, the Court denied cert. in Stormans v. Wiesman (with Justice Alito dissenting from the denial, in an opinion joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas), a case about Washington State’s regulations requiring the stocking of drugs in pharmacies that provided exemptions for various secular reasons (business reasons, for example) but not for religious reasons. The case presented a golden opportunity for the Court to clarify what exactly “generally applicable” means under the test given to us a full generation ago by Employment Division v. Smith. Both Mark and I joined an excellent amicus brief urging the Court to do so.

No dice. Disappointing, but not surprising. Justice Kennedy, after all, was in the Smith majority, and while he authored the majority opinion in Lukumi-Babalu, his opinion offered a rather confused and confusing reading of general applicability (Justice Scalia’s concurrence was much better on this point). He joined four other Justices in denying cert.

But the larger point is that the Free Exercise Clause, at least as a possible source of accommodation, is increasingly a dead letter. Unless one has evidence of explicit discriminatory motivation in the making of exceptions (and it’s got to be really explicit), one should expect the Clause to offer nothing. The Court has little interest in saying anything else about the Free Exercise Clause, other than raising it as a kind of weak, pseudo-justification for carve-outs like the ministerial exception.

There are all sorts of political and cultural reasons for the atrophying of the Free Exercise Clause, of course. Some of those reasons are, I plan to argue in a new paper tentatively titled Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization, pretty good reasons. But whatever the reasons–good or bad–they are not going away. In a generation or less, the Free Exercise Clause may well find itself in the company of the Privileges or Immunities Clause and the Third Amendment.

NYPD Beard Policy Violates the Free Exercise Clause

I am a little late in noting this decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York involving a Free Exercise Clause challenge to the New York Police Department’s facial hair policy by a NYPD probationary police officer. The probationary officer is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish community, and his faith prohibits him from cutting his facial hair. The NYPD’s policy generally prohibits the wearing of beards but makes exceptions for undercover duties, medical conditions, and religious reasons, but the last two exceptions require written approval. In practice, however, even accommodated beards may only be 1 millimeter or less in length, and the plaintiff’s natural beard grew to 1 inch. So the accommodations would not work for the plaintiff, because they would require him to trim his beard.

After his request for exemption was denied and he was eventually fired, the plaintiff sued under the Free Exercise Clause. One might think that the plaintiff would lose, because the policy was neutral as to religion and applied generally (see Employment Division v. Smith). But the plaintiff won. The City argued that the beard policy and the 1 millimeter exemption was a neutral, generally applicable rule, but the court disagreed. It said: “‘[f]acial neutrality is not determinative’ when the record shows that Plaintiff was terminated pursuant to a policy that is not uniformly enforced.”

What is particularly interesting is the nature of the exemptions that the court found trigger strict scrutiny. It isn’t just the stated exemptions in the policy. It’s the  fact that “the undisputed record demonstrates that de facto exemptions to the one-millimeter rule abound.” There were temporary exemptions to the one millimeter rule granted for religious reasons and family reasons. And there was under-enforcement of the one millimeter rule against officers who violated the policy for unspecified reasons. The court also rejected the City’s claim that shaving is necessary in order to render effective the fitness testing apparatus used by the Department, which is fitted over the officers’ mouth and needs to sit flush against the face. There was evidence that some officers were accommodated as to this requirement for medical reasons, and so strict scrutiny applied when plaintiff’s request for accommodation on religious grounds was denied. Here the court relied on then-Judge Alito’s famous police-beard case in Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge #12 v. City of Newark, in which the court held that where the government has made a “value judgment” that medical reasons are more important than religious reasons, strict scrutiny applies.

I’ve written before several times about the gaping hole (see Chapter Eight) in Smith that is being broadened all the time by the problem of the general applicability exception carved right into Smith itself. In this case, it isn’t only explicit exemptions to the policy that trigger strict scrutiny, but the “de facto” exemptions and accommodations in implementation and administration of the policy. If discretion in enforcement of a policy, and the exceptions that governments make all the time to their rules, really do trigger strict scrutiny, then one should expect to see the number of free exercise claims greatly increase in the coming years. Smith’s rule will look a whole lot less rule-like than it actually appears. What free exercise effect this expanding exception to Smith may have on other sorts of cases in which executive and administrative discretion as to the enforcement of the law is high remains to be seen.

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Hutterite Case

The Supreme Court today denied certiorari in Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Montana Department of Labor and Industry–a case appealed from a decision of the Montana Supreme Court involving amendments to the Montana state workers’ compensation laws that brought the Hutterite Colonies (a religious group with roots in the 16th century Anabaptist movement) within the coverage of those laws when members performed agricultural, manufacturing, or construction services. The Hutterites brought constitutional claims arguing that they should be exempted from these laws (that is, they should not be designated as “employers”) because their members receive no wages. The Montana Supreme Court rejected those claims in a 4-3 decision.

I was pleased to sign on to an excellent amicus brief in the case spearheaded by Tom Berg arguing for what is, in my view, a correct interpretation of the “generally applicable” component of the Free Exercise Clause test after Employment Division v. Smith (an interpretation that I have also discussed in my book). I am sorry that the Court passed up the chance to clarify that portion of the test.

Kontorovich on the Council of Europe’s New Recommendation to Ban Circumcision

Eugene Kontorovich has an interesting and, to my mind, in portions persuasive comment on the Council of Europe’s new recommendation that nations should consider banning circumcision. I say this as someone who disagrees with Professor Kontorovich about the constitutional merits of the test laid out in Employment Division v. Smith. Indeed, as I have written before, there is a largely unfounded optimism in the wisdom and good will of democratic majorities that is presumed in the approach of Smith–a presumption that is borne out beautifully when the majority is with you, but less well when it turns against you. An aristocratic (in the Tocquevillian sense) buffer (see the judiciary) on the moral certitudes of popular, democratic fancy is a healthful thing, particularly when it serves to remind the people of its fundamental, deeply rooted, political traditions.

That is why I have some questions about the first half of Professor Kontorovich’s comment, and it is also the reason that though I sympathize with the final line of his post, I find that the Smith approach is likely to make things much worse. But the second half seems right on target to me. A bit:

Yet from a broader perspective, such measures are [an] historic, epochal, dizzying step backward for religious liberty. They are illiberal and intolerant in the deep sense. Jews have been allowed to fully practice their religion on the Continent since even before the Enlightenment (though subject to other restrictions). Now, at the time of the supposed greatest openness and freedom, the end of religious wars, the central Jewish rite would be banned.

It requires an extraordinary moral certitude to conclude that one established the evil of a universal normative practice of the oldest monotheistic religion, a practice that Europeans, including anti-Semites, have tolerated for as long as Jews have been there. Burkeans they are not, at the Council of Europe.

This represents a massive failure of the liberal imagination. Tolerance requires, perhaps more important than legal restraints, habits of the mind. All religious practices seem odd and bizarre to outsiders. Tolerance requires understanding the importance of these practices to the practitioner – a lack of total certitude . . . .

Indeed, the new European conscience might find circumcision repugnant, but certainly not as repugnant as Protestants and Catholics in Europe for centuries regarded each other’s practices. Yet for over 300 years, they have been able to live and worship fully in each other’s countries. On this backdrop, anti-circumcision legislation shows how far back we have gone while making progress.

It seems that such laws are a product less of an anti-Semitic mind-set than an anti-religious one, in which a practice that seems odd is more likely to be barbaric if it is a religious rite. Today’s secularism may be less forgiving than yesterday’s pietism. . . .

There are important lessons for the U.S. Religious freedom depends in many ways on the tolerance of the majority, if one thinks as I do that Employment Division v. Smith was rightly decided. That tolerance has long existed, more or less, in a predominantly Protestant America, a Christian America, and a simply religious America. But it is not guaranteed.

Conversations: Marc DeGirolami

This summer, Harvard University Press published The Tragedy of Religious Freedomby our very own Marc DeGirolami (left), CLR’s Associate Director. In the book, Marc argues for a “tragic” understanding of religious freedom, one “that avoids the twin dangers of reliance on reductive and systematic justifications, on the one hand, and thoroughgoing skepticism about the possibility of theorizing, on the other.” This week, Marc answers some questions about his book. Among other things, he discusses the differences between “tragic” and “comic” legal theories; the value of history and tradition in judicial decision-making; and the inevitability of judicial discretion. He also explains why the Court got religious freedom wrong in Employment Division v. Smith and right in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. 

CLR Forum: Marc, explain what you mean by “comic” and “tragic” approaches to law generally. Why do you think religious freedom, in particular, should be addressed from a tragic perspective?

DeGirolami: The terms comic and tragic are ancient and have been used in classical, literary, and philosophical settings. I draw on some of these meanings in the book, but I use comic in the legal context to mean two things: (1) a preference for systematic ordering of the law by reducing legal values either to one or to a small set, in the belief that human society is progressively improved by that reduction; and (2) the marginalization of the loss of other values in the process of accomplishing (1). Tragic approaches to the law resist both of these points. A tragic approach to law says that the reasons we value a practice like religious freedom are plural and cannot be reduced. Each value struggles to avoid absorption and subordination by the others. The clash of values results both from the limits of human reasoning and from the conflict of human interests and aspirations. So in the face of conflict in law, a tragic approach affirms that the comic impulse to reduce legal values, and systematically to marginalize those that are subordinated, will exacerbate conflict and end up deforming, and perhaps eventually destroying, important social practices and institutions.

CLR Forum: You single out Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia’s famous opinion in the peyote case, as an example of the misguided “comic” approach and argue that it should be gradually dismantled. What’s so wrong with Smith? And why not just overrule it? 

DeGirolami: Yes, I am critical of Smith and believe it to be an example of a comic approach. Smith reduced all possible values of free exercise under the Constitution to a single value: formal neutrality. A neutral rule that is applied generally no longer can violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution after Smith, no matter how severely the rule burdens the religious free exercise of an individual or a group and no matter how insubstantial the government’s interest in enforcing the rule on a religious claimant. The Smith decision attempted to accomplish both of the comic points I listed above. It wanted to bring system Continue reading

Carpenter on Limiting and Empowering American Indian Religious Freedoms

Kristen A. Carpenter (U. of Colorado Law School) has posted Limiting Principles and Empowering Practices in American Indian Religious Freedoms. The abstract follows.

Employment Division v. Smith was a watershed moment in First Amendment law, with the Supreme Court holding that neutral statutes of general applicability could not burden the free exercise of religion. Congress’s subsequent attempts, including the passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to revive legal protections for religious practice through the legislative and administrative process have received tremendous attention from legal scholars. Lost in this conversation, however, have been the American Indians at the center of the Smith case. Indeed, for them, the decision criminalizing the possession of their peyote sacrament was only the last in a series of Supreme Court cases denying American Indian Free Exercise Clause claims. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s Indian cases share a common and previously overlooked feature: in all of them, the Court assessed the Indian claims as too broad or too idiosyncratic to merit Free Exercise Clause protection and instead denied them through a succession of bright line formulations.

Identifying the unrequited search for a “limiting principle” as a basis for analysis, this Article reassesses the religion cases and underlying theoretical questions of institutionalism and equality, in their Indian context. It then identifies two contemporary policy shifts—namely Congress’s decision to entrust accommodation of Indian religious freedoms to federal agencies and its decision to do so at the tribal, versus individual, level—that have, in some respects, facilitated an “empowering practices” approach to American Indian religious liberties in the post-Smith era. Taking a descriptive and contextual approach, the Article illuminates opportunities for additional law reform in the American Indian context and also larger questions of institutionalism, equality, and pluralism in religious freedoms law.

Amicus Brief of Constitutional Law Scholars in Stormans v. Salecky

I am happy to have joined an amicus brief together with several other constitutional law professors –but written by Doug Laycock and some excellent lawyers in Austin, Texas — in Stormans v. Salecky, a case currently being litigated in the Western District of Washington and the Ninth Circuit.  The case concerns the free exercise rights of several pharmacists at small pharmacies who have religious conscience objections to dispensing Plan B emergency contraception, and who are being compelled to do so by the Washington State Board of Pharmacy’s regulations requiring all pharmacies to dispense certain drugs, without exception.  I am particularly keen on the description in the brief of Smith and Lukumi-Babalu as representing a kind of range of general applicability — the idea being that many cases will fall somewhere between those two points.  That’s nifty, because one often sees Lukumi instead described as an “exception” to the Smith “rule,” which has different connotations.  You can read more about the case in Judge Leighton’s most recent opinion.

Beschle on a Broad Free Exercise and a Narrow Definition of Religion

Donald L. Beschle  (John Marshall Law School) has posted Does a Broad Free Exercise Right Require a Narrow Definition of “Religion”? The introduction follows.

In the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith, a sharply divided Supreme Court abandoned the routine application of strict scrutiny when considering Free Exercise Clause claims seeking exemption from generally applicable legal duties or prohibitions. The Court returned to an older view of the Free Exercise Clause as protecting believers only from government acts that were aimed specifically at beliefs, and that grew out of hostility to the religion rather than a desire to further legitimate secular goals.

Reaction to Smith was largely negative, and legislative and state court responses followed, seeking to restore strict scrutiny as the appropriate standard when a free exercise exemption was denied. Smith was seen as an unfortunate decision reflecting insensitivity to the significance of the free exercise right. This article explores the possibility that Smith may have been less the result of that insensitivity than it was a response to the vast expansion of the concept of religion in constitutional law since the Court’s first free exercise decisions employing strict scrutiny. This expansion made the application of strict scrutiny, at least as it is normally understood, wildly impractical.

Continue reading

Walsh on Strossen on RFRA and Compelled Provision of Contraceptive Services

Over at our friend and former guest Kevin Walsh’s blog, one can see an absolutely extraordinary quote from ACLU president Nadine Strossen in the 1992 legislative history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, condemning Employment Division v. Smith for, in part, leading to a situation in which religious hospitals would be compelled “to provide abortion and contraceptive services.”

Take a look.

Notre Dame Files HHS Mandate Complaint Against Obama Administration

The text of the complaint is here.  A whopping 43 other Catholic dioceses and organizations have also filed suit today (whoa).  A few thoughts about this complaint:

  • The leading cause of action is RFRA (beginning at paragraph 202).  This makes sense as it is the strongest legal claim.
  • On the free exercise claim, have a look at paragraph 235.  ND obviously knows that alleging a substantial burden alone is not sufficient to make out an FE claim.  It therefore emphasizes that the mandate is not a neutral law of general application “because it is riddled with exemptions.”  That technically is a claim about general applicability.  A law can be facially neutral inasmuch as it does not by its terms single out religion for discriminatory treatment.  But even if it does not discriminate on its face, a law may not be generally applicable if it is loaded with exemptions.
  • Also look at paragraph 236.  ND is not only making a claim about the lack of general application.  It is also saying that the Administration made this regulation knowing that it would burden ND’s religious beliefs.  That knowledge is in turn made the basis for a claim of “targeting” of religion.  This claim, if accepted, implicates the “neutrality” component of the Smith test.  This is an interesting claim to watch, inasmuch as I am uncertain whether knowledge is sufficient to ground a claim of discriminatory purpose (in the criminal context, sometimes knowledge is deemed sufficient — see, e.g.,  the law of conspiracy).
  • ND is also making an “excessive entanglement” claim which implicates the Establishment Clause.  “Excessive entanglement” with religion is the third prong of the Court’s still operative Establishment Clause Lemon test, and it is something the Court at least indirectly emphasized in the recent Hosanna-Tabor decision.  This sort of claim is also raised at paragraph 270 and following.

Also have a look at our friend Rick Garnett’s comments at Mirror of Justice.

%d bloggers like this: