Equality and Liberty

  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Nora Gay, President-elect, Vice President of Membership, ACS University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Student Chapter
     
    “But it was a proclamation, it was not a fact.”
     
    The words of President Lyndon Baines Johnson echoed at the beginning of each program of the Civil Rights Summit in the LBJ Auditorium last week in Austin, Texas. A montage of historic photographs followed onscreen to a soundtrack of songs about change or progress mixed with other recordings of LBJ’s iconic words. I had the privilege of attending the panels on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the address by former President Bill Clinton and the keynote address by President Barack Obama.
     
    I have started to realize that when commemorating the anniversary of certain laws or court decisions like the Civil Rights Act, or last year, with Gideon v. Wainwright, it becomes more than simply a celebration; it is an evaluation of how far we have come and how far we must go, and it is a call to action. As President Clinton said in his speech, saying “thank you” to the politicians and activists who made the signing of the Civil Rights Act possible is not enough.
     
    University of Texas’ President Bill Powers introduced the Summit’s panels by talking about UT’s involvement with civil rights. Powers acknowledged that UT has not always been on the right side of history, and in fact the university played a role in stalling “separate but equal” in Sweatt v. Painter in 1950. Today, the university awaits the a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Fisher v. University of Texas that was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court last year. “We stand ready to defend diversity.”
  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Nora Gay, President-elect, Vice President of Membership, ACS University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Student Chapter
     
    “But it was a proclamation, it was not a fact.”
     
    The words of President Lyndon Baines Johnson echoed at the beginning of each program of the Civil Rights Summit in the LBJ Auditorium last week in Austin, Texas. A montage of historic photographs followed onscreen to a soundtrack of songs about change or progress mixed with other recordings of LBJ’s iconic words. I had the privilege of attending the panels on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the address by former President Bill Clinton and the keynote address by President Barack Obama.
     
    I have started to realize that when commemorating the anniversary of certain laws or court decisions like the Civil Rights Act, or last year, with Gideon v. Wainwright, it becomes more than simply a celebration; it is an evaluation of how far we have come and how far we must go, and it is a call to action. As President Clinton said in his speech, saying “thank you” to the politicians and activists who made the signing of the Civil Rights Act possible is not enough.
     
    University of Texas’ President Bill Powers introduced the Summit’s panels by talking about UT’s involvement with civil rights. Powers acknowledged that UT has not always been on the right side of history, and in fact the university played a role in stalling “separate but equal” in Sweatt v. Painter in 1950. Today, the university awaits the a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Fisher v. University of Texas that was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court last year. “We stand ready to defend diversity.”
  • March 28, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Sarah Lipton-Lubet, Director of Reproductive Health Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families
     
    This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases brought by for-profit corporations challenging the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) birth control benefit, which requires that health plans include coverage for contraception—a basic health service that 99 percent of women use at some point in their lives. Hobby Lobby, a national chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a furniture manufacturer, argue the ACA’s requirement that health plans cover contraception violates their religious liberty rights by forcing them to participate in a process that ends with women accessing and using birth control.
     
    Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are pursuing a radical proposition: that corporations have a right to impose religious beliefs on their employees by withholding benefits otherwise legally guaranteed to the women who work there. As others have noted, a win for the companies in these cases could open the door to all sorts of claims that corporations can opt out of laws that have helped shape our society and matter deeply to Americans, from Social Security to labor and civil rights laws. We have already seen a preview of what this could mean for the rights of LGBT individuals and families in the Arizona bill vetoed by Gov. Brewer last month.
     
    It is important to note that, in the past, courts have rejected claims that religion-based arguments could allow restaurants to discriminate on the basis of race, or businesses to ignore wage-and-hour laws, for example. But several lower courts have ruled in favor of corporations in the birth control cases, and several justices seemed to favor their position this week.
     
  • March 25, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State
     
    * Americans United filed a brief in defense of the contraceptive-coverage regulations in Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood, and represents three female university students in defense of another lawsuit filed against the regulations by the University of Notre Dame.
     
    This morning, I attended the Supreme Court oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. In these two consolidated cases, the for-profit corporations Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood claim that they have a right to a religious exemption from federal regulations that require health-insurance plans to include coverage for contraceptives.
     
    The corporations’ principal claim is based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), which generally provides that the federal government cannot substantially burden a person’s religious exercise unless it has a compelling interest in doing so. RFRA passed the House of Representatives unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 97 to 3. 
     
    As Justice Ginsburg suggested at today’s argument, it is inconceivable that RFRA would have received such broad support, let alone passed at all, if the members of Congress who voted for it had had any inkling of how opponents of the contraceptive-coverage regulations would attempt to use RFRA today. Represented by former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have given RFRA such a broad interpretation that it would give religious entities carte blanche to override individual rights not just in the contraceptive-coverage arena, but in a virtually unlimited array of contexts.
     
    Clement’s case begins with the proposition that for-profit corporations can somehow exercise religion and therefore be entitled to RFRA’s protections. Justice Sotomayor asked how does a for-profit corporation exercise religion, who in the corporation decides what the corporation’s “religious beliefs” are, and how much of the corporation’s activities must be religious for RFRA to apply. Justice Scalia subsequently indicated that it would be sufficient if those who control the corporation merely assert what the corporation’s “religious beliefs” are for such “beliefs” to be protected under RFRA.
     
  • March 25, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Craig Konnoth, Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Solicitor General, California Department of Justice; Co-Author, Brief amici curiae of California, et al. in support of the Government, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius; Member, Board of Directors, ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter
     
    * The views expressed in this post are the author’s own, and do not reflect those of any institution with which he is affiliated or employed.
     
    As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the “contraceptive mandate” cases, one question that everyone is grappling with has to do with the ramifications of the decision. These cases concern whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits federal law from imposing a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion, excuses for-profit corporations from providing access to contraceptive coverage to their employees. For the Court to rule in favor of the corporations, it must hold that (1) a corporation has free exercise rights under the statute, (2) that the burden the mandate imposes is substantial and (3) the interests the mandate serves are not compelling. Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on any of these grounds will have substantial effects for doctrine across the board.
     
    However, one possible result that has received less (if any) attention is the effect that the Court’s holding will have on state laws relating to numerous areas including antidiscrimination, insurance coverage, land use and corporations law. There is good reason for this oversight. In Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court held that RFRA could not limit state law—so the Court’s holding as to the reach of RFRA will not inhibit the reach of state law. And because this is a statutory holding, and the Court shows no immediate signs of re-incorporating the RFRA test into constitutional doctrine, the effects on First Amendment doctrine (which does limit state law) will be limited.
     
    But there is, nonetheless, a good chance that a loss for the government will affect state regulation. First, in the area of land use, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), unlike RFRA, has does (as of now, at least) apply to localities. While there may be textual reasons why RLUIPA could be read differently that do not bear deep excavation, the bottom line is that RLUIPA was basically modeled after RFRA. If corporations can invoke RFRA to escape federal regulation, they may well be able to invoke RLUIPA to escape basic zoning regulation, from which, so far, only churches and religious institutions have so far been exempt.