In this episode, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian explore the Court’s decision last week to cert grant in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which a high school football coach challenges his employer’s decision to discipline him for praying on the field after games. The case, which we discussed in an episode three years ago when the Court denied cert at an earlier stage in the litigation, raises interesting free speech and free exercise issues. Why did the Court take the case now, and what are the arguments on either side? Listen in!
In Public Discourse today, I have an essay that explains why the Court has declined to address claims that Covid vaccine mandates in places like Maine and New York violate the First Amendment. Here’s an excerpt:
The Court has not explained its reasons in these cases. But the justices’ caution is not surprising, for a few reasons. First, religious exemption claims generally pose hard questions, which are particularly troublesome in this context. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified divisions about the value of religion and religious freedom in our country, and the justices might wish to avoid doing something to provoke further conflict. Second, the Maine and New York lawsuits are currently at the preliminary injunction stage, and the factual records in the cases are still unclear. The Court might reasonably think that it should allow the lower courts an opportunity to consider the claims further before it issues any rulings. Finally, the Court might think that state and local governments will themselves see the prudence of offering religious exemptions, as many already have done, considering the difficulties vaccine mandates have created for healthcare and other services.
You can read the whole essay here.
For interested readers, I have an essay at First Things today on the Supreme Court’s decision last week in the Catholic adoption services case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. I argue that the decision represents a victory for religious freedom–though how much of a victory depends on how the Court interprets the case in the future. Here’s an excerpt:
Fulton is surely a victory for religious freedom. In fact, if the Court means what it says, the case is a major victory. True, the chief justice’s opinion avoids a definitive resolution of the conflict between LGBT rights and religious freedom—which probably explains how the chief captured the votes of the Court’s progressives, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. And true, Smith remains on the books, a result that Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, lamented in a separate concurrence.
But if it is true, as Fulton suggests, that even a theoretical possibility of an exception triggers strict scrutiny, Smith does not pose much of a limitation. Moreover, if the Court is serious about strict scrutiny—that the mere possibility of an exception means that the state lacks a compelling interest in applying its rule to any particular litigant—it is hard to envision a religious claimant ever losing one of these cases in future.
Nonetheless, it would be wise for religiously affiliated adoption agencies and other potential claimants to wait and see what develops before celebrating. The Court’s religion clause jurisprudence is notoriously unpredictable, and the justices may not stick to Fulton’s reasoning in the future. Moreover, the fact-specific nature of the ruling means that the Court can easily distinguish Fulton in subsequent litigation if it wishes to do so.
You can read the whole essay here.
By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court recently granted a preliminary injunction against New York’s restrictions on church gatherings during the continuing Covid epidemic. In this episode, we discuss the case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, and explore its implications for similar cases pending at the Court. We also ask why these cases have provoked such a reaction in the wider public (hint: it’s politics and the culture wars). Listen in!
Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:
- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, in which the 3rd Circuit upheld against 1st Amendment challenges the City of Philadelphia’s policy of refusing to contract with foster care agencies, such as Catholic Social Services, that will not place children with same-sex married couples.
- The 10th Circuit Court dismissed for lack of standing a mother’s lawsuit challenging Kansas’ vaccination law, which requires school children to be vaccinated, but allows religious exemptions.
- An Indiana federal district court refused to stay its final judgment pending appeal in a case challenging the annual display of a creche on the county courthouse lawn.
- Suit was filed in a Mississippi federal district court challenging the policy of a Mississippi elementary school that prohibits display of religious (as well as political and sexual) messages on masks worn during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A New York federal district court refused to enjoin New York’s Cluster Action Initiative begun in early October that targets specific areas for enhanced COVID-19 restrictions.
- A Michigan federal district court dismissed, primarily for lack of standing, parents’ challenge to a school district’s policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
In First Things today, I have an essay on the Barrett nomination. I argue that Republicans and Democrats both play politics, but that Barrett deserves to be confirmed. Here’s an excerpt:
Another objection is that Judge Barrett will be an activist. Here the argument seems to be that, as a faithful Catholic and member of an ecumenical charismatic group, she will inevitably decide cases on the basis of her religious convictions rather than the law—“the dogma lives loudly within you” and so on. But no evidence of this sort of thing exists in her record as an appeals judge, though that record is, admittedly, brief. In her one essay that raises the subject, Judge Barrett suggests that in cases of conflict she would recuse herself rather than impose her Catholic convictions in place of the law, a position that arguably should concern Catholics more than non-Catholics. And, as my colleague Marc DeGirolami has explained, her writings about stare decisis—the idea that judges should stick to decided cases and not overrule them, even if judges think those cases are wrong—are well within the American legal tradition.
Moreover, as Judge Barrett pointed out in a speech at Hillsdale College last year, keeping one’s ideology out of judging is not a problem limited to Catholics, or believers generally. When “you think about the debate about whether someone’s religion has any bearing on their fitness for office,” she told the students, “it seems to me that the premise of the question is that people of faith would have a uniquely difficult time separating out their moral commitments from their obligation to apply the law.” But that isn’t true. “People who have no faith, people who are not religious” also “have deeply held moral convictions,” she said. “And it’s just as important for those people to be sure . . . to set aside . . . personal moral convictions . . . and follow the law.”
The extent to which judges can and should keep personal moral convictions out of the law is of course a matter of debate. Some constitutional doctrines invite judges to import their convictions into the law, or at least make it difficult for judges to avoid doing so. One example is the “compelling interest test” in free-exercise law, which asks judges to evaluate whether the state has a compelling interest that justifies a burden on religious freedom. But there is no reason to think Judge Barrett would have a harder time setting aside her personal convictions than a secular justice would have setting aside his or hers. Besides, progressives have been arguing for decades that the bench should reflect diverse life experiences, which help judges apply the law in empathetic ways. It’s a little late in the day to argue such a thing is unthinkable.
You can read the whole essay here.
Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:
- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Tanzin v. Tanvir, where a 3-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a plaintiff may sue federal officials in their individual capacities and may recover monetary damages from them.
- The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Davis v. Ermold, the case involving former Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis who refused on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
- The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision refused to issue a preliminary injunction against Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 Orders that restrict in-person worship services.
- The Northern District of New York, hearing a case on remand from the Second Circuit, issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of a regulation of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status in furnishing of adoption services.
- A New Jersey federal district court refused to issue a preliminary injunction in a suit challenging COVID-19 orders of the governor of New Jersey.
- Suit was brought in North Dakota federal district court on First Amendment grounds over the closure of Highway 1806 which was used by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and thousands of its supporters to access campsites set up to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- A Maryland federal district court rejected challenges to the county’s refusal to extend public sewer lines to a site on which plaintiffs wished to build a 2000-seat church, rejecting plaintiff’s “substantial burden” claim under RLUIPA.
- The Maryland Court of Special Appeals rejected a husband’s claim that granting his wife a no-fault divorce violates his free exercise rights.
- The Dioceses of Rockville Centre, New York and Camden, New Jersey filed for bankruptcy reorganization under Chapter 11 in the face of sex abuse lawsuits filed after states enacted legislation reviving previously time-barred claims.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican at the “Holy See Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy.“
A programming note: tomorrow evening I’ll moderate a panel at St. John’s on the new Court term. The panel, hosted by the law school’s chapter of the Federalist Society, will feature Judge Richard Sullivan of the Second Circuit (and the Center’s Board of Advisers) and Judge Rachel Kovner of the Eastern District. Among the cases we’ll discuss are Tanzin v. Tamvir and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, two law and religion cases Marc and I have covered in our Legal Spirits podcasts. Fulton, in particular, could be a blockbuster and I’m eager to hear with Judges Sullivan and Kovner have to say about it. The event is open to all St. John’s Law students; please contact the Fed Soc chapter for info.
At the Law & Liberty site today, I have a review of Louis Fisher’s new book on judicial supremacy, Reconsidering Judicial Finality. Contra Fisher, I argue in favor of judicial supremacy, properly understood as a rebuttable presumption that Court rulings are binding on other political actors and the people as a whole. Here’s an excerpt:
But the better view, and the one most scholars would take, is that Court judgments are presumptively binding in this broader sense. In the great sweep of our constitutional history, resistance to Court rulings has been comparatively rare. The strength of this presumption is impossible to state in categorical terms. Richard Fallon offers a good way to think about it. Judicial supremacy means that “judicial rulings must be obeyed as long as they are intra rather than ultra vires”—that is, as long as they are plausibly “within a court’s authority to render”—and “not unreasonable as judged from the perspective of the President and a majority of the American people.” If our constitutional democracy is tolerably functional, occasions for resisting Court rulings will arise relatively infrequently.
Note that, on a proper view of judicial supremacy, the Court remains free to change its mind and rule differently in subsequent cases. And political actors, as well as the public at large, remain free to try to persuade the Court to do so. After all, unless some litigant brings a challenge, the Court will never have an opportunity to revisit an earlier decision. Lincoln put it well in responding to the Court’s disastrous ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857), in which the Court held that the Constitution did not allow African-Americans to be citizens or Congress to outlaw slavery in federal territories. The Court’s decisions on constitutional questions, Lincoln conceded, “should control, not only the particular cases decided, but the general policy of the country.” Nevertheless, “[w]e know the Court . . . has often overruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it overrule this.” . . .
Fisher is unfortunately dismissive of arguments in favor of judicial supremacy. “No matter what evidence is presented,” he writes, “some scholars and courts will continue to rely on and promote the doctrine of judicial finality.” But it is not simply obstinance. Good arguments exist for judicial supremacy, including the desirability of settling legal questions and promoting reliance on the part of citizens, who need to know what the law requires at any particular time. Besides, the logic of judicial review itself suggests some sort of judicial supremacy. The Constitution is not simply what the Court says it is; but if the Court’s decisions are not broadly authoritative, constitutional impasses will occur much more frequently—not the end of the world, but not the best situation, either.
You can read the whole review here.
At the First Things site this week, I have an essay on last term’s Religion Clause cases at the Supreme Court. I argue that the cases reflect the Court’s attempt to reach a modus vivendi in the culture wars between progressives and the traditionally religious on issues of sexuality, gender, and equality. Taken together, the cases suggest the Court is prepared to acquiesce to the dominant progressive consensus while allowing religious institutions some space to dissent.
Here’s an excerpt:
Bostock suggests the Justices, including conservatives like Gorsuch and Roberts, are prepared to accede to the progressive view of sexuality and gender. But the Court’s hints about lingering free exercise issues imply it will afford religious institutions space to dissent. Other decisions from last Term confirm this reading. Take Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case. The Court held, 5-4, that the Montana Constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits state funding for private religious schools, violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. A state may not exclude schools from a funding program simply because of the schools’ religious “status” or “character,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “A State need not subsidize private education,” he explained. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
Espinoza is a case about equality, but also has implications for debates surrounding sexuality and gender. It’s no secret that many, if not most, private religious schools hold to traditional understandings of sexuality and gender. In fact, parents often choose to send their children to religious schools precisely to avoid the progressivism that pervades public education. Allowing religious schools to receive public assistance on an equal basis with secular schools could make it easier for the traditionally religious to pass on their values to the next generation.
The Court’s holding that in principle the state must afford benefits to private religious schools on an equal basis with private secular schools is thus important for the traditionally religious. Still, the Court’s focus on a school’s religious “status” raises some questions. Even if discrimination on the basis of a school’s religious affiliation is illegal, it remains unclear, under the Court’s decision, whether a state may restrict funding because the school’s program is at odds with progressive understandings of equality. The Espinoza Court left that question open, though it hinted that discrimination based on a school’s religious “use” of state funds also could be constitutionally problematic.
You can read the full essay here.