Oakwood Adventist Academy v. Alabama High School Athletic Association

A team of believers deeply rooted in faith

Oakwood Adventist Academy is a private Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. Founded as the Oakwood Industrial School in 1896, Oakwood is the oldest Black Seventh-day Adventist school in the U.S. Like many private religious schools, its students are passionate about their faith – and about their sports teams. In 2022, the hard work that the Oakwood Academy Mustangs had put into their basketball team paid off, and the team made it to the semi-finals, with a shot at the state title on the horizon. It was the best basketball season in the history of the school.  

But a problem emerged when the Mustangs learned of the schedule for the semi-finals: the Mustangs were slated to play at 4:30 on a Saturday, an hour before the end of the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists consider the Sabbath – from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday – holy. That means no working, and no playing competitive sports, and it is an obligation that Oakwood students and staff alike take very seriously.  

A simple solution 

Fortunately for the Mustangs, there seemed to be a simple solution to the problem. Another game was slated for 7:30 on the same day, well after sundown and the end of the Sabbath. Oakwood Academy reached out to the other teams, who all agreed to the switch. However, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA), which is the state body charged with overseeing interscholastic sports in Alabama, denied Oakwood Academy’s request.  

Now, Oakwood Academy is asking AHSAA to adopt sensible religious accommodations to their scheduling policy. The First Amendment requires workable accommodations that allow teams like the Mustangs to participate on an equal basis in competitive sports, and the NCAA already accommodates Sabbath-observing schools like Oakwood Academy in national tournaments. These accommodations help ensure that unpopular or minority religious groups (such as Orthodox Jews or Seventh-day Adventists) are not excluded from the playing field or pressured to abandon their beliefs for a shot at the big game.  

No American should ever be excluded from participating in sports on account of his or her faith. A simple schedule-shuffling accommodation is the least government bureaucrats can do to ensure that Americans are able to fully live out their faith, both on and off the court.  


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public Square — America has always freely permitted all, whatever their religious persuasion, equal access to public spaces. Sports – especially when it is overseen by government bodies – is no exception. Making sure all Americans have an equal chance to bat a home-run, score a touchdown, or kick a goal helps keep America strong and united, but it also makes sure that the very best athletes have the chance to compete against each other at the top of their game. 

Toor v. Berger

A Firm Faith Tradition 

For centuries, Sikhs have lived according to the teachings of the gurus, which instruct them to shun evil and seek self-mastery, to regard God’s creation as sacred, and to always defend the weak and helpless. Many devout Sikhs live out their religious duty to defend the defenseless by serving valiantly in militaries around the world while maintaining their articles of faith, including unshorn hair. But Sikhs who seek to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps find themselves forced to choose between their religious obligations and their desire to do good.   

Uniformity with Exceptions  

Captain Sukhbir Toor faced a horrible dilemma when he sought to join the Marine Corps: shave and abandon his religious beliefs or go home. He chose to serve but continued pursuing a religious accommodation. The Marine Corps has now granted him partial relief. While stationed in the U.S., he can maintain his beard, but the Marine Corps still dictates that he must shave his beard when deployed to areas considered “combat zones” (which includes places like Greece, Israel, and the Philippines). The Marine Corps says this is for safety reasons. But other Marines, who are allowed to grow out their beards for medical reasons, are not placed under such restrictions, and U.S. troops, including Marine special forces units, have long operated with beards in true combat zones like Afghanistan without incident. 

Captain Toor is joined by three recruits—Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Chahal—who want to follow in his footsteps in the Marine Corps. They have already qualified for service, but upon entry into the Corps, they will be forced to shave their hair and beards for the duration of their boot camp—not out of safety concerns, but because of how the Marine Corps defines uniformity. The Marine Corps has been relaxing its uniformity standard for years specifically to promote greater diversity, allowing more diverse hairstyles, updating its dress code to better accommodate women, and even loosening longstanding bans on tattoos. In addition, the Marine Corps has recently granted Marines—including those in bootcamp—more leeway to grow a beard to combat “razor bumps,” a painful medical condition that inflames the face and neck after a close shave. And the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force have long been able to accommodate Sikh servicemembers—beards and all—without compromising mission readiness or safety.  

A Longstanding Defense 

Fortunately, the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ban the federal government from restricting religious freedom unnecessarily. This means that denying religious accommodations by asserting a need for uniformity while granting lots of other exceptions is not only unfair but unlawful as well. Captain Toor and his soon-to-be fellow Marines shouldn’t have to choose between their faith’s teachings that encourage their military service, and their religious understanding of God’s perfect creation as it relates to their physical appearance. Their lawsuit simply asks the government to provide them with religious accommodations equal to those granted to Marines for secular reasons. 

Captain Toor, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal are represented by Becket, Winston & Strawn, and the Sikh Coalition. Jaskirat Singh is also represented by Baker Hostetler. 

Importance for Religious Liberty: 

  • Individual freedom: For generations, people have sought out the United States as a place where they could freely live out their individual beliefs. That freedom does not end where military service begins: the Constitution, federal law, and the traditions of the armed forces all recognize that American servicemembers serve their country best when their own religious freedoms are protected.  


Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition

Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District

Creating a safe environment for students to learn and grow

Teachers and administrators are entrusted with safeguarding our youth and modeling appropriate behavior—a particularly important responsibility during high school, when students are preparing to become adults. But at San Jose Unified School District in California, instead of fostering an environment that’s inclusive of diverse viewpoints, teachers and administrators targeted religious students for their beliefs and forced them to go to court to fight for a place in their campus community.

Targeted for their faith

While they were students at the district’s Pioneer High School, Elizabeth Sinclair and Charlotte Klarke served as co-presidents of Pioneer’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) student club. FCA is a national organization which supports student-athletes committed to living out their faith on and off the playing field. The club held regular meetings open to all students, empowering them to share their faith, grow as athletes, serve their local community, and encourage one another through testimony, prayer, and Bible study.

FCA has had a presence in the San Jose Unified School District for over a decade. But in 2019, district officials derecognized FCA and forced the student group off campus after a Pioneer teacher attacked the group’s Christian beliefs in his classroom. The teacher targeted the club during class time, and then sent emails to the school principal describing FCA’s beliefs in vulgar language and advocating for FCA’s removal from campus. He even suggested that FCA’s beliefs and mere presence on campus should be treated as equivalent to sexual harassment. Why? All because FCA wanted to choose leaders who shared their Christian beliefs, which the teacher and the district said was illegal discrimination. Within two weeks, Pioneer FCA was kicked off campus by the district, and eventually all three FCA student clubs in the district were shut out. When students tried to get the FCA club reestablished on campus the next semester, their request was denied—while at the same time, the school recognized a Satanic Temple Club that formed for the purpose of protesting FCA.

Standing together in faith

FCA clubs welcome all students and believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. At Pioneer, school officials even acknowledged that the club “does great things on campus” and is led by “great students.” But none of this mattered when district officials determined that the club couldn’t choose leaders who shared its faith. Across the district, numerous student groups require both leaders and members to support the purpose of the group. Groups like the National Honor Society can exclude students who don’t have a high enough GPA, and sports clubs are allowed to exclude students based on their sex. FCA’s request is even more modest. All students are welcome to attend FCA meetings. The club asks only that those who seek to lead FCA’s ministry affirm the club’s religious beliefs. Even so, district officials targeted FCA and labeled the club “discriminatory,” even while allowing numerous other student groups to choose leaders who align with their missions.

After discussions with the district failed, FCA and its student leaders asked a federal court to order the district to allow it equal access to meet on campus—just like other student clubs. As FCA explained, its request is eminently reasonable: all FCA asks is that those students who lead its ministry—directing Bible studies, leading worship, and determining the direction of the club’s ministry—agree with the very beliefs that animate the club’s mission and ministry. Federal courts around the country in other Becket cases have agreed such religious leadership standards are fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When a lower court declined to protect FCA’s rights, Becket appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gutierrez v. Saenz

On June 16, 2020, a Texas death-row inmate was hours away from his execution when the United States Supreme Court halted the procedure. Ruben Gutierrez had asked Texas to provide access to a Christian chaplain in his last moments before death but had been refused by the prison administration. Gutierrez filed an emergency order before the Court, arguing that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment should guarantee the free exercise of religion, even for those in prison and especially for those about to meet their Maker.  

Spiritual Comfort– for some or for none 

Texas has a long tradition of allowing chaplains in the death chamber. It all changed when Texas refused the request of spiritual comfort to Buddhist prisoner Patrick Henry Murphy, a right that had been afforded to other prisoners through state-employed chaplains. On March 28, 2019, the United States Supreme Court granted a stay in Mr. Murphy’s execution, noting that Texas’ actions were a “governmental discrimination against religion” and violated the Constitution. 

Unfortunately, instead of allowing different kinds of spiritual advisors in the death chamber, Texas responded to its Supreme Court loss in the Murphy case by eliminating all use of chaplains in the last moments of death. This went against years of tradition, where spiritual guidance had been safely given to the condemned for decades. Now, no Texas prisoner could receive that pastoral care before death. 

Need of Clergy for the Condemned 

However, federal law supports the idea that all people of all faiths should be able to practice their faith freely, a right that should not be refused once someone enters the prison cell. Mr. Gutierrez only requested the services of state-employed chaplains, the chaplains that have ministered to Texas state prisoners for decades. Texas denied the request due to what it said were safety concerns, but in the previous year, Texas told the Supreme Court that their chaplains could be trusted in the most difficult circumstances in the death chamber. 

After staying the execution in June 2020, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back down to the Texas district court and asked the lower court to figure out “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.” The lower court concluded that Texas had no compelling interest in preventing access to the clergy and on January 25, 2021, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision that Texas could deny Mr. Gutierrez a chaplain. The case is ongoing in district court.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:  

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith. 
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons. 


United States of America v. State of Texas

The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, ministers to over 1,000 recent migrants each day. The Center was created in 2014 by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. The Center has served more than 100,000 migrants to date and is the first stop for many migrant families after they cross the border and are released by law enforcement. At the Center, families dropped off by Border Patrol receive COVID tests and transportation to quarantine locations, if needed. Those without COVID enter the Center to receive basic necessities: medical attention, food, water, temporary shelter from the elements. Catholic Charities then transports them to hospitals, shelters, or on their way to reunite with family.   

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, incoming migrants are tested for COVID-19 before entering the Center. Migrants who test positive are safely quarantined at nearby hotels. However, on July 28, 2021, Texas issued an Order forbidding non-governmental entities from transporting migrants anywhere in Texas. While supposedly intended to prevent COVID-19 transmission, the Order in practice would prevent the Humanitarian Respite Center from taking migrants from the Center to local bus stations, airports, hospitals, and more permanent shelters. And it would prevent the Center from safely transporting COVID positive migrants to quarantine locations. Instead, with the Center unable to take in any more migrants, Border Patrol would leave migrants—without ever testing them for COVID—at local McAllen bus stations, increasing the likelihood of COVID transmission in the community and leaving young women and children with no means of contacting transportation or procuring food and water.   

Concerned about the negative impact this order would have on the federal government’s operations, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on July 30, seeking to block enforcement of the order. On August 3, a federal judge in El Paso granted temporary relief, set to expire on August 13. On August 11, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that the order impeded the religious rights of Catholic Charities contrary to federal and state law. After a court hearing on August 13, the district court issued an injunction that protects Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley from Governor Abbott’s order while the case continues in court. The court recognized the vital role of religious ministries, finding “sufficient evidence” that federal officials must rely on the transportation efforts of “NGO-partners” like Catholic Charities “in order to operate the immigration system successfully.” 

As Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief explains, both state and federal law protect the free exercise of religion – including the exercise of religious ministries like the Humanitarian Respite Center. Not only did the order potentially increase the spread of COVID-19, but it also – in violation of state laws protecting religious exercise – threatened the Center if it carried out its religious mission of serving the vulnerable.  

The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, El Paso Division. 

Di Liscia v. Austin

Beards: a naval tradition and a religious obligation 

For most of the nearly 250-year-old history of the U.S. Navy, sailors were known for their beards – indeed, the Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, Gideon Welles, sported a full, bushy beard. In the 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations, forbade discrimination or any violation of the “rights and privileges” of sailors who chose to wear beards – which helped sailors suffering from “razor bumps” (Pseudofolliculitis barbae), a painful infection aggravated by shaving.  

This policy also accommodated the needs of religious minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews, who often wear beards in accordance with the traditions and obligations of their faith. But in 1985, the Navy did an about-face and broadly banned beardswhile granting limited exemptions for religious, morale, and medical purposes. In recent years, the Navy has begun to further narrow those exemptions, rejecting religious exemption requests and pressuring sailors to give up medical exemptions, instead of allowing them to keep their beards.  

An unnecessary conflict 

This has made America’s Navy a much less welcoming place for sailors like Edmund Di LisciaDi Liscia, devout Orthodox Jew, joined the U.S. Navy in 2018 and is currently at sea, serving on the USS Theodore RooseveltDi Liscia’s Jewish faith requires him to wear a beard as a sign of spiritual maturity, and an expression of obedience and fidelity to God. So in September 2020, he formally requested a religious exemption from the Navy’s shaving policy, but the Navy refused to accommodate his religious convictions. Fortunately, Di Liscia has been able to maintain his beard thanks to temporary no-shave “chita religious accommodation granted by a commanding officer that allowed him to keep his beard

The chits aren’t just granted for religious reasons. For example, while at sea, Di Liscia’s commanding officer granted a ship-wide no-shave chit to boost moraleHowever, temporary chits aren’t sufficient to protect the religious liberty of sailors like Di Liscia. Case in point, on April 14, 2021, the Navy decided—for no apparent reason—that Di Liscia’s chit was no longer valid, and he was told that he must shave his beard within 24 hours or face punishment. 

But the Navy’s unfair policy is an outlierThe Army and Air Force have both taken steps to allow religious minorities to serve with their beards intact. Other nations, like the United Kingdom and Israel, also allow their sailors to maintain beards, proving that religious minorities don’t have to be faced with the choice of serving their country or their Creator.  

Under federal law, the military is prohibited from suppressing an individual’s religious exercise without a compelling government interest. On April 15, 2021, Becket asked the District Court for the District of Columbia to stop the Navy from forcing Di Liscia to shaveand sued to protect three other Muslim sailors, Leo KatsareasDominque Braggs, and Mohammed Shoyebas well. They will show once and for all that the Navy only stands to gain by letting them exercise their religious faith.   

Just a few hours after Becket’s filing, the Court set an emergency hearing and issued an order temporarily protecting Di Liscia from being forced to shave. Soon after, the Navy confirmed that it would not force Di Liscia to shave in the short term, and Becket will continue pursuing a lasting accommodation so that Di Liscia, and other sailors like him, can freely live out their religious beliefs while serving their country. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual FreedomThe government cannot burden the sincere religious beliefs of individuals by preventing them from exercising their faith. Because all individuals have a right to sincerely follow their faiththe government cannot discriminate against them by impeding their religious conduct or forbidding their obligatory religious practices. Instead, the government should find ways to respect their religious exercise.

Young Israel of Tampa v. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART)

A cherished community celebration

Young Israel of Tampa is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue serving the growing Jewish population of Tampa, Florida. For decades, Young Israel has hosted many events to share the Jewish faith with the community—such as Chanukah celebrations, Passover Seders, and more.

For the last fourteen years, Young Israel has hosted a community celebration called “Chanukah on Ice.” This family-friendly event features ice-skating, food, music, a raffle, and the lighting of an ice-sculpted menorah—one of the central symbols of Chanukah.

Censoring religious speech 

In 2020, Rabbi Rivkin, vice president of Young Israel, sought to advertise Chanukah on Ice on a nearby bus route operated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). The proposed advertisement included an image of a menorah and invited community members to enjoy “ice skating to Jewish music around the flaming menorah.”

HART, however, refused to run the ad, stating that it “does not allow religious affiliation advertising, as well as banning adult, alcohol, tobacco, and political ads.” When Rabbi Rivkin appealed to HART’s CEO, he was told that Young Israel should strip the central religious image from the ad and delete all reference to the lighting of the menorah—deeply offensive changes that were not possible for Young Israel to make.

Discriminating against religion—because it’s religion—is illegal.  

HART’s ad policy is unconstitutional because it expressly discriminates against religion, banning religious speech on government property. It is also bad policy. It tells religious organizations that they are unwelcome in the public square, and it reinforces that message by grouping religious ads with ads promoting alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, obscenity, nudity, profanity, politics, pornography, discrimination, and violence. The First Amendment gives special protection to religion; Tampa tells religion it is unfit for public consumption.

But this isn’t just about transit advertisements. It’s about whether religious messages belong in the public square at all. If religious speech can be banned from public transit, no principle stops bureaucrats from banning religious speech in public parks. Indeed, one of HART’s officials indicated that not even Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would be allowed to advertise his messages of hope and equality with HART.  

On February 5, 2021, Young Israel filed a lawsuit against HART in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. It is represented by Becket, along with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and Florida law firm Hopping Green & Sams.

On January 26, 2022, the federal district court granted summary judgment to Young Israel. The court found that HART’s ban on religious advertisements was both discriminatory and standardless. The court also ordered that HART’s religious-ad ban should be permanently prevented from being enforced.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Free speech: Freedom of speech is not only an inherent human right, but also a fundamental building block of our society. The First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to participate in the public square—without fear that they must surrender their religious identity as a condition of speaking.  
  • 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.  

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser

A beacon of hope in dark times 

The Catholics of the D.C. area have served others since 1794Just as it had during past crises, the Archdiocese of Washington rose to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, it voluntarily suspended worship services, but its charitable arm, Catholic Charities, worked ceaselessly, providing over 1 million meals as the crisis increased need, with a Catholic Charities in Columbia Heights now serving 650 people a week, up from the 40-person pre-pandemic weekly average. 

When the Archdiocese reopened churches in the summer, it instituted a series of stringent preventative measures to ensure its worship services were not virus spreading events. The Archdiocese’s plan – which was devised from the gold-standard recommendations of doctors at top universities and hospitals – was extremely effective, and although thousands of Masses have been celebrated since Catholic churches in the diocese have reopened their doors, they have not resulted in a single known COVID outbreak.  

No room for worshipers in the church?  

During the week of Thanksgiving, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order that lowered in-person attendance at church services to a hard cap of 50 people. When the new order went into effect on the day before Thanksgiving, it did not hamper the operations of restaurants, retail chains, public libraries, or many other establishments. However, it impacted the Archdiocese severely. Half of the Archdiocese’s churches in Washington, D.C., can accommodate 500 people, and the largest Catholic church in the United States, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, is located in the District. These churches have more than enough room to hold hundreds of worshippers safely while following the social-distancing and disinfection protocols that have proven to be effective. And if the Basilica were a gym instead of a church, the executive order would allow it to bring in 600 people – but because it was a church, it is subjected to the same fifty-person cap that much smaller buildings were.  

However, when the Archdiocese repeatedly reached out to the Mayor to request a more reasonable regulation, it was rebuffed. With Christmas just around the corner, the Archdiocese brought the case to a federal court, in hopes of finding a more equitable treatment for the Archdiocese’s 655,000 parishioners in time for Christmas. In response to the litigation, the Mayor agreed to raise the cap for houses of worship to 250 people, and a federal judge later struck the arbitrary caps down, finding that they did not have “adequate consideration for constitutional rights.”

The Archdiocese of Washington is represented by Becket and Jones Day LLP 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedomindividuals have the right to act in accordance to their religious convictions – and this includes the right to gather together and celebrate holy days and engage in communal worship and prayer without being singled out for unfair treatment or subjected to coercion by the government.  

Lebovits v. Cuomo

A long-standing Jewish tradition 

Opened in 2012, Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam is an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Far Rockaway, New York City, that stands in a long tradition of Jewish schools founded to teach young women about their faith. The first Bais Yaakov school was founded in 1917 in Poland, to provide an alternative to secular education that did not support and educate young Jewish women on the history and traditions of their faith. Today, BYAM celebrates Jewish holidays, holds communal prayers, and engages in group projects and exegetical debates—activities that are central to the traditions of Orthodox Judaism.  

Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits moved to their current home precisely because they wanted to give their girls a great Jewish education at BYAM. But without the opportunity to embrace their unique cultural, linguistic and religious heritage—teaching and learning that can only properly be done in-person—the Lebovits girls and other young Jewish girls are deprived of an irreplaceable opportunity to learn and live out their faith. Yitzchok and Chana are being hindered in passing on their Jewish beliefs and practices on to their daughters.  

In March, BYAM voluntarily transitioned to remote learning to protect their neighbors and in compliance with the law. In the months that followed the school spent thousands of dollars equipping the entire school with Wi-Fi, purchasing additional laptops and tablets for teachers to use while offering remote instruction, and to pay for transportation for teachers who would normally use buses to get to school. Nevertheless, remote learning proved to be a poor substitute for in-person instruction. As the state began to reopen over the summer, BYAM looked forward to opening safely, responsibly and cooperatively.  

And it did just that. In the first month of school, BYAM handed out hundreds of masks and implemented many safety and hygiene protocols to ensure the safety of students and community members, including social distancing and daily temperature checks. The happy result of those comprehensive efforts has been zero cases of COVID-19 in the school. BYAM has thus become a safe haven for girls to gather and learn about their religious heritage.   

Cuomo and de Blasio crack down on Jews 

Unfortunately, the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City has been singled out by the government as the scapegoats for COVID-19 spread since the beginning of the pandemic. In April of 2020, Mayor de Blasio dispersed a Jewish funeral and then threatened them with law enforcement. During the subsequent summer – while Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio praised nearby mass protests, Jewish families were ousted from Brooklyn parks by the New York Police Department acting at the behest of the Mayor  

But, despite doing everything right, BYAM has been caught in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s crusade against Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. After months of scapegoating Jews for coronavirus infections in New York City, in late September/early October 2020 Cuomo and de Blasio announced a plan to target “microclusters” of COVID-infections in New York City by locking down Jewish neighborhoods and schools. On October 6 – just before three important Jewish holy days – Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that shut impending Jewish celebrations down, claiming that mildly elevated rates of positive coronavirus tests justified extraordinary emergency powers, while at the same time admitting that those elevated rates “would be a safe zone” in many other states.  

Remarkably, by Cuomo’s own admission, schools are not significant spreaders of COVID-19, and the new policy was not driven by science but was made from fear. 

Protecting the fundamental right of religious education

Remote learning has taken a serious toll on the educational opportunities for the Lebovits girls and other BYAM students. Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks. In many cases, students have tested a full year below grade level in both Hebrew and English reading.  

The government’s attempt to close BYAM is a direct threat to the future of the Jewish faith tradition that Bais Yaakov schools have been teaching for over a hundred years. By putting Jewish religious education on hold indefinitely, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio weren’t just halting educational growth, they were stifling the religious exercise of Jewish families, and depriving the Lebovits girls of part of their childhood. 

Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty represent the Lebovits family and BYAM in the federal District Court for the Northern District of New York, where the school is asking the court to protect BYAM from future bigotry and to hold Cuomo and de Blasio accountable for violating their First Amendment rights.  


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious CommunitiesReligious groups have the right to form their own institutions and to pass their teachings down to the next generation. Schools like BYAM, which help preserve the Jewish faith and instill Jewish values in the next generation, are constitutionally protected from government restrictions that single them out for unfair treatment.  

Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser

Protecting the health and safety of our communities

Since March 2020, Americans have made great sacrifices to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most significant sacrifices has been the suspension of in-person worship. Across the country, churches like Capitol Hill Baptist Church voluntarily took necessary steps to protect the health and safety of their congregations and communities.

Since March, Americans have learned much about the virus and how to prevent its spread. In response, 42 states across the country have correctly loosened restrictions on in-person worship, allowing churches to responsibly resume their free exercise of faith, and imposing no capacity limit on outdoor services as long as worshipers wear masks and practice proper social distancing.

Religious worship held to a double standard

In March, Washington D.C., like so many other cities, imposed restrictions on public worship for the sake of public health. But, six months later, D.C. stands as an outlier amongst states and localities across the country because it continues to restrict in-person worship to no more than 100 people even if services are held outside and masking and proper social distancing are employed.

Meanwhile, the District has been a hotbed for protest, including gatherings of thousands (and even tens of thousands) of citizens to protest the death of George Floyd and advocate for racial justice. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not only encouraged, but participated in these protests, all the while keeping in place restrictions on in-person worship.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s religious convictions put weekly in-person gatherings of the entire congregation for worship front-and-center. For this faith community, virtual worship is not an option. Capitol Hill Baptist Church takes no issue with the demonstrators or their right to freely protest—in fact many congregation members have participated in peaceful, religious demonstrations—it simply asks that its First Amendment rights be similarly respected.

Even-handed application of the Constitution

In June 2020, Capitol Hill Baptist Church applied for a waiver from the City’s restrictive policy against large gatherings, with the intention of holding outdoor services with appropriate safety precautions. In September, the church reapplied for the waiver. In September 2020 the City denied the church’s application.

On September 22, 2020 Capitol Hill Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bowser asking that its constitutional right to freely exercise its faith be respected in same way as the protestors’ right to freedom of speech. On October 6, 2020 Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, arguing that the City must provide a compelling reason to maintain its 100-person limit on outdoor, masked, and socially distanced religious gatherings even though it’s a national outlier, and even though the restrictions are not being applied evenly. A federal district court ruled in the church’s favor on October 9, 2020, allowing the church to gather for worship in a safe, socially-distanced outdoor setting.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious CommunitiesThe First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause protects religious Americans from undue burdens on their religious exercise. When churches are given a special disability not felt by non-religious entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by burdening religious practice.

Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary

Training ministers of the gospel

As one of the world’s leading Christian seminaries, Fuller Theological Seminary offers a vibrant multidenominational, multiethnic, and international Christian community where Christian students prepare to fulfill their vocations in a variety of ministry settings. For over 70 years, Fuller Theological Seminary has equipped Christian ministers and faith leaders through rigorous academic programs rooted deeply in Christian teaching, to answer God’s call to lead their own communities in the way of Jesus.

When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to adhere to a wide swath of biblically-based Christian ethics by giving written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards as a continuing condition of enrollment. This collective agreement shapes the worldwide ethos of Fuller and includes upholding the belief that God created marriage to be the permanent covenant between only one man and one woman, and that sexual union must be reserved for that relationship. The seminary’s community standards are clear that students are to abstain from sexual conduct outside of this sacred marriage covenant.

The right to define ministry training

Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan applied to Fuller Theological Seminary and agreed to Fuller’s community standards. Both individuals later admitted knowingly violating the standards by entering into same-sex marriages.

As with all students at Fuller, Ms. Maxon and Mr. Brittsan provided written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards when they applied to the seminary, agreeing that they would follow them as a condition of participating in Fuller’s theological training with the rest of the student community. Their same-sex marriages were a direct and knowing violation of the standards to which they had agreed. Thus, after confirming the standards violations, Fuller regretfully dismissed them from the theology program and refunded their tuition for all classes that were left incomplete at the time of dismissal.

As a religious organization, Fuller Theological Seminary has the First Amendment right, and the religious duty, to uphold specific standards of ethics and morality for the members of its Christian community. This is a right that has been widely accepted and protected by courts for decades. Nevertheless, in November 2019, Ms. Maxon sued Fuller Theological Seminary in federal district court. Mr. Brittsan, who applied to Fuller but never matriculated, joined the lawsuit in January 2020.

Defending a healthy separation of church and state

Churches, seminaries, and other religious groups must be able to decide how to train their own religious leaders according to their own sincere determinations of their religious mission and the teachings of their faith. The government cannot entangle itself in these religious decisions by second-guessing or undermining how religious schools and organizations have decided to train their ministers and leaders. Permitting the government to force itself into the process of setting standards for scholars and ministers of faith is a clear violation of religious autonomy—a threat to the healthy separation of church and state.

The government cannot pressure religious groups into abandoning their beliefs. If Sikhs decide to abandon the turban and kirpan, Orthodox Jews choose to stop keeping Kosher, or Muslims want to reject wearing the hijab, then those must be decisions made freely by members of the faith—not under compulsion from lawsuits and courts. So too with Christian beliefs on the sacrament of marriage. Fuller filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case in February 2020, and a hearing took place on August 4, 2020. On October 7, 2020, the federal district court dismissed the claims against Fuller, protecting the rights of religious educational institutions to uphold community standards. On November 3, 2020, Maxon and Brittsan appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On December 13, 2021, the Ninth Circuit unanimously protected the right of Fuller Theological Seminary to freely direct its own religious community, a significant win for the rights of religious education institutions of all faiths.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

Religious Communities—Religious groups must be able to select the members of their ministries according to their religious mission and sincere faith, free from government interference.
Freedom of groups to train their own leaders—The Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor unanimously protected a church’s right to choose and maintain standards for its own leaders. That principle applies to the training of religious leaders as well. Both church and state are best served when the state isn’t controlling the internal leadership decisions of a religious institution.

St. Vincent Catholic Charities v. Ingham County Board of Commissioners

Whatever you do for the least of my brothers

St. Vincent Catholic Charities is driven by faith to minister to the community of Lansing, Michigan. As a Christian organization, St. Vincent believes in the biblical commandment that it must care for the orphan, widow, and refugee.

Accordingly, for more than 40 years, St. Vincent has been providing crucial services to all refugees who have resettled in Lansing. Volunteers and staff do everything they can to make refugees feel safe and welcome in their new, unfamiliar home—from picking refugees up at the airport and locating safe, affordable housing to providing cultural orientation, computer training, and job search services.

St. Vincent is the only government-designated agency that provides these services to refugees in Lansing, and is a federally recognized priority resettlement site for LGBTQ refugees—often serving those who fled their homeland due to persecution for their sexual orientation.

Caring for the stranger in our midst

No other agency in Lansing has the capacity, experience, and community access to provide the vital refugee resettlement services available through St. Vincent. Without St. Vincent, around one hundred refugees will arrive in Lansing each year without the tools necessary to thrive in the United States.

But in 2019, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners decided to exclude St. Vincent (and only St. Vincent) from a program that helps provide social services to refugees in Lansing, despite the fact that the Board has said repeatedly that St. Vincent provides excellent services. Further, the Board threatened to end its partnership with St. Vincent, thus putting crucial refugee health services at risk. The Board had done all this in explicit retaliation for St. Vincent’s ongoing lawsuit against the State of Michigan. In that case, St. Vincent challenged Michigan’s discriminatory policies regarding the provision of foster care and adoption services (Buck v. Gordon).

Discriminatory retaliation

The Ingham County Board of Commissioners’ actions violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Constitution prohibits both religious discrimination and retaliation by government officials against those who have the courage to defend their First Amendment rights in court. Ingham County Commissioners have even called St. Vincent “morally bankrupt” and made numerous false allegations about the agency at public meetings. The government cannot discriminate against an organization simply because it dislikes the agency’s sincere religious beliefs. The Board admitted that St. Vincent’s refugee services are excellent and that the only reason it wanted to break ties with St. Vincent is because it disagreed with the Catholic agency’s sincere religious beliefs at issue in a separate lawsuit. St. Vincent’s religious beliefs, and its refugee services, should not be threatened for the sake of scoring cheap political points.

On March 7, 2022, a Michigan district court ruled for St. Vincent, saying, “the Board has singled out St. Vincent, not for its compelling interest in advancing certain community programs, but to punish St. Vincent for its religious beliefs.” St. Vincent will soon receive a determination on what relief it will receive given the Board’s discrimination.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public Square – The government cannot target or discriminate against organizations or individuals because of their sincere religious beliefs, even if those beliefs are expressed publicly or protected through litigation.
  • Religious Communities – Religious institutions have the right to serve those in need according to the dictates of their faith. Unfortunately, the rights of many religious institutions are under attack, sometimes simply because they stand out from the rest of society.
  • Free Speech – Religious people are protected by the First Amendment from being punished for petitioning the government to redress their grievances, including being punished for filing lawsuits to protect their religious ministry.


Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Lynn Starkey was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both the school and the Archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine, called the ministerial exception, in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Becket is defending the school’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

Next Steps

After the lawsuit was filed, a federal district court ruled in favor of Roncalli and the Archdiocese, saying that when an employee is “tasked with guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood,” “[o]ne may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work.” Starkey appealed the lower court’s decision. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 16, 2022. 

On July 28, 2022, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling in favor of Roncalli and the Archdiocese. The court said Starkey “was entrusted with communicating the Catholic faith to the school’s students and guiding the school’s religious mission.” Thus, the Constitution protected the school’s right to choose who would carry out that role.

Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are also represented by Wooton Hoy LLC.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Shelly Fitzgerald was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Fitzgerald told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Fitzgerald sued both the school and the Archdiocese, arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference, under a doctrine called the ministerial exception. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Here, Becket is defending the church’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana, where Roncalli and the Archdiocese are also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer. Becket is arguing that both federal law and the First Amendment protect religious schools’ right to make hiring decisions based on shared religious doctrine.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.


United States of America v. Scott Warren

The good Samaritans of the border

Every year thousands of migrants travel across the Sonoran Desert—one of the most extreme environments in North America—to the United States border in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The journey is treacherous, and thousands of migrants die on the way from exposure, dehydration, and hyperthermia. In Arizona alone, thousands of human remains have been found over the past two decades.

In the border counties of Arizona, humanitarian groups have formed to respond to the deaths and try to prevent them by leaving food, water, and supplies in areas that migrants are known to pass through, by conducting search and rescue missions, and by recovering the remains of migrants who have passed away on the journey—giving them a dignified burial.

Dr. Scott Warren is a resident of Ajo, Arizona. Driven by his religious belief that “all life is sacred, and places are sacred as well,” Dr. Warren is an active volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths—one such group that works to ensure the safety of migrants as they pass through the desert. With No More Deaths, Dr. Warren regularly conducts “missions” on which he places food, water, and other supplies at specific “water drop” sites which are well documented and maintained by No More Deaths.

No good deed goes unpunished

On June 1, 2017, Dr. Warren and his companions loaded up their vehicles with food, water, and supplies and set out into the desert early in the morning. After departing from the public road in order to reach his drop site, he was spotted by an officer, arrested, and charged with “Abandonment of Property” for leaving the supplies for migrants.

Dr. Warren and his companions always log the location and amount of supplies they leave and return to collect containers that are empty or unused. They are not discarding, or abandoning, the supplies left at drop sites; rather, they are giving them to those in need in hopes that they will save lives that may otherwise be lost. Further, the government allows ATVs, camping, and hunting in the same area where it forbids this humanitarian work.

Free to act on faith

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, embodies a simple principle: that government may not burden or punish religious exercise out of policy convenience or whim, but only in the rare case that it is truly necessary to serve an interest of overriding importance. Since it was passed in 1993, RFRA has been especially important to protecting the rights of religious minorities. (See RFRA Info Central for more information.)

In leaving supplies for migrants, Dr. Warren was acting on his sincerely held belief that every human life is sacred and no person should be left to die in the wilderness for lack of food, water, or medical supplies. The government, in prosecuting Dr. Warren, was burdening his religious practice and discouraging others from engaging in the same humanitarian work according to their own religious beliefs.

On November 21, 2019, a federal court acquitted Dr. Warren of the charge of abandonment of property based on his RFRA defense, ruling that the government did not need to burden Dr. Warren’s religious exercise in order to “protect[] the pristine state of the wildlife refuge” or “secur[e] the border.” He was found guilty of a vehicle permit violation, which may be appealed. Dr. Scott Warren is represented by Kuykendall & Associates of Tucson, Arizona.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual Freedom: Americans have the right to believe, express beliefs, and act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. Faith cannot and should not be confined to what we do within the four walls of our homes and churches; we must be free to act on those beliefs in our interactions with the broader world.

Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston v. HHS

Caring for the poor, the widow, and the immigrant

Following Catholic teaching, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston cares for the poor, the widowed, and the immigrant, providing critical, life-saving services through its ministries to hundreds of thousands of people in need every year. The Archdiocese and its vital ministries are driven by their Roman Catholic faith to care for those in need. The people they serve are of all creeds and backgrounds, including many living in poverty. In 2018, its ministries gave over 25,000 meals to seniors, provided over $10 million in disaster-recovery aid, and filed nearly 4,000 immigration petitions on behalf of refugees and immigrants.

A regulation standing in the way of helping children in need

Despite the Archdiocese’s many efforts to serve the underserved in its community, there is still a glaring crisis in the State of Texas. Thousands of vulnerable children wait to be placed in loving homes, but there are too few families to take all of them in. The Archdiocese would like to do more to help address the great need for foster families in its community. But a 2016 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation is preventing the Archdiocese from helping Texas foster kids, harming children who are still waiting for a home and family. The regulation requires religious foster care agencies to place children with same-sex couples even if doing so would go against their religious beliefs. This also contradicts a Texas law allowing agencies to refer couples to other agencies if they are unable to partner with them for religious reasons.

Many prospective foster families choose to work with faith-based organizations because of their shared beliefs and values. But some state and local governments are using this 2016 HHS regulation as justification for targeting religious agencies. Amid a nationwide foster care crisis, this regulation limits the number of agencies that can care for foster children in need, forcing organizations—like the Archdiocese—with the skills, resources, and desire to help to remain on the sidelines. The Archdiocese is seeking to grow, not limit, the number of foster families available to the orphans of Southeast Texas. Ending the regulation will strike a balance ensuring that all couples (including same-sex couples) can adopt, and all agencies (including Catholic agencies) can help broker foster and adoption placements. This is in the best interest of Texas’ foster children.

Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to teaching the Catholic faith and serving central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students.

The purpose of these schools is not only to provide a top-notch education, but to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is of particular importance that educators in Catholic schools respect and promote the Church’s teachings. This is why, when they are hired, all educators in the Archdiocese sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A broken agreement

In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, a teacher at Cathedral Catholic High School, entered a same-sex civil union in violation of his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. For almost two years, the Archdiocese engaged in discussion with Cathedral High School about the best course of action based on Catholic teaching. In the end, the Archdiocese informed Cathedral that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it could not continue employing teachers who lived in defiance of Church teaching.

Wishing to remain a Catholic school, Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott. Mr. Payne-Elliott then sued the Archdiocese in state court, arguing that it unfairly interfered in his agreement with the school.

Defending church autonomy

The Supreme Court has long recognized that secular courts have no business interfering in matters of church discipline or internal church governance. As the Indiana Supreme Court put it a century ago, “No power save that of the church can rightfully declare who is a Catholic.” Accordingly, Becket is defending the Archdiocese, arguing that the government cannot punish the Archdiocese for telling a Catholic school what rules it needed to follow in order to remain a Catholic school.

On May 7, 2021, the Marion Superior Court of Indiana agreed and dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the Archdiocese. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reversed, permitting the lawsuit to proceed. Now, Becket has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to step in, vindicate its First Amendment rights, and restore the trial court’s dismissal, preventing Indiana courts from becoming entangled in fundamentally religious disputes. The Indiana Supreme Court heard argument in the case on June 28, 2022

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities—Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

Chung v. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association

Meet the Chungs: Star athletes, faithful to their Sabbath

Joelle and Joseph Chung are siblings, avid tennis players, and active members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their hometown, Chehalis, Washington. As faithful Adventists, Joelle and Joseph observe the Sabbath, a biblically-ordained practice of devoting time to rest, prayer and collective worship, every week from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. The Chung family take their faith very seriously. Joelle even missed her own high school graduation because it fell on a Saturday. Joelle and Joseph became tennis players because they knew that the sport was primarily played on the weekdays, so it would not interfere with their religious observance.

Joelle was a top athlete on her high school’s girls’ tennis team for four years before graduating in 2019. Joseph is a current high school student and is already a star player on the boys’ tennis team as a sophomore. The Chungs are talented and dedicated tennis players, but a discriminatory rule has kept them from playing the sport they love because of their beliefs.

Kept off the court for their faith

Every year the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the organization authorized under Washington law to regulate high-school sports in Washington, holds a state-wide postseason tennis tournament. To advance to the State Championships, players must compete in two qualifying tournaments. Throughout Joelle’s high school tennis career, the WIAA required participants to certify that they would be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, with exceptions for injuries, illness, and “unforeseen events.”

In her junior year, Joelle won the first qualifying tournament leading up to the State Championships but had to forfeit her spot to an alternate because the next round conflicted with the Sabbath. In 2019, her senior season, Joelle was undefeated and expected to win in the qualifying tournaments and advance to the State Championships. Yet the State Championships were scheduled on a Friday and Saturday. According to WIAA rules, she was disqualified from playing the entire postseason.

Hoping to reach a compromise, the Chung family contacted the WIAA months in advance, asking for a religious accommodation. The Chungs asked the WIAA to move the State Championships to a weekday or simply allow Joelle to participate in the qualifying tournaments and use an alternate for the championships, just like athletes with injuries or illness can. Of course, it was entirely hypothetical that a replacement would be needed, depending on whether Joelle advanced to the championships. The WIAA flatly denied their requests, forcing Joelle to give up her chances in the tournament.

Defending the right to play while keeping the faith

No student-athlete should be barred from experiencing the excitement of competition and the opportunity to advance to the top of their field because of discriminatory standards. With Becket’s help, the Chung family sued the WIAA, asking that the rule be changed so that all students, including students of faith, can fully participate. The boys’ state tennis postseason begins in October so, Becket asked the WIAA to change its discriminatory rule before then so that Joseph and other students whose faith compels them to keep the Sabbath on Saturday can participate on equal terms with other students.

On August 27, 2019 the WIAA added religious observance to the list of exceptions allowing a player to withdraw from competition without being penalized. But this rule change is only a partial victory because the WIAA continues to insist that it cannot adjust the schedule of the tournament to accommodate religious observance, even if one of the remaining contenders has a Sabbath conflict.

The Chungs moved for summary judgment in September 2020, but the court decided to send the case to trial. Because WIAA had already changed the rule excluding them from postseason play, our clients agreed to settle as long as WIAA would agree to keep in place its amended rule allowing Saturday Sabbath observers to play in the postseason up until they run into an actual Sabbath conflict. A settlement agreement was reached and approved by the court on September 3, 2021. On September 21, 2021, the court granted the parties’ motion to dismiss, formally ending the case.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom—In a pluralistic society, organizations have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations to ensure Americans of all faiths can participate fully in society. No American should unnecessarily be forced to choose between participating in public life and living out their sincere religious beliefs. Organizations especially cannot make secular exceptions to their rules and regulations and then claim that religious exceptions cannot be allowed.

Belen Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District

Brothers bound by a sacred promise 

When Pedro and Belen Gonzales’ eldest son, Cesar, was an infant, he contracted a very serious illness. Longing for his recovery, Pedro and Belen made a religious promise that if their son’s health improved, they would keep a strand of hair on the back of his head uncut as an expression of faith and gratitude. After Cesar recovered and their second son, Diego, was born, the family continued the practice as a deeply important and personal part of their religious faith. As they grew older, both boys continued to keep a small strand of their hair uncut, committed to living out their family’s sacred practice 

From kindergarten through sixth grade, the local school district allowed the boys to keep their long hair—despite a dress code requiring boys to have short hair—because the school recognized that the religious promise was an important part of their identity. The boys were active in many afterschool activities, such as football, the robotics team, and student government.  

Forced to sever a core part of their identity 

In August 2017, as they were entering the seventh grade at Mathis Middle School, the Gonzales brothers were suddenly told that they would no longer be allowed to keep a strand of their hair uncut. The Gonzales family appealed the decision but were eventually denied by the school board. The boys were banned from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs, which meant they couldn’t play on the football team or travel with the robotics team. Cesar’s grades even began to suffer when he was excluded from band performances—a core part of the academic band grade.  

The Texas Association of School Boards instructs school districts that they “must accommodate requests for exceptions [from grooming codes] based on a student or parent’s sincerely held religious belief.But the boys’ school district has refused to follow this recommendation. The school’s coaching staff even told Cesar, “All it takes is a quick snip of the scissors for you to get your football equipment.”  

Defending students’ freedom to express their faith 

On May 30, 2018, the Gonzales family sued the Mathis Independent School District on behalf of their sons, arguing that the school’s stubborn adherence to their grooming code imposed a burden on the family’s religious practice. 

On July 15, 2019, Becket sent a letter to Mathis Independent School District, urging the District to reach a settlement with the Gonzales family and allow the Gonzales boys to learn and play alongside their classmates.  

When the District refused, the federal court on September 5, 2019, granted the family’s request for a religious accommodation allowing participation in extracurriculars while the case proceeds. Finally, on May 25, 2021, the Mathis Independent School District entered a settlement agreement resolving the case. The District paid $20,000 to cover the family’s attorneys’ fees and promised to respect the Gonzales brothers’ religious practices for the duration of their enrollment. The Gonzales children can now fully participate in the life of the school while keeping their religious promise.  

The Gonzales family was represented by Texas attorney Frank Gonzales and Jamie Aycock, Kenneth Young, and Kelsee Foote of the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Education: No American should have to give up their faith when they go to school. The Constitution protects the free expression of sincerely held religious beliefs from arbitrary restrictions 
  • Individual Freedom: Every individual has the right to live and act according to their conscience, both privately and publicly, free from government coercion. 

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

Community and service for 75 years

The InterVarsity student group on Wayne State campus began in the 1940s as one of the first InterVarsity chapters in the United States, instituted as a place for students to come together and share their faith. Over the years, it has hosted campus discussions on issues like human trafficking, helped clean up blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, and volunteered at the campus food pantry. Most of all, InterVarsity has created a thriving community of students who come together for Bible study, worship, friendship and support during their college careers. This is particularly important at Wayne State, since it is a commuter campus and many students can struggle to find a place where they belong.

Kicked off campus for their religious beliefs

In 2017, InterVarsity applied to renew its student organization status, a renewal the students thought would be automatic. Instead, the Dean of Students’ office told them that their chapter constitution was unacceptable. According to Wayne State, InterVarsity did not meet the necessary requirements because its expectation that its leaders embrace its faith was “discriminatory.” But asking leaders to share its faith was a matter of basic integrity and was an absolute necessity to remaining a Christian group. And it had never been an issue in the prior 75 years on campus. Further, student membership is open to all, and all are invited to group events. Yet in October 2017, Wayne State abruptly derecognized the group and canceled all its existing meeting reservations.

Meanwhile, the university recognizes more than 400 student groups, and allows them to select their leaders. The Secular Student Alliance can require leaders to be secularists, Students for Life can require its members to be pro-life, and more than a dozen fraternities and sororities can limit membership to one sex. These requirements are normal and acceptable, yet the school blatantly discriminated against InterVarsity by barring it from having the same ability to select leaders who share and live by its mission.

InterVarsity stands up to religious discrimination

With Becket’s help, on March 6, 2018, the student group sued Wayne State University to protect their right to be treated like other groups and select leaders who share its faith and mission. By specifically targeting religious groups, Wayne State is violating its own policy against religious discrimination—in addition to the First Amendment.

After Becket took Wayne State, as well as Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, to court, the school relented and reinstated InterVarsity on campus. Now, the university is asking a federal court to give it the power to kick the group off campus at a later time. In June 2018, Becket filed two briefs seeking a permanent fix to the school’s discriminatory policy, which allows more than 90 student groups to choose leaders who agree with them – but not InterVarsity. In July 2018, InterVarsity dropped its lawsuit against Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette after they acknowledged that Michigan universities must respect the rights of religious student groups to choose their own leaders.

The parties filed motions for summary judgment in October 2020. Becket filed its reply brief, asking the court to permanently forbid Wayne State from kicking IVCF off campus and award IVCF proper damages, on December 3, 2020. Oral argument in the case was heard in March of 2021, and on April 5, 2021, a federal court ruled in favor of InterVarsity, protecting its status as a campus club and holding Wayne State University officials responsible for violating InterVarsity’s First Amendment Rights.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public university.
  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and should not be scrubbed from the public square. This includes public university campuses, which are reflections of the students who attend them, including students with religious beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor guarantees the right of religious groups to select their own leaders without government interference or entanglement.

Dumont v. Lyon

WEBSITE for Religious Adoption Cases

A Desperate Need 

There is a national foster care crisis: more and more vulnerable children are being placed in the foster care system, and there aren’t enough families to care for them. For the nearly 13,000 children in Michigan foster care, nothing is more important than finding a loving, permanent home. Each year, over 600 Michigan children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family to provide stability, love and support. With so many children in need, and a shortage of families willing to take them in, the State of Michigan relies on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Like other agencies, St. Vincent partners with the state to recruit and support foster and adoptive families. St. Vincent is particularly good at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.

ACLU would put children’s needs last 

In September 2017, the ACLU sued the State of Michigan to forbid the state from partnering with faith-based adoption agencies like St. Vincent, solely because of their religious beliefs about marriage. St. Vincent’s beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a loving home. Gay couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past. In fact, the ACLU’s clients live closer to four other foster and adoption agencies that would have helped them adopt. Instead of going to these agencies, they have spent years targeting St. Vincent and trying to shut down their programs. 

ACLU’s lawsuit is not about helping kids. It’s about scoring cheap political points at the expense of kids. The only thing that the ACLU’s lawsuit would accomplish is fewer homes for children, especially minority children and those with special needs.

Protecting children and families 

In March 2018, the Court granted Becket’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Shamber Flore and the Buck family. Becket asked the court to dismiss this unnecessary lawsuit, but in September 2018 the court decided the case should go forward.

On March 22, 2019, the Attorney General Michigan and the ACLU signed a settlement agreement to try to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies, which could keep thousands of children from finding the loving homes they deserve.

Becket filed a new lawsuit defending St. Vincent and foster families in federal court on April 15, 2019. 

Importance to religious liberty 

  • Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs. 
  • Public squareFaith-based organizations have the same right as secular organizations to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse. 
  • Establishment Clause: A state does not violate the Establishment Clause when it partners with faith-based agencies to further the interests of a state initiative. In this case, private adoption agencies provide critical resources to address a state issue: the shortage of families willing and able to adopt children in the foster care system. 

BLinC v. University of Iowa

Students integrating faith and work

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) is a Christian student organization at the University of Iowa that hosts weekly discussion groups, where students pray, share Biblical messages, and spiritually strengthen one another. At the heart of BLinC’s identity is its mission to form future business leaders who will integrate their religious values such as integrity, service, and compassion into the workplace. BLinC regularly invites Christian business professionals to mentor students on how they can integrate the faith and their careers. As a part of its ministry, BLinC also successfully partners with a local non-profit, after-school program for mentoring at-risk youth. It has also teamed up with a Christ-centered education organization dedicated to teaching low-income children how to become excellent students and leaders in their communities.

As a Christian group, BLinC reasonably asks that group leaders share its Christian faith and beliefs. In this respect, BLinC is no different from the many other student groups on campus that ask their leaders to adhere to certain requirements. For instance, fraternities have only male leaders and members; female sports clubs have only female leaders and members; and political and ideological groups can require their leaders to agree with their mission.

University of Iowa targeted BLinC for its religious beliefs

But in October 2017, school officials at the University of Iowa targeted BLinC because of its religious beliefs. University officials claimed that, because BLinC requires its leaders to sign a Statement of Faith, agreeing that they believe and will follow BLinC’s religious beliefs, it is violating the school’s antidiscrimination policy. BLinC was told that to get back on campus, it would have to change its religious beliefs.

Yet, despite the University’s insistence that BLinC’s Statement of Faith violates school policy, the University supports the rights of other groups to select leaders who share and live by their mission. The University supports the rights of fraternities at the University of Iowa to admit only men. The Feminist Union can require its members to agree on issues of contraception and abortion. The group Students for Life requires its members to be pro-life. All of that is perfectly acceptable, making it more apparent that the school is discriminating against BLinC by barring it from having the same ability to select leaders as other groups.

Federal court to UI: Apply policy to all groups, or stop targeting religious groups

In December 2017, BLinC sued the University of Iowa in federal court to protect its right to select leaders who share its faith and mission. On January 23, 2018, the court ruled in favor of BLinC, reinstating it on campus and giving the University 90 days to either apply its policy as written, which would allow all groups to select leaders who embrace their mission, or stop all groups from selecting leaders based on their ideologies. When the University continued to apply its policy inconsistently, the district court extended its preliminary injunction to cover the life of the case on June 28, 2018.

On December 21, 2018, the United States filed a groundbreaking brief in support of BLINC. The United States explained that the university’s discrimination against BLinC for ‘fail[ing] to confirm to University orthodoxy’ not only harms “the free and open discourse” of the university, but also is “a textbook violation of BLinC’s First Amendment rights” to free association, free speech and the free exercise of religion.

Oral argument was heard in federal district court in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2019. Before the hearing, the university revealed that it had placed virtually every religious student group on campus—and only religious groups—on probation pending the outcome of BLinC’s case. On February 6, 2019, the court ruled that the university must end its unequal treatment of religious student organizations, and allow BLinC permanently back on campus. The ruling states, “The Constitution does not tolerate the way [the university] chose to enforce the Human Rights Policy. Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which [the university] ha[s] failed to withstand.” The ruling is the first federal court decision granting equal access to a religious student group in almost a decade.

The Court, however, declined to hold the University officials personally responsible for their wrongdoing, concluding that the law was not clear at the time of their misconduct. BLinC appealed that portion of the Court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Oral argument was heard on September 22, 2020. On March 22, 2021, the court ruled that the University of Iowa’s unconstitutional conduct was so blatant and clear that university leadership should be held personally accountable for their unlawful actions.


  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech and free association—especially religious speech in religious groups—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and association by studying at a taxpayer-supported public university.
  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and should not be scrubbed from the public square. This includes public university campuses, which are reflections of the students who attend them and the taxpayers who support them, including religious students and taxpayers.
  • Religious communities: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor guarantees the right of religious groups to select their own leaders without government interference or entanglement.

Chabad of Key West v. FEMA

Houses of worship need not apply

Following a natural disaster, FEMA provides disaster aid grants to nonprofits like zoos, homeless shelters, and stamp clubs, but for many years, its policy made it clear that houses of worship need not apply. Despite FEMA’s recognition that synagogues, mosques, and churches are essential partners in the recovery process, FEMA’s policy denied houses of worship relief funds solely because they are religious.

This meant synagogues like the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of the Space Coast, which suffered serious wind and water damage during hurricane Irma, were left out in the cold. Despite pitching in to help their neighbors in recovery efforts, the synagogues didn’t know how they were going to repair their own facilities.

Becket defends equal treatment

In November of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of Space Coast in federal district court in Florida, pointing out that FEMA’s discriminatory policy was a violation of the First Amendment, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which protects the right of religious organizations to participate in widely available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

In January of 2018, responding to pressure from litigation, FEMA changed its policy, putting an end to decades of discrimination against houses of worship. On February 9, 2018, Congress passed a bill and the President signed into law a bill that codified FEMA’s policy, ensuring that Chabad of Key West, Chabad of the Space Coast, and other houses of worship will be treated equally alongside other charitable organizations in the future. Since FEMA began treating the synagogues like all other disaster relief applicants, they were able to dismiss their lawsuit on February 13, 2018.

Becket also filed a similar lawsuit in Houston, Texas in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square.
  • Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.

Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency

Pillars of hope and help for disaster-stricken communities

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, houses of worship across Texas opened their doors and welcomed thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. From housing and feeding evacuees to loading trucks with meals and hygiene supplies, local churches, synagogues, and mosques were pillars of safety, hope, and help when disaster struck.

Yet at the same time they were opening their doors to the community, they were picking up the pieces to their own devastated buildings. Houses of worship like Harvest Family Church and Hi-Way Tabernacle suffered unprecedented flooding, and churches along the Gulf Coast like Rockport First Assembly had their steeples blown off and windows blown out.

Becket defends churches from FEMA discrimination

FEMA has repeatedly praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship as staging areas for relief efforts. Yet FEMA banned houses of worship from receiving recovery grants that are available to other similar private nonprofits, such as museums, zoos, and even community centers that provide services such as sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs. This discriminatory policy stood in defiance of a 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which protects the right of religious organizations to participate in widely available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

In September of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God. Because the churches were badly damaged and struggling to recover from the hurricane, Becket filed an emergency request for the court to quickly grant equal access to relief.

In December 2017, the district court ruled against the churches. That same day, the churches filed an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which granted an expedited appeal but not emergency protection.

Victory: Supreme Court urges a new FEMA policy

Becket then filed an emergency request with Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court Justice who hears emergency petitions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to grant emergency relief to avoid further delay in allowing the churches to apply for help. The Supreme Court responded by asking FEMA to explain its discrimination against houses of worship by January 10, 2018.

The pressure from the Court’s request allowed the churches to celebrate a complete victory for houses of worship nationwide: On January 3, FEMA quickly published a new policy and announced the change before the January 10 deadline. The new policy gave the churches what they needed, putting an end to FEMA’s decades of discrimination against houses of worship. Since FEMA would now treat houses of worship like all other non-profit disaster relief applicants, the churches dismissed their lawsuit shortly after.

FEMA also opened up a new application window for houses of worship that had previously been denied aid under its old policy, including two synagogues in Florida represented by Becket that also sued FEMA due to damage they sustained by Hurricane Irma.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square.
  • Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Trump

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that keeping government officials out of internal church decisions is vital to protecting a separation of church and state. That includes allowing houses of worship to choose what to teach during their worship services. But now an atheist group is trying to force the IRS into the business of editing sermons and punishing church beliefs. Becket is fighting back.  

Leaders should be free to preach about issues that matter 

Throughout American history, religious leaders of different faiths have helped speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. They encouraged their congregations to throw off British oppression, to support the abolition of slavery, and to protect civil rights. That tradition continues today. 

In 2012, the Reverend Charles Moodie and his family left New York to settle in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty. In his mission to help the underprivileged and drug addicted find redemption and the fellowship of a community, Reverend Moodie pastors Chicago City Life Center. Reverend Moodie preaches about social and political issues that affect the people of his congregation, including protecting the most vulnerable in society. 

In Wisconsin, two more pastors also assert their freedom to lead their congregations in the faith. Pastor Koua Vang preaches about political issues that impact his Hmong community, a group of people that has historically experienced injustice and oppression under communist regimes in Laos and Vietnam. Father Patrick Malone likewise preaches about the need for his congregation, Holy Cross Anglican Church, to seek justice in every aspect of life, including politics.  

But now their right to freely preach is facing a dangerous threat.  

Atheists demand the tax man’s censorship of sermons 

In 1954, Congress passed a law—popularly known as the Johnson Amendment—that bans certain nonprofits from teaching about politics or candidates. There’s no evidence that Congress intended to limit the historical tradition of pastors preaching from the pulpit, but the IRS claims that it can ban such preaching. While the IRS talks tough, it has never attempted to actually prevent a pastor from preaching during religious services. 

But now the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wants to change that. It wants the IRS to punish pastors for their sermons by asking the court to enforce regulations that would revoke the churches’ tax-exempt status, involve the IRS in the churches’ finances, and levy fines against both the churches and their individual leaders. This is FFRF’s second attempt to enforce the Johnson Amendment; it tried three years ago, but then threw in the towel after Becket got involved. Now FFRF is back in court trying its same old arguments again.  

If enforced, the rule could silence Reverend Moodie and countless other ministers like him, restricting their ability to lead their churches. 

Defending religious leaders’ right to free speech 

In June 2017, Becket sought to intervene on behalf of Reverend Moodie, Pastor Vang, Father Malone, and Holy Cross Anglican to protect their right to preach free from IRS entanglement. Religious leaders – not the IRS or FFRF – should decide what to preach. In August 2017, Becket asked the court to reject FFRF’s suit outright as a violation of the separation of church and state.

In December 2017, FFRF dismissed their own lawsuit, giving up before the court had a chance to rule against them. By law, because this is now the second time that FFRF has given up on the same claim, FFRF’s dismissal means they have lost on the merits—and the pastors have permanently fended off FFRF.

Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla.

Searching for a house of worship

The Chabad of East Boca is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Florida that provides religious worship, outreach, and educational services. Like many other faith groups, it needed a house of worship for its congregation. After searching for years, the Chabad finally found the ideal location, took all the necessary steps to build, and—after a long series of public meetings—received unanimous city council approval to move forward in 2015. The approval came under a zoning law passed in 2008 that gave all houses of worship equal rights to build. But a small opposition group, led by a New York attorney, sued in federal court to stop the synagogue from being built.

Opposition fueled by anti-Semitism

Beginning in 2007, the Chabad experienced well-organized and well-financed hostility from a small group. Even after the building was unanimously approved in 2015, two landowners hired a New York attorney—notorious for her opposition to religious civil rights laws—and filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the synagogue’s construction. The lawsuit made the bizarre claim that allowing a house of worship equal access to build on private land violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The small group openly admitted that some other group’s opposition to the Chabad was driven by anti-Semitism. They claimed that allowing the synagogue to be built discriminated against them as Christians—even though the 2008 city ordinance they challenged granted equal access for all faith groups, local Christian congregations supported the synagogue, and they had never been prevented from building a church. They also claimed that building the 2-story synagogue would cause “inevitable” floods and prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the area, even though the area is already surrounded by 22-story condos and strip malls.

In addition to fighting the lawsuit, the Chabad also suffered a string of attacks in the last few years. A teenage member of the synagogue was physically assaulted on a public sidewalk and told to “go back to Auschwitz.” The ministry’s temporary home was also vandalized repeatedly: its glass mezuzahs containing sacred scripture were destroyed and stolen, and a glass synagogue door was smashed.

Winning the right to build

The Chabad twice urged a federal court to reject the lawsuit, and it won both times, first in July 2016 and then again in March 2016. The court went so far as to find that the plaintiffs “fail[ed] to allege any injury at all.” But in April 2017, the plaintiffs prolonged the case by appealing to the Eleventh Circuit. On May 7, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit granted the Chabad its third victory, protecting the Chabad’s right to build a synagogue.

The Chabad was represented by Becket and Kirkland & Ellis.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Property rights: Local governments must treat all houses of worship equally when it comes to property rights, zoning laws, and permit processes. A Jewish synagogue must be afforded the same access to building permits as a Christian church or any other house of worship.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to operate according to their religious beliefs even if the wider community around them disagrees with those beliefs.

Society of American Bosnians & Herzegovinians v. City of Des Plaines

The Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians is a small Muslim community in a Chicago suburb with approximately 160 members that observes a Sufi approach to Islam. For years, the Society attempted to rent facilities for its worship services, but hoped to one day build a mosque in the City of Des Plaines, Illinois, which already has 42 houses of worship.

In 2013, after searching for two years, the Society found a property in a manufacturing district that had stood vacant for many years. The City’s Comprehensive Zoning Plan proposed that the district be rezoned to allow houses of worship, since other religious groups seeking property in the district had similar applications granted.

Studies showed that re-zoning would have minimal impact on parking and traffic, so the City Plan Commission unanimously recommended granting the Society’s application. However, after a public hearing, the Des Plaines City Council denied the re-zoning application, claiming that a mosque would create traffic and parking problems. Unlike its requirements for other religious organizations, the City demanded that the Society provide four times the number of parking spots required by law, which would have forced the Society to reduce its worship space by half. Because the Society was delayed in moving forward with its plans, its contract for the property was terminated.

The Society represented by Anthony J. Peraica & Associates, sued the City for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects religious organizations from discrimination in land-use regulation. Becket, joined by Charles Wentworth of the Illinois law firm Lofgren & Wentworth, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Society’s right to build a house of worship.

In addition to this case, Becket has supported or is currently supporting a mosque in New Jersey and has also previously invoked RLUIPA in defending a Christian agricultural community in Hawaii, a Sikh temple and a Jewish synagogue in California, a Buddhist temple in Connecticut, and churches in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration

A spiritual promise to protect sacred lands of Mount Hood

The Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of Yakama Nation have lived in the areas surrounding Mount Hood for centuries. It has been the center of tribal quests, spiritual rituals, and sacred burial ceremonies since long before this nation was founded.

As the hereditary chiefs, Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson serve as spiritual leaders for their tribes. For more than 30 years they have taught the tribes’ traditional ways and organized religious ceremonies such as vision quests and water ceremonies along the mountain trails. As chiefs, one of the most crucial roles is to protect the welfare of the people and their lands. The protection of sacred sites allows tribal members to safely return to these areas to fish, hunt, gather food and medicine, and bury their dead to safeguard the individual’s spiritual journey home.

Government bulldozes sacred lands

In 2006, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a project to expand U.S. Highway 26, which is the main highway linking Portland to Mount Hood. The tribal chiefs alerted government officials to the importance of the burial grounds, as tribal members had done in the past when the government announced expansion plans. Yet, this time, the government refused to listen.

In 2008, in direct violation of a 1987 Highway 26 Widening Agreement, government officials bulldozed the ancestral burial grounds. Although the government left the other side of the highway untouched—protecting nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor—it buried the Natives’ ancestral grave sites, destroyed a sacred stone altar, and removed safe access to the sites.

Defending the religious rights of Native Americans

In October 2008, Chiefs Slockish and Jackson, and tribal elder Carol Logan, together with the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance, sued the government, citing federal laws including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations between the tribal members and the government, negotiations failed.

In 2015, the tribe members returned to court to seek remedies for the destruction of their lands and ensure they are consulted before the government orders any future construction in the area. In October 2017, an important hearing was held in which the tribe members asked the court to find that the destruction of their sacred site substantially burdened their religious practices. Sadly, the tribes were denied justice when the judge ruled that the government was free to bulldoze sacred Native American burial grounds and destroy sacred artifacts without violating RFRA.

In December 2018, the tribe members asked the court for relief based on their claims that the destruction of their sacred site violated environmental laws. Following a magistrate judge’s preliminary recommendation against the tribe members in April 2020, the district court denied relief to the tribe members in a 3-page order on February 21, 2021. On November 24, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government will not be held responsible for its destruction of the sacred site. The tribe members are now pursuing further appeals.

The tribe members are represented by Becket together with Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm, Patterson Buchanan Forbes & Leitch.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious liberty includes the right to worship how and where one’s faith dictates. Government should not restrict the ability of individuals or groups to access religious sites, especially when there is an alternative way for the government to achieve its goal.
  • Religious liberty for Native Americans: Whether they are directly targeted or indirectly affected by government actions, minority religious groups are particularly vulnerable to government violations of their religious liberty. Actively defending religious liberty for Native Americans strengthens religious liberty for people of all faiths.

Singh v. McConville

Soldiers of faith and service

Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are three Sikh soldiers who can now freely serve in the U.S. Army while following their faith.

Specialist Kanwar Singh was highly regarded for his ROTC service during college and achieved the highest possible score on the military entrance exam when applying to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Specialist Harpal Singh is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, all three of which are highly sought after by the Army. He also has significant expertise in telecommunications technologies, having deployed around the world—including to Ghana, Russia, and the Middle East—to develop telecommunications systems. Private Arjan Ghotra joined the Virginia Army National Guard at age seventeen after serving for several years in the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force.

All three men exemplify the values of the Army. Yet all three faced discrimination for wearing turbans, unshorn hair, and beards according to their faith.

Discriminating against the faithful

These three soldiers sought their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed in 1993 by President Clinton, RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing a soldier’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

In this instance the government had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans. Nearly 100,000 soldiers have exemptions from the Army’s beard ban for medical reasons. Our military’s Special Forces commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have always served, and continue serving, in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and elsewhere. Canada’s current Secretary of Defense is a fully-bearded Sikh, who previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

Becket defends Sikh soldiers

This is the second lawsuit launched by Becket in defense of Sikh Americans seeking to serve the country. In Singh v. Carter, Becket also represented decorated Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who filed a similar suit against the Army for the right to keep his beard according to his faith.

In March 2016, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh faith.

In April 2016, the Army took a historic step toward allowing Sikhs to serve in the military by accommodating Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra, at least long enough for them to complete basic training. In January 2017, that victory was made permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Singh v. Carter

Torn between serving country and living out faith 

Military service has a rich legacy within the Sikh tradition: observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. For Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh, the legacy is also personal, as military service runs strong in his family. Endorsed by his local congressman, Simmer was accepted into West Point in 2006. But a 30-year ban on beards threatened Simmer’s ability to serve. 

As a child, Simmer Singh wore the  patka, a small turban worn by Sikh children to cover their unshorn hair. In high school, he began wearing a full turban and beard—also core “articles of faith” in the Sikh religion—to remind him of the inherent dignity and equality of every individual before God. He expected to wear these articles of faith to his death – until he joined the Army. Simmer believed that he would be given a religious accommodation for his unshorn hair, beard, and turban, but on Reception Day he was told he had to cut his hair and shave or leave the Academy. Compelled on the spot to choose between serving his country and his faith—a decision no American should have to make—he chose to serve, committing to reclaim his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. 

Captain Singh went on to serve with distinction for more than ten years. He completed both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Courses, received a Bronze Star Medal for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, and attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. 

RFRA protects Sikhs who serve 

In 2015, Simmer learned about his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights groups. RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason. 

In this case, the Army had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans by banning their religious beard, since it gave nearly 100,000 soldiers exemptions from its beard ban for medical reasons. Special Forces Operators commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have continually served in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and throughout the world. In fact, Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Singh Sajjan is a fully-bearded Sikh and previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan. 

Victory for Sikh soldiers 

In October 2015, Becket, along with the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, petitioned the Army to grant Captain Singh a religious accommodation. In December 2015, the Army  issued  a one-month accommodation under RFRA, but then shortly after, ordered Simmer to undergo a series of discriminatory tests that other soldiers who wore beards for medical reasons were not required to complete. 

On February 29, 2016, Becket, McDermott, and the Sikh Coalition  filed a lawsuit  on Simmer’s behalf to block the discriminatory testing and to obtain a permanent accommodation.  Days later, in a rare move against the Army, the court ordered the Department of Defense to cease all discriminatory testing against Captain Singh because of his religious beard and granted him  temporary protection  while the case was ongoing. In March 2016, Becket filed a similar lawsuit in  Singh v. McConville  on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh articles of faith. 

Following the court ruling, the Army granted Simmer a longer accommodation that allowed him to serve with his religious beard, unshorn hair, and turban for up to one year. On January 4, 2017, that victory became permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Township of Bernards

A suburban New Jersey town denied a small Muslim congregation the right to build a new mosque where it could meet to worship. So the congregation went to court.

A small mosque with a big dream

Mohammad Ali Chaudry is a Pakistani immigrant who has lived with his family in Basking Ridge, New Jersey for nearly 40 years. Chaudry, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Tufts University and is a retired AT&T executive, has a long history of community engagement, including serving on the town’s board of education and as mayor from 2004 to 2007. He is also the founding and current president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, a small Muslim congregation.

In 2008, Chaudry began looking for property to build a larger space to hold the Society’s prayer meetings and Sunday school for children. A few years later, Chaudry purchased a 4-acre site zoned for houses of worship and began planning construction. The small, unassuming mosque was designed to fit in with the residential neighborhood, without a traditional dome and with discrete minarets that looked like chimneys.

Red tape discrimination from the town board

In 2012, after the Society filed its application for a permit with the Township’s Planning Board, what ensued was four years of local bureaucratic quagmire. The Board held a record 39 public hearings during which time the Society faced hostility and vandalism from members of the local community.

The Society’s application met every requirement from the Township Planning Board, but the goal posts kept changing. For example, the 150-congregant mosque was required by local ordinance to have 50 parking spaces—the same amount required for churches and synagogues of the same size. But local bureaucrats changed the rules to require more than double that amount of parking for the mosque.

In January 2016, the application to build the mosque was ultimately denied.

Becket defends the right to worship

In March 2016, represented by Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP,  the Society sued the town for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In May 2016, the Society asked the court to rule in its favor.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the mosque, which was signed by a diverse coalition including the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Becket, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Muslim Bar Association of New York, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, National Association of Evangelicals, New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association, Queens Federation of Churches, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey, South Asian Bar Association of New York, and Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.

On November 22, 2016 the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Township of Bernards over the denial of zoning approval for the mosque. On December 31, 2016, the court ruled in favor of the mosque’s right to build.

In May 2017, the Township settled the lawsuits, agreeing to treat all houses of worship equally.

Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra

In May 2016, the federal government issued a mandate requiring that virtually every healthcare provider in the country be willing to perform and provide insurance coverage for gender-transition procedures. The mandate made no exception for providers who believe those procedures to be harmful or object to them on religious grounds, and it applied to all patients, including children.

The mandate elevated ideology over medicine. A growing body of research shows there significant risks with gender reassignment therapy, such as heart conditions, increased cancer risk, and loss of bone density. Moreover, most children who experience gender dysphoria grow out of it naturally without these invasive and irreversible procedures. So under the mandate, many doctors were being required to violate not only their religious beliefs, but also the Hippocratic Oath, on pain of draconian penalties.

An association of over 19,000 healthcare professionals, eight states, and two religious hospitals challenged the mandate in the federal court for the Northern District of Texas. (A similar suit, involving other challengers, was filed in North Dakota). In December 2016, the Texas court issued a preliminary ruling that the policy was an unlawful overreach by a federal agency and a likely violation of religious liberty. And in October 2019, the court confirmed its earlier ruling, explaining that doctors must be free to practice in their field of medicine without being forced to perform these controversial procedures that violate their faith.

The court did not, however, issue an order permanently stopping the government from imposing this unlawful mandate on religious hospitals and doctors. Becket therefore appealed on behalf of the challengers. In April 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the district court should consider further whether to grant that lasting protection.

Back at the district court, in August 2021, the judge granted the permanent relief the doctors and hospitals sought. Under the district court’s final ruling, the government may not require the challengers to perform or insure gender-transition procedures contrary to their faith and medical judgment going forward—even if the agency tinkers around the edges with the language of its mandate.

Dissatisfied with not being able to force religious healthcare providers to violate their faith, in late 2021, the federal government, along with the ACLU, appealed the decision back to the Fifth Circuit. Oral argument will take place on August 4, 2022.

More information can be found at www.transgendermandate.org.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: The freedom of conscience is the human right to believe, express beliefs, and act according to the dictates of an individual’s conscience. Becket defends the right of all individuals to live according to their consciences without government coercion.

Ave Maria University v. Burwell

A service-oriented university inspired by Mother Theresa

Ave Maria University is a Catholic liberal arts educational institution dedicated to the formation of joyful, intentional followers of Christ through scholarship and service. The university is committed to transmitting authentic Catholic values to its students, who can then carry those values to the world.

President Jim Towey knows first-hand the immense value people of faith can bring society. Before Ave Maria, he served alongside Mother Theresa and worked with her for over 12 years to establish AIDS clinics and homeless shelters. Now through the university’s Mother Theresa Project, students serve domestic at-risk populations, including HIV victims, pregnant women, and displaced immigrants. Abroad, students serve with Habitat for Humanity in local schools, nursing homes, and missions in Mexico, Uganda and India. The university’s bold Catholic identity animates this work.

The HHS mandate threatens the university’s faith

But an unconstitutional mandate soon threatened the very faith that drives Ave Maria’s mission. In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate required employers to provide services such as the week-after pill in their healthcare plans free of cost.

This left Ave Maria in a terrible bind: either betray its Catholic beliefs and cover the drugs, or end employee health benefits and pay hundreds of thousands in annual fines.  Faced with an impossible choice, the university went to court to defend its right to freely follow its faith.

Ave Maria fights back—and wins—in court

In August 2013, represented by Becket, Ave Maria refiled its lawsuit in federal district court, which granted the university a preliminary injunction in October 2014.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption for religious non-profits. On July 11, 2018, the federal district court granted the university a permanent injunction, protecting the university from having to violate its faith. And on November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like Ave Maria, definitively ending the case.

Ave Maria is now free to continue carrying out its educational mission according to its religious beliefs.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Gloucester County v. G.G.

Title IX was enacted in 1972 to promote equality for men and women in education by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sex.” But in May 2016, the U.S. Department of Education unilaterally announced a sweeping change: going forward “sex” would mean an individual’s “current, internal sense of whether the individual is male, female, neither, or a combination thereof.” Relying on this new definition, transgender student Gavin Grimm sued the Gloucester County School District in Virginia, challenging a school rule that requires all students to use the restroom that aligns with their biological sex. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Gavin’s favor, and the School District appealed to the Supreme Court. The county was represented by Gene Schaerr and Jonathan Mitchell.

In January 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court that the new proposed definition of sex—if implemented—would harm religious organizations and individuals even beyond the field of education under Title IX. There are many laws that prohibit sex discrimination in other areas, including employment, health care, and social services. Many of those laws follow Title IX’s definitions. If “sex” were redefined in Title IX, it would be redefined in many other areas where Congress has not had opportunity to consider the consequences.

For example, if the Department of Education’s definition of “sex” under Title IX were adopted, the definition of “sex” in the Affordable Health Care Act would also be impacted. As a result, some religious health care providers could be required to perform gender transition surgeries on children against their best medical judgment. For instance, multiple lawsuits have already been filed against religious healthcare providers who believe that gender transition surgeries are harmful to children. Laws that regulate homeless shelters would also be affected so that church-run emergency shelters would be unable to respect their guests’ faith-based privacy or safety concerns by assigning sleeping quarters based on their biological sex. Religious organizations could be restricted from hiring employees who share and observe the organizations’ teachings about human sexuality and gender.

In late 2016, the Department of Education withdrew its definition of sex that supported Gavin’s lawsuit. As a result, the Supreme Court decided not to resolve the case, and instead sent it back to the Court of Appeals to see if the Department’s change of position should affect the outcome of the case.

In the meantime, Gavin graduated from high school. On August 2, 2017, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the district court to determine whether Gavin’s graduation now makes a court ruling unnecessary.