Anti-discrimination Laws Don’t Burden Religious Freedom—They Secure It

Read our amicus brief for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission here.

In cases around the country, business owners who are religiously opposed to marriage equality are suing for the right not to provide services like flowers, invitations, and cake to same-sex couples celebrating their wedding. Most notably, the Supreme Court will be deciding Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission this session—a case involving Jack Phillips, a Colorado bakery owner who violated that state’s antidiscrimination law by refusing to make a wedding cake for fiancées Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

These cases are framed specifically to pit LGBTQ rights against religious freedom in a way that is both oversimplified and misleading. Phillips’ brief complains that by requiring him to provide a wedding cake to same-sex couples, the state law provides “broader protection to LGBT consumers than to people of faith.” It’s true that in this circumstance, lower courts held that equality norms should take precedence over a business owner’s religious views. The larger reality, however, is that people of faith (some of whom are, of course, LGBTQ or LGBTQ-affirming) depend on rigorous and universal enforcement of antidiscrimination laws to protect and secure their religious freedom.

Religious freedom protections and antidiscrimination laws typically work together to ensure that people of all faiths are able to coexist in the public sphere. The Supreme Court’s most significant early free exercise cases drew a connection between the protection of religious liberty and principles of non-discrimination, grounding the standard of review for religious liberty claims in the standard honed in equal protection cases.  Even as the Court has adjusted the standard of review in constitutional free exercise cases, it has not abandoned the core equality principle that animated its earlier jurisprudence, retaining strict scrutiny for government action that is non-neutral with respect to particular religious beliefs, and describing it as a “nonpersecution principle.”

Allowing business owners to ignore antidiscrimination laws that conflict with their religious beliefs would threaten grave harms to people of faith, and especially to religious minorities. While federal and state civil rights laws law ban discrimination on the basis of religion, it is nevertheless pervasive. Claims of religiously-motivated discrimination—including the denial of public accommodations, employment, and housing as well as perpetration of hate crimes— have risen dramatically over the past decade. Discrimination is particularly severe for minority religious groups, and especially for Muslims. Over the past year, sixty percent of American Muslims have reported some level of religious discrimination. Over twenty percent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) charges of religious discrimination in 2015 related to Muslims, despite their representing only one percent of the U.S. population.

If business owners were permitted to ignore antidiscrimination laws based on their personal religious beliefs, they could deny a range of goods and services to members of religious groups that they consider objectionable. For example, they might refuse to cater an interfaith or non-Christian wedding or to sell clothing to Muslim or Jewish women that embrace modesty values, based on a religious objection to their practices. This is not a merely theoretical concern: in recent cases, individuals from a hotel owner to a police officer have voiced religious objections to serving those of other faiths. In fact, Phillips’ own brief acknowledges that he would refuse to provide any goods that “promote atheism.”

Furthermore, any ruling for Masterpiece Cakeshop could not be easily contained to the public accommodations context, but would likely lead to religiously-motivated discrimination in employment and housing. Last year, a federal District Court held in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that a funeral home owner who objected on religious grounds to allowing a transgender woman employee to dress in skirts at work should be entitled to an exemption from federal sex discrimination law. This case is on appeal; however, a ruling for Masterpiece Cakeshop would open the door to similar claims against religious minorities. For example, such a ruling could allow employers to violate employment anti-discrimination law by refusing to hire employees who wear hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes, or other religious clothing. The employer could argue that he believes allowing employees to wear such garb at his workplace amounts to an endorsement of their religious practices, and therefore conflicts with his own religious faith.

Religious liberty and equality in the public sphere are both fundamental American values. In the vast majority of cases, anti-discrimination law protects both religious freedom and equality by ensuring that those of all faiths, including unpopular faiths, are able to work and participate in the public marketplace without facing discrimination from either the government or other citizens. The risks to religious freedom of allowing exemptions from anti-discrimination law would far outweigh any benefit to those with a religious opposition to marriage equality. Such exemptions threaten to decimate the protections for religious minorities that have long offered them some measure of defense from discrimination in their daily lives. As the U.S. becomes more religiously diverse, our commitment to religious plurality has become all the more essential. It should not yield to those who wish to serve, house, or employ only those who share their religious beliefs, on marriage or otherwise.

Columbia Law School Think Tank Files Amicus Brief in SCOTUS Case

In Masterpiece Cakeshop Case, Diverse Organizations Argue Anti-discrimination Laws Protect, Not Burden, Religious Liberty

For Immediate Release: October 31, 2017

Subject: Columbia Law School Think Tank Files Amicus Brief in SCOTUS Case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

From: The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP), Columbia Law School

Contact: Liz Boylan | eboyla@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167

Yesterday, Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and Muslim Advocates filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on behalf of a coalition of 15 diverse civil rights and faith organizations. At issue in Masterpiece Cakeshop is whether the owners of a Colorado public establishment may, due to their own private religious beliefs, refuse service to individuals because of their sexual orientation.

The amicus brief argues that overly-broad accommodations of religious liberty, such as that requested by Masterpiece Cakeshop, undermine not just LGBT rights but religious liberty itself.  As the brief explains: “There can be no dispute that anti-discrimination laws have long played a crucial role in protecting the rights of religious minorities. Petitioners’ requested exemption will dramatically limit—if not completely eliminate—that protection.”

Today’s filing also highlights that interconnectedness of religious freedom and robust anti-discrimination laws.  In fact, the brief makes clear that our country’s “constitutional commitment to religious liberty has always entailed a corollary commitment to non-discrimination. Indeed, the integrity of the former has always relied upon the enforcement of the latter. ”

The coalition of civil rights and faith organizations that submitted this amicus brief to the Supreme Court represent the vast diversity within American faith communities.  The signatories include:  Muslim Public Affairs Council, American Humanist Association, DignityUSA, Sikh Coalition, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Capital Area Muslim Bar Association, Advocates for Youth, Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, National LGBT Bar Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association (NJMLA).

“The Supreme Court’s most significant religious liberty cases have drawn a connection between the protection of religious liberty and principles of non-discrimination,” said Katherine Franke, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School.  “Masterpiece Cakeshop’s argument throws a wedge between these two fundamental American values, a position that poses a particularly dangerous threat to the rights of people of minority faith traditions.”

“Religious liberty and non-discrimination are inextricably tied to one another and should not be traded off against each other,” said Johnathan Smith, legal director at Muslim Advocates.  “When robust civil rights protections are undermined, religious groups have no recourse to defend themselves against discrimination.  A ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop would undercut fundamental civil rights protections that are critical for maintaining this country’s longstanding commitments to religious freedom and religious pluralism.”

The amicus brief was authored by Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, Muslim Advocates, and the law firm Hogan Lovells.  The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop on Tuesday, December 5.

A copy of the brief is available here.

Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project is a think tank housed within the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. Our mission is to bring legal, policy, advocacy, and academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty.

 

Columbia Law Experts Denounce Federal Guidance Allowing Religious and Moral Discrimination in Contraceptive Coverage

Press Statement: October 6, 2017

Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) condemns the Trump administration for issuing sweeping new rules today that roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s birth control benefit, by broadening exemptions for employers who claim religious or moral objections to offering birth control to their workers. These regulations place the religious and moral views of employers above the health and wellbeing of their workers and gut the contraceptive coverage provision of the ACA by dramatically reducing access to affordable birth control. Rather than protecting religious freedom for all Americans, these regulations are part of the current administration’s ongoing effort to advance a limited set of conservative religious beliefs while limiting the liberty and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.

For over seven years, the religious right has waged a battle to limit the scope of preventive health care services covered by the ACA, including essential reproductive health care. In 2014, they won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that secular for-profit companies could assert religion-based waivers from the duty to include health care coverage for contraceptives in their employee health plans. The Court’s opinion hinged, however, on the fact that women would still have access to such care, which would be covered by their insurance plan rather that their employer. After another three years of litigation and intense lobbying, anti-choice advocates have at long last succeeded in making it possible for employers to entirely cut off their employee’s access to contraceptive coverage, not only because of their religious objections, but now because of their moral objections as well.

In depriving workers and their families of essential health care coverage, the regulation violates both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. By requiring workers to bear the cost of their employer’s religious beliefs, the regulation conflicts with a clear line of Supreme Court cases which hold that where a government-created religious accommodation imposes serious harms on others, it ceases to be a valid protection of personal faith and instead becomes an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

“With these new rules, the federal government is giving the green light to employers to discriminate against their women workers, and those seeking access to reproductive care, in the name of religious liberty or individual moral belief,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. “The fundamental health care needs of working women are now held hostage by right wing interest groups,” Franke concluded.

As PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program (RJP) has noted in the past, these types of rules have an especially devastating impact on women of color. Women of color have higher unintended pregnancy rates than their white counterparts and face increasing difficulties in accessing care. Eliminating these disparities requires increasing access to contraception and family planning resources, which allow women of color to plan whether and when they have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom. “Research shows that teen pregnancy rates have dropped to an all-time low in recent years due to increased access to affordable, quality contraception and education about family planning,” said Kira Shepherd, Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “Native Americans, Black communities and Latinas, who have the highest teen pregnancy rates of all communities, stand to be harmed the most by these new rules, which limit young women’s and people’s ability to make informed choices about their reproductive health and lives. Here, the Trump administration has once again shown that it cares little about the health and wellbeing of communities of color.”

“President Trump’s repeated efforts to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries—which a circuit court said drips ‘with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination’—demonstrate that the administration is not concerned with protecting religious freedom for everyone,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of PRPCP. “These rules are just another demonstration of the ongoing effort to push conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction onto others who do not share those beliefs.”

Access a .pdf of this statement here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Release-ACA-10-6

Learn more about PRPCP’s staff here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Staff

For more information on the PRPCP, visit our website: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

 

Columbia Law Experts Denounce DOJ Religious Liberty Guidance as Attack on Religious Liberty and Fundamental Equality Rights

Press Statement:
October 6, 2017

Contact:
Liz Boylan,
eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) denounces the memorandum released today by the Department of Justice (DOJ) entitled the “Federal Memorandum for Religious Liberty Protections.” This document, and its implementation guidance misinterpret the meaning and scope of religious liberty under the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), demonstrating this administration’s continued commitment to elevating a particular set of religious beliefs over the safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.

As we have previously noted, we are concerned that this guidance will lead to the inappropriate and destructive under or non-enforcement of a host of essential health, labor, and antidiscrimination laws and policies. “Today’s DOJ guidance will have tangible consequences for a range of communities, including LGBTQ communities, particularly those who rely on government-funded services and programs to live and survive,” said Ashe McGovern, PRPCP’s Legislative and Policy Director. “This guidance essentially requires all federal agencies to incorporate the Department of Justice’s flawed interpretation of religious liberty law when considering new rules, programs, or guidance, and will undoubtedly lead to discrimination and denial of services, by granting legal impunity to organizations and programs that discriminate with taxpayer funds.”

PRPCP is also concerned that the regulation oversteps the boundaries of DOJ’s power, by improperly encroaching onto the judiciary’s duty to interpret important and sensitive questions regarding the meaning and scope of religious liberty. RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993 as an effort to support and protect religious minorities who experience discrimination, and to ensure that courts carefully balance religious liberty rights with other fundamental rights to equality and justice. “The DOJ has decided to put its thumb down on a scale that Congress carefully designed by enacting RFRA, and that courts have since interpreted as such, in a way that disregards the fundamental rights of those experiencing religious-based discrimination,” says McGovern.

The DOJ’s misinterpretation of RFRA and religious liberty law generally is likely to decrease rather than increase religious plurality. Inappropriately-broad exemptions run the risk of allowing religious objectors to become religious enforcers, permitting employers, health care providers, landlords, and service providers to impose their religious views on others who do not share them. “PRPCP is especially wary that complex questions regarding religious freedom and its limits are being made by cabinet members that appear to oppose the separation of church and state, and have supported discrimination against religious minorities,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the PRPCP. “Jeff Sessions has long sought to narrow the reach of the Establishment Clause, even suggesting in 2016 that states could establish an official religion. He has been an adamant supporter of the President’s anti-Muslim travel ban. This raises questions about his commitment to true religious freedom and plurality.”

“Ultimately,” McGovern says, “the DOJ’s guidance not only enables what advocates are calling a ‘License to Discriminate’ against LGBTQ communities, although that intent is clear. This guidance is also an attack on our Constitution, and the careful balance it strikes between religious liberty and other fundamental rights to equality and justice.”

Access a .pdf of this statement here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Release-DOJ-10-6

Learn more about PRPCP’s staff here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Staff

For more information on the PRPCP, visit our website: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

Michigan Lawsuit Challenges Constitutionality of Religious-Based Discrimination by Child Welfare Agencies

Cross-posted to Medium.com

Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Michigan challenging a set of laws passed in 2015 that enable state-funded child welfare organizations to discriminate against prospective parents and children on the basis of the organization’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” This case is one of the first to challenge a growing number of similar state laws that have passed recently. Specifically, Michigan’s laws state that “a child placing agency shall not be required to provide any services if those services conflict with, or provide any services under circumstances that conflict with, the child placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” In practice, faith-based service providers have been legally emboldened to deny adoptive and foster care opportunities to same-sex couples, including two sets of plaintiffs in the suit. The laws also seem to allow the child placement organizations to discriminate against other groups whose lives may not comport with the organization’s religious beliefs, including single or unmarried parents, LGBTQ youth under agency care, and those who subscribe to religious tenets that the organization does not support.

Michigan, like many other states, outsources child welfare services to private organizations through contracts and grants using taxpayer money. These organizations have significant responsibilities that the state would otherwise be obligated to undertake—including caring for and finding homes for children currently in state custody. Faith-based organizations make up nearly half of the agencies Michigan contracts with to do this work.

Legal and Constitutional Challenges

While the complaint does not challenge a privately funded agency’s right to place or care for children in accordance with their religious beliefs, the ACLU argues that because Michigan contracts with private agencies to provide services for children in state custody—and pays them with taxpayer funds—those agencies must meet the same legal and constitutional obligations as the state.

 In its complaint, the ACLU raises two important constitutional claims. First, they argue that Michigan’s actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates a separation between church and state and thus bars the state from providing or refusing to provide government services based on religious criteria. They also argue that the Establishment Clause prohibits the state from “delegating a government function to religious organizations and then allowing those organizations to perform that government function pursuant to religious criteria,” which is exactly what these agencies are doing by denying services to same-sex couples based on religious belief. The ACLU also argues that the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the state from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation through “instrumentalities of the state.” In this case, because the faith-based organizations receive state funds specifically to provide the services in question, they qualify as instrumentalities of the state. Finally, the complaint alleges that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), one of two agencies named in the lawsuit, is violating its own nondiscrimination protections by knowingly allowing child placing agencies to discriminate. DHHS’s Adoption Program Statement, also known as Publication 225, dictates that the department “will not discriminate against any individual or group because of race, religion, age, national origin, color, height, weight, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, political beliefs or disability.”

National Trends and Significance

The stakes in Michigan, and nationally, are significant. Michigan currently has 13,000 children in the foster care system, many of whom will wait years to find a family or will age out of the system without having been placed with one. This past year, Alabama, South Dakota and Texas passed similar laws, adding to the three states—North Dakota, Virginia, and Mississippi—that have already passed related laws.

Building off momentum in the states, Congress introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017 (CWPIA) this year. Under that law, the federal government could withhold federal child welfare funds to states that choose not to contract with faith-based organizations, even if states terminate those contracts because the organizations have engaged in unlawful discrimination. If passed, CWPIA would put millions of dollars in federal funding at risk and make thousands of vulnerable children in foster and adoptive care even more vulnerable. Beyond the child welfare context, the Trump administration announced earlier this year that it will re-evaluate protocols and obligations for distributing federal funds to faith-based organizations across all federal agencies, likely resulting in significant consequences for a range of marginalized communities.

These child placement laws are part of national strategy adopted by faith-based organizations and national Christian Right organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, to frame standard government oversight and enforcement of nondiscrimination protections as “discrimination”—not only in the child welfare context, but also where individuals and groups seek access to affirming healthcare, social services, education, housing, and employment. It is vital that advocates continue to challenge this problematic frame—in order to ensure that new and decades-old civil rights and nondiscrimination protections are not entirely nullified because legislatures are invested in giving unconstitutional supremacy to individual religious beliefs over all other rights. The Constitution requires that a proper balance be struck between individual religious beliefs and other fundamental guarantees under the Constitution—particularly where the government is instrumental in funding or facilitating discrimination.

Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others

Cross-posted on Medium.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a closed-press speech at a summit hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group that has notoriously fought to undermine LGBTQ and reproductive rights for years under the guise of protecting religious freedom. Among other concerning statements, Sessions promised that he would soon issue guidance for all federal agencies to implement President Trump’s recently enacted “religious freedom” executive order:

The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it. The guidance will also help agencies follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress enacted RFRA so that, if the federal government imposes a burden on somebody’s religious practice, it had better have a compelling reason. That is a demanding standard, and it’s the law of the land. We will follow it just as faithfully as we follow every other federal law. If we’re going to ensure that religious liberty is adequately protected and our country remains free, then we must ensure that RFRA is followed.

Given Sessions’ skewed prioritization of some, but not all, “religious liberty” rights over other fundamental equality guarantees under the Constitution, there is good reason to be concerned about the potential impact on LGBTQ and others, particularly Muslim communities, women, people of color, and those seeking access to reproductive healthcare.

As we discussed in our report Church, State and the Trump Administration, before taking office, Sessions made a career fighting against justice and equality for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ communities. While in the Senate, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have protected workers nationwide from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He called the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to marry for same-sex couples, “unconstitutional,” and “beyond what [he] considers to be the realm of reality.” He has also publicly opposed protecting LGBTQ people in federal hate crimes legislation and the Violence Against Women Act, voting against both bills while in the Senate. And when the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act came up for a vote, he opposed that too, claiming that explicit protections for vulnerable LGBTQ youth meant it “could have discriminated against faith-based organizations.”

Furthermore, Sessions supported the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) as an original co-sponsor. FADA would forbid the federal government from enforcing a wide range of health, benefits, and antidiscrimination laws against individuals and businesses who act on “a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” This could lead to sweeping discrimination against LGBTQ people and anyone who has had sex outside of a different-sex marriage, including unmarried pregnant and parenting women. As we’ve noted in a previous report, these types of exemptions have a serious and disproportionate impact on women and pregnant people of color.

Although no information has been leaked about the pending guidance, Trump’s previously leaked Executive Order, which was significantly longer than the one he ultimately issued, may provide some insight into what the guidance may prioritize. As we discussed in a report focusing on the potential consequences of the leaked Executive Order, this could include a range of harmful outcomes, including broad exemptions that would allow private and nonprofit organizations that contract with the federal government to violate federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws in providing social services, educational opportunities, healthcare, employment or other services—with impunity.

If Sessions’ actions in the Department of Justice are any indication, the guidance is likely to create broad opportunities for agencies across the federal government to roll back Obama-era civil rights protections and other important constitutional guarantees, using “religious freedom” as a cover.

 

What’s So Troubling About Funding a Playground? How Trinity Lutheran Undermines the First Amendment

Cross-posted to ReligionDispatches and Medium.

On Monday, the Supreme Court took a dramatically new approach to the First Amendment, though you wouldn’t have known it from reading the brief, oversimplified opinion. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer the Court held that—at least in some circumstances—the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires governments to provide taxpayer funds to churches. This newfound requirement is something the dissent argued should, in fact, be prohibited under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

I have previously written about the facts of Trinity Lutheran, as has RD, but they warrant a brief revisiting here. A Missouri state program offered grants for a limited number of nonprofit schools and daycares to purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Prospective grantees were evaluated and selected based on a number of factors, including poverty level of the surrounding area and their willingness to generate media exposure for Missouri. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran, a Missouri Synod congregation, applied for the grant to renovate the playground of a preschool owned and operated by the church. While it ranked highly, Trinity Lutheran was denied the grant because of a department policy that made houses of worship ineligible for funds. Upon learning the reason for their denial, Trinity Lutheran sued, arguing that the department policy violated their religious rights.

Typically, First Amendment cases involving government funding of religious organizations present Establishment Clause questions—with plaintiffs arguing that the state is prohibited from providing taxpayer money to a church. In fact, the Court has long held that it is unconstitutional for governments to directly subsidize religious activities. Trinity Lutheran, in contrast, asked whether the denial of funds to houses of worship may also be unconstitutional.

Shockingly, the court answered in the affirmative, finding that the Missouri policy violated Trinity Lutheran’s free exercise rights by forcing the church to choose between its religious identity and participation in a government benefit program. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held “the Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character… such a policy imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny.” The Court further held that Missouri’s stated reason for the policy—to avoid potential Establishment Clause violations—was insufficient.

The Court’s opinion stands in stark opposition to earlier religious funding decisions, and especially its 2004 opinion in Locke v. Davey. In Locke, the Court upheld a state scholarship program that prohibited recipients from using the funds to pursue a degree in devotional theology. The Court attempted to distinguish Trinity Lutheran from Locke by relying on a distinction between religious identity and religious activities. It explained, “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry. Here there is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is—a church.”

How government agencies administering grant programs are expected to distinguish between a house of worship’s religious identity and its religious activities is a spectacularly difficult (if not impossible) task that’s entirely ignored by the Court. Making such a distinction is now constitutionally essential, however, as programs must navigate between not funding religious activities, lest they violate the Establishment Clause, and not “discriminating” against religious institutions, lest they violate the Free Exercise Clause. Previously, state programs could safely avoid such perilous questions by simply declining to fund houses of worship. Trinity Lutheran throws such policies into question—although the scope of the ruling is unclear. (More on that later.)

Both Justice Gorsuch in concurrence and Justice Sotomayor in dissent criticized the majority’s attempt to create a line between religious identity and activities, though they ultimately arrive at opposing conclusions. Gorsuch asked, “Can it really matter whether the restriction in Locke was phrased in terms of use instead of status (for was it a student who wanted a vocational degree in religion? Or was it a religious student who wanted the necessary education for his chosen vocation?).”

Similarly, in her Trinity Lutheran dissent, Sotomayor wrote, “the Church has a religious mission, one that it pursues through the [preschool]. The playground surface cannot be confined to secular use any more than lumber used to frame the Church’s walls, glass stained and used to form its windows, or nails used to build its altar.” But while Gorsuch’s opinion suggests that he would support even direct state subsidization of religious activities, Sotomayor argued that directly subsidizing a house of worship—even for ostensibly non-religious expenses such as playground surfaces—is proscribed by the Establishment Clause.

It’s notable that the Court has previously declined to require religious organizations to distinguish between their religious and secular activities. A 1987 decision, Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos, involved an Establishment Clause challenge to a religious exemption that permitted religious organizations to hire employees based on their faith, even for secular jobs such as janitorial work. The plaintiff in that case argued that while the exemption was justified for employees with religious duties, it was unconstitutional when applied to employees with purely secular jobs.

The Court disagreed, finding that creating such a constitutional line would be untenable. It held, “It is a significant burden on a religious organization to require it, on pain of substantial liability, to predict which of its activities a secular court will consider religious. The line is hardly a bright one.” Thus, the Amos Court declined to adopt a constitutional bright line between religious and secular activities in order to grant religious organizations advantageous exemptions. However in Trinity Lutheran, it relies on precisely such a distinction in order to permit (indeed, require) state funding of houses of worship.

As a more general matter, it is suspect that the majority opinion decries treating houses of worship as different from secular organizations, when the Court has repeatedly relied on this difference to grant exemptions to faith-based organizations that are unavailable to secular nonprofits. As Justice Sotomayor explains, “the government may draw lines on the basis of religious status to grant a benefit to religious persons or entities but it may not draw lines on that basis when doing so would further the interests the Religion Clauses protect in other ways. Nothing supports this lopsided outcome.”

The only saving grace (so to speak) of the opinion is buried in a footnote, though how lower courts will interpret both its weight and substance is unclear. The footnote states, “this case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” Two of the six justices who signed the majority opinion—Gorsuch and Thomas—dissented from the footnote, though Justice Breyer, who concurred only in the judgment, appears to support it.

More importantly, it’s far from clear how literally to interpret the footnote’s apparent attempt to confine the decision exclusively to programs involving playground resurfacing. Justice Gorsuch explained in his concurrence that lower courts might (in his view, mistakenly,) “read it to suggest that only ‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in . . . the Court’s opinion.” While this narrow reading of the case would limit the damage it inflicts on the Establishment Clause, it seems likely that at least some courts will interpret the decision far more broadly, and sanction a variety of programs providing direct funding to houses of worship.

Regardless of how the footnote is interpreted, the Court’s opinion in Trinity Lutheran demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the religion clauses, and effectively ignores the danger of using public coffers to subsidize houses of worship.  The majority describes this as a case about religious discrimination, which demonstrates how successful the religious right has been at rebranding nearly any attempt to enforce the Establishment Clause as a form of religious persecution. Declining to divert public money to churches has long been considered necessary to protect the individual right of conscience of the citizenry. Far from being discriminatory, separation of church and state is intended to ensure that individuals may choose to adhere to any or no religious beliefs free from coercion, and that the church itself is protected from government intrusion. The majority opinion ignores the long history of and important justifications for prohibiting state subsidization of houses of worship. Hopefully, its damage will be confined to the unusually sympathetic facts of this case.

Joint Statement By CAIR and PRPCP on President Trump’s EO on “Religious Liberty”

Joint Statement
By the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York &
Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

May 15, 2017

As advocates for free exercise of religion, civil rights, and religious pluralism, we are deeply concerned that President Trump’s recently signed Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” will serve to limit, not protect, religious freedom. The order was signed on May 4, 2017, in a ceremony that included Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman and statements by Pentecostal televangelist Paula White, Baptist Pastor Jack Graham, Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Rabbi Marvin Heir, and Vice President Mike Pence. While the executive order—unlike a prior leaked draft—does not single out particular religious beliefs for special protection, we are nevertheless concerned that the broad discretion it offers to federal agencies will have the effect of favoring majoritarian faiths at the expense of religious minorities.

Religious Liberty Guidance Provision

Section 4 of the order directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.” This provision suggests that the administration plans to take an aggressive approach in affirmatively interpreting federal religious accommodation laws, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to grant exemptions from federal law to religious objectors. Religious exemptions are often essential to protecting religious minorities when neutral laws and policies unintentionally burden their beliefs and practices. For example, religious exemptions have ensured that Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews in the military and other workplaces are able to wear religious headwear despite uniform rules. However, President Trump’s order signals an intent to construe religious exemptions more broadly than in the past; such wide discretion is likely to disproportionately protect majoritarian beliefs, perhaps at the expense of religious minorities and other marginalized communities. The Executive Order’s signing ceremony was representative of a larger and pervasive bias in the way that this administration has interpreted “religious liberty”: neglecting, if not, affirmatively denying, the rights of religious minorities – especially Muslims.

So too, this administration is committed to expanding too broadly the notion of religious liberty for some people of faith over others. In particular, inappropriately-broad exemptions run the risk of allowing religious objectors to become religious enforcers, and to impose their views on third parties. Faith-based exemptions from health, employment, and civil rights laws would protect religious health care providers, employers, and landlords, at the expense of workers, patients, and tenants who do not share their beliefs. It is important to note that overly-broad interpretations of religious exemptions threaten religious liberty itself, even among Christians, since even members of the same faith often hold divergent views on many moral and philosophical issues. For example, many Christians as a matter of their faith support reproductive rights for women, equality for LGBTQ people, and religious pluralism in the workplace, public accommodations and elsewhere. Nevertheless, religious minorities are at particular risk of being coerced into abiding by or supporting dominant religious beliefs. This is especially true for minority religions that already face significant mistrust and discrimination, including Muslims, Sikhs, and nonbelievers. Other communities—including LGBTQ people, unmarried families, and those seeking reproductive health care— may also be harmed if the DOJ takes an overly-expansive approach to federal religious exemption law that allows religious objectors to impose their beliefs on others.

We are especially troubled by the fact that the order directs sensitive religious exemption decisions to be made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a long history of supporting Islamophobic measures, organizations, and beliefs. This history includes:

  • In December 2015, then-Senator Sessions voted against a nonbinding amendment seeking to prevent a religious litmus test for people entering into the United States. During that vote, Senator Sessions said: “Many people are radicalized after they enter. How do we screen for that possibility, if we cannot even ask about an applicant’s views on religion?” Following the horrific shooting that targeted LGBTQ Latinx people at a nightclub in Orlando, Sessions warned Americans on FOX News Sunday to “slow down” on foreign born admissions into the United States, particularly those with Islamic backgrounds. “It’s a real part of the threat that we face and if we can’t address it openly and directly and say directly that there is an extremist element within Islam that’s dangerous to the world and has to be confronted.” In an interview in June 2016, Sessions said of U.S. immigration policy, “We need to use common sense with the who-what-where of the threat.  It is the toxic ideology of Islam.”
  • In October 2013, Senator Sessions asRanking Member of the Senate Budget Committee sent a letter to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in part demanding a justification for why the NEH was “promoting” Islamic cultures at the expense of Christian and Jewish cultures. The purpose of NEH’s Muslim Journeys program is to “offering resources for exploring new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world.”
  • Sessions has also associated himself with anti-Muslim hate groups. In 2015, Sessions accepted the “Keeper of the Flame” award from the Center for Security Policy, whose leader Frank Gaffney has advanced the conspiracy theory that President Obama is Muslim and whose reporting the FBI has said “overstated” any threat Muslim observances pose to America. In 2014, Sessions accepted the “Annie Taylor Award” from the David Horowitz Freedom Center and he attended the group’s annual “Restoration Weekend” retreats in 2008, 2010 and 2013. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate movements in the United States, labels David Horowitz “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.”

While Sessions has expressed hostility towards Muslims, he has long supported writing conservative Christian beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction into law. In one interview, he expressed doubt about admitting into the country Muslims who hold conservative views about sex and sexuality, suggesting that immigrants should be asked if they “respect minorities such as women and gays.” Despite this, he has been an ardent opponent of LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights, and was a sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a religious exemption law that would create special protections for those who believe that sex should only take place within a cisgender, different-sex marriage. Thus, we hold deep reservations that Attorney General Sessions will be willing and able to interpret religious exemption laws equally for all religions and beliefs, and will adequately consider the burdens that religious exemptions place on third parties.

Johnson Amendment Provision

The potential ramifications of the recently signed EO are especially worrying, given that President Trump joins a long line of Republican figures who support repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prohibits tax-deductible non-profits (including universities, charities, and houses of worship) from participating or intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Recent examples include the U.S. House’s Free Speech Fairness Act (which is supported by 57 Republican Representatives) and its companion bill in the U.S. Senate (which is supported by 5 Republican Senators).

For years, conservative political activists have fought against this provision, arguing that it amounts to an unconstitutional limitation of the First Amendment rights of religious leaders and houses of worship to comment on political activities. In contrast, political observers note that the repeal of the amendment, combined with the tax deductibility of 501(c)(3) donations, would effectively lead to taxpayers subsidizing political activism from houses of worship and other non-profits.

The operative provision of the executive order, Section 2, is quite limited: the Treasury Secretary is not to challenge the tax exempt status of religious organizations that speak “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has . . . not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign . . . .” Since the IRS has never shown any interest in expanding tax-exempt enforcement against houses of worship, the order is, at most, a ratification of the status quo. For years, activists have flagrantly violated the Johnson Amendment, only to see the IRS refuse to respond or agree to generous settlements. Since 2008, conservative activists such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have hosted Pulpit Freedom Sunday a few weeks before Election Day, encouraging pastors across the country to talk electoral politics in church as part of a deliberate effort to draw scrutiny from the IRS so that ADF can launch a constitutional challenge to the law. ADF encourages Christian Pastors to engage in civil disobedience and “speak truth into every area of life from the pulpit.” To date, none of the participating pastors have faced IRS enforcement measures.

If Congress repealed the Johnson Amendment, or if President Trump implemented a more robust executive order on the topic, the effect would be strikingly asymmetrical. Christian and Jewish clergy (and other politically-secure religious traditions) would be empowered to bring faith and politics together at the very moment that Muslim clergy worry about the growing net of suspicion and surveillance being cast on their community. Unlike their counterparts in other faiths, Muslim clergy are primarily fearful of the local, state, and federal intelligence operations that target their houses of worship, and not without cause. Muslims already face increased scrutiny from law enforcement officials. For example, the National Security Agency and the FBI allegedly tracked email accounts of five Muslim American leaders between 2006 and 2008, according to an NSA spreadsheet of email addresses disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. More recently, over 100 people contacted the Council on American Islamic Relations to report that they were visited by the FBI prior to the 2016 election.

The effect would be particularly pronounced here in New York, where Muslims face additional scrutiny from the NYPD, which has a long history of suspicionless, warrantless surveillance of the Muslim community. According to the NYPD’s own inspector general, 95% of recent NYPD intelligence investigations targeted Muslim New Yorkers or organizations associated with Islam, and the NYPD has repeatedly inserted undercover agents everywhere from New York masajid to Muslim student groups at public colleges.

While President Trump’s May 4th executive order, self-styled as “Protecting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was largely symbolic, it has disturbing implications for how measures that purportedly advance religious liberty can promote majoritarian religious institutions, while harming the minority faiths most in need of protection. Hopefully, the order isn’t a harbinger of more meaningful and substantive measures in the months and years to come.

_______________________________________________

Access a .pdf of this statement from the Council on American Islamic Relations and the PRPCP here.

For questions regarding this analysis, or to contact the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project regarding this or any other issues, contact:

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
Liz Boylan, Assistant Director for the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
E-mail: eboyla@law.columbia.edu
Phone: 212.854.0167

To read other analyses by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, visit us on the web at: https://www.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project.

 

“Religious Liberty” Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom

May 4, 2017 Today, President Trump signed an executive order that creates many more questions than answers about how the federal government intends to “protect the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life.” Several of its provisions raise serious cause for concern.

The order—unlike a prior leaked draft—does not single out for special protection particular religious beliefs about sex, marriage, or reproduction. Nevertheless, it still opens the door to agency under-enforcement of federal laws in ways that will harm, not enhance, religious liberty. In particular, Section 4 of the order, entitled “Religious Liberty Guidance,” directs the Attorney General to issue guidance on “interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law” to all federal agencies. This provision instructs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to interpret religious exemption laws, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in ways that may cause significant harm to vulnerable communities.

For example, Sessions could attempt to limit government enforcement of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act if he determines that enforcement will burden an individual’s or corporation’s religious liberty in violation of RFRA—even if a court would be unlikely to construe RFRA so broadly. More specifically, he could interpret RFRA to provide an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Right Act to employers who believe they have a religious obligation to proselytize to their non-Christian employees. If RFRA is interpreted by agencies to allow employers, landlords, healthcare providers and others to impose their religious beliefs on other individuals, this will significantly burden religious minorities who may find themselves shut out from participation in civic life.

While this order doesn’t require Attorney General Sessions to interpret RFRA and other exemptions in any particular way, we know that he has supported using ‘religious liberty’ as a tool to advance particular conservative beliefs while harming vulnerable communities—a position that many in Trump’s cabinet share. Furthermore, he has expressed hostility to religious minorities. While in the Senate, he voted against a proposed amendment that opposed placing a religious test on those entering the country, and he has called Islam a “toxic ideology.”

In the coming days and weeks, we will continue to update our analysis. Follow PRPCP’s policy page and blog for all of our most up to date information.

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Press Advisory: Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Date: May 4, 2017

From: Columbia Law School, The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP)

Contact: Ashe McGovern | amcgovern@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

President Trump is set to sign a far-reaching and constitutionally problematic executive order today. Although a draft of the final order has not yet been released, it will likely mirror, at least in part, a similar draft that was leaked earlier this year. While more detailed analysis will be necessary once the final order has been released, the leaked order raises the following issues. Specifically, the order:

Defines “people” to include for-profit corporations—even corporations that do not have an exclusively religious purpose. The order defines a “person” to be consistent with 1 U.S.C 1, which includes for-profit corporations.  This means that where the order affirms the right of “people” to act in accordance with a particular set of religious beliefs, including opposition to LGBTQ equality, it enables for-profit corporations to act in a discriminatory manner. These companies would be shielded from government intervention and enforcement of otherwise applicable laws, as long as they assert that their behavior is in keeping with a particular set of “religious beliefs.” The order also defines “religious organization” to include closely held for-profit corporations “operated for a religious purpose even if its purpose is not exclusively religious and is not controlled by or associated with a house of worship.” Thus an organization that is primarily engaged in secular activities, but claims to have some set of guiding religious principles—which the order fails to limit or define—could qualify as a religious organization. It would then be granted the protections religious organizations are given under this order.

Grants broad exemptions from federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws to private and nonprofit organizations that are funded by the federal government to provide social services, education, healthcare, employment opportunities or other services to the general public. The order states that “persons and organizations do not forfeit their religious freedom” when contracting with the federal government in delivering services to the general public. This means that private organizations, even those that are funded by the federal government, will be shielded from claims that they have violated civil rights and nondiscrimination law as long as they claim their behavior is in accordance with a set of religious beliefs that they are free to define. This also means that the federal government will be unable to require religious grantees to provide publicly-funded services on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Enables federal contractors to impose their religious beliefs on their workers as a condition of employment. The order states that all agencies must provide exemptions to federal contractors and grantees consistent with religious exemptions found within the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. These exemptions have been carefully tailored and limited by the courts, and do not currently apply to federal contractors. Applying them to federal contractors would impermissibly expand the exemptions, and allow federally-funded organizations to require that their employees follow particular religious beliefs or behaviors in order to remain employed.

Grants broad religious exemptions to federal employees acting in their official capacities as government workers, including workers that regularly interact with the public. The order requires agencies to “accommodate” the religious beliefs of federal employees, even where those beliefs conflict with their official duties as government employees. This could mean that a federal employee, who works for the Social Security Administration, for example, could refuse to process an application for a same-sex couple, a transgender person or a person of different faith, by stating that their religious beliefs prohibit them from doing so.

Directs relevant federal agencies to exempt any organization, whether religious or secular, from having to provide comprehensive reproductive services and healthcare to their workers. The order directs the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury to issue an immediate interim rule that “exempts from the preventative care mandate…all persons and religious organizations that object to complying with the mandate for religious or moral reasons.” The order also directs HHS to take “appropriate actions” to ensure that “any individuals” who purchase health insurance on the individual markets, including federally facilitated and state sponsored health insurance, have the ability to purchase insurance that does not provide coverage for abortion and “does not subsidize plans that do provide such coverage.” This means that any for-profit employer can be granted a religious exemption from the requirement that they or their health plans provide contraceptive and family planning services. This would substantially broaden the Supreme Court’s holding in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which applied only to closely-held corporations. The order would also require state and federal exchanges to include plans that prohibit family planning services. Furthermore, it would preempt state laws that require health plans to cover birth control and abortion.

Allows federally-funded child welfare services and agencies to discriminate on any basis, including on the basis of race or religion, if doing so would “conflict with the organization’s religious beliefs.” This includes organizations that “provide federally funded child-welfare services, including promoting or providing adoption, foster, or family support services for children, or similar services.” This means that organizations that provide foster or adoptive services would be empowered to discriminate against same-sex couples, people of other faiths, unmarried people, or others whose relationships or behaviors do not conform to the organization’s particular religious beliefs.

Allows religious organizations and houses of worship to engage in political lobbying, while still maintaining their tax-exempt status. Specifically, this order would allow an organization that is speaking on a “moral or political issue from a religious perspective” to endorse or support political candidates. Currently, the tax code prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This provision would exempt religious organizations—and only religious organizations—from that mandate. The order also prohibits the Department of Treasury from imposing any tax penalty or burden to any organization that acts in accordance with beliefs that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy physiology or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

Enacts far-reaching requirements on all federal departments and agencies to promptly rescind any rulings, directives, regulations, guidance, positions, or interpretations that are inconsistent with the order. This means that directives, rulings, regulations, guidance and interpretations that do not provide expansive religious exemptions may be rescinded or withdrawn by any agency or department of the federal government. This could include already existing protections enacted under the Obama administration for LGBTQ communities, women, and people of color, in their ability to seek access to reproductive services, employment, healthcare, education or social services.

Access a .pdf of this Press Advisory here.

For more policy analyses from the PRPCP, see our Policy Page, here.