Religious Freedom Restoration Act

What Hobby Lobby Shows Us About the Supreme Court and Civil Rights Laws: Winners and Losers in the Roberts Court

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This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.

Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."

In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."

The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.

As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."

Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."

This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.

In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.

As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.

Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.

Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.

PFAW Foundation

Hobby Lobby And 'Biblical Economics'

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case that the Court’s conservative majority had “ventured into a minefield” with its decision. Many of those mines have already been placed by right-wing leaders who claim a religious grounding not only for anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception positions, but also for opposition to collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, progressive taxation and government involvement in the alleviation of poverty.

In Hobby Lobby, the Court found for the first time that for-profit corporations have religious rights just like real people and can therefore make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that they should be exempt from laws that burden their corporate “exercise” of religion. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was deeply skeptical of Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion that the decision was limited only to the contraception mandate and only for closely held corporations.

“Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?” she asked. How would the Court justify applying its logic only to religious views about contraception?  “Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’”

Ginsburg’s questions are not merely rhetorical. Conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders who have signed the Manhattan Declaration, including some U.S. bishops, declare themselves willing to engage in civil disobedience – maybe even martyrdom – in order to avoid any participation in abortion or any “anti-life act.” Nor, they declare, “will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

Alito’s majority opinion says Hobby Lobby does not extend the right to religion-based discrimination on account of a person’s race, but is conspicuously silent on other kinds of discrimination. That silence raises concerns that business owners could use the Hobby Lobby decision to opt out of a future federal LGBT civil rights law, or the Obama administration’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors.

Indeed, especially in light of Alito’s mention in Hobby Lobby that RFRA applies to the District of Columbia as a federal enclave, such a claim could be brought today to seek an exemption from D.C.’s Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.  What happens if and when a local bishop instructs Catholic business owners that it would be sinful to treat legally married gay employees the same as other married couples, or an evangelical businessman declares he will not “bend” to DC’s Human Rights Act?

As Zoe Carpenter writes for The Nation,

Business owners now have a new basis for trying to evade anti-discrimination laws and their responsibilities to their employees. Religious liberty is already the rallying cry for conservatives looking for a legal way to discriminate against LGBT Americans; other business owners have tried to use religion to justify opposition to minimum-wage laws and Social Security taxes. Faith groups are already trying to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby decision out of court; on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders asked the Obama administration for an exemption from a forthcoming federal order barring federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

To be clear, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was used as the basis for the Hobby Lobby decision applies only to federal and District of Columbia laws and regulations, including presidential executive orders, not to state laws.

The stories of business owners being told they cannot exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws have mostly involved questions about state-level civil rights and religious freedom statutes. Earlier this year the US Supreme Court declined to review a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a wedding photography business had violated anti-discrimination law when it refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

Although Hobby Lobby does not apply directly to state laws, it could influence state courts weighing religious claims by business owners in states with their own versions of RFRA.

The clash between religious conservatives and advocates for LGBT equality has been well publicized. But the minefield Ginsburg refers to extends well beyond traditional “social issues.” Religious Right leaders have been working hard to convince conservative evangelicals that the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-union, anti-welfare agenda is grounded in the Bible – an effort that started well before the Tea Party arrived on the scene.

David Barton is an influential Republican activist and “historian” who helped write the GOP’s national platform in 2012. Barton’s “Christian nation” approach to history has been denounced by historians and scholars, including some who are themselves evangelical Christians, but it is embraced by conservative politicians who extol a divinely inspired American exceptionalism. Barton teaches that Jesus and the Bible are opposed to progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining, and “socialist union kind of stuff.” 

In addition, “mainstream” Religious Right leaders and conservative politicians are increasingly allied with a group of Pentecostal leaders who promote a “dominionist” theology that says God requires the right kind of Christians to take dominion over every aspect of society, including the business world. Many of them were sponsors of, and participants in, the prayer rally that Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.

Thanks to previous Supreme Court decisions, alluded to and affirmed by Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, the Court has for now seemingly closed the door to companies making a religious challenge to paying Social Security and federal income taxes based on their objection to a particular government program funded with those taxes. But the same might not be true for more targeted taxes and fees, or for laws regulating company behavior or the relationships between companies and their employees.

Opposition to unions has deep roots in Christian Reconstructionism, which has influenced the Religious Right’s ideology and political agenda. An early Christian Coalition Leadership manual, co-authored by Republican operative Ralph Reed in 1990, is a stunning example. A section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World” argues that “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.” It cites four Bible passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters, including this one:

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 

The conclusion to be drawn from these slaves-obey-your-masters passages?

Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man. 

More recently, Religious Right leaders have cheered on corporate-funded attacks on unions in Wisconsin and Michigan. Does the Hobby Lobby ruling open another front in the right-wing war on workers? It is not uncommon for companies to refuse to cooperate with union organizers or negotiate with a properly organized union. Imagine that a business owner objects to a National Labor Relations Board finding that they have violated the National Labor Relations Act by arguing in federal court that their company’s religious beliefs prohibit them from dealing with unions?

It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Since long before the Hobby Lobby case created an open invitation to business owners to raise religious objections to bargaining with unions, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has encouraged workers to raise religious objections to requirements that they join or financially support a union. Here’s an excerpt from their pamphlet, “Union Dues and Religious Do Nots.”

To determine whether your beliefs are religious instead of political or philosophical, ask yourself whether your beliefs are based upon your obligations to God. Do you simply dislike unions or hate this particular union’s politics? Or, does your desire to stand apart from the union arise from your relationship to God? If your beliefs arise from your decision to obey God, they are religious. 

It is possible that conservative courts may not give the same weight to religious claims about anti-gay discrimination or the Bible’s opposition to unions or minimum wage laws as they did to Hobby Lobby’s anti-contraception claims. Those claims were based on the owners’ belief – one that runs counter to medical scientific consensus – that some of the most effective forms of birth control work by causing abortions, and are therefore the moral equivalent of murder.

But as Justice Ginsburg pointed out, it is not clear how courts will differentiate between different types of claims. And it will be easier for claims to meet the new, lower threshold created by the Court in effectively altering the “substantial burden” test.

As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, rather than having to show that a person’s, or corporation’s, practice of religion has been burdened, they simply need to show that a law is “incompatible with” the person’s religious beliefs. Additionally, it seems that a wide array of regulations, conceivably including minimum wage laws, could be threatened by Alito’s reliance on the idea that having the government pay for the cost of implementing a regulation is less restrictive than having the company  bear the cost of a regulation it objects to.   

It is also not clear that the decision will remain “limited” to the 90 percent of American companies that qualify as closely held, which employ more than half of the nation’s workforce. The Court explicitly acknowledged the possibility that publicly traded corporations could raise such claims, but argued that it would be “unlikely.” But in this new world in which corporate religious claims can be made against government regulation, what is to prevent the CEO or board of a publicly traded organization from finding religion with regard to, say, greenhouse gas emissions?

The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, promoted by the anti-environmentalist Cornwall Alliance, declares as a matter of faith that earth’s ecosystem is not fragile and that efforts to reduce global warming, like regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, are not only “fruitless” and “harmful” but would discourage economic growth and therefore violate Biblical requirements to protect the poor from harm.

Justice Alito’s opinion rejects Justice Ginsburg’s characterization of the ruling’s “startling breadth.” But it is undeniable that the Court majority has opened the door to owners of for-profit corporations making an array of claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

Justice Ginsburg writes in her dissent, “Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” For today’s right-wing leaders, who claim religious grounding for just about every aspect of their political ideology, there aren’t many forms of regulation that would be off-limits.

Unpacking Hobby Lobby & Other SCOTUS Decisions: PFAW Member Telebriefing

Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a special telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court term that wrapped up this Monday and to unpack some of the critical decisions handed down by the Court this year. The call, which was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by Director of Communications Drew Courtney, featured Senior Fellows Jamie Raskin and Elliot Mincberg, as well as Executive Vice President Marge Baker.

Discussing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Raskin explained the case and the damaging implications of the 5-4 decision. Highlighting the “extreme and extravagant” claim made by Hobby Lobby that its religious rights were violated, Raskin described the court’s decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act covers “closely held” corporations and noted that this creates a “dangerous expansion of corporate personhood.” Raskin described how this exemplifies the Court in the Citizens United era, where the far right Justices regularly find ways to rule so they can enhance the power of corporations.

Mincberg also provided background on RFRA and explained how the law was distorted and expanded in this decision far beyond what anyone had in mind when it passed by an enormous bipartisan majority 20 years ago.

Members wanted to know what actions can be taken to help address the imbalance in the Court and the troubling decisions made by the Roberts’ Court in the last few years. Baker addressed the issue of rebalancing the Court, emphasizing the importance of presidential elections on the Court’s make-up.

The telebriefing also covered the recent decisions in McCullen v. Coakley, NLRB v. Noel Canning, and Harris v. Quinn, underscoring the Court’s decisive move to the right.

Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.

 

PFAW

Women Justices Press Important Questions During Hobby Lobby Arguments

Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.

The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”

Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”

Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].

She added…

[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.

Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.

Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.

PFAW Foundation

Religious Freedom Anniversary Highlights Divisions Among Current and Former Allies

A symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act hosted by First Amendment advocate Charles Haynes at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on November 6 demonstrated one premise of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics – that people who support a core constitutional principle like religious liberty can disagree with how that principle should be applied. In recent years, religious conservatives have increasingly charged that those who disagree with them on this line-drawing are tyrannical enemies of faith and freedom.  The RFRA anniversary was a reminder that, as Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction to the 12 Rules, “We can simultaneously share a strong commitment to religious liberty, while disagreeing over the application of that principle in a given circumstance.”

In fact, an almost unimaginably broad coalition worked to pass RFRA in 1993, including People For the American Way and the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals and Concerned Women for America, and a huge array of religious and civil rights groups.  Also unimaginable in our political climate: RFRA passed the Senate 97-3 and the House unanimously by voice vote. But divisions within the coalition developed just a few years later and persist today.

RFRA was a response to the Supreme Court’s 1990 Smith decision in a case involving Native Americans who were denied unemployment benefits because they had violated state anti-drug laws through the sacramental use of peyote.  The Court ruled that as long as the law in question was applied generally and not designed to target a particular religious practice, there was no real recourse for people whose exercise of religion was restricted. The decision toppled long-standing precedent and left advocates for religious liberty deeply concerned that religious minorities would suffer if there were no legal requirement for reasonable accommodation of their beliefs.

RFRA states that if a law places a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion, the government must demonstrate that the law is serving a compelling interest and does so in the least restrictive way. In 1997, the Supreme Court upheld RFRA as it applies to the federal government, but not to the states.  Efforts to re-mobilize the RFRA coalition to pass a new law failed when civil rights advocates feared that a broad standard could be used to undermine state civil rights laws such as laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Oliver Thomas, a co-chair of the original RFRA coalition, said it is not surprising that RFRA gets less popular as it gets older and its “majestic generalities” get applied in contentious cases. Organizations that were allies in passing RFRA are now on both sides of political and legal disagreements about how its standards should apply in a variety of situations, including the mandate under the Affordable Care Act that insurance plans include contraception, the proposed Employment Non Discrimination Act that just passed the Senate, and the advance of marriage equality.  Even among ENDA’s backers there are disagreements about the nature and extent of religious exemptions in the bill.

The first part of the anniversary symposium, which included PFAW Foundation Board Member Rabbi David Saperstein, presented an insider view of RFRA’s history: the development of the RFRA coalition, the politics of writing the law and building congressional support.  One historical tidbit: coalition members had to work hard to overcome objections raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who feared the law might somehow give a weapon to their opponents on abortion rights issues.  Rep. Henry Hyde told coalition members that the bill would not move until they addressed the bishops’ concerns.

That history is particularly interesting given that conservative Catholics are now using RFRA to challenge the contraception mandate.  A discussion of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act featured Lori Windham from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a number of companies, business owners, and organizations challenging the mandate, and Dan Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, which argues that the contraception requirement does not substantially burden the religious freedom of business owners, and that the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious organizations is more than sufficient.  Mach noted that while religious liberty is fundamental, it is not absolute, and should not be used to infringe the rights of others. 

Another issue discussed by the panelists was whether RFRA protects for-profit corporations – not the owners, but the corporation itself as an entity.  Some of the panelists discussing RFRA’s history agreed that conversation about violations of religious liberty were focused on individual people, not for-profit corporations, though some said the debate on RFRA and related laws assumed that companies would be covered.  The Becket Fund’s Windham made a case for including such corporations with RFRA’s protections, saying constitutional rights shouldn’t depend on your tax status. The Constitutional Accountability Center has argued otherwise.

Doug Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, is among the most prominent legal scholars on religious liberty.  He finds himself positioned on differing sides in various culture war battles. Just a day before the anniversary symposium, Laycock argued before the Supreme Court, representing people who are challenging the practice of sectarian prayer at city council meetings in the Town of Greece case.  In that case he stood with advocates of strong church-state separation. On other issues, such as whether a business owner should have the right not to provide services related to a same-sex wedding, he stands with religious conservatives who are pushing for broad religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

Laycock dismissed right-wing charges that the Obama administration is waging a war on religious liberty. He said the administration has gone to “remarkable lengths” to accommodate religious organizations on the contraception mandate and said he doubts that opponents will be able to convince judges that the current rule creates a substantial burden under RFRA. Obviously, the Becket Fund and other Religious Right legal groups and their clients strongly disagree. Later this month the Supreme Court will consider whether to accept for consideration four cases involving for-profit companies challenging the mandate. Cases involving non-profits have not advanced as far.

A panel on other current controversies placed them in the context of increasing religious pluralism in America, including the rapid growth of “nones” – people who claim to religious affiliation.  One panelist noted that religious and civil rights groups can still find common ground in opposition to laws targeting religious minorities, as many did in opposition to Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia law, which was found unconstitutional earlier this year. But it should be noted that some Religious Right groups have in fact backed such laws, and some opposed the building of the Islamic community center in New York that was deceptively dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Laycock worries that culture war battles are weakening Americans’ commitment to religious liberty.  He faults conservative religious groups for continuing to fight legal marriage equality for same-sex couples. But he also believes LGBT rights advocates should be more willing to accept broad religious exemptions. Laycock said that conservatives’ dug-in resistance to equality diminishes the incentives for gay-rights activists to accommodate them.  The challenge, as he sees it: on issues of sexual morality, one side views as a grave evil what the other side views as a fundamental right.  In that climate, tens of millions of Americans believe that “religious liberty” empowers their enemies, and neither side is willing to embrace what Laycock considers “live and let live” solutions.

Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee agreed with Laycock’s concerns about a winner-take-all approach to religious freedom issues, which he said reflects the broader political climate.  But the courts will continue to undertake the balancing act required by the Constitution and by RFRA when constitutional principles come into tension.  And, he said, once the courts work through issues regarding contraception and LGBT equality, we will all still need to grapple more with larger cultural and legal questions, such as those involving the growing number of nonbelievers who are reshaping America’s religious landscape.

The anniversary symposium, “Restored or Endangered? The State of Religious Freedom,” was sponsored by The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.  

PFAW Foundation

New DC Circuit Decision Shows Why GOP Wants to Block New Judges

With starkly political language, the DC Circuit rules that the ACA's contraception coverage provision violates business owners' religious liberty.
PFAW

Circuit Court Rejects Attack on Contraception Coverage

The 10th Circuit rejects the argument that an employer's religious liberty is substantially burdened by the contraception coverage requirement.
PFAW Foundation
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