Category Archives: States

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.

“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.

PRPCP Provides Testimony to New York City Council on Gender and Racial Equity Training

Press Release:
April 27, 2017

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

Subject:
Columbia Law School Think Tank Provides Testimony to New York City Council on Gender and Racial Equity Training

Contact:
Liz Boylan | eboyla@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167
Ashe McGovern | amcgovern@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0161

______________________________________________

April 27, 2017—On Monday, April 24, Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) testified before the New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues on a bill that would require several city agencies to undergo training on “implicit bias, discrimination, cultural competency and structural inequity, including with respect to gender, race and sexual orientation.”

McGovern’s testimony outlines the merits of the bill, and encourages the council to expand its requirements to all city agencies, as well as to private city contractors. Private organizations that contract with the city receive billions of taxpayer dollars and are the primary source of many city-funded services. Any bill intended to combat discrimination within city programs, therefore, should apply to contractors. In addition, the current bill mandates training for only three city agencies—the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration—despite the fact that all agencies and their grantees are in need of the proposed training.

The testimony also draws attention to the unique legal concerns and challenges that arise when faith-based organizations—which are exempted from certain provisions of New York City’s human rights law—contract with the city to provide vital services. PRPCP explains that clear training on all contractors’ legal duty to provide comprehensive and nondiscriminatory care is essential to ensuring that the city does not use public funds to subsidize discrimination.

“While this bill is an important step in the right direction, it is vital that all city agencies, and the private organizations they contract with, be subject to cultural competency training and more stringent oversight,” said McGovern. “Last year alone, New York City provided over $4 billion to private contractors so that they could meet the city’s social and human service’s needs. LGBTQ communities, those seeking reproductive healthcare, and communities of color experience unique vulnerabilities in accessing these vitally important services. The Council should be cognizant of those vulnerabilities and adopt proactive measures to ensure that all agencies and contractors, whether faith-based or secular, do not engage in discriminatory behavior.”

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.

Read the full transcript of McGovern’s testimony, here: http://tinyurl.com/McGovern424Testimony

Access a .pdf of this Press Release here: http://tinyurl.com/PR-McGovern-Testimony-424

See the agenda of the April 24 Committee meeting here: http://tinyurl.com/April24NYCCouncilAgenda

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

Proposed New York State Health Regulation Contains Troubling Exemption: The PRPCP Responds to a Proposal on Abortion Access

Cross-Posted on the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law Blog, and at Medium
______________________________________________

Press Release:
March 29, 2017

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

Subject:
Proposed New York State Health Regulation Contains Troubling Exemption: The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project Responds to a Proposal on Abortion Access

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

______________________________________________

A proposed New York State regulation requiring insurance plans to cover “medically necessary” abortions contains a broad religious exemption that would undermine the state’s longstanding commitment to reproductive health. The exemption—which is not required by New York’s Constitution or laws— defines the term “religious employers” to include large nonprofits and even some for-profit companies. In the face of a national movement to enact anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice religious exemptions, the regulation would set a harmful precedent by accommodating religion at the expense of other fundamental liberty and equality rights. On Monday, March 27th,  Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) submitted a comment on behalf of the PRPCP to the NYS Department of Financial Services “to express [] deep concerns regarding the regulations’ expansion of New York’s existing definition of religious employers.”

Noting that religious liberty is already robustly protected in New York, PRPCP’s comment states, “allowing an organization that operates in the public sphere to violate neutral employee health and benefit laws serves to reduce, not enhance, true religious pluralism.  This is especially true when such accommodations single out particular religious tenets, such as opposition to abortion, for special protection.”

“The proposed regulation would allow organizations to treat a medically necessary procedure overwhelmingly obtained by women differently than any other type of care,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt. “Rather than surrender to the troubling trend of protecting particular religious beliefs at the expense of reproductive health, New York should continue to be a national leader in guaranteeing access to comprehensive health care.”

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.

Read the full letter from the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project here:
http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-3-27

Read the NYS Department of Financial Services Proposed Amendment here: http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/r_prop/rp62a48text.pdf

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

WA Supreme Court: LGBT Discrimination No More About Flowers than Civil Rights Were About Sandwiches

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches, February 22, 2017

Last Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court issued a significant and unanimous decision in the ongoing dispute—being litigated in courts across the country—over whether antidiscrimination law must yield to the religious beliefs of business owners opposed to marriage equality. The case involved a florist, Barronelle Stutzman, who refused to provide floral arrangements for a wedding between same-sex partners because of her deeply held religious beliefs about marriage.

In prior cases including Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock and Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, courts have come down against business owners who refuse to provide goods and services for weddings between same-sex couples. Opinions in these cases have found that antidiscrimination laws are neutral, generally applicable measures that do not favor secularism over religion, or single out particular religious groups for ill treatment. The right-wing legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom represented the business owners in both of those suits, and is currently representing Stutzman, who says she plans to appeal Thursday’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The opinions in Elane Photography and Masterpiece Cakeshop have declined to analyze the application of LGBT antidiscrimination laws to religious objectors using the rigorous “strict scrutiny” test. This test, used to evaluate government actions that specifically disadvantage religion, requires a law to be the least restrictive (to the religious objector) means of achieving a “compelling” government interest.

In this latest opinion, State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, the court did subject Washington’s antidiscrimination law to the strict scrutiny test. They did so because the free exercise provision of Washington’s state constitution has been interpreted to be more protective of religion than the federal First Amendment, raising the possibility that the lower level of scrutiny required under the federal Free Exercise Clause may be insufficient.

While the court declined to hold that the strict scrutiny test was necessary when evaluating neutral laws under the Washington constitution, it found that applying antidiscrimination law to religious objectors satisfied even this demanding test. Importantly, the court recognized that providing exemptions for religious objectors was inherently inconsistent with the entire purpose of antidiscrimination law.

Stutzman had argued that applying the law to her could not be necessary to achieving any compelling government interest, since there was no “access problem.” In other words—since the couple could purchase flowers elsewhere, application of antidiscrimination law in this case served no purpose. In response, the court held:

We emphatically reject this argument…”[t]his case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.” Br. of Resp’ts Ingersoll and Freed at 32. As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.

This statement strikes at the heart of the dispute between religious objectors and LGBT couples and families. Too often, the vital role that antidiscrimination law plays in establishing the equal place of long-subordinated groups in civil society gets lost or ignored in claims that focus on the availability of flowers or cake. Efforts to limit the scope of antidiscrimination law will not stop at wedding-related services (and, indeed, a federal judge ruled last summer that the religious beliefs of a funeral home owner justified his discrimination against a transgender employee). Washington’s opinion is clear on the real purpose of these laws: guaranteeing equality, not roses.

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.

Constitutional Amendment SJR 39 Could Immunize Religiously-Motivated Crimes From Prosecution

Link to Document/Text here:
https://bit.ly/1S7ttmn

Media Contacts:

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

Elizabeth Sepper
Associate Professor
Washington University School of Law
esepper@wustl.edu

April 18, 2016

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School issued a statement today adding to its earlier memorandum on Missouri’s Senate Joint Resolution 39, a proposed amendment to the state constitution. The statement posits that SJR 39 would prevent Missouri and its municipalities from prosecuting crimes, including trespass, harassment, or assault, that are motivated by a religious belief concerning marriage between same-sex couples.

SJR 39 would prohibit the state and local governments from imposing a “penalty” on many religious individuals and organizations for acts motivated by their “sincere religious belief concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.” Missouri law routinely employs the term “penalty” to mean both criminal punishments and civil fines or actions. The amendment would therefore pose a barrier to prosecuting certain religiously-motivated criminal conduct.

For example, the amendment could immunize from prosecution members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious organization, if they violated state trespass laws and entered a private chapel or home in order to protest the wedding of a same-sex couple. It could also protect Church members from prosecution if they harassed or even physically assaulted the couple or their guests.

“Not only does SJR 39 attack the equality and dignity rights of LGBT Missourians and supporters of marriage equality” said Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, “it also puts them at risk of physical harm.” Elizabeth Sepper, Associate Professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said SJR 39 “allows the religious preferences of a few to trump not only other individual rights, but also important governmental interests in public safety and impartial enforcement of the law.”

The statement also summarizes other arguments made in the longer memorandum, which maintains that SJR 39 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Read the statement here.

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.”

Georgia Governor Vetoes Right-To-Discriminate Bill – HB757

This blog was originally posted at Religion Dispatches

Yesterday, Governor Nathan Deal announced that he would veto HB 757, a broad religious exemption bill that would have sanctioned discrimination against LGBT and other Georgians. A Frankenstein-esque combination of what had previously been several different bills, HB 757 would have violated the Establishment Clause by stripping many Georgians of their legal rights in order to accommodate the preferences of religious actors. Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project recently released a memo, signed by many Georgian legal scholars, explaining why the bill was unnecessary, discriminatory, and unconstitutional.

Two of Georgia’s three biggest cities—Atlanta and Savannah—both have municipal ordinances banning some forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and others may follow suit. Atlanta’s ordinance is particularly broad, banning LGBT and marital status discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and private employment. HB 757 would have allowed religious organizations, individuals, and businesses to ignore local ordinances and discriminate against LGBT Georgians, essentially prioritizing anti-LGBT religious beliefs over the rights and liberties of others. A few sections of the bill went even further, and could have sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, religion, disability, and pregnancy.

Governor Deal’s veto is an important step in the right direction, but the debate over a religious right to discriminate is far from over, including in Georgia. Legislators who support HB 757 have already called for a special session to override the Governor’s veto, and many other states have introduced bills similar to HB 757.

Below is a run-down of some of the worst provisions of the bill. The list also notes similarities between sections of HB 757 and bills that have been introduced in other states across the county:

  • One section of the bill would have given faith-based organizations, including schools, universities, and certain non-profits, the right to refuse (1) to rent property for events that they find objectionable; and (2) to provide “social, educational, or charitable services that violate [their] sincerely held religious belief.” Georgians could therefore have been denied services ranging from adoption to higher education to hospice care based on their sexual orientation or gender identity—or even based on their race or nationality. Moreover, faith-based organizations could refuse to provide nearly any service otherwise required by Georgia laws and administrative rules—for example, regulations governing requirements for care at day care facilities, drug treatment centers, or nursing homes. Bills that offer similar protection to businesses that with to discriminate are being considered in Mississippi, Missouri, and many other states.
  • Another provision stated “[a]ll individuals shall be free to attend or not attend” marriages and other rites at their discretion. At first glance, the provision seems merely silly, since it’s difficult to imagine a circumstance in which one would be legally required to attend a wedding in the first place. However, if the word “attend” were to be read broadly, the bill could have given court clerks, officials, and even judges the state-sanctioned right to discriminate against Georgians exercising their Constitutional right to marry. It could also have allowed businesses that sell wedding-related services—such as musicians, florists, or caterers—to discriminate against customers based on religious beliefs, since providing these services may require attending a wedding. This section of the bill contained no ban against invidious discrimination otherwise prohibited by state or federal law, and therefore may have empowered government officials and wedding-related service providers to refuse to attend interfaith or interracial weddings. Allowing state actors to discriminate poses additional Establishment Clause concerns, since it gives the appearance of State support for a particular religious belief. At least eight states, including Kim Davis’s home state of Kentucky, have or are considering bills that would allow government employees to discriminate.
  • A third part of HB 757 stated that no faith-based organization “shall be required to hire or retain as an employee any person whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith based organization’s sincerely held religious belief,” except as required by the Georgia or federal Constitutions or by federal law. This section would have allowed faith-based organizations to fire employees expressly for their sexual orientation or gender identity. It could also lead to discrimination against pregnant women and single parents, especially single mothers, as well as the enforcement of rigid, invasive, and discriminatory codes of conduct. This section of the bill is somewhat similar to one introduced in Missouri, which aims to remove religious organizations from the definition of “employer” within the state’s human rights law.
  • Finally, the bill also contained a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provision modeled on the federal RFRA. While the RFRA contained a caveat that it should not “be construed to … [p]ermit invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law,” it did not require compliance with municipal laws banning sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status discrimination. It therefore would have invited individuals and businesses to assert religion-based justifications for avoiding compliance with local anti-discrimination laws. Over a dozen states from Iowa to New Mexico have introduced RFRAs.

While HB 757 is gone for now, it’s far from forgotten. There’s still a chance that legislators could override the Governor’s veto, and dozens of similar bills are still waiting to be picked up in states nationwide. It’s therefore important to understand that the veto of HB 757 was not just a win for LGBT equality or an acknowledgment that discrimination is bad for business. Rather, it was a necessary step to preserve the balance between religious and secular rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.