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:

On the State RFRA Contretemps: Doug Laycock (and Me)

Two little items to report. First, Professor Doug Laycock has a very good piece at the Religion and Politics Blog.

Second, I participated in a Bloomberg Law podcast with Professor Robert Katz on these issues. I thought we had a useful exchange. At the end of the interview, however, Rob was asked a question about the relevance of Hobby Lobby to these matters, to which he responded essentially that the two were disconnected. I didn’t get a chance to jump in (had to leave to teach class!) but I have a different view and thought this quote from Doug’s piece was apt:

For the first time in American history, government had made it unlawful, at least if you were an employer, to practice a well-known teaching of the largest religions in the country. The same-sex marriage debate has the same feature. This attempt to suppress practices of the largest faiths is a new thing in the American experience. And this huge escalation in the level of government regulation of religious practices is of course producing a reaction from religious conservatives, and is part of the reason for the current polarization.

Why Not Repeal RFRA?

The media coverage of the now-vetoed Arizona bill amending the existing Arizona RFRA has been abominable. The claim that the bill would have permitted private businesses to refuse to serve gay people is simply untrue; the bill did not say that. The bill was short–just two pages long. Anybody could have read it quickly to see what it provided: expansion of state RFRA coverage for businesses and an amendment that private actions are now covered (as in, what the government cannot do directly, it cannot do indirectly by giving private parties a cause of action). The bill would have done nothing to change the basic burden-shifting framework of the Arizona RFRA–the same framework used by the federal RFRA–in which a judge is charged to determine whether there is a substantial burden counterbalanced by a compelling government interest achieved by the least restrictive means.

Perhaps that is the point, though. Anger against this bill is entirely misdirected. If one truly believes that laws which provide for the possibility of religious exemptions against generally applicable laws are anathema, the obvious course is to repeal the state and federal RFRAs themselves. Several prominent law and religion scholars have been advocating vigorously for just that result for some time. It appears that public sentiment is turning in their direction.

District Court: Prohibiting Religious Groups From Feeding the Homeless in Park Likely to Violate Pennsylvania RFRA

Here’s an interesting case from Philadelphia involving the religious mission to feed the homeless.  The City of Philadelphia enacted a local ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food free of charge to three or more people anywhere in the Fairmont Park System (picnics for individual families, school trips, and so on, as well as special events, were exempted from the ordinance).  The City’s reasons for the ordinance had to do with civil order, sanitation, and also an asserted dignitarian interest on behalf of the homeless.  Several Christian religious groups had for decades distributed food to the homeless in the parks, but the mayor wanted these programs moved indoors.  A temporary relocation effort of one of the religious groups’ food-sharing programs resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of homeless people who partook of the food-sharing services.

Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the City from enforcing the ordinance, alleging that the ordinance violated their rights under the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act (PRFPA), which is essentially Pennsylvania’s version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the First Amendment.  Readers will know that RFRA (as well as PRFPA) reinstated the interest-balancing test which preceded Employment Division v. Smith.  (One interesting feature of PRFPA is that it requires “clear and convincing evidence” as its standard for the “substantial burden” component).

The Court granted the preliminary injunction on PRFPA grounds (it avoided the constitutional issue).  It held that the plaintiffs (1) have a sincere belief that it is their religious obligation to “provide sustenance to the poor and needy” (and, added the Court, “Plaintiffs are not unique in this respect.  Acts of charity are central to Christian worship”); (2) the ordinance constitutes a “substantial burden” on the free exercise of plaintiffs’ religion; (3) the dignitarian “compelling interest” offered by the City was “difficult to comprehend”: “I am at a loss to understand how taking choice away from the homeless advances their dignity”; (4) even if reducing litter and other waste is a “compelling interest” (about which the Court expressed some skepticism), the City had not used the least restrictive means to achieve that interest (portable restrooms, trash compactors, additional maintenance staff, and other methods were raised by the Court).

One noteworthy item, which may have various broader applications.  In response to the City’s claim that it did not burden the plaintiffs’ free exercise because it did not impose “restrictions upon praying or preaching or reading the Gospel or engaging with the homeless [in the Park],” the Court said:

What defendants fail to appreciate is that to plaintiffs, sharing food with the poor is as much a form of religious worship as is prayer, preaching, or reading the Bible . . . . But defendants’ argument is not persuasive for an additional and more fundamental reason. Essentially, defendants have assumed the authority to ascribe [to] some of plaintiffs’ religious activities more religious significance than others, irrespective of the significance that plaintiffs themselves ascribe to their own religious activities. Defendants compound this error by offering to grant Rev. Little a limited exception for the food and drink she uses during her Communion service, which they characterize as a “core component of a religious service,” but not for the food Rev. Little shares with the homeless after the service despite the fact that Rev. Little considers this food an ongoing representation of the Communion observed during the service . . . . It is no more appropriate for defendants to “presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion” than it would be for me to do so.
The case is Chosen 300 Ministries, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 2012 WL 3235317 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2012).