Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Munoz: The Founders and the Natural Right of Religious Free Exercise: A Response

This past autumn, we hosted an online symposium on Vincent Phillip Muñoz‘s new article, “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty.” In this post, Professor Muñoz responds to the comments of the symposium’s participants: 

It’s gratifying when scholars you respect and admire take your work seriously. I am therefore deeply grateful for the symposium hosted by the Center for Law & Religion and to its directors, Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami. I am especially appreciative of the symposium’s participants for their careful readings, probing questions, and thoughtful challenges to my post and the articles on which it was based.

The primary purpose of my recent scholarship has been to recover the American founders’ understanding of the natural right of religious liberty. That investigation is itself a prologue to addressing the more fundamental philosophical question of whether individuals actually do possess by nature a right to religious liberty and, if they do, whether we should adopt the founders’ understanding of it to guide our understanding of political justice.

One can best approach these fundamental questions as they appear in our political and constitutional practice, which right now means addressing the availability of religious exemptions from laws that religious believers find burdensome. That is why my original post focused on Justice Scalia’s Smith opinion. Most of the symposium participants followed my lead and commented on the jurisprudential implications of my natural rights argument. I note this only to clarify that my underlying purpose is not to defend Justice Continue reading

St. John’s Colloquium in Law and Religion Hosts Robin Fretwell Wilson

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On Tuesday, February 16, St. John’s Law and Religion Colloquium welcomed Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson. Professor Wilson, who was instrumental in bringing about the so-called “Utah compromise,” gave a very interesting talk about proposals from various perspectives to privatize marriage. The paper, “Getting Government out of marriage” Post Obergefell: The Ill-Considered Consequences of Transforming the State’s Relationship to Marriage,” argued that that these proposals are unwise as a policy matter for a variety of reasons.

Garnett on Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions

Rick Garnett has a very good short piece over at the Washington Post on a newly controversial issue: tax exemptions for religious institutions. It’s one in a series of short essays on the subject. Here is the beginning:

Instead of asking whether churches and religious organizations deserve to be tax-exempt, we should ask why governments should be able to tax them at all. Taxation, after all, involves interference by the state, and in a free society such interference needs to be justified.

The power to tax involves the power to destroy, as Daniel Webster argued in the Supreme Court nearly two centuries ago. While our government does have the right to levy taxes, it’s only because “We the People” have authorized it to do so — in order to raise the funds needed to provide for the common good. But should we give our government this “power to destroy” over churches and religious institutions?

Rick contends that the answer to this question is ‘no.’ For a contrary view, contending that because Americans are “abandon[ing] organized religion,” it is time to tax churches, see this effort in the same series by David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. Mr. Niose’s essay contains a few errors, such as the suggestion that a “non-Christian” homeless person would be denied care by a Christian charity on religious grounds. But it does accurately reflect the increasingly popular view that tax exemption for religious institutions is an “extraordinary handout.”

For some reflections of my own on the historical premises of tax exemption for religious organizations, and the breakdown of those premises (as reflected, in part, in Niose’s piece), see this post.

Garnett, Inazu, and McConnell on FADA and Religious Nonprofits

very interesting comment authored jointly by Rick Garnett, John Inazu, and Michael McConnell on the recently introduced First Amendment Defense Act. A bit:

Today, tens of thousands of religious organizations, and tens of millions of Americans, continue to believe and teach that the proper understanding of marriage is a union of one man and one woman. But they do far more than believe and teach this and other views.

They also give food, clothing, shelter, counsel, and comfort to millions of Americans in need. They offer some of the most important and desperately needed health, educational, and social services in the country. And they provide billions of dollars and thousands of full-time workers for international relief aid that serves vulnerable migrants, refugees, and persecuted minorities. The work of religious organizations has long been and continues to be central both to religious believers’ lives and to the welfare of others. Our communities—and, indeed, communities around the globe—would be much worse off without these organizations and their faith-informed good works.

Despite the crucial role that religious organizations and individuals have long played in our country, some voices now suggest that they and their work are somehow tainted because of their beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Some argue that the time has come to push religious believers out of the public square and confine them to the quiet, private realm of personal prayer and worship. This despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which not only required states to legally recognize same-sex marriages but also said, “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”

Nonetheless, because of their traditional views on human sexuality, religious organizations have already been threatened with heavy-handed government action….

Some members of Congress have now introduced the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) in an effort to ensure that overheated rhetoric and political opportunism do not endanger the important work of faith-based organizations. The core of FADA would require the federal government to honor its longstanding commitments to treat all such organizations with an even hand. It would prevent federal officials from attempting to strip tax-exempt status, from denying equal access to federal facilities and entitlements, or from taking adverse actions related to licensing or accreditation….

We understand that new versions will address many or all of these issues. We think the best approach is to tailor FADA to the core area of concern: religious nonprofits. That focus would serve the cause of religious freedom by making it more likely that this important legislation can move forward.

One thought that has occurred to me on the issue of “tax exemption” of nonprofit institutions is that the entire discussion seems askew. It generally begins from the premise that the government can and should be able to tax anyone and anything that it pleases. The tax base is limitless. Amenability to taxation, however, ought not to be the default posture, as if the government simply gets to decide at its pleasure and election whom and what it wishes to tax. Income taxation only follows from the fact of income generation, and though nonprofits generate income they do not distribute it to individuals for private use but spend it in ways that promote public functions and purposes. Nonprofit actors are not appropriate objects of this kind of taxation at all. Consider, for example, the way in which the Connecticut Supreme Court in an 1899 decision discussed Yale University’s tax exempt status (not an income tax decision, of course):

The non-taxation of public buildings is not the exception but the rule. The corporations, whether municipal or private, which own and are by law charged with the maintenance of such untaxed buildings, are not the recipients of special privileges, in any sense obnoxious to the law. The seats of government, State or municipal, highways, parks, churches, public school-houses, colleges, have never been within the range of taxation; they cannot be exceptions from a rule in which they were never included.

Yale University v. Town of New Haven, 42 A. 87, 91 (1899). These institutions are, as the authors of the piece put it, actors within “civil society” that should in general not be touched by the government’s taxing power. Moreover, a government decision not to tax is emphatically not the same as a government decision to grant money or subsidize. We use the language of “exemption” when we speak of the taxable status of nonprofits, but it would be better instead to think of their nontaxable status as marking a boundary of the government’s power to tax.

[Update: I’ve amended some things in the post for clarity.]

Panel: “Religious Exemptions After Hobby Lobby: Where Do We Go From Here?” (New York, May 14)

The New York City Bar will host a panel discussion, “Religious Exemptions After Hobby Lobby: Where Do We Go From Here?” on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

This panel presentation will review the legal and policy implications of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in the areas of religious accommodations generally, reproductive rights, health care, and employment law.

The event will run from about 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM, and attendance is free. Visit here to register.

Obama Administration Announces Plans to Revise the Contraceptives Mandate

This CNN story reports that the White House has announced “revisions” to the contraceptives mandates that was the subject of both the Hobby Lobby and more particularly the Wheaton College litigation. But after reading the body of the story, it may be more precise to say that the White House has announced that it plans to revise the mandate. Here’s a quote from an Administration official: “In light of the Supreme Court order regarding Wheaton College,” said the official, “the Departments intend to augment their regulations to provide an alternative way for objecting nonprofit religious organizations to provide notification, while ensuring that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate coverage of contraceptive services without cost sharing.” Though the Wheaton College order was not a final disposition on the merits but only a preliminary injunction, the announcement suggests that the Administration believes that it may lose on the merits as well.

The story reports that the revised rule will be issued “within the month.”

Rogers, “The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children”

Next month, the University of Massachusetts Press will publish The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children by Alan Rogers (Boston College). The publisher’s description follows.

When a four-year-old California girl died on March 9, 1984, the state charged her mother with involuntary man-slaughter because she failed to provide her daughter with medical care, choosing instead to rely on spiritual healing. During the next few years, a half dozen other children of Christian Science parents died under similar circumstances. The children s deaths and the parents trials drew national attention, highlighting a deeply rooted, legal/political struggle to define religious freedom.

Through close analysis of these seven cases, legal historian Alan Rogers explores the conflict between religious principles and secular laws that seek to protect children from abuse and neglect. Christian Scientists argued often with the support of mainline religious groups that the First Amendment s free exercise clause protected religious belief and behavior. Insisting that their spiritual care was at least as effective as medical treatment, they thus maintained that parents of seriously ill children had a constitutional right to reject medical care.

Congress and state legislatures confirmed this interpretation by inserting religious exemption provisos into child abuse laws. Yet when parental prayer failed and a child died, prosecutors were able to win manslaughter convictions by arguing as the U.S. Supreme Court had held for more than a century that religious belief could not trump a neutral, generally applicable law. Children s advocates then carried this message to state legislatures, eventually winning repeal of religious exemption provisions in a handful of states.

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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