Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. District of Columbia

Bringing together faith, service, and sports 

Founded in 1954, FCA is a religious ministry that supports student-athletes committed to living out their Christian faith on and off the playing field. FCA helps form “huddles” on college, high school, and middle school campuses, where student-athletes come together for prayer, testimonies, and Bible study. In addition to its huddle ministry, FCA operates athletic camps and other community service events for tens of thousands of students annually. FCA clubs are open to students of all faiths or none, and there is no membership requirement for those who participate. 

FCA has long served schools in Washington, D.C. Each year, FCA’s DC chapter offers $30,000 in scholarships for local student-athletes to attend FCA-run summer sports camps. FCA also partners with the D.C. Dream Center, a community center in Southeast D.C., to host “all abilities” sports camps for student-athletes with disabilities. Beyond helping students gather for fellowship and service, FCA DC’s huddles help local schools address high rates of student absences—a well-known problem in the District. FCA meetings, which are on-campus and during the school day, build high-quality friendships among students and encourage them to attend class.  

FCA sidelined for its faith 

In 2022, an FCA huddle returned to campus at Jackson-Reed High School in D.C. after a brief pause during the pandemic. Two weeks later, however, a part-time freshman baseball coach told local FCA staff that, because of FCA’s beliefs, there was “no place for a group like FCA in a public school.” He filed a complaint with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) accusing Jackson-Reed of violating the District of Columbia Human Rights Act by allowing FCA on campus.  

Because of the coach’s complaint, DCPS immediately stripped the Jackson-Reed FCA huddle of official recognition, stopped it from meeting, removed it from the list of student clubs, deleted its club website, and launched a formal investigation into FCA. During the investigation, FCA representatives explained to DCPS that any student is welcome to participate in FCA huddles; all FCA asks is that its student leaders—those who lead prayer, Bible study, and religious teaching—agree with its religious beliefs. Despite these facts, DCPS kicked FCA off campus at Jackson-Reed, and offered to let Jackson-Reed back on campus only if it assured that anyone could lead FCA, “regardless of … religious affiliation, or personal belief.”  As a result, current Jackson-Reed students who wish to meet as a recognized FCA huddle on campus, can’t. 

FCA seeks equal access to public school campuses 

After losing official recognition, FCA unsuccessfully appealed the decision, pointing out that DCPS could not exclude FCA from campus because it asks its leaders to agree to its beliefs. In fact, Jackson-Reed already recognizes many student groups formed around particular beliefs and characteristics—including the Asian Student Union, which is “for students of Asian heritage,” and the Wise Club, which offers a “separate space for young women.” DCPS itself even runs entire schools that condition admission on race and sex. So for DCPS to start selectively targeting FCA over its religious leadership requirements clearly violates the law. 

With the help of Becket, FCA filed a federal lawsuit against DCPS on May 7, 2024. The complaint points to a similar Becket case involving FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, in which an FCA club won its right to return to campus after being harassed and kicked out of public schools in San Jose, CA, for its leadership requirements. The “en banc” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals––a special panel of 11 judges—ruled in 2023 that San Jose unlawfully penalized FCA for its religious beliefs and used a double standard that failed to treat FCA like all other student groups. FCA is now asking for the same equal access to public school campuses in the nation’s capital. 

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on public-school 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 school. 
  • 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. 

Burke v. Walsh

Religious couple opens their hearts to children in need

Mike and Kitty Burke are a Catholic couple from Massachusetts who have long wanted to become parents. Mike is an Iraq war veteran, Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs children, and together they run a small business and perform music for Mass. Unfortunately, the Burkes learned early on in their marriage that they would not be able to have children of their own. Mike and Kitty began exploring becoming foster parents through the state’s foster care program with the hope of caring for and eventually adopting children in need of a stable, loving home like theirs.

Children in foster care throughout Massachusetts are waiting for their forever family like the Burkes. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) currently does not have enough foster homes or facilities to meet the needs of the children in its care, leaving over 1,500 children without a family. The crisis has become so extreme that the state has resorted to housing children in hospitals for weeks on end—not because the children need medical attention, but because the Commonwealth has nowhere else to put them. Now more than ever, Massachusetts needs loving couples like the Burkes to foster children in need.

Massachusetts cuts foster kids off from loving, faithful homes

When Mike and Kitty applied to become foster parents in 2022, they underwent hours of training, which they completed successfully. Their instructor reported their positive contributions in the class to DCF, noting that the couple helped to enrich the training program for other parents. The Burkes also underwent extensive interviews and a home study. Throughout this process, Mike and Kitty emphasized their willingness to foster children from diverse backgrounds and with special needs. They expressed their openness to fostering sibling groups, as well, so that children in need could maintain those critical family ties. In all respects, the Burkes were an ideal foster family.

During their home interviews, however, the Burkes were troubled that much of the questions centered on their Catholic views on sexual orientation, marriage, and gender dysphoria. In response to these questions, the Burkes emphasized that they would love and accept any child, no matter the child’s future sexual orientation or struggles with gender identity. However, because Mike and Kitty said they would continue to hold to their religious beliefs about gender and human sexuality, Massachusetts denied them a license to foster any child because, as the reviewer put it, “their faith is not supportive and neither are they.”

The law protects religious families and the children they seek to serve

This sad conflict was entirely avoidable. Massachusetts wants to maximize foster families and rightly protect potential foster parents from religious discrimination. Instead, Massachusetts turned its policies into a ban on certain religious beliefs. This is as unconstitutional as it is unnecessary.

Massachusetts has put vulnerable children into hospital rooms and office spaces because it lacks enough loving foster families. Hundreds of children in the state’s foster care system need homes, and religious parents like Mike and Kitty Burke are ready to open their hearts and homes. Massachusetts cannot exclude religious couples like the Burkes from fostering because they are religious, nor can they punish qualified families for their deeply held religious beliefs. If this can happen to the Burkes, it can happen to loving, qualified foster families of diverse faiths across Massachusetts.

Federal law protects the ability of religious people and organizations to foster children in need without having to forfeit their beliefs. Because Massachusetts was unwilling to uphold law including in its own Foster Parent Bill of Rights—Becket is going to court to enforce them.


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.

St. Dominic Academy v. Makin

Commitment to Catholic education   

Keith and Valori Radonis are organic farmers in rural Maine who want to send their children to schools that uphold their Catholic beliefs. Both Keith and Valori were raised in devout Catholic homes, and they believe it is their religious responsibility to help to plant, nurture, and cultivate the seed of faith in own their children. For years, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Portland—including St. Dominic Academy—played a vital role in assisting parents like the Radonises educate their children through the state’s tuition assistance program. This program allows parents like the Radonises who live in rural school districts to educate their children at private schools where there is no public school nearby.  

The Diocese of Portland’s schools have long offered outstanding academics, graduating high-achieving classes of students that excel on standardized tests and go on to elite colleges and universities. Inspired by Catholic Social Tradition, they also teach students to devote themselves to serving others from all walks of life. For example, students in the diocese have raised money for food kitchens, cared for the elderly at senior homes, joined mission trips to Mississippi to help rebuild homes devastated by hurricanes, sponsored donation drives for asylum seekers, hosted baby showers to aid local mothers, and raised money to support veterans and their families.  

Unfortunately, in 1982, Maine abruptly excluded faith-based schools like St. Dominic from the program simply because they were religious. Maine still paid tuition for Maine students attending out-of-state boarding schools and public schools in Quebec, but not for Maine students who wanted to go to religious schools located in Maine. In the decades following, these schools were unable to partner with rural Maine families.  

Maine skirts the law to bar funding to religious education 

In 2021, three families brought a challenge to Maine’s religious education ban in Carson v. Makin. The Supreme Court took the case, and the following summer a six-Justice majority struck the state law down, paving the way for St. Dominic and many other faith-based schools to begin serving rural Maine families again. 

However, in the lead up to the Carson case at the Supreme Court, officials in Maine saw the writing on the wall. Anticipating that the Court would strike down Maine’s ban on religious schools, Maine passed a new law to keep the religious schools out covertly. Maine’s new law requires schools that receive tuition funds to allow all religious expression equally, which prevents schools like St. Dominic from carrying out their ministry of educating students in the Catholic faith. And it gives the Maine Human Rights Commission—not parents or the school—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out Catholic beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, faith-based schools are still being excluded from the state program to help rural families. 

The law protects faith-based schools and the families they serve 

Maine is punishing schools like St. Dominic because of their commitment to providing a holistic education in accordance with their beliefs. It is also punishing rural families who want to use the tuition program to send their children to faith-based schools. The Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed that states cannot cut off generally available funding from faith-based schools and families because they are religious. Faith-based schools should have the ability to partner with parents who want the best education for their children.  


 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.

Loe v. Jett

An education that accommodates faith  

In 1985, Minnesota enacted the Post Secondary Enrollment Options Act (PSEO) to allow high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors to take college classes that would count for high school and college credit. The program covers the cost of tuition and required classroom materials like textbooks, allowing high school students to further their academic pursuits without taking on debt. This program has long served high schoolers in the state by promoting rigorous academic pursuits at both secular and religious colleges.  

Melinda and Mark Loe and Dawn Erickson are Christian parents in Minnesota who have used PSEO funds in the past to send their older children to schools that uphold their religious values. Two top-notch schools in the state—the University of Northwestern and Crown College—provided their children excellent opportunities to learn in a college environment that also provided a Christian community. Both families have high-school-aged children who also want to use PSEO funding to go to these schools, joining with fellow believers in receiving a quality, Christ-centered education.  

Minnesota targets religion in higher education 

In 2023, Minnesota governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that amends the PSEO to exclude religious schools like Crown and Northwestern from participating because they require a statement of faith from all students who attend on-campus. The statements simply ask on-campus students—both undergraduates and PSEO students—if they will embrace the schools’ religious beliefs for the purpose of upholding a strong Christian community on campus. Minnesota’s sudden change to the law will immediately hurt students who want to attend these schools, which have served thousands of Minnesota high school students. 

Students should not lose the opportunity to earn college credit tuition-free just because they want to attend schools that share their religious beliefs. 

The law protects religious families and schools from Minnesota’s discriminatory ban 

Minnesota cannot deny religious parents the learning environments they want for their children because they are religious, nor can they exclude schools from participating in the program because they are religious. As the Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed, public benefits that are open to private secular organizations must be open to religious organizations as well. Barring religious universities like Northwestern and Crown from offering religious high school students the great opportunity of free college credit that’s available at secular schools is against the law.   

After Becket filed the lawsuit on behalf of religious parents and the two schools, Minnesota promised not to enforce the law while the case is ongoing.  

On July 7, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Education filed counterclaims against Northwestern and Crown. The state claimed that schools would be subject to the same constitutional requirements as the government if they accepted PSEO students, which would bar them from promoting their religious values. On November 6, 2023, a federal court heard oral argument in the case, where the schools will ask the court to dismiss the state’s counterclaims. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.

 

Photo credit: Fotofilm Studios LLC.

Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser

Healthcare rooted in faith 

Founded by Catholic mother and daughter nurse practitioners Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, the inspiration for Bella Health and Wellness came from a medical mission trip the pair took in the Andes Mountains of Peru. During that trip, Dede and Abby were moved to believe that everyone has a unique story and that every life deserves the utmost protection. After the trip, Dede and Abby discerned the call to open a life-affirming Catholic medical clinic for women in the Denver metropolitan area. Started as an OB-GYN practice, Bella Health and Wellness has since expanded its work in the Denver area to offer care to men and children as well. Today, Bella serves over 20,000 patients and averages approximately two hundred new patients a month.  

Like healthcare clinics across the nation, Bella’s OB-GYN practice often prescribes women progesterone, a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy and to women at risk of miscarriage. In some cases, healthcare professionals have also used progesterone to maintain a pregnancy after a woman has either willingly or unwillingly taken the first pill in the two-step abortion-pill regimen. Consistent with its Catholic belief to protect human life, Bella offers progesterone to women who change their minds after taking the first abortion pill. Bella Health has seen firsthand the hormone successfully reverse the effects of a miscarriage caused by an abortion pill with no negative side effects. 

Colorado law targets life-affirming healthcare clinics 

In April 2023, Colorado made it illegal for life-affirming healthcare clinics like Bella Health to offer progesterone to women who have willingly or unwillingly taken the abortion pill, or even to advertise for such a service. Even though progesterone has been safely used for years to promote healthy pregnancies, the Colorado Legislature has categorically denied its use for abortion pill reversal. State legislators have labeled its use in this context to be “deceptive” and “unprofessional conduct,” while its use for all other purposes relating to pregnancy—including natural miscarriage—remains legal. If it continues to offer and advertise progesterone for this service, Bella Health faces up to $20,000 per violation and the loss of the medical licenses for its providers. Colorado is targeting life-affirming healthcare clinics like Bella Health simply because they provide every option available for the health of expecting mothers and their unborn children. It is also cruelly forcing women to undergo abortions they seek to avoid. 

The law protects Bella Health’s right to serve in accordance with its faith 

Bella Health has a religious duty to provide life-affirming medical care to every patient, including women at risk of miscarriage—regardless of whether that risk is posed naturally or by an abortion pill. Colorado cannot single out and attack clinics that provide all-encompassing care to pregnant women who seek out their help. The Supreme Court has consistently held that governments are barred from singling out religiously motivated practices from comparable secular practices simply because of their religious nature.  

On April 14, 2023, Becket filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to stop the State from targeting religious healthcare clinics that offer women care in accordance with their faith. The district court quickly granted emergency relief to Bella Health, protecting them from Colorado’s targeting.   

During a hearing on April 24, Colorado government officials committed that the State will not enforce the law—promising instead to act as if the law “never existed” pending rulemaking by the state’s Medical, Nursing and Pharmacy licensing boards. In an April 28 order, the district court held that the State has “agreed to suspend any enforcement that would affect the plaintiffs” and “will not enforce the new Colorado law against any licensee” until three state boards implemented the regulations required by the law. 

The last of the three boards issued their regulations on September 21, 2023—doubling down on the legislature’s targeting of faith-based healthcare. The next day, Bella again asked the Court for injunctive relief against the law. The court held a hearing about Bella’s request on October 17. In an issued order on October 21, the district court preliminarily enjoined Colorado from enforcing the law, finding that Colorado likely violated Bella’s free exercise rights in three different ways. As a result of this order, Bella and its providers can continue, consistent with their religious beliefs, to offer healthcare to women who have changed their minds about abortion.   


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Individual Freedom: 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.

St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel

A Parish community dedicated to faith 

Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide children in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Crucial to St. Joseph’s ability to pass on its religious mission to its students is the employment of teachers and staff who support and advance Catholic doctrine.  Like many Catholic parishes around the country, St. Joseph asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith. In addition to staff requirements, every family that sends their child to St. Joseph is also expected to support the faith and mission of the school and its Catholic values.  

Michigan law redefines sex 

In July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted a state civil rights statute’s definition of sex to include sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations like St. Joseph. In March 2023, the Michigan legislature wrote this into state law, expanding the civil rights law to expressly prohibit discrimination because of either sexual orientation or gender identity. Both the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and members of the Michigan legislature pointedly refused to include any religious accommodations, even though those exist in federal law and in the laws of most other states.

This new law would make it illegal for St Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality. This threatens the school’s right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the faith to the next generation and to run the school in a way that follows Catholic teaching. Not only that, but because St. Joseph’s opens its doors to the public, it faces the risk of being sued for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage. It is at risk when visitors use its bathrooms, play on its sports fields, or when the local Knights of Columbus hall hosts receptions.

The law protects St. Joseph from attacks on its religious mission 

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of religious groups—including churches and their schools—to operate in accordance with their religious mission, free from government interference.  The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently articulated this principle, most recently in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, where the Court held that religious institutions must have the freedom to make internal management decisions (like deciding who will teach and lead the religious community) free from government interference. Michigan’s redefinition of discrimination threatens St. Joseph’s right to create and maintain a parish and school environment that reflects its Catholic faith.  

Rogers v. HHS

A helping hand rooted in faith

Across the nation, there are more than 400,000 children in foster care and a severe shortage of loving homes. In South Carolina alone, there are over 3,500 children in the foster care system and the state works hard to find loving homes for each child. To find more homes, the state partners with a diverse array of agencies that provide children with loving homes. They recruit from and serve specific communities that come together to address this crisis. As in many states, some of these providers are faith-based organizations.

One such agency is Miracle Hill, a religious non-profit that provides foster care support services to licensed foster parents, helping them serve children in the foster care system. Miracle Hill’s legacy of service is over 80 years old.

An essential ministry under fire

When new federal regulations threatened the ability of states to partner with religious foster agencies, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster worked with the federal Department of Health and Human Services to obtain a waiver that ensured that these ministries could continue to work with the state to place foster children in need.

The American Civil Liberties Union took to Twitter, asking people to help sue Governor McMaster for protecting religious freedom. A family who had never applied to the state to become foster parents then sued.

The law protects SC’s partnership with religious foster care ministries

The First Amendment protects South Carolina’s right to partner with faith-based ministries that serve children in need. In Fulton v. Philadelphia, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that religious ministries aren’t required to lay their beliefs aside to participate in the public square.

Maddonna v. HHS is a similar case brought by Americans United at the district court of South Carolina. On September 29, 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled that the state can protect faith-based foster care ministries that serve children in need in both cases. 


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Freedom: The lawsuit claims that HHS, Governor McMaster, and other government officials are violating the Constitution’s Establishment and Equal Protection clauses. The lawsuit hoped to end the partnership with a religious agency and would create fewer choices for potential parents and fewer homes for children. Religious organizations must be free to act according to their faith, including when caring for children in need. The government cannot exclude religious groups by demanding they give up their religious beliefs to continue providing much needed social services
  • Public square: From its earliest days, America has been enriched by religious participation in the public square. Religious ministries, inspired by their beliefs, have often been the first ones to feed, clothe, and shelter their fellow Americans in need. We are all better off when Americans are empowered to live out their faith in a way that helps their fellow man.

Sisters of Life v. McDonald

A dedication to life 

Founded by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1991, the Sisters of Life surrender their lives to God when entering the order by professing vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also vow to protect the sacredness of human life at every stage. Based in New York, the Sisters are a group of religious women who carry out this mission by caring for pregnant women and their unborn children. They provide pregnant women with housing, maternity clothes, baby formula, and other supplies for well after birth. They also connect pregnant women and their children to pro bono medical and legal services and a wide array of social services. The Sisters offer personal, holistic help rooted in a deep love for human life that sees all people as created in God’s image and likeness.  

The Sisters of Life profess: “We believe every person is valuable and sacred. We believe that every person’s life has deep meaning, purpose and worth. In fact, we give our lives for that truth.” The Sisters’ dedication to their neighbor is grounded in their unwavering Catholic faith which inspires them to build loving relationships with vulnerable women, attending to their emotional, spiritual, and temporal needs.  

Bullying laws target nuns 

After the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, there have been increasing threats from state governments to stop the life-affirming work of crisis pregnancy centers.  In mid-June 2022—after the leak of the draft Dobbs opinion—the state of New York passed one such law that allows the government to probe the internal documents and policies of pro-life pregnancy centers, even forcing them to turn over information about the individual women who seek their help. At the signing of the law, Governor Hochul made her views on abortion clear, calling pro-life supporters “Neanderthals.” The state government is clearly targeting the religious viewpoints of the Sisters of Life and violating the First Amendment protections granted to the Sisters. 

The law protects Sisters and the women they help from harassment:

The Sisters of Life are free to decide matters of their central religious mission and support public initiatives like pregnancy care without fear that they will be forced to disclose private information. Likewise, the women they serve should not have to fear government investigation just because they seek help during a crisis pregnancy. The Supreme Court made clear in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that the Constitution protects religious institutions from secular influence on matters of internal government. Handing over such internal documents would impede the Sisters’ ability to conduct their important ministry to women who need it the most.  

A duty to protect women 

The Sisters of Life made the difficult decision, after much discernment, to protect the women they serve by suing the State of New York. Their hope was for a resolution that would allow them to focus on the women and children in their community that need them now more than ever. On November 8, 2023, the State of New York backed down and agreed to a court order that forbids them from demanding the Sisters information or punishing the Sisters for refusing to provide it.


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Religious Communities: Religious orders have a right to serve those in need according to the dictates of their faith. Unfortunately, religious institutions are often targeted if not in alliance with societal standards.  

Free Speech: Religious people have a right to hold onto and profess their teachings without government interference.  

 

Photo Credit: Sisters of Life

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.  

Oakwood Academy asked 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.  

On September 27, 2022, the Alabama High School Athletic Association adopted a new rule that will adjust game schedules to accommodate religious requests, ending the case and providing lasting protection for religious schools and their athletes.  

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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.”

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.

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 represented the Lebovits family and BYAM in the federal District Court for the Northern District of New York, where the school asked the court to protect BYAM from future bigotry and to hold Cuomo and de Blasio accountable for violating their First Amendment rights. Shortly after Becket filed the lawsuit, Cuomo reversed his policy and allowed Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam and other schools in its Far Rockaway neighborhood to open. The case was settled out of court.  

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.

 

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.

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. 

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 2017. 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.