City of Grants Pass v. Johnson

Becket Role:
Amicus
Case Start Date:
October 15, 2018
Deciding Court:
U.S. Supreme Court
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

A group of homeless people sued the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, in 2018 over local laws that penalize sleeping on public property. In 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Grants Pass, reasoning that its laws violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” because the city did not have enough shelter beds to house the entire homeless population. The court, however, refused to count religious homeless shelters when it assessed whether there were enough beds available within the city. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, explaining how the decision to discount religious shelters was based on an outdated understanding of the law.

Status

On March 4, 2024, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in favor of neither party arguing that the Ninth Circuit wrongly relied on a long-abandoned, vague legal standard known as the Lemon test when it decided the case. Oral argument in the case was heard by the Supreme Court on April 24, 2024, and a decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.
United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.

Case Summary

Ninth Circuit discounts the faithful 

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit decided Martin v. City of Boise, which was a challenge to Boise, Idaho’s anti-camping laws. The court based its decision on the Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” The Ninth Circuit ruled that the city could not enforce its anti-camping laws because it did not have enough shelter beds available to its homeless population. In doing so, the court discounted any beds in shelters that had a “religious atmosphere,” “Christian messaging on the shelter’s intake form,” and “Christian iconography on shelter walls.”  

Court doubles down on anti-religion ruling 

Just weeks after the court’s decision in Martin, a group of homeless individuals sued the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, over its laws that restrict individuals’ ability to sleep overnight in public places like streets, parks, and sidewalks. Breaking the laws can result in penalties up to several hundred dollars and repeat offenders can be barred from all city spaces. A federal district court ruled against Grants Pass, preventing the city from enforcing the laws.  

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court and ruled that Grants Pass’s anti-camping laws were cruel and unusual punishment because of a lack of available shelters—all while refusing to count the Christian shelter in the city, the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission. The city asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and it agreed to do so. 

Becket defends religious ministries from bad law 

On March 4, 2024, Becket filed a friend-of-the court brief at the Supreme Court in support of neither party. Becket’s brief argues that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling relied on a wrongheaded legal standard known as the Lemon test that the Supreme Court overruled in 2022 in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. For decades, the Lemon test had caused courts to incorrectly apply the Establishment Clause, driving religious people and religious ideas out of public life. In the Kennedy case, the Supreme Court emphasized that the Establishment Clause prohibits government from establishing an official state religion. Even though Lemon was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2022 in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, some lower courts, including the Ninth Circuit, continue to rely on it.   

Becket’s brief urges the Supreme Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s misguided view of the Establishment Clause and reiterates that courts should apply a historical test based on what was understood as a religious “establishment” at the time of the Founding. Oral argument in the case was heard by the Supreme Court on April 22, 2024, and a decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.
 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Public square: Religious organizations are crucial to maintaining a free society. Government policies that presume religion does not belong in public life get our best traditions, our bedrock principles, exactly backward.