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May 8, 2015

The (Limited) Utility of State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs): Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

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

As we noted in a column for this site two weeks ago, state religious freedom restoration acts, or RFRAs, such as the recently amended Indiana religious liberty statute, have been criticized on the ground that they are intended to permit discrimination against gays, lesbians, and same-sex couples in the provision of goods and services. Given the intensity of this national controversy, we think it would be useful to take a step back-indeed, to take several steps back-and look at the historical background and evolution of the RFRA device. In this column, we focus not on any particular state statute but rather on three general topics: (1) the purpose of the earliest state RFRA laws and how that purpose relates to the goals of the more recently enacted and proposed legislation; (2) the virtues (and drawbacks) of enacting a general religious liberty statute as opposed to adopting religion specific accommodations on a case-by-case basis; and (3) the best way, in light of the current controversy about the conflict between state RFRA laws and anti-discrimination principles, to move forward when state legislatures consider these laws.

The Purpose of Early State RFRAs and What It Tells Us About the Recent Legislative Efforts

As we discussed in Part One, the Supreme Court, in 1990, decided the case of Employment Division v. Smith, a dispute involving the right of Native Americans to use the proscribed substance of peyote in their religious rituals. The Court ruled that neutral laws of general applicability are not subject to any rigorous scrutiny even when these laws have the effect of burdening religious practices. Unless the state targets religion-think of a law prohibiting Catholics from attending Mass-the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment simply does not require the state to explain or justify a law that has the effect of prohibiting religiously mandated practices or requiring the performance of religiously prohibited conduct.

The Smith decision came as a surprise to many, perhaps most, constitutional scholars. Based on prior cases, the parties to Smith had assumed that the Free Exercise Clause required, even in the context of neutral laws of general applicability, the government had to justify burdens on religious practice by showing that laws creating such burdens were narrowly tailored to accomplish compelling governmental interests. It is true that the Supreme Court, in applying this "strict scrutiny" narrow tailoring/compelling interest test had very rarely actually ruled in favor of a plaintiff asserting a free exercise claim against a general law. But it had often reached its conclusion by nuanced application of strict scrutiny, rather than rejection of the need for meaningful governmental justification altogether. Prior to Smith, lower courts could not summarily dismiss free exercise claims. After Smith, the door to the federal courts was, in effect, locked tight against free exercise claimants.

The Smith decision drew fire both from legal scholars and advocacy groups. In 1993, Congress enacted the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), essentially to reinstate, as a matter of federal statute, the strict scrutiny religious liberty rights regime that individuals and institutions had previously understood to emanate from the Constitution itself. But in 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court held that Congress exceed its enumerated powers in enacting RFRA insofar as RFRA applied to and regulated state and local governments. After Boerne, RFRA could be constitutionally applied only to burdens on religion created by the federal government.

This was the legal and political background against which several states considered the enactment of the first wave of state RFRA laws. It is important to recognize three conditions that characterize the consideration of state RFRA laws during this initial period in the late 1990s. First, support for or opposition to these laws did not correlate tightly to party affiliation. There was no doubt concern by some liberals about the application of state RFRAs to civil rights laws, but this concern was only part of the debate and did not cause legislators to be divided along party lines in their ultimate views on state RFRAs. In California, for example, in 1998, a state RFRA law passed both houses of the Democratic legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

Second, general concerns about the correctness of the Smith holding fueled the movement toward state RFRAs. Religious liberty proponents continued to believe and argue that free exercise rights should count for something if they were substantially burdened even by a neutral law of general applicability.

Third, the arguments in favor of state RFRAs were not grounded just in abstractions; they were nested in actual cases and real-world narratives. A pair of real-life settings received particular attention. One was land-use regulation. Religious congregations, it was argued, often found it extremely difficult to develop land to construct new houses of worship because of restrictive state and local zoning laws. Many towns didn't seem to want new venues of worship in residential areas, or commercial districts, or even in agricultural zones. And minority faiths seemed to bear the brunt of these regulatory restrictions. The other narrative involved the religious freedom of prison inmates. It was widely believed that state prison authorities imposed relatively arbitrary burdens on the ability of inmates to engage in worship or other religious activities.

The first and third of these conditions no longer exist today. As to the first, religious liberty legislation is far too often a partisan political issue at this moment, with Republicans favoring state RFRAs and Democrats opposing them.

And, importantly, as to the third, the pair of persuasive narratives for adopting a state RFRA-the burdens created by state and local land use regulations on congregations trying to develop land for a new house of worship and the difficulties state prison inmates experienced in engaging in religious worship and exercise-were effectively dealt with by federal legislation. In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA requires state and local governments to justify under rigorous review land use regulations or decisions that substantially burden the use of land for religious purposes and prison regulations and decisions that substantially interfere with the ability of inmates to engage in religious worship or otherwise follow the dictates of their faith. Because RLUIPA invokes Congress's Spending Clause power to attach conditions to federal funding-and because virtually all state and local governments and prisons depend on federal funding-RLUIPA has been upheld and applied by countless lower federal courts and (in the context of the prison provisions) the Supreme Court.

Recent state RFRA laws and proposals can still be justified by the second backdrop condition animating the first generation of state RFRAs-the abstract idea that Smith created a gap in the protection of religious liberty, and that religious activity deserves to be protected to some extent against even neutral laws of general applicability. But because, other than the land-use and prison settings, there are no easily described categories of state regulatory activity that burden religion in ways most people find problematic, a modern state RFRA might seem like a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, the only unifying narrative that describes a general problem, as opposed to isolated cases, to which modern RFRAs might be directed is the narrative grounded in religious objections to same-sex marriage and the claims for exemptions from civil rights regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This is the crux of the problem. Legislators and governors who argue that they support a state RFRA law today for reasons that have nothing to do with discrimination related to same-sex marriage have a difficult time persuading anyone of their position because there are no religious liberty narratives involving significant real-world areas of concern other than civil rights laws. The original, principled basis for enacting state RFRA laws still exists, and state RFRAs certainly may be of value to religious individuals or institutions in occasional varied circumstances-religious burdens do arise outside of land-use and prison contexts as we demonstrated with some hypothetical examples at the end of Part One of this series-but there is no well-organized storyline here that can be easily understood and valued. In other words, because, after RLUIPA, the contexts in which state RFRAs might provide needed protection do not fall into any easy-to-define or easy-to-predict categories of regulation, avoiding antidiscrimination laws is the primary narrative that is still left standing. It is the one that most people see. And, to be frank, it certainly appears to be the primary motivation for the introduction of new RFRA bills in state legislatures these days.

A General Religious Liberty Statute Versus Religion-Specific Accommodations on a Case-by-Case Basis

Assuming that some exemptions for religious activity outside of the land-use and prison arenas may be worthwhile, the question becomes whether a state statute (e.g., a RFRA) is the best way to facilitate them. Another way of framing the issue is, given that some religious exemptions will be recognized by government, whether we are better off determining when exemptions should be granted by having the more political branches of government evaluate practice- or sect-specific requests for accommodation, or whether it would be preferable to enact a general religious liberty statute, like a state RFRA, and shift the task of determining when an exemption is appropriate to the judiciary. We think general religious liberty statutes have some important virtues over religious practice- or sect-specific accommodations.

First, the general religious liberty statute is, by definition, general. It seeks formally to apply the same standard to all faiths. Thus, a religious person's ability to obtain an exemption will not, in theory at least, depend on his or her ability to influence the political branches of government. It is true that judges, like legislators, may also be unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to religious minorities. Still, under a general religious liberty statute, a minority faith with insufficient muscle to achieve an accommodation through political channels has an additional forum where its claims can be heard-a court of law.

Second, the business of obtaining sect- or practice-specific accommodations has other serious drawbacks. Restricting religious exemptions to the political branches of government politicizes religion. The freedom to practice one's faith becomes a benefit controlled by the government. Accordingly, religious groups have to organize politically as religious groups to obtain the exemptions their faith requires.

Third, and related, a system in which all accommodations are political actions requires religious individuals and groups to spend their political capital on freedoms that should be theirs as of right. This system operates like a political tax on religion.

Fourth, if the ability to practice one's faith depends on a religious group's political power in a jurisdiction, we create an incentive for religious people to live in communities where there are a sufficiently large number of co-religionists to influence the government. A legal regime that promotes the segregation of communities along religious lines is problematic and much less desirable than a regime that facilitates the religious integration of our communities.

Of course, there are problems with general religious liberty statutes as well. The standard of review to be applied by courts in these laws is intrinsically subjective, value-laden and unpredictable. No one can really be sure how a given court will interpret and apply the law to the facts of any given case. Accordingly, the protection provided to religious liberty may turn out to be much narrower or much broader than the community anticipated when it enacted the law. In theory these statutes can be amended to cure wrongly decided cases, but there is no guarantee that the political branches of government will be capable of effectively monitoring and responding to errant RFRA decisions by courts.

Moreover, the indeterminacy inherent in these laws means that, at least initially and in all cases of first impression, they will provide little guidance either to potential defendants or to plaintiffs. In the context of anti-discrimination laws, uncertainty imposes serious burdens on all the relevant parties. Service providers do not know if they are permitted to deny services for same-sex weddings, for example, because of their religious objections to such ceremonies. And same-sex couples lack the security of knowing that they cannot be denied the services they seek when they attempt to patronize a provider of wedding services.

While we recognize that reasonable people can disagree on this point, we think on balance there are legitimate reasons for a state to consider enacting a state RFRA law. But that does not mean that we think the RFRA law should operate to provide exemptions in all cases in which religious exercise is substantially burdened by law.

What is the Best Way for State Legislatures to Balance State RFRAs and Anti-Discrimination Principles?

Church-state scholars generally agree that most RFRA challenges to civil rights laws governing for-profit economic activity will and should be unsuccessful. The state has a compelling state interest in protecting members of particular classes against discrimination in the workplace and in places of public accommodation. And conventional civil rights laws are the least restrictive means available to accomplish this egalitarian goal. Still, no one is certain that all RFRA claims against regulations prohibiting discrimination will fail. Nor is there agreement as to which claims, if any, deserve to succeed.

Because RFRA laws are unlikely to provide any kind of expansive protection to discrimination in employment or public accommodations based on religious beliefs, an obvious solution to the controversy surrounding these laws would be to enact a civil rights carve-out that limits the scope of the RFRA legislation. Indiana amended its RFRA law to provide explicitly that the law does not authorize, or establish a defense for, discrimination in employment or places of public accommodation. Such a civil rights carve-out would make the RFRA law available to protect religious liberty in in various idiosyncratic circumstances in which general laws unnecessarily burden religious practice, but would preclude any possibility that the law would undermine the enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations.

The argument against a civil rights carve-out is that it could carve out too many RFRA claims. Many proponents of state RFRAs argue that there are at least a limited number of situations in which religious exemptions to some civil rights laws are justified, and yet these claims would be excluded from protection under a general civil rights carve-out. These arguments often focus on caterers, bakers, florists and photographers who provide goods and services for wedding ceremonies and receptions, but the arguments are not limited to these commercial activities.

We think the appropriate response to these concerns is straightforward. In addition to adopting a broad civil rights carve-out from the state RFRA, the state could negotiate explicit exemptions-exceptions to the carve-out, if you will-to cover the limited number of situations in which faith-based discrimination might deserve to be protected against civil rights laws. From a policy perspective, this approach would have several advantages. It would provide more clarity than a generic state RFRA. It would guarantee religious exemptions to civil rights laws in specific circumstances where they were thought to be particularly justified. It would avoid any concern that the law would be interpreted too broadly to protect discrimination in inappropriate circumstances. And it would allow a state RFRA to be adopted to protect religious liberty in all of the situations that do not involve discrimination in violation of civil rights laws.

Our suggested course of action may be challenged, however, by the argument that such negotiations in the legislature about the particular exceptions to a civil rights carve-out would be futile. The two sides debating religious liberty and gay rights issues are so polarized that they would never agree on explicit limited exemptions. We are unconvinced that this will always be the case-particularly if states that currently do not protect gays and lesbians or same-sex couples from discrimination bring legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity to the bargaining table. Working out what the specific exemptions for religion-based discrimination will undoubtedly be hard political work. But that is no reason not to engage in the attempt.

August 5, 2014

How to Read Justice Kennedy’s Crucial Concurring Opinion in Hobby Lobby: Part II in a Series

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In my last column, Part I of this Two-Part series, I argued that lower courts are justified in paying (indeed perhaps required to pay) close attention to Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion in this summer's blockbuster Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, even though the "Opinion of the Court" in that case had the support of five Justices. Because Justice Kennedy was one of the five in the majority in this 5-4 case, his understanding of the majority opinion-on which he based his decision to join and which is explained in his concurring opinion-essentially represents the narrowest common grounds on which a majority of Justices agreed.

In the space below, I suggest a number of significant ways in which Justice Kennedy's take on the majority opinion, which he says are among the "reasons . . . [he] join[ed] it[,]" counsels in favor of a narrow reading of what the Court decided. To see why this is so we must directly compare Justice Alito's majority opinion (and the language and tone it used) with Justice Kennedy's writing.

The Basic Structure of Justice Alito's Opinion of the Court

Justice Alito's opinion can be broken down into two big questions: (1) Does the Hobby Lobby corporation partake of protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?; and (2) Is the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulations the "least restrictive means" to accomplish the "compelling" government interest-that female employees receive contraceptive service insurance at no cost-as required under RFRA?

On the first question, Justice Alito reasons quite broadly, and rests statutory protection for Hobby Lobby on the ground that a for-profit closely held corporation is itself a "person" capable of the "exercise of religion" under RFRA (rather than resting protection on the idea that the persons whom RFRA protects are the owners of a corporation, and the fact that Hobby Lobby's owners are operating through the corporate form should not strip them of the statutory protection they have as individual human beings to practice religion). Because of this broad reasoning, and because Justice Kennedy did not say anything in his concurrence on this question, the Court (and lower courts) may find it difficult to deny RFRA coverage to publicly traded corporations whose managements try to assert claims for religious exemptions in the future.

But on the second question-concerning what RFRA protection means once RFRA applies-the breadth of the Court's ruling is more open to debate, because Justice Kennedy did say things that might diverge from what Justice Alito said. I mention four such possible divergences here.

Some Ways in Which Justice Kennedy's Understanding of the What the Majority Held Might Be a Narrow One

First, and perhaps least significant doctrinally but potentially important optically, while Justice Alito characterizes the test the government must meet to justify denying an exemption under RFRA as "exceptionally demanding," Justice Kennedy is content to call it "stringent" (citing his own opinion in a prior case). This subtle language difference may send slightly different messages to lower courts about how tough to be in evaluating arguments put forth by the federal government in future cases.

Second, on the question whether the government has a "compelling" interest (the kind of interest it needs under RFRA) "in ensuring that all women have access to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing," Justice Alito spends a great deal of space explaining why it is "arguable" that the government should lose on this question. In particular, he discusses how the exceptions the Affordable Care Act creates for existing health plans to be "grandfathered"-and thus not required to provide contraceptive coverage-undermine the notion that the government's interest is compelling. Justice Alito ultimately finds it "unnecessary to adjudicate this issue [because] [w]e will assume that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access . . . is compelling."

Justice Kennedy on this question writes in a way that suggests a much stronger likelihood that he would, if push came to shove, find (as the four dissenters did) the government's interest to be compelling, notwithstanding the grandfather exceptions. He says that is "it is important to confirm that a premise of the Court's opinion is its assumption that the . . . regulation here furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of the female employees." It is true that he uses the word "assumption"-which reminds us that the Court assumed but did not decide the government's interest was compelling. But one wonders why it is important to "confirm" an "assumption" unless the assumption is likely to be correct. Also, Justice Kennedy starts this part of his discussion by saying that the federal government "makes the case that the mandate serves . . . [a] compelling interest" (emphasis added). "Makes the case" is a term that can be read to mean simply "argues" or "contends," but more often it is used to mean "provides good reasons to think."

If Justice Kennedy is, in fact, sending a signal here that government-granted grandfather exceptions based on convenience and ease of transition do not undermine the compelling nature of a government interest, and if that is how lower courts read his tone here, then such a signal could have important consequences for the range of other government interests that are asserted in subsequent RFRA cases, and other cases in which the government needs to establish a compelling interest. Government often needs to grant exceptions to facilitate enactment of big new regulatory schemes, and if the inclusion of such exceptions jeopardizes the idea that the government has compelling interests on which it is acting, a great deal more government regulation would be vulnerable.

The Key Questions of What the Less Restrictive Alternative in Hobby Lobby Was and How Competing Interests Should Be Weighed

 Third, on the important question whether the Government should lose because it could pay for the contraceptive coverage itself (rather than requiring employers to provide it), and government payment is a "less restrictive means" to accomplish the government's (compelling) objective, Justice Alito seems to try to have his cake and eat it too. He says ultimately that "we need not rely" on this possible accommodation as a basis for Hobby Lobby's victory because the federal government could also simply tell insurance companies (rather than employers) to provide the coverage (as the government does for non-profit corporations), but this language comes only after Justice Alito had already spent a lot of ink explaining why the government-payment option seems to be required under RFRA. Indeed, Justice Alito observes that it is "hard to understand" the Government's argument to the contrary. Moreover, even though Justice Alito writes that the Court "need not rely" on this accommodation, he doesn't say whether he means simply that there are two possible accommodations that explain Hobby Lobby's victory (in which case neither of them is one that must be relied on), or instead that the second accommodation (having the insurance companies provide the coverage) is the statutorily required accommodation in this case, such that the Court doesn't decide whether, in the absence of such an option, the government would have to pay itself. Note that, unlike the language concerning whether there is a compelling interest, Justice Alito does not say the Court declines "to adjudicate" this issue.

Justice Kennedy, by contrast, does not equivocate here, and makes clear that, as he reads the majority opinion he is joining, the Court is not deciding the question whether the Government would have to pay itself if the insurance-company-accommodation were not available: "In discussing th[e] [government-payment] alternative, the Court does not address whether the proper response to a legitimate claim for freedom in the health care arena is for the Government to create an additional program [, because] [i]n these cases, it is the Court's understanding that an accommodation may be made to the employers without imposition of a whole new program or burden on the Government." For this reason, he says, the "Court does not resolve" the question whether creating a new government spending program could be required.

Fourth, and more generally, on the question of how much cost the government must be willing to bear to accommodate religious exercise, Justice Kennedy notes: "[T]his existing model [i.e., having the insurance company bear whatever cost may be involved], designed precisely for this problem, might well suffice to distinguish the instant cases from many others in which it is more difficult and expensive to accommodate a governmental program to countless religious claims based on an alleged statutory right of free exercise" (emphasis added).

And, importantly, he also says, apparently in response to concerns that federal sex discrimination workplace protection will go by the boards-a prospect that Justice Alito's opinion pointedly did not deny-that religious exercise, while important, cannot "unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling." Justice Alito does acknowledge that courts must take "adequate account of the burden a requested accommodation imposes on non-beneficiaries," but he makes this concession in a footnote that literally marginalizes the concerns of third parties.

Justice Kennedy's language makes clear that he will, in deciding when an exemption under RFRA is warranted, surely consider costs, both to the government and to third persons, as a counterbalance to any assertion of religious liberty. Indeed, in some ways, Justice Kennedy's opinion is eerily similar in substance to Justice Blackmun's writing in National League of Cities that I discussed in Part I of this series; Justice Kennedy recognized the right to an exemption in the case before him, but he indicated more directly than did Justice Alito that in future RFRA cases some kind of balance-rather than an absolute or near-absolute entitlement to exemption-is called for.

If this is so, and if (as I think they can and should) lower courts take their cue from the writing of this fifth Justice in the majority in Hobby Lobby, then Justice Kennedy's writing may go a fair ways in determining exactly how many companies can successfully use Hobby Lobby to obtain exemptions by suing under RFRA.

July 18, 2014

A Potential Guide to the Meaning of Hobby Lobby: Why Justice Kennedy’s Concurring Opinion May Be Key, Part I

Blog entry cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

Legal and political commentators have already spent thousands of hours on how best to understand Justice Alito's majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and whether Justice Ginsburg's dissent was accurate in saying the decision was of "startling breadth."

But to understand the scope of the majority opinion construing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), we may need to focus on the separate concurring opinion of Justice Kennedy, an opinion that seems to be getting little ink. Two important and complex questions need to be asked about this concurrence: (1) Why should we care what it says? and (2) What does it really say? In the space below, and in my next column in two weeks, respectively, I take up those each of those questions.

When There Are Five Votes for a Majority Opinion, Do (or Should) Concurring Opinions Matter?

The first question-why we should pay any attention to the content of Justice Kennedy's opinion-is fair to ask, and complicated to answer. After all, Justice Alito's opinion was an Opinion of the Court, which means an opinion for a majority of the voting Justices and not just for a "plurality" of them. In most circumstances, when there is an Opinion of the Court, lower courts (where battles over the scope of RFRA are going to be most meaningfully fought, at least until the Supreme Court decides another RFRA case) must look for meaning and guidance in that Opinion, without necessarily consulting the one or more additional concurring opinions that may have been filed. But, crucially, in Hobby Lobby, Justice Kennedy's was the fifth vote in a 5-4 case; without Justice Kennedy's joinder, Justice Alito's opinion would have lacked a majority. So to the extent that Justice Kennedy's separate opinion represents a narrowing gloss on Justice Alito's writing (and in Part Two of this series I will take up whether Justice Kennedy's opinion is indeed narrower), there is a plausible argument to be made that lower courts (and perhaps also future Supreme Courts) should view Justice Kennedy's opinion as the guiding or controlling one.

Certainly that would have been true had Justice Kennedy not joined (some or all of) Justice Alito's opinion, but instead had concurred only in Justice Alito's bottom-line judgment that Hobby Lobby should win, and written a separate opinion laying out his narrower reasoning. In that instance, everyone would agree there would be no Opinion of the Court (for the parts Justice Kennedy did not join), and Justice Alito's opinion would be for a plurality only. And in situations like these, the Supreme Court has held, in a somewhat well-known 1977 case, Marks v. United States, that lower courts should look for and be guided by the "position taken by those Members [of the Court] who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds" (emphasis added).

Which Matters More, a Justice's Vote (to Join a Majority Opinion) or His (Concurring) Voice?

Is the situation really so different if a Justice joins an Opinion of the Court (to make a fifth vote) but then writes separately to make clear the (narrow) understanding of the majority opinion on which he based his decision to join? There are first-rate legal minds (including, perhaps, some of my Justia ConLaw professor colleagues) who may say "yes"-formalities matter, and the act of being the fifth vote to join a majority opinion is all-important. There are no constitutional provisions, statutes, or judicial regulations that speak to this question; it seems to be a matter left to and determined by judicial practice. I am not aware that the Supreme Court itself has ever offered detailed views on how a situation like this should be handled, but I find it hard to see a big difference-in the context of a case whose result is determined by a 5-4 vote-between "concurring in the Judgment" and writing a separate opinion, on the one hand, and joining a majority opinion while writing the very same kind of separate opinion, on the other.

Because the writing of a separate opinion laying out a narrower view than that which might have been laid out by the majority opinion is a more specific and more fully explained act than is the general decision to join the majority opinion, I think attaching weight to the narrowing, specific concurrence makes good sense, especially if the concurring Justice is still on the Court (such that his separate writing bears on any prediction of how the Court would rule if another case were brought to it today.) I say this in part because a decision to join with other Justices to make an Opinion of the Court may have been made in part to keep peace at the Court or to avoid the direct insult of a colleague, and does not mean that there might not be important substantive differences among all those who join the Opinion.

The case for crediting the narrow understandings reflected in concurring opinions in this setting is especially strong when the majority opinion may itself be fuzzy (or silent) on the legal question at issue. In these circumstances, a fifth Justice who sincerely believes the majority opinion embraces the narrow reasoning that is on his mind does would not want to refuse to join (and concur only in the judgment) because of the fuzziness. Collegiality and harmony are better served by permitting him to join but to make clear (in a way that will be respected by lower courts) the expectations on which his joinder is based. If his separate concurrence is not given controlling weight in these circumstances, he will be encouraged in future instances not to join the majority opinion (but instead to concur in the judgment only), and this might create needless division and intra-Court friction if in fact the majority opinion embraced the (narrow) holding he thought it did but about which he was not completely sure.

Even when the majority opinion (which has five votes) is clear on the legal proposition in question and a concurring Justice's "understanding" of the majority opinion, on which his joinder is premised, is objectively unreasonable, there is still a forceful argument to place weight, in a 5-4 case, on a separate concurrence by a Justice within the majority. To the extent that a concurring Justice makes clear by his writing that he disagrees with this part of the Opinion of the Court, his narrower understanding of the law should control, regardless of whether he joined the majority opinion or simply concurred in its judgment.

In effect, we should read his actions/writing together to mean that he really didn't join with the part of the Court opinion with which he (apparently) disagrees, but he just decided (perhaps because he misread the majority opinion) not to formally opt out of any important sentences or paragraphs in the majority opinion that dealt with the legal proposition in question. It also bears mention that majority opinions often (usually?) fail to break up analysis of each legal question into a separate Section or Part. For this reason, Justices who agree with the bulk of an opinion's analysis, but who may disagree with a few key sentences, or even words, cannot easily register their nuanced mix of agreement/potential disagreement simply by declining to join whole subdivisions of the opinion.

A few hypothetical variants may help make my point. As I suggested earlier, everyone seems to agree that if a fifth Justice joins most of an opinion, but expressly declines to join a Part or Section of the opinion that included legal proposition X, we would say the Court has not embraced X. If, instead, the fifth Justice writes to say that he "join[s] all parts of Opinion of the Court, except to the extent that the Opinion says X," again there would be no Opinion of the Court as to the legal proposition X. Now imagine the fifth Justice writes separately to say: "I join the Opinion of the Court because it does not say X." Should that explicit statement be treated any differently? And, finally, how about: "I join the Opinion of the Court on the understanding that it does not say X"? To me, it would be formalistic without justification to treat the last two of these situations (regardless of the reasonableness of the concurring Justice's reading of the majority opinion) differently from the first two.

I do think the fact that a Justice joins a majority opinion should not be completely irrelevant in these kinds of situations. So, for example, if there is ambiguity in the meaning of the concurring Justice's separate writing, that ambiguity should be resolved in favor of harmonizing it with the majority opinion that she chose to join. But to the extent that the concurring opinion clearly disagrees with, or offers more details in narrowing, legal propositions asserted in the majority opinion, the concurring Justice's voice should control over her vote (to join the majority).

Perhaps the best counterargument, that is, the best argument in favor of not attaching controlling weight to the concurring opinion, is that the Marks-style analysis is often difficult to undertake, and sometimes lower courts make mistakes in trying to figure out what the narrowest common grounds are between multiple opinions. Deciding what is "common" between opinions, and discerning the "narrowest grounds" can be challenging. In the Marks setting, we have no choice but to undertake this tricky analysis because without comparing multiple opinions (no one of which had five votes) we lack any holding at all to guide future cases. By contrast, in the situation I describe in this column, there is an Opinion of the Court (that got five votes), and so telling lower courts to follow it only, and not to complicate matters by trying to incorporate the concurrence into the analysis, does not deprive the system of a holding to guide lower courts.

In the end, I find this counterargument unconvincing for three reasons. First, the Marks-style analysis may sometimes be difficult, but courts do perform this task regularly, and in some cases it may actually be easier to focus on clear limiting language in a concurring opinion than to resolve ambiguities within the majority opinion alone. (I should note that some appellate courts-including the U.S. Supreme Court during its early history-do not issue "Opinions of the Court," but rather issue individual opinions seriatim, leaving lower courts to figure out the rule(s) of law that were adopted.) Second, we employ Marks analysis not just because we want to generate a holding (we could to that by flipping a coin as between all the opinions that supported the judgment), but because it makes normative sense to seek to identify true common analytic ground between five or more Justices. If that is true in Marks, it is true here as well. Finally, as I noted earlier, if we don't attach controlling weight to a concurring opinion in the situation I posit here, then a Justice who makes the fifth vote in a future case will, instead of joining the Opinion of the Court, simply concur in the judgment and write a separate opinion anyway, and so we will be right back in the realm of Marks. If a Justice cares enough about an issue to write separately, she probably will do what it takes to make sure the concurring viewpoint is given as much weight as possible in future cases.

Historical Examples

I am not aware of a huge number of prominent instances in which a Justice provided a fifth vote for an Opinion of the Court and then also wrote separately to distance himself in a discernible way from at least some broad propositions in the majority's approach. But in well-known cases in this category that do come to mind, lower courts have tended to place controlling weight on the concurring views of a fifth Justice even though he also joined the majority. Maybe the most famous illustration of this is Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer, where Justice Jackson's concurring opinion has held tremendous sway in lower court (and also later Supreme Court) rulings, even though he also joined Justice Black's Opinion of the Court in this 5-4 case. Another significant decision is the 5-4 ruling in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, where Justice Kennedy joined Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion (giving it a fifth vote), but also wrote separately to express views that were narrower than those expressed in the Chief's writing. And a Third Circuit case, at least (with then-Judge Alito part of the unanimous panel), found that Justice Kennedy's views controlled.

Perhaps the case most similar to Hobby Lobby in this respect is National League of Cities v. Usery. There, as in Hobby Lobby, powerful entities-States rather than corporations-sought exemptions from federal workplace regulations. And, similar to Hobby Lobby, a five-Justice majority opinion (authored in that case by Chief Justice Rehnquist) held that States were immune from the minimum wage regulations at issue there, laying out what on its face seemed like a rather broad principle of state immunity from federal regulation in areas of "integral" or "traditional" government functions. Justice Blackmun joined the majority opinion, but also wrote separately to make clear his narrow understanding of state immunity and what the majority opinion should stand for; in Justice Blackmun's view, state exemptions depended on the application of a balancing test in which federal interests were weighed against state autonomy.

In the wake of National League of Cities, at least some influential lower courts found Justice Blackmun's balancing test to be required by the Court, even though it was not mentioned explicitly in Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion. Indeed, even though there was an Opinion of the Court in National League (because Justice Blackmun did join the Chief's writing, giving it five votes), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia characterized the Chief's opinion as a "plurality" view, and focused instead on how best to read Justice Blackmun's separate writing. And when the Supreme Court itself was called upon to apply National League of Cities five years later in Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining, it observed that National League of Cities stood for some kind of balancing test, citing Blackmun's concurring opinion.

There may be (and probably are) counterexamples, but these high-profile cases, especially National League of Cities, suggest that there is at least a significant likelihood that lower courts will (justifiably) feel controlled by Justice Kennedy's Hobby Lobby writing and thus will parse it to see if his views narrow the scope of Justice Alito's opinion. So I will turn to that parsing in Part Two of this series.

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 16, 2013

Prof. Karima Bennoune to Deliver Guest Lecture in Middle East/South Asia Studies

Please note new date below.

Professor Karima Bennoune will deliver a guest lecture on February 10 in the Department of Middle East/South Asia Studies at UC Davis. The public lecture is titled, "Sidi Bouzid Blues and the Green Wave: Journeys through the Arab Spring and Fall."