Category Archives: US Supreme Court

Attorney General Session’s “Religious Liberty Task Force”: DOJ Evangelists for the Religious Right

Cross-posted to Medium.com
On Monday, July 30th, the Department of Justice (DOJ) held a “Religious Liberty Summit” at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department would be developing a “Religious Liberty Task Force.” Attorney General Sessions explained that the task force “will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance” — referencing a DOJ guidance document on “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in October of 2017 — “by ensuring that all Justice Department components… are holding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.”

Attorney General Sessions notes that this is the “next step” for the DOJ and the Trump administration to ensure the application of the “religious liberty guidance” issued by the Department of Justice in the fall of 2017. The guidance document that the task force is charged with implementing was promulgated in accordance with President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” President Trump signed the Executive Order in question in a ceremony on May 4th, 2017, the “National Day of Prayer,” in the White House Rose Garden. The guidance document, “Principles of Religious Liberty” was issued on October 7, 2017, from Attorney General Sessions in a Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies, available here.

While “religious liberty guidance” and the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” may sound innocuous, they are far from it; the guidelines speak to an interpretation of religious liberty that is frequently used by the Religious Right to deny and undercut the rights of marginalized individuals in the United States. In a statement released by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project on the “religious liberty guidance” last fall, our scholars analyzed and characterized its edicts as such:

This document… misinterpret[s] 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 health, safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ[+] people, people of color, and religious minorities.

The “Principles of Religious Liberty” memorandum issued by the Department of Justice in October 2017 contains several examples of how the rhetoric of “religious liberty” has been mobilized by the Christian Right to enable individuals and businesses to deny rights and services to persons based on their religious beliefs. This insidious tactic undercuts equity and equality measures guaranteed by the constitution and a wide range of national and state laws. Cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop — wherein baker Jack Phillips refused to bake a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple on the basis that doing so would unduly burden his religious beliefs– have raised the visibility of this issue. What’s at stake is far more serious than cake, however: Similar cases include that of EEOC v. Harris, in which a funeral home fired Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, for expressing her gender identity through clothing. The Funeral home asserted that Stephens’ gender expression was in violation of the Funeral home’s “closely held religious beliefs.” While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Equal Employment Commission and Aimee Stephens, a petition has been filed for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project has written extensively on the DOJ guidance in the DOJ Memorandum on “Principles of Religious Liberty,” as well as President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which instructed Attorney General Sessions to develop the guidance. Our analyses have demonstrated how the Trump Administration and the Attorney General have sought to coopt the meaning of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” in order to privilege certain conservative religious views as a form of white Christian supremacy:

In April of this year, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project co-authored a report with the Center for American Progress, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few.” The report, available here, highlights how the actions of the Justice Department enable and promote discrimination in and by the Federal Government using the tools of the Justice Department and the Executive Branch.

The report, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few” follows a series of earlier works produced by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, which address concerns about how the Trump Administration is using a limited vision of “religious liberty” to promote a specific agenda. These works are outlined below:

· In October 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published a statement critiquing Attorney General Sessions “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in a DOJ Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies on October 7th, 2017.

· In July 2017, Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote on the potential harms of the — at the time — anticipated guidance on religious freedom from Attorney General Sessions, in a blog post, “Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others.”

· In May 2017, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote a blog post addressing President Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech titled, “’Religious Liberty’ Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom.”

· In May 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project released a joint statement with the Council on American Islamic Relations addressing concerns about the potential impacts of President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” on religious minorities, available here.

· In January 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published “Church, State, and the Trump Administration,” a report focusing on the promises of the Trump campaign related to faith and religion, and the actions undertaken during President Trump’s early tenure in regards to faith and the separation of Church and State.

The DOJ’s “Religious Liberty Task Force” will no doubt continue the administration’s work of advancing particular conservative religious beliefs about sexual health and autonomy, intimate and family partnerships, and pregnancy under the guise of religious liberty. This so-called “freedom” comes at a steep price, however, particularly for women, sexual and gender minorities, people of color, and religious minorities.


A full list of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s writing on the way the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions actions regarding “Religious Freedom” and “Religious Liberty” follows below:

Report: Religious Liberty for a Select Few: The Justice Department Is Promoting Discrimination Across the Federal Government
Sharita Gruberg, Frank J. Bewkes, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Katherine Franke, Claire Markham
April 3, 2018
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/reports/2018/04/03/448773/religious-liberty-select/

Columbia Law Experts Denounce DOJ Religious Liberty Guidance as Attack on Religious Liberty and Fundamental Equality Rights
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
October 6, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/10/06/columbia-law-experts-denounce-doj-religious-liberty-guidance-as-attack-on-religious-liberty-and-fundamental-equality-rights/

Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others
Ashe McGovern
July 20, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/07/20/religiousfreedomharmslgbtq/

Joint Statement by CAIR and PRPCP on President Trump’s EO on “Religious Liberty
The Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York and Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
May 15, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/15/joint-statement-by-cair-and-prpcp-on-president-trumps-eo-on-religious-liberty/

“Religious Liberty” Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom
Elizabeth Reiner Platt
May 4, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/04/religious-liberty-executive-order-will-limit-not-enhance-religious-freedom/

Church, State, and the Trump Administration
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
January 30, 2017
https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/gender-sexuality/PRPCP/prpcp_trump_church_state.pdf

Columbia Law Scholars answer key questions regarding SCOTUS Decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop

Monday, June 4, 2018

After the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for the marriage of a gay couple, nearly 100 “friend of the court briefs” were filed by groups on every side of the political and religious spectrum, including the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School

Professor Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University. Elizabeth Reiner Platt is the Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. Below, they answer 5 key questions regarding the judgment the Supreme Court of the United States delivered this morning in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

A version of this Q & A may be accessed from Columbia University News, here.


Q: How did the Supreme Court decide the Masterpiece Cakeshop case today?

A: Justice Kennedy ruled for a 7-2 majority that principles of religious liberty must be harmonized with principles of equality.  The Court’s ruling is quite narrow, actually, turning on the fact that some members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the body that ruled on the case in the first instance) made statements that the Court thought demonstrated hostility toward religion.  So Justice Kennedy framed the issue as one of state-based discrimination against people who hold particular religious views, not as about the rights of same-sex couples or LGBT rights more generally.

Q: What should we make of the way the Court framed the issue?

A: Many people were disappointed to see the Court rule in favor of Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for two men because of his religious beliefs. They see the Court’s opinion as a defeat for the rights of LGBTQ people.  It’s important to recognize, however, that the opinion does not actually limit antidiscrimination law. The Court explained, “It is a general rule that [faith based] objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”

In fact, the opinion contains soaring language recognizing the importance of gay rights: “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason, the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts.”

Q: You wrote a “friend of the Court” brief in the case, does today’s decision reflect the arguments you made?

A: The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and Muslim Advocates wrote a brief in this case on behalf of 15 religious minority and civil rights groups, arguing that religious liberty principles must be harmonized with equality principles, and that the rights of religious objectors find their limit when they undermine fundamentally important equality principles, such as Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.  We took the position that these are mutually reinforcing values, and we are pleased to see that the Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop embraces this approach, despite setting aside the ruling against Jack Phillips.

For example, the Court found that while a religious exemption allowing clergy to decline to perform a same-sex wedding may be appropriate “as an exercise of religion, an exercise that gay persons could recognize and accept without serious diminishment to their own dignity and worth. Yet if that exception were not confined, then a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.”

Q: There are many similar cases making their way to the Supreme Court, where business owners have sought a religious exemption from complying with anti-discrimination laws.  How does today’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop affect those other cases?

A: None of those other cases include evidence of any bias against faith-based objectors, as was the case in Masterpiece Cakeshop.  So the big questions these cases raise— can a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs be used to avoid compliance with anti-discrimination laws— remains unanswered.  There were, however, some important signs in Justice Kennedy’s decision today that point in the direction that religious objectors may not win in those cases.  The Court cited approvingly a case from the 1960s that found that a restaurant owner could not deny service to African Americans even if he had a sincerely held religious reason for doing so.  So that principle remains as an important limit on religious liberty rights in contexts where overarching equality principles would be undermined by the overly broad deference to religion.

Q: What’s at stake in the tension between religious liberty and LGBTQ equality?

A:  There are two very radical ideas lying behind Jack Phillips’ legal claim here – both of which originate with his lawyers, the Alliance Defending Freedom.  The first is to establish the idea that some constitutional rights are more important than others.  In their view religious liberty rights are more fundamental than any other rights, and thus should occupy the top tier of constitutional protection.  The rights of LGBT people, women, people of color and others, in their view, should be seen as second tier, lower priority rights, and should yield when in conflict with religious liberty.  This approach to constitutional law derives from something we call “natural law” – that God’s law is supreme and no man-made law can be superior to God’s law.  This amounts to a radical theocratization of the constitution, a document that was intended to be an adamantly secular social contract.  The second idea is one that ideological conservatives have been committed to for generations: that the government cannot, indeed may not, tell business owners who they can serve and how they can run their businesses.  These folks objected to civil rights laws that prohibited race discrimination by businesses in the 1960s and have never accepted the fact that a business must serve all people, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation, for instance.  They are using religion-based resistance to same-sex marriage in order to weaken the larger national commitment to enforcing non-discrimination laws in business settings.  In this sense, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is the logical next step after the Hobby Lobby case, where a business owner objected to the federal government mandating the kind of employee benefits it had to provide.

PRESS RELEASE: New Report Details Consequences of Trump Administration’s Overly Broad Guidance on Religious Liberty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 3, 2018

SUBJECT:
New Report Details Consequences of Trump Administration’s Overly Broad Guidance on Religious Liberty

CONTACTS:
Elizabeth Boylan, 212-854-0167, eboyla@law.columbia.edu
Sam Hananel, 202-478-6327,shananel@americanprogress.org

April 3, 2018, Washington, D.C.  Obama-era rules prohibiting discrimination in dozens of federal programs could be undermined by the Trump administration’s controversial guidance on religious liberty, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project.

The report’s authors identified at least 87 regulations, 16 agency guidance documents, and 55 federal programs and services funded by taxpayer dollars that could be undercut by the October guidance issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. These include programs that provide health care, shelter, foreign aid, and assistance to victims of violence as well as veterans.

From unfair treatment to outright exclusion, the Trump administration has misinterpreted religious liberty in a way that harms the fundamental rights of women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. Under the new guidance:

  • LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence could be turned away from federally funded domestic violence shelters.
  • Organizations contracting with the government could force any unaccompanied LGBTQ immigrant children in their care into conversion therapy.
  • A government contractor could cite a religious belief as a reason to refuse services without risking the loss of federal funding—for example, not housing LGBTQ youth under federal programs.
  • Hospital workers could refuse to provide emergency contraception to sexual assault survivors by claiming that it conflicts with a religious belief.
  • Clinics abroad that are funded by the U.S. government could refuse to treat LGBTQ people living with HIV.

“This guidance is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legal rights and dignity of LGBTQ people,” said Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report. “It uses the guise of religious liberty to advance discrimination.”

“Jeff Sessions’ guidance document, which dramatically misinterprets religious exemption law, is already being used to limit access to reproductive health care,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and co-author of the report. “As agencies continue to implement it, the guidance threatens to limit enforcement of an enormous range of health, employment, and anti-discrimination protections.”

Religious liberty is a foundational American value. The Trump administration is abusing religious exemptions and disregarding the First Amendment’s prohibitions against the government preferring particular religious viewpoints. This guidance would allow federal officials, service providers, and corporations to use their religious views to infringe on the rights of others.

President Donald Trump’s ideologically motivated appointees are likely to carry out this guidance across the federal government by issuing new rules, reinterpreting existing rules, or reallocating federal funds to faith-based service providers. At the same time, rather than upholding the rights of LGBTQ people and women, Sessions has directed Justice Department lawyers to defend those who would cause harm to third parties.

Read the report: “Liberty and Justice for a Select Few: Jeff Sessions’ Guidance on Religious Liberty Is Promoting Discrimination Across the Federal Government” by Sharita Gruberg, Frank J. Bewkes, Elizabeth Platt, Katherine Franke, and Claire Markham.

For more information or to talk to an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at shananel@americanprogress.org or 202-478-6327, or Liz Boylan at eb2596@columbia.edu or 212-854-0167.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s 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.  We undertake approaches to the developing law of religion that both respects the importance of religious liberty and recognizes the ways in which too broad an accommodation of these rights threatens Establishment Clause violations and can unsettle a proper balance with other competing fundamental rights.  Our work takes the form of legal research and scholarship, public policy interventions, advocacy support, and academic and media publications.

The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Media Advisory: Experts Available for Interviews on Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

MEDIA ADVISORY

12/5: SCOTUS Hearing – Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
Religious Freedom or Discrimination?

Experts Available for Interviews on Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke and Elizabeth Platt Filed an Amicus Brief in the Case on Behalf of a Coalition of 15 Civil Rights and Faith Organizations.

* * * * *

Media Contacts:

The Office of Public Affairs, Columbia Law School
212.854.2650
publicaffairs@law.columbia.edu

Elizabeth Boylan, Associate Director, Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
212.854.0167
eboyla@law.columbia.edu

* * * * *

New York, December 1, 2017—Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, a leading expert on law, religion and rights— drawing from feminist, queer, and critical race theory—and Elizabeth Platt, Director of The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP), are available to discuss Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case in which a baker claims that free speech protects his right to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Oral arguments will be presented Tuesday before the Supreme Court.

In October, under the aegis of The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, Franke and Platt filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of a coalition of 15 civil rights and faith organizations. They argued that overly broad accommodations of religious liberty undermine not just LGBT rights but religious liberty itself.

“The Supreme Court’s most significant religious liberty cases have drawn a connection between the protection of religious liberty and principles of non-discrimination,” Franke said about the case. “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.”

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project is a think tank housed within the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. Its 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.

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Note: The Law School also has a broadcast studio on campus equipped with an ISDN line and TV connectivity through VideoLink. Please contact the Public Affairs Office for bookings.

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.

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.

Because You’re Not Fooling Anyone: Why Trump Travel Ban 2.0 Still Unconstitutional

Cross-posted with Religion Dispatches, and on Medium, March 14, 2017

Trump’s second attempt at banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries is clearly written to avoid being struck down under the Establishment Clause. Most notably, it no longer contains provisions that preference entry for religious minorities—language the President himself admitted was intended to prioritize entry for Christian rather than Muslim refugees.

So why isn’t the new EO constitutional, at least with regard to First Amendment claims? Because cutting its most obviously discriminatory provision doesn’t fix the fact that the new EO was passed with the same invalid purpose as the President’s first attempt—to reduce Muslim immigration into the U.S. When a candidate campaigns for nearly two years on the promise of banning, profiling, and even registering Muslims, that is context that a court can—and should—consider in evaluating whether his actions are motivated by religious animus or legitimate security concerns.

In 2005, the Supreme Court issued two decisions on the question of whether displaying the Ten Commandments in or near a courthouse violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The cases came out split, with one display upheld and the other held unconstitutional. The takeaway? Context and history matter.

These decisions serve as helpful background for why a quick fix to Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration doesn’t resolve all the EO’s constitutional problems.

In one of the cases, McCreary County v. ACLU, the displays at issue were the third in a series of exhibits that had been repeatedly challenged as unconstitutional. The first displays—installed in two Kentucky county courthouses—were large, gold-framed copies of the Ten Commandments, with a citation to the Book of Exodus. In response to a suit by the ACLU, the counties expanded the displays to include additional documents in smaller frames, each with a religious theme, including the “endowed by their Creator” passage from the Declaration of Independence and the national motto, “In God We Trust.”

When a District Court preliminarily enjoined both the original and the expanded displays, the counties installed a third version, this time consisting of nine framed documents including the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights. In explaining its decision to strike down even this seemingly acceptable display, the Supreme Court noted: “the purpose apparent from government action can have an impact more significant than the result expressly decreed” (emphasis added).

In other words, the counties weren’t fooling anyone.

In order to be upheld under the Establishment Clause, a government action must have a valid secular purpose. While courts typically give deference to the secular intent proffered by legislatures, the purpose has to be “genuine, not a sham.” In this case, it was obvious to the Court that the counties’ intent in creating the third round of displays was no different than their intent for the original display: they “were simply reaching for any way to keep a religious document on the walls of courthouses constitutionally required to embody religious neutrality.”

In contrast, the Court in Van Orden v. Perry held that it was permissible for Texas to accept and display a Ten Commandments statue donated by a civic organization on the state capitol grounds, alongside 17 other monuments and 22 historical markers. In this case, there was no history indicating a legislative intent to endorse or advance religion.

The history of Trump’s two Executive Orders recalls the counties’ efforts in McCreary to water down a religious display simply to meet legal approval, without changing its underlying intent. In the years leading up to the EO, President Trump repeatedly pledged to ban Muslims from entering the country. (He also made comments supporting Muslim profiling, the creation of a Muslim registry, and the closure of mosques.) Trump sometimes varied his language, calling his plan “extreme vetting” or emphasizing its application to “terror nations” rather than Muslim-majority nations.

After the issuance of the first order, however, Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani openly admitted that the President intended to craft a Muslim ban that would withstand judicial scrutiny. When the ban was enjoined, Trump stated in a press conference that the administration could “tailor the [new] order to that decision and get just about everything, in some ways more.” White House advisor, Stephen Miller, also stated that the new EO contained “mostly minor, technical differences,” and would “have the same, basic policy outcome for the country.”

Thus, despite the elimination of the explicit religious preference, there’s no indication that the new order should be treated any differently from the last one when it comes to determining whether the administration had a valid, secular, non-discriminatory purpose in issuing the EO.

This is certainly not to say that Trump can never pass a law on immigration or national security that won’t violate the Establishment Clause. The McCreary Court explained that it did not hold that the counties’ “past actions forever taint any effort on their part to deal with the subject matter.” However it does mean that Trump cannot avoid the ample and longstanding evidence that his EO is intended to be a Muslim ban simply by removing the language that most clearly identifies it as one.

New York City’s Pre-K Program’s Church-State Problem

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New York City’s school system is no stranger to church state problems. Since 2005, the city has rented space for public schools in religious buildings, causing conflicts ranging from lease provisions that require students to be taken off-site for state-mandated sex education classes to students having to walk by crosses and other religious images as they make their way to school. Last year, the City awarded $19.8 million in funds to religious schools to hire security guards. This school year, New York City’s Department of Education will be dealing with another church state issue as the city enrolls the largest number of four year olds ever into its pre-kindergarten program.

In September, tens of thousands of pre-kindergarten students will be attending class for the first time as part of the De Blasio Administration’s hallmark universal full day pre-k (UPK) program, now in its third year.[1] In order to reach its enrollment goals, the city has been urging religious schools and community organizations to host the UPK program, since most public schools have reached capacity. The city is now providing religious schools roughly $10,000 per student, raising potential conflicts with church state laws. More problematically, under a guidance document issued by the De Blasio administration these religious schools are permitted to teach from religious texts, so long as they do so “objectively as part of a secular program of education,” and are allowed to preference hiring teachers that share the school’s religion. While schools must cover religious symbols on their exterior entrance and UPK class rooms, they need not do so where this is “not practicable.” De Blasio also issued a rule allowing UPK programs to hold breaks for optional prayer.

In New York State, citizens are protected from government advancement of religion by both the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and the so-called “Blaine Amendment” of the New York Constitution. New York’s Blaine Amendment is more restrictive than the Establishment Clause, and maintains that the State should not use public money in aid “of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught.”[2]

Unfortunately, both of these protections have been substantially watered down over the years by federal and state court decisions that have allowed the government to fund religious schools through various programs. For example, the Supreme Court decision Agostini v. Felton upheld a New York State program that sent public school teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial education. The New York State Supreme Court found in College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist that a college’s affiliation with religion did not make it ineligible for state aid under the Blaine Amendment, unless the “affiliated religious denomination controls or directs the institution towards a religious end” or the college is “controlled or directed to a degree so as to enable the religious authorities to propagate and advance—or at least attempt to do so—their religion.”

Despite this case law, New York’s UPK program poses opportunities for violations of the Establishment Clause and Blaine Amendment. A significant issue is the fact that UPK students are so young. Some courts have placed heightened scrutiny in deciding whether there was an Establishment Clause violation when vulnerable groups, like young students, are involved. In Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools for example, a district court ruled that an elementary school violated the Establishment Clause by distributing flyers advertising community activities sponsored by churches to “impressionable elementary students” who might believe the activities were school-endorsed.[3] This decision was overruled by the Appeals court which found that the parents were the ones who would receive and observe the flyers not the kids, therefore quelling concerns that the flyers would leave an impression on the students. However, the district court’s decision shows that courts sometimes take the age and vulnerability of school students into account when deciding whether an act violates the Establishment Clause.

The potential for coercive indoctrination in the UPK program is real. Publicly-funded UPK programs are supposed be available for all students regardless of religious belief, and there does not appear to be any clear information on the City’s Pre-K Finder to let parents know that a program is housed in a religious institution. Thus, for example, a Muslim or atheist family could apply for a UPK program that is located in a Christian school either because they were not aware of its religious identity, they did not realize that such schools are permitted to teach religious texts, practice coreligionist hiring, and hold prayer breaks, or simply because of a lack of alternative options close to their home. This could leave the four-year-old child in a position where they have to see religious symbols that are in direct conflict with their religious teachings every day, wear a uniform bearing the religious name of their school, read religious materials, watch their fellow students break for prayer, and follow instruction from teachers and an administration that practices a faith different from their own. It is not hard to see how such a scenario could lead to impermissible indoctrination of an impressionable young mind.

Church state issues in education are complicated, especially in a city like New York which is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the nation.[4]   However, law and policy makers have a responsibility to make sure that students are in culturally and religiously sensitive learning environments that respect and pay homage to our city’s religious diversity. Children’s minds are too impressionable to be subjected to religious materials and practices that could potentially indoctrinate them with a particular religion.

[1] Ben Chapman, Mayor De Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Program Still Failing to Reach Some Families, New York Daily News (April 19,2016) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/poor-new-yorkers-left-free-universal-pre-k-article-1.2607773

[2] College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist, 326 N.Y.S.2d 765, 765 (1971)

[3] Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools, 220 F.Supp.2d 854 (6th Cir. 2002)

[4] Jed Kelko, America’s Most Religiously Diverse Cities, Citylab (Dec. 20, 2012) http://www.citylab.com/politics/2012/12/americas-most-religiously-diverse-cities/4227/

Why Zubik is Especially Important for Women of Color

By Elizabeth Reiner Platt and Kira Shepherd

This blog is also available at Religion Dispatches

From the forced breeding of slave women, to the eugenics movement of the 1920s to a relatively recent campaign to sterilize incarcerated women, the institutional denial of women of color’s reproductive freedom has left many mistrustful of medical institutions and the government’s attempts to interfere with their reproductive choices. This has led, in turn, to poor health and political disengagement amongst communities of color. Now, the Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik v. Burwell may effectively strip thousands of women of color of their right to no-cost insurance coverage for contraception.

For those not following the case, Zubik is a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, which requires certain employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover contraception with no co-pay. The Obama administration has already created an accommodation for religious non-profits opposed to birth control, which allows them to opt-out of paying for contraceptives while maintaining insurance coverage for their employees. The organizations suing in Zubik, however, want to prevent their employees from receiving coverage through the plans at all. They claim that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), they are entitled not just to refuse to pay for birth control themselves, but to demand that their insurance providers refuse to offer it.

While religious organizations employ women of all backgrounds, the Zubik case should be particularly concerning to women of color. Lack of access to quality reproductive health care plays a large role in the overall health disparities faced by communities of color today. Women of color have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy, abortion, and maternal mortality, all of which have taken a toll on the psychological, economic, and social vitality of these communities.

Moreover, as abortion clinics across the country close due to the conservative attack on abortion rights, women of color are harmed disproportionately. Clinic closings make it especially hard for low-income women and women of color to get an abortion, since many cannot afford to travel the long distances needed to reach a clinic. A recent New York Times article found that clinic closings appear to be closely linked to the uptick in searches for illegal, self-induced abortion.

In addition, women who have unintended pregnancies are more likely to abuse substances while pregnant and less likely to seek prenatal care, which can negatively impact the health of the fetus. Some unintended pregnancies cost women of color their lives. The United States is now one of only eight countries—including Afghanistan and South Sudan—where the maternal mortality rate is actually increasing. These numbers are even bleaker for women of color in the U.S., where black women are four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth.

The pervasive health disparities among communities of color can be traced back, in part, to a long legacy of reproductive coercion. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine produced astudy about the causes of racial health disparities in America. It found that many of the disparities are rooted in historic and current racial inequalities, including poor socio-economic conditions as well as implicit biases held within the medical community that lead to subpar treatment.

Eliminating the disparities in reproductive health care, including high rates of unintended pregnancy, involves increasing access to contraception and contraceptive counseling. Access to contraception allows women of color to plan whether and when they have a child, which provides them with greater financial stability and freedom. Women of color, on average, earn significantly less than white women, and many cannot afford to pay for quality contraception.

The IUD, for example, is considered the most effective contraception available on the market today, but because it costs between $500 to $1000 only 6% of black women have used IUDs compared with 78% who have used birth control pills. Providing women of color with access to no-cost contraceptive coverage is an important first step in ameliorating the overall health disparities between women of color and white women in the United States.

It should be no surprise that when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked The Institute of Medicine to come up with a list of women’s health services that should qualify as preventive care and require no co-pay under the Affordable Care Act, the Institute included contraceptive care and counseling in their recommendations, two services that can help right some of the wrongs done to women of color in the area of reproductive justice and liberty. It would be a grave injustice for the Supreme Court to allow the plaintiffs in Zubik—and others who might follow in their wake—to take us one step back.

Religious Freedom for Refugees? Not So Fast…

By Elizabeth Platt, Associate Director, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

Mere months after a host of prominent conservatives condemned the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling as an attack on religious freedom (one particularly colorful character called it “judicial tyranny” that would lead to the criminalization of Christianity), these same politicians seem to have had a change of heart. Not on marriage equality, of course, but on the importance of religious freedom in American society.

From shutting down mosques to barring Muslims from the oval office to demanding a Christianity test for Syrian refugees to the outrageous (albeit unclear) suggestion of creating Muslim registration system, conservatives seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of Islamophobic one-upmanship. The very same voices who clamored for new religious exemption laws and even held rallies for religious freedom featuring “special guests victimized by government persecution,” seem to be leading the charge against Muslims both at home and abroad.

Lest one think these arguments have been taken up only among the most extreme on the right, even the relatively moderate Jeb Bush argued recently that “we should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered.” And more than half the nation’s Governors are doing all they can to prevent Syrian refugees from being placed in their state.

Perhaps the most explicitly discriminatory suggestion has come from Ted Cruz—host of the aforementioned rally for religious freedom. Rather than Bush’s suggestion of prioritizing Christian refugees, Cruz has stated that only Christians should be permitted to enter the U.S., and Muslim refugees should be kept out, period.

Unsurprisingly, Cruz has not offered a plan on how to determine which refugees are in fact Christian. Bush suggested putting the burden of proof on the refugees themselves— “I mean, you can prove you’re a Christian,” he explained.

In the past, however, conservatives haven’t been so keen on government-imposed tests of religious faith. Hobby Lobby and other religious exemption cases brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) require the party requesting an accommodation to demonstrate a substantial burden on their sincerely held religious belief. Conservatives have argued that this should be an extremely weak test—contending that courts have no authority, or ability, to inquire into the sincerity of a religious belief, or to evaluate how closely it correlates with official religious doctrines. So if the Supreme Court shouldn’t be able to question the religious beliefs of a craft store owner, why do conservatives want State Department or Department of Homeland Security agents deciding whether someone is Christian?

The recent calls for explicit religious discrimination and persecution against Muslims by major political leaders are chilling. They also belie any claims that these politicians are honestly concerned with religious freedom. Rather, they are interested in religious rights only for those who share their views on hot-button political issues like abortion, contraception, and LGBT rights.

For those who disagree… hope you enjoyed the holiday and escaped the stealth halal turkeys.