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April 11, 2014

The Narrow (and Proper) Way for the Court to Rule in Hobby Lobby’s Favor

Blog entry cross-posted from Justia’s Verdict. Co-authored with Professor Alan Brownstein.

The Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores case argued before the Supreme Court last week raises the question whether the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores is entitled, under the Constitution or the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to be exempt from the requirement in Obamacare that employers who provide health insurance to their employees include in the insurance policy certain forms of contraceptives, the use of which for some persons (including the owners of Hobby Lobby) is forbidden by religious principles. Many commentators, ourselves included, predict that Hobby Lobby will win the case, and be found to be exempt from the Obamacare requirements by virtue of RFRA.

Yet at the oral argument, many Justices, especially Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor but also Chief Justice Roberts, pressed Hobby Lobby’s lawyer, Paul Clement, on just how far his religious-exemption argument might extend. Right out of the gate, Justice Sotomayor asked him about religiously-inspired objections to vaccines and blood transfusions. Moving beyond healthcare mandates to other federal regulations of employers, Justice Kagan asked, a few moments later: “So another employer comes in and that employer says, ‘I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws’; and then another employer comes in, ‘I have an objection to minimum wage laws;’ and then another, child labor laws. And [under] all of that [the federal government can win only if it satisfies] the exact same test [for RFRA you describe today,] which you say is this unbelievably high test?

If, as we expect, Hobby Lobby prevails, it will be very important for the preservation of other important legal principles and public policies that the Court not rule in Hobby Lobby’s favor on too broad a basis. In the space below, then, we try to identify how an opinion in Hobby Lobby’s favor should—and should not—be crafted.

Do Corporate Entities Enjoy Protection Under the RFRA?

Let us turn first to one key question under RFRA—whether its protections extend beyond natural persons to corporate entities like Hobby Lobby (a closely held for-profit “S” Corporation owned by the Green family.) We think RFRA can be found to apply, but that the Court should make clear that RFRA is designed to protect religious freedom of conscience and that a corporation itself does not have a conscience in the same sense that human beings have a conscience.

Some commentators argue that just as the Supreme Court held that corporations are persons for freedom of speech purposes in the Citizens United case, corporations must be considered persons in free exercise or RFRA cases as well. We think that analogy is mistaken, and that grounding a decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on this analogy would be unnecessarily expansive. Freedom of speech in the context of political expenditures by corporations is an instrumental right. We protect it because of its utility for democratic decisionmaking. In Citizens United, the Court held that corporations are persons for free speech purposes for explicitly instrumental reasons—because corporations can present voices or perspectives that should be part of the marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of religion and conscience are dignitary rights. Our society protects them not because doing so serves some instrumental goal, but because accepting and living one’s life based on religious beliefs, or deciding not to live a religious life, is part of what it means to be human. Government must respect the right of human beings to make self-defining decisions and to live their lives authentically in light of those choices.

Corporations have no such dignitary rights. They do not love. They do not feel guilt or shame. They have no conscience. They will not stand before G-d to answer for their sins after they die, because they are not human. They are artificial entities that exist in perpetuity. We are inclined to agree with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of California (a compelled speech case), where he wrote: “Extension of the individual freedom of conscience decisions to business corporations strains the rationale of those cases beyond the breaking point. To ascribe to such artificial entities an ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality.” Bluntly, if we are talking about corporations in a formal sense, corporations do not have religious liberty rights.

However, in many cases corporations can be viewed as the representative of or—as our UCLA colleague Eugene Volokh has suggested—a “proxy” for individual persons and groups. Whatever protection society provides to the corporate form is intended to recognize and protect the dignity not of the entity but, of the entity’s owners or managers. An incorporated church or a religious non-profit organization satisfies this criterion. A closely-held corporation like Hobby Lobby that is not publicly traded, and that is owned by a small number of actual individuals, does so as well.

Thus, the Court could hold that RFRA protects the conscience of the owners of Hobby Lobby notwithstanding their decision to do business in a corporate form. But it should make it clear that no such argument justifies protecting the conscience of publicly-traded corporations such as General Motors or Exxon. While Justice Roberts intimated that closely-held corporations could be distinguished from publicly-traded corporations, and that the protection provided to the latter by RFRA need not be decided in this case, a more prudent and limited opinion, and one that reflects the proper understanding of dignitary rights, could resolve this question in definitive terms once and for all.

The Strict Scrutiny Test, and (the Very Limited) Relevance of Statutory Exemptions in Assessing the Weight of the Government Interest

The most important issues that the Court will have to navigate in drafting a narrow opinion relate to the standard of review imposed by RFRA. To satisfy RFRA, the government must justify its regulations under strict scrutiny; that is, the government must demonstrate that its regulations are the least restrictive way to further a compelling governmental interest. Hobby Lobby wins its case if the government fails on either prong of this rigorous standard of review.

It is important in this case to examine each of these prongs separately. Several arguments presented to the Court attempt to establish that the government lacks a compelling interest to require the cost-free provision of medical contraceptives to employees who are provided health insurance. We think these arguments are wrong on the merits, in part because they are extremely broad and expansive in their implications. If the Court concludes that the government lacks a compelling interest in Hobby Lobby, many religious claimants might successfully challenge a very wide range of laws under RFRA.

In response to the somewhat obvious intuition that women need access to contraceptives for important birth-control and health reasons, and the fact that often the safest and most effective contraception is also among the most expensive, Hobby Lobby argues that Obamacare’s preventive medicine regulations are so underinclusive that the government interests can’t be compelling. The fact that businesses that employ fewer than 50 full-time employees are not required to offer any health plan to their employees, and the fact that many current health plans that do not include cost-free preventive medicine coverage are “grandfathered in” under Obamacare so that they continue to operate without change are said to demonstrate that the government itself does not treat the public health interest it is asserting as if it were a particularly important concern.

We think Solicitor General Verrilli effectively challenged this contention during oral argument. The fact that a law is underinclusive often has little bearing on whether the government’s goal that it furthers is compelling. Important civil rights laws, such as Title VII (which prohibits race discrimination by employers), often exclude small businesses from their coverage. Indeed, most laws have more exceptions to them, or limitations to their applicability, than their basic purposes might suggest. It is common for government to serve very important interests while moving forward in a piecemeal fashion to accommodate other non-trivial interests, particularly when it is breaking new regulatory ground. And new legislative programs serving compelling interests, such as the American with Disabilities Act, may be phased in to their operation without the phase-in suggesting that the interest being served is unimportant. It is hard to argue that the government lacks a compelling public health interest in making preventive medical services more available because—in the herculean task of transforming the provision of health care in the United States—it has grandfathered in some existing plans to protect important reliance interests and to facilitate a smoother transition to the new health care system. Most problematically, if the Court holds that the government lacks a compelling state interest in Hobby Lobby, all laws with exclusions, exemptions, limitations in applicability or phase-in periods would be vulnerable to similar RFRA challenges.

Narrow Tailoring—and A Plausible Narrow Way Out in the Hobby Lobby Dispute

The second prong of the RFRA standard—which asks whether the preventive medicine regulations are the least restrictive means to accomplish the government’s compelling state interest—provides a much narrower foundation for ruling in Hobby Lobby’s favor. Here, one arguably less restrictive means by which the government could achieve its goals that seemed to generate support from several Justices at oral argument was for the government to exempt employers asserting religious objections from the regulations, while arranging for the employees of such exempt employers to receive medical contraceptive insurance coverage from an alternative source—with either the insurance company providing the coverage or the government itself incurring the cost of these benefits. Indeed, the government already grants an accommodation to religious non-profits (recall that Hobby Lobby is for-profit), and requires health care insurers to provide the disputed coverage to the employees of the accommodated non-profit employers at the insurer’s own cost. A similar accommodation could be extended to closely held for-profit employers who object to the regulations on religious grounds.

It is important to note here that this alternative would be unavailable in most cases where a for-profit business seeks a religious exemption from a general regulation; the preventive medicine insurance coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act is an unusual regulatory scheme in important respects. The benefits provided by the Act—generally available and affordable health insurance—are fungible, intangible goods that can be provided by either the public or private sector. And the Act’s beneficiaries have no reason to care about the source of the insurance.

This is not your ordinary workplace regulation. Both the goal and the operational design of the Affordable Care Act are directed toward providing affordable health insurance to all Americans, whether they are in a workplace or not. Employers are used simply as a convenient instrument to distribute healthcare to many Americans—but that is incidental to the ultimate purpose of the legislation. Indeed, for many Obamacare backers, providing these benefits through the healthcare plans of private employers was the second-best alternative. A government health insurance (“single payer”) program was thought by some to be the most desirable and efficient way of guaranteeing affordable health insurance in our society.

In other circumstances, including many mentioned by the Justices at oral argument, if the government has to bear the cost of providing religious accommodations to employers, the price tag might be prohibitively high. Or any meaningful accommodation might involve interventions that are unacceptably complex and individualized. Or, as Paul Clement pointed out, in some cases—such as RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination—the unavoidable harm caused by granting an accommodation would simply be too great. But none of those problems would arise if the government provided supplemental insurance coverage (or required health plan insurers to do so) to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations like Hobby Lobby. Indeed, if the government provided the insurance coverage, it could limit its costs in doing so by requiring any accommodated business (e.g., Hobby Lobby) to contribute whatever funds it saved by not providing the contraceptive coverage to some other public good identified by the government that would be consistent with the employer’s faith, and on which the government would otherwise be spending the public’s money. (Exempt employers would be required to offer alternative contributions to satisfy their civic obligations, in much the same way that a religious pacifist exempted from conscription as a conscientious objector would be required to perform alternative service as a condition to receiving an accommodation.)

A decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on these “least restrictive alternative” grounds would not be completely sui generis. It would apply to some other cases. But it would be the narrowest basis for a holding in Hobby Lobby’s favor. At a minimum, it would guarantee that the Court’s decision would provide no direct support to RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws.

Would Granting Hobby Lobby an Accommodation Violate the Establishment Clause?

There is one final issue about the scope of any opinion the Court will issue that has to do with a constitutional question concerning the scope of RFRA. Several commentators and amici have argued that it will violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the Court rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor. They argue that the Establishment Clause imposes a cap or limit on religious accommodations. An accommodation violates the Establishment Clause if it goes too far and imposes too heavy a burden on third parties or the general public. Such a violation will occur if Hobby Lobby is exempt from the medical contraceptive regulations, the argument runs, because Hobby Lobby’s employees will not receive valuable public health benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled. Religious exercise cannot be privileged by accommodations if doing so imposes such a heavy cost on third parties.

One expansive rejoinder to this argument challenges the contention that the employees of an exempt employer will be harmed by the accommodation. The employees had no “right” to these benefits, after all. The government was not obligated to mandate the provision of no-cost health insurance for preventive medicine to these employees or anyone else. Indeed, the benefits are available only because of the very law to which Hobby Lobby claims to be exempt. The government isn’t harming or taking something away from employees if it (through the enactment of RFRA) decides not to provide as many benefits as it might, in order to protect religious liberty.

We think this rejoinder is overly broad and mistaken on the merits. An analogy to an early religious freedom ruling by the Court might help make the point. In some ways, the Establishment Clause argument here is the flip side of the Free Exercise claim upheld in Sherbert v. Verner, the seminal case in which the Court held that the state violated the free exercise rights of a Seventh-day Adventist when it denied her unemployment compensation because she refused jobs that required her to work on the Sabbath. In that case, as in the Affordable Care Act setting, the government was under no obligation to provide unemployment benefits to anyone, and therefore might be thought to have been free to deny benefits to persons who refused appropriate job offers. The fact that the state created the benefit scheme through an act of political discretion made no difference to the Court’s free exercise analysis in Sherbert, however, and we think it should make no difference to the application of the Establishment Clause in Hobby Lobby.

As a general matter, we believe that the loss of generally available benefits to which one would otherwise be entitled is a cognizable harm for both Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause purposes. Thus, denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled, in order to accommodate some other person’s religious practice, is a cognizable harm for Establishment Clause purposes. And denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled if she obeyed the dictates of her faith is a harm for Free Exercise purposes.

There is, as should be clear from our earlier analysis, a narrower ground for rejecting the argument that a judicial finding in Hobby Lobby’s favor will violate the Establishment Cause. If the Court finds in favor of Hobby Lobby, it will basically hold that if the government wants to provide medical contraceptive insurance coverage for the employees of religious employers, it will have to choose some way to do that other than by substantially burdening the employer’s religious liberty. The Court may then conclude that this holding, standing alone, does not violate the Establishment Clause because the government still retains alternative ways to accomplish its goals without burdening either the religious exercise of objecting companies or third parties. The government, as we suggested, could pick up the cost of the insurance coverage itself, and provide coverage to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations directly, or it could assign that obligation to health plan insurers—as it has done with the accommodations for religious non-profits. (And again, if it wanted to, the government could seek—and then redistribute—money from the exempt for-profit companies who are saving dollars by not offering the coverage.) This rejoinder to the Establishment Clause concern might not be available in many cases, but it is available in Hobby Lobby, and therefore should be invoked as a basis for narrowly deciding this case.


February 28, 2014

Consistency in the Treatment of Religious Liberty Claims: Hobby Lobby and Town of Greece Viewed Side by Side

Co-authored with Professor Alan E. Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In the space below, we offer some unconventional thoughts about the highly-anticipated Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. cases that will be argued in the Supreme Court next month, and that involve challenges under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers must provide contraceptive services in their healthcare policies offered to employees. In particular, we try to lay the Hobby Lobby disputes alongside the other big case this Term that raises religious liberty issues, Town of Greece v. Galloway. That case was argued last Fall but hasn't yet been decided, and involves the permissibility of state-sponsored prayers before town board meetings. (Town of Greece involves important religious equality issues, as well as religious liberty concerns, but we limit our discussion in this column to plaintiffs' religious liberty claims.) By comparing the two settings and the way advocates in each of them have framed their religious liberty arguments, we hope to identify more common ground than has previously been acknowledged in these religious skirmishes at the Court. At the same time, we try to convince readers and other commentators that with regard to certain issues, in all fairness their approaches to the two disputes should be more consistent. (One of us has previously expressed this perspective in other fora.)

The "Liberal" and "Conservative" Take on the Two Lawsuits

Although few analysts have been looking at the two lawsuits together, the two cases have much in common. Neither dispute is particularly easy to resolve, in part, we believe, because both controversies raise serious religious liberty issues. As a matter of law and social reality, the plaintiffs in both lawsuits assert serious religious liberty claims that deserve our attention, empathy, and respect. Indeed, we think that important parallels between the two settings suggest that some of the main arguments raised against the religious liberty claims in each case would apply with roughly equal force in the other case as well.

We start by noting that the gist of the commentary among church-state scholars, including many colleagues we greatly admire and respect, seems sharply split and polarized on these cases. Generally speaking (and obviously there are exceptions to our claim here), liberal commentators see a significant religious liberty issue in Town of Greece, but are dubious about, if not dismissive of, the plaintiffs' claims in the Hobby Lobby set of cases. Conversely, conservative commentators tend to see a significant religious liberty issue in Hobby Lobby, but are dubious about, if not dismissive of, the plaintiffs' claims in Town of Greece. Perhaps we are wrong to see parallels between these two cases, but we worry that political and cultural polarization is making it harder for everyone to appreciate the similarly legitimate concerns of claimants who, from one perspective or the other, are on the wrong side of the culture-war dividing line. And the protection of religious liberty is itself undermined if we choose to protect it only when nothing that we value personally is at stake.

Liberals (again, as a general matter) place special value on gender equity, and see universal access to medical contraceptives as an important public health and women's rights concern. For them, protecting religious liberty in a situation that creates even small risks to women's health and equality is a hard sell. Conservatives, by contrast, attach important value to government-sponsored religious activities, such as state-sponsored prayers during public events. If protecting religious liberty requires placing some limits on such religious activities, conservatives will experience the price of religious freedom in this context as being particularly costly.

But (and this is really our big suggestion) if we expect other people to bear what they experience as real and significant costs in order to protect religious liberty, then we have to be prepared to demonstrate that we are willing to accept costs to interests that we ourselves value as well. In Town of Greece, liberals seem willing to protect religious liberty when something they do not value, public prayer, may be burdened, but are disinclined to protect religious liberty in Hobby Lobby. And conservatives are willing to protect the religious liberty of Hobby Lobby, but assign little, if any, weight to the religious liberty interests of the Town of Greece claimants.

The Dismissive Attitude of Opponents to the Religious Claimants in Each Case 

Indeed, in each case opponents of the plaintiffs/religious claimants seem incredulous, wondering what the religious adherent can possibly be complaining about. In Hobby Lobby, the suggestion seems to be that there is no reason to think that the plaintiffs' rights are burdened there at all. If a large corporation is engaged in commerce, it is subject to hundreds of regulations regarding working conditions, hiring, salaries, health plans and retirement plans. The benefit plans it provides to its employees may cover thousands of health and retirement topics. Being in commerce and employing hundreds or thousands of people means that a lot of things out of your control are going to happen. That is the way the world is, and how it has to be. In Town of Greece, the argument is made against the claimant there that town board meetings necessarily involve exposure to a lot of disagreeable expression from both board members and the public. If you attend such a meeting, you will have to sit through a lot of speech that you find objectionable. That's the way the system works. Learn to live with it.

But when we ask "What can they possibly be complaining about?" in religion cases, we must remember that a meaningful commitment to religious liberty means that burdens relating to religion must be treated specially; they must be evaluated differently than other costs or consequences. A business regulation requiring a business to engage in conduct that the owner or manager's religion prohibits requires a different analysis than the analysis that would apply to other regulatory burdens that owners and managers dislike. Similarly, having to sit through a state-sponsored prayer is different than having to sit through a politically- or ideologically- annoying discussion of fiscal or other policy issues. What is key here is that if religious liberty claims deserve attention in either of these contexts, regardless of the way things generally work, then religious liberty claims deserve respect in both situations.

The Inconsistency in the Treatment of Risk-Based Arguments

Consider some more focused and sophisticated arguments against the plaintiffs in each case. Some liberal commentators argue that an employer objecting on religious grounds to insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act may simply decline to continue to offer a health insurance plan to its employees. To be sure, the employer will have to pay a penalty for doing so, but that payment will probably be far less than the savings it incurs by ending employee health care benefits. It may be that there are other costs (say, in recruiting and retaining employees) associated with discontinuing employee health insurance coverage, but it is unclear whether, and in what circumstances, those costs would constitute a substantial economic burden on businesses declining to offer health plans to their employees. Because the economic consequences of declining to offer health plans is indeterminate, and may in fact be modest or negligible, courts should not consider claimants like Hobby Lobby to be subject to a substantial burden on their religious liberty.

It is easy to understand, however, why an employer would legitimately worry that terminating the existing health plans it offers its employees might have significant negative consequences on its bottom line. Most employees would not look kindly on having their existing health plans terminated and being told to purchase insurance through exchanges developed under the Affordable Care Act. So rejecting the notion that employers are burdened here would in effect reject the idea that a risk of adverse consequences constitutes a cognizable burden on religious liberty. No one knows for sure what will happen if the employer protects its religious liberty interests by terminating the health care plans for its employees, but the risk and reason for concern are there. The employer's worry can hardly be characterized as mere speculation.

Conservatives see that in Hobby Lobby, but seem to ignore similar concerns raised by the claimants in Town of Greece. Plaintiffs there also identify a significant risk-based burden on their religious liberty: They worry that the town board members whom they will be petitioning for support or assistance when the business part of the town board meeting is conducted will be alienated by the claimants' refusal to stand, bow their heads, or otherwise participate in the state-sponsored prayers that open the board meeting. Of course, no one knows whether or not board members will be alienated by or annoyed at audience members who choose not to participate in the prayer, or whether or not those board members will allow their feelings about claimants' not participating in the offered prayer, or publicly disassociating themselves from it, to influence the way the board members hear and decide the matters on which the claimants offer public comment. But here again, the risk and reasons for concern are present.

We believe that a significant risk of adverse consequences, that is, a reasonable ground for worrying about adverse consequences, should be understood to impose a legally-cognizable burden on protected interests. Certainly, the chilling effect arising from the risk of being exposed to penalties from overbroad laws is recognized as constitutionally-significant for freedom of speech purposes. But in Hobby Lobby, liberals seem unwilling to accept that indeterminate burdens on the religious liberty of employers deserve recognition, and in Town of Greece, conservatives seem unwilling to accept that indeterminate burdens on the religious liberty of individual non-adherents should be recognized, and steps taken to alleviate them. We think that the question of whether the risk of adverse consequences should be recognized as substantial burdens on religious liberty should be answered the same way in both cases.

Inconsistency in the Treatment of Attenuation and Misattribution Arguments

A separate criticism of plaintiffs' claims in the two cases focuses on arguments about attenuation, perception and attribution. In cases like Hobby Lobby (and perhaps more so in the related cases brought by religious non-profits), claimants are concerned that they will be complicit in sinful behavior. In addition, religious nonprofits in particular are concerned that they will be misperceived as supporting or acquiescing in sinful behavior, or that support for such behavior may be attributed to them. These concerns transcend material subsidy and emphasize the expressive dimension of being associated with unacceptable conduct. These concerns for us bring to mind the Catholic idea of "scandal." Liberals dismiss such claims based on complicity as being too attenuated. Concerns about misattribution are also deemed insignificant since they can be so easily remedied by the religious nonprofit's publicly distancing itself from religiously objectional behavior by proclaiming its opposition to the conduct at issue.

A similar problem with misperception-indeed, we suggest an arguably more powerful example of it- also arises in the Town of Greece litigation. Commonly, the prayer giver at the Town of Greece board meetings offered what may be called a "we" prayer rather than an "I" prayer. The member of the clergy who is offering the prayer purports to be speaking to G-d in the name of the whole audience and the community. Sitting silently by, and certainly standing or bowing one's head, while someone claims to be praying in your name creates the perception that you acquiesce or support his doing so. We consider this to be just as clear a misperception burden as the concern of religious individuals and institutions that they will be perceived as supporting the use of medical contraceptives or abortion-inducing pills when such services are covered by the health care plans they provide to their employees. Accordingly, in our judgment, if either misperception argument deserves to be taken seriously, then the misperception arguments in both cases deserve to be taken seriously.

Yet here, again, liberal commentators who sympathize with the misperception concerns of claimants in Town of Greece seem less concerned with the misperception concerns of claimants in the contraceptive mandate cases. The problem is even more acute for conservatives who recognize misperception and misattribution as a problem in the contraceptive mandate cases, but seem unconcerned about the claimants in Town of Greece. In the contraceptive- mandate cases, there is no risk of a penalty or adverse consequence if employers very publicly condemn the mandate and express their lack of support for the use of medical contraceptives. Misattribution can be somewhat mitigated by their public rejection of the government's requirements. In Town of Greece, however, by publicly disassociating themselves from the state-sponsored prayers (either prior to, or in the wake of, the board meeting) dissenters risk alienating the very decisionmakers on the board to whom they are directing their petitions. The risk of adverse consequences is thus increased by their attempts to avoid misperception and misattribution.

We recognize, of course, that Town of Greece is a constitutional law case and that the contraceptive mandate litigation involves statutes and public policy for the most part. Thus, one might plausibly argue that town-board prayers are constitutional, while also believing that, as a public policy matter, they are a bad idea, or at least should be carefully structured in ways to minimize their coercive impact. But we don't hear conservatives making this argument; they seem to ignore the burden on religious liberty both for constitutional and policy purposes.

There may be other powerful arguments that could be mustered to support our suggestion that people who take religious liberty seriously should be respectful of plaintiffs' claims in both Town of Greece and Hobby Lobby and related contraceptive-mandate cases (and, conversely, that people who reject religious liberty should do so in both cases). But our key point is that we have to work hard at not seeing religious liberty issues through the red and blue prism of contemporary culture wars. Most importantly, we should be careful not to allow our sympathies for interests that are aligned against particular claims for religious liberty to prevent us from acknowledging and empathizing with plaintiffs whose concerns warrant our respect. Recognizing the reality of the religious liberty concerns asserted by claimants in Town of Greece and Hobby Lobby (and related cases) does not mean that we must agree with the remedy sought in either case. But it does reflect a willingness to take such claims seriously, even when we are uncomfortable in doing so.

December 20, 2013

The Question of Disparate Speech Impact in the Supreme Court’s Upcoming McCullen v. Coakley Case

Co-authored with Professor Alan Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

Today we analyze a very intriguing issue raised by a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month, McCullen v. Coakley, in which the plaintiffs challenge a Massachusetts law limiting pedestrian traffic near abortion clinics.  The statute in question makes it a crime to "enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to" a reproductive rights clinic within 35 feet of "any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway" of the facility.  The statute exempts from this prohibition persons who are entering or leaving the facility, employees or agents of the facility acting within the scope of their employment, emergency and utility personnel doing their jobs, and people who are using the sidewalk or public way to reach a destination other than the facility.  The law's challengers-individuals who seek to communicate with women who may, at that place and moment, be contemplating abortion-allege that the law violates the First Amendment.  The challengers lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in June the Supreme Court granted review.

The case raises many important constitutional issues.  Indeed, this is not the first time the Supreme Court has agreed to review, under the First Amendment, judicial or legislative attempts to regulate protest activity taking place outside medical facilities and abortion clinics, and among the questions presented in McCullen is whether the Court should overrule Hill v. Colorado, one of its important earlier cases relating to these matters.

Content/Viewpoint Based vs. Content-Neutral:  A Crucial Distinction

In the space below, we do not attempt to address all the significant constitutional issues the McCullen case presents.  Instead, we limit ourselves to the relatively confined question of whether a law like this one should be characterized as a "content-neutral" regulation of the "time, place or manner" of speech or conduct, or instead whether the law should be viewed as one that discriminates on the basis of the content or viewpoint of speech (or speakers).

This question is profoundly important, because under well-established First Amendment doctrines, if a law is content- or viewpoint-based, it is subject to the strictest judicial scrutiny, and will almost always be struck down. Content-neutral regulations of speech, by contrast, are reviewed under a more lenient, intermediate level of review and are often, although not always, upheld.  (We take no position in this column on how the Massachusetts law in question, or other situations we examine, should fare under the intermediate scrutiny test.)

Usually the Court determines whether a law is content- or viewpoint-based by looking at how the law is written.  For example, a law that prohibits all picketing in an area but exempts labor picketing is content-based, because the exemption from the regulation is defined on the face of the statute in terms of a particular topic or subject matter of speech.  Similarly, a law that explicitly makes it a crime to burn a flag "in order to show contempt" for it, but that does not prohibit burning as a means of respectfully disposing of a damaged flag, would be viewpoint-based. These laws would be subject to very high scrutiny.

Formal Neutrality and Disparate or Discriminatory Effect

The plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case would have to concede that the law they are challenging does not, as a formal matter, single out or even mention any identifiable speaker or particular subject or viewpoint of speech. The plaintiffs argue, however, that this law should be understood as a content- or viewpoint-discriminatory regulation because by restricting speech in a particular place, in front of reproductive health clinics, the state is burdening only one side of a debate. They contend that although the law may be neutral on its face, it is discriminatory in its effect.  And this discriminatory or disparate impact should lead courts to be skeptical of the law and strike it down for that reason.

In making their argument, the plaintiffs rely on the commonsense fact that speech in front of reproductive health clinics is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, speech that is opposed to abortion.  As their brief argues:  "Massachusetts has . . . taken care to frame an Act that as a practical matter affects speech on only one issue-and, indeed, on only one side of that issue.  The Act's lack of generality or neutrality is demonstrated both by the specific locations at which it applies and by the specific speakers whom it affects." (Some of the amicus briefs in favor of the challengers also argue that the law should be viewed skeptically because the legislature's actual motive was problematic, but we defer discussion of so-called motive analysis under the First Amendment to another day, focusing here on whether the disparate effect of a law justifies treating it as a disfavored content- or viewpoint-based law.)

We do not deny that a law that singles out particular places for speech restrictions may often have a disparate effect on speech and debate.  People on one side of a debate often use particular places to express their message much more frequently and aggressively than do people on the other side(s) of the same debate.  But allowing courts to look behind the actual content of the statute and determine what standard of review to apply based on disproportionate effect could radically undermine settled doctrine, require the implicit overruling of many judicial decisions, and lead to the invalidation of laws that are already on the books, or that are likely to be enacted without controversy, because they are considered to be content-neutral regulations.

How Disparate Effect Analysis Would Disrupt the Case Law and Statutory Landscapes

The reality is that many of what today are generally considered to be content-neutral speech regulations were adopted in response to a problems created by identifiable classes of speakers with distinct messages or viewpoints. Under current law, we respond to that reality by requiring a statute to apply to all would-be speakers, not just those whose speech activity raised the legislature's consciousness about the need for regulation. Thus, a limitation on residential picketing, or a buffer zone in front of medical clinics, may be created in response to anti-abortion protests, but the laws responding to this problem must, as a formal matter, apply to labor picketing and other protests as well.   If the Court were to go beyond this current insistence on formal content- and viewpoint-neutrality, and begin subjecting all laws that have predictable disparate effects to the strict scrutiny that applies to content- and viewpoint-based laws, then  significant past Court cases  might require reconsideration.

For example, in the seminal case of United States v. O'Brien, the Court upheld a law that made it a crime to destroy government-issued draft cards, even if the cards were burned for expressive purposes as a form of political protest.  Could anyone doubt that the overwhelming majority of people who destroyed draft cards (and who were thus subject to the law) did so in order to express a particular anti-draft, anti-war, or anti-government point of view?  Or take Frisby v. Shultz, a case in which the Court upheld a ban on residential picketing, as applied to protesters who wanted to picket outside an abortion doctor's home.  Certainly, this ban had meaningful effect only on people expressing critical messages in front of a resident's home; people don't tend to picket in front of your house if they like what you're doing. Honesty compels the acknowledgement that the ban on residential picketing was prompted by, and in the real world most directly affected, anti-abortion activists.

Also, a disparate effect analysis might very well require the invalidation of other laws that current doctrine would tend to permit. To give but two (out of many possible) examples, facially neutral buffer zones around foreign embassies might be unconstitutional because pro-embassy supporters obviously tend to be less affected by (and less likely to be prosecuted under) such regulations than anti-embassy protestors.  And virtually all laws that try to regulate activity near funeral proceedings would be open to question. Over forty states have recently adopted such regulations. It is common knowledge that the vast majority of people today who want to assemble and demonstrate near funerals are members of an identifiable religious group with a distinctive, somewhat bizarre, and extremely unpopular message and point of view.

The Problems of Subjectivity and Disharmony With Other Constitutional Areas

In addition to requiring the overruling of some past cases and the invalidation of laws that are currently deemed constitutional, a change in doctrine emphasizing disparate impacts would add considerable subjectivity and indeterminacy to free speech cases. There will always be questions about both the extent of a predictable or expected disproportionate impact that is created by a law, and just how much of an impact is required to compel a conclusion that the law is content- or viewpoint-based.   For a court that eschews subjective standards (as this Court does, as evidenced by its unwillingness to recognize free exercise of religion claims against neutral laws of general applicability), it is hard to understand why increasing subjectivity and indeterminacy would be appropriate here. Free speech doctrine is complicated enough without blurring established, albeit complicated, categories.

Further, a Supreme Court decision holding that a locational regulation will, by virtue of disparate effects, be considered content- or viewpoint-based and thus trigger strict scrutiny would be anomalous and hard to reconcile with the way in which the Court considers disparate impact in other areas of constitutional law.  For instance, we can compare free speech doctrine to equal protection doctrine.  Under the Equal Protection Clause, government cannot discriminate against racial minorities (just as, under the First Amendment, it cannot discriminate against particular viewpoints.)  But in the equal protection context, a law that is formally race-neutral on its face, but that generates predictable disparate impacts along racial lines (such as a requirement of a high school diploma to be eligible for a government job) is not subject to strict scrutiny, notwithstanding that, in the real world, it tends to disadvantage racial minorities more than white persons. The Court, in the famous Washington v. Davis case in 1976, rejected strict scrutiny based on disparate racial impact, to avoid a slippery slope that would undermine the validity of far too much legislation. Think of all the laws-like flat sales taxes and bridge tolls-that have predictable disproportionate effects on poor persons, and thus on racial minorities (because of the unhappy correlation that persists between the two). All such laws would be subject to strict scrutiny under a disparate impact approach.

And in one important sense, the case for strict scrutiny for racially disparate laws is actually stronger than it is for laws that generate disparate speech effects. In the equal protection setting, if a racially disparate law is not subject to strict scrutiny, it is subject to a very deferential rationality review, which in many cases operates like a rubber stamp upholding the law. In the free speech arena, however, even laws that are not considered content- or viewpoint-based are still subject to a meaningful intermediate level of judicial scrutiny that often has real bite to it that can result in the invalidation of the law.

Conundrums Within Speech Doctrine That a Disparate Effects Approach Would Create

Moreover, a focus on disparate speech effects would create a range of doctrinal conundrums under the First Amendment itself.  Content-neutral regulations of speech serve important social functions. A particular location may be a very useful place to express a message, but it also may be a place where speech imposes serious burdens on third parties (including particularly vulnerable audiences such as patients at medical clinics or mourners at funerals), such that the speech needs to be regulated.  A multi-factor balancing test (the intermediate standard that currently governs content-neutral laws) may be the best way to take all of the relevant values and interests at stake in these cases into account. Yet the Court's heightening of review based on disproportionate impact would tend, in effect, to read the state's interest in restricting speech out of the picture because almost nothing passes strict scrutiny.

Another problem with increasing the rigor of the Court's review of locational or other regulations because of their foreseeable disparate effects on speech is that this approach would send conflicting and confusing messages to lawmakers. On the one hand, under the intermediate scrutiny that is currently applied, content-neutral speech regulations are not supposed to burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the state's interests. This suggests that content-neutral laws should be drawn narrowly to cover as limited a time, place, or manner of speech as possible to serve the state's goals. But if a disproportionate effect approach makes narrow laws vulnerable to receiving heightened review precisely because their narrowness generates disparate effects, then legislatures are going to broaden laws as a matter of course:  The broader the scope of the law, the harder it is to find that the law disproportionately burdens any particular subject or viewpoint of speech. Thus, with courts emphasizing disproportionate effects, the state is forced to walk a constitutional tightrope and may violate the First Amendment if it deviates even a bit in either direction; if the state adopts a narrow law, the likelihood increases that the law will receive rigorous review because the law disproportionately burdens one subject or viewpoint of speech more than others, but if government broadens the law, the law is more likely to be struck down under the intermediate scrutiny test that will apply, because the law will inevitably restrict more speech than is necessary to further the state's interests. This means that a focus on disproportionate speech effects will do more than make judicial decisions in this area more subjective and indeterminate; it will also undermine legislative discretion and flexibility in drafting and adopting laws.

We are not suggesting that there are no possible answers to any of these seeming dilemmas, or that disparate effect should never factor into any well-conceived First Amendment analytic framework.  Rather, what we are saying is that before the Court begins to travel down this road, it needs to think carefully not just about clinic-access cases, but also about a much larger swath of free speech and larger constitutional doctrine.

November 8, 2013

A Breakdown of this Week’s Supreme Court Oral Argument in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Case Involving Prayer at Town Board Meetings

Co-authored with Alan E. Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.


In the space below, we offer our analysis of the oral argument that was held two days ago at the U.S. Supreme Court in this Term's most important case addressing the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, Town of Greece v. Galloway. The litigation involves a decade-plus-long practice in the upstate New York Town of Greece of starting Town Board meetings with a short prayer. Before 1999, the Town (which has slightly fewer than 100,000 residents) began Board meetings with a moment of silence. But since then, the Town has been inviting local clergy to offer an opening prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance has been recited. Prayer-givers deliver their prayers over the Board's public address system, and many have asked members of the audience to bow their heads, stand, or join in the prayer during its recitation. The Town asserts that anyone-followers of any religion, agnostics, and atheists alike-can request to offer an invocation, and that it has never turned down any request. But in practice, Christian clergy have given nearly all the prayers since 1999, and they have been invited to do so by the Town, which often calls them "chaplain[s] of the month."

Some Background on the Legal Theories in Play

As we explained in an earlier column, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invalidated the Town's practice, finding that the prayers, in context, were best seen as a public endorsement of Christianity, which violated the First Amendment's ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion. In our earlier writing, we agreed with the Second Circuit that the Town's practice violated equality norms that are inherent in the Establishment Clause insofar as the Town was sending messages of inclusion and exclusion. This was especially true, we noted, because the Town's policy focused on majoritarian sects-the Town drew some prayer leaders from a list of congregations printed in the Chamber of Commerce's directory-and thus effectively excluded religious adherents who live in the Town but who lack the numbers to establish a physical congregation within the community.

We also argued that, even apart from equality-based arguments, the Town's policy violated the Establishment Clause's prohibition on religious coercion. In particular, we argued that unlike prayers used to open legislative sessions at the state legislative level (one of which was upheld by the Supreme Court, largely on the basis of unbroken historical tradition, in Marsh v. Chambers), prayers that open local government meetings are very likely to pressure attendees to conform, primarily because the audience at city council meetings has a different role and purpose than the audience at sessions of the state legislature. Most of what a state legislature does involves the formulation and enactment of laws of significant breadth and scope that impact large groups and constituencies. By contrast, the work of a city council or board, in most of the towns and cities of the United States, regularly deals with decisions affecting small groups and individuals. Often town councils and boards act as administrative tribunals in a quasi-adjudicatory capacity, hearing personnel grievances or land-use appeals. Thus, these local government meetings are much more likely to be focused on particular individuals than are the general laws that state legislatures consider at their sessions. While the people who attend a session of the state legislature are passive observers of the legislature's work, the audience at a city council meeting has a much more participatory role to play. Town residents attend council meetings to speak to, influence, and petition their government before it makes decisions that may significantly impact their lives. So in the setting of a city council meeting, citizens who wish to address the council are coerced to participate in any city sponsored prayers that are offered, since a failure to stand and bow one's head or otherwise join in the prayer would risk alienating the very political decision makers whom they hope to influence.

What Did the Oral Argument Reveal?

Against this background, what do we make of the oral argument that took place earlier this week? With the caveat that it is always dicey to make firm predictions about outcomes from the tenor of an oral argument, and recognizing too, that an hour-long argument will generally contain many more important exchanges than can be summarized in a short essay like this one, we think it may be helpful to focus on five aspects of the controversy that emerged on Wednesday.

First, there seemed to be some agreement among the Justices that the Town's policy is problematic because it does not cast a broader invitation net. From the more liberal side of the Court, Justice Breyer pointed out forcefully that the Town could have done a better job of reaching out to groups that were not Christian, or not even religious at all, to let them know that they were welcome to "appear and to have either a prayer or the equivalent if they're not religious." And the more conventionally conservative Justice Alito explicitly talked about the problems of limiting invitations to congregations that are located in town (a practice we criticized in our earlier writing), instead of including minorities who live in town but who attend houses of worship outside of town.

What this broad agreement means is that the challengers to the Town's policy may well win-in the sense that the policy as it currently operates cannot continue. But the question then becomes whether the victory will be limited to the concern about outreach, or will instead be more broadly focused on the problems with having prayers in this setting more generally, even if all groups are invited to participate.

That brings us to our second point: Justice Kennedy's likely take on the case. To win big-that is, to strike down or limit city council prayers in any significant way-the challengers will likely have to win over Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in this area of constitutional law. How will Justice Kennedy see things? It's hard to say, but interestingly enough, Justice Kennedy might have an easier time invalidating all prayers before city council meetings than he would invalidating "sectarian" prayers but leaving room for non-sectarian ones to continue, the latter position being the one advanced by the challengers and presented to the Court by the eminent law professor Douglas Laycock.

The position Professor Laycock asserted-which, again, would allow non-sectarian prayers but forbid sectarian ones-would seem to represent something of a middle ground, an option that might be thought to appeal to the "center" of the Court. And Professor Laycock pointed out that there is a long tradition of the use of inclusive, non-sectarian prayers in public settings. He observed that early prayers in American public arenas, while undeniably Christian, were not denominationally divisive because America was then a homogeneously Protestant nation. He mentioned, as well, that thirty-seven State legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives give guidelines to clergy giving prayers in those chambers. And he reminded the Court that, in cases like this one involving local government, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has utilized a prohibition on sectarian prayers only that seems to be working out reasonably well.

While these arguments have substantial force, they may not persuade a sufficient number of, or the right individual, Justices. In particular, Justice Kennedy seems to be very resistant to having government engage in any oversight concerning the content of prayers. As Justice Kennedy put it, a line between sectarian and non-sectarian prayers "involves the State very heavily in the censorship and the approval or disapproval of prayers," and would "involve[] the government very heavily in religion." If Justice Kennedy does not believe that the Establishment Clause can require government to control the content of state-sponsored prayers in any way, however, and that no such line is workable, then Justice Kennedy will be forced to support either banning all prayers in this context, or allowing a free-for-all in which even aggressive proselytizing prayers that demand active participation and validation by audience members would have to be permitted. It appears from Justice Kennedy's questions that he would be more comfortable choosing one of these stark choices than accepting a distinction between sectarian and non-sectarian prayers.

In addition to the practical problem of Justice Kennedy's ostensible opposition to this argument, the sectarian/non-sectarian line has another flaw: It addresses equality-based concerns, but not really coercion-based concerns. Even if most religious groups would accept the generic content of nonsectarian prayers, those individuals who cannot participate in, or attend, such prayers as a matter of conscience are still pressured into conforming by the risk that their non-participation/absence will alienate the very decision makers they are trying to persuade.

A third point involves not the substance, but the timing, of the prayer that is offered. Justice Alito asked Professor Laycock why the separation in time between the opening prayer and the city government's active consideration of specific items before it does not diminish any coercive effect the prayer might have: Audience members who are made uncomfortable by the prayer can simply wait outside and then enter later in the town session when their business items are transacted. Justice Alito's question presupposes that the only part of the meeting where audience members would need to participate involves the board or council's hearing formal proposals or grievances-essentially when the board is acting as an administrative body or in a quasi-adjudicatory capacity.

But Professor Laycock effectively explained that he is also concerned about an earlier part of the public meeting agenda that is quite close in time to the prayers-what we would call the public-comment component, during which the council might consider whether legislative fixes to problems that are identified are needed. As Professor Laycock explained, people raise very personal issues during public comment; even allegedly legislative decisions often involve disputes between very small constituencies, or impact so few individuals that the distinction between legislative and administrative functions has limited meaning or utility in this local government context.

The fourth point we want to mention deals with neither the substance of the prayer nor its timing, but rather the persons to whom the prayer can be attributed. Justice Scalia made the argument that the Board members are citizens, and as citizens they should be able to invoke the deity before beginning serious governmental tasks. What he was suggesting, in other words, is that what looks like a public prayer might be better understood as a private prayer of persons who happen to be convening a public meeting. The problem with this characterization, of course, is that the Board members act in their official-not private-capacity when they invite people to offer prayers at official meetings where government business is being transacted. Consider an analogy: Would we ever think of saying that because Board members are citizens, and because citizens can hold political rallies and raise money, Board members can hold a political rally to raise money for their campaigns at the beginning of Board meetings?

Fifth, and finally, consider an observation that Justice Kagan made about the goal of the religion clauses of the First Amendment being to allow people in this country of different faiths to live harmoniously together. In particular, Justice Kagan worried aloud that when the Court lays down rules enforcing the Establishment Clause, people might see the Court as hostile to religion and get angry as a result. And this runs counter to the constitutional objective of having people live together in a religiously peaceful and harmonious way.

We understand Justice Kagan's concern, but we think there are powerful responses to it. For starters, protecting minority liberty and equality rights often risks an angry reaction from the majority. And protecting minority rights is frequently challenged as disturbing the harmony of the community. But harmony that exists on a foundation of hierarchy and coercion is not true harmony; minority silence in the face of discrimination and burdens on liberty should not be misconstrued as peace, so much as seen as an enforced and temporary cease-fire.

Moreover, if it is legitimate for the Court to take into account how its decisions are processed by the citizenry, the great majority of whom value religion, the way for the Court to avoid being misunderstood as being hostile to religion would not be to undercut the anti-coercion, pro-equality values of the Establishment Clause, but rather to more rigorously protect meaningful Free Exercise rights. If Free Exercise rights were taken seriously, it would be more difficult for the Court to be criticized as anti-religious.

Lastly, if the Court ignores the liberty and equality interests of religious minorities in the name of achieving harmony, it sends an unmistakable message to religious minorities: You cannot rely on the Constitution to protect your liberty and equality interests, and the only way to protect yourself against discrimination and coercion is to live in communities where there are a sufficiently large number of people who adhere to your faith so that you can protect yourselves politically. Such a message would create a "harmony" only by virtue of a religiously fragmented and balkanized society where people of different faiths do not live together in religiously integrated communities. By contrast, we feel that what enables people of different faiths and no faith to all live together in meaningful harmony is the knowledge that the Constitution requires government to recognize that everyone, regardless of their beliefs, is of equal worth and must be treated with equal respect.

September 13, 2013

Precisely How Much Academic Freedom Should (Does) the First Amendment Afford to Professors and Teachers at Public Schools?

Co-authored with Alan Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In the space below, we analyze an important and interesting decision, Demers v. Austin, involving the First Amendment academic-freedom rights of public school and university faculty members that was handed down last week by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  We are quite sympathetic to the thrust of the Ninth Circuit ruling, but we think that a more concrete and categorical framework for resolving academic freedom disputes needs to be fashioned, lest public schools and their faculties be embroiled in a great deal of time- and money-consuming litigation that will generate inconsistent and unpredictable results.

Some Background on the Demers Case

As is relevant here, the facts of the Demers case are pretty straightforward.  David Demers is a tenured member of the faculty at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, a large, public, research-oriented university located in Pullman, Washington.  While serving on a university committee charged with exploring possible changes to the way in which the Murrow College was organized and the way it should relate to other units of the University, Demers wrote and distributed a document called "The Plan."  The Plan was Demers's two-page blueprint for dealing with some of these issues of organizational structure and funding (and some other matters too).  Demers did not distribute The Plan to other members of the committee on which he served, but he did send The Plan to high-level administrators at Washington State, as well as to members of the media and others.  After suffering what he claimed were adverse employment actions, Demers brought suit against various members of the Washington State administrative hierarchy alleging that they had retaliated against him, in violation of his First Amendment rights, for distributing The Plan and the ideas contained in it.

The defendants denied that any action they ever took against Demers was in retaliation for his having distributed The Plan. They also argued that, in any event, The Plan was not protected speech under Supreme Court doctrine because it was written and circulated "pursuant to Demers's official duties."  The trial court ruled in the University's favor. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court's decision, at least in part.

The Ninth Circuit's Decision That Garcetti Does Not Apply

The three Judges on the Ninth Circuit panel agreed with the University that "The Plan" was undertaken pursuant to Demers's official duties (even though he tried to characterize it as something he wrote and circulated in his private-person capacity) because it addressed much of the subject matter of the University committee on which he served, and because he sent it to, among others, University administrators who might have been able to act on it.  But the Ninth Circuit then definitively held that not all things that a public school academic employee writes and distributes in connection with his official duties are without First Amendment protection. In particular, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the complete-deference-to-the-government standard of Garcetti v. Ceballos-a 2006 United States Supreme Court decision-does not apply in the setting of public employees who are teachers and scholars.

Garcetti involved a memorandum written and publicly disseminated by a deputy district attorney alleging that a police search warrant affidavit contained problematic falsehoods and misrepresentations.  When higher-ups in the DA's office seemed to punish him for blowing the whistle in this way, he filed suit contending that he had been the victim of retaliation for his comments, in violation of the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline."

The Ninth Circuit in Demers held, building on language in some of the opinions in Garcetti and other cases discussing "academic freedom," that the Garcetti framework does not apply to "speech related to scholarship or teaching."  Instead, according to the panel, teaching and academic writing that are performed pursuant to the official duties of a teacher and professor should be governed by the two-part balancing test laid out by the Supreme Court in the pre-Garcetti case of Pickering v. Board of Education.  Under that test, the employee must show first that his or her speech addressed matters of public concern.  If this requirement is satisfied, then the employee's speech is protected from punishment if the employee's interest "in commenting outweighs the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees."

Our Evaluation of the Ninth Circuit's Course of Action

We well understand why the Ninth Circuit decided not to apply the Garcetti approach to the university-professor setting across the board.  But we are troubled by the indeterminate, ad-hoc character of the Pickering balancing test, and we think that more categorical boundaries need to be identified in order to provide an appropriate structure for the litigation between schools and their academic employees that will likely ensue once Garcetti is found not to govern these disputes.

Let us begin by explaining why we think there is a strong case to be made that university professors deserve First Amendment protection for at least some of what they say and do, even when they do it on the government's dime and pursuant to their public-employment duties. It is always dangerous to identify certain classes of public employees who should enjoy more free speech rights than others, but we think that a distinctive protection for professors can be derived from a functional analysis of the jobs that universities are supposed to play in modern society.  We focus on two functions, in particular:

First, many universities play a unique role in our society in pressing beyond accepted wisdom to critique and expand our knowledge of the world.  Universities are committed to certain methodological principles, but so long as research is done within that methodological framework-which requires, among other things, comparison of theory to empirically verifiable phenomenon, rigorous logic, and the careful separation of premises from conclusions and correlations from causes, and attention and responses to counterarguments that have been made or are likely to be made against any particular thesis-universities are committed to going wherever the search for truth leads.

Second, universities serve as an independent source of values and authority and as such they operate as a check on government power-a function that is comparable to the ways in which the press or organized religion can serve as a check on government abuses or mistakes. University academics have blown the whistle on many instances of government error or overreach.  The difficulty with applying this argument to public universities, however, is that we would be asking the government to fund a check on its own authority. But the idea is not implausible. The basic notion is, after all, intrinsic to all the separation of powers; the legislature funds the courts, for example, which themselves serve as a check on legislative authority.

For these reasons (which largely explain some of the stray Supreme Court language, extolling the virtues of academic freedom, on which the Ninth Circuit relied in rejecting the applicability of Garcetti), we see potential room to carve out special protections for academic speech. But if a functional analysis helps make the case for special protections for university scholars, it also substantially undercuts the claim for academic freedom by elementary- and high-school teachers (which the Ninth Circuit also recognized albeit in dicta.)  Elementary and middle schools, of course, serve different purposes than universities.   The range of stakeholders is broader. More importantly, public-school education involves a mixture of values and cultural inculcation-that is, teaching children what society wants and needs them to accept-as well as the development in students of intellectual maturity, independence, and the ability to think for themselves.  And there is no consensus (the way that there might be a consensus on the purposes of research universities) on how that mix should work. As a result, there is a much shakier foundation for judicial review. And simply substituting judges' opinions on pedagogical issues for those of school boards or administrators seems troubling in principle and chaotic in practice.

Relatedly, elementary- and high-school teachers are not in the business of generating new knowledge; it's not part of their function. As a result, there is no functional need to promote free inquiry in the performance of their jobs. In a similar vein, high schools are not intended to serve as sources of values that serve a checking function on government.  And finally, operating the public schools is a traditional local governmental function. Community interests, values, and needs may differ by location. Democracy is responsive to local differences and concerns. First Amendment doctrine might have the tendency to universalize, homogenize, and nationalize public-school curricula and pedagogical decisions.

Because universities are so different from elementary and high schools in this regard, we think that the Ninth Circuit should probably have limited its holding concerning Garcetti's applicability (or non-applicability) to the research-university setting.  Even though the Ninth Circuit observed that the Pickering test must be attentive to context, we can foresee much mischief if an ad-hoc balancing test like Pickering's leads to a flood of lawsuits brought by elementary-school and high-school teachers who object to the pedagogical decisions made by principals and local school boards on first amendment grounds.

And even within the realm of the university, we wonder whether the Pickering formula is too open-ended, and likely to produce costly litigation that is so fact-specific that it cannot be resolved short of full-blown and time-consuming trials.  The Ninth Circuit does say that some deference to universities is owed in some settings, but not all lower courts will be clear about how much deference to afford, and free-speech review involving tests that demand indeterminate balancing may be an invitation to constitutional litigation by every scholar who disagrees with the evaluation of his or her teaching or scholarship.

A more categorical approach is greatly preferable. Various substantive decisions, as long as they are clearly communicated to the faculty so as to avoid any notice/due process problems, should be beyond the scope of constitutional review. (State legislatures or public universities may elect to subject these decisions to judicial review, but the Constitution does not require that they do so. That way, if review becomes problematic and unreasonably costly, it can be modified without changing constitutional doctrine.)

For example, universities should be free to determine their curricula, and also be free to prescribe precisely what particular classes should cover. Professors can be required to teach assigned classes, notwithstanding their subject-matter preferences. Universities can determine classroom hours, etc. If an economics professor decides instead to write literary criticism, the department can reject his work as unacceptable within the discipline in which he was hired to teach. The Supreme Court case of Arkansas Public Television Comm. v. Forbes suggests that judicial review under the free speech clause is inappropriate when government engages in functions that require the exercise of substantial editorial discretion.

Clearly, that reasoning applies to many content-neutral and content-discriminatory university decisions. And even a fair bit of viewpoint discrimination may be permissible. For example, to our minds it does not necessarily violate the First Amendment for a university to require balanced teaching on controversial subjects in the classroom, even if a professor would have a preference to be more polemical.

In the space of this essay, we cannot, of course, construct all the categories we think should be identified to guide and reform otherwise standardless judicial balancing, but we hope that Demers is the first step in the direction of that enterprise by lower courts.


June 7, 2013

What Should the Supreme Court do With Town Board Prayers in Galloway v. Town of Greece? A Liberty-Based Analysis That Bolsters the Second Circuit’s Equality-Based Ruling

By Professors Vikram Amar and Alan Brownstein for Justia's Verdict.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in an important case involving the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, Galloway v. Town of GreeceGalloway involves a decade-plus- long practice in the upstate New York Town of Greece of starting Town Board meetings with a short prayer.  Before 1999, the Town (which has slightly fewer than 100,000 residents) began Board meetings with a moment of silence.  But since then, it has been inviting local clergy to offer an opening prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance has been recited. Prayer-givers deliver their prayer over the Board’s public address system, and many have asked members of the audience to bow their heads, stand, or join in the prayer during its recitation.  The Town asserts that anyone—followers of any religion, agnostics, and atheists alike—can request to offer an invocation, and that it has never turned down any request.  But in practice, Christian clergy have given nearly all the prayers since 1999, and have been invited to do so by the Town, which often calls them “chaplain[s] of the month.”

As fellow Verdict columnist Marci Hamilton pointed out last week in her analysis of this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (with esteemed Judge Guido Calabresi writing) invalidated the Town’s practice, finding that the prayers, in context, had to be understood as a public endorsement of Christianity, which violated the First Amendment’s ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion.  We agree with much of Judge Calabresi’s reasoning, but in the space below we offer additional reasons—ones we feel the Second Circuit did not adequately explore—to be skeptical about what the Town has been doing.

The Town of Greece’s Practice Does Implicate Religious Equality Values

Disputes about the recitation of prayers before town board or city council meetings implicate many values underlying the Establishment Clause. The Second Circuit’s opinion, which focused on the so-called endorsement test, spoke primarily in terms of religious equality.  And there are powerful equality-based grounds for challenging the town of Greece’s government-sponsored prayers. For these constitutional purposes, equality means not only equality in material benefits but also equality of status and respect. This has been clear since the Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that physically comparable but separate public schools that are segregated by race violated the equal protection clause because of the message of inferior status they communicated to African-American children. When government bodies select leaders of majoritarian religions to lead sectarian prayers to open local governmental proceedings, while ignoring the beliefs of other citizens, the message of lack of worth and disrespect for minority religions and the non-religious would be hard to avoid.

To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically disrespectful about being asked to stand while prayers of a different faith than our own are being offered. Most of us have probably been asked to do so when attending a wedding, bar mitzvah or other religious event in the house of worship of neighbors and friends. In those situations, however, we are guests in the sanctuary of a different faith community.  As outsiders, we do not expect our different religious identities to be recognized. There is no pretense that the rituals being observed reflect our own religious commitments. But citizens of a town or city are not guests and outsiders at the public meetings of their government. They belong to the political community and, quite reasonably, resent being treated as strangers who are not being shown the same respect afforded to its favored members.

And the Town has been essentially discriminating against minority religious voices. By focusing on majoritarian sects—the Town drew some prayer leaders from a list of congregations printed in the Chamber of Commerce’s directory—the Town effectively excluded religious adherents who live in the Town but who lack the numbers to establish a physical congregation within the community.  Oftentimes, as in the area surrounding UC Davis, where we both teach law, religious practitioners may have an insufficient number of members to establish a congregation in their own town, and for that reason they worship in a congregation in a neighboring town.  But if each town used only a directory of congregations located within that town as the source of clergy to be invited to lead prayers at Board meetings, many religions would be left out.

Equality Is Not the Only Establishment Clause Value at Stake Here, and Town Councils Differ From State Legislatures

As powerful as the equality concerns in this case are, they should not cause us to overlook the important religious liberty concerns that are also raised in this dispute. Plaintiffs argued that the prayers at Board meetings were coercive, but the Second Circuit opinion, construing these arguments to be focused only on children, quickly rejected these claims in a footnote. Plaintiffs were adults, the court reasoned, and the prayers at the Town Board meeting here were no more coercive than the prayers offered at sessions of the Nebraska state legislature that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld against an Establishment Clause challenge in Marsh v. Chambers in 1983. We think the court was far too quick to dismiss these religious liberty concerns on the authority of the Marsh decision.

There are critical distinctions between city councils and state legislatures that produce very different kinds of audiences who attend the meetings of these different government bodies. Most of what a state legislature does involves the formulation and enactment of general legislation that impacts large groups and constituencies. There may be some narrow bills that address limited issues, but the majority of the state legislature’s work relates to laws of significant breadth and scope. By contrast, the work of a city council, in most of the towns and cities of the United States, regularly deals with decisions affecting small groups and individuals. Land-use decisions impact individual neighbors and neighborhoods. Funding decisions may burden particular small constituencies. Often town councils and boards act as administrative tribunals in a quasi- adjudicatory capacity, hearing personnel grievances or land use appeals. Thus, these local government meetings are much more likely to be focused on particular individuals than are the general laws that state legislatures consider at their sessions.

Moreover, and related to these differences, citizens who watch the deliberations of the state legislature from the gallery are almost always passive observers of the government’s functions. They have no role to play in the legislative process. Citizens who attend city council meetings do so for very different reasons. Usually they are not passive witnesses attending the sessions to be better informed about government operations. They attend council meetings to participate in government by speaking to the Council during public comment periods. They want and expect to be seen and heard by the Council. Their goal is to influence decisionmakers, not to simply observe or monitor them. For that reason, the ability to address the Council in person is an important right of political participation.

Finally, outside of major metropolitan areas, there are stark difference between the size and format of state legislative chambers and sessions, and those of city councils. State legislators rarely know who is sitting in their legislative galleries. The size of the chambers and the number of legislators and visitors preclude any such knowledge or sense of familiarity.  Not so, in the small meeting rooms of a city council, where the physical proximity between the Council and the audience and the limited number of participants make it far easier for Council members to be aware of their audience.

Because of these differences, the decision in Marsh tells us very little about the coercive nature of government-sponsored prayer at city council meetings. In the setting of a city council meeting, citizens who wish to address the council are coerced when they are asked to stand or otherwise affirm the prayer that is being offered in their name. A failure to comply would risk alienating the very political decisionmakers whom they hope to influence.

The Town of Greece provides a good illustration.  Citizens there who feel excluded and burdened by the Board meeting’s prayers have no good alternatives. They can try to arrive at the council session after the pledge and prayer have been completed—but they may stand out in a small council meeting room for doing so. It would be even more awkward to stay and recite the pledge and affirm their loyalty to our country, leave for the prayer, and then return after the prayer is over. Or they can sacrifice their religious liberty by agreeing to have someone appointed by the government pray in their name. Visitors sitting in the gallery at the state legislature experience no such vulnerability or pressure.

Why the School Analogy Doesn’t Undercut Galloway’s Liberty Claims

Some commentators and jurists point to the school setting and argue that it suggests that coercion-based arguments depend upon the malleability of the listener.  They read the school cases for the proposition that state-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional in the context of public schools only because children, on account of their age and maturity, are uniquely susceptible to indoctrination and the pressure to conform.  By contrast, adults attending city council meetings, it is suggested, should be capable of withstanding such compulsions. This argument is unpersuasive. The major problem with religious coercion is not that it may actually change people’s religious beliefs and practices. It is that when religious individuals defy the state’s coercive efforts, they suffer burdens and penalties for doing so. Religious coercion is as unconstitutional when it fails as it is when it succeeds.

Prayer in the public schools is distinctively problematic, but not just because it is directed at children. It is particularly dangerous because teachers and administrators have so much discretionary power over the students in their charge. Both students and their parents know that it is treacherous to alienate school personnel because retaliation is so easy to mete out and hard to prove.

Citizens attending city council meetings for the purpose of influencing the council’s decision confront a similar burden that does not dissipate with age or maturity. The decisions of a city council often involve substantial political discretion in weighing the competing concerns of relatively small constituencies. Citizens who refuse to join in prayers offered by clergy invited by the council risk overtly or subconsciously retaliatory rulings.

A Final, Particular Way in Which the Town of Greece’s Practice Offends Liberty

The Town of Greece’s approach to public prayer at issue in this case involves a particularly egregious affront to religious liberty. There are at least two kinds of prayers that an organization may use to begin a session or meeting.  In one kind of prayer, the speaker prays in his or her own name for G-d’s blessing to be given for the meeting and its participants. There is a religious liberty issue implicated here, in that individuals may feel that they should not be required to be present while a prayer is expressed. The weight of that burden may be somewhat mitigated, however, by the fact that many people do not experience the fact that someone else is offering a prayer for their well-being as a burden on their liberty—even if the person who is doing the praying is of a different faith.

But a far greater affront to religious liberty occurs when the second kind of prayer is undertaken.  In this kind of prayer, the speaker claims to be offering a collective prayer expressing the beliefs of the audience, a collectivity to which audience members are asked to acquiesce by standing or bowing their heads. The decision about when and how to speak to G-d, and the words one chooses in that expression, belong to the individual. It is an extraordinary intrusion into the religious liberty of the individual for the state to usurp those decisions. The state cannot tell people that as a condition to attending and commenting during a city council meeting, they have to delegate to the state the power to appoint someone to pray to G-d in their name.

This basic commitment to personal religious autonomy is the foundation of the American understanding of religious liberty. When colonial proponents of religious liberty argued that religious freedom was an inalienable right, they were speaking literally, not figuratively. It made no sense to suggest that a person could somehow surrender his relationship with and duty to G-d to a government official, or to anyone else for that matter. Throughout the Great Awakening and continuing on to the ratification of the Constitution, advocates of religious liberty insisted on the right of the individual to choose who would minister to his or her spiritual needs and lead him or her in worship. Established religions violated these principles of religious liberty—and thereby prompted the First Amendment—precisely because they employed the coercive power of government to influence the private judgment of the individual in matters of religion.

Coercive collective prayer at city council meetings undermines religious equality by discriminating against minority faiths. And it abridges religious liberty by insinuating the state into the individual’s relationship with G-d and compelling people to engage in prayer that lacks personal authenticity. The Constitution prohibits the state from engaging in such practices.

May 10, 2013

The Breadth of the Ministerial Exception and Ecclesiastical Deference: A State Supreme Court Case Highlights Questions Left Open by Last Year’s U.S. Supreme Court Hosanna-Tabor Ruling

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In my column today, I analyze an interesting case that a state Supreme Court will soon decide that illustrates, and has implications for, important national questions concerning the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.  In particular, the Kentucky case, Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, demonstrates the need for the U.S. Supreme Court to answer many of the key questions it left open in last year's blockbuster ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, where the Court recognized a so-called "ministerial exception" enjoyed by religious institutions in employment discrimination suits.  I begin by providing background on the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor ruling, and then explain how the Kentucky courts thus far have understood and extended that ruling in the Kant dispute.

The Supreme Court's Recognition of a "Ministerial Exception" to Employment Discrimination Law

The plaintiff in the Hosanna-Tabor case, Cheryl Perich, was a commissioned minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who worked as a faculty member at a small church-operated K-8 parochial school in Michigan, where she taught, at various times, among other things, math, language arts, social science, gym, art and music.  She also taught a religion class four days a week; led students in daily devotional exercises and prayers; and led a school-wide chapel service a few times a year.  She later developed narcolepsy and informed her employer about her condition and, ultimately, her intention to assert her legal rights under the disability laws.  She was ultimately fired, and brought a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Hosanna-Tabor, claiming that she had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The EEOC then filed suit against Hosanna-Tabor, alleging that it had unlawfully fired Ms. Perich in retaliation for her assertion of her ADA rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school, holding that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar employment discrimination suits brought on behalf of ministers against their (employer) churches, and that Ms. Perich fit the definition of "minister" for these purposes.  The Court began with a brief history of the Constitution's religion clauses that highlighted the need for government not to interfere with important internal church processes.  It then discussed cases in which the Court had, under the Constitution, deferred to church tribunals that were established within a church's hierarchy to resolve disputes over the proper use of church property or assets when disagreements between various individuals or factions within the church arose.   The resolution of these "quintessentially religious controversies," the Court reminded, is "strictly a matter of ecclesiastical government" that is committed to "the highest ecclesiastical tribunals" and not something for the courts to undertake.  Relying on these principles and on the experience of lower courts in this realm, the Justices unanimously (albeit in three separate opinions) concluded that the First Amendment compels a "ministerial exception" to employment antidiscrimination laws that precludes the application of these laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between religious institutions and their ministers.

The Kant Lawsuit

The Kentucky case now pending was filed by Laurence Kant, who was formerly employed as a tenured faculty member at the Lexington Theological Seminary (LTS).  LTS is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Christian denomination.  The dominant (but perhaps not sole) purpose of LTS, reiterated at the beginning of its Faculty Handbook, "is to prepare faithful leaders for the church of Jesus Christ and, thus, to strengthen the church's participation in God's mission for the world."  All of the Seminary's degree programs are faith-based, and are designed to prepare graduates for Christian ministry.

Mr. Kant is not a Christian minister; he is not even a Christian.  He is of the Jewish faith and during all relevant times he maintained his Jewish religious beliefs.  While at LTS, he taught a range of courses focusing on, among other areas, biblical studies, Jewish studies, Jewish-Christian studies, world religions, biblical languages, and religion and culture.  In 2006, he was awarded tenure.  The LTS Faculty Handbook (mentioned above) described tenure in the following terms:  "Tenure . . . means appointment to serve until retirement, resignation or dismissal for adequate cause. . . [T]he only grounds for dismissal or a tenured faculty member are moral delinquency, unambiguous failure to perform the responsibilities outlined in this Handbook, or conduct detrimental to the Seminary. . . Along with tenure, however, go the responsibilities specified in the Handbook as well as an added expectation of leadership in the faculty."

In 2009, after the nation's financial crisis hit LTS's endowment hard, LTS declared a financial emergency and announced its intention to take dramatic steps, including the elimination of the tenure of its faculty along with other cost-cutting measures, designed to keep the institution solvent.  Pursuant to this plan, LTS terminated Kant's employment in 2009.

Mr. Kant then sued in state court, alleging breach of the contractual promises in the Faculty Handbook that his employment could be terminated only for specified reasons, none of which was present here.  By a 2-1 vote, the Kentucky Court of Appeals (and the case is now pending in the Kentucky Supreme Court, which accepted Mr. Kant's request for review) rejected Kant's lawsuit on two separate but related grounds.  First, the court held that the case "involved an ecclesiastical matter" that foreclosed the exercise of jurisdiction by a civil court.  Second, the court ruled that LTS enjoyed immunity from the breach of contract claims under the ministerial exception doctrine recognized in Hosanna-Tabor.  (Although one of the two members of the majority wrote a separate concurrence some of which could be read as relying only on the ministerial exception, he did observe that the main opinion "becomes the majority with my concurrence" and also commented in his opinion that LTS's restructuring "is an ecclesiastical matter over which no civil court has subject matter jurisdiction."  Thus, the majority opinion is best understood as having relied on both grounds.)

In both respects, the Kentucky court's ruling goes significantly beyond the Supreme Court's ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, and highlights the need for the Supreme Court to provide additional guidance in this area.

The "Ecclesiastical Matters" Rule Barring Judicial Resolution

Let us first consider the Kentucky court's decision that it could not weigh in on Kant's contract claims because to do so would impermissibly draw it into resolving ecclesiastical matters.  The majority opinion says "Kant's claims . . . cannot be decided without interpreting the Faculty Handbook to determine whether it allows for restructuring of LTS under a financial emergency and for eliminating tenured faculty under those circumstances.  Indeed, an inquiry into the rationale for LTS's decision making as to who will teach its students-all of whom attend there with a desire to become pastors or ministers-would be an inquiry into an ecclesiastical matter by this Court."

This seems like a non sequitur to me.  The first sentence is undeniably correct; Kant's breach of contract claims require interpreting the promises-and the limits on those promises-made in the Faculty Handbook; the handbook is the contract on which Mr. Kant relies.  But the second sentence would not seem to follow; deciding whether the Faculty Handbook contract implicitly contains a right of LTS to eliminate tenure in times of financial emergency does not involve religious doctrinal or ecclesiastical matters in any way.  If LTS had fired Kant because it said that he had engaged in religiously immoral behavior within the meaning of the Faculty Handbook, deciding whether certain deeds were morally delinquent (within the context of the church community) might draw courts into ecclesiastical matters.  But deciding whether a contract has an exception for financial emergency does not.

To see this, imagine that Kant had taught physical education, rather than religious studies.  And imagine that the Faculty Handbook promised that tenured members of the faculty would be entitled to use the Seminary's gymnasium after school hours for free.  If the Seminary later tried to begin charging tenured faculty for use of the gym (because of financial exigencies), would anyone argue that a breach of contract claim relying on the Handbook would implicate ecclesiastical matters?

Or imagine a contract that was entered into not with an LTS employee, but rather with an outside provider of services.  Let us suppose LTS hires a roofer to put on a new roof.  The contract states:  "In order to promote the use of the LTS facility as a continuing Seminary, Roofer X shall put on a roof suitable for educational structures for which LTS will pay him $Y."  Now imagine further that the roofer puts on a new roof, and LTS, because it is at that time in some financial difficulty, refuses to pay the roofer (so that it will have money to buy new books for its library instead).  If the roofer then sues on the contract, we could not say that interpreting the contract and inquiring into whether the reason LTS has not paid-the desire to spend the money on other religious-instruction-related programs-is permitted under the contract as an excuse for non-payment draws a court into ecclesiastical matters, even though such a contract claim would involve an inquiry into "the rationale for LTS' decisionmaking" as to how to devote its resources.  Certainly the ecclesiastical-matters barrier to adjudication cannot mean that religious institutions can never be sued for breach of contract, and just because the contract with Kant involves faculty personnel does not mean that interpreting it involves ecclesiastical matters.  To the extent that the Supreme Court's invocation of ecclesiastical deference in Hosanna-Tabor and other cases has been misunderstood, clarification by the high Court will be helpful.

The "Ministerial Exception"

This point leads us nicely into the ministerial exception topic, because it may well be that what troubled the Kentucky Court of Appeals most was not the ecclesiastical nature of the contract, but rather the ministerial nature of the party suing-Kant.  And there are aspects of this case that make it a more attractive candidate for application of the ministerial exception than was Hosanna-Tabor.  In particular, the fact that Kant taught at a wholly sectarian Seminary-as contrasted with the parochial school in Hosanna-Tabor, a place designed not for religious ordination but rather for a general, if religiously-based, education-leans in LTS's favor.

Yet there are a number of other differences between the two cases that cut against the application of the ministerial exception in Kant.

First, Hosanna-Tabor involved an exception to anti-discrimination laws.  The Court there explicitly "express[ed] no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including . . . breach of contract" [claims].  There will be enough time to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise."  The Kant court acknowledged this caveat in Hosanna-Tabor, but nonetheless-and without any analysis or explanation other than the mention of the fact that some lower federal courts had applied the ministerial exception to contract claims-simply extends the exception.  Maybe it makes sense to apply the ministerial exception outside of the context of anti-discrimination laws, but certainly some discussion of why this is so-and how far the exception should reach-is in order.

Second, and very important, the Kant court found that Mr. Kant fell within the ministerial exception because of the religious-instruction function that he performed within LTS-"teaching students who desired to become involved in Christian ministry."   As the court noted, "[b]ecause Kant's primary duties involved teaching religious-themed courses at a seminary," he is covered by the exception.  This seems far too quick.  For starters, as the dissent points out, there is a difference between teaching religion (when one is trying to convince students to accept certain religious beliefs, or at least reinforce those beliefs), and teaching about religion, which is an academic exercise in ideas, not an attempt to inculcate particular spiritual beliefs.  And on the record in this case, Mr. Kant may very well have been doing the latter.

More generally, and perhaps more fundamentally, there is a divergence between the Kant court's approach and that of the Supreme Court majority in Hosanna-Tabor on the question of how we decide whether someone is a minister for these purposes.  In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court eschewed any rigid formula, but it did stress not just the function of a particular employee, but also the status and title that that employee enjoyed and used.  Indeed, in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court identified four reasons why Ms. Perich should be considered a minister: (1) the "formal title" of minister was given to her by the church when she was commissioned; (2) as a prerequisite to that commission, she undertook religious training and education designed to demonstrate her faith and her ability to minister; (3) she used the title herself and held herself out as a minister and a believer; and (4) she undertook certain "functions . . .  performed for the Church."  Three of the four factors (the first three) focus on title and status, rather than function.  Indeed, the Court in Hosanna-Tabor chided the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (the lower court in the case) for failing "to see any relevance in the fact that Perich was a commissioned minister."   As the Court observed, "the fact that an employee has been ordained or commissioned as a minister is surely relevant, as is the fact that significant religious training and a recognized religious mission underlie the description of an employee's position."  And yet the Kant court all but ignored the fact that Mr. Kant is not-and could not be, since he is openly Jewish-considered a minister within the Disciples of Christ church.  He professed no belief in, and was not commissioned under, any Christian faith.  Neither he, nor the church, would consider him a minister for any purpose other than a legal immunity from suit.

It is true that Justice Alito (joined by Justice Kagan) wrote separately in Hosanna-Tabor to make clear their views that function-and not just titles or status-should matter in deciding who is a minister.  But they seemed to be writing particularly about religions that don't use commissions or ordinations or titles of ministers; thus, their opinion needn't be read to say that, for religions that do use such titles, the status of a particular employee should not be an important factor.  Moreover, the fact that Justices Alito and Kagan felt they had to write separately serves to underscore how important status/title was in the analysis of the majority opinion, which six Justices signed onto without elaboration or reservation.  In any event, whether one feels the Kant ruling is an overly expansive application of the ministerial exception or not, the larger point is that before too long, the Supreme Court is going to need to step back in and clarify precisely how broadly, and to whom, the exception applies.

January 18, 2013

Do Special Legislative Protections for Labor Picketing Violate the First Amendment?

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In my column this week, I explore an important First Amendment free speech ruling handed down at the end of December by the California Supreme Court.  The case, Ralphs Grocery Company v. United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 8, is significant because: (1) it involves a dispute over some fundamental but complex First Amendment doctrinal principles; (2) it conflicts with a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and (3) (for reasons 1 and 2), it may very well end up in the United States Supreme Court.

At issue in Ralphs was an attempt by a supermarket owner to enlist the aid of a state court to enjoin (that is, judicially order) a labor union to stop picketing on the privately owned sidewalk in front of the consumer entrance to the store.  Among the various defenses the union raised were two (similar) California statutes that specifically prohibit state courts from enjoining peaceful labor picketing, but not other kinds of picketing activity.  (For simplicity’s sake, I will focus on just one of the two statutes, the so-called Moscone Act.)  The grocery store’s reply was that the Moscone Act, because it singles out labor picketing in particular for special protection, discriminates among speech activities on the basis of the “content” or subject-matter of the speech, and therefore is invalid under the First Amendment. Therefore, the Act cannot bar what would otherwise be a well-founded request for injunctive relief. The California Court of Appeal agreed with this argument and found the Moscone Act’s special protection for labor picketing invalid and thus inapplicable.

The Reasoning of the California Supreme Court

But last month, the California Supreme Court reversed, and, by a 6-1 vote, upheld the Moscone Act, and thus the ability of the union to picket outside the Ralphs store.  The California Justices in the majority reasoned that the two U.S. Supreme Court cases striking down content-based laws that had protected labor picketing – the two cases on which Ralphs relied – were “distinguishable,” that is, not controlling as to the outcome of the case at hand.  In Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down altogether an ordinance that prohibited picketing near schools while the schools were in session, but that exempted from its prohibition peaceful picketing regarding school labor disputes.  Then, eight years later, in Carey v. Brown, the Court invalidated an Illinois statute that made it illegal to engage in picketing in residential neighborhoods, but that (like the law in Mosley) contained an exception for labor picketing.  In each of these two cases, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the problem with the law was that it singled out one kind of picketing based on its content – labor picketing – and that such content-based discrimination violated the Constitution.

The California Supreme Court, in ruling for the union in the Ralphs case, argued that the situations presented in Mosley and Carey were different from those raised by the Ralphs dispute, in a few important ways.

First, the laws in Mosley and Carey were laws that prohibited speech activity (picketing) with an exception, whereas the Moscone Act doesn’t prohibit any speech activity—it merely prohibits judges from interfering with speech activity.

Second, and relatedly, invalidating the laws at issue in Mosley and Carey had the effect of generating more, rather than less, expressive activity, because invalidating the general prohibitions in picketing in those cases meant that everyone—not just labor unions—could picket. By contrast, if the Moscone Act were to be invalidated, the result would be that no one — neither labor unions nor anyone else—would be free from judicial injunctions that limited their picketing.  So striking down the Moscone Act, unlike striking down the laws in Mosley and Carey, would produce no additional speech.

Third, the California Supreme Court said, the picketing at issue in Mosley and Carey was taking place on public property, whereas the picketing at issue in Ralphs was occurring on private property. As the California Supreme Court reasoned: “Because here the walkway in front of the [Ralphs] store is not a First Amendment public forum, the holdings in Mosley and Carey do not apply.”

A Critique of the California Supreme Court’s Analysis

Each of these “distinctions” of the precedents set by Mosley and Carey is open to serious question.

The first two related notions invoked by the California Supreme Court—that the laws in Mosley and Carey were prohibitions on picketing with labor exceptions, rather than affirmative protections of labor picketing, and that, as a result, striking down those laws would lead to more, rather than less, picketing activity—are really a function not of First Amendment analysis (as the California Supreme Court wrongly suggests) but, instead, of how the laws in question were drafted.

Suppose, for example, that the Moscone Act were codified in California’s trespass law provisions:  “Courts can enjoin all trespass activities including expressive trespass activities, but may not enjoin labor picketing even when it involves trespass.”  That law, like the ones at issue in Mosley and Carey, would take the form of a “general prohibition” (of trespass), with a specific exemption.  And striking down that law would lead to more expressive (trespass) activities, but I doubt that the California Supreme Court would (or should) strike it down.

We can see the same basic point if we look at what lawyers call “severability” analysis.  (Severability analysis focuses on what a court does when it finds some aspect of a law unconstitutional—does it throw out the whole law, or just the part that is constitutionally problematic?)  In Mosley and Carey, the Court threw out the entirety of both laws (and thus freed up everyone to engage in picketing), but it did so only because each plaintiff challenged the law on its face (as opposed to challenging specific applications), and because the legislature did not make clear up front that if the labor exception were unconstitutional, then its preference would be to bar all picketing, even labor picketing.  Suppose the Illinois legislature had specifically stated the following in its statute:  “If the labor exception is problematic under the First Amendment, courts should simply ignore that exception and enforce the ban on all residential picketing.”  The U.S. Supreme Court still would have invalidated the labor exception, and the result would have been to allow less, not more, picketing activity than had existed before the statute was passed.

Indeed, that is exactly what happened in another case decided after Carey v. Brown. In Frisby v. Shultz, (1988), the town of Brookfield, Wisconsin wanted to ban residential picketing except for labor picketing.  But they realized that the exception for labor picketing would be problematic under Carey, so they revised their ordinance to ban all residential picketing, including labor picketing.  Their willingness to restrict more, rather than less, speech in order to remain content-neutral surely would not be a reason to permit the Town to stick with its first law, which had an exception for labor picketing; even though we know that Brookfield is willing to ban all picketing if need be, we would not let it exempt labor picketing from its ban any more easily than could the State of Illinois in the Carey case.

Importantly, none of what I have said thus far denies that judicial skepticism of content-based laws may very well—in the big picture—lead legislatures to pass fewer speech-restrictive laws, because legislatures can no longer provide content-based exemptions to politically powerful groups who would, absent the exemptions, block the laws from being enacted.  Without the device of content-based exemptions, legislatures will (as occurred in Mosley and Carey) often decide not to restrict anyone’s speech.  But that doesn’t mean that courts should be skeptical of content-based laws only when they suspect that such a political dynamic is afoot.  (Indeed, as noted above, in Frisby, the legislature decided that if it couldn’t exempt labor picketing from its ban on residential picketing, it would then simply ban all residential picketing without exception.)  Judicial doctrine is built around bright-line rules that courts must apply generally, because they make sense in the main.  And so courts can and should generally be dubious about nearly all content-based regulations of speech.

Perhaps an example will help drive these points home.  Suppose California passed a law that said:  “California courts, notwithstanding any other powers they enjoy, may not enjoin abortion-related picketing.”  That law, like the Moscone Act, would not take the form of a general prohibition on picketing, but rather only of a specific protection of some picketing.  And striking down that law would result in less, not more, picketing activity.  And yet could anyone doubt that that law would be considered a problematic content-based favoritism of abortion-protest speech?  Clearly, such a law would be struck down, even (I expect) by the California Supreme Court.

This hypothetical also undermines the California Supreme Court’s suggestion that Mosley and Carey were distinguishable because the picketing in those cases took place on public property.  In my hypothetical, the abortion picketing being specially protected is occurring on private property, and yet the skepticism of content-based favoritism would still doom the law.  More generally, it is not clear why the doctrine regarding content-based laws should be more lenient when the laws regulate speech on private property, and the California Supreme Court offers no explanation of why the public-fora settings in Mosley and Carey should be understood as crucial to the results in those cases.

A Better Defense of the Result in the Ralphs Case

Notwithstanding the difficulties with parts of its analysis, the California Supreme Court did, I think, reach the right result in Ralphs.  Why is the Moscone Act permissible under the First Amendment notwithstanding that it singles out labor picketing in particular?  My answer is that the regulation of labor activity in laws like the Moscone Act is not best understood as regulation of speech at all, but rather as part of a comprehensive legislative scheme regulating the economic system of labor-employment relations.  In other words, protections for labor picketing are just one small part of a complicated system of regulating the economic relationship between unions and employers—a system that is best characterized as a regulation of economic activity that has incidental effects on certain speech activities.  The text of the Moscone Act itself conveys this character, making clear that the limit on judicial injunctions is imposed “in order to promote the rights of workers to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining. . . .”

The First Amendment often allows incidental regulation of speech as part of a larger regulation of what is properly deemed economic activity.  The regulation of persons who work in the professions (a subject of a recent column Alan Brownstein and I wrote) is one example.  A government law telling lawyers (if they want to remain licensed) that they can’t recommend that their clients violate the law can, from one angle, be seen as regulating their speech on the basis of its content (indeed, viewpoint).  Yet it is not a speech regulation that troubles us.  Another example of incidental effects on speech as part of a larger regulation of economic activity is the Rumsfeld v. FAIR ruling allowing the federal government to require law schools to provide access for military employers (also the subject of a column I co-wrote with Alan Brownstein).  While, in general, people are free not to be forced to allow the government to speak on their property, when the government speech at issue is part of an effort to hire employees, and where the property at issue is a space dedicated to interviewing employers, the First Amendment concerns are lessened.  And there are many other examples of regulations of commercial activity having permissible, incidental effects on expression (including cases permitting the government to require companies to pay into funds that will be used for generic advertising of the industry’s products.)

The crux of the matter is that the Moscone Act (like its counterparts in federal law) does treat labor picketing and other organizing activity specially, but only as a part of a larger system of regulation in which labor unions and employers are both heavily regulated, with an eye to producing a fair system of economic allocation; it is not a governmental effort to interfere with the “marketplace of ideas” by favoring some subjects or viewpoints and disfavoring others (the traditional reason why content- and viewpoint-based laws are problematic) so much as a regulation of the marketplace of labor.  Importantly, neither the law at issue in Mosley nor the law at issue in Carey was part of a comprehensive system of labor-relations regulation, and thus neither law could partake of this defense.  Instead, these laws were best seen as a kind of favoritism for labor unions, or as a necessary appeasement to labor unions to get the laws enacted in the first place.  Both such scenarios, however, are problematic under First Amendment principles.

To be fair, I should say that the California Supreme Court did mention (without fully developing) this larger labor-relations-regulation framework and the federal labor law counterpart.  And one Justice (Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Werdegar) wrote a nuanced concurrence in which he made an argument very similar to the one I make in the preceding three paragraphs.  But even Justices Liu and Werdegar joined onto the majority opinion, the primary thrust of which was to distinguish Mosley and Carey in the unpersuasive and formalistic ways that I discussed above.

In any event, the California Supreme Court did acknowledge that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a case decided nine years ago, Waremart Foods v. N.L.R.B. (2004), seemed to come out the other way, and to call into question the Moscone Act because it was impermissibly content-based.  Such a split between what is clearly the most important State Supreme Court and what is (arguably) the most important federal court of appeals may very well be of interest to the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming months and years.

November 9, 2012

The Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause in the Context of the Texas High School Cheerleader Religious Banner Dispute

Co-authored with Professor Alan Brownstein and cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In the space below, we explore some very interesting and complex First Amendment issues that are implicated in a recent lawsuit in Texas. The suit was brought by a group of public high school (Kuntze High School) cheerleaders against the school district that told them to stop displaying religious-themed banners bearing bible verses and proclaiming things like “If G-d is for us, Who Can Be Against Us?” at football games.  The district barred the religious banners, through which the football players had run as they came onto the field, after complaints by The Freedom From Religion Foundation that the practice of displaying such banners at football games of a public high school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The cheerleaders who filed suit seeking to continue the practice claim not only that the Establishment Clause does not forbid what they are doing, but also that that they have a First Amendment right themselves, under the Free Speech Clause, to continue to display the banners.  The case is set for trial next year, but in the meantime, a Texas state court judge last month granted preliminary relief in favor of the cheerleaders, directing the school district to permit the cheerleaders to display the banners, because of his view that the cheerleaders will likely prevail on their claims when the case is fully resolved.  As we explain below, we think—in light of the facts that are alleged by the cheerleaders in their Complaint—that under existing Supreme Court case law, both the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment cut against the cheerleaders in this case.  (We should make clear that although some of the current Justices might disagree with the case law currently on the books, we analyze the cheerleaders’ dispute under current doctrine that is binding on lower courts and litigants.)

The Establishment Clause Analysis

Our starting point is that if the school officials themselves had decided—or had directed the cheerleaders—to use banners that included religious messages, this would violate the Establishment Clause.  It seems pretty clear under current case law that such state action would be unconstitutional.

But the cheerleaders (supported by positions adopted by Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Attorney General) argue that this situation is different, because the banners constitute private speech on behalf of the cheerleaders that is not attributed to the school.  Under the selection procedures used by Kuntze High School, cheerleaders are not selected by school officials, but rather are chosen, after tryouts, by a panel of (Lamar) University cheerleaders.

According to the allegations in the Complaint, Kuntze cheerleaders decide what goes on the banners; there is no control exercised by school employees over the content of the displays.  Moreover, the banners are paid for by cheerleaders, using money that comes from private sources, rather than public school funding.  And the school district regulations identify activities such as banner displays at football games as a limited public forum, suggesting that the school is permitting individual students to speak, but not associating itself with the messages students express.

Even in light of these facts, we think the cheerleaders’ display of bible-verse-bearing banners raises serious Establishment Clause problems.  A high school football games is a quintessential traditional school-sponsored activity, and providing banners for the players to run through is a part of that school-sponsored activity.  For that reason, to any objective outside observer, the cheerleaders and the banners they display bear the imprimatur of the school.  In a case (Hazelwood) permitting public high school officials to censor high school newspaper articles—even though the articles bore the bylines of individual student authors—the Supreme Court reasoned that school-sponsored activities implicate government promotion of speech, rather than just the toleration of speech.  As a result, even if the school disclaims any approval of a student’s message, the overall public imprimatur remains.

Putting a disclaimer on the school newspaper doesn’t change its status as a school-sponsored activity any more than a one-paragraph disclaimer can transform high school football games from school-sponsored activities into private events.  Although the high school newspaper could be considered to be part of the school’s curriculum, which creates an even greater imprimatur of school support– and football games are less easily characterized as part of the school curriculum—we think the analogy has some force.

What about the fact that the school does not pay for the banners?  We think that under existing case law, the private nature of the funding of religious displays does not necessarily control the Establishment Clause analysis. The key point is that the religious message is displayed on public property during a school-sponsored event, a football game.  Cases involving the prominent display on public property of privately created nativity scenes (such as the Allegheny County case) demonstrate that private religious displays, standing alone on public property, can violate the Establishment Clause.  Given the sensitivity in the case law to religious coercion and endorsement in the context of public schools, the possibility of an Establishment Clause violation might be even stronger here than it was in cases like Allegheny County—which involved a crèche in the foyer of a public building used for conventional governmental purposes.

Another key factor to be considered under the Supreme Court’s cases is the extent to which other students might be made to feel unwelcome because religious banners are displayed as part of the organized, pre-game activities.  Santa Fe Ind. Sch. Dist. v. Doe (a case forbidding a high school from permitting a student-elected Chaplain to lead a prayer at a high school football game) makes clear that football games are school-sponsored activities that are important to many students, and that it is not permissible to force students to have to choose between attending games or being exposed to unwelcome religious displays or messages.

When we widen the constitutional focus to locate Establishment Clause disputes in a larger perspective, we readily see that a government’s decision to delegate authority to private individuals as to what messages will be permitted at publicly sponsored events cannot reasonably be understood to avoid constitutional constraints. This would be obvious if we were talking about delegating authority that did not focus on expression. Suppose, for instance, that a school delegated authority to a student committee to decide where graduates sit on graduation day, and the committee decided that all the black graduates should sit in the back of the auditorium.  No one could deny that this would violate the Equal Protection Clause, even though the individual students on the committee, not school officials, made the discriminatory decision.

And the same reasoning often applies to decisions about who gets to speak and what they can say.  Kuntze High School is alleged to have delegated its authority to decide what messages are communicated on the banners the players will run through to enter the field at school football games to the high school cheerleaders. And it also seems that the very decision about which students get to be cheerleaders in the first place is delegated to cheerleaders from Lamar University.  But the school can’t escape constitutional responsibility for its decisions by giving authority over school-sponsored expressive activity to a private group of students or anyone else.

This almost has to be true if we care about safeguarding Establishment Clause values. If a school can delegate authority to student groups with regard to these kinds of activities and avoid constitutional review, then the cheerleaders could decide to lead the students at football games in prayers, rather than school cheers (and the Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Fe v. Doe clearly forbids that). Or the school could delegate to a student group the authority to decide upon whatever banners the group’s members want to hang on the interior walls of the school building.

If the student group decided to hang 30’ by 10’ banners proclaiming sectarian messages on the walls of the school building, would we say there would be no Establishment Clause violation here either, simply because the school had delegated its authority to students, rather than exercised its power directly? The Court rejected this kind of an argument in Santa Fe v. Doe when it held that a public high school could not avoid Establishment Clause requirements by ceding the power to decide whether or not to have a prayer at school football games to the student body.

Free Speech Analysis

But what about the free speech rights of the cheerleaders?  Plaintiffs argue that because the speech on the banners is not attributable to the school, it is private speech protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. They thus suggest that they have a constitutional right to control the content of these banners free from government interference. They argue that the school has the authority to permit them to display their banners at the football game for the football players to run through, and that once the school does so, the Constitution protects them against regulations that would restrict the content of what they say.

The key problem with this argument is that even if we assume for purposes of argument that plaintiffs are correct that they are engaged in private speech (not attributable to the school), the school has not opened up its property (the football field) for expression by any other students. No one else besides the cheerleaders gets to place their banners in front of the football players entering the field; only the high school cheerleaders get access to this location for whatever expressive message they choose to communicate or facilitate.  This kind of selective control of, and access to, public property for private expressive purposes is constitutionally problematic.

Let us be clear:  This is not a situation in which the school here is passively opening up a public location and event to allow various private speakers to express their various messages.  Instead, the school (under plaintiffs’ argument) is authorizing a single private group, the cheerleaders, to decide (presumably by majority vote, although that is not clear) what messages get expressed on specific public property, without any guidance to limit the discretion they exercise in making such decisions.  No one gets access to have their message expressed on banners that the team will run through without the cheerleaders’ permission. The cheerleaders have complete discretionary control over the messages that may be communicated on banners leading the team in each and every football game.  The cheerleaders can express sectarian messages of only one faith while rejecting suggestions of messages of other faiths. They can embrace the virtues of one race and denigrate the worth of others.  They can express political messages for particular parties or candidates while rejecting messages from competing candidates or parties. They can adopt suggestions from their parents, friends, or pastors while ignoring messages proposed by people whose views they find objectionable.

This kind of unbridled latitude given to a select group of private citizens but denied to others to use public property resources for expressive purposes is inconsistent with free speech values and, indeed, quite possibly itself would violate the Free Speech Clause.  In other words, far from creating a free speech First Amendment right on the part of the cheerleaders, the school’s actions (under the cheerleaders’ characterization of them) here might themselves create a violation of the Free Speech Clause.

The Supreme Court has made it clear in Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co. that giving unbridled discretion to government officials to decide who gets to speak in a public forum (limited or otherwise) is unconstitutional, because doing so raises “the specter of content and viewpoint discrimination.” That danger isn’t meaningfully avoided when government confers unbridled discretion to decide what messages are permitted to be expressed on public property upon a private group, rather than upon a government official.

Indeed, to return to the Establishment Clause, this is precisely the kind of unbridled discretion given to select private individuals that the Court rejected in Santa Fe v. Doe.  Giving the majority of the cheerleader squad the authority to determine whether scripture is displayed on banners, or prayers are offered before games, isn’t substantively different from allowing the majority of students to vote on whether a prayer will be offered at football games, the policy struck down in Santa Fe.  Reducing the number of students who get to make the decision doesn’t eliminate (and indeed may increase) the danger that minority viewpoints can (indeed, are likely to) be ignored by the students who are given the authority to determine what messages will be communicated.

Nor should it make any difference whether the group making the decision is selected on the basis of cheerleader athletic skills, or some other characteristic such as school spirit or how loud the students can yell. What is problematic about giving one group of private individuals the discretionary authority to decide what messages will be expressed on public property is that they may exercise that authority in content- and viewpoint-discriminatory ways.

Assessing The Two Clauses of the First Amendment Together

Of course, the school might avoid the restrictions imposed by the Free Speech Clause that we just described by accepting responsibility for the cheerleaders’ banners. Even though government cannot give unbridled discretion to a group of private individuals to control speech on public property, government can engage in its own speech, and in so doing necessarily engages in content or viewpoint discrimination when it expresses or sponsors its own message. The Free Speech Clause does not limit the state’s discretion to express its own messages on public property.

But if the school accepts responsibility for the religious messages on the banners, then it endorses religion in violation of the Establishment Clause principles that we described earlier.  And if (as the cheerleaders argue) the school has no constitutional responsibility for the messages on the banners (a proposition which we find less than convincing) then, in any event, the school would be seen as providing one group of private students discretionary control over access to public property for only those messages that the group favors. Giving that kind of discretionary, long-term control over access to public property to any private group undermines our constitutional commitments to open access to public property for minorities, religious or otherwise.

So under either characterization, it seems the only way for the school to obey the Constitution is to prohibit the religious display, which is why we think the cheerleaders could very likely lose their lawsuit if and when it winds its way up the appellate ladder.

September 28, 2012

Assessing California’s New Law (And Others Somewhat Like It) That Tries to Regulate Funeral Demonstrations Without Violating the First Amendment

Co-authored by Professor Alan E. Brownstein and cross-posted from

California Governor Jerry Brown last week signed into law a measure that regulates demonstrations near funerals in order to protect the peace and privacy of grieving families and other mourners.  In the space below, we analyze this law and seemingly similar measures that have been adopted at the federal level and in other states to determine when protecting mourners is, or is not, compatible with the First Amendment.

The Background of the Funeral Demonstration Law:  The Westboro Baptist Church and the Snyder Ruling

Funerals may seem to be unlikely venues for demonstrations, but funeral protests have been in the news frequently in recent years, thanks largely to the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based family group that has shown up to picket near the sites of hundreds of funerals, often military funerals, in order to decry, among other things, the extent to which America is tolerant of homosexuality.  The activities of the Westboro church led directly to the Supreme Court’s 2011 Snyder v. Phelps ruling, the Court’s most elaborate discussion of the interplay between the rights of demonstrators and the interests of mourners at funerals.

In Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq obtained a multi-million dollar intentional infliction of emotional distress jury verdict based on picketing—in three public locations not far from his son’s funeral—by Westboro members. The picketers held up signs expressing messages such as “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “God Hates Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.”

The Supreme Court, by an 8-1 vote (with Justice Alito dissenting), overturned the jury award, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts that provided free speech protection to the picketers in a “narrow” holding “limited by the particular facts before us.” These controlling facts included the following:

The church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence. . . . That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church. . . . The . . . picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing. . . . The funeral procession passed within 200 to 300 feet of the picket site. Although Snyder [, the father bringing suit,] testified that he could see the tops of the picket signs as he drove to the funeral, he did not see what was written on the signs until later that night, while watching a news broadcast covering the event.

Under these very particular circumstances, the Court upheld the rights of the demonstrators, observing that “[w]hether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. . . . The ‘content’ of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of ‘purely private concern.’ …  While [the] messages [on the placards] may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—are matters of public import.”

As we have argued in an article in the Cardozo Law Review En Banc (some of which we build on here), we believe that the Court was wrong to focus so much on the question of whether the content of the demonstrators’ speech constituted a matter of public or private concern.  For us, other factors should have done the lion’s share of the analytic work in this case.  The location of the expression was about 1000 feet from the funeral service.  The demonstrators’ message was neither seen by, nor visible to, the mourners when they entered or left the church where the service was held.  The protestors complied with police directions as to where they could stand and hold their signs.  The protest was directed to the public at large.  This was public discourse, not speech exclusively, or even primarily, directed at a target audience.

Since these conditions were satisfied, it is not clear to us that the question of whether the picketers’ speech related to a matter of public or private concern should be relevant in this kind of a case.  To see this point, consider a situation in which a speaker strongly dislikes one of his colleagues at work.  The speaker stands on a soapbox in a public park, and states that his colleague is a horrible person who should be sent to hell when he dies.  This is mean-spirited private speech, but as long as it isn’t defamatory, we would think that it is constitutionally protected—at least if it is addressed to a public audience and expressed in a location some distance away from the place where the maligned colleague lives and works.

Conversely, consider a situation in which members of the Westboro church placed telephone calls to the home of the parents of a soldier killed in the line of duty immediately before and after the funeral service for their son or daughter.  Assume that, in their phone calls, church members expressed precisely the same messages that were on the signs in the Snyder v. Phelps case—messages that the Supreme Court has characterized as addressing a matter of public concern.  We think there is a strong argument that such calls could be sanctioned as telephone harassment.

In a similar vein, the anti-abortion messages communicated by residential picketers in the 1988 case of Frisby v. Schultz also addressed a matter of public concern.  Yet the picketers’ expressive activity there could be restricted, the Court held, because it “inherently and offensively intrude[d] on residential privacy” and had a “devastating effect . . . on the quiet enjoyment of the home.”

Thus, in specific cases, the facts as to when, where, and how speech is communicated may be more important to determining whether the speech can be restricted or subject to penalty than is the determination that the speech is a matter of public or private concern.  But by emphasizing that the military/public policy content of the speech is what compels its protection in Snyder, the Court has gotten us onto the wrong analytic track, in a way that might confuse legislatures and lower courts.

To its credit, the Snyder Court did observe that the demonstrators’ “choice of where and when to conduct . . . picketing is not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach—it is ‘subject to reasonable time, place or manner restrictions’ that are consistent with the standards announced in this Court’s precedents.”  Somewhat confusingly, though, the Court went on to say that it had “no occasion to consider how [such a law] might apply to facts such as those before us . . .,” suggesting that perhaps content-neutral time, place, and manner laws could prohibit the very conduct at issue in Snyder, something we don’t think would be permitted under the Court’s time, place, and manner jurisprudence.  But at least the Court did seem to invite legislatures to adopt reasonable regulations that might pass muster.

The California Law That Takes Up the Court’s Invitation to Regulate in This Area

California acted on the Snyder Court’s invitation last week.  This action followed closely on the heels of a federal law, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, signed by President Obama in August.  Since (and even well before) Snyder, a number of states have adopted similar legislation.

How will these types of laws fare in court? To answer that, let us begin by describing in more detail what the California law does.  The new law makes it a California crime to engage in “picketing” on public property within 300 feet of a burial site, mortuary, or place of worship when the picketing is “targeted at” a funeral during a period of time beginning one hour prior to the funeral and ending one hour after the conclusion of the funeral.

What would, or should, the Supreme Court think of this particular law?  We note that a few such statutes have been evaluated by federal courts of appeals even before Snyder, with some mixed results.  For example, in Phelps-Roper v. Strickland, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld an Ohio statute regulating demonstration activities that take place near funerals shortly before, during or shortly after the funeral activities, reasoning that the statute was content-neutral, served significant interests in protecting funeral attendees, was narrowly tailored, and left open adequate alternative avenues of speech.  Just a few months later, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in Phelps-Roper v. Nixon, came out the other way, reversing a district court’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction banning enforcement of a similar statute in Missouri. The Eighth Circuit explicitly disagreed with the Sixth Circuit about both the weight of the government’s interest, and the extent to which that interest would outweigh free speech claims.

Two Key Questions: How Much Space Can Government Insulate From Demonstrations, and for How Long?

One contentious issue regarding the constitutionality of these kinds of laws relates to the size of the zone around a funeral home, house of worship, or cemetery from which demonstrators and pickets may be excluded.  While some laws create buffer zones of as little as 100 feet, many statutes provide for much larger zones, some even extending up to 1000 feet.  (California’s law uses a distance of 300 feet, and the federal law uses distances of 300 and 500 feet.) The law restricting residential picketing that was upheld in Frisby applied only to persons standing directly in front of their target’s home, and would not have barred holding up signs even 50 feet away.  While cases involving medical clinic demonstrations might provide useful analogies, it is hard to draw comparisons with medical clinic buffer zones because very few states have adopted statutes creating such zones.  Certainly, no court has upheld a buffer zone around a clinic that is as large as some of the funeral buffer zones that many states have enacted into law.

Substantial arguments can be offered to justify the imposition of larger “No picketing or demonstrating” zones around ongoing funeral services than those that have been upheld around residences or medical clinics. The most obvious distinction between limits on demonstrations during funerals, on one hand and restrictions on residential picketing or demonstrations at medical clinics, on the other, is the duration of the speech regulation. Residential picketing and demonstrating at medical clinics providing abortion services are directed at a specific location. Accordingly, laws limiting such demonstrations apply during the entire day or, in the context of clinics, at all times and days that the clinics are open and receiving patients.

In contrast, demonstrations at funerals are directed at events, not locations. Their focus is on particular funerals of particular—or at least particular kinds of—people, not the generic activity of funeral services and burials.  For this reason, the state’s interest in limiting such demonstrations is greatest during the funeral service itself, when the mourners are particularly vulnerable and captive to their overwhelming human need to memorialize and grieve for their dead.  Accordingly, laws regulating funeral demonstrations restrict speech at specific locations for only very limited periods of time.  (The California law protects the funeral and one additional hour on each end; the federal law protects the funeral and two additional hours on each end.) Demonstrators are at legal liberty to engage in their morally offensive expressive activity near a church, cemetery, or funeral home after the funeral service and its aftermath have concluded. Because of the relatively short duration of these speech restrictions, these laws burden considerably less speech than do the much longer-lasting speech regulations that were under review in the residential picketing and medical clinic demonstration cases.

Indeed, it may be the case that there is something of an inverse regulatory ratio here. To some extent, time may vary inversely with distance with regard to the constitutionality of “demonstration and picketing free” buffer zones.  Because a speech regulation of very limited duration provides ample alternative opportunity for expression in a particular location at other times, courts may provide the state with greater discretion in setting the physical parameters of short-term protected areas than they would if much longer-lasting restrictions on speech were at issue.

But is it really fair, in terms of vulnerability, to analogize funeral mourners to women seeking abortions or hospital patients receiving treatment? We think so. Indeed, we see a greater consensus, in the law and in society, about the vulnerability of mourners attending funerals than exists for almost any other group or circumstance. In particular, we see this most clearly in one special category of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (the very tort that was at issue in Snyder v. Phelps) involving instances in which the defendant has knowledge that “the plaintiff is especially sensitive, susceptible and vulnerable to injury through mental distress.” In this circumstance, conduct that would not otherwise be actionable may be the basis of civil liability and damages.

There are many examples of cases where courts have protected individuals with personal characteristics that rendered them uniquely vulnerable to emotional harm, or who were in situations that left them particularly exposed to such injuries.  Intentional infliction of emotional distress claims have gone forward in cases involving conduct directed at children, at a person recently released from the hospital, at a patient about to be X-rayed for a medical condition, at a former lover suffering from serious emotional and physical problems, at an employee suffering from severe depression, and at an immediate victim of domestic violence.  This list, moreover, is illustrative.  It is in no way intended to be exclusive, and we think funeralgoers could be comfortably added to it.  Indeed, the intentional infliction of emotional distress case law often recognizes the extreme and distinct vulnerability of people who are grieving in general.

Does the Particular Wording of the California Law at Issue Create Problems?

There is one additional feature of the California law that is worth discussing:  The law defines “picketing” (which is the activity being prohibited) as “protest activities.”  If “protest activities” means protesting government policies (as in the case of the Westboro folks), then the California bill loses its content-neutrality and indeed becomes a viewpoint-based law that discriminates against political dissenters, the kind of law that is most violative of the First Amendment.  As the majority opinion written by Justice Brennan in Texas v. Johnson in 1989, upholding the First Amendment claim of Gregory Johnson, who had been prosecuted for burning a flag observed: “Johnson was not, we add, prosecuted for the expression of just any idea; he was prosecuted for his expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of this country, expression situated at the core of our First Amendment values.”

To the extent that “protest activities” is a code phrase that signals an effort and authority of the government to use the law to silence its critics, it violates the very essence of the First Amendment.  Notice that some of the other recently enacted funeral protection laws do not use the word “protest” and, in fact, do not use the word “picket,” but instead ban all “disturb[ance]” of or “interference” with funerals.  California’s use of the word “protest” could thus raise red flags.

But what if “protest” is understood not to mean disagreement with government policies, but rather disagreement with the sentiments of the funeralgoers?  After all, to be covered under the California law, one’s protest activities must be “targeted at a funeral,” which the statute says means that the activities must be “directed at or toward the deceased person or the attendees of the funeral.”  If “protest” connotes a dispute not with government but with the funeral attendees, is that problematic?

We think not.  Interestingly, we might concede that the law is viewpoint-based in the sense that folks who hold up signs lauding the deceased will not be considered to be picketing, while folks holding up signs criticizing him will, but we think that kind of viewpoint skew, which empowers not the government but the would-be listener, is not so troubling under the First Amendment, at least in cases involving targeted, as distinguished from publicly directed, speech.  (When the speech is not targeted at a particular person but rather is offered to the public more generally, then giving any would-be listener the power to suppress the speech because she disagrees with its message would be problematic; in those circumstances, the speech can be suppressed only if the harm it causes can be discerned without regard to the content of the message.)

But where targeted speech is involved, any generic law prohibiting things like disturbance, interference, or harassment will inevitably involve some consideration of the content and viewpoint of the message.  In all such situations, the listener is empowered to decide whether the speaker is—on account of the speaker’s message and actions—engaged in disturbing or harassing conduct:  If a listener agrees with, and wants to hear, a particular message, then that message cannot be considered a disturbance; if not, it could be held to violate a legal prohibition.  For example, a series of wake-up call requested by a hotel patron for every 5 minutes between 3:00 and 3:30 AM would not be telephone harassment since it was requested by the listener, even though an uninvited series of phone calls during that same timeframe could be subject to sanction.  Such a distinction empowers listeners to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, to be sure, but empowering listeners to discriminate against speech targeting them personally is very different than empowering government to do so.