Latest Scholarship

April 24, 2015

How Best to Understand State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs)

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict. Part one in a two-part series of columns. Co-authored with Alan Brownstein.

Over the past month or two, religious accommodation laws that have been enacted or proposed by states have attracted much attention in the media and among legal analysts. Such state laws are often called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs-named and patterned after the federal RRFA adopted by Congress after the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court interpreted the First Amendment free exercise protection narrowly to reject a claim by Native Americans to use the prohibited drug peyote for religious purposes. RFRAs require that before government is allowed to impose a substantial burden on the practice of someone's religion, the government must have a compelling objective that cannot be accomplished by any narrower means for doing so. State RFRAs have been around in some states for a few decades, but this spring saw a new round of state legislative activity in places like Indiana and Arkansas, presumably triggered by the anticipated tension between the tenets of some religions and the ruling most analysts expect the U.S. Supreme Court to render this summer making clear that the legal institution of marriage cannot be denied to same-sex couples.

Other Verdict columnists have already offered insights and arguments about the best way to understand and interpret state RFRAs. In this two-part series, we offer our own take on the state RFRA movement and how best to incorporate it into a nation dedicated to free religious exercise and separation of church and state at once. In Part One, in the space below, we offer some reactions to the doctrinal analyses presented in a recent essay by Verdict columnist Michael Dorf. In Part Two, in a few weeks, we widen the focus to examine more fundamentally how and when state RFRAs came about and what their origin should mean for how they should be implemented.

Mike Dorf's Analysis of State RFRAs in the Context of Private Litigation

Mike Dorf's elegant doctrinal analysis of state RFRAs focuses on whether these laws "should apply in private litigation [i.e., litigation in which neither party is a government entity] if the statute is silent on the matter." Mike offers a couple of arguments for why state RFRAs perhaps ought not to apply to private lawsuits altogether. His first argument begins with a reminder that RFRAs are designed to "restore" the "constitutional right to free exercise of religion that was weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1990 peyote decision. Because a RFRA restores a constitutional right that applies only against the government, it is natural to assume that a RFRA should be available only in litigation against the government."

But, as Mike rightly points out, oftentimes constitutional rights are at stake and vindicated in cases in which the government is not a party, but in which a party is using some law or policy the government has adopted as the basis for its legal position. So, for example, when a public-figure plaintiff sues a magazine under the state tort law of defamation, the defendant can properly invoke the First Amendment as a defense, even though the plaintiff is a private individual rather than the government, because the plaintiff is relying on state-adopted tort law for his claim. It is the state, through the creation of its tort law, that is effectively burdening the defendant's speech.

Or, as in another example Mike offers, if a state passes an alimony law that treats men and women unequally, such a law can be challenged in a lawsuit between a divorcing husband and wife, even though the state is not a party, because one of the parties is so directly invoking the state law as the basis for asking a court to do something.

Mike properly acknowledges that even in the context of religion, a state's fingerprints can be all over a burden imposed on someone's religion, even if the state is not doing the litigating. So, for instance, if a state gives a landowner's neighbor a right to veto the landowner's decision to expand his building, and a church that wants to expand is blocked by a vetoing neighbor, the church might seek to invoke the free exercise of religion as a basis for resisting the veto, even if the opposing party in the lawsuit is the neighbor to whom the state has given the veto right instead of the state agency itself.

Does Private Litigation Under a RFRA Implicate State Action in a Way Different From Cases in Which Government Is a Party?

After all this, however, Mike argues that the state's involvement in RFRA cases is distinct in a way that perhaps argues against allowing state RFRAs to be invoked in private litigation. Says Mike, about the examples he offered earlier: "When [a defamation defendant] invoked the freedom of the press against [the defamation plaintiff], it objected that the [state] tort rule was defective in permitting a public figure to prevail [under a standard] that afforded insufficient protection for free speech. . . [And] [w]hen [a husband] resisted his alimony obligation, he complained that the [state] statute favoring women over men denied him equal protection of the laws. In these, and many other situations, the party invoking a rights provision in private litigation argues that some legal rule or standard violates his, her or its own rights. In contrast, a RFRA claim does not challenge any rule or standard."

Here is where we think we disagree with Mike. A RFRA claim does challenge a rule or standard-the rule or standard on which the private party opposing the religious claimant is relying in the private litigation. The fact that the right a RFRA claimant seeks to invoke is a statutory (RFRA-created) right to religious accommodation, rather than a constitutional right (such as the right to free speech or equal protection), is beside the point; remember, RFRAs are designed to "restore," by statute, the liberties previously recognized under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. The RFRA claimant has been conferred a right, just as much as a free speech or equal protection claimant has been. And state law, it is alleged in RFRA cases, is protecting the other party's ability to violate that right-by substantially burdening the religious claimant's exercise of his or her religion.

Mike's instinct that a RFRA claimant is not alleging that any state law creating a burden is "defective" is understandable but, we think, wrong. A law challenged by a RFRA claimant is indeed "defective" in the legally technical but important sense that it (allegedly) fails to adequately accommodate religion, which is what the RFRA seeks to guarantee. In the defamation case alluded to above, state tort law wasn't defective in any a priori sense; it was defective only in the sense that it failed to sufficiently accommodate free speech. And RFRA claimants make the same claim as to religion.

Indeed, the example Mike offers concerning the neighbor's veto over land-use decisions seems to illustrate our point. If a church's plans to expand are blocked by a zoning board, clearly the church could invoke both the First Amendment prior to 1990, and a state RFRA nowadays. The same should be true if the opposing party is not the zoning board, but the vetoing neighbor. The law giving the neighbor veto power is defective not in a generic sense, but only in the sense that it may have the effect of frustrating religious freedom. Yet it ought not to matter whether the opposing party is the government or the neighbor himself, or whether the claim is brought under the First Amendment (before it had been watered down) or a RFRA (that seeks to reclaim the undiluted religious right).

We think our analysis makes sense in part because a state can (and often does) elect to have a lot of different kinds of laws enforced through private causes of action-and when it chooses to do so we often find there to be "state action" in the enforcement. The Supreme Court's willingness to find state action involves several factors and seems to vary depending on the particular freedoms that are at issue. We note that the Court has taken a particularly expansive approach to state action in interpreting the Establishment Clause, and it would not be unreasonable to argue that a similarly expansive understanding of state action should apply Free Exercise values. And if there is state action, if the burden would be sufficient to trigger free exercise review if the state itself enforced the law, why should it make any difference if the law is enforced by a private party?

What About Third-Party Burdens?

Mike's second argument for perhaps not applying state RFRAs to private litigation arises from the fact that in all private litigation, accommodating religion creates "the potential for substantially burdening a third party." And the Supreme Court, in the recent Hobby Lobby decision and elsewhere, has given indications that accommodating religion when such accommodation takes the form of inconveniencing government is one thing, but religious accommodations that impose on third parties may be another thing entirely.

Like Mike, we think third-party burdens ought to figure prominently in any application of state RFRAs. But we are not sure a prophylactic rule prohibiting invocation of a RFRA in all private litigation is necessary to properly take account of third parties. Because state law may allow private individuals who don't suffer much, if any, injury to be in litigation against religious adherents (remember that state courts are not limited by the Constitution's Article III standing rules), and because some third-party injuries may be of such a nature that avoiding them cannot reasonably be thought to be a compelling government interest, we think the better course is not to categorically reject RFRA claims in private litigation, but to examine any third-party burdens on a case-by-case basis. When racial or gender discrimination is at issue, the third-party costs will justify denying the accommodation. But imagine the following two hypotheticals:

  1. Suppose a municipal stadium district has a rule that says no one can wear hats taller than 5 inches to sporting events, because people's views get blocked, and allows for a private right of action in small claims court by aggrieved persons. Suppose someone wears a turban to a football game, and gets sued for $500 by another fan seated behind him who had to stand up more often to see the action.
  2. Or suppose a City bans discrimination in the provision of goods and services against people who openly display tattoos. A religious small businessperson who runs his business out of his home declines to serve a patron because the patron refuses to cover up a sexist tattoo on his upper arm, and display of such an image in the home violates the religious tenets of the businessperson. The aggrieved customer sues.

In both of these examples, accommodating religion does create some state-recognized burdens on third parties. But are they the kinds of burdens that would justify a flat, prophylactic rule prohibiting invocation of a RFRA in all private litigation? We are not yet sold on that. Thus, if a state RFRA does not by its terms prevent its application to private litigation (and, of course, every RFRA must be interpreted in light of its own language, read in the context of the entire statute), we think the better course may be to examine each such private litigation case on an individual basis, to look carefully at the extent of state action and third-party burdens.

In Part Two of this series, we locate state RFRAs in a larger historical and doctrinal context, and offer some thoughts on how to give meaning to state RFRAs while avoiding some of the externalities and complications with which Mike is properly concerned.

April 10, 2015

Some “Teachable” First Amendment Moments in the Supreme Court’s Oral Argument About Confederate Flags on Texas License Plates

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In today's column, I analyze the Supreme Court oral argument held a few weeks ago in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, a case involving the First Amendment and Texas's regulation of license plates. Motor vehicles registered in the State of Texas must display a state-sanctioned license plate. Most vehicles use a standard-issue Texas plate that has a simple no-frills design and displays a random series of letters and numbers. Texas, like many other states, also permits individuals to submit personalized, or vanity, plates in which the numbers and letters on the plate form a message (such as "HOTSTUFF," a hypothetical example Justice Scalia used at oral argument).

In addition, Texas permits what are called "specialty" license plates, in which the overall design of the plate (but not the sequence of numbers and letters), is custom-made and might contain symbols, colors and other visual matter that is more elaborate than the relatively plain design of the standard-issue plates. Specialty designs may be adopted by the Texas legislature or proposed by private individuals or organizations. Specialty plate designs that come from outside the legislature must be approved (as must personalized vanity plates) by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board, and the Board by law "may refuse to create a new specialty license plate if the design might be offensive to any member of the public" (a term that Texas authorities construe as meaning offensive to a significant segment of the public.) At least some specialized designs, once approved, can be used by members of the general public. As of a month ago, there were about 450 specialty designs that had been approved in Texas, around 250 of which are usable by the public. Although the majority of license plates in Texas are the plain-vanilla non-specialty plates, it is not uncommon on the Texas roadways to see license plates that make use of one of the approved specialty designs.

Applicants who seek approval of specialized plate designs must pay thousands of dollars to have their designs considered, and people who use the already approved designs pay for the privilege, the proceeds going to various state agencies.

The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the memory and reputation of Confederate soldiers. SCV applied for a specialty license plate that featured the SCV logo, "which is a Confederate battle flag framed on all four sides by the words 'Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.'"

When this design was rejected by the Motor Vehicles Board (one of only a dozen or so designs that have been rejected), SCV sued, arguing (successfully in the lower court) that the State's decision to reject the design on the ground that the content of the design-in particular, the depiction of the Confederate flag-might be offensive to some observers constituted impermissible content- or viewpoint-based regulation of expressive activity insofar as the specialty license plate, while State property, is akin to a forum for speech that the government has created and opened up to people to use to express themselves. Texas, for its part, argues that because the State owns all license plates, and because the State of Texas name appears on all plates, including specialty plates, any expression on license plates constitutes "government speech" or at the very least a hybrid of government speech and private speech. Because the government is a (if not the) speaker in this setting, Texas argues, it necessarily has the authority to accept and reject whichever messages it chooses.

The case raises many fascinating and complex constitutional issues-far too many to meaningfully address in a single column. But in the space below, I use three particular kinds of questions that Justices asked at oral argument to illuminate important and often misunderstood aspects of First Amendment doctrine.

Less Can Be More (Important) Under the First Amendment

Let us first consider Justice Kennedy's questioning of the SCV lawyer. One of the things Justice Kennedy pointed out is that if Texas is not permitted to exclude Confederate flags (or Swastikas, or other potentially objectionable material) from license plates, it will almost certainly choose to abandon the specialty (and also the vanity) license plate design program altogether, and simply use old-fashioned, plain vanilla license plates. The result, said Justice Kennedy, is that we would end up with less, rather than more, speech, because individual expression that is currently taking place on specialty or vanity plates would no longer be permitted, and people would be forced to resort to things like bumper stickers, which they may not like or make use of as much as specialty plates. "If you prevail," Justice Kennedy asked SCV's lawyer, "you are going to prevent a lot of Texans from conveying a message. . . . So in a way, your argument curtails speech?"

Justice Kennedy's question is actually a profound but rarely explored one, in that the First Amendment's aversion to content- and viewpoint-based laws may indeed sometimes lead government to enact content-neutral counterpart laws that, quantitatively speaking, restrict far more speech. For example, a law that says "no pro-life rallies in the park after 6pm" is clearly unconstitutional, because it regulates speech on a matter of public concern in a traditional public forum in a viewpoint-based way. But if such a law is replaced with a law (that very well might be upheld) that simply prohibits all rallies in the park after 6pm-a so-called content-neutral regulation of time, place or manner-the result could be an even greater overall reduction in speech.

Of course, it is possible that by forcing government to regulate in a content-neutral way, we may actually make it harder for government to regulate speech at all, so that the end result could actually be an increase in the aggregate level of speech. In the example I gave above, perhaps it would politically difficult to pass a law prohibiting all rallies in the park after 6pm (because many kinds of groups may want to hold rallies, and overcoming the political opposition of all of these groups-as opposed to the merely the pro-life advocates-may not be feasible). If that is true, then striking down the law prohibiting pro-life rallies after 6pm will, in fact, increase rather than reduce the amount of speech.

But oftentimes (as in the SCV case) striking down a law on First Amendment grounds may in fact lead to less speech, but it still can be the right constitutional thing to do. The fact that sometimes we invalidate laws in ways that will create less speech overall tells us that maximizing the aggregate quantum of private speech is not the only thing the First Amendment is concerned with. Preventing the government from distorting the debate, by disabling some points of view, or by locking in majoritarian preferences (as is often the case when "offensive" speech is disfavored) is also an important objective. So too is making individuals feel that government respects them and does not act paternalistically and treat them the way parents treat children by telling them what topics they should be focusing on.

What's Good for the Goose. . . .

A second line of questioning of SCV's lawyer, this time by Justice Sotomayor, concerned whether the State should be given the same kind of free speech respect as individuals enjoy. Justice Sotomayor pointed out that that in the Court's most famous license-plate case to date, Wooley v. Maynard, the majority struck down a requirement that New Hampshire drivers make use of a state-issued license plate bearing the State's message "Live Free or Die." Justice Sotomayor then asked: "In Wooley we said we can't compel the individual[s] to put something on their plates that they disagree with . . . Why isn't the reverse true for the government [if it doesn't want to be associated with the Confederate flag]?"

Justice Sotomayor's symmetry instinct (which assumed arguendo that the Texas specialty license plate regime represents at least a hybrid of government and private speech) is very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, to me at least. There are lots of constitutional rules that protect individuals that do not protect government in a symmetrical way. For example, a criminal defendant is entitled to have access to all exculpatory evidence in the government's possession, but the government is not entitled to all incriminating evidence in the defendant's possession, even though both sides are trying equally hard to prove their case.

I think there is asymmetry here as well. Even though the government can operate as a speaker, it is not a specific beneficiary of the First Amendment, and certainly shouldn't enjoy all the same First Amendment protections individuals (like the individuals who litigated in Wooley) do. Ultimately, the reasons the drivers in Wooley could not be forced to bear the State's message were rooted in individual dignity and autonomy aspects of the First Amendment. Institutional and organizational actors, as opposed to individuals, can be forced to be a vehicle for government messages and are relegated to engaging in counter-speech as a way of distancing themselves from any government message they don't like. This was true in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), a case last decade that upheld (9-0) a federal law that required law schools to allow military recruiters onto campus facilities to recruit students, notwithstanding the law schools' opposition to the then-existing policy of the military to discriminate against gays and lesbians ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). Like law schools, the State of Texas does not have the same kind of dignity and autonomy attributes that individual motorists have, and so (even granting that Texas has the authority to act as a speaker) requiring Texas to live with the private message on specialty plates and disclaim any endorsement of the message or design on a specialty plate by adding something like "Views on this license plate do not reflect the views of the State" does not violate the Constitution the same way requiring individuals to promulgate such disclaimers would.

The Relevance (or Not?) of a Profit Motive

A third interesting exchange involved the overridingly important question of whether the specialty plates can properly be thought of as pure (or at least hybrid) government speech at all. The State's lawyer argued that the fact that the government has retained the right to veto all specialty designs from the get-go makes this a government speech case, but that factor standing alone surely cannot be dispositive. If a public airport withheld for itself the power to ban any leaflets whose message it found unattractive, that would not justify its excluding leaflets in favor of affirmative action while permitting leaflets against it. Control is, as many Justices pointed out, a circular kind of argument about government power. Deciding what is and is not government speech is much more complicated than that.

One potential factor was mentioned by Chief Justice Roberts a few times, and that is the profit motive by the State. Why, he asked, should we view these specialty plates as government expression at all when government's real goal here was not to raise awareness (about anything) but to raise money? This, too, is an interesting instinct. As with Justice Sotomayor's question, if we analogize to private individual speech, the government fares better; the fact that a private individual or corporation is motivated by a desire to make a profit does not make his/its expression any less constitutionally valuable: the New York Times newspaper represents classic First Amendment speech even though it is published in order to make money.

But as was true for Justice Sotomayor's symmetry argument, here too I am not sure we should treat the government the same as individuals. It does seem a bit untoward that the State would raise revenue by charging people thousands of dollars for the privilege of submitting license plate designs, and then reject those whose content it doesn't like. The idea that the State was (mis)using the specialty-design applicants, and the moneys they paid, for its own monetary gain was one of the most sympathetic aspects of the SCV's case, which was otherwise not very sympathetic given that the Confederate flag has historically been tightly associated with slavery and insurrection (not to mention the fact that SCV's lawyer took the position that the State could not, consistent with the First Amendment, reject designs with swastikas on them.)

The opinions that emerge from this case in the coming months could be very interesting.

April 7, 2015

Academic highlight: Johnson on the demise of immigration exceptionalism

For SCOTUSblog by Amanda Frost, Professor of Law at American University. Original blog post here.

Kevin Johnson, who covers the Court’s immigration docket for SCOTUSblog, has posted an article analyzing trends in Supreme Court immigration cases over the last five years.  Although the Supreme Court has frequently departed from the normal rules of constitutional and statutory interpretation in immigration cases, Dean Johnson’s study of the 2009 through 2013 Terms suggests that “immigration exceptionalism” may be on its way out.

One clear example of immigration exceptionalism is the “plenary power” doctrine, under which the Supreme Court has given Congress unusual leeway in regulating immigration.  The Court first invoked that doctrine 125 years ago in Chae Chan Ping v. United States to bar judicial review of federal laws excluding Chinese immigrants from the United States.  In recent years the Court has retreated from that position, but it has never explicitly abandoned the plenary power doctrine.  After closely analyzing the Supreme Court’s immigration decisions from 2009 through 2013, Johnson concludes that the Court has “slowly but surely moved away from anything that might reasonably be characterized as immigration exceptionalism,” including its previous reliance on the plenary power doctrine, bringing “U.S. immigration law into the legal mainstream.”

In addition to this insight, Johnson’s article provides a thorough review of the major immigration cases over the last five years, such as Padilla v. Kentucky (holding that a noncitizen could raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on an attorney’s failure to accurately inform him of the possible immigration consequences of a criminal conviction) and Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting and Arizona v. United States (addressing whether federal immigration laws preempt state laws regulating non-citizens).  Immigration constitutes a surprisingly large percentage of the Court’s docket — the Court heard five immigration cases in the 2011 Term alone — and thus Johnson concludes that the “Justices consider immigration to be an important national issue worthy of attention.”  Happily for readers of SCOTUSblog, he will continue to analyze the Court’s immigration decision for us in the years to come.