I had a wonderful time this morning, teaching a (virtual!) class at Lomonosov Moscow State University on the COVID epidemic and religious exemptions under the US Constitution. Thanks to Professor Gayane Davidyan for inviting me and to her students for their wonderful, thoughtful questions. Lomonsov will post the class on YouTube soon, and I’ll link it when it appears.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to the class. It was a lot of fun!
At the Law and Liberty site this morning, I have an essay on current litigation regarding church closings during the coronavirus epidemic. I explain why courts have reached different results, and ask why some churches, rather than others, are bringing the lawsuits. Here’s an excerpt:
So far, the lawsuits have achieved mixed results. Federal district courts in California and New Mexico, for example, have rejected challenges and ruled that the bans in those states are constitutional. Federal district courts in Kansas and Kentucky, by contrast, have ruled that the bans in those states do violate the First Amendment. This past weekend, the Sixth Circuit agreed, holding that Kentucky’s ban on church services violates the Free Exercise Clause.
These cases are very fact-specific and turn on the specific language of the bans in question. But there is another, more important reason for the courts’ division. The law with respect to religious exemptions is quite indeterminate. Under the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), no right to an exemption exists where a law is neutral and generally applicable, that is, where the law does not target religion for disfavored treatment. If a ban on public gatherings qualifies as a neutral and generally applicable law, a church cannot prevail.
If a law targets religion for disfavored treatment, by contrast, a church may have a right to a religious exemption—but not where the state can show that it has a compelling reason for enforcing the law against the church and has chosen the least restrictive means of doing so. As many have noted, this form of “strict scrutiny” essentially operates as a balancing test that requires judges to weigh the seriousness of the burden on religious exercise against the significance of the goal the state is trying to reach. If the goal is sufficiently important, the law will stand, regardless of the burden on religious exercise.
Both these questions—whether a law is generally applicable and whether the burdens of a ban outweigh its benefits—leave much to the discretion of individual judges….
In this episode, we discuss recent court rulings in favor of wedding vendors who decline, from religious conviction, to provide services for same-sex weddings. After years of losing such cases, vendors like Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski of Phoenix’s Brush & Nib Studio (above) have won notable victories in the lower courts. We ask whether these victories reflect the changing membership of the judiciary–especially given the new Trump appointees to the federal appeals courts–and how the Supreme Court is likely to respond to them. Listen in!
The King’s College has posted a video of excerpts from my Constitution Day Address last month, on how cultural trends, including the rise of the Nones, will likely affect the legal debate on religious accommodations. Here’s the link:
Religious accommodations figure prominently in current debates about law and religion. This past summer, Hart released a collection of essays on such exemptions in the UK, Canada, and the United States, Religious Beliefs and Conscientious Objections in a Liberal State. The editor is John Adentire (University of Birmingham). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
The central focus of this edited collection is on the ever-growing practice, in liberal states, to claim exemption from legal duties on the basis of a conscientious objection. Traditional claims have included objections to compulsory military draft and to the provision of abortions. Contemporary claims include objections to anti-discrimination law by providers of public services, such as bakers and B&B hoteliers, who do not want to serve same-sex couples. The book investigates the practice, both traditional and contemporary, from three distinct perspectives: theoretical, doctrinal (with special emphasis on UK, Canadian and US law) and comparative. Cumulatively, the contributors provide a comprehensive set of reflections on how the practice is to be viewed and carried out in the context of a liberal state.
Last term, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of several recent cases in which religious believers have sought to avoid the application of public accommodations laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court’s decision was a narrow one that turned on unique facts and did relatively little to resolve the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. Yet Masterpiece Cakeshop is significant, because it reflects broad cultural and political trends that drive that conflict and shape its resolution: a deepening religious polarization between the Nones and the Traditionally Religious; an expanding conception of equality that treats social distinctions—especially religious distinctions—as illegitimate; and a growing administrative state that enforces that conception of equality in all aspects of our common life. This article explores those trends and offers three predictions for the future: conflicts like Masterpiece Cakeshop will grow more frequent and harder to resolve; the law of religious freedom will remain unsettled and deeply contested; and the judicial confirmation wars will grow even more bitter and partisan than they already have.
Readers can also download the article from the SSRN website, here.