Religion clauses

  • November 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Samuel A. Marcosson, Professor of Law, University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

    On November 6, the Supreme Court granted cert in seven cases (which it promptly consolidated for briefing and argument as Zubik v. Burwell) to resolve the issue it left open when it ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that private, for-profit companies are entitled to a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. At issue is whether the accommodation the government provides to nonprofit employers satisfies the requirements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). If it doesn’t, employees of these nonprofits will, like their counterparts at Hobby Lobby, lose their contraceptive coverage. A decision exempting the nonprofits from the contraceptive mandate would make Zubik one of the landmarks of the Term, and a disaster in the Court’s religion jurisprudence.

    Zubik tests the limits of the dangerous path the Court began to walk in Hobby Lobby. The majority opinion there departed from the Court’s long-standing approach in religious accommodation cases of carefully considering the impact of a proposed accommodation on third parties who would be burdened by it. In Hobby Lobby, of course, those third parties were the employees who lost coverage for contraceptive care that, under the ACA, is an essential element of comprehensive health insurance and which, for many, avoids enormous expense and “helps safeguard the health of women for whom pregnancy may be hazardous, even life threatening.” The Court gave almost no weight to the interests and needs of those employees who would be deprived of the essential coverage the ACA had mandated.

    The Court faces an even starker choice in Zubik because the claim on the other side of the scale, the burden claimed by the employers to their religious exercise, is more attenuated than it was in Hobby Lobby. A nonprofit that objects to providing contraceptive coverage receives an accommodation simply by certifying to HHS that it has a religious objection. As Justice Alito admitted in Hobby Lobby, a nonprofit which files the certification is “effectively exempted . . . from the contraceptive mandate.” In other words, to be accommodated under the ACA regulations, all the objecting nonprofits must do is tell HHS exactly what they are telling the Supreme Court: that they have a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage.

  • October 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Leslie C. Griffin, Boyd Professor of Law, UNLV Boyd School of Law

    Should judges tell the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Roman Catholic nuns who devote their lives to caring for the elderly poor, how to analyze moral complicity?

    That’s a question the Supreme Court will consider on Friday, October 30, when the Justices decide whether to grant certiorari on cases brought by religious nonprofits challenging the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This particular question about nuns and moral complicity comes from the pen of Paul Clement, the seasoned Supreme Court litigator who represents the sisters. Clement and the Sisters are competing with the Archbishop of Washington for the attention of the Court.

    Background: Challenges to the Accommodation, not the Contraceptive Mandate

    The ACA requires employers to provide insurance coverage for preventive health services, which for women include reproductive care. The insurance regulations specifically require employer health care plans to cover twenty FDA-approved contraceptives as well as sterilization procedures and reproductive counseling.

    The Little Sisters are among 140 plaintiffs in 56 cases brought by religious nonprofits challenging, not the contraceptive mandate itself, but the accommodation that allows religious employers to opt out of the mandate. Under the opt-out mechanism, the employer merely has to inform the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of its objection to contraception, identify what kind of insurance plan it offers, and provide the name and contact information of the insurance plans’ third party administrators (TPAs) and health insurance issuers. Once HHS or the insurers receive the notification, the burden of coverage shifts completely to the TPAs and health insurance companies, who provide the contraceptive coverage in separate plans, with no financial input from the religious employers.

    The religious nonprofits argue that this accommodation violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which holds that [g]overnment may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion . . . [only if it is] in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and it is the least restrictive means of furthering that government interest.”

    How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

    A central debate in the cases is whether the “substantial burden” of RFRA is a theological term or a legal one. As Paul Clement’s question suggests, the moral casuistry of these cases would make a medieval monk proud. Unlike many of the non-Catholic plaintiffs, who oppose only four of the contraceptives that they believe to be abortifacient, all the Catholic plaintiffs believe that the use of artificial contraception is always immoral. The Sisters therefore believe that even signing the compliance form would “make them morally complicit in grave sin.” Their lawyer argues that the courts may not question that this moral belief is automatically a substantial burden under RFRA because it appears substantial to the sisters.

    The plaintiffs differ about just where the immorality occurs – in providing insurance, in signing the form, in authorizing the TPAs, in knowing that contraceptive access will occur, all of the above, or none of the above. Although the moral description varies from case to case, however, the plaintiffs uniformly want no judicial scrutiny of their moral analyses.

  • June 2, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores was unusually short, a mere six and one-half pages.  The Court issued a sensible ruling that ― unlike last year’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ― upheld the religious freedom of employees.

    Abercrombie & Fitch had a policy requiring its employees to maintain a certain “look.”  “Caps” were not allowed.  Samantha Elauf, a Muslim, applied for a job at an Abercrombie store.  She was apparently quite stylishly dressed, but she wore a headscarf in accordance with her faith.  Abercrombie managers refused to hire her because of the headscarf, even though they believed that the headscarf was religiously motivated.

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from refusing to hire a job applicant because of his or her religious practice, unless accommodating that practice would impose an undue burden on the employer.  Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that Abercrombie did not violate Title VII because Elauf did not tell Abercrombie that she needed a religious accommodation.

    The Supreme Court reversed that ruling yesterday and allowed Elauf’s case to proceed.  The Court explained that when an employer knows or suspects that an employee’s practice is religiously motivated, the employer cannot deny employment because of that practice unless accommodating it would impose an undue hardship.

    The Supreme Court’s ruling is sensible, while the Tenth Circuit’s approach was eminently unfair.  There was no evidence here that Elauf knew about Abercrombie’s prohibition on “caps.”  How can a prospective employee be expected to request an accommodation if she has no idea that she might need one?

  • May 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Camilla Taylor, Counsel and Marriage Project National Director, Lambda Legal. Ms. Taylor is a member of the Advisory Board the Chicago Lawyer Chapter.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    As the four legal teams representing same-sex couples from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan left the Supreme Court after oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges, we felt overwhelmed by the significance of the moment.  The Supreme Court is now poised in our combined cases to decide whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the freedom to marry.  Many of us had worked toward this day for well over a decade or longer.

    A victory in Obergefell would be transformative. Our 

    struggle for the freedom to marry has always been about far more than marital protections; at its essence, our struggle is nothing less than a demand for formal recognition of our common humanity and of the legitimacy of all families.  A win for same-sex couples and their children will breathe new life into our country’s promise of liberty and equality.  Children of same-sex couples will be able to grow up free of government-imposed stigma, and with pride in themselves and in their families.  Lesbian and gay youth will be able to hold their heads higher, secure in the knowledge that they may form families worthy of equal respect in the eyes of their government.

    However, while a victory in Obergefell would be historic, it would not be the end, even for our marriage work.  A movement to secure civil rights is never finished by a Supreme Court ruling, no matter how important that ruling may be.

    As we have seen after past marriage court victories, states determined to discriminate do not simply give up.  Instead, for example, they fight to deny the children of same-sex spouses two-parent birth certificates.  Same-sex spouses who were precluded from marrying until recently, or whose marriages were denied recognition as a result of discriminatory state marriage bans, may still have to fight for crucial marital protections subject to a relationship duration requirement (such as social security benefits for a surviving spouse, which accrue only to those who were married for more than nine months under state law).

  • April 28, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Samuel A. Marcosson, Professor of Law, University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in Obergefell v. Hodges brings the issue of marriage equality once again to a place of prominence in the national conversation.  Unsurprisingly, the intensity of opposition from those with religious convictions against “changing” the definition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples has only grown, fueled by the prospect that the Court may extend its decision in United States v. Windsor and hold that the Constitution requires all 50 states to treat same-sex couples equally.

    The gathering storm is easy to see.  A federal court ruling striking down Alabama’s ban on marriage recognition was met with a furious, theologically-driven backlash led by state supreme court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who explained his opposition to marriage equality by saying, “It takes away the very definition ordained of God.  A different definition destroys the definition of marriage.”  On the legislative front, Indiana passed a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) at the urging of anti-gay religious activists, carving out protection for those with religious objections aghast at even the potential they might be compelled by anti-discrimination laws to participate in marriage ceremonies.  Assuming that the pure rejectionist camp is unsuccessful in trying to engage in 1950s-style “massive resistance” to a pro-equality ruling in Obergefell, the real issue comes down to what, if any, sort of religious exemptions should be considered for those who do not wish to participate in the weddings of same-sex couples.