303 Creative v. Elenis

An Artist’s Mission 

As both a Christian and graphic designer, Lorie Smith believes that God has called her to use her talents in a way that comports with her religious beliefs. Smith started her own graphic design business in 2012, to follow that mission.  

Smith started to expand her business and wished to add wedding websites to her portfolio. Even though she was happy to work with anyone, she could not in good faith design websites that celebrated same-sex marriage.  

For Smith, it was about the message, not any potential client’s personal characteristics. But because of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), she was prohibited from creating wedding videos. Smith filed a lawsuit in 2016, hoping to keep true to both her job and her religious beliefs. 

A case designed for the Supreme Court 

After unfavorable rulings at the district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Smith appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear her case on February 22, 2022.  

On June 2, 2022, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Smith’s case. While the counsel’s briefs to the Supreme Court point out that she should win her case under textbook Free Speech rules such as compelled speech, content discrimination, and viewpoint discrimination, Becket argued that the Court could also take a simpler route to deciding the case. 

Looking back at Anglo-American legal tradition, religious speech has always been considered “core speech” and as such, deserves special protection. When the Founders were drafting the Constitution, their experiences, and the experiences of their forebears, with the suppression of religious speech were at top of mind. The Founders thus wrote the First Amendment to protect speech concerning religion and political matters. Indeed, the idea of freedom of speech originated as freedom of religious speech, and outspoken religious dissenters paved the way for freedom of speech for everyone.  

To the Founders, the only reasons to limit religious speech were threats to peace or safety or encouragements of “licentiousness.” Since Smith’s religious speech doesn’t threaten to do any such things, her speech is protected under the First Amendment and must be allowed to continue. Colorado cannot penalize her for engaging in sincere religious speech. The First Amendment’s robust protections for religious speech demand no less. 

Smith v. Ward

RLUIPA allows prisoners to seek God 

The peaceful expression of religion is an important aspect of human culture, and can provide important and unique benefits for prisoners and society alike. Studies have shown that allowing prisoners to connect with their faith helps with rehabilitation, ensures that they can reintegrate into society when released, and reduces recidivism. For decades, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has protected the religious freedom of inmates. It has enabled Jewish inmates to obey kosher diets, Catholics to access to important sacraments, and practitioners of many faiths to possess religious texts.

In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the importance of protecting prisoners’ religious exercise, holding in Holt v. Hobbs that Arkansas was required to accommodate a Muslim prisoner’s request for a half-inch beard. As the Supreme Court in Holt explained, RLUIPA is a crucial protection for religious prisoners, ensuring that religious exercise is not arbitrarily burdened by prison officials. Instead, prison officials must explain—with supporting evidence—why they cannot accommodate the sincere religious exercise of an inmate. This burden is especially demanding when most other prison systems safely provide the same accommodation. Unfortunately, some courts and prison systems did not get the Supreme Court’s message in Holt v. Hobbs.  

The Eleventh Circuit ignores Holt v. Hobbs 

In 2012, Lester Smith filed a lawsuit after his request to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to grow a full-length beard was denied, a request that most prison systems would allow. As a devout Muslim, Mr. Smith believes that an untrimmed beard is required by his faith. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Smith, claiming that it was enough for GDOC to say that it is more risk-averse than 39 other prison systems, and that allowing beards creates some additional risk. In essence, GDOC can write its own permission slip to violate Mr. Smith’s rights. 

In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit relied on its 2015 decision in Knight v. Thompson, where Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief. Knight was flatly inconsistent with both Holt v. Hobbs and the way that other courts around the country have interpreted RLUIPA. In Mr. Smith’s case, the Eleventh Circuit has doubled down on that wrong position. 

At the Supreme Court   

On April 28, 2022, Becket, along with Scott Ballenger and Sarah Shalf of the University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Smith, asking the Court to protect this inmate’s religious expression under the rule of Holt v. Hobbs. The ruling in Holt taught us that a prison must offer enough proof that it cannot provide the same accommodation practices set by other institutions. If 39 other prison systems can allow untrimmed beards without incident, that is conclusive evidence that a longer beard is not detrimental to the safety and security of Georgia’s prisons. Courts also cannot blindly defer to prison officials’ preferences if religious accommodations are possible.  

The Supreme Court laid out a clear rule in Holt, saying that prisons should be inclined to withdraw existing accommodations if they are abused rather than denying them outright. But no such misbehavior is present here. Mr. Smith has the right to follow his sincere beliefs and grow his beard.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.  

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

Fired for public prayer

For eight years, Coach Joseph Kennedy helped lead the football team at Bremerton High School, a public school in Washington. Win or lose, Kennedy would walk to the 50-yard-line after the game, kneel for a few seconds, and thank God in quiet prayer. Eventually, some players asked if they could join Coach Kennedy. He told them, “This is a free country,” and “You can do what you want.” The students soon noticed the tradition and would voluntarily join the coach on the field for an uplifting and unifying message, inviting players from opposing teams to listen in.

Despite receiving an outpouring of support for allowing Coach Kennedy to continue expressing his faith, the school district demanded Kennedy stop praying where anyone could see him because some onlookers might be offended and see it as an unacceptable school “endorsement” of religion. While the school district had no problem with Coach Kennedy inspiring his students, the school district soured on it altogether when it learned that Kennedy did so through prayer. Coach Kennedy refused the school’s censorship and was no longer welcome as part of the coaching staff.

Six years off the field and in court

Coach Kennedy filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District in 2016 and asked to continue coaching while the case made its way through the court system. The request made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where it was ultimately denied and sent back down to the district court to further develop the case. In the decision, four Justices expressed serious concern about how the school district had interpreted the First Amendment.

After the lower courts again sided with the school district, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 2, 2022.

Public prayer is not a boogie man

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause required the school to ban Coach Kennedy from praying because permitting it would amount to government “endorsement” of religion. The school district’s lawyers have gone even further, labeling Coach Kennedy’s quiet prayers as “coercion” that the government must censor, because an onlooker might not feel comfortable seeing prayer in public.

But that’s not how the Constitution works. The First Amendment lets individual people—not the government—decide whether and how to pray. Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court explains a basic truth about public religious expression – it’s a normal and natural part of our culture and shared history as a country and is no more coercive than any other form of protected expression in the public square. Excluding religion—and only religion—from acceptable forms of public expression and inspiration says that something is inherently wrong and offensive about religion itself. The First Amendment takes that conclusion off the table. A coach doesn’t have to check his religion at the schoolhouse gates for fear that someone in the stands might feel offended.

On June 27, 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled to protect Coach Kennedy, writing that Kennedy was pursued by the government “for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses.” In its decision, the Court also decided to eliminate the Lemon test, a vague legal standard used to decide Establishment Clause cases. The Court confirmed that Lemon has long been dead, and that the Establishment Clause is understood through America’s history and tradition of religious pluralism. The opinion, authored by Justice Gorsuch, pointed to his recent concurrence in Shurtleff v. Boston, where he adopted Becket’s proposal for Lemon’s replacement: a standard rooted in the history and tradition of the Establishment Clause. 

Coach Kennedy was represented by First Liberty Institute, Paul Clement and Erin Murphy (now of Clement & Murphy PLLC), Spencer Fane LLP, and The Helsdon Law Firm, PLLC.  

Photo credit: First Liberty Institute

Shurtleff v. City of Boston

Permit application to raise a Christian flag denied  

Outside of Boston’s City Hall, three flagpoles stand. The city ordinarily flies the United States flag on one pole, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts flag on another, and the third flagpole’s flag often varies. In order to celebrate Boston’s diversity, the city allows outside, private groups to hold flag-raising ceremonies and display a flag of their choosing on the third pole. These flags can celebrate other countries, cultures and causes.

Between 2005 and 2017, the city approved all 284 flag requests it received. The first denial came in 2017 when Camp Constitution, a religious volunteer organization, asked to raise a flag featuring a red Latin cross to commemorate Constitution Day. Boston decided it would not allow a “religious” flag out of “concern for the so-called separation of church and state.” The message was clear—no religious speech allowed.

Boston’s decision was wrong, but it’s not alone. Government officials have used similar reasoning to exclude religious speech from public spaces and even to deny disaster relief funds to churches and synagogues damaged by hurricanes.

Courts ignore the Constitution

Harold Shurtleff, cofounder of Camp Constitution, sued the City of Boston for its discriminatory permit denial. Applying an outdated interpretation of the Establishment Clause called the Lemon test, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that Boston was correct to censor religious speech. Shurtleff then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court granted review of the case and heard oral argument on January 18, 2022.

Understanding the Establishment Clause

On November 22, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that this mistake happened because Boston’s city officials (and the lower courts) misunderstand the Establishment Clause. Government officials who have an outdated understanding of the Establishment Clause often ban religious elements from the public square simply because they are religious.

This error isn’t limited to Boston. For years, government officials (with approval from lower courts) have been censoring religious expression from the public square in fear of violating the Constitution. Many mistakenly think that exclusion of religion is the safest option. This mistake goes beyond a flagpole—similar reasoning has been used to prohibit religious groups from advertising on trains and buses, exclude religious schools from generally available funding programs, and even deny FEMA aid to churches and synagogues damaged by hurricanes.

The widespread misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause dates back to the 1970s, when courts started to rely on the Lemon test. This legal test is a vague standard that not only ignores history but also has created a mess of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Becket asked the Supreme Court to formally overrule Lemon so that the hostile censorship against religion in the public square is stopped, once and for all.

During oral argument on January 18, 2022, Justice Kavanaugh cited Becket’s brief and pointed out the failings of the Lemon test.  

On May 2, 2022, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled. Because the City of Boston had a “lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of the flags or the crafting of their messages,” the flag raising was deemed “private, not government, speech.” 

While the Court refrained from disposing of the Lemon test during this decision, Justice Gorsuch said that Lemon came from a “bygone era” and “produced chaos” for the Establishment Clause. He also adopted Becket’s proposal for Lemon’s replacement– a standard rooted in the text, history, and traditions of the Establishment Clause. The next month, in the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court formally announced the end of Lemon.  

 

Dr. A v. Hochul

Healthcare heroes on the frontlines

In March 2020, Americans gained new appreciation and admiration for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who heroically put their own health and safety on the line day in and day out to help and heal their neighbors.

But now that the worst moments of the COVID-19 pandemic are behind us, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers in New York are being punished for abstaining from vaccination on religious grounds. In accordance with a state mandate, healthcare institutions across New York have been forced to fire healthcare workers who refused the COVID-19 vaccine—even when they wanted to keep them on the job, and even when firing them has forced them to close emergency rooms and reduce services.

Lose your job or violate your conscience

On August 18, 2021, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a vaccine mandate for the state’s heroic healthcare workers that allowed for religious exemptions along the lines of medical exemptions. But on August 26, 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul suddenly changed course and removed the religious exemption while maintaining the medical exemption.

The mandate went as far as to demand healthcare workers either get vaccinated or lose their jobs. And if they decided to follow their conscience, they would also lose their unemployment benefits as well.

As New York faces a severe shortage of medical professionals, Governor Hochul has made it clear that it was no mistake to omit a religious exemption from the state’s mandate. At the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Hochul mocked religious Americans with objections to the vaccine, saying “you know there’s people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants. You know who they are.”

Seeking emergency relief

Shortly after the governor issued the mandate, Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit against Governor Hochul on behalf of 17 healthcare workers who have religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine but are willing to undergo frequent testing and use protective clothing at all times onsite. Several of the healthcare workers have natural immunity from already contracting COVID due to their heroic work on the front lines of the pandemic.

In November of 2021, Becket joined Thomas More Society in filing an emergency application to the Supreme Court to end New York’s harmful vaccine mandate. Three Justices would have granted the application, which was ultimately denied. In February 2022, Becket and Thomas More asked the Supreme Court to hear the full case on the merits.

Becket’s and Thomas More’s brief points out that 47 other states, as well as the federal government, protect religious objectors by either not mandating vaccines or by allowing religious exemptions for those with objections to the COVID-19 vaccines.

The Supreme Court denied review on June 30, 2022, sending the case back down to the lower courts. Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch dissented, indicating that they would have granted certiorari now.

Ramirez v. Collier

View: A HISTORY OF CLERGY PRESENCE IN THE EXECUTION CHAMBER

The right of the condemned to prayer before an execution long predates the formation of the United States, which inherited the tradition from England. Since before the colonial era, it was common for ministers to accompany the condemned to the gallows, where they would pray with, minister to, and touch those who are about to die. General George Washington honored such requests by deserters executed during the Revolution, and the United States also honored such requests by Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg Trials. 

Today, condemned prisoners of all faiths often request such prayers in the death chamber from their clergy as a way to “get right with God” and safeguard their eternal destiny. And some religious traditions require such ministrations to those marked for death. The federal government and state governments have routinely allowed clergy to minister to the condemned in the death chamber—both by praying aloud and holding their hand. 

In 2019, the state of Alabama denied a Muslim prisoner the presence and prayer of an imam before his execution. When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) attempted to do the same thing to a Buddhist prisoner just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in Murphy v. Collier that Texas had to permit the prisoner’s Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the death chamber. Since then, the Supreme Court has similarly protected Christian prisoners in both Texas and Alabama. Despite these clear rulings and centuries of history, including its own traditional practices, TDCJ recently imposed two rules – one preventing clergy from praying aloud and one preventing clergy from touching the inmate – contrary to centuries of tradition. TDCJ said these long-accepted prayers would “disrupt the execution” despite any evidence that they had or would.  

Death row inmate John Henry Ramirez appealed to the Supreme Court seeking prayer and touch from his Southern Baptist pastor during his final moments. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief with prominent constitutional scholar and Stanford Law School Professor Michael McConnell and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic. Becket’s brief describes the long history of audible clergy prayer and clergy touch and explains why that means Ramirez ought to prevail under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  

On November 1, 2021, the case was argued before the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 vote, on March 24, 2022, the Court ruled in favor of allowing clergy to audibly and physically pray with Ramirez. The Court cited Becket’s amicus brief on the long history of clerical prayer present at executions and agreed that prohibiting such practices substantially burdened the prisoner’s religious exercise and that Texas could not satisfy strict scrutiny.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.  

Carson v. Makin

Giving Religious Education the Cold Shoulder

For students living in rural Maine communities—in one of the least densely populated parts of the United States—local public high schools are hard to come by. The State of Maine offers tuition assistance to families who send their children to private schools—any private schools except religious schools. In fact, students have used Maine student aid to attend elite New England prep schools such as Avon Old Farms, the Taft School, and Miss Porter’s. They are even entitled to use Maine student aid to attend private schools outside the country—as long as they aren’t religious. These otherwise qualified religious schools are left out and the children attending these schools receive no tuition assistance throughout their entire primary education, all because the schools have a religious mission.

Religious schools nationwide provide high-standard education with a spiritual foundation. These educational opportunities are sought after by parents who choose to send their children to religious schools so that their children receive both a first-rate education and they are able to pass the faith to the next generation.

The Supreme Court Steps In, and In Again

Unfortunately our country has a long history of excluding religious institutions from public programs, stemming from anti-Catholic laws in the nineteenth century. These laws, called Blaine Amendments, were adopted by several states and burdened religious ministries simply because of their faith-driven beliefs. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that Montana could not exclude religious schools from a scholarship program based on Montana’s Blaine Amendment. The Court explained that the exclusion was “born of bigotry,” and Justice Alito elaborated on the dark history of Blaine Amendments. The decision also strengthened precedent set in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that said a religious school could not be blocked from participating in a state recycling program.

Unfortunately, the State of Maine thinks that it can still exclude religious schools from its tuition assistance program. On February 4, 2021, families from Maine asked the United States Supreme Court to hear their case and end Maine’s discriminatory actions. The Court granted review and on September 10, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief that emphasized the importance of the First Amendment and the free exercise of religion, saying that Maine could not justify singling out children who wanted to attend religious schools.

On June 21, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the state of Maine’s tuition assistance program was in violation of the Free Exercise clause, coming as a major victory for religious schools in Maine and throughout the country.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • EducationReligious 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.

 

 

Hedican v. Walmart

Sabbath day observance, a pillar of faith 

Sabbath day observance is a crucial part of many faiths—a day ordained by God when one abstains from the distractions of daily life in order to devote time to family, community, and worshiping God. As their name indicates, this practice is particularly sacred to Seventh-day Adventists, who observe the Sabbath from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Many employers voluntarily make allowances for Sabbath day observance, recognizing its essential role in the wellbeing of their religious employees. 

In April of 2016, Ed Hedican was offered a position as an assistant manager at Walmart. When he accepted the position, he requested a religious accommodation so that he would not have to work on the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath. Though he asked not to be scheduled from on his Sabbath, he was willing to work any other time of the week, including Saturday after sundown.  

A corporation’s disregard for religious rights 

In response to Mr. Hedican’s request, Walmart refused to provide religious accommodation for the Sabbath and rescinded his job offer. Although Mr. Hedican was qualified for the position, and eager to work with Walmart to achieve a compromise (volunteering to work any other day of the week, including nights, and 12-hour shifts), Walmart refused, suggesting he apply to an hourly position of lower pay and lower rank. Though it is the largest non-governmental employer in the United States, Walmart claimed that any accommodation made for Mr. Hedican’s Sabbath observance would burden impose “undue hardship” on the company. 

The average salary of a Walmart assistant manager is just over $50,000. In contrast, Walmart—the largest private employer in the United States—amassed over half a trillion dollars in revenue in 2020 alone, making any cost or inconvenience of religious accommodation in this instance negligible. Yet Walmart even declined to investigate whether costless accommodations were available, such as allowing assistant managers (there were eight at this particular store) to arrange voluntary shift swaps amongst themselves.  

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination due to factors such as religion, race, and gender. Mr. Hedican submitted a charge of discrimination to the EEOC, explaining that Walmart was not reasonably accommodating his religious exercise, as is required by law.  

Correcting a harmful precedent 

In the EEOC’s subsequent suit against Walmart, the federal trial and appellate courts ruled for Walmart, relying heavily on an old Supreme Court precedent from 1977. In Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Court ruled that companies may refuse to provide religious accommodation for their employees if providing such an accommodation presents the company with even a minor inconvenience.   

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit interpreted that precedent to mean that even a chance that shift-swaps would burden Walmart’s rotation system, without concrete evidence, was enough to rule for Walmart. This rule enables corporations like Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., to discriminate against religious employees if accommodating them would cause a burden as trivial as rearranging work shifts.  

On behalf of Mr. Hedican, Becket asked the Court to revisit the Trans World Airlines decision and its interpretation in the lower courts, and defend the constitutional right of every American, including shift workers like Mr. Hedican, to work according to their conscience and their faith 

This case is important for all Americans who are faced with similar conflicts in the workplace, put to the choice between their faith and providing for their family even where reasonable accommodation is possible. People are more than punches in a timecard, and the law should assure that every American has the right to live and work according to their religious convictions.  


Importance to Religious Liberty:

Individual Freedom—Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.  

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

A Decade-Long War 

In 2013, the Little Sisters of the Poor rose to national recognition when they won their first victory over the contraceptive mandate at the Supreme Court. But their fight to serve the elderly poor without compromising their religious convictions didn’t start or end there. States like California and New York, as well as the federal government, have been relentless, insisting for over a decade that nuns (and other religious nonprofits) must pay for abortifacient drugs in their health plans or pay tens of millions of dollars in crippling fines.  

Among the most ludicrous aspects of the Little Sisters’ fight is that in over a decade, their aggressors have not been able to identify a single woman who will lose contraceptive coverage if the Little Sisters don’t pay for it. These fights are not really fights over nuns and their healthcare plan but rather over expanding and solidifying abortion rights.  

A Consequential Decision 

When the Supreme Court decided the landmark abortion case, Roe v. Wade in 1973, it reached beyond the Constitution to establish a right to abortion. That decision has haunted many areas of the law, including the First Amendment where many cases arise because of abortion advocates seeking to expose and punish religious Americans with moral objections to abortion and contraceptive drugs. These proxy wars have been fought on at least four battlefields with direct implications for religious liberty: contraceptive and abortion mandates, pharmacist regulations, pregnancy center regulations, and restrictions on sidewalk counselors. 

That’s how the Little Sisters of the Poor, and numerous other Becket clients, including Eleanor McCullen, a sidewalk counselor who went to the Supreme Court to fight for her right to speak to share her message of hope with women going into the abortion clinic; family pharmacies operated by people of faith like the Stormans family in Washington state and Luke Vander Bleek and Glenn Kosirog in Illinois that were forced to choose between selling the morning-after and week-after pills at their family-run pharmacies or lose their licenses; and Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which wanted to help vulnerable women without being forced to undermine its mission by displaying a sign that read “do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control services.” 

These are just a few examples of unnecessary and often painful battles waged in both the courtroom and in the court of public opinion from California to New York, in the hospice rooms of nuns caring for the elderly poor and on the campuses of Christian colleges that teach their students all human beings bear the image and likeness of God – the landscape of the fight has engulfed almost every sector of our society. 

It doesn’t have to be that way—other countries like France, England, and Germany—have experienced much less of this kind of abortion v. religious liberty conflict. But in the U.S., with abortion rights dictated by the Supreme Court, the conflicts have raged.

A Chance to end the unnecessary fights 

Next term, the Court can correct the damage done to religious liberty in a case with a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade – Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization 

In March of 2018, Mississippi passed the Gestational Age Act which restricts abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. In response, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization filed a lawsuit against the State of Mississippi arguing that the law violated its rights under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. After the State of Mississippi lost the case at both the district court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, it appealed to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case in May 2021.  

On July 27, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Dobbs, arguing that the Court should replace the Roe framework, thereby relieving the heavy burden imposed on religious liberty by abortion proxy wars, and opening the door to more productive solutions to religious liberty conflicts related to abortion.  

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the state of Mississippi, overturning Roe v. Wade. The decision puts the abortion debate back into the hands of the voters, lessens the battles between religious freedom and abortion, and better ensures Americans the right to live in accordance with their faith. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

The legal framework of Roe has haunted religious Americans ever since it was issued by the Supreme Court in 1973.  Fewer national proxy wars over religious liberty and abortion will result from returning the abortion debate back to the states. 

Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta

Does a California tax law violate the freedom of assembly? 

If you want to be a nonprofit organization in California, you must disclose your donors to the Attorney General. This disclosure ostensibly makes future law enforcement more “efficient.” But California’s requirement is a national outlier and invites harassment. Indeed, in the past, the California Attorney General’s Office has leaked sensitive information like a sieve, resulting in donor harassment.  Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP) did not submit to the disclosure requirement and, as a result, in 2013, California threatened to revoke AFP’s nonprofit status.  

There and back again: a journey through the courts 

AFP sued California in December 2014. It claimed that California’s mandatory donor disclosure requirement violates the right to “freedom of association”—a right protected by the U.S. Constitution, but with unclear basis in the Constitution’s text, history, or tradition. This confusion led the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse AFP’s trial court victory. It claimed that, since nothing is “distinguishable” between associating for political campaigns (where disclosure ensures democratic accountability) and associating for any other charitable purpose, the law permitted California to demand disclosure of every nonprofits’ donors.   

AFP appealed the Ninth Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted AFP’s petition on January 8, 2021. Oral argument was held on April 26, 2021.  

An opportunity to set straight the meaning of “freedom of assembly” 

On March 1, 2021, Becket filed an amicus brief at the U.S. Supreme Court, and our argument about the freedom of assembly was mentioned during oral arguments by three of the Justices and extensively discussed by advocates for both AFP and California. Our brief urged the Court to use this case as an opportunity to correct the courts’ decades-long faulty interpretation of the Assembly Clause, which focuses primarily on protecting expression. This error at the core of the Ninth Circuit’s decision has led to decades of bad rulings against religious and other assemblies, and it restricts the Constitution’s protection for civil society. As our brief explains, assemblies should not be protected based on how “expressive” they are. Rather, the text, history, and tradition of the First Amendment’s Assembly Clause confirms that assemblies primarily exist for formative purposes—shaping people in beliefs and customs, regardless of their political expression or popularity.   

Our brief argued that the freedom of assembly is grounded in, and was historically understood to come from, the freedom to assemble for the purpose of worship. By looking to our long national tradition of how and why we protect religious assembly, the law can better protect the right to assemble generally, and the right to not give the government the tools to squelch private assemblies out of existence (or into submission). Properly applying that tradition dooms California’s donor disclosure requirement and shores up legal protections for civil society.  

On July 1, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects collective action for “preserving political and cultural diversity” and that “[m]ere administrative convenience” is not enough to restrict First Amendment freedoms. Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion cited Becket’s amicus brief, noting that “[t]he text and history of the Assembly Clause” include “the right to associate anonymously.” 

Importance to Religious Liberty 

  • Freedom of assembly: The First Amendment includes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Contrary to popular interpretations, which link freedom of assembly most closely to freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly is grounded in the freedom to assemble for formative purposes. Self-government depends upon shaping individuals to govern themselves, and that is what safeguarding space for civil society permits.  

Diocese of Albany v. Emami

Pushing the envelope beyond the contraceptive mandate

In 2011, the United States Department of Health and Human Services ordered employers to cover controversial contraceptives and abortifacients in their health care plans or face crippling fines. Immediately challenges were mounted by religious universities, Christian businesses and, most famously, by the Little Sisters of the Poor—an order of Catholic nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor. Three times the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying that if the government wanted to provide contraceptives and abortifacients, it could not force the nuns to help.

But in 2017, when the Little Sisters of the Poor were already two Supreme Court victories into their decade-long legal battle over the contraceptive mandate, the State of New York went a step further and required employers statewide to cover actual abortions in their health plans.

New York initially planned to respect conscience rights by exempting employers with religious objections. But facing pressure from abortion activists, New York narrowed the exemption to protect only religious entities whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and who primarily employ and serve coreligionists. This discriminatory rule punishes the many religious groups and ministries that provide critical community services and employ or serve people regardless of their faith.

Standing up for the right to stand aside

A coalition of religious groups from a variety of denominations—including Roman Catholic dioceses, an order of goat-herding Anglican nuns, Baptist and Lutheran churches, and Catholic ministries—sued New York, arguing that the law forced them to violate their deeply held religious beliefs about the sanctity of life.

Among the religious groups challenging New York’s abortion mandate are a group of the Carmelite Sisters who run the Teresian Nursing Home for the elderly and dying; the First Bible Baptist Church, which serves the community through its youth ministry, and a deaf ministry; the Sisterhood of St. Mary, an Anglican/Episcopal order of religious sisters who live a contemplative, monastic life; and subdivisions of Catholic Charities, which provide adoption and maternity services.

Each group is challenging New York’s abortion mandate because it believes that life begins at the moment of conception, and that to intentionally end the life of an unborn child is a grave moral sin. However, unless the Supreme Court protects them, these orders, ministries, and churches will either have to violate their deepest religious convictions and provide abortions, or eliminate their employees’ health insurance altogether, which would subject them to crippling fines totaling millions of dollars per year.

Seeking relief from the High Court

On April 23, 2021, represented by Becket and Jones Day, the coalition of religious organizations asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case. The consequences of the Court’s decision will be felt acutely—should the Court deny the religious groups’ petition, they will be forced to fund abortions, which they consider a grave moral evil.

Just like the Court found that the government must find a way to provide contraception that doesn’t involve the Little Sisters of the Poor, so too must the Court step in and protect these religious organizations from having to violate their deepest moral convictions by participating in abortions.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without the government discriminating among sincere religious.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace and not just in houses of worship.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

In 2017, a high school freshman named Brandi Levy learned that she did not make the public school’s varsity cheerleading teamand that she had not gotten the position she wanted on the school’s softball team, either. Frustrated, she posted an angry private message on a Saturday via the social media app Snapchat, which was intended to be seen only by her friends before the message automatically deleted the next day.  

However, one of the cheerleading coaches at her public school was shown a screenshot of the message. As a result, Levy was suspended from the junior varsity cheerleading team for her entire sophomore year. School officials claimed that her message, which contained profanity, violated the school’s good conduct rules for cheerleaders.    

After the school refused to reconsider its position, Levy’s parents sued on her behalf. Even though school officials admitted that the social media message was unlikely to cause any actual disruption on campus, they argued that public schools should be able to police student speech they deem disruptive (or even socially inappropriate) whenever and wherever it takes place. This includes speechlike Brandi Levy’smade off campus, on the weekend, and sent privately to friends. 

The school’s proposed rule would not only discourage students from speaking for fear of punishment, it would also give a “heckler’s veto” to public school administrators or fellow students who want to suppress speech with which they disagreeeven if the student’s speech is expressing deeply-held religious beliefs. After both the district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Levy’s favor, the public school sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to give public school administrators an unprecedented level of supervision and control over students’ speech.  

“Allowing a public school to silence any speech it deems ‘divisive,’ ‘offensive’ or ‘disruptive’ is an extremely dangerous proposition,” said Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket. It would permit schools to punish students for expressing their deeply-held religious beliefseven if expressed in the privacy of their home or at a religious service or ceremony. Students are not creatures of the state, and their rights, and those of their parents, do not evaporate simply because their parents send them to public schools. 

As Becket’s friend-of-the court brief explains, public school administrators have an unfortunate track record of discrimination against religious speech. Some have lumped religious speech together with obscenity and libel, while others have sought to punish students for, among other things, inviting their peers to a church play. Giving public schools even greater authority to police student speech will only increase the opportunities for such discrimination. It would also disproportionately harm minority students, as schools are less familiar with (and often less tolerant of) unusual or unpopular religious beliefs. 

On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed that important constitutional protections, like the freedom of speech, do not evaporate when students attend public schools. As “nurseries of democracy, public schools must respect the constitutional rights of their students, especially when students are speaking off-campus, on the weekend, to their friends. In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito further emphasized that religious speech, which lies at the heart of the First Amendment, enjoys significant constitutional protection and “is almost always beyond the regulatory authority of a public school. 


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Free speech: The freedom to speak is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Government authorities do not have the ability to punish speech just because it is unpopular, controversial, or even unwise.  
  • Education: The Supreme Court has confirmed that Brandi Levy and students like her still have constitutional rightseven as minors attending high school. Parents, not public-school teachers, are responsible for the religious upbringing of their children. Giving government officials the ability to “veto” speech is detrimental to the healthy exchange of ideas and especially damaging to minorities with unpopular or unusual religious beliefs. 

Gateway City Church v. Newsom

U.S. Supreme Court ended California’s draconian worship ban

On February 5, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated California’s complete ban on indoor worship. Previously, California had the most severe restrictions in the nation when it came to in-person worship, banning indoor worship altogether while allowing secular businesses like Hollywood film studios and big-box retailers to open. In South Bay II, the Supreme Court recognized that California’s total ban on worship violated freedom of religion.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the very next day California lifted its ban on indoor worship, allowing churches to open with indoor worship at 25% of capacity.

Santa Clara County goes against U.S. Supreme Court

Churches across the state have opened for indoor worship, allowing churchgoers to gather together with proven safety precautions. But Santa Clara County refuses to comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions in South Bay II and Diocese of Brooklyn. Instead, the County has ordered all churches to remain closed through Lent and Easter, preventing people from gathering to worship together as their faiths demand.

Diocese of San José, with Becket’s help, files to support houses of worship

On February 24, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Diocese of San José at the United States Supreme Court. Banning indoor worship is unconstitutional—and the Supreme Court has said so several times, but they repeated the message again on February 27, 2021, forcing Santa Clara County to drop its ban on worship and allowing the Diocese of San José to reopen churches for Lent and Easter worship.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Religious communitiesMeeting together to worship is an important part of almost all religious or spiritual traditions worldwide. The government cannot discriminate against religious believers by violating their rights to gather together or by subjecting them to unfair restrictions that privilege other activities over the unalienable right to worship. 

 

Dunn v. Smith

Leveling down to avoid religious accommodations

Until recently, Alabama required that a clergy member be present at the execution of a prisoner. But in 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections abruptly changed its policy to instead ban all clergy members from the execution chamber in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a Texas prisoner’s case, Murphy v. Collier.

In the Texas case, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection, and his final request was for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution. The state of Texas denied his request, arguing that his Buddhist minister was a security risk, even though the state allowed Christian ministers and Muslim imams into the chamber and the minister was a frequent chaplain to Texas prisoners. On March 28, 2019—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court stepped in and said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless it granted Murphy access to his Buddhist spiritual advisor.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas and Alabama made an ugly move to avoid accommodating minority religions. Both states changed their policies to ban all clergy members from the execution chamber.

Defending the comfort of clergy in the death chamber

Fast forward to 2021. Alabama prisoner, Willie B. Smith was scheduled to be executed for his crimes on February 11, 2021. Smith’s minister, Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr., attested that during his time in prison, Smith repented of his sins and developed a strong personal faith. Pastor Wiley has spent years ministering to Smith in prison. Smith asked that Pastor Wiley be allowed to accompany him in the execution chamber but, in accordance with Alabama’s new discriminatory policy, his request was denied.

Smith sued the state of Alabama for his right to be accompanied by his pastor at the moment of death. The district court ruled against Smith, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in his favor. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court on February 11, 2021, the morning of Smith’s scheduled execution.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Smith, arguing that 13 out of 20 prisoners executed in the United States over the past year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, so too should Alabama. The brief also argued that the Constitution requires more than equal, bad treatment for all faiths. It requires that all Americans, including prisoners, be accommodated in their religious exercise whenever possible.

Late on the night of February 11, 2021 the Supreme Court declined to disturb the court of appeals ruling that Alabama must allow Smith to be accompanied by his pastor in the execution chamber. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

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.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom; Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

The most extreme restrictions in the nation

Since March 4, 2020, houses of worship in California have been subject to a series of draconian restrictions that, with a few brief respites over the summer, have banned all indoor worship for months at a time. During this period, California permitted secular businesses—from Hollywood film studios to liquor stores and big-box retailers to nail salons—to remain open, some with percentage-of-occupancy caps and others with only distancing and masking requirements.

For months, non-essential retail, big-box, and department stores could open their doors to hundreds of mingling shoppers seeking retail therapy, but houses of worship couldn’t admit a single worshiper, even while following social distancing and masking requirements.

Fighting for the right to worship

In response to this disparate treatment, South Bay United Pentecostal Church sued Governor Gavin Newsom in May 2020, challenging this total ban on in-person worship. South Bay’s case went all the to the Supreme Court in an emergency posture, but initially resulted in a loss for the church with four Justices noting that they would have enjoined California’s restrictions.

Meanwhile, across the country, numerous states had been working cooperatively with religious organizations to find ways to conduct indoor religious worship services while still combating the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, by late November of 2020, California stood alone in its absolute prohibition on indoor religious worship. Every other state permitted some form of indoor worship, with most states imposing no restrictions at all.

In November 2020, both Harvest Rock and South Bay brought renewed challenges to Governor Newsom’s restrictive orders, this time with a new arrow in their quiver: the Supreme Court had recently ruled, in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, that New York could not simultaneously allow “non-essential” retail stores to operate with percentage-of-occupancy caps (potentially opening their doors to hundreds of shoppers) while imposing 10- or 25-person hard caps on religious worship, regardless of the size of the religious worship space. Citing this recent decision, the Supreme Court sent Harvest Rock’s case back to the lower courts, telling the courts to reconsider their decisions upholding California’s complete ban on indoor worship.

When Harvest Rock went back before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining why the Supreme Court’s decision in Diocese of Brooklyn should control the outcome in this case. The right to worship, protected by the First Amendment, should not be treated less favorably than secular conduct like shopping at retail stores. Becket’s brief also explained that almost all states had moved from fixed, numerical caps on religious worship to percentage-of-occupancy caps that account for the size of the worship space. But the Ninth Circuit declined the Supreme Court’s invitation to reconsider its decision and again upheld California’s worst-in-the-nation treatment of religious worship. The churches therefore again sought relief from the Supreme Court.

Throwing open the doors of churches

On January 29, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of South Bay and Harvest Rock at the Supreme Court. On February 5, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that California could not enforce its discriminatory indoor worship ban against South Bay Pentecostal Church, Harvest Rock Church, and other houses of worship. As a result, California changed its unconstitutional worship restrictions the very next day.

 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities: Meeting together to worship is an important part of almost all religious or spiritual traditions worldwide. The government cannot discriminate against religious believers by violating their rights to assemble together or by subjecting them to unfair restrictions that privilege other activities over the unalienable right to worship.

Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear

Preserving public health while pursuing academic excellence  

Danville Christian Academy, located in Danville, Kentucky, is Christian educational institution serving students from preschool through grade 12. The mission of Danville Christian is “to mold Christ-like scholars, leaders, and servants who will advance the Kingdom of God.” In order to do so, Danville Christian believes that “its students should be educated with a Christian worldview in a communal, in-person environment.” 

In response to COVID-19, Danville Christian Academy has gone to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of students and families, as well as the broader community, by following the recommendations of local and national health officials. Over the summer, the school spent over $20,000 implementing safety procedures and equipping its facilities for safe, in-person instruction. As a result of Danville Christian’s rigorous efforts, since reopening in August, only a handful of students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19thus confirming that the school’s strict health and safety precautions have been working. 

Denying educational opportunities  

On November 18, 2020, eight months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued two executive orders. The first required all elementary, middle, and high schools to cease in-person instruction and transition to virtual learningIn stark contrast, the second issued guidance permitting most other in-person activities and indoor gatherings to continue, with certain capacity restrictions. Those businesses permitted to remain open included daycares, preschools, colleges and universities, and even gyms, bowling alliestheaters, and gambling venues such as racetracks.  

As a result of this unequal treatment, retailers saw large Black Friday crowds and the University of Louisville has played football games in front of crowds numbering in the thousands. Meanwhile school-aged students, who are at a reduced risk of contracting and transmitting the COVID-19 virus, are kept from vital in-person instruction—despite the fact that all classes at Danville Christian would satisfy the same 25-person capacity restrictions imposed on certain other businesses. 

The result of the Governor’s unequal treatment of schools is even more troubling for private religious schools. The Governor’s actions deny religious communities the right to effectively pass down their faith to the next generation of believers. At Danville Christian, for instance, students are missing out on in-person chapel services, religious instruction, and other communal events that cannot be translated into an on-line format.  In July 2020, the Supreme Court emphasized the fundamental right of religious communities to pass on the faith to the next generation through religious education in its decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru. The Court’s opinion specifically highlighted “the close connection that religious institutions draw between their central purpose and educating the young in the faith, the very interest raised here. 

Vindicating the right to religious education  

On November 202020, Danville Christian Academy filed a lawsuit against Governor Beshear, challenging his restrictions on religious education. The federal district court ruled in favor of Danville Christian, but Governor Beshear appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which permitted enforcement of the Governor’s order.  

On November 30, 2020, Danville Christian Academy filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court to protect it from the Governor’s arbitrary closure of only primary and secondary schools, while permitting other larger group gatherings. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Danville Christian arguing that the Governor’s order must be subject to stringent judicial review because it interferes with the fundamental right of parents to direct the religious education of their children.

On December 17, 2020, the Supreme Court denied Danville Christian’s request for emergency relief, citing the “timing and impending expiration” of Kentucky’s school closing order. The Court’s opinion nevertheless noted the important First Amendment interests at stake, and highlighted the constitutionally protected parental rights raised in Becket’s brief.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Religious Communities: Religious groups have the right to form their own institutions and to pass their teachings down to the next generation. Schools like Danville Christian Academy, which exist to transmit the Christian faith to the next generation, are constitutionally protected from government restrictions that deny them their fundamental right to provide religious education.  

Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo

Can Governor Cuomo target New York City’s Jewish communities?

Governor Cuomo openly singled out Jewish synagogues like Agudath Israel’s for disfavored treatment,  claiming  that “because of their [Orthodox Jews’] religious practices, etc., we’re seeing a spread [of COVID-19]” and threatened to “close the [Orthodox Jewish religious] institutions down.” Although Governor Cuomo openly admitted the supposedly elevated rates of COVID-19 would not be considered serious in many other states, he drew restrictive “Red” lockdown zones around predominately Orthodox Jewish parts of New York City. These zones heavily restricted worship, closed schools, and prevented Jewish families from celebrating holidays while mere blocks away, schools were open and restaurants were serving customers. Far from being scientifically justifiable, Cuomo himself has admitted that his drastic actions were taken out of a concern for public opinion, not public health, saying the lockdown zones were “a fear driven response” and admitting “this is not a policy being written by a scalpel, this is a policy being cut by a hatchet.” As a result, a Brooklyn federal judge found that “the Governor of New York made remarkably clear that this Order was intended to target [Orthodox Jewish] institutions.”

Standing up for equal treatment

In response to this unfair treatment, Agudath Israel filed a lawsuit in federal court on October 8, arguing that the discriminatory nature of Cuomo’s “cluster action initiative” rendered it unconstitutional. After the district court denied an immediate injunction, Agudath appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for an emergency ruling protecting them while the case was being argued in the lower court. On November 9, 2020, the Second Circuit declined, in a 2-1 decision, to stop the restrictions before the case was argued, with Judge Park dissenting. However, recognizing the importance of the case, the Court fast-tracked that briefing and argument in the case. 

On November 16, 2020, Becket, along with co-counsel Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, asked the Supreme Court to issue an emergency injunction halting Governor Cuomo’s discriminatory regulations until the case was decided. Pointing to Cuomo’s own admissions of targeting Orthodox Jews, the fact that the governor’s lockdown zones restricted Orthodox Jewish communities more harshly than other communities with equivalent or higher rates of COVID-19 infection, and the Supreme Court’s robust precedent protecting religious groups from hostile discrimination, Becket asked the Supreme Court to lift the governor’s restrictive “religious gerrymander” until the case was decided in court. On November 25, the Supreme Court granted the injunction, finding that Governor Cuomo’s “rules can be viewed as targeting the ‘ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] community,’” that there was no evidence that the houses of worship who brought the case had contributed to the spread of disease, and that the regulations violated the First Amendment by privileging secular activities over religious exercise.

The Court’s opinion made clear that “…even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

On December 28, 2020 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 3-0 in favor of Agudath Israel, halting Governor Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person caps on religious worship while the case is pending.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

Sharing his faith in Jesus

Chike Uzuegbunam, the son of Nigerian immigrant parents and a man of faith, was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College. As a junior in 2016, Chike began sharing a message about Jesus’ love in a plaza outside of the school’s library. “All I wanted to do was share with other students the faith that changed my life,” Chike said.

Threatened with arrest for sharing his faith

Although he wasn’t disturbing anyone, Chike was stopped by campus officials, who told him that he could only distribute literature in a designated “speech zone,” – two tiny areas making up less than 0.0015% of the campus. Chike complied with the policy and reserved a speech zone, but when he tried to speak again, he was silenced by campus police, who threatened to arrest him for “disturbing the peace” if he continued publicly sharing his faith.

Not only was Georgia Gwinnett’s policy – confining free expression to two tiny zones – ridiculous, it was also enforced in a discriminatory fashion. Chike was threatened with arrest for quietly talking with other students who were interested in his message, but university officials allowed other students to talk and play loud music in public areas without silencing them.

Threatened for sharing his faith and speaking his mind, Chike was determined that others—including his friend Joseph Bradford, who had planned to follow Chike’s example until Chike was silenced—should not have to go through the same experience. Chike filed a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett.

Holding the government accountable

As a public university, Georgia Gwinnett should have followed the Constitution and allowed Chike to speak. But Georgia Gwinnett’s lawyers still fought to defend their unconstitutional policy in court. Then, Georgia Gwinnett unexpectedly dropped its policy and argued that Chike’s case should be dismissed as “moot” because he had graduated—and that the court should never decide whether the college had violated the law.

Since large government bureaucracies like universities and prisons often use this tactic to avoid facing judgment, Chike was prepared. He had included a request for a small amount of money – “nominal damages”—so that the court could still give justice to Chike even if his case took years to resolve. But the district court still dismissed Chike’s case. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, breaking with every other U.S. Court of Appeals to hold that, if he wanted justice, Chike should have asked for more money, in the form of “compensatory damages.”

Governments should not be allowed to evade accountability by changing their unconstitutional policies after the fact and then using technical loopholes (like whether the plaintiffs have asked for nominal vs. compensatory damages) to avoid facing justice for their past actions.

On September 29, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that governments should not be allowed to evade accountability by changing their unconstitutional policies after the fact and then using technical loopholes (like whether the plaintiffs have asked for nominal vs. compensatory damages) to avoid facing justice for their past actions. Becket, which frequently represents people seeking to practice their faith in prison, pointed out that in many cases, federal law forbids inmates from bringing the kind of compensatory damages claims that the Eleventh Circuit requires.

Now the Supreme Court will decide whether the government can get away with bad behavior just by pretending to get the picture, or whether Chike and others like him can receive justice when the government violates their fundamental rights.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Free speech: Free speech is an important human right – and an important constitutional right as well. Unaccountable bureaucrats should not be able to stifle free speech, even – and especially – if the views expressed are unpopular, controversial, or simply disfavored by the government.
  • Public square: Religious exercise is an important part of being human, and as such it has a valuable place in the public square. Religious speech should be protected and cherished, the same as any other form of expression.
  • Education: Students like Chike Uzuegbunam don’t give up their rights when they attend a public college. Establishments of higher education are meant to be places of free and open inquiry, not government inquisition.

Dalberiste v. GLE Associates

A commitment to the Sabbath

Abstaining from work on a “Sabbath” ordained by God is a religious practice that is important to people of many faiths—but particularly to Seventh-day Adventists, as indicated by their name. For Mitche Dalberiste, an environmental technician, this means retreating from the distractions of everyday life to spend time with family, serve his community, and worship God.

In June 2016, Mr. Dalberiste was hired by GLE Associates for a job as an industrial hygiene technician. During the onboarding process when he called to discuss training and his work schedule, he disclosed to his supervisor that, as a practicing Seventh-day Adventist, his religious beliefs barred him from working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Mr. Dalberiste requested a religious accommodation only from work on his Sabbath, and was willing to work during all other times of the week, including late nights and Sunday.

Denied employment for religious reasons

The next day, Mr. Dalberiste’s job offer was rescinded in response to his request for a religious accommodation, without any inquiry into whether an accommodation was practical or what weekend times Mr. Dalberiste could work. This loss was all the more abrupt because GLE Associates had never in the hiring process specified that its role was unavailable to someone only available for part of the weekend.

To someone reading federal law for the first time, GLE Associates’ decision seems unusual. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars employers of significant size—like GLE Associates—from discriminating on a number of bases, such as race, sex, and religious practice. The law specifies that these employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” religious practice, unless it would cause serious disruption (“undue hardship”) to the business. Yet GLE Associates did not even try to find an accommodation. Why?

A poor judgment

The answer is found in a 1977 Supreme Court decision. In Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Court concluded that employers may deny employees religious accommodation if the accommodation imposes so much as a minor strain on the employer. Under this standard, employers like GLE Associates are given the option to reject a religious accommodation over something as trivial as having to change work shifts.

This standard poses a serious burden to the free exercise of American workers, and mainly those Americans who practice minority faiths or hold different or unpopular beliefs. And the Department of Justice recently called for the Court to revisit this standard, stating that Hardison’s rule is both “incorrect” and “irreconcilable” with the Court’s more recent decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, where Becket became involved to defend a Muslim woman denied a job due to her religious practice of wearing a headscarf.

The chance to right a wrong

In 2016, Mr. Dalberiste sued GLE Associates in Florida federal district court, seeking to defend his right to earn an honest livelihood while following his deeply held religious convictions. However, because of Hardison, the district court and appeals court were compelled to side with GLE Associates.

Along with its partners—the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Gene Schaerr of Schaerr | Jaffe—Becket asked the Supreme Court of the United States to correct its mistaken view in Hardison and restore religious liberty to its proper place in employment law. No American should have to choose between providing for his family and practicing a central tenet of its faith. The Supreme Court was asked to clarify that employers must reasonably accommodate sincere religious practice, just as they do other protected characteristics like disability. The Court denied review of Mr. Dalberiste’s case on April 5, 2021.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.

Sossamon v. Texas

Getting right with God

Harvey Sossamon was an inmate in a Texas. He wanted to cultivate his faith even while in prison, but he was denied access to the prison chapel for religious services even though other inmates were allowed access to the same space for secular uses such as marriage training sessions and sex education. Instead, the prison officials allowed worship services to be held only in multi-purpose spaces where there were no religious symbols to aid in worship.

This meant that, while he was able to practice his faith in multi-purpose spaces, he was unable to engage in essential aspects of Christian worship such as kneeling at the altar or praying at the foot of a cross.

Pursuing equal access

Sossamon sued the prison officials in their individual capacities, arguing that denying him access to the chapel unfairly burdened his religious exercise and is prohibited under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), an important civil rights law that protects the religious liberty of prisoners and patients.

Denied just recourse

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled against Sossamon, finding that he could not sue the officials in their individual capacity under RLUIPA. On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Sossamon lost again. Sossamon appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States. At the Supreme Court, Becket filed an amicus brief that explained why it is so important for religious individuals to be able to sue government officials under the federal civil rights laws. The Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision on technical grounds, holding that Congress had not been specific enough in the wording of RLUIPA to override the State of Texas’s sovereign immunity. Justice Sotomayor dissented, discussing at length Becket’s kosher diet case Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Importance to Religious Liberty:
Individual Freedom—In order for individuals to have the freedom to exercise their beliefs without government interference, individual government actors who take adverse action against religious liberty must be able to be held personally responsible.

Tanzin v. Tanvir

Targeted for their faith

Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari are three American Muslim men who were allegedly approached by FBI agents, who asked the men to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. However, their religious beliefs prevented the men from assisting the FBI in this way.

Abuse of power

After the three men declined to serve as informants for the FBI they were allegedly placed on the No Fly List—a record of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States and therefore not permitted to fly. According to their court filings, they were on this list for several years.

The three men sued the FBI agents, arguing that they had coercively abused the use of the No Fly List and, in doing so, had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by burdening their religious exercise.

Just four days before the men got their day in court, the FBI said the men were free to fly, then asked the court to dismiss the case and leave the men without any legal recourse.

Just recourse for religious discrimination

The district court ruled that the men had no standing to sue because their names had been removed from the No Fly List. They appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which rightly ruled in favor of the Muslim men, finding that they had the ability to vindicate their rights in court.

The FBI agents appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that cannot be held liable for placing the men on the No Fly List.

Frequently, the government changes laws or reverses its behavior to avoid legal trouble. This is a dangerous precedent that allows the government to get away with egregious actions, then deny victims just recourse for the harms they’ve faced. Becket is arguing that to hold the government accountable for unjust actions, individual government actors must be able to be held liable for violating religious freedom under RFRA.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the Second Circuit’s decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir on November 22, 2019. On February 12, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of broad protections under RFRA and allowing those whose rights are violated to seek money damages for RFRA claims. The Court heard oral arguments in the case on October 6, 2020 and ruled on December 10, 2020 that the men are entitled to sue for financial relief, saying that it is sometimes the only form of relief that can remedy government violations of religious freedom.

Importance to Religious Liberty:
Individual Freedom— The government shouldn’t be able to get out of legal trouble by changing laws and policies when it knows it’s about to lose in court. In order for individuals to have the freedom to exercise their beliefs without government interference, individual government actors who take adverse action against religious liberty must be able to be held responsible.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

Our Lady of Guadalupe fights for excellence 

Our Lady of Guadalupe School is a Transitional Kinder-8th grade Catholic school located in Hermosa Beach. A ministry of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, the school is committed to providing a faith-based education rooted in the Catholic tradition.  

In 2012, the school was struggling financially and on the verge of closing, with only one student in the graduating eighth grade class. In a bold turnaround effort, the school sought to improve by implementing a new reading and writing program to be taught by all teachers, a healthy diet program, and programs tailored for children with special needs.  

As a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ms. Morrissey-Berru was responsible for providing a Catholic education, while implementing the school’s new programs, which were a top priority. However, Ms. Morrissey-Berru soon proved unwilling to follow the guidelines of any of the programs, and her students academic performance suffered as a result. Her recurring poor performance prompted complaints from fellow colleagues and parents.  Principal April Beuder decided to move Ms. Morrissey-Berru to a part-time teaching position, and in 2015 chose not to renew her contract. 

Catholic schools must be free to choose who teaches the faith 

As a Catholic school teacher, Ms. Morrissey-Berru held a crucial role of teaching the beliefs and mission of the Roman Catholic Church. She taught religion, led students in daily prayer, and prepared them for mass and other important liturgical activities such as feast days, Lenten services, and an annual performance of the Passion of the Christ. Every subject she taught was infused with Catholic values. The school also paid to have her trained as a certified Catechist. 

Under the ministerial exception, church schools like Our Lady of Guadalupe have the First Amendment right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from any government interference.

Morrissey-Berru sues Our Lady of Guadalupe 

After her contract term ended, Ms. Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School for age discrimination. A federal judge sided with the school, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision protecting the First Amendment right of a Lutheran church school to choose its teachers. Ms. Morrissey-Berru then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

In a two-page order, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed and sided with Ms. Morrissey-Berru. The panel recognized she had significant religious responsibilities,and was committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, yet, still ruled that Morrissey-Berru’s duties were not religious enough to invoke First Amendment protections. 

Nine other judges on the Ninth Circuit criticized the Morrissey-Berru panel’s decision in a dissenting opinion authored by Judge Ryan Nelson in a parallel case also handled by BecketSt. James School v. Biel. The dissenting judges called the alarm, stating that “Now thousands of Catholic schools in the West have less religious freedom than their Lutheran counterparts nationally.”  

Becket defended Our Lady of Guadalupe School, arguing that religious groups can only operate freely if they are given full autonomy in choosing the individuals who teach their beliefs and embody their faith. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court on August 28, 2019. On December 18, 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe, and consolidated the case with another Becket case, St. James School v. BielThe Court heard oral argument on May 11, 2020. Also representing Our Lady of Guadalupe were Linda Miller Savitt, John Manier, Stephanie Kantor of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP, and Margaret Graf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 

On July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James Catholic schools, finding that the government cannot control a church school’s decision about who teaches its religion classes.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious groups should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers free from government interference. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this right under the ministerial exception and all courts should respect that decision. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry. 

Patterson v. Walgreens

In a sense attacking my faith and my ability to worship and putting my family’s livelihood at stake was a deeper attack than any that I’ve ever experienced. It was deeper than my race or color, it goes to the very core, my very soul of who I am.”—Darrell Patterson 

Work six days, rest the seventh  

Growing up as a black man in the pre-civil rights south made Darrell Patterson no stranger to discrimination and hostility. But nothing compares to the pain he experienced when he was forced to choose between his job and his Seventh-day Adventist faith  

Since childhood, Mr. Patterson has felt called to a strong devotion to God. As an adult, Mr. Patterson demonstrated his faithfulness by abstaining from work on the Sabbath day, a practice that is important to people of many faithsbut particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, as indicated by their name. For Mr. Patterson this means retreating from the distractions of everyday life to spend time with family, serve his community and worship God. Whether he is at home singing hymns or ministering to at-risk youth or the homeless, Mr. Patterson is faithful every Sabbath day.   

In 2005, during his interview for a position at an Orlando Walgreens call center, Mr. Patterson made it clear that he wouldn’t be able to work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and he was hired without a problem. For several years, Mr. Patterson loved his job and enjoyed interacting with new hires. He saw his work as an extension of his ministry and treated his colleagues with compassion. He was always available to work all other days of the week, including Sundays, and his colleagues were always more than happy to switch shifts with him on the rare occasion he was scheduled to work on a Saturday.   

Employees shouldn’t be punished for their company’s mistakes  

In 2011, Mr. Patterson’s supervisors scheduled him to work on a Saturday for an extra training session after Walgreens executives made an error that broke Alabama’s pharmacy laws. The training was only two hours long and could have been done Friday, Sunday, or Monday, but Walgreens scheduled Mr. Patterson to do it on Saturday. Unable to work on a Saturday, Mr. Patterson followed protocol and attempted to switch schedules with a colleague, but because it was last minute, he was unsuccessful. Mr. Patterson conducted the training on Monday, ahead of the deadline. But Walgreens swiftly fired Mr. Patterson anyway.  

This attack on both his ability to worship and his family’s livelihood was unlike any other discrimination he had faced before. In 2014, Mr. Patterson sued Walgreens in Florida federal district court, which ruled in favor of Walgreens. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit also sided with the company. Both courts claimed that Walgreens had done enough to accommodate Mr. Patterson’s religious beliefs. In 2018, Mr. Patterson brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his right to earn an honest livelihood while following his deeply held religious convictions  

All Americans must be free to practice their faith in the workplace 

Keeping holy days like Christmas, Yom Kippur, or a Sabbath like Mr. Patterson’s is a core religious practice for Americans of many different faith backgrounds. But because of a mistake made by Walgreens executives, Mr. Patterson was forced to choose between providing for his family and practicing a central tenet of his faith—a decision no American should have to make. The Supreme Court should step in to protect Mr. Patterson’s rights and clarify that employers must reasonably accommodate sincere religious practice, just as they do other protected characteristics like disability 

Along with its partners the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Gene Schaerr of Schaerr| Jaffe, Becket is defending Mr. Patterson and the right of Americans of all faiths to live and work according to their religious beliefs, including the fundamental practice of observing the Sabbath. The Supreme Court denied review in Patterson v. Walgreens on February 24, 2020.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual Freedom: Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.

Patrick Henry Murphy v. Bryan Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

On the evening of March 28, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection. His final request for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution, and help lead him into the afterlife in which he believes, had been denied. Yet at 9:20 pm—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in. The Court said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless and until it granted Murphy the right to a reverend of his own faith at his side.

It was a shock—especially given that just weeks before, the Supreme Court refused to stop the execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray when he was denied an imam at his own moment of death.

The story of what changed—and how Becket helped win the rights of the condemned to the comfort of clergy—comes down to the power of arguments based on principle.

Texas denies religious rights at death 

For the past six years, Patrick Murphy has practiced his Buddhist faith in prison with the help of spiritual advisor Rev. Hui-Yong Shih. Mr. Murphy believes that the presence of his spiritual advisor in the moments before his execution is necessary to assist him to maintain the focus required to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.

Despite Texas permitting Rev. Shih to visit Mr. Murphy in prison for over six years, and despite official prison approval of Rev. Shih as a prison spiritual advisor, the State of Texas refused Mr. Murphy’s request to have Rev. Shih present with him in the execution chamber. Texas made the surprising argument that a Buddhist minister was a security risk to the prison. And this was despite the fact that Texas already permitted Christian ministers and Muslim imams to be present in the execution chamber.

An eleventh-hour voice of reason 

Death penalty appeals are harried, and provoke strong feelings and emotions from all sides. In order to help prevent this from clouding the key religious liberty issues at stake, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court. This brief pointed the way toward a clear path that could protect the religious liberty of Mr. Murphy, while cutting through the competing arguments and ideological differences that are usually involved in a death penalty appeal.

Becket’s brief made the point that principles of religious liberty—and the very tangible religious liberty interest of Mr. Murphy—should not be ignored simply because the Court might not approve of the delay tactics that often accompany a Supreme Court death penalty appeal. Instead, the Court could protect religious liberty and find other ways to make their dislike of last-minute stay applications known.

More specifically, Becket marshaled key legal and historical sources to explain why a prisoner facing imminent execution has the constitutional right to turn to his minister for crucial support:

“The guidance of the soul at the moment of execution—the moment at which the knife falls—has for centuries been well recognized as a crucial moment of religious exercise calling for a minister’s guidance. This Court should recognize that our Constitution and civil rights laws support a right to that guidance.”

Becket asked that the Court order the State of Texas to grant Murphy access to his Buddhist minister in the execution chamber, which is exactly what the Supreme Court did.

The Supreme Court took action 

Almost two and a half hours after the scheduled start of Murphy’s execution by the State of Texas, the United States Supreme Court issued an order halting Murphy’s execution. The Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution “unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor… to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber,” exactly following Becket’s recommendation.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.”

What changed?  

But what about the Muslim prisoner who was denied the same source of comfort at the moment of his death just a month earlier? One factor is clear: Becket’s involvement in the case brought new legal arguments to the table—arguments that were not made in the prior appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, without the benefit of these arguments, was not presented with the full picture. Becket relied on cases that support the Free Exercise of religion, and prevent discrimination against people with different religious beliefs as a result. But the arguments previously made in support of the Muslim prisoner were more limited, and focused instead on different legal protections. This change was crucial to the protection of religious liberty in principle and in practice.

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.

Department of Commerce v. New York

People of faith should have a chance to defend their rights 

When religious individuals sue a state or local government for discrimination, they can collect evidence in and outside of the courtroom to prove their case. They can question officials under oath, request government documents, and use every resource available to defend their religious liberty. This legal process known as “discovery” is vital for religious individuals who need to prove wrongdoing by government officials.

Yet when religious individuals sue a federal agency, under a federal statute called the Administrative Procedure Act, they may be limited to using the agency’s own internally compiled evidence to prove that the agency engaged in discrimination. Without the normal process of discovery, and confined to the agency’s own records, the court is left to take the federal agency’s word that it did not violate anyone’s religious liberty. Although Department of Commerce v. New York does not involve religious claims, it presents this same issue—whether individuals suing a federal agency for discrimination are allowed to present evidence other than the agency’s own records. And this issue has the potential to affect people of all faiths, since federal agencies are often indifferent, even hostile, toward religious freedom.

Proving religious discrimination by government agencies 

Becket has defended many religious groups from government actions and policies that were proven during discovery to have been based on intentional religious targeting. For example, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia,a Philadelphia policy barred a Catholic foster agency the city had partnered with for decades from placing any more children with families. In discovery, the city demonstrated its actions were motivated by religious hostility toward the agency’s Catholic beliefs, by saying it’s “not 100 years ago” and that “times have changed.” In another case, BLinC v. University of Iowa, a public university applied a policy claiming to protect students from discrimination, but in discovery it was revealed that school officials used the policy to illegally target and deregister religious student groups that required their leaders to sign their statement of faith.

All Americans must be able to defend their rights, through legal processes that give them a fair chance to prove a federal agency’s wrongdoing. On March 6, 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the implications its ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York would have on religious liberty.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s attempt to limit the evidence the Court could consider in deciding the challengers’ claims against the federal agency. Additionally, Justice Thomas, in a separate dissent, agreed with Becket’s brief that “claim[s] of religious discrimination under the Free Exercise Clause” should be analyzed differently from ordinary challenges to federal agency action.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Individual Freedom: The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and other federal laws guarantee the right to freely practice one’s faith, and to defend that right fully in court. This includes access to legal processes to prove wrongdoing by the government, and especially federal agencies, which are historically less attentive to religious liberty than other government branches. 

Ricks v. Idaho Board of Contractors

One man’s religious convictions 

George Ricks is a 59-year-old father of four who has worked in construction his entire career. A long-time student of the Bible, George believes it is wrong to provide his Social Security number as a condition of obtaining work. 

In 2014, he tried to become an independent contractor. But in Idaho, where George lives, it is a misdemeanor to work as a contractor without first registering with the state, and registering requires providing a social security number. George was willing to provide any other form of identification, including his birth certificate, but he has a sincere religious objection to using his Social Security number to secure employment. The Idaho Board of Contractors—which makes exceptions for others, and which could obtain Ricks’s Social Security number in other ways if it really needed to—refused to accommodate his religious beliefs and denied his registration. 

No social security number, no job 

The Board’s denial was motivated by money. A federal law dictates that the Board of Contractors will receive extra funding if it collects contractors’ Social Security numbers. The law’s intent is to help the government track down delinquent fathers—something no one could ever accuse George of being, as he has spent his entire adult life providing for his four children. 

Yet the Board’s refusal to register George cost him the ability to find full-time work and provide fully for his family. Government regulations shouldn’t force someone unnecessarily to choose between being employed and practicing their religion. But in Ricks’s case, that is exactly what’s happening. Idaho’s forced choice between faith and work is entirely avoidable: the other licensing laws already grant accommodations to foreign residents who don’t have Social Security numbers; and if Idaho really needs Ricks’s government-issued number, it can consult its own records or ask the federal government to provide it. 

Becket defends free exercise 

Needless bureaucracy should never take precedence over the free exercise of religious beliefs. The Board of Contractors should stop forcing George to choose between his religious beliefs and his ability to provide for his family. In January 2019, Becket stepped up to represent George in his lawsuit against the Idaho Board of Contractors. After the Idaho Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Becket filed a petition in the Supreme Court of the United States on July 10, 2019, asking the Court to hold that the Free Exercise Clause requires Idaho to accommodate George’s religious beliefs. On June 28, 2021, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari for the case.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Free exercise: Individuals should be free to hold and act on their deeply held convictions, not just in their homes or places of worship, but in their places of employment and the public square.
  • Religious beliefs and employment: When a government regulation bars someone from pursuing employment because of their religious beliefs, the government must prove that there is no other way for it to achieve its goals without banning a private person’s freedom of religion.

St. James School v. Biel

A Catholic parish school since 1918

St. James Catholic School is a K-8 school in Torrance, California, dedicated to educating students while developing their life in the Roman Catholic faith. It is the parish school for St. James Roman Catholic Church. Since its founding in 1918, the school has lived out the parish’s motto “to continue the praise of God.” Parents choose St. James because they know their children will receive a quality academic education rooted in the Catholic faith and infused with Catholic teaching and practice.

As the only fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School, Ms. Biel was the person charged with promoting, teaching, and fostering Catholic identity in the fifth graders at St. James. She carried out this mission by teaching a religion class on the Catholic faith each week; leading students in prayer daily, including the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers; taking them to and supervising them during Mass; and infusing the entire curriculum with the Catholic faith and values. After the school found Ms. Biel’s classroom performance to be below the school’s standards, they worked with her for months to improve. When she did not show signs of improvement, the school decided not to renew her one-year contract.

Ninth Circuit defies U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision

In 2015, Ms. Biel sued St. James School in federal district court. In January 2017, the district court ruled for St. James based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case. In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court protected the First Amendment right of a Lutheran school to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. The Supreme Court decision recognized that religious groups can only operate freely if they are given full autonomy in choosing the individuals who teach their beliefs and embody their faith.

Ms. Biel appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On December 17, 2018, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The Ninth Circuit ruling contradicts Supreme Court precedent, claiming that though Ms. Biel had the same important religious role as the Lutheran teacher in Hosanna Tabor, St. James Catholic School did not have the same right as a Lutheran school to choose who teaches their faith.  

On January 22, 2019, Becket filed its en banc petition for the full Ninth Circuit Court to hear the case on behalf of St. James. On June 25, 2019, the Ninth Circuit denied en banc review. Nine judges joined a dissenting opinion authored by Judge Nelson. In the opinion, the dissenting judges stated that the Ninth Circuit is exhibiting “the very hostility toward religion our Founders prohibited and the Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed us to avoid.”

On September 16, 2019, Becket asked the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision and defend the right of St. James School to choose the teachers best able to pass on its faith teachings to the next generation. On December 18, 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in St. James School, and consolidated the case with a similar Becket case, Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru. The Court heard oral argument on May 11, 2020. Also representing St. James Catholic School were Jack Sholkoff of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. and Margaret Graf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

On July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James Catholic schools, finding that the government cannot control a church school’s decision about who teaches its religion classes.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious institutions should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that right and all courts should respect that decision. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry.

Gundy v. United States

In Gundy v. the United States the U.S. Supreme Court had the opportunity to decide whether Congress violated the “nondelegation doctrine” by giving to the U.S. Attorney General Congress’s constitutionally-assigned task of defining the scope of criminal liability. The nondelegation doctrine is an important principle for maintaining our government’s three-branch structure of checks and balances, and it is particularly important for protecting religious liberty.

The “nondelegation doctrine” is part of our checks and balances

The “nondelegation doctrine” says that Congress cannot vaguely delegate its powers to administrative agencies. Doing so undermines the purpose of our governmental structure. Our nation’s founders divided our government into three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—so that these branches would “check” and “balance” each other. Without those checks and balances, one branch of government can grow in power to the point of eclipsing the others—exactly what our founders wanted to prevent.

Without the nondelegation doctrine—religious liberty is at risk

Allowing Congress to delegate its constitutionally-assigned powers to the Executive Branch increases the already far-too-extensive powers of the administrative state. On top of that, historically, administrative agencies are less attentive to safeguarding religious liberty than Congress. Once an agency has trampled on a religious group’s rights, it can be a long and difficult process to win them back, especially for minority groups. Pastor Soto, for example, a Native American and member of the Lipan Apache tribe, spent ten years fighting in court to get back sacred eagle feathers confiscated by an undercover federal agent from the United States Fish and Wildlife Services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) unconstitutionally denied funding to severely damaged houses of worship simply because they are religious, even as the houses of worship are providing assistance to others impacted by the same natural disasters. And the HHS Mandate cases Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor clearly demonstrated the disastrous consequences of Congress delegating broad powers to an administrative agency—Congress did not impose a contraceptive mandate, HHS bureaucrats did.

In June 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Gundy v. United States highlighting the specific importance of the nondelegation doctrine to religious liberty. Without the nondelegation doctrine, religious groups—particularly minority ones—are at risk of losing their rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gundy v. United States on October 2, 2018. On June 20, 2019 the court ruled against Gundy, deciding that the delegation of powers in Gundy’s case did not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Gundy is represented by Sarah Baumgartel of the Federal Defenders of New York, Inc.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Religious communities: The “nondelegation doctrine” is particularly important for protecting religious liberty of religious communities, especially minority ones. Administrative agencies are historically less attentive to religious liberty rights than Congress.

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

Government cannot take private property without “just compensation”

Rose Mary Knick lives on 90 acres of farmland in the Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, which her family has owned for nearly 50 years. In April 2013, Township officials entered and searched Ms. Knick’s private property without a warrant, saw a few stones that appeared to be grave markers, and claimed that Ms. Knick’s private property was considered a cemetery, and therefore must be made accessible to the public. Ms. Knick challenged the Township, since, by requiring her property to be open to the public, it had violated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which forbids that “private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The district court dismissed her case—not because Ms. Knick was wrong, but because, under an old Supreme Court precedent called Williamson County, Ms. Knick had to complete a lengthy bureaucratic process before she could assert her constitutional rights in court. Ms. Knick continued appealing her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Takings Clause interpretation leaves houses of worship vulnerable

The Williamson County rule is bad enough when applied in takings cases like Ms. Knick’s. But some courts have extended the rule to apply also to claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a bipartisan congressional law passed to protect property rights for houses of worship and minimize the unfair delays, expenses, and hurdles they often suffer at the hands of zoning officials. Houses of worship are particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse, and RLUIPA has played a critical role in ensuring that religious groups are not discriminated against as they find a space to gather for worship and religious exercise.

Becket has stood up for churches, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple, a mosque and even a Hawaiian agricultural Christian community that have faced zoning discrimination. But application of the Williamson County rule to RLUIPA cases undermines RLUIPA’s protection of religious groups, particularly minority faiths, allowing local governments hostile to religious groups to simply strangle it with red tape.

Becket steps in to protect RLUIPA standards

In October 2017, Ms. Knick appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to protect herself and others from the harmful Williamson County rule and ensure that Takings Clause cases are brought to court without years of bureaucratic delay. In March 2018, the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. On June 5, 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, pointing out how some lower courts have expanded the Williamson County rule to RLUIPA cases and arguing that this application undermines RLUIPA and unjustly harms religious groups. When their property rights are violated, houses of worship should be free to challenge the government under RLUIPA instead of spending time and money they do not have on a burdensome bureaucratic process.

Oral argument took place on October 3, 2018. On June 21, 2019 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ms. Knick. Chief Justice Roberts announced that the precedent from Williamson County was overruled in part, writing, “Contrary to Williamson County, a property owner has a claim for a violation of the Takings Clause as soon as a government takes his property for public use without paying for it.” Ms. Knick is represented by Pacific Legal Foundation.

 


Importance to religious liberty

  • Property rights: Houses of worship and religious organizations are particularly vulnerable when it comes to property rights. When their rights are violated, they should be free to challenge the government without spending time and money they do not have on a burdensome bureaucratic process.

Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia

Faith-Based Foster Care Fact Sheet

Free To Foster: Read about heroic foster families

A history of heroic service in the City of Brotherly Love

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch each have decades of experience in the foster care system. Sharonell has fostered 40 children, and Toni spent years working as a foster care social worker and child advocate before fostering and adopting herself. These two Catholic women chose to partner with Catholic Social Services because they wanted to work with a faith-affirming agency and were impressed by its excellent reputation.

The Catholic Church pioneered foster care in Philadelphia over 200 years ago when it founded an agency to help mothers, children, and families in need. Inspired and motivated by its religious identity, Catholic Social Services has been providing critical foster care services to children ever since. It is one of the most successful foster agencies in the city and has a great reputation. Catholic Social Services’ faith (and its ability to recruit foster families who are inspired by their own faith) is a big part of its success. It’s also proved excellent at supporting and retaining foster families. Catholic Social Services’ caseworkers build strong relationships with both foster kids and their families, and are available any time—day or night. When Sharonell took in new foster kids on Christmas Eve, Catholic Social Services’ caseworkers delivered wrapped presents to her door.

But because of the city’s discriminatory actions, loving foster families that partner with Catholic Social Services (like Sharonell and Toni) were stuck on the sidelines—their homes sitting empty—even though the government has admitted that there were kids in immediate need of their love and support.

Making room for diversity

When someone wants to become a foster parent, the first step is to contact a private foster agency (there are 30 in Philadelphia) and complete a home study. Home studies are deeply personal and require the agency to send someone into the family’s home to assess things like the strength of their personal relationships, their physical and mental health, and their relationships with their children. Only once this is completed can an agency partner with the foster family to help care for a child in need.

As part of the Catholic Church, Catholic Social Services cannot partner with and endorse same-sex or unmarried couples. Instead, it will help that couple to find a match from among the 29 other nearby foster agencies that can provide the same endorsement and partner with that couple to serve kids in need. Three of these other agencies are even recognized for their excellence in serving the LGBTQ community.

Agencies help foster families find a better match all the time (like, for example, if a family lives too far away, or the agency has a long waiting list, or a couple is seeking to foster kids with special needs). But this wasn’t enough for city officials, who demanded that if a same-sex couple ever approached Catholic Social Services (none had), the agency had to endorse their relationship and partner with them.

Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs and traditions aren’t a policy or set of guidelines it can change. The agency walks with the Catholic Church in its teachings about marriage and family as well as its commitment to serving the local community—and all parts of the human family—as best it can. As a majority of the Supreme Court Justices acknowledged, Catholic Social Services is “an arm of [the Catholic Church].” Its Catholic convictions are why the agency is committed to serving all children in need—regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Sidelining all-stars while kids are left hanging

In Philadelphia, there are dozens of private agencies that partner with LGBTQ foster parents. And same-sex couples have been fostering kids in Philadelphia for years with their help. Nothing about this case would change that. Instead, Catholic Social Services wants to continue serving vulnerable kids and foster families without compromising its beliefs (as it has done successfully for the last 200 years) alongside a diverse network of other agencies also serving the Philadelphia community. Catholic Social Services has loving families ready to care for kids today, but the government is keeping them on the sidelines.

Foster moms asked the Supreme Court to protect the agency that affirms their religious identity

In May 2018, Becket stepped in to represent children, families, and Catholic Social Services in their lawsuit against Philadelphia’s government. In June 2018, Becket asked a federal court to end the government’s discriminatory actions and let Catholic Social Services serve foster kids and families. In July 2018, the district court denied the request, and Becket immediately appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In April 2019, the Third Circuit ruled against Sharonell Fulton, Toni Simms-Busch, and Catholic Social Services in a controversial decision that split with several other appeals courts. Becket then asked the Supreme Court to take up their case and protect the freedom of faith-affirming foster agencies nationwide to maintain their deeply held beliefs while serving those most in need. On February 24, 2020, the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case. Oral argument took place on November 4, 2020 and on June 17, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of “exemplary” foster mothers Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, allowing these foster care heroes to continue serving children in need in partnership with the Catholic foster ministry that has been serving Philadelphia for over 200 years. As the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed, “CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”


Importance to religious liberty

  • Religious FreedomReligious 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 in order to continue providing much needed social services.
  • Public SquareFaith-affirming organizations serve their neighbors and provide benefits to the community when they are able to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather the expression of a natural human impulse.

Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

In 2015, Mark Janus, a government employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Service, sued his union—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Janus argued that mandatory union fees forced him to subsidize the union in taking negotiating positions against the government with which he disagreed. After losing in the district court in September 2016 and again at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2017, Janus appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief emphasizing that government workers must be allowed to opt out of mandatory fees to protect their freedom of speech and religious freedom. On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled for Janus when it clarified that mandatory fees are a form of government coercion that violate workers’ rights.

Pay no attention to the government behind the curtain

Pay no attention to the government behind the curtain! At least that’s what supporters of mandatory union fees for government workers wanted in Janus v. AFSCME. Unions can be protective forces for government workers—but not when they use the force of the government to exact mandatory fees from government employees, to support speech with which the employees disagree.

In 2015, Mark Janus, a government employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Service, sued the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in federal court, claiming that mandatory union fees force him to subsidize the union in taking positions against the government with which he disagrees. Janus asked the district court to protect his First Amendment rights and make public sector unions earn the trust of government employees, rather than using government power to force them to support union speech with mandatory fees. In September 2016, the district court ruled against Janus. On appeal in March 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals again ruled against Janus. Janus appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case.

Becket argues that mandatory fees threaten religious liberty

In December 2017, Becket filed an amicus brief in support of Janus, arguing that the government is engaging in “coercion laundering” when it gives unions power to force government employees to support speech they don’t like, even though the government could not force them directly. The government shouldn’t be excused from forcing employees to speak against their will by using unions to hide the coercion.

Our brief showed that this issue has far reaching consequences, especially for religious liberty. For instance, the government uses private accrediting agencies as gatekeepers for federal funding like Pell Grants. Accreditors should not be allowed to use their funding authority to suppress religious speech any more than the government itself could. There are many other situations where the government relies on private entities to provide government benefits or to perform government services. When acting on the government’s behalf, these organizations should be required to respect constitutional rights the same way the government is. Just like “money laundering” (passing illegitimate funds through a legitimate business) cannot remove the taint of criminally obtained funds, “coercion laundering” (allowing a private party to force someone to do something the government could not force them to) cannot remove the taint of unconstitutional coercion.

U.S. Supreme Court: Mandatory union fees are form of government coercion

On February 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Janus’ case. On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Janus in a 5-4 decision, striking down mandatory union fees for government workers. The ruling clarified that mandatory fees are a form of government coercion that violates workers’ rights.

This ruling has significant impact for religious colleges and universities, suggesting that private accrediting agencies that are delegated government authority cannot use that authority to infringe on the schools’ religious speech and practices. Janus was represented by Liberty Justice Center and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Janus was represented by Winston & Strawn, Liberty Justice Center, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: When acting on the government’s behalf, private entities should be required to respect constitutional rights the same way the government is. Government workers must be allowed to opt out of mandatory fees to protect their freedom of speech and religious freedom.
  • Free speech: The government engages in “coercion laundering” when it gives unions power to force government employees to support speech they don’t like, even though the government could not force them directly. The government shouldn’t be excused from forcing employees to speak against their will just because it is using unions to hide the coercion.
  • Education: The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME has significant impact for religious colleges and universities, suggesting that private accrediting agencies that are delegated government authority cannot use that authority to infringe on the schools’ religious speech and practices.

First Resort, Inc. v. Herrera

mission to care for women 

Support Circle is a non-profit clinic and counseling center dedicated to providing support for women facing unplanned pregnancies. At no cost to the women they serve, Support Circle has for decades provided pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, medical care, emotional support, and career counseling to women in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through the many services they offer, Support Circle seeks the well-being of each woman and child that comes to them for help. But because of their belief that abortion is harmful both to women and their unborn children, Support Circle does not offer or refer for abortions. This pro-life viewpoint has resulted in San Francisco trying to stop women in need from even finding out about Support Circle in the first place.  

City ordinance restricts speech—and women’s options 

 In 2011, the City of San Francisco introduced an ordinance that prohibits “limited services pregnancy centers” from making false or misleading statements about the services they offer. But there is hypocrisy built into the ordinance: Support Circle is considered a “limited service” pregnancy center because it does not provide or make referrals for abortion, yet centers that do not offer or refer for other services—like ultrasounds or adoption—are not considered “limited service” centers. Essentially, San Francisco created a one-sided false advertising law, targeting pro-life pregnancy centers, but not abortion providers, for restrictions on their speech. 

Worse, the City says that centers are violating its new ordinance if search engines like Google display their website when the terms “San Francisco” and “abortion” are entered into the search engine together. But Support Circle counsels women considering abortion, and also offers post-abortion counseling, while making clear to all women it serves that it does not offer or refer for abortions. The end result of the city’s ordinance is that women looking for information about abortion on the internet won’t get a chance to see the options available through Support Circle. Instead, they’ll hear only one side of the story—the abortion providers’ side.  

Becket defends free speech for all 

Women facing an unplanned pregnancy have a right to know all their options. And pro-life pregnancy centers have the right to attempt to reach women in need using the same online marketing tools available to every other organization, without being targeted for their viewpoint. 

Thus, in 2012, Support Circle sued the city to stop this unnecessary and unconstitutional ordinance. After a loss at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in February 2018, Support Circle appealed its case to the Supreme Court. Becket joins Locke Lord in defending Support Circle’s right to provide necessary options to women in need without being silenced for its pro-life views. 

In June 2018, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

On January 16, 2018 Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Support Circle at the U.S. Supreme Court in NIFLA v. Becerra, another case involving a government attempt to target pregnancy centers’ speech. On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to protect pro-life pregnancy centers’ right to serve women and children according to their religious mission.


Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Free speech: Governments cannot restrict speech because of the speaker’s beliefs. This principle is especially important for speech relating to deeply important and controversial moral and religious issues, like abortion. San Francisco’s law is a one-sided false advertising law that violates this principle and amounts to viewpoint discrimination.  

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra

A mission to provide essential care

For over twenty years, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) has provided education and training to hundreds of pregnancy clinics across the country. Driven by faith, NIFLA provides essential legal resources and counsel to clinics that share their commitment to life-affirming support for vulnerable women and their families.

Free speech—unless the government favors the other side

In 2015, California enacted the FACT Act, joining a number of other state and local governments that have passed laws to target pregnancy centers that do not recommend or refer for abortion services. The FACT Act requires licensed pregnancy centers, which offer free services to pregnant women, to post in their waiting rooms a disclosure explaining that the state of California provides free or low-cost abortion and contraception services. This licensed disclosure must also include a phone number for a county office that refers women to clinics that provide abortion services. Under the law, other pregnancy centers, too, would have to post burdensome disclosures, not only on site but in all of their advertisements. The FACT Act thus would have forced NIFLA centers to advertise messaging that violates their deeply held beliefs and undermines their mission to offer life-affirming care to women and children.

NIFLA challenged the FACT Act in court. After losses in the district court in January 2016 and at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2016, NIFLA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. In January 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the court brief on behalf of Support Circle, supporting NIFLA and defending their right to continue to serve women and children according to their religious mission.

Victory for free speech

The Supreme Court heard the case in March 2018. During oral argument, California admitted to the Court that some applications of the law were unconstitutional, and the Justices spent much of the argument focusing on the law’s obvious attempt to target pro-life clinics. On June 26, 2018, the Court ruled 5-4 protecting pregnancy centers’ right to serve women and children according to their religious mission. NIFLA was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.

The ruling affirms that the First Amendment protects individuals that may hold viewpoints different from those of the government. On issues as deeply important as abortion, it is vital that the government does not silence one side of the debate.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects speakers from being punished for advancing viewpoints not shared by the government. On issues as divisive as abortion, it is vital that the government does not silence one side of the debate.
  • Public square: Private organizations, including those with a religious foundation, must be free to operate in the public square according to their beliefs.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

A scholarship program for low-income Montana students 

Children in Montana have been stripped of their right to participate in a modest scholarship program simply because some of them might attend religious schools.

In 2015 the state legislature passed the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows Montanans a tax credit of up to $150 of contributions to privately-run scholarship programs. However, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to implement the program, and in an ensuing lawsuit, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program, citing the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic anti-religious law that forbids any aid—direct or indirect—from going to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.” Because some scholarships might be used at religious schools, the Montana Supreme Court said no students could have them.

Treating religious school students as second-class citizens

By denying religious schools’ right to participate in a widely available public program, the Montana Supreme Court ignored the Supreme Court’s June 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that ruled religious groups cannot be barred from participation in widely available public programs simply because they are religious. And the Montana court can’t excuse away the underlying religious bigotry by barring all students the program’s benefit.

Institute for Justice, along with Holland & Hart LLP, represents three low-income Montana mothers who would like to participate in the program by using the scholarships to help send their children to religious private schools.

Becket supports equal treatment of religious schools in public programs

In January 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Montana Supreme Court in support of the parents, arguing that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs and that courts can’t strike down entire benefit programs just to keep religious kids from benefitting from them. Oral argument was held on April 6, 2018, at the Montana Supreme Court, which in December 2018, ruled against the scholarship program, striking down the entire program because some funds would go to kids who chose to use them at religious schools.

On March 13, 2019, the Montana parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Montana mothers’ case. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the discriminatory history of the Blaine Amendments renders them unconstitutional, and that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs. Becket’s brief also argued that relying on Blaine Amendments to shut down entire programs only extends the religious bigotry that motivated the enactment. Oral argument took place January 22, 2020. On June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court decided that children in Montana cannot be stripped of their right to participate in a scholarship program simply because they attend religious schools. The Court also recognized that Blaine Amendments are “born of bigotry.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito addressed more thoroughly the history of discrimination behind the Blaine Amendmentsrepeatedly referring to Becket’s brief 

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. 
  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws:  So long as anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century called Blaine Amendments remain in the books, people of all faiths can face discrimination, simply because they choose to attend a religious school. 
  • 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. 

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

WEBSITE for Little Sisters Cases

Despite Supreme Court victory and new rule, Little Sisters are still in court

On October 6, 2017, Health & Human Services issued a new rule with an updated, broad religious exemption that finally protected religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns who care for the elderly poor. In its new rule, the government admitted that it broke the law by trying to force the Little Sisters and others to provide services like the week-after-pill in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs. That result should mean that the end is near for the Little Sisters’ lawsuit.

However, following the new mandate announcement, the state of Pennsylvania sued the federal government to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption. Pennsylvania admits that it already has and already uses many government programs to provide contraceptives to women who need them.  Pennsylvania never challenged the Obama Administration for creating much larger exceptions for secular corporations—exceptions that covered tens of millions more people than the religious exemption.  Pennsylvania does not even have its own contraceptive mandate at all.  And Pennsylvania’s lawsuit does not identify a single real person who previously had contraceptive coverage but will lose it because of the new Rule.

Despite all this, Pennsylvania is asking a judge to order that the Little Sisters must comply with the federal mandate (not a state mandate) or pay tens of millions of dollars in fines.

Becket challenges Pennsylvania’s attempt to take away Little Sisters’ religious rights

In November 2017, Becket intervened on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in California and Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania court refused to let the Little Sisters intervene in the case, or even argue in court. A week later, the Pennsylvania court temporarily blocked the new rule that gave the Little Sisters a religious exemption. Becket immediately appealed both rulings. Oral argument was held on March 23, 2018 to decide whether the Sisters will be allowed to intervene in the case, and on April 24, 2018, the Little Sisters’ motion for intervention was granted. On January 14, 2019, the court ruled against them – a decision which the Little Sisters immediately appealed. The Third Circuit heard oral arguments in May 2019.

On July 12, 2019, the Third Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters. Becket has argued all along that the government has many ways to provide services to women who want them as well as protect the Little Sisters. Neither the federal government nor the state governments need nuns to help them give out contraceptives. On October 1, 2019, the Little Sisters of the Poor asked the Supreme Court to protect them from the HHS contraceptive mandate again and end their legal battle once and for all. On January 17, 2020 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Third Circuit’s decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Oral argument took place on May 6, 2020.

On July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, allowing them to continue serving the elderly poor and dying without threat of millions of dollars in fines. Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas said that “For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. . . . But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision— have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Court held that the federal government was right to protect those beliefs.

Despite losing at the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania continues to ask the federal courts and HHS to change the rules.

Importance to religious liberty 

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal.  
  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without the government discriminating among sincere religious.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace and not just in houses of worship.

Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

An artist’s livelihood at stake

Jack Phillips is a Christian and a baker. For almost 25 years he has run Masterpiece Cake Shop in Denver, creating artistic, custom-designed cakes for his customers. As a Christian and an artist, he believes his work should only promote messages that align with his religious beliefs.

In July 2012, a same-sex couple asked Phillips to bake a cake for their wedding. Phillips explained that he could not, in good conscience, participate in a wedding ceremony he disagreed with. Although the couple quickly received a cake from another bakery, they filed a complaint against Masterpiece with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In June 2014, the Commission ruled against Masterpiece.

Forced to violate his beliefs—or forfeit his business

The Commission’s ruling would have required Phillips to create whatever cakes customers requested, regardless of his religious views. Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which again ruled against him in August 2015. Phillips appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in September 2017, the Court agreed to hear his case. Phillips was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.

In September 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Phillips and defending his right to decline to participate in wedding ceremonies that he religiously objects to. Becket separately asked the Court to hear his case in tandem with another religious wedding vendor case, Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers.

Victory for free speech and religious liberty

In a diverse and pluralistic society, individuals of different faiths and backgrounds will disagree on many issues, and we must allow for these differences to flourish without the threat of government forcing a religious individual to violate his or her conscience. Weddings are important and sacred events to many Americans. Religious dissenters shouldn’t be forced to participate in a wedding ceremony they do not agree with.

On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cake Shop. The Justices ruled 7-2 that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution protects Jack Phillips from unfair treatment based on his religious beliefs.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace.
  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. In this case, Jack Phillips’ artistic expressions were a form of speech, and the government should not force him into expression that violates his religious beliefs.

Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project

In March 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for ninety days by citizens from six majority Muslim countries, raising serious religious freedom concerns. Plaintiffs brought lawsuits against the executive order, and the lawsuits have traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Becket has a long track record of defending people of all faiths, including Muslims. In 2015, Becket won the historic Supreme Court victory in Holt v. Hobbs, which protected the religious freedom rights of Muslim prisoners. We believe that to protect people of faith, particularly religious minorities like Muslims, Native Americans, and Sikhs, it is vital that legal precedent is set properly. But the ACLU and other groups in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project have litigated their case under the wrong part of the Constitution. They are challenging the travel ban using the notorious Lemon test – a widely discredited set of criteria that creates confusion – and weak law— for important religious freedom cases. The Lemon test is particularly disliked by the Supreme Court because it forces judges to psychoanalyze the intent of policymakers at the time they wrote the law.

Instead, when the government targets a religious group for punishment or mistreatment, courts should use the laws that are designed to deal with burdens on religious exercise, namely the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Unlike Lemon, these laws have objective tests designed to root out religious targeting and protect religious minorities.

It is only possible to get cases like this right if courts are using the correct legal standards. Deciding religious freedom cases using the correct laws is the best way to achieve a truly just outcome both for the Muslim plaintiffs and for all Americans who have First Amendment protections. 

In June 2017 the Supreme Court announced that it would hear Trump v. IRAP and Trump v. Hawaii as a consolidated case. After oral argument was scheduled for October 10, 2017, the executive order expired and the Court dismissed both cases as moot, vacating the lower courts’ decisions including any Lemon test analysis.

Wheaton College v. Azar

A college with a mission of faith

Wheaton College’s mission expresses its commitment to do all things “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Founded in 1860 by the prominent abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, Wheaton’s history is marked by the stories of students and alumni whose faith drives them to affect the church and society for good.

An unconstitutional federal mandate 

In 2010, the federal government issued a mandate, regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), that forced Wheaton College to include services like the week-after pill in its insurance plans, which violated its deeply held beliefs. Despite Wheaton’s expressed religious objections, the government refused to grant the College a religious exemption. In July 2012, Wheaton College sued the government to protect its right to operate according to its religious mission without the threat of government fines.

Wheaton College’s first lawsuit was delayed for over a year by the government’s promise of a religious accommodation—but the government still insisted that Wheaton College was not a “religious employer” and was ineligible for an exemption. In the meantime, though, Wheaton’s lawsuit forced the federal government to rewrite its one-year “safe harbor” condition to include Wheaton, giving the College another year to comply with the mandate or face crippling fines. As a result of the change, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed Wheaton College’s lawsuit as premature. In September 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit granted a motion for expedited appeal, which later handed an intermediate victory to the religious colleges by ordering HHS to act quickly to fix the existing HHS mandate.

The government’s proposed “accommodation” turned out not to be much of a fix, and it still required Wheaton to choose between its belief in the sanctity of life or millions of dollars in government fines. So in December 2013, Becket refiled its lawsuit on behalf of Wheaton. In June 2014, the district court denied Wheaton’s request for relief. Wheaton appealed. In July 2014, while the case was on appeal, Wheaton received last minute protection from the Supreme Court against IRS fines. In July 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied Wheaton College relief from the mandate. Finally, in May 2016, the Supreme Court decided the related case Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court’s decision ordered the government to explore alternatives that would protect religious freedom. On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with broader religious exemption, admitting that the mandate was illegal as applied to religious objectors, including Wheaton College.

A five-year fight ends in resounding victory

On February 22, 2018, Wheaton’s five-year legal battle finally came to an end when the district court ruled in Wheaton College’s favor, protecting the College from any current or future application of the mandate.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: Government cannot force religious individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs to further a government goal when there are other ways for the government to accomplish that goal.
  • Religious communities: Faith-based organizations, including schools, have the right to operate according to their religious mission free of government interference.
  • HHS mandate: For years, the federal government has refused or delayed relief from the HHS mandate to religious organizations. The 2018 victory for Wheaton is a critical step in securing robust religious liberty protections from the mandate for all religious non-profits. 

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

The state of Missouri wants to make sure children run on safe playgrounds – unless they attend a religious school.

The Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center is a Christian preschool that wanted to improve its playground surface, which consisted of gravel and grass. To facilitate the needed upgrades, the school applied to a state program in 2012 that provides grants to use recycled shredded tires for a softer and safer playground surface. Trinity Lutheran ranked fifth of 44 applicants based on overall quality of the intended project, the number of people who would benefit from the improved playground, and the quality of the school’s recycling education programs. However, despite the school’s high ranking, the state denied the grant solely because it was associated with a church.

The state used the Blaine Amendment, a 19th century anti-Catholic and bigoted law that prohibits religious organizations, such as a Florida prisoner ministry, a Catholic orphanage and several religious schools, from participating in public programs. Trinity Lutheran sued the state of Missouri in 2013 for this blatant discrimination. Becket, along with Stanford Professor Michael McConnell, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief defending Trinity Lutheran’s right to participate in the state’s tire recycling program on equal footing as all other applicants. Trinity Lutheran, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, has fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case on April 19, 2017.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Missouri can’t discriminate against the school in a program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids.

*Photo Credit: Flickr

 

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Azar

An unconstitutional federal mandate 

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate required employers to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health insurance plans, including the week-after pill, free of cost. Despite the obvious religious liberty issues with a contraceptive mandate, HHS included only a narrow religious exemption—one that did not include religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nun that runs homes for the elderly poor across the country.  

The Little Sisters’ Catholic beliefs about life and contraception meant that complying with the mandate was impossible. The Little Sisters initially tried to communicate their concerns with the federal government. In good faith, they believed that the government would grant them an exemption. After all, HHS already exempted thousands of other secular employers whose plans were “grandfathered” in under the new rule—including Exxon, Pepsi Bottling, and Visa—and even exempted the healthcare programs for the U.S. military. Instead, HHS doubled down, continued to refuse to exempt the Little Sisters, and threatened them with ruinous fines of tens of millions of dollars if they did not comply with the mandate.  

Five years of litigation—including at the Supreme Court 

In September 2013, represented by Becket, the Little Sisters of the Poor went to court against the federal government to protect their religious freedom. After a district court ruled against them, the Little Sisters appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which again ruled against them. However, on December 31, 2013, Justice Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters emergency protection against the rule, temporarily protecting them from fines. The entire Court then granted the Little Sisters a longer-term injunction in January 2014, and sent the case back to the Tenth Circuit for reconsideration. 

But after the Tenth Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters once more, the U.S. Supreme Court again agreed to review the Little Sisters’ case. In March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, a consolidation of six cases brought by religious non-profits against the mandate, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. At the Supreme Court, the Obama administration admitted to the Court that the mandate required the Little Sisters’ participation and the use of their health plan, and that the government could provide contraceptive services in other ways that didn’t require using the Little Sisters. These key admissions cleared the path for the Supreme Court to find a solution.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, ordered the government not to fine the Little Sisters, and instructed the lower courts to provide the government an opportunity to find a way to provide services to the women who want them without involving the Little Sisters.  

Resolution at last, and a win-win outcome 

The Supreme Court decision was a victory, but one that would take another two years to reach completion. In May 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing HHS and other federal agencies to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious non-profits from the mandate.  

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption. In June 2018, the Little Sisters’ original case was finally resolved with an order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. And on November 7, 2018, HHS issued a rule  finalizing the Little Sisters’ religious exemption.  

The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court and the President’s executive order were big wins for the Little Sisters. But that does not mean anyone lost. As the Little Sisters had argued all along, the solution in no way bars the government from providing these services to women who want them. In fact, any alternative delivery method the government chooses could likely be applied not only to women in religious plans, but to the tens of millions of women in corporate and government plans HHS had previously exempted from the mandate. In the end, the government was able to both provide the mandated services free of charge to any woman who wanted them and accommodate the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs.  


IMPORTANCE TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY 

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal. 
  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without the government dictating their beliefs.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, both privately and publicly, at home and in the workplace.

Matal v. Tam

What do a Jewish-owned clothing line called “Heeb,” an Asian American rock band called “The Slants,” and the Washington Redskins have in common? The U.S. government says they are too “disparaging” to receive trademark protection.

In 2011 Simon Tam tried to register the name of his rock band, The Slants. The government rejected his application because “Slant” disparages Asian-Americans (watch his TedTalk, “Give Racism a Chance”). Tam, who is Asian-American, challenged the decision in court and won. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral argument in January 2017.

For more than a decade, Becket and the federal government have fought laws banning “insulting” and “defaming” religious speech at the United Nations and in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia. These laws are widely abused to target religious minorities like Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman sitting on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Becket filed a brief in the Supreme Court urging the government to stop excluding allegedly “disparaging” names from the federal trademark system. In December 2016, Becket told the Supreme Court that the U.S. government should practice at home what it preaches abroad: free speech for all, even speech that offends.

In June 2017 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously 8-0 championing the band’s free speech.

Tam was represented by Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and John Connell of Archer & Grenier, P.C.

Holt v. Hobbs

Protecting religious expression for prisoners is important, see why:

Religious freedom restricted for prisoners in “unnecessary ways”

Nearly two decades ago, Congress found that government bureaucrats routinely trample on religious liberty in prison. As the joint statement of Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Kennedy (D-MA) put it: “Whether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

These religious liberty restrictions affected people of many faiths. Many prisons barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. Many prisons also banned religious diets such as kosher food, confiscated and destroyed sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and often banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls, and yarmulkes. One prison prohibited various religious holidays, restricting prisoners’ ability to fast, pray, and worship God on special occasions. And in one extreme instance, prison officials violated the seal of the confessional by bugging inmates’ confessions to their priests.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA embodies a very simple principle: Prison officials should not impose egregious and unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty. Of course, prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity due to the arbitrary whims of prison officials. Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God.

Despite RLUIPA, prisoners still face religious liberty violations

Despite the promise of RLUIPA, some inmates still experience persecution for peaceful displays of religious devotion. In June 2011, Abdul Muhammad, an inmate in an Arkansas state prison, sued in federal court for the right to wear a beard in accordance with religious beliefs. The Arkansas prison had denied Mr. Muhammad’s request to grow the ½ inch beard his Muslim faith commands, citing security and safety concerns, even though Arkansas already allowed inmates to grow beards for medical reasons, and even though Mr. Muhammad’s ½ inch beard would be permissible in 44 state and federal prison systems across the country.

Representing himself, Mr. Muhammad lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court. On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court granted his petition and said that it would hear his appeal in full.

Unanimous victory at the Supreme Court

Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law stepped in to represent Mr. Muhammad at the Supreme Court. On January 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Muhammad, saying Arkansas had clearly put Mr. Muhammad in an impossible choice: to violate his beliefs or suffering disciplinary sanctions. The Court rejected Arkansas’s defenses, pointing out that because so many other states were able to accommodate inmates required to grow a beard for both medical and religious reasons, Arkansas had to explain why its situation was different.

Becket has long defended prisoners’ religious liberty, including protecting prisoners’ rights to kosher diets in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Defending prisoners from arbitrary restrictions on their religious freedom strengthens religious liberty for all.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • 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.

For the in-depth story, listen to the Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, Conviction and Confinement.

East Texas Baptist University & Houston Baptist University v. Azar

Two Christ-centered Texas universities share a mission

East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University are Christian liberal arts colleges in Texas that hold faith central to their educational missions.

East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) is committed to “Christian stewardship” and “academic excellence while integrating faith with learning.”  Its religious beliefs include traditional Christian teachings on the sanctity of life—this includes that all human beings bear the image and likeness of God, and therefore that all human life is sacred and worth protecting.

The founders of Houston Baptist University (HBU) wanted to establish a Christian college that emphasized quality of life as well as quality of learning. The University’s current mission statement emphasizes the important Christian witness of its administration, faculty, and students, which abides by their central confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Baptists in America are sensitive to forced government actions that infringe on their religious liberty. America’s first Baptist leader, Roger Williams, fled Massachusetts and founded a colony in Providence, Rhode Island, because his religious beliefs were not allowed under Massachusetts laws. The rich Baptist tradition is manifested in the missions of these two Christ-centered Texas universities, so when a government mandate threatened their beliefs, they were forced to court to defend their religious freedom.

Challenging the HHS mandate

In 2011, the Department of Health & Human Services issued a mandate that forced these universities to either violate their faith-driven mission by providing services, such as the week after pill, or pay crippling IRS fines. So in October 2012, East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University went to court with Becket’s help to fight this unconstitutional mandate.

In March 2013, Westminster Theological Seminary intervened in Becket’s lawsuit on behalf of ETBU and HBU in federal district court, which ruled in favor of the religious universities in December 2013. The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s decision in June 2015.

In July 2015, Becket, along with former Solicitor General and leading Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement, appealed to the Supreme Court on the universities’ behalf. In March 2016 the Court heard the case along with the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious non-profits in the consolidated case called Zubik v. Burwell.

Unanimous win-win outcome at the Supreme Court

On May 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously protected the religious groups, stating that that the government cannot fine ETBU and HBU for carrying out their religious beliefs in their health plans and must find another way to provide services to women who want them. It also threw out the lower court decision against the universities.

In May 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing HHS and other federal agencies to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious ministries from the HHS mandate. Following the order, HHS Secretary Tom Price said that HHS “will be taking action in short order” to protect the Little Sisters and other religious ministries harmed by the mandate.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption. On November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like ETBU and HBU while offering alternative means for women to obtain free contraception.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal. 
  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without the government dictating their beliefs.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, both privately and publicly, at home and in the workplace.

Douglas County School District v. LaRue

In 2011, Douglas County, Colorado created the Choice Scholarship Program to help low-income families send their children to a private school that best suits their child’s needs, some of which are religious schools.

But in June 2011, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several Colorado organizations and taxpayers sued to stop the scholarship program. The court ended the program, ruling that it violated the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, an arcane anti-religious provision adopted in the mid-19th century and originally used to discriminate against a growing wave of Catholic immigrants in the U.S.

To this day, Blaine Amendments remain in dozens of state constitutions and prohibit the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools.  They have an ugly history. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. endured a rash of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry known as the “Know-Nothing” movement—decried at the time by Abraham Lincoln and in recent years throughout the courts. The movement unleashed a wave of religious discrimination in the form of Blaine Amendments, which were adopted in numerous state constitutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were designed to suppress Catholic schools in favor of Protestant-dominated public schools.

In April 2012, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Douglas County School District appeal, shining a spotlight on the Colorado Blaine Amendment’s ugly past and its unconstitutional treatment of children in religious schools who simply wish to be treated the same as children in secular schools. The Institute for Justice defended the county.

In February 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scholarship program. The court wisely avoided relying on the Colorado Blaine Amendment, refusing to invoke its nefarious history. Yet in June 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the court of appeals decision, interpreting the Blaine Amendment to prevent scholarships from going to students who wanted to attend a religious school. In October 2015, Douglas County appealed to the Supreme Court.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton
St. Peter’s Healthcare v. Kaplan
Dignity Health v. Rollins
Overall v. Ascension Health

Status: On June 5, 2017, U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 protecting religious hospitals.

Faith-based hospitals draw inspiration from their religious heritage. Driven by their faith to provide compassionate care, these hospitals treat people of all faiths and backgrounds, and their wellness services go beyond just providing medical care. For example, Saint Peter’s Family Health Center also serves juvenile victims of abuse, economically disadvantaged families and mentally disabled or violence-prone youth. And Catholic Health Initiatives provides millions annually to benefit programs and services for the poor, such as free clinics.

These faith-driven hospitals also provide generous benefits to their employees, including pensions through the hospitals’ comprehensive church pension plans. Yet their beliefs and the charitable work they do are being threatened for no reason: a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers are targeting these hospitals for a payoff, dragging them to court and demanding that they pay their attorney fees. Their argument? That hospital ministries are not religious enough to have a tax-exempt church pension plan under The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). However, it is not the job of lawyers to decide that hospitals can’t be part of a church, and the IRS has rightly viewed these ministries as part of a larger church for over 30 years.

The legal campaign against faith-based hospitals began in 2013. In 2015, the case Overall v. Ascension Health was settled. In 2016 three other cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, while almost a hundred more are waiting in lower courts across the country. On August 15, 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court supporting the hospitals and their right to freely exercise their religious-based mission to provide compassionate and excellent healthcare according to their faith.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in March 2017. On June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 to protect religious hospitals founded and run by nuns, allowing them to continue providing generous benefits for their employees as well as free health services to their inner-city communities.