by James C. Nelson, Justice, Montana Supreme Court (Retired)
There is gathering national support acknowledging that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens are simply that—citizens—with the same rights, privileges and obligations as other citizens. In response, some States, along with various fundamentalist religious and conservative organizations are fighting for a legally protected right to discriminate. This right to discriminate is grounded in the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause. As the theory goes, being able to discriminate against LGBT citizens is necessary to preserve the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion for these States’ fundamentalist religious heterosexuals and conservative organizations.
This stratagem is not only patently specious; it is legally insupportable.
Contrary to the homophobic fear-mongering by religious fundamentalists and conservatives, there is no legal support for the notion that a State which has recognized the equal rights of LGBT citizens can force a religious organization to adopt those same views. If Religion X condemns gay people, the State cannot, require Religion X to perform a gay or lesbian marriage or change its doctrinal beliefs against homosexuality under threat of governmental penalty. Indeed, if the State attempted to do that, it would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. And, of course, for that reason, no State has made any such demands on any sectarian organization.
Yet, in Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio and Utah religious and conservative organizations and, in some cases, their supporters in the state legislatures are actively promoting the adoption of laws that would permit any individual or group to discriminate in a variety of contexts based on religious beliefs. Such laws would allow business owners, for example, to discriminate against LGBT customers in much the same fashion that businesses run by racists once discriminated with impunity against people of color. A government official could deny same-sex couples basic services and benefits based solely on that official’s religious beliefs. Indeed, Arizona has even proposed to allow the denial of equal pay to women and the abrogation of contractual rights in the name of religion. In other words, one’s personal religious beliefs trump legal obligations imposed generally upon and for the benefit of all.
The American Bar Association Standards Review Committee is considering a recommendation that the ABA no longer prohibit law students from receiving money for internships and externships. Karen Sloan of The National Law Journal has the story.
In their debut article for The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald examine the National Security Agency’s controversial role in targeting terror suspects for lethal drone strikes and the effectiveness of geolocating technology.
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins created the nation's first Conviction Integrity Unit. In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Watkins discusses the 87 overturned convictions in the U.S. in 2013 and what is being done in Dallas County to prevent miscarriages of justice.
With the U.S. Supreme Court returning to session on February 24, the justices could soon rule on whether legislative prayer violates the Establishment Clause. Michael Kirkland at UPI breaks down Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Writing for TheHuffington Post, distinguished George Washington University Law School Prof. Alan B. Morrison and co-author Adam A. Marshall argue in favor of the National Popular Vote (NPV) movement. In his article, Morrison—a faculty advisor to the ACS Student Chapter at GWU—explains why the current state of the Electoral College is a major deficit to American democracy and how the NPV movement would facilitate a more representative voting system.
Writing for SCOTUSblog, Jody Freeman explains why the greenhouse gas cases pending at the U.S. Supreme Court will have little impact on the EPA and the government’s ability to regulate emissions.
The Associated Press reports on the developing case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that has Utah state attorneys insisting that same-sex marriage will devalue the family structure and lead to economic crisis.
David H. Gans of Slate breaks down Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit against the Obama administration to reveal why, when it comes to the free exercise of religion, most corporations are sitting this one out.
At the blog of Legal Times, Todd Ruger notes the diversity of President Obama’s judicial nominees.
On December 31, while many Americans were celebrating the arrival of 2014, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (who herself would inaugurate 2014 by leading the famed Times Square ball drop) ended 2013 by erecting a judicial roadblock to an important provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Earlier today the Obama administration answered Sotomayor with a defense of the policy that requires most companies to provide health care plans with access to contraceptives to their workers.
Sotomayor had temporarily enjoined the federal government from enforcing the contraceptive coverage mandates against the Little Sisters of the Poor, as well as other Catholic non-profit groups who use the same health care plan called the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, who had brought suit claiming that the provisions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The mandate was to go into effect on January 1. As the Supreme Court justice who oversees emergency matters emanating from U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Sotomayor issued the order after the Tenth Circuit had denied the request for an injunction earlier on New Year’s Eve.
The U.S. Department of Justice argued in its brief opposing an injunction of the ACA’s contraception policy that there is a simple distinction to be made between the present case and the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases that the Court recently agreed to hear on the issue -- that the Little Sisters of the Poor “are eligible for religious accommodations set out in the regulations that exempt them from any requirement ‘to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for contraceptive coverage.’ They need only self-certify that they are non-profit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and have religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services, and then provide a copy of their self-certification to the third-party administrator of their self-insured group health plan.” (citations omitted).
For the government, this case is not about religious accommodations, but rather, “whether a religious objector can invoke RFRA to justify its refusal to sign a self-certification that secures the very religion-based exemption the objector seeks.” Furthermore, the government points to decisions of lower courts and notes that the church healthcare plan at issue is exempted from regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
With the government’s response now before the Court, a decision from either Justice Sotomayor or the full Court should come shortly.
For more on Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, you can read tworecentACSblog posts from BYU law professor Frederick Mark Gedicks. For more on RFRA, UNLV law professor Leslie Griffin recently examined the law’s constitutionality.
Like many residents of the Town of Greece, New York, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens regularly attended the Town Board’s monthly meetings, where votes would be held on proposed ordinances, residents’ input would be solicited and public business would be conducted. Historically, the Town Board began each meeting with a moment of silence, a practice that was replaced by a prayer in 1999. In 2007, Galloway and Stephens complained that the prayers “aligned the town with Christianity” and “were sectarian rather than secular.” In response, the Town scheduled three non-Christians to deliver prayers at a third of the Board meetings in 2008, the year in which Galloway and Stephens filed a lawsuit against the Town. But in the following eighteen months, only Christian clergy delivered the prayer.
Galloway and Stephens’ lawsuit alleges that the Town violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause in two ways: (1) its procedure for selecting prayer-givers unconstitutionally “prefer[red] Christianity over other faiths,” and (2) it allowed individual citizens to deliver “sectarian” prayers. To engage with this argument, ACS Student Chapters have held events on Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was heard before the Court last month. Gregory Lipper, Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, spoke with the Georgetown ACS Student Chapter about the case. “You certainly do not need to be the Pope to know that that is a Christian prayer,” he said, when describing how explicit the opening prayers were at the Town’s meetings.
Addressing the law students, Lipper explained that the Town-appointed chaplain of the month often asked the meetings’ attendees for some form of participation in the prayer, such as bowing their heads, standing, or responding “Amen” as members of the Board stood behind him. As a result, individuals often felt that noncompliance would alienate the Board, the body they had yet to address with their request or case. Lipper claimed that the prayers were not only denominational but also coercive, effectively requiring meeting attendees to participate or risk losing government and/or social support. “Because citizens are there to petition their government, it is especially important that these meetings be inclusive,” he added. “This is where the Town has fallen woefully short.”