Category Archives: RFRA

EEOC Proposed Guidance Shows We Can Protect Religious Freedom & LGBTQ Rights

Press Release:
March 23, 2017

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

Subject:
EEOC Proposed Guidance Shows We Can Protect Religious Freedom & LGBTQ Rights

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

March 23, 2017: While the President and Congress consider acts to expand religious exemptions at the expense of LGBTQ and other rights, a proposed federal regulation demonstrates that we can—and should—protect both religious and LGBTQ communities. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) at Columbia Law School submitted commentary this week commending the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on their “Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment,” which protects the right of religious employees to discuss their beliefs while prohibiting religiously-motivated harassment in the workplace.

Professor Katherine Franke, Faculty Director for the PRPCP commented, “At a time when we are witnessing government officials engaging in both troubling violations of the Establishment Clause and blatant forms of religion-based discrimination, the EEOC’s proposed guidelines offer a reasoned and careful way to harmonize religious liberty and equality in the workplace.”

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the PRPCP elaborates, “The proposed guidelines respect both the right to express one’s religious beliefs and the right to a safe and productive work environment. This kind of carefully tailored religious accommodation protects all workers from discrimination.”

The PRPCP’s letter notes that nearly one in three transgender workers, and up to 43% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, have faced employment discrimination. The proposed EEOC guidelines “appropriately explain that Title VII’s duty to accommodate religion does not amount to an official sanctioning of religiously-motivated harassment-including against LGBTQ employees, who already face pervasive discrimination in the workplace.”

The EEOC’s responsibility to protect religious minorities and LGBTQ persons is of critical importance, as the Trump Administration continues to issue Executive Orders that roll back LGBTQ protections and express disapproval of Muslims. Of particular concern is a potential Executive Order on Religious Freedom. If signed, the order could provide a special license for those holding certain conservative religious beliefs— including opposition to same-sex marriage, sex outside different-sex marriage, and abortion—to violate any regulations that conflict with these beliefs.

The PRPCP’s mission is to address contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine fundamental rights to equality and liberty through academic legal analysis.  PRPCP approaches the developing law of religion in a manner that respects the importance of religious liberty while recognizing the ways in which broad religious accommodations may violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which, “not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.”[1]

Read the full letter from the PRPCP here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia-EEOC-Letter

For more information on the PRPCP, visit the PRPCP’s webpage, here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

The EEOC’s Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment is available here: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EEOC-2016-0009-0001

________________________________

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/establishment_clause

What Muslim Ban? A Religious Liberty Hearing in the Trump Era

Re-blogged from Religion Dispatches
Originally post, February 16, 2017

Today the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the “State of Religious Liberty in America.” What was perhaps most striking about the hearing was how dated many of the speeches and arguments felt—as if an Obama-era hearing was being held nearly a month into the Trump administration.

Three of the witnesses and many of the congresspersons who spoke conjured a world in which a hostile federal government seeks out well-meaning and peaceful Christians for baseless persecution, and in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represents the greatest threat to religious liberty. Meanwhile, other legislators and a lone witness desperately tried to redirect the conversation to the fact that President Trump campaigned on a platform of Islamophobia and recently admitted that he intends to prioritize immigration by Christian refugees. No speaker brought up other salient religious liberty issues, such as a recently-filed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim challenging the Dakota Access Pipeline and an increased interest in using RFRA to resist immigration law.

The witnesses at the hearing included Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society, Casey Mattox of Alliance Defending Freedom, Hannah Smith of Becket, and Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom under President Obama.

The first three of these, all from conservative organizations that advocate for broad religious exemptions, pushed a narrative of religious persecution fueled by several fundamental misrepresentations: first, that efforts to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination, or to provide access to contraception, constitute malicious anti-Christian harassment rather than attempts to expand access to jobs, services, housing, and health care; second, that groups seeking anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice exemptions want merely to “live-and-let-live” when in fact many of these organizations have consistently sought to ban LGBTQ relationships and abortion; and third, that issues around sex, marriage, and reproduction constitute the primary site for religious liberty disputes in the current political climate.

Sticking to their anti-Obama talking points, the speakers seem not to have grasped that it may become increasingly difficult to claim the mantle of “religious liberty” without speaking out against the Islamophobic rhetoric adopted at the highest levels of government, and the dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate groups across the country.

While Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas sought in his remarks to pit religious minorities against each other, claiming that the legacy of the Holocaust was preventing Germany from adequately screening out Muslims that “hate Jews,” Representative Steve Cohen—Tennessee’s first Jewish congressperson—called Islamophobia the “latest form of dog-whistle politics” and noted that he himself had received an increased number of “jabs” for his faith in recent months. Thus Trump’s EO on immigration has shed a clear spotlight on what many advocates and legislators mean when they use the phrase “religious freedom”—and what they don’t.

Furthermore, no one in the room seemed to have fully grappled with the fact that expanding a right to religious accommodations may come back to haunt conservatives, as progressive faith leaders and religious practitioners search for ways to employ RFRA for their own spiritual practice, including helping Syrian refugees, protecting the environment, or providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

None of this is to understate the continued relevance of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice religious exemptions. Legislators have promised to re-introduce—and the President has promised to sign—the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would sanction religiously-motivated discrimination against same-sex couples and unmarried pregnant and parenting persons. Many states continue to propose similar exemptions. And the recently-leaked Executive Order on religion, if signed, would provide legal cover for even large companies to defy laws that conflict with certain religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction.

But as significant as those measures remain to LGBTQ families, unmarried parents, and women, what was left unsaid during the hearing is of equal import: the religious right may not have a monopoly on the “religious freedom” platform for long, especially if they continue to ignore the new free exercise and establishment clause battles being waged in the courts, legislatures, and streets.

Report: Church, State & the Trump Administration

PRESS RELEASE

JANUARY 30, 2017 

Trump and Cabinet Nominees Seek to Restrict Muslim Rights, Break Down the Wall Between Church and State

MEDIA CONTACT: Ashe McGovern
amcgovern@law.columbia.edu

A new document issued by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) at Columbia Law School outlines the numerous areas in which the Trump administration will seek to advance particular conservative Christian tenets, restrict the rights of religious minorities, and break down the barrier between church and state. Enactment of the administration’s policy priorities would call into question the careful balance that currently exists between the First Amendment and other fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The report, entitled Church, State & the Trump Administration, highlights the ways in which the new administration’s early executive actions and cabinet nominations, as well as his campaign rhetoric and proposed policies, indicate hostility toward religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment and an intentional disregard for other fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The report will continue to be updated in the coming weeks as the administration takes further action.

Despite his stated commitment to religious freedom, during his first week in office President Trump has issued an Executive Order that clearly expresses an official State preference for Christianity, and disapproval of Islam. Furthermore, Trump has consistently demonstrated that his policies will be grounded in the concerns of certain conservative Christian groups. His Executive Order reinstating a significantly expanded version of the anti-choice global gag rule, an expected Executive Order sanctioning anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and his selections for cabinet appointments all point to an administration that will seek to further particular religious ideals while breaking down the barrier between church and state.

President Trump and cabinet appointees appear to hold a deeply flawed understanding of the First Amendment, and particularly the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring or disfavoring any religious group or belief. If confirmed, many of his appointees are likely to implement policies that will harm the rights of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslim communities, LGBTQ people, and communities seeking access to adequate healthcare and protection of their reproductive rights. A recently released report by PRPCP also highlights the ways in which communities of color are particularly harmed by the religious exemptions that President Trump, Vice President Pence, and others in his cabinet have championed.

“Despite his insistence that the protection of religious liberties is a top priority, Trump has made clear, through executive orders and cabinet appointments, that he seeks only to prioritize a version of white Christian nationalism and supremacy, that, if left unchecked, would create tangible harms to many marginalized communities—and violate fundamental liberty and equality guarantees under the Constitution,” said Ashe McGovern, Associate Director of PRPCP.

“Religious freedom is fundamentally inconstant with the State’s endorsement of particular religions or religious beliefs,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, PRPCP’s director. “Anyone committed to free exercise rights should be deeply concerned with Trump and his cabinet’s apparent distain for the separation of church and state.”

“The new administration has shown a disturbing commitment to write the First Amendment out of the U.S. Constitution,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Faculty Director of PRPCP.   “In its first week in office the Trump White House has been remarkably aggressive in both embracing a particular religious agenda in violation of the Establishment Clause and discriminating against people whose faith it disfavors in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Franke continued.

Read the full report here.

 

Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color

PRESS RELEASE

FROM: PUBLIC RIGHTS/PRIVATE CONSCIENCE PROJECT

RE: New Report Reveals That Religious Exemptions Laws Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color

MEDIA CONTACT: Kira Shepherd, 215-908-4825, ks3377@columbia.edu

New York, NY – A new report shows how recent legislative efforts to expand religious liberty rights, such as the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), allow religious objectors to violate laws that protect against pregnancy, familial status, and marital status discrimination. These measures will disproportionately impact women of color who are more likely to become pregnant and raise families when unmarried. The report issued by Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/ Private Conscience Project (PRPCP), entitled Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color, highlights. the under-examined negative consequences of many religious exemption bills – how overly-broad religious exemption laws can be used to undermine sexual liberty and equality rights.

Many recently proposed religious exemptions bills, most notably FADA, which President Trump has highlighted as a top legislative priority, would confer special protections for the religiously motivated belief that sexual relations should only take place between married different-sex persons. By allowing religious objectors to defy all laws that conflict with their religious beliefs about sex and marriage, FADA and similar bills would significantly undermine the reach of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Fair Housing Act, and Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Such exemptions would permit (if not encourage) religious objectors to engage in a wide range of discriminatory acts against unmarried pregnant and parenting persons, including denial of employment, housing, public benefits, and access to social services. An earlier report by PRPCP offers an overview of state and federal religious exemption bills.

Although these bills have the potential to harm anyone who has had sex when unmarried, people of color, especially African Americans, would particularly suffer their effects. This is because among all racial groups, African Americans are the most likely to have and raise children outside of marriage. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 70% of African American children are born to parents who are not married, followed by 67% percent of Native American children, and 53% percent of Hispanic children, compared with 35% for children born to white women. In addition, because most women of color earn less than white women and are less likely to have financial cushions, religious exemptions laws that sanction employment, housing, and benefits discrimination stand to present women of color with far greater financial burdens.

“This report shows that policymakers across the nation are leveraging religion to push forward crude and discriminatory laws that impose extreme financial, dignitary, and emotional harm on women of color and their families,” said Kira Shepherd, Associate Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “These laws could turn back the clock on some of the progress this country has made towards racial justice. They have the potential to take us back to a dark era where certain religious views were used as a justification for legal discrimination.”

PRPCP Director Elizabeth Reiner Platt said, “Women of color already face disproportionately high rates of pregnancy discrimination. In the name of protecting religious beliefs, FADA and similar state-level exemptions would impose yet another burden on many low-income families and families of color.”

Read the full report here.

PRPCP is a think tank based at Columbia Law School whose mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty. To learn more about the organization visit our website at: http://web.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project.

PRPCP is on Facebook and Twitter.  Follow us to keep up to date with the latest information regarding our research, programs, and events.

PRPCP’s Comment Regarding Zubik

This week the Public Rights Private Conscience Project (PCPCP) submitted a letter to the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in response to their request for information (RFI) regarding an accommodation for religious employers who do not wish to provide their employees with insurance coverage for no-cost contraceptive care, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The request came shortly after the Supreme Court punted a case on this very topic back to the lower courts, leaving religious freedom and women’s health advocates in limbo regarding the mandate’s fate.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, combined separate challenges from religious non-profits to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, which requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees. The religious accommodation to the mandate allowed religious non-profits to file a one-page form with the HHS to opt out, and made health insurance companies or third-party administrators responsible for stepping in to provide this coverage without involvement or funds from the employer. But the non-profits asserted that even this requirement violated their religious beliefs. The government holds that the accommodation complies with relevant laws protecting religious freedom, such as the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 to protect religious minorities.

In the RFI, the government states that their commitment to religious freedom and desire to find an accommodation that works for all led to the public information request.  The government also recognized that the Zubik decision “affect(s) a wide variety of stakeholders, including many who are not parties to the cases that were before the Supreme Court,” which they say increased their desire to find an effective solution to the problem presented in Zubik.

The RFI asks the public to comment on two alternatives to the ACA religious accommodation. The first alternative would allow religious non-profits to contract with insurers for coverage that did not include contraceptives and then the insurer would have to notify employees separately and explain that they would provide no-cost contraceptive coverage independent of the employer’s health plan. Here, the religious employer would only have to verbally notify the insurer of their objection, rather than through a form. The second alternative was for women employees to affirmatively enroll in policies that only covered contraceptives.

In the comment that PRPCP submitted we began by discussing how the existing religious accommodation does not offend RFRA:

“RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The current accommodation meets this standard for two reasons: first, it does not impose a burden, much less one that is substantial in nature, on religious exercise and second, it is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests in ensuring access to contraceptives, a necessary part of basic preventative health care, and avoiding violations of the Establishment Clause.”

PRPCP then discusses how the alternative accommodations proposed by the plaintiffs would impose harms on employees and their families and risk violating the Establishment Clause. Here, we noted that a number of Supreme Court cases have held that the Establishment Clauses was violated when a government-created religious accommodation imposed serious harms on other private individuals. We stated:

“Both of the alternative accommodations put forth in the RFI would impose a significant harm on non-beneficiaries, most notably employees and their families. The first alternative, by providing ample opportunity for confusion, misrepresentation, and further RFRA litigation, would make employees susceptible to extensive gaps in necessary contraceptive coverage. Further, by making enforcement of the contraceptive mandate significantly more difficult, it would impose costs on both employees and the government. The second alternative would impose significant burdens on third parties by requiring health plans to create, and employees to seek out and enroll in, contraceptive-only health plans. These plans would likely face substantial administrative and financial difficulties. Furthermore, they would result in fewer employees and families having adequate access to contraceptive health care.”

Lastly, we mentioned how important seamless access to cost-free contraceptive care is for women of color, a conversation that is oftentimes left out of the discussion about religious accommodations to the ACA. PRCPC noted:

“Eliminating disparities in reproductive health care, including high rates of unintended pregnancy, involves increasing access to contraception and family planning resources. Access to contraception allows women of color to plan whether and when they will have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom.  Many women of color, who on average earn significantly less than white women, cannot afford to pay for quality contraception. For example, the IUD is considered the most effective form of contraception available on the market today and costs between $500.00 and $1,000.00 without insurance. Because of its high cost, among other factors, only six percent of Black women have used IUDs compared with seventy-eight percent who have used birth control pills, which have higher user failure rates.  Providing women of color with access to contraceptive coverage at no additional cost will help to reduce the reproductive health disparities that we see in communities of color. This is an important first step in ameliorating the overall health disparities between women of color and white women in the United States.”

We applaud the Department’s commitment to religious freedom as mentioned in the RFI, however hope this commitment does not outweigh its duty to uphold the rights of women seeking cost-free contraceptive coverage. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dodged making a decision on this important

PRPCP’s Testimony on Pennsylvania SB1306: No Additional Protections for Religious Freedom Are Necessary if State Adds Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to Its Human Relations Law

Professor Katherine Franke, Faculty Director for the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, was invited to testify before the Pennsylvania Senate’s Labor and Industry Committee on the need to include greater protections for religious liberty in a bill that would add Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to Its Human Relations Law. She argues that current language contained in Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act, the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, provide robust protections for the religious liberty rights of faith-based employers, and as such no additional language is needed in SB 1306 to protect employers’ rights to the free exercise of religion.

Indeed, some of the language contained in amendments to companion bills previously pending before the Pennsylvania legislature risks building into the Commonwealth’s Human Relations Act an overly-solicitous accommodation of religious preferences in a manner that could create a violation of the Establishment Clause. An additional accommodation of religious belief, such as that contained in A08770 offered to SB 1307 in the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, “A08770,” is therefore unnecessary and, moreover, risks unsettling a well-considered balance set by the Pennsylvania legislature and courts between religious liberty and other equally fundamental rights. By creating a religious accommodation that would meaningfully harm other Pennsylvanians, A08770 conflicts with established First Amendment doctrine.

Read the testimony here.

Protecting Rights Holders from Harm: Democrats Introduce the Do No Harm Act

Dozens of religious liberty laws were introduced into state legislatures this year, designed to address manufactured threats to religious believers. In fact, religious liberty rights are amply protected by state and federal law in every state, yet religious conservatives have been on the offensive to use religion as part of a backlash against same-sex couples gaining the right to marry, and against the rights of transgender people to equality and dignity.

Last Wednesday the defenders of equality went on the offensive themselves, introducing into Congress a law that would limit overreaching in the name of religion. Representatives Joseph Kennedy III and Bobby Scott introduced into the House of Representatives the Do Not Harm Act. The bill seeks to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law that was enacted in 1993 to protect religious minorities from discrimination but has since been used to infringe on the constitutional and statutory rights of third parties in the name of religion.

A few years ago, the Supreme Court’s overly broad interpretation of RFRA led to the Hobby Lobby decision where the Court found that certain for-profit entities could avoid compliance with a requirement in the Affordable Care Act ensuring contraceptive coverage at no cost to their employees by claiming a religious objection to doing so. After Hobby, many feared an increase in the number of people and institutions that sought to use religious exemption laws to limit the rights of third parties. However, if the GOP-led Congress passes the Do No Harm Act, religious objectors seeking to use overly broad interpretations of religious accommodations laws will be dealt a serious blow. The Act would not only protect the rights of women and LGBTQ folks, it would also protect the rights of people of color, a group less talked about in this context who stand to suffer great harm from some religious accommodation laws.

Let’s take the latest religious exemption case heard by the Supreme Court, Zubik v. Burwell, as an example of how some religious exemptions can cause great harm to communities of color. The plaintiffs in Zubik are non-profit religious organizations that refuse to comply with the accommodation that the government provides for faith-based entities that have religious objections to providing contraception coverage. These employers may notify either the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or their insurer of their religious objection to contraceptive coverage. The insurer itself then provides the contraceptive coverage to the employees, at no additional cost to either the enrollees or the objecting organization. Earlier this week the Court decided to punt this case back to the lower courts to work out a solution. If the plaintiffs in Zubik had won, thousands of women of color who work at religious non-profits, including universities, hospitals, and social service organizations would have been stripped of their right to no-cost insurance coverage for contraception. Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver was one of the employers that challenged the contraception requirement in Zubik. Like most nursing homes, the employees at the Little Sisters nursing home are women of color.

While these organizations employ women of all backgrounds, the case has huge ramifications for women of color since lack of access to quality reproductive health care plays a large role in the overall health disparities faced by communities of color today.

How so? The advocates of overly broad protections for religious liberty rights under RFRA, just like the plaintiffs in Zubik, want to be excused from complying with generally applicable laws (like anti-discrimination laws) even if doing so would impose a material harm on other people – such as denying their right to adequate health care, to equal opportunity in the workplace, or to a have their marriage universally recognized as valid.

The Do No Harm Act would fix this by limiting the reach of RFRA to situations where no harm is done to others. A reasonable clarification that balances the rights of religious liberty against other important rights. In fact, this approach is exactly what the Supreme Court has taken in interpreting the limits of the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections.

For this reason, the Do No Harm Act is necessary to protect the equal rights of people of color. Unfortunately, the threat posed by overly broad interpretations of religious accommodation laws to communities of color doesn’t end at Zubik. There is a real danger that such laws could strip away many of the rights and protections won by people of color over the last few decades. While federal laws including the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act contain strong protections against racial discrimination, those who wish to discriminate could also demand an exemption from federal antidiscrimination law under the current version of RFRA. Here, a religious objector would have to show that serving a particular group of people would burden their exercise of religion. Such race-based religious objections are not uncommon. A few months ago an interracial couple in Mississippi, a Black man and a Native American/Latina woman, were evicted from a recreational vehicle (RV) park because the landlord said his church opposed interracial marriages. The eviction forced the couple to move to another RV park with higher rent. If the Do No Harm Act is passed in Congress, the landlord would not be able to use religion as a license to engage in otherwise illegal race discrimination.

The Do No Harm Act can also be used as a tool for state legislatures and advocates hoping to push back against many of the state RFRA bills that have been popping up in state houses across the South. Many of these bills which were modeled after the federal RFRA have been used to provide religious objectors with a license to discriminate against not only LGBTQ folks, but racial minorities as long as the religious objectors can show that the state law placed a burden on their religion. For example, a number of state bills would allow a baker, a caterer, a rental hall, a photographer and others to refuse services not only to same-sex couples getting married but to interracial couples as well. If the Do Not Harm Act passes, state legislatures would be emboldened to pass similar amendment to state RFRAs.

This week’s introduction of the Do No Harm Act by two Democratic Congressmen marks a shift to the offensive for those who seek to create a reasonable balance between religious liberty and other fundamental rights, including equality. While we’ve been playing defense in state legislatures across the country, the bill marks the need for proactive measures to be taken in the fight for meaningful and sustainable anti-discrimination laws and protections for all citizens.

The Latest On Zubik v. Burwell: Religious Organizations Propose A Compromise That They Themselves Would Oppose

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches

With headlines like “53 Percent Say Making Nuns Participate in Obamacare Birth Control Mandate is Unfair,” the conservative Christian press has found its angle on Zubik v. Burwell. For the rest of us, here’s a way through the legal thicket.

Two weeks ago, following oral argument in the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate, the Supreme Court issued an unusual order. Acting more like a mediator than the nation’s highest court, it asked the parties to try and find a compromise solution that would ensure employees and their families receive cost-free contraceptive coverage without a burdening the employers’ religious beliefs.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, involves a number of religious nonprofits that object to the existing religious accommodation they receive under the ACA. The current accommodation allows religious employers that do not wish to provide birth control coverage to their employees to opt out by submitting a form to the federal government. If they do this, the government requires the nonprofit’s insurance company or third party administrator to provide separate contraceptive coverage. Religious organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor—those headline-friendly nuns—argue that even this workaround violates their religious liberty, because providing the form makes them complicit in the provision of birth control. They claim that the accommodation violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute enacted in 1993 which forbids the federal government from burdening religious exercise unless there is no less burdensome way to achieve a compelling government interest.

The Supreme Court order asked both sides to file supplemental briefing on “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”

In other words, is there a way to give both sides what they want?

The religious nonprofits responded confidently in their brief, “[t]he answer to that question is clear and simple: Yes.” Unfortunately, what follows is a convoluted “no.” The alternatives put forward by the petitioners include contraceptive-only insurance plans that do not currently exist, would create significant state and federal regulatory challenges (for one, they may not be enforceable contracts under some state laws), would limit access to contraceptives—and which the organizations would in fact still oppose.

The petitioners’ brief explains that “at a minimum,” an acceptable solution would require “two separate health insurance policies (that is, the group health insurance policy and the individual contraceptive coverage policy)” with “separate enrollment processes, insurance cards, payment sources, and communication streams.” Unlike the current accommodation that provides for “seamless” birth control coverage, the brief states “if the contraceptive coverage is to be truly separate, not just an automatic and unavoidable component of the petitioner’s plan, then it must have an enrollment process that is distinct from (and not an automatic consequence of) enrolling in the employer’s plan.”

In other words, employees would have to opt in to coverage, which the government has repeatedly explained will result in lower rates of access and use.

Acknowledging that contraceptive-only plans do not actually exist, the brief proposes that the government “require or incentivize commercial insurance companies to make separate contraceptive coverage plans.” Further, “[t]o the extent there are any concerns about the financial stability of a contraceptive-only plan that charges no premiums and cannot pass on any of its costs,” it suggests that the government subsidize the plans (never mind that Title X, a program which currently provides reproductive health care to low-income patients, is chronically underfunded). The brief dismisses other administrative and legal problems that such a system would create, in one instance simply claiming the “Court should discount any asserted concerns about financial or practical difficulties that might ensue should large numbers of petitioners’ employees opt for separate coverage.”

Here are four big problems with what they propose:

#1: no contraceptive-only insurance plans exist!

Moreover, we don’t know whether such plans could exist, whether they would conflict with state laws, or how they would be created, administered, and funded. It’s a completely unfeasible interpretation of RFRA to allow petitioners to demand a “less restrictive” alternative that could conceivably work in theory. The alternative must be one that will actually work in practice.

#2: It will impose burdens on employees and their families.

The proposed scheme would require employees to opt-in for contraceptive coverage. Throughout litigation, the government has emphasized that even seemingly minimal barriers to contraceptive coverage result in less access to and use of birth control. Further, requiring employees to opt-in to coverage would allow employees to cut off access to contraception for their covered family members.

#3: It will reduce access to contraceptive and non-contraceptive women’s health care.

Women generally receive annual care, including a pap smear, breast exam, STI testing and treatment, blood pressure test, and contraceptive counseling, from the same doctor during the same appointment. This makes the idea of a “contraception only” plan very different from other services like dental or vision plans—contraception is an integral part of women’s health care. By requiring employees to find doctors who accept each of their two plans, and then schedule two different appointments, the petitioner’s suggestion essentially doubles the barriers to accessing necessary healthcare. This may not seem like a hefty burden, but for women balancing childcare and low-wage jobs, and who may have limited paid sick time, it is significant.

#4: The religious nonprofits would oppose their own plan.

After laying out a supposed less restrictive alternative, the petitioners’ brief adds “[t]o be clear, that is not to say that petitioners endorse such an approach as a policy matter.” It notes that many of the nonprofits believe contraception to be “immoral,” and therefore “may disagree as a policy matter with government programs, such as Title X, that make contraceptives or abortifacients more widely available to their own employees or anyone else.” Moreover, the brief states that “petitioners certainly have the right, protected by the First Amendment, to make that disagreement known.”

What this means is that while petitioners are suggesting that the government adopt entirely new laws and regulations regarding contraceptive coverage, and allocate additional funding for contraception, they will nevertheless continue to lobby (and perhaps litigate) against these very actions.

Requiring the government to come up with an entirely new legal and regulatory alternative any time it places a substantial burden on religion—regardless of political, legal, or administrative feasibility, cost, or potential impact on third parties—is a scary prospect. This is especially true considering the weak “substantial burden” test the Court adopted in Hobby Lobby, which defers almost entirely to the religious objectors’ assessment of whether they have been burdened. Such an immoderate interpretation of RFRA would give religious objectors the power to upend complex laws and programs that are created to benefit the public at large.

Let’s say, for example, a company like Hobby Lobby had a religious objection to minimum wage laws. Under the petitioner’s argument, a less restrictive way for the government to achieve its goal of guaranteeing a living wage would be to allow the company to pay subpar wages and pass a new law allocating funds to pick up the remaining tab. A religious objection to environmental regulations? Pollute away and suggest that the government create, fund, and administer a new program to clean up the mess. A religious objection to posting OSHA notifications? Tell the government to hire workers to chase down the company’s employees and warn them about environmental hazards they may face at work.

All of these solutions would certainly be less burdensome on the employer. They also happen to be expensive, inefficient, impractical, and bordering on absurd. Moreover, they are likely to create financial and administrative burdens not just for the government, but for the company’s employees and the public. And since they are merely suggestions for less restrictive alternatives rather than mandates, Congress could decide that passing a new law is simply not worth the trouble.

The petitioner’s proposed plan is not a less restrictive alternative. It’s a less restrictive fantasy, and turns RFRA’s balancing test into a trump card for religious believers.

Missouri Law Professors Maintain Constitutional Amendment SJR 39 Would Violate the Establishment Clause

Link to Document/Text here:
http://bit.ly/1TOUnSu

Media Contact:
Elizabeth Reiner Platt
Associate Director, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
ep2801@columbia.edu

April 12, 2016

Fifteen law professors, most from universities in Missouri, issued a memorandum today arguing that Missouri’s Senate Joint Resolution 39, which would amend the Missouri constitution to create new and very broad religious liberty rights, is unconstitutional. The Missouri House Committee on Emerging Issues has scheduled a hearing on SJR 39 for this afternoon.

SJR 39 would give many religious organizations, individuals, for-profit entities, and state workers the right to violate municipal antidiscrimination ordinances and contractual obligations that conflict with their “sincere religious belief concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.”

The amendment would protect a wide range of discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and government services against same-sex couples and supporters of marriage equality. For example, the amendment would allow:

  • A religious hospital to violate a “good cause” provision in a collective bargaining agreement and fire a nurse who expresses support for marriage equality;
  • An adoption agency that has a contract with the city of St. Louis to violate that city’s antidiscrimination ordinance and refuse to work with same-sex couples;
  • A private restaurant chain to break a contract to cater a wedding when it learns that the couple is of the same sex; and
  • A judge to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and the Missouri Code of Judicial Conduct and refuse to marry a same-sex couple.

The memo, which was spearheaded by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School, concludes that SJR 39 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by accommodating religion in a way that meaningfully harms other Missourians. It was signed by professors from Washington University in St. Louis, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Saint Louis University School of Law.

“SJR 39 does not just disrupt the careful balance between religious and secular rights enshrined in the Constitution,” said Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, “it’s also unconstitutionally vague. It’s impossible to predict the range of otherwise prohibited behavior that would be given absolute immunity under this amendment.”

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, associate director at the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, said SJR 39 “is not about religious freedom, which is already very well-protected by the robust liberty of conscience provision of the Missouri Constitution. It merely codifies a right to discriminate.”

Read the memorandum here.

Law Professors Condemn Mississippi and Georgia Religious Liberty Laws as Unconstitutional Over-Reaching

Read the Mississippi Memorandum here:
http://bit.ly/1SNYHiz

Read
 the Georgia Memorandum here:
http://bit.ly/1pGlmmO

Media Contact:
Elizabeth Reiner Platt
Associate Director, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
ep2801@columbia.edu

April 5, 2016—More than a dozen law professors with expertise in constitutional and civil rights law have signed memoranda published by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School that analyze two so-called “religious liberty” bills recently passed in Mississippi and Georgia.

Mississippi’s bill, HB 1523, was signed into law today by Governor Phil Bryant. The Project’s analysis concludes that HB 1523 is among the broadest religious accommodation bills to be passed by any state legislature. It builds into state law unconstitutional exemptions for particular religious views on marriage, sexual relations, workplace sex equality, and gender identity. Under HB 1523, religious organizations, individuals, for-profit entities, and even government workers are granted the right to discriminate against a broad range of Mississippians in a variety of contexts including housing, employment, public services, education, and adoption.

Even worse, it prohibits the government from withdrawing grants or contracts from organizations that discriminate, and could therefore lead to the use of taxpayer funds to sponsor religiously-motivated discrimination.

The memoranda, which outline both bills’ constitutional and policy flaws, were signed by a total of 19 law professors from schools including the University of Mississippi School of Law, Mississippi College of Law, Emory University, Atlanta’s John Marshall School of Law, Mercer University School of Law.

“HB 1523 is a solution in search of a problem, as religious belief and practice already receive strong protection under state and federal law,” said Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law. “Rather than strengthening religious liberty protections, the bill radically overreaches by favoring religious believers at the expense of other private citizens.  This amounts to a violation on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, associate director at the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, said that the bills “are representative of wave of legislation that has cloaked resistance to LGBT rights, and especially the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, as a movement for religious freedom.”

Like HB 1523, Georgia’s HB 757 would have condoned and encouraged both public and private discrimination. Governor Nathan Deal has promised to veto the bill.

While the memos’ signatories have a range of views on the appropriate balance between religious and secular rights, in the words of Governor Deal they “do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community.”