Catholic therapists challenge Michigan’s ban on counseling for transgender kids

WASHINGTON Catholic therapists in Michigan asked a federal court today to protect their ability to provide compassionate, professional counseling to children experiencing discomfort with their biological sex. In Catholic Charities v. Whitmer, Becket represents counselors who are challenging a new Michigan law that bans counselors from helping children talk through the underlying causes of their gender confusion, and instead requires counselors to assist children with a “gender transition”—a regime of puberty blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries designed to make their bodies resemble the opposite sex.  

Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of children identifying as transgender. Many of these children have been encouraged to try to change their bodies by receiving drugs, hormones, and surgeries that have no proven benefits and serious, demonstrated harms—such as increased risk of cancer, loss of bone density, sexual dysfunction, and permanent sterilization. The harms are so significant that 25 states have banned or strictly limited gender transitions for children, recommending instead that children receive compassionate counseling to help address the underlying causes of their distress. Unfortunately, a new law in Michigan now bans this compassionate approach, forcing therapists to turn away children and families or risk losing their licenses and suffering hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.   

“I opened Little Flower to offer those who come through my doors compassionate therapy that helps them live whole, integrated lives,” said Emily McJones, licensed therapist and owner of Little Flower Counseling. “But now Michigan officials are threatening to strip my license because I provide therapy rooted in my faith and the best available scientific evidence.” 

Emily McJones is a Catholic therapist in Lansing, Michigan, who counsels children and adults on a wide variety of life issues. Many of Emily’s clients share her Catholic faith, and some of those include young people seeking help to address discomfort they feel with their biological sex. To help these clients, Emily talks with them to address the underlying causes of their discomfort, alleviate their distress, and, if possible, help them embrace their bodies without resorting to irreversible medical procedures. According to recent research, this cautious approach is often the best way to help children experiencing such discomfort. But Michigan’s law now bans this approach. Emily and a local Catholic Charities’ counseling ministry are asking a court to block Michigan’s law and allow them to continue helping children.

“Michigan’s attempt to gag compassionate, professional counselors is contrary to the Constitution, sound evidence, and common sense,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Constitution doesn’t let the government dictate what people can and can’t say—especially when the government is cutting off vulnerable children and families from counseling they desperately want to receive.”  

A hearing in the case is expected later this year. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7219.   

UCLA defends facilitating antisemitic encampments on campus

WASHINGTON The University of California, Los Angeles, has defended its actions allowing and assisting antisemitic encampments that bar Jewish students from accessing the heart of campus. In Frankel v. Regents of the University of California, Becket and Clement & Murphy PLLC filed a lawsuit against UCLA after it helped a group of activists as they set up an encampment where they harassed Jewish students and stopped them from accessing classes, the library, and other critical parts of campus. UCLA reinforced these zones—both by providing metal barriers and by sending away Jewish students—while taking no effective action to ensure safe passage for Jewish students. UCLA’s policies harm Jewish students and violate numerous provisions of the U.S. and California Constitutions and multiple civil rights laws.   

On June 24, three current UCLA students asked the court to put an immediate stop to these blatantly discriminatory actions so that they could return to class free from fear that they would be harassed and excluded simply for being Jewish. But in response to their request, UCLA disavowed any obligation to protect its Jewish students because, according to UCLA, the university doesn’t share a “special relationship” with them and refused to even acknowledge that these encampments and checkpoints were antisemitic. Worse yet, UCLA blamed everyone but itself for the rampant antisemitism that took place on its own campus. It blamed the police for the delayed response of “several days.” It blamed the victimized Jewish students for being in the “vicinity” of an encampment that was blocking their access to critical campus facilities. And, for everything else, it blamed the “unidentified activists.”  

“In the end, UCLA has nobody to blame but itself for the harassment, assault, and segregation of Jewish students on its campus,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and an attorney for the students. “Now the university is scrambling to defend its actions and cover up its gross failure of leadership. It won’t work—UCLA will answer in court for the rampant antisemitism it allows and assists.” 

Yitzchok Frankel, a law student and father of four, faced antisemitic harassment simply for wearing a kippah and was forced to abandon his regular routes through campus because of the Jew Exclusion Zone. Joshua Ghayoum, a sophomore and history major, was repeatedly blocked from accessing the library and other public spaces. He also heard chants at the encampment like “death to Jews.” Eden Shemuelian, another law student, had her final exam studies severely disrupted when she was forced to walk around the encampment and immerse herself in its antisemitic chants and signs to access the law school’s library. These occupations continued after the initial encampment was dismantled, with activists repeatedly blockading campus buildings throughout May and June.  

“No student in America should have to worry that they will be segregated from their peers and targeted for their faith,” said Rienzi. “And no school in America should get away with blaming the victims. The court must hold the university accountable for its reprehensible actions and protect Jewish students before the fall semester begins.” 

A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 29, 2024. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7219.   

Becket president condemns UCLA’s antisemitic encampments in Congressional testimony

WASHINGTON Becket president Mark Rienzi testified before Congress today about how UCLA assisted antisemitic activists as they barred Jewish students from accessing the heart of their own campus (watch the testimony here). In Frankel v. Regents of the University of California, Becket and Clement & Murphy PLLC filed a lawsuit against UCLA after it allowed a group of extremist students and outside agitators to set up an encampment where they stopped Jewish students from accessing classes, the library, and other critical parts of campus. UCLA allowed and reinforced these zones, breaking the law and hurting its Jewish students.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, anti-Jewish demonstrations emerged on college campuses nationwide. UCLA allowed activists to set up an encampment that enforced what was effectively a “Jew Exclusion Zone,” stopping Jewish students from accessing the encampment and other parts of campus unless they agreed to disavow Israel’s right to exist. The activists used checkpoints, issued wristbands, built barriers, and often locked arms to prevent Jews from passing through. For a week, UCLA’s administration was aware of these practices and chose to let them persist. In fact, rather than clearing the encampment, UCLA instructed security staff to discourage unapproved students from attempting to cross through the areas blocked by the activists. 

These occupations continued after the initial encampment was dismantled, with activists repeatedly blockading campus buildings throughout May and June. Most recently, activists forced students to be evacuated from final exams, and a Rabbi was harassed and threatened while police stood idly by.  

Here are excerpts from Becket’s president Mark Rienzi’s congressional testimony today before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections:  

“These episodes may sound like they come from Germany in the 1930s, but they don’t. They describe real-life events that occurred at the University of California, Los Angeles over the past nine months—events that have prompted a lawsuit against UCLA where my law firm is representing several students.  And they could very well describe events at any number of American universities, where similar illegal conduct occurred following Hamas’ terrorist attack on October 7.” 

“Together, we can defeat the scourge of antisemitism in our institutions of higher learning and society by ‘giv[ing] to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’ Together, we can live up to Washington’s promise that in this country, none shall be made afraid on account of his faith or ancestry. And together, we can ensure that the promises of our Constitution and our civil rights laws are kept and safeguarded.” 

His testimony can be read in full here and you can watch a recording of the hearing here 

The Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hosted the hearing, Combating Workplace Antisemitism in Postsecondary Education: Protecting Employees from Discrimination, at the Rayburn House Office Building.   

Becket and Clement & Murphy PLLC are asking a federal court to ban antisemitic encampments on UCLA’s campus by August 15 before the fall semester begins. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7219.   

Jewish students seek court order against UCLA’s antisemitic encampments before fall semester

WASHINGTON On behalf of three Jewish students, Becket attorneys asked a federal court late yesterday to order UCLA to obey the Constitution and federal civil rights laws by August 15 before they arrive on campus for the fall semester. In Frankel v. Regents of the University of California, UCLA allowed a group of extremist students and outside agitators to set up an encampment where they stopped Jewish students from accessing classes, the library, and other critical parts of campus. UCLA allowed and reinforced these zones, breaking the law and hurting its Jewish students. With the help of Becket, two law students and an undergraduate are asking a federal court to prevent UCLA from ever allowing such exclusion of Jewish students again.  

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, anti-Jewish demonstrations emerged on college campuses nationwide. UCLA allowed activists to set up an encampment that enforced a “Jew Exclusion Zone,” stopping Jewish students from accessing the encampment and other parts of campus unless they agreed to disavow Israel’s right to exist. The activists used checkpoints, issued wristbands, built barriers, and often locked arms to prevent Jews from passing through. For a week, UCLA’s administration was aware of these practices and chose to let them persist. In fact, rather than clearing the encampment, UCLA instructed security staff to discourage unapproved students from attempting to cross through the areas blocked by the activists.   

“No student should have to fear for their safety or pass a religious test to walk freely at a public university,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and an attorney for the students. “UCLA’s behavior on this issue has been shameful, and the students need a court order to allow them to return to campus safely this fall.” 

Activists within the encampment viciously targeted Jewish students. Yitzchok Frankel, a law student and father of four, faced antisemitic harassment simply for wearing a kippah and was forced to abandon his regular routes through campus because of the Jew Exclusion Zone. Joshua Ghayoum, a sophomore and history major, was repeatedly blocked from accessing the library and other public spaces. He also heard chants at the encampment like “death to Jews.” Eden Shemuelian, another law student, had her final exam studies severely compromised when she was forced to walk around the encampment and immerse herself in its antisemitic chants and signs to access the law school’s library. Those same groups of activists have continued attempts to occupy and barricade parts of campus. The students are asking the court to ensure that Jews will never again face such antisemitic bigotry at UCLA.   

“It’s appalling that an elite American university would actively support and encourage masked mobs of antisemites,” said Rienzi. “UCLA’s Jewish community needs to know that they’ll be safe on campus before the start of the fall semester.”  

In addition to Becket, the students are represented by Clement & Murphy, PLLC.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7219.   

Court protects Catholic ministries from federal abortion mandate

WASHINGTON – A federal court in Louisiana protected a group of Catholic ministries yesterday from being forced to support employee abortions against their religious beliefs. In United States Conference of Catholic Bishops v. EEOC, religious groups challenged a federal agency which had hijacked a law protecting expecting mothers and their unborn children to force employers nationwide to accommodate abortion. The court’s ruling protects the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and several other Catholic ministries from the mandate while the case is ongoing.   

Congress passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in 2022 to protect expecting mothers in the workforce and their unborn babies. The law makes it illegal for employers to deny accommodations like extra restroom breaks and modified work schedules to women who have physical limitations brought on by pregnancy or childbirth. Throughout the legislative process, the USCCB—an organization of Catholic bishops who are the senior religious leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States—supported the PWFA’s passage because of the law’s admirable and uncontroversial purpose. But despite the PWFA’s clear text, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency enforcing the law—mandated that employers nationwide must accommodate abortions, including by knowingly allowing their employees to take paid leave to have an abortion and by removing life-affirming workplace policies discouraging abortion.  

“The EEOC twisted a law protecting expecting mothers and their babies and co-opted the workplaces of over 130 million Americans to support abortion,” said Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket. “That is an abuse of power—no one should have to choose between their conscience and protecting pregnant women.” 

With the help of Becket, a group of Catholic ministries including the USCCB filed a lawsuit in May 2024 against the abortion-accommodation mandate. The lawsuit details how the EEOC’s actions follow a lengthy history of federal agencies misusing their authority against religious objectors. In one example, for nearly 15 years, federal agencies attempted to impose a mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortion pills—forcing groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that run homes for the elderly poor, to seek judicial protection. 

The court’s ruling yesterday temporarily stops federal agencies from imposing yet another abortion-related mandate on the USCCB and several other Catholic ministries. “‘Abortion’ is a term that is readily understood by everyone,” the court explained. “If Congress had intended to mandate that employers accommodate elective abortions under the PWFA, it would have spoken clearly when enacting the statute, particularly given the enormous social, religious, and political importance of the abortion issue in our nation.” But to the contrary, the court noted, the legislative record “unambiguously confirms that Congress specifically did not intend for the PWFA to require employers to accommodate abortion.” Instead of faithfully applying the law passed by Congress, the court said, EEOC’s “semantic gymnastics” and “disingenuous” legal arguments were a “textbook case of a federal administrative agency exceeding its statutory authority[.]” 

“Banning employers nationwide from affirming life is unacceptable and unlawful,” said Wolk Slavis. “This ruling is an important step in ensuring that American workplaces can be free to continue serving their communities consistent with their beliefs.” 

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi had filed a parallel lawsuit before the same court, and employers in those states were also protected by the ruling. The federal government has 60 days to appeal the decision. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 

Catholic parish defends religious mission from state officials

WASHINGTON – A Catholic parish in Michigan was in federal appeals court today to protect its ability to guide its church and school community without asking for permission from state officials. In St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel, the parish, with Becket’s help, challenged a state law that makes it illegal for St. Joseph to hire staff who agree to uphold its religious beliefs and bars it from maintaining a church and school environment that reflects its faith. After a lower court dismissed the case last year, St. Joseph asked the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow it to run its parish and school activities consistent with its Catholic beliefs. 

Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St. Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St. Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide families in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Like many religious schools, St. Joseph hires teachers and staff who support and advance the Catholic faith. St. Joseph also asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the faith. St. Joseph also follows Catholic teaching on issues like pronouns and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms.  

“Michiganders don’t need a permission slip from bureaucrats in Lansing to practice their religious beliefs,” said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “The court should reject this irresponsible law and let institutions like St. Joseph get back to freely serving in their schools, churches, and communities.” 

Michigan recently revised its civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity without any protection for religious organizations like St. Joseph. Michigan doesn’t deny that it could punish St. Joseph simply for following its faith. Instead, Michigan told St. Joseph it must ask permission from the state’s Civil Rights Commission whenever it wants to ask Catholic employees to follow Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, St. Joseph risks being sued in all its public activities—at the parish, the school, and its services to the community—simply for upholding Catholic teaching.   

“Michigan politicians are chilling St. Joseph and hundreds of other religious ministries out of staying true to their faith,” said Haun. “That is irresponsible—the First Amendment prohibits scaring religious institutions into abandoning their religious ways of life.”

A decision is expected later this year. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Catholic parish stands up for its religious mission in court

WASHINGTON – A Catholic parish in Michigan will be in federal appeals court next week to protect its ability to guide its church and school community without asking for permission from state officials. In St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel, the parish, with Becket’s help, challenged a state law that makes it illegal for St. Joseph to hire staff who agree to uphold its religious beliefs and bars it from maintaining a church and school environment that reflects its faith. After a lower court dismissed the case last year, St. Joseph is asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow it to run its parish and school activities consistent with its Catholic beliefs. 

Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St. Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St. Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide families in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Like many religious schools, St. Joseph hires teachers and staff who support and advance the Catholic faith. St. Joseph also asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the faith. St. Joseph also follows Catholic teaching on issues like pronouns and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms.  

Michigan recently revised its civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, without any protection for religious organizations like St. Joseph. Michigan doesn’t deny that it could punish St. Joseph simply for following its faith. Instead, Michigan told St. Joseph it now must ask permission from the state’s Civil Rights Commission every time it wants to ask Catholic employees to follow Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, St. Joseph risks being sued in all its public activities—at the parish, the school, and its services to the community—simply for upholding Catholic teaching.   

What:
Oral Argument in St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel

Arguing before the court:
William Haun, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Tuesday, June 11, 2024, at approximately 2 p.m. ET

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Potter Stewart U.S. Court House, 100 East Fifth Street, 4th Floor
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Livestream: https://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/live-arguments 

Becket attorneys will be available for comment following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Jewish students take UCLA to court over antisemitic encampment

WASHINGTON Three Jewish students filed a federal lawsuit against the University of California, Los Angeles, today for allowing antisemitic activists to bar them and other Jewish students from accessing the heart of campus. In Frankel v. Regents of the University of California, UCLA allowed a group of extremist students and outside agitators to set up an encampment where they stopped Jewish students and faculty from going to their classes, offices and the library. With the help of Becket, two law students and an undergraduate are now asking a federal court to hold UCLA accountable for allowing this antisemitic encampment and the rampant anti-Jewish discrimination it bred. 

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, anti-Jewish demonstrations emerged on college campuses nationwide. UCLA allowed activists to set up an encampment that enforced a “Jew Exclusion Zone,” stopping Jewish students and faculty from accessing the encampment and other parts of campus unless they agreed to disavow Israel’s right to exist. The activists used checkpoints, issued wristbands, built barriers, and often locked arms to prevent Jews from passing through. For a week, UCLA’s administration was aware of these practices and chose to let them persist. In fact, rather than clearing the encampment, UCLA instructed security staff to discourage unapproved students from attempting to cross through the areas blocked by the activists. 

“If masked agitators had excluded any other marginalized group at UCLA, Governor Newsom rightly would have sent in the National Guard immediately,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “But UCLA instead caved to the antisemitic activists and allowed its Jewish students to be segregated from the heart of their own campus. That is a profound and illegal failure of leadership.” 

Activists within the encampment viciously targeted Jewish students. Yitzchok Frankel, a law student and father of four, faced antisemitic harassment and was forced to abandon his regular routes through campus because of the Jew Exclusion Zone. Joshua Ghayoum, a sophomore and history major, was repeatedly blocked from accessing the library and other public spaces. He also heard chants at the encampment like “death to Jews.” Eden Shemuelian, another law student, had her final exam studies severely compromised when she was forced to walk around the encampment and immerse herself in its antisemitic chants and signs to access the law school’s library. The students are asking the court to ensure that Jews will never again face such antisemitic bigotry on UCLA’s campus.  

“This is America in 2024—not Germany in 1939. It is disgusting that an elite American university would let itself devolve into a hotbed of antisemitism,” said Rienzi. “UCLA’s administration should have to answer for allowing the Jew Exclusion Zone and promise that Jews will never again be segregated on campus.”

In addition to the Becket Fund, the students are also represented by Clement & Murphy, PLLC.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 

Federal court blocks Colorado’s discrimination against Catholic preschools

WASHINGTON – A federal court in Colorado ruled today that the State of Colorado violated the law by excluding Catholic preschools from the State’s new universal preschool (UPK) program on the basis that they consider religious affiliation in making enrollment decisions. In St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy, two Catholic preschools and a Catholic family asked a federal court in Denver to stop the Department of Early Childhood from excluding them from the UPK program. While the Department provided funding for 15 hours per week of free preschool to over 40,000 families attending private, public, and faith-based preschools across Colorado in its first year, it denied that benefit to families who send their children to St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s Catholic preschools because the preschools ask families to share their beliefs. 

In a 101-page opinion, the court explained that Colorado’s effort to exclude the schools on this ground “created an unworkable scheme that breaches the appropriate limits on state power.” The State, according to the court, “provided no compelling interest” for excluding Catholic preschools because they consider religious affiliation in their enrollment and operations decisions. Last year, a different federal judge in Denver also issued a ruling against the State, in a case brought by a separate religious preschool raising similar claims. The decision is the latest setback for Colorado’s embattled UPK program. 

“Of course a Catholic school shouldn’t be punished for caring about its students’ religion,” said Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket. “Colorado richly deserves this injunction, as it did the earlier one.” 

Given the multiple issues addressed in the court’s ruling, the decision may be appealed by any party. Any appeal from this decision would be to the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Becket celebrates 30 years of defending religious liberty for all

WASHINGTON Becket will celebrate 30 years of defending religious liberty for all at its annual Canterbury Gala on May 23 in New York City. This year’s Gala will celebrate Becket’s heroic clients, whose courage has helped lay the foundation for generations of Americans to live out their faith freely. The keynote address will be given by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and the rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan. 

In 1994, founder Kevin “Seamus” Hasson left a top D.C. law firm to start his own practice defending the religious liberty of people of all faiths. He founded Becket, which has grown into the premier nonprofit, public interest religious liberty law firm in the U.S. and has been called “God’s ACLU.” Over the past three decades, Becket has secured eleven Supreme Court victories and hundreds of victories in the lower courts. This year’s Gala will honor the individuals who made those achievements possible, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who serve the elderly poor; Agudath Israel of America, a historic Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization; Sikh Army Major Simmer Singh; and Lipan Apache feather dancer Pastor Robert Soto. Because of the bravery of these clients and many others, America has become a freer nation for people of all faiths. 

“For three decades, Becket has been proud to defend the religious freedom for all faiths,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “True freedom includes not merely private worship or belief, but also the right to live out those religious beliefs in daily life.” 

The Canterbury Gala draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, when Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket steadfastly refused to allow King Henry II to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was killed by the King’s knights for defending the principles of religious liberty. Becket traditionally awards the Canterbury Medal at the Gala to an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious freedom in America and around the globe (read about past medalists here). 

“Like Henry II before them, some government officials today try to use their power to silence religious beliefs they find troublesome or truths they find inconvenient,” said Rienzi. “But religion and religious liberty will not be silenced—and neither will Becket.”

Apache Stronghold will ask Supreme Court to save Oak Flat

WASHINGTON A 29-judge federal appeals court refused to protect an ancient Native American sacred site from destruction by a multinational mining giant, paving the way for an appeal to the Supreme Court. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a coalition of Western Apaches and allies asked the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear their case after a special “en banc” panel of eleven judges split 6-5 earlier this year, refusing to stop the federal government from transferring the sacred site Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn Oak Flat into a massive mining crater, ending Apache religious practices forever. (Watch this short video to learn more). The Apaches will now seek to save the spiritual lifeblood of their people at the Supreme Court. 

Since time immemorial, Western Apaches and other Native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for sacred religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other harmful practices for decades. These protections were targeted in December 2014 when a last-minute provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to the Resolution Copper company. Resolution Copper is a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. The majority owner of Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto, sparked international outrage when it deliberately destroyed46,000-year-old Indigenous rock shelters at one of Australia’s most significant cultural sites. 

“Oak Flat is the place where generations of Apaches have come to connect with our Creator, our faith and our land,said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We pray the Supreme Court will take our case and protect Oak Flat the same way it would protect other historic houses of worship across the country.”

Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies—filed this lawsuit in January 2021 seeking to halt the proposed mine at Oak Flat. The mine is opposed by 21 of 22 federally recognized tribal nations in Arizona and by the National Congress of American Indians. Meanwhile, national polls indicate 74% of Americans support protecting Oak Flat. The Ninth Circuit ruled in March that the land transfer is not subject to federal laws protecting religious freedom. But five judges dissented, writing that the court “tragically err[ed]” by refusing to protect Oak Flat. After unsuccessfully asking all 29 judges on the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case, Apache Stronghold will now appeal to the Supreme Court.  

“Obliterating the birthplace of Western Apache religion would be a tragic betrayal of our nation’s promise of religious freedom for all,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We will ask the Supreme Court to take this case, protect Oak Flat, and ensure that Indigenous peoples receive the same protection for religious freedom that all other faith groups enjoy.” 

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

Apache Stronghold’s Supreme Court appeal is expected by August 12, 2024. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 

Federal appeals court protects religious school’s freedom to hire faithful teachers

WASHINGTON A federal appeals court today protected a Catholic school’s freedom to hire schoolteachers who uphold its religious beliefs. In Billard v. Diocese of Charlotte, a former substitute teacher sued the school and diocese for not calling him back to work as a substitute teacher after he entered a same-sex union and posted about it on Facebook. Today, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the diocese’s freedom to choose teachers who will uphold and help pass on the faith to the next generation.  

The Diocese of Charlotte has operated Catholic schools across western North Carolina for more than 50 years. Its 20 schools provide a top-notch education that also helps students grow in the Catholic faith, making the opportunity widely available to students of all backgrounds in part through generous financial aid. To ensure teachers are helping the diocese fulfill its mission, the diocese asks all of its teachers – Catholic and non-Catholic – to uphold the Catholic faith in word and deed. 

“Many of our parents work long hours and make significant sacrifices so their children can attend our schools and receive a faithful Catholic education,” said Assistant Superintendent Allana Ramkissoon. “That’s because we inspire our students not only to harness the lessons and tools they need to thrive, but to cherish their faith as a precious gift from God.”  

Lonnie Billard taught English and drama at Charlotte Catholic High School for over a decade before retiring and then returning to Charlotte Catholic as a substitute teacher. Billard received training in the school’s religious mission and signed a contract agreeing to uphold Church teaching. In 2015, he entered a same-sex union in knowing violation of Church teaching and wrote about it on Facebook, where he was friends with many of the school’s faculty and families. When the school stopped calling him to work as a substitute teacher, he partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the school and the diocese, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. 

In its ruling today, the court protected the Catholic Church’s freedom to employ teachers who agree to uphold Catholic teaching. As the court explained, the First Amendment requires civil courts to ‘“stay out’ of employment disputes involving ministers.” And here, the court found that Billard was a minister because Charlotte Catholic required all its teachers to “model and promote Catholic faith and morals.” Billard, therefore, played a “vital role” in advancing the school’s religious mission. This was true even though Billard taught secular subjects like English and drama. As the court put it: “Billard may have been teaching Romeo and Juliet, but he was doing so after consultation with religious teachers to ensure that he was teaching through a faith-based lens.” Having found that Billard was a minister, the court held that Billard’s lawsuit could not proceed, thus ruling in favor of Charlotte Catholic.  

“The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents the diocese in the case. “This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.”  

Billard has 14 days to ask the Fourth Circuit to rehear his case or 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Jewish parents & schools stand up for their children with disabilities in court

WASHINGTON – A group of Jewish families and schools were in federal appeals court today fighting a California law that excludes religious schools from special education funding to help children with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, Orthodox Jewish parents are fighting for the ability to send their children with disabilities to schools that will best serve their children’s needs. California politicians, however, block special education funding from being used at religious private schools—even though it is available to families whose children attend hundreds of other private schools. Becket and Teach Coalition, an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equitable government funding for nonpublic schools, are helping these parents and schools stop California from denying crucial services to Jewish children with disabilities.  

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law intended to ensure that children with disabilities receive an education that meets their unique needs. IDEA provides federal funding to states, including California, for special education programs in public schools. But public schools cannot always meet the needs of students with disabilities, so federal and state law allows that funding to be used at private schools that can provide this critical support. In California, however, politicians have excluded religious schools from this program, leaving religious parents with no opportunity to find a school that best meets their child’s unique needs.

“California is denying parents like us the chance to provide our son with a safe, supportive learning environment simply because of our Jewish faith,” said Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Jewish parents of a child with disabilities in Los Angeles. “We pray that the court will end the punishment of religious families and the religious schools that wish to serve children with disabilities.” 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents of children with disabilities for whom California’s public schools are not providing an adequate education. These families want the same opportunity as other families whose children with disabilities can’t be served by public schools: placement in a private school that best meets their child’s needs. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish primary and secondary schools that offer an excellent education but are barred from providing families with state-funded special education services under California law. Becket and Teach Coalition are working together to ensure equal access to special education funding regardless of one’s religion—a result that, according to a recent poll, most Californians support. 

“Sacramento is slamming the door on children with disabilities just because they come from religious families,” said Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket. “That’s unacceptable. We are asking the Ninth Circuit to ensure that Jewish kids with disabilities can access the resources they need and deserve — just like everyone else.” 

A decision is expected in the coming months. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Jewish parents & schools asking appeals court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON – A group of Jewish families and schools will be in federal appeals court next week fighting a California law that denies special education funding to religious schools and to the families for whom a religious school is the best placement for their child with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, Orthodox Jewish parents are fighting for the ability to send their children with disabilities to schools that will best serve their children, as permitted by federal law. California politicians, however, have blocked federal and state special education funding from being used at religious schools—even though it is available to families whose children attend hundreds of other private schools across California and even out of state. Becket and Teach Coalition, an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equitable government funding for nonpublic schools, are helping these parents and schools stop California from denying crucial benefits to Jewish children with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law intended to ensure that children with disabilities receive an education that meets their unique needs. IDEA provides federal funding to states, including California, for special education programs in public schools. But public schools cannot always meet the needs of students with disabilities, so federal and state law allow that funding to be used at private schools that can provide that critical support. In California, however, state politicians have blocked private religious schools access to this funding, leaving religious parents with no opportunity to place their children in schools that nurture their faith and support their unique needs, while allowing families who desire a private education to choose a school suited to their child’s unique needs. 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents of children with disabilities for whom California’s public schools are not providing an adequate education. These families want the same opportunity as families who have children with disabilities that can’t be served by public schools: placement in a private school that best meets their child’s needs. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish primary and secondary schools that offer an excellent education but are barred from providing families with state-funded special education services under California law. Becket and Teach Coalition are working together to ensure equal access to special education funding regardless of one’s religion—a result that, according to a recent poll, most Californians support. 

What: 
Oral Argument in Loffman v. California Department of Education  

Arguing before the court: 
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket

When: 
Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at approximately 10:30 a.m. PT   

Where: 
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
125 South Grand Avenue 
Pasadena, CA 91105
Watch the livestream here: https://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/media/live-oral-arguments/ 

Becket attorneys will be available for comment following the hearing.  

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Diverse coalition urges 29-judge appeals court to protect Oak Flat

WASHINGTON – A diverse coalition of tribal nations, religious and civil-rights groups, and legal experts filed eight new friend-of-the-court briefs yesterday in Apache Stronghold v. United States, asking all 29 judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to protect Oak Flat from destruction by a mining project. A special “en banc” panel of eleven judges split 6-5 in the case earlier this year, refusing to stop the federal government from transferring Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn Oak Flat into a massive mining crater, ending Apache religious practices forever. (Watch this short video to learn more). Last week, the Apache asked the full court for one more chance to protect their sacred site before the case goes to the Supreme Court.

“This strong showing of support from Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and other faiths shows that the government’s threat to destroy Oak Flat is a threat to the religious freedom for people of all faiths,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We hope the judges will reconsider our case and ensure that Native American religious practices receive the same respect that all other faith traditions already receive.”

Since time immemorial, Western Apaches and other Native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for sacred religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other harmful practices for decades. These protections were eliminated in December 2014 when a last-minute provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to the Resolution Copper company. Resolution Copper is a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. The majority owner of Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto, sparked international outrage when it deliberately destroyed 46,000-year-old Indigenous rock shelters at one of Australia’s most significant cultural sites.

Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies—filed this lawsuit in January 2021, seeking to halt the proposed mine at Oak Flat. The mine is opposed by 21 of 22 federally recognized tribal nations in Arizona and by the National Congress of American Indians. Meanwhile, national polling indicates 74% of Americans support protecting Oak Flat. The Ninth Circuit ruled last month that the land transfer is not subject to federal laws protecting religious freedom. But five judges dissented, writing that the court “tragically err[ed]” by refusing to protect Oak Flat.

Including the eight briefs filed yesterday, there have now been a total of 23 friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of Apache Stronghold in this case, representing the voices of hundreds of federally recognized tribes, scores of religious organizations of diverse faiths, and leading scholars of Indian law and the Constitution. A full listing of briefs is available here. Highlights from yesterday’s filings in Apache Stronghold v. United States include:

  • Tribal Nations and Tribal Organizations arguing that this case will set vital precedent for tribal nations across the continent. 
  • The Mennonite Church USA and 20 Mennonite conferences, churches and ministries explaining how the government can manage federal lands while still providing full protection to Native American religious practices; 
  • Religious liberty law scholars arguing that the plain language of federal civil rights law requires protection of Oak Flat; 
  • A diverse array of 38 religious and Indigenous groups—including the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon, the Southwestern Conference of the United Church of Christ, and the National Council of Jewish Women demonstrating broad support for Native American religious exercise from across the country;   
  • The Sikh Coalition, the Christian Legal Society and the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute noting that the legal standard for judging Native religious liberty claims should be consistent with that for other land-use and prisoner claims; 
  • Protect the First asking the court of appeals to reconsider its narrow, inflexible approach toward Native American sacred site cases. 
  • The Native American Law Students Association pointing out the unique effect this case will have on Native American religious believers under the current interpretation of the law.  
  • The Multi-Indigenous Community Action Group, the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and a Tribal Elder explaining that the court’s decision creates an unfair double standard for Native American religious exercise.   

“It is heartening to see a broad coalition of tribes, religious groups, and scholars stand up in defense of Oak Flat,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our nation has a history of destroying Native sacred sites without consequence, and it’s long past time for that dark tradition to end. 

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. The Ninth Circuit is expected to decide by this fall whether all 29 judges will rehear the case. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Religious homeless shelters take the stage at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard a case today involving an Oregon city’s laws that penalize sleeping on public property. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Grants Pass, reasoning that the city’s laws imposed “cruel and unusual punishments” because there were not enough shelter beds to house the entire homeless population. The court, however, refused to count religious homeless shelters when it assessed whether there were enough beds available in the city. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining how the decision to discount religious shelters was based on a wrongheaded legal standard. 

“Ignoring the good work of religious homeless shelters flouts basic human decency and common sense,” said Daniel Chen, counsel at Becket. “These ministries should not be treated as suspect when they are on the front lines helping solve our nation’s homelessness problem.”

Becket’s brief argues that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling relied on a misguided legal standard known as the Lemon test that the Supreme Court set aside in its 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. For decades, the Lemon test had caused courts to incorrectly apply the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, driving religious people and religious ideas out of public life. Even though Lemon was disavowed, many lower courts continue to rely on it. Becket’s brief urges the Supreme Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s misguided view of the Establishment Clause and reiterate that courts should apply a historical test based on what was understood as a religious “establishment” at the time of the Founding.

Lemon’s specter still casts a dark shadow across the country, including the Ninth Circuit,” said Chen. “The Justices should remind courts that it has already banished this phantom doctrine from our nation’s law so that it can no longer haunt religious people and institutions.” 

A decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Religious homeless shelters head for Supreme Court spotlight

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear a case next week involving an Oregon city’s laws that penalize sleeping on public property. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Grants Pass, reasoning that the city’s laws imposed “cruel and unusual punishments” because there were not enough shelter beds to house the entire homeless population. The court, however, refused to count religious homeless shelters when it assessed whether there were enough beds available in the city. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining how the decision to discount religious shelters was based on a wrongheaded legal standard.

Becket’s brief argues that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling relied on a misguided legal standard known as the Lemon test that the Supreme Court set aside in its 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Under the test, government was required to treat religion as suspect, rather than as a normal facet of human culture. For decades, the Lemon test caused courts to incorrectly apply the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, driving religious people and religious ideas out of public life. Even though Lemon was overturned, many lower courts continue to rely on it. Becket’s brief urges the Supreme Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s misguided view of the Establishment Clause and reiterate that courts should apply a historical test based on what was understood as a religious “establishment” at the time of the Founding.

A decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term this June.  

What: 
Oral Argument in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson 

When: 
Monday, April 22, 2024, at 10 a.m. ET

Where: 
Supreme Court of the United States
1 First Street NE
Washington, DC 20543 

Listen to the livestream here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Nuns battle New York abortion mandate in court

WASHINGTON – A diverse coalition of religious groups was at the New York Court of Appeals yesterday to continue their fight against the state’s abortion mandate. In Diocese of Albany v. Harris, a group of Anglican and Catholic nuns, Catholic dioceses, Christian churches, and faith-based social ministries sued New York after it mandated that they cover abortion in their employee health insurance plans in violation of their religious beliefs. After state courts left the mandate in place, Becket, Jones Day and Tobin and Dempf, LLP, asked the Supreme Court to step in. In 2021, the Justices reversed the lower courts’ rulings and told them to reconsider the case. 

When the New York State Department of Financial Services initially proposed the abortion mandate, it promised to exempt employers with religious objections. However, after facing pressure from abortion activists, New York radically narrowed the exemption to cover only religious groups that both primarily teach religion and primarily serve and hire those who share their faith. This exception does not apply to most religious ministries that seek to serve all people, regardless of faith. For example, the exemption doesn’t extend to the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm and their Teresian Nursing Home because they serve the elderly and dying regardless of religious affiliation. 

“Forcing nuns to bankroll abortions because they believe in serving all people is unacceptable,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The court should toss this mandate into the dustbin of history and allow these religious groups to focus on what they do best: caring for those in need.” 

After New York courts refused to stop the mandate, the religious groups asked the Supreme Court to take their case. In 2021, the Court reversed the unfavorable rulings from New York state courts and told them to reconsider the case in light of Becket’s landmark victory in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case is now back before the New York Court of Appeals. Noel J. Francisco, former U.S. Solicitor General and partner-in-charge at Jones Day’s Washington office, argued on behalf of the religious groups at the hearing yesterday. 

Religious groups in New York should not be required to provide insurance coverage that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Noel J. Francisco, partner-in-charge of Jones Day’s Washington office. “We asked the court to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance, protect religious freedom, and make clear that the mandate cannot be applied to this diverse group of religious organizations.” 

A decision is expected later this year.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Apache Stronghold asks 29-judge appeals court to save Oak Flat

WASHINGTON A coalition of Western Apaches and allies today asked all 29 judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to protect their sacred site at Oak Flat from destruction by a mining project. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a special “en banc” panel of eleven judges split 6-5 earlier this year, refusing to stop the federal government from transferring Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn Oak Flat into a massive mining crater, ending Apache religious practices forever. (Watch this video to learn more). Today’s appeal gives the full court one more chance to protect the spiritual lifeblood of the Apache people before the case goes to the Supreme Court. 

Since time immemorial, Western Apaches and other Native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for sacred religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other harmful practices for decades. These protections were eliminated in December 2014 when a last-minute provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to the Resolution Copper company. Resolution Copper is a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. The majority owner of Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto, sparked international outrage when it deliberately destroyed46,000-year-old Indigenous rock shelters at one of Australia’s most significant cultural sites. 

“Oak Flat is the heart and soul of the Apache—the place where generations of my people have come to connect with our Creator and perform our most sacred ceremonies,said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We pray the court will protect Oak Flat the same way the government protects other houses of worship and religious landmarks across the country.” 

Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies—filed this lawsuit in January 2021 seeking to halt the proposed mine at Oak Flat. The mine is opposed by 21 of 22 federally recognized tribal nations in Arizona and by the National Congress of American Indians. Meanwhile, national polling indicates 74% of Americans support protecting Oak Flat. The Ninth Circuit ruled in March that the land transfer is not subject to federal laws protecting religious freedom. But five judges dissented, writing that the court “tragically err[ed]” by refusing to protect Oak Flat. Today, Apache Stronghold is asking all 29 judges on the court to rehear the case, which is permitted by the Ninth Circuit’s rules but has never been done before. If the full court declines to rehear the case, Apache Stronghold will appeal to the Supreme Court. 

“Blasting a Native American sacred site into oblivion is one of the most egregious violations of religious freedom imaginable,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Religious freedom is for everyone, and we’re asking the court to guarantee the same religious freedom for Native Americans that everyone else in this country already enjoys.”  

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

The Ninth Circuit is expected to decide by this fall whether all 29 judges will rehear the case. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 

Nuns lead charge against New York abortion mandate

WASHINGTON – A diverse coalition of religious groups will be at the New York Court of Appeals next week to continue their fight against the state’s abortion mandate. In Diocese of Albany v. Harris, a group of Anglican and Catholic nuns, Catholic dioceses, Christian churches and faith-based social ministries sued New York after it mandated they cover abortion in their employee health insurance plans in violation of their religious beliefs. After state courts left the mandate in place, Becket, Jones Day, and Tobin and Dempf, LLP, asked the Supreme Court to step in. In 2021, the Justices reversed the lower courts’ rulings and told them to reconsider the case. 

When the New York State Department of Financial Services initially proposed the abortion mandate, it promised to exempt employers with religious objections. However, after facing pressure from abortion activists, New York radically narrowed the exemption to cover only religious groups that primarily teach religion and primarily serve and hire those who share their faith. This rule does not apply to most religious ministries that seek to serve all people, regardless of faith.

After New York courts refused to stop the mandate, the religious groups asked the Supreme Court to take their case. In 2021, the Court reversed the unfavorable rulings from New York state courts and told them to reconsider in light of Becket’s landmark victory in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case is now back before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Noel J. Francisco, former U.S. Solicitor General and partner-in-charge at Jones Day’s Washington office, will argue on behalf of the religious groups at the hearing next week.  

A decision is expected later this year.

What: 
Oral Argument in Diocese of Albany v. Harris

Arguing before the court: 
Noel J. Francisco, partner-in-charge at Jones Day’s Washington office 

 When: 
Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at approximately 3:40pm ET

Where: 
New York Court of Appeals
20 Eagle St.
Albany, NY, 12207
Watch the livestream here: https://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/live.html 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Eastern Orthodox churches rally behind Jewish school in court

WASHINGTON – A group of Eastern Orthodox churches was at the Supreme Court of New Jersey today to support an Orthodox Jewish school’s freedom to choose who carries out its religious mission. In Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, a New Jersey Orthodox Jewish school announced it had parted ways with a rabbi who allegedly violated Jewish law by engaging in inappropriate conduct with his elementary-age female students. The rabbi then sued the school, arguing that he had been defamed. Becket filed a brief on behalf of Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and Antiochian Orthodox church bodies to explain the importance of allowing religious groups to select, control, and discipline their leaders without the government butting in.

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey is a Jewish day school in River Edge, NJ. The school exists to help young Jewish men and women excel academically while remaining committed to Torah learning and Orthodox Jewish traditions. After concluding that one of its teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Hyman, allegedly made inappropriate contact with female students, the school ended his contract and wrote a letter to parents informing them of the Yeshiva’s decision. Hyman then filed a lawsuit in state court, claiming he was defamed, and that the Yeshiva should have to defend its religious decision to a court.

“New Jersey courts have no business meddling in decisions about who is best to serve as a Jewish Rabbi or an Orthodox Christian priest,” said Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket. “This bedrock religious freedom has existed since the founding and should not even be in question.” 

Becket’s brief explains which kinds of claims fall under the ministerial exception, a legal protection that ensures that religious groups can select and govern their ministers free from any government interference. While some claims fall outside the exception—like a priest who sues a bishop for punching him in the face—it protects religious groups from defamation claims like those alleged by Rabbi Hyman, which do nothing more than ask a court to second-guess how a religious school chose to discipline one of its ministers. At the hearing today, Becket attorney Laura Wolk Slavis argued on behalf of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

“Religious groups should have the power to make decisions that seek to protect the children in their care,” said Slavis. “We asked the Justices to protect that common-sense right for Rosenbaum Yeshiva and all other faith-based institutions in New Jersey.” 

A decision is expected later this year.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Sacred Support: Eastern Orthodox churches back Jewish school in court battle

WASHINGTON – A group of Eastern Orthodox Churches will be at the Supreme Court of New Jersey next week to support an Orthodox Jewish school’s freedom to choose who carries out its religious mission. In Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, an Orthodox Jewish school announced it had parted ways with a rabbi who the Yeshiva said violated Jewish law by engaging in inappropriate conduct with his elementary-age female students. The rabbi then sued the school, arguing that he had been defamed. Becket filed a brief on behalf of Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and Antiochian Orthodox Church bodies to explain the importance of allowing religious groups to select, control, and discipline their leaders without the government butting in.  

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey is a Jewish day school in River Edge, NJ. The school exists to help young Jewish men and women excel academically while remaining committed to Torah learning and Orthodox Jewish traditions. After concluding that one of its teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Hyman, allegedly made inappropriate contact with female students, the school ended his contract and wrote a letter to parents informing them of the Yeshiva’s decision. Hyman then filed a lawsuit in state court, claiming he was defamed, and that the Yeshiva should have to defend its religious decision to a state judge and jury.  

Becket’s brief explains which kinds of lawsuits are subject to the ministerial exception, a First Amendment protection that ensures that religious groups can select and govern their ministers free from any government interference. While some kinds of cases fall outside the exception—like a priest who sues a bishop for punching him in the face—it protects religious groups from defamation claims like those alleged by Rabbi Hyman, which do nothing more than ask a court to second-guess how a religious school chose to discipline one of its ministers. At the hearing next week, Becket attorney Laura Wolk Slavis will argue the case on behalf of the Eastern Orthodox churches. 

What:
Oral Argument in Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

Arguing before the court:
Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket for amici curiae 

When:
Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at 10 a.m. ET

Where:
Supreme Court of New Jersey
Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, 25 Market Street, 8th Floor
Trenton, NJ 08611
Livestream: https://www.njcourts.gov/cases/11-23 

Becket attorneys will be available for comment following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Faithful Catholics ask court for freedom to adopt children in need

WASHINGTON – A Catholic couple in Massachusetts was in court today challenging the state’s decision to ban loving couples from welcoming children into their home. In Burke v. Walsh, Mike and Kitty Burke wanted to foster and someday adopt children in need of a family. Even though Massachusetts has a foster care crisis, state officials refused to let the Burkes foster any children in the state because of their religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality. With the help of Becket, the Burkes are asking the court to ensure that qualified families are not punished for their religious beliefs and that vulnerable children are given a loving home. 

Mike and Kitty Burke are a Catholic couple from Massachusetts who have long wanted to become parents. Mike is an Iraq war veteran, and Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs kids. Together they run a business and perform music for Mass. Mike and Kitty began exploring becoming foster parents through the state’s foster care program, hoping to care for and eventually adopt children in need of a stable, loving home like theirs. 

“Our state’s children deserve better than to be put in hospitals and office buildings rather than in safe, loving homes,” said Mike and Kitty Burke. “We pray the court stops Massachusetts’ campaign against vulnerable children and the many religious couples like us who wish to care for them.”  

Children in foster care throughout Massachusetts are waiting for families like the Burkes. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) currently does not have enough foster homes or facilities to meet the needs of the children in its care, leaving some children without a family. The crisis has become so extreme that the state has resorted to housing children in hospitals for weeks on end. Now more than ever, Massachusetts needs the help of parents like Mike and Kitty to foster children in need. During their application process, the Burkes underwent hours of training, extensive interviews, and an examination of their home. Mike and Kitty completed the training successfully and received high marks from the instructors. However, because Mike and Kitty said they would continue to hold to their religious beliefs about gender and human sexuality, they were denied the ability to foster.   

“Massachusetts should be doing everything it can to alleviate its foster care crisis, but instead it’s excluding loving couples from helping children in need,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We asked the court to stop the state from targeting couples like Mike and Kitty and protect the thousands of vulnerable children who desperately need homes.” 

A decision is expected later this spring.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Supreme Court should affirm role of religious homeless shelters

WASHINGTON – Becket filed a friend-of-the court brief at the Supreme Court today in a case involving an Oregon city’s laws that penalize sleeping on public property. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Grants Pass, reasoning that the city’s laws imposed “cruel and unusual punishments” because there were not enough shelter beds to house the entire homeless population. The court, however, refused to count religious homeless shelters when it assessed whether there were enough beds available in the city. Becket’s brief explains how the decision to discount religious shelters was based on a wrongheaded legal standard.

A group of homeless people sued the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, in 2018, challenging local laws that penalize sleeping on public property. Breaking the laws can result in penalties of up to several hundred dollars and repeat offenders can be barred from all city spaces. In 2023, the Ninth Circuit ruled against Grants Pass, relying on Martin v. City of Boise, one of its previous decisions regarding anti-camping laws. The court reasoned that the city’s laws violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” because the city did not have enough shelter beds for its homeless population. As part of its analysis, however, the court refused to count religious homeless shelters in determining whether there were enough beds available. 

“The homeless problem on the West Coast is bad enough without adding culture-war attacks on religious groups who are helping the destitute,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is wrong to treat religious homeless shelters as inherently suspect instead of as inherently helpful in solving this massive social problem.” 

Becket’s brief argues that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling relied on a misguided legal standard known as the Lemon test that the Supreme Court overruled in its 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. For decades, the Lemon test had caused courts to incorrectly apply the Establishment Clause, driving religious people and religious ideas out of public life. Even though Lemon was overturned, many lower courts, including ones within the Ninth Circuit, continue to rely on it. Becket’s brief urges the Supreme Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s misguided view of the Establishment Clause and reiterate that courts should apply a historical test based on what was understood as a religious “establishment” at the time of the Founding.

“Justice Scalia once called the Lemon test a ghoul that kept rising from the dead, and the Ninth Circuit’s decision is proving him right,” said Rassbach. “The Justices should do whatever it takes to destroy this zombie doctrine once and for all so that it never rises again.” 

The oral argument in the case will be heard on April 22, and a decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

BREAKING: Federal court greenlights destruction of Oak Flat

WASHINGTON– A divided federal court (6-5) today refused to protect an ancient Native American sacred site from destruction by a multinational mining giant, putting the case on a fast track to the Supreme Court. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a rare “en banc” panel of eleven judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government can transfer the sacred site Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the site into a massive mining crater, ending Apache religious practices forever. (Watch this short video to learn more). 

The decision was by a bare majority, with five judges vigorously disagreeing and writing that the majority “tragically err[ed]” in allowing the government to “obliterate[e] Oak Flat” and prevent the “Western Apaches from ever again” engaging in their religious exercise. With the help of Becket, Apache Stronghold has vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Since time immemorial, Western Apaches and other native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for sacred religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other harmful practices for decades. These protections were eliminated in 2014, when a last-minute provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. The majority owner of Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto, recently sparked international outrage when it  deliberately destroyed  46,000-year-old indigenous rock shelters at one of Australia’s most significant cultural sites. 

Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us—our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families, and our land,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie of Apache Stronghold. “Today’s ruling targets the spiritual lifeblood of my people, but it will not stop our struggle to save Oak Flat. We vow to appeal to the Supreme Court.” 

Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies—filed this lawsuit in January 2021 seeking to halt the proposed mine at Oak Flat. The mine is also opposed by twenty-one of the twenty-two tribal nations in Arizona and by the National Congress of American Indians—the oldest, largest, and most representative association of tribal governments on the continent. The Ninth Circuit today ruled that the mine is not subject to federal laws protecting religious freedom. But Chief Judge Murguia, along with Judges Gould, Berzon, Mendoza, and Lee, dissented, explaining that the decision misreads precedent and uniquely harms Native American religious exercise. Apache Stronghold has vowed to immediately appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.  

“Blasting a Native American sacred site into oblivion is one of the most egregious violations of religious freedom imaginable,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court has a strong track record of protecting religious freedom for people of other faiths, and we fully expect the Court to uphold that same freedom for Native Americans who simply want to continue core religious practices at a sacred site that has belonged to them since before the United States existed.”

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson.   

Apache Stronghold has 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Parents turn to Supreme Court for justice after child is removed by state

WASHINGTON – A Catholic couple in Indiana asked the Supreme Court today to hold the state accountable for keeping their child out of their home. In M.C. and J.C. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, Indiana investigated Mary and Jeremy Cox because they would not refer to their son using pronouns and a name inconsistent with his biological sex. State courts allowed Indiana to keep the child from their home because of their disagreement with their child—motivated by their religious beliefs—about human sexuality. With the help of Becket and attorney Joshua Hershberger, the Coxes today filed their reply brief at the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to take their case. 

Mary and Jeremy Cox are a faithful Catholic couple living in Indiana. In 2019, their son informed them that he identified as a girl. Because of their religious belief that God creates human beings with immutable sex—male or female—they could not refer to him using pronouns and a name inconsistent with his biology. The Coxes also believed that he needed help for underlying mental health concerns, including an eating disorder. To address both issues, they provided therapeutic care for their child’s gender dysphoria and scheduled appointments with a specialist to help him with the eating disorder. In 2021, Indiana began investigating the Coxes after a report that they were not referring to their child by his preferred gender identity. Indiana then removed the teen from the parents’ custody and placed him in a home that would affirm his preferred identity. 

“This is what every parent is afraid of. We love our son and wanted to care for him, but the state of Indiana robbed us of that opportunity by taking him from our home and banning us from speaking to him about gender,” said Mary and Jeremy Cox. “We are hopeful that the Justices will take our case and protect other parents from having to endure the nightmare we did.”  

At the initial trial court hearing, Indiana officials argued the child “should be in a home where she is [ac]cepted for who she is.” The court restricted the Coxes’ visitation time to a few hours once a week and barred them from speaking to their child about their religious views on human sexuality and gender identity. 

After completing its investigation, Indiana made an about-face and abandoned all allegations against Mary and Jeremy, admitting that the accusations of abuse were unsubstantiated. However, Indiana surprised the parents by arguing that the disagreement over gender identity was distressing to their child and contributed to his eating disorder—even though that disorder became worse after he was removed and placed in a transition-affirming home. The trial court relied on Indiana’s argument to keep the child out of his parents’ custody and keep the gag order in place. In short, even though the court agreed that the Coxes were fit parents, it upheld the removal of their child. An appeals court upheld the removal.  

“If this can happen in Indiana, it can happen anywhere. Tearing a child away from loving parents because of their religious beliefs, which are shared by millions of Americans, is an outrage to the law, parental rights, and basic human decency,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case, how many times will this happen to other families?” 

The Coxes are represented by Becket, together with attorney Joshua Hershberger in Madison, Indiana. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

 

BREAKING: Becket releases its fifth edition of the Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON In celebration of Religious Freedom Day, Becket has released the fifth edition of the Religious Freedom Index, the nation’s only annual poll that tracks American opinion on religious freedom. The 2023 Index marked the highest overall score in the Index’s history, showing that Americans are increasingly unified in supporting religious liberty for people of all faiths. This year’s poll demonstrated strong support for parental rights, broad trust in people of faith, and insights into how Gen Z thinks about religious freedom. 

Support for religious freedom hit its highest score ever of 69 on a scale of 0 to 100. The 2023 results found that Americans strongly back the right of parents to raise their children consistent with their faith and believe that religion is part of the solution to America’s problems—up nine percentage points from last year. Polling showed a major shift in attitudes toward preferred pronoun policies in schools, with a 12-point swing since 2021.

“The American people sent a clear message in this year’s Index: parents don’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to raising their children,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “Parents want schools to teach their children math and science, not force them to embrace controversial gender ideology.” 

The fifth edition of the Index asked a variety of questions about parental rights in education. Over two thirds of Americans (67%) believe that parents should be the primary educators of their children and should be able to opt them out of school curriculum if the parents believe the material is inappropriate or violates their religious beliefs. Americans also expressed disagreement over preferred pronounce policies in schools. Becket’s findings reveal that most Americans (58%) now disagree with school policies that require students and employees to use a person’s preferred pronouns. This data represents a 12-point swing since 2021, when less than half of Americans disagreed with pronoun mandates and 54% favored them.  

The Index also asked about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a core piece of religious liberty legislation that turned 30 in 2023. Becket asked Americans about the RFRA standard, which says that the federal government cannot burden religious freedom unless they have a 1) a compelling reason or 2) have chosen the option least restrictive of religious freedom. An overwhelming 88% of Americans favored RFRA or an even stronger standard for religious freedom.

“Despite some efforts to turn religion into a scapegoat for our nation’s problems, most Americans believe that religion—and religious freedom—are key to solving them,” said Rienzi. “As we celebrate Religious Freedom Day, we should remember that religious liberty remains the cornerstone of our effort to form a more perfect union.”  

The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a broad overview of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each fall. The Index’s focus on core religious liberty principles, contextualized with questions on some of the year’s most pressing societal issues, provides a yearly cross section of public sentiment on the intersection of law, religion, and culture. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action. 

Heart+Mind Strategies conducts surveying and scale construction for Becket’s Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment, using an online panel assembled by Dynata. Becket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument and analysis broadly reflect America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious liberty issues. 

To learn more about Becket’s annual Religious Freedom Index, visit the link found here. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Colorado put on trial for excluding Catholic preschools from universal preschool funding program

DENVER – A Catholic family and two Catholic preschools were in Denver federal court for a three-day trial this week challenging the State of Colorado’s decision to bar them from participating in the state’s Universal Preschool (UPK) Program because of their religious beliefs.   

In St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy, Catholic families seeking to receive the benefits promised by Colorado’s “universal” preschool funding program have asked a federal judge in Denver to require the state to include Catholic preschools among the list of private and public preschools eligible for UPK funding. While Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood currently allows over 2,000 other preschools (including many private and faith-based preschools) to participate in the UPK program, the Department has denied Catholic preschools a religious accommodation that would allow them to provide families enrolled in their preschools with 15 hours of free preschool education each week. With the help of Becket, parish preschools St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s have asked for an order telling Colorado that the First Amendment prohibits the state from excluding Catholic preschools from a generally available government benefit based on their sincere religious beliefs and religious exercise.  

St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s are Catholic parishes in Colorado that operate high quality, licensed preschool programs serving Denver-area families. For decades, these parish preschools have assisted parents with the religious and educational upbringing of their children. Many families the preschools serve are of limited means. A full 20% of families who send their children to preschools in the Archdiocese qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program. At St. Bernadette’s, that number is over 50%. At St. Mary’s over a quarter of families also receive scholarships or discounts on their preschool education.  

“Universal should mean universal. Instead of keeping its promise of free preschool for all children, Colorado is turning its back on certain tax paying families because of their religious beliefs,” said Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket. “Colorado cannot deny parents the opportunity to provide their children with a free, high quality preschool education just because they’ve chosen a school that reflects their faith.”  

In 2022, Colorado created its Universal Preschool Program to provide all children access to a free preschool education. After Colorado created the program, St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s were excited to participate and further assist parents in providing their children with an education that upholds their beliefs. But the UPK program imposed certain requirements on preschools that barred St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s from participating. Specifically, the Department said these schools cannot participate because they prioritize Catholic families in admissions and require students and their families to support the school’s religious mission. At a three-day bench trial this week, the preschools argued that Colorado cannot continue to exclude them while allowing over 2,000 other preschools to participate in the program. Notably, another Christian school recently won temporary protection from a different federal judge in a similar challenge to Colorado’s preschool funding program. 

Despite excluding Catholic preschools, Dawn Odean, the Director of Colorado’s UPK program, testified during trial that her department would allow preschools to participate in UPK Colorado even if they limited enrollment in other ways that appeared to conflict with the state’s own law, such as operating programs only for LGBTQ children or families, only for children of veterans, or only for children of certain races. Ms. Odean also affirmed that over a thousand providers—around half the total in UPK—have claimed at least one exception from the program’s requirement that providers accept any preschool family matched with them. Colorado Governor Jared Polis has stated that preschools ought to “serve everybody” but has at the same time excluded kids at Catholic schools from the UPK program. 

“Governor Polis thinks UPK preschools should ‘serve everybody.’ That’s what we’re saying the Constitution requires the State of Colorado to do—serve kids at Catholic schools too,” said Reaves. We’ve asked the Court to stop Colorado’s attack on these Catholic preschools and the many families they wish to serve. We are confident that Colorado won’t be able to leave religious preschools and the families they serve out in the cold because of their beliefs.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Eastern Orthodox churches back Orthodox Jewish school’s religious freedom at New Jersey Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – A group of Eastern Orthodox churches just filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court of New Jersey in support of an Orthodox Jewish school’s freedom to choose who carries out its mission without government interference. In Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, an Orthodox Jewish school announced in a letter to parents that, after consulting with religious advisors, it had parted ways with a rabbi who the Yeshiva said violated Orthodox Jewish law by engaging in inappropriate conduct with his elementary age female students. The rabbi then sued the school, arguing he had been defamed and that the yeshiva should have to go to court to fight for its right to make its religious decisions. Becket filed a brief on behalf of Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and Antiochian Orthodox church bodies in support of Rosenbaum Yeshiva to explain the vital importance of allowing religious groups to select, control, and discipline their leaders no matter what their faith tradition. 

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey is a Jewish day school located in the town of River Edge, NJ. The school exists to help young Jewish men and women excel academically while remaining committed to Torah learning and Orthodox Jewish traditions. After concluding that one of its teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Hyman, made inappropriate contact with female students, the school ended his contract and wrote a letter to parents informing them of the Yeshiva’s decision. Hyman then filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state, claiming he was defamed and that the Yeshiva should have to defend its religious decision about its ministers in civil court.

“The courts of New Jersey should not be deciding who serves as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi or an Orthodox Christian priest,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “That is way above their pay grade.” 

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the Diocese of Eastern America of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the Romanian Orthodox Metropolia of the Americas, and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Becket’s brief explains which kinds of claims come within the ministerial exception, a legal doctrine that protects religious groups’ ability to select and govern their ministers. The brief details the importance of allowing religious groups to control and discipline leaders. While some claims fall outside of the exception—like a priest who sues a bishop for punching him in the face—it protects religious groups from defamation claims such as the one brought by Hyman.    

“Religious groups should be free to act forcefully to protect the children in their care,” said Rassbach. “We are hopeful that the Court will make clear that decisions about who should be a rabbi or priest are no business of judges and juries.” 

Oral argument is possible sometime in 2024.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Governor Newsom ices Christmas tree lighting and skips menorah lighting, earns Becket’s lowest (dis)honor

WASHINGTON – The most outrageous offender of this year’s Christmas and Hanukkah season, and Becket’s 2023 Ebenezer Award winner, is California Governor Gavin Newsom, who canceled the state’s annual in-person Christmas tree lighting and skipped the menorah lighting traditionally attended by the governor. As if to combine the two slights, the governor said he was canceling the live Christmas tree lighting over fears that anti-Israel protestors would cause disruption.   

Governor Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom announced in a press release on December 6 that the annual Christmas tree lighting—which was set to feature a Christmas market and live music—would instead be streamed on the Governor’s social media accounts. Newsom’s reason for moving the longstanding tradition to a virtual format was the recent flurry of anti-Israel protests which he feared would disrupt the festivities. Rather than allow all Californians to ring in the Christmas season at the capital, the Governor invited only his family and a few select guests. 

“In canceling one of California’s most cherished holiday traditions and skipping another, Newsom can rightly be dubbed the Governor who stole Christmas and Hanukkah,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “We hope Governor’s heart will grow three sizes next year, so that Californians can once again celebrate their annual holidays with joy.” 

Each year the Christmas and Hanukkah season inspires a slew of outrageous offenses against the free exercise of religion. At Becket, we do Santa’s dirty work for him, delivering a lump of coal as an acknowledgment of scroogery on a grand scale. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include the American Humanist Association, which tried to stop schools from sending care packages to children in need; the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans; and the University of Minnesota, which banned from campus holiday colors, Santas, bows, dreidels, and even wrapped presents. (See list of previous winners).   

Finally, this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who has shown persistence in the face of adversity, goes to the Chabad Williamsburg and Rabbi Herber for putting on a Menorah lighting ceremony. In early December, Virginia non-profit LoveLight Placemaking refused to host menorah lighting in part because it did not want to appear to be “supporting the killing/bombing of thousands of men, women & children” in the Israel-Hamas war. In response, Chabad Williamsburg and Rabbi Herber decided to host one of their own so that local Jewish residents could celebrate the beginning of Hannukah. More than 250 people attended the lighting.  

“All Americans should be able to come together in a spirit of joy and hope at the holidays,” said Rienzi. “While there will always be those who seek to divide us, the Christmas and Hanukkah season serves as an important reminder of our need to live together in peace despite our differences.” 

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous New Year! 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Religious parents ask federal appeals court to restore notice and opt-outs for Pride storybooks

WASHINGTON – A coalition of religious parents in Maryland were in federal appeals court today fighting for the ability to opt their children out of storybooks that push one-sided ideology regarding gender and sexuality. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the Montgomery County Board of Education took away parental notice and opt-outs for storybooks that advocate Pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids as young as four. Becket is supporting these Muslim, Jewish, and Christian parents who are fighting to restore their ability to raise their children consistent with their faith. 

The new “inclusivity” books were announced last fall for students in pre-K through eighth grade. However, instead of focusing on basic principles of respect and kindness, the books champion controversial ideology around gender and sexuality. For example, one book tasks four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to say doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The School Board revoked notice and opt-outs for these storybooks earlier this year, contrary to Maryland law and the Board’s own policies, and over the objection of their own elementary school principals. 

“Montgomery County’s decision to introduce instruction on gender and sexuality to children in elementary school violates parents’ right to control how and when their children are introduced to such sensitive matters,” said Grace Morrison, board member of Kids First, an association of parents and teachers advocating for notice and opt-outs in Montgomery County Schools. “I pray that the judges will restore the ability of parents like me to raise our children in accordance with our religious beliefs.” 

Soon after the School Board announced it would take away parental notice and opt-outs for the storybooks, a diverse coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Jews, and Christians, sued the School Board in federal court. Despite faith differences, these parents believe the new storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids, and inconsistent with their beliefs. After a lower court upheld the mandate, the parents asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to step in and strike down the court’s no notice, no opt-out policy. Today, these parents fought in court to restore their ability to help their own children on sensitive topics like gender identity and human sexuality. 

“Parental involvement is crucial for children, especially in elementary school. The Court should restore notice and opt-outs so parents can parent and kids can be kids,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Schools have no business pushing instruction on gender and sexuality without even notifying parents.”

A ruling from the Fourth Circuit is expected in the coming months.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Catholic parish fights to protect its religious mission from Michigan politicians

WASHINGTON – A Catholic parish in Michigan asked a federal appeals court yesterday to protect its ability to guide its church and school community, without first asking for permission from state officials. In St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel, the parish challenged a newly revised state law that makes it illegal for St. Joseph to hire staff who agree to uphold its religious beliefs and bars it from maintaining a church and school environment that reflects its faith. After a lower court dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year, St. Joseph is asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to let St. Joseph run its parish and school activities consistent with its Catholic beliefs about human sexuality and marriage.  

Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St. Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St. Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide families in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Like many religious schools, St. Joseph hires teachers and staff who support and advance the Catholic faith. Like many Catholic churches around the country, St. Joseph asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the faith. St. Joseph also follows Catholic teaching on issues like pronouns for staff and children and separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms. 

“For over a century, St. Joseph has existed to serve its local community and help its parish and school grow deeper in the faith, said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “St. Joseph must have the freedom to foster an environment that is faithful to its Catholic identity to continue that mission.” 

Michigan recently revised its civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, without any protection for religious organizations like St. Joseph. According to Michigan’s Attorney General, religious Michiganders seeking protection on these issues are “not religious heroes, they are bigots.” Michigan doesn’t deny that it could penalize St. Joseph simply for exercising its religion. Instead, Michigan told St. Joseph to ask permission from the Civil Rights Commission every time St. Joseph wants to ask Catholic employees to uphold Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, St. Joseph faces the risk of being sued in all its open activities—at the parish, the school, and its local Knights of Columbus Hall—simply for upholding Catholic teaching.  

“Constitutional rights don’t come with permission slips. Michigan cannot tell St. Joseph and every other religious organization in the state that they are breaking the law by staying true to their religious beliefs,” said Haun. “We are asking the court to step in and ensure that religious groups across the state can live out their faith and not be sued simply because they open their doors to everyone.” 

Oral argument is expected in spring 2024. 

Thirty Years of RFRA: Protecting Religious Freedom for All

WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan bill designed to ensure that all Americans have the right to freely live out their faith. Since its enactment, RFRA has protected the ability of people of diverse faiths to practice their religious beliefs in peace. Becket has successfully used RFRA to help groups including Catholic religious sisters, Apache feather dancers, and Sikh soldiers serving our country.  

RFRA was passed in 1993 after the Supreme Court cut back long-standing protections for religious Americans in a case called Employment Division v. Smith. The Court decided it was permissible to deny unemployment benefits to Native Americans who were fired for using peyote in their religious ceremonies. A diverse coalition of elected officials, scholars, and advocacy groups soon united to restore broader protections for religious freedom, especially for unpopular and minority faiths. The result was RFRA, which was supported by 66 religious and civil liberties groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Humanists, and secular civil liberties organizations like the ACLU.  

For 30 years RFRA has been a bedrock protection for people of all faiths to live out their beliefs freely. It is a balancing test: if the government attempts to restrict religious practices, it must show that it has no better alternative to accomplish a compelling government interest. RFRA has protected Becket clients like Lipan Apache Pastor Robert Soto who can now freely use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies, Army Major Simratpal Singh, who can practice his Sikh faith while serving his country, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, who can continue serving the elderly poor without violating their religious beliefs. Later today, Becket vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter will discuss RFRA’s enduring significance in protecting our religious freedom at a virtual event hosted by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. 

Statements for media use from Becket board members: 

Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, Emerita, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See: 

“As we celebrate RFRA’s 30th anniversary, we should be reminded that religious freedom is inherent to our dignity as human beings. Every person, no matter their faith, ought to have the right to pursue the truth and follow the dictates of their conscience without fear of persecution. That is the principle that RFRA was enacted to defend, and it has been immensely successful ever since.” 

Russell D. Moore, Editor in Chief of Christianity Today: 

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s passage thirty years ago was one of those moments when the country lived up to the ideals of its founding. RFRA has protected Americans of every conceivable religious conviction from having their most basic beliefs paved over by a majority. RFRA reaffirmed that the right to soul freedom is not determined by having 51 percent of the people on one’s side. That’s true not only of the content of RFRA, but the way it was passed in the first place. A coalition from the far left to the far right saw an injustice in a bad Supreme Court ruling and came together to correct that injustice, together. They understood that whatever arguments we can and will have with each other, we can only debate those things in an America in which consciences and hearts do not belong to any government. I thank God for RFRA, and am proud to belong to a country where such protections are not just possible but expected.” 

Jacqueline C. Rivers, Executive Director and Senior Fellow for Social Science and Policy of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies: 

“RFRA provides key protection for people of all faiths. For the Black Church, it is important that our right to espouse unpopular beliefs is ensured, and that our right to worship in the exuberant style that enabled us to endure slavery is protected by RFRA, even in neighborhoods where such religious expression is unwelcome.” 

Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket: 

“In our era of division and polarization, RFRA’s anniversary serves as a timely reminder of our need to live together in peace. It is a quintessentially American approach to religious liberty, allowing our neighbors to live their lives in peace, even when we disagree about important matters.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Victory: New York gives up attack on Sisters of Life

WASHINGTON – A Catholic community of religious sisters today declared victory in their lawsuit against government officials who wanted access to the Sisters’ sensitive internal documents. In June 2022, New York passed a law targeting life-affirming pregnancy centers for government investigation. In Sisters of Life v. McDonald, the Sisters of Life—a community of Catholic women who have given their lives to serve pregnant women in need—asked a federal court for an order protecting them from such government intrusion. The State of New York agreed to a court order, which was granted today, that forbids them from demanding the Sisters’ information or punishing the Sisters for refusing to provide it.

Founded in 1991 by the late Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, the Sisters of Life devote themselves to God by professing vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Sisters believe that every person is valuable and sacred, which is why they also take a vow to protect human life. In keeping with that vow, the Sisters offer holistic care for women in crisis pregnancies by attending to their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs at their Visitation Mission in New York. The Sisters provide women with housing, maternity clothes, baby formula, and other supplies for well after birth and connect women and their children to a wide array of free medical, legal, and social services. The Sisters also accompany women who are seeking hope and healing after their experience of abortion.

“As Sisters of Life, it’s our privilege to walk alongside each woman who comes to us and to stand in solidarity with her, helping her to move in freedom, not in fear,” said Sr. Maris Stella, Vicar General of the Sisters of Life. “We are grateful for this victory, which protects our right to continue to uphold and defend the beauty and strength of women. In over 30 years of serving women in the State of New York, we have learned that what a woman really needs is to be seen, heard, and believed in, which is why we are committed to providing the necessary emotional, practical, and spiritual support for her to flourish. We are called to bring hope, comfort, and joy to women who feel they have nowhere else to turn. The judge’s order will protect us as we continue our ministry.”

Two weeks before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, New York passed a law targeting the life-affirming work of pregnancy centers by authorizing the New York Commissioner of Health to demand private information from pregnancy centers that do not offer abortion services. The law would have allowed government officials access to the Sisters’ most sensitive internal documents and forced them to turn over private information that would jeopardize their trusting relationships with women in need. After the Sisters sued New York in federal court last year, the State agreed today to back down, allowing the Sisters to continue helping women in crisis pregnancies who seek their help.

“This order is a win for the Sisters and the women they serve,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “The government never should have enacted this law, and we are thrilled that it ends with a federal court order that the State should just leave the Sisters alone while they do their important work.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 

Religious schools in court to protect faith-based education

WASHINGTON – Two religious schools were in federal court today defending against Minnesota’s ongoing efforts to bar some faith-based universities from offering free college credit to high school students. In Loe v. Jett, a group of Christian families and schools sued Minnesota earlier this year for excluding universities that require students to sign a statement of faith from the state’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. After Minnesota promised in June not to enforce the law while the case is ongoing, Governor Walz’s Department of Education filed counterclaims against the schools, arguing that because the schools receive public funds, they are state actors and their statement of faith requirements are unconstitutional. The schools were in court today defending their right to continue participating in the program free from religious discrimination. 

Minnesota created the PSEO program almost 40 years ago to enable high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit for free. Through this program, students have been able to attend any eligible public or private school of their choice. Melinda and Mark Loe and Dawn Erickson are parents in Minnesota who have used PSEO funds for their older children to attend two outstanding Christian schools—University of Northwestern – St. Paul and Crown College—that uphold their religious values. Their current high-school kids hoped to do the same, but earlier this year Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that excludes religious schools like Northwestern and Crown from participating in the PSEO program because they require on-campus students to sign a statement of faith. Their statements ask students to agree with the schools’ religious beliefs for the purpose of upholding their Christian campus communities. 

But the Department of Education filed counterclaims against Northwestern and Crown in an unrelenting effort to force the schools to abandon their religious admissions criteria. For the first time, the state is claiming that the schools’ acceptance of PSEO students means that they are subject to the same constitutional requirements as the government, and that their Christian campus communities are unconstitutional—an argument that would extend not just to Crown and Northwestern, but to every private school that accepts students who receive government aid. With the help of Becket, the schools asked the court today to dismiss the state’s retaliatory counterclaims. 

Statements for media use: 

Corbin Hoornbeek, president at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul: 

“Northwestern strives to offer a Christ-centered education to every student who joins our campus community to equip them to serve effectively in their professions and give leadership in the home, community, church, and world. Our university wants to ensure that this essential mission is available to both undergraduates and PSEO students alike. We are praying that the court protects our ability to serve all those who want to take advantage of what our campus community has to offer into the future.” 

Andrew Denton, president of Crown College: 

Crown College has offered generations of students opportunities to excel intellectually and spiritually through our biblically integrated education. The PSEO program has long allowed us to extend this opportunity to young students ready to begin their on-campus experience. We pray that the court will continue to allow every student in Minnesota to use PSEO funds at the school that best meets their needs and matches their values.” 

Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket:

Minnesota is waging a senseless campaign against students and the faith-based schools that wish to serve them. Private schools don’t become public schools just because they accept students who receive state funds, and to argue that they do is a transparent attempt to control Minnesotans’ religious beliefs and practices.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Orrin G. Hatch Foundation to host 30th anniversary event for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

WASHINGTON – The Orrin G. Hatch Foundation will host a virtual event on November 16 to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Religious liberty experts including Becket vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter will reflect on RFRA’s bipartisan beginnings, its success, and lasting importance in protecting our religious liberty. (RSVP Here.) 

RFRA was passed in 1993 after the Supreme Court cut back long-standing protections for religious Americans in a case called Employment Division v. Smith. The Court upheld a decision by Oregon officials to deny unemployment benefits to Native Americans who were fired for using peyote in their religious ceremonies. A diverse coalition of elected officials, scholars, and advocacy groups soon united to restore broader protections for religious freedom, especially for minority faiths. The result was RFRA, which was supported by 66 religious and civil liberties groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Humanists, and secular civil liberties organizations. 

For 30 years RFRA has been a bedrock protection for people of all faiths to freely live out their beliefs. It is a balancing test: if the government attempts to restrict religious practices, it must show that restricting those practices is the only possible way to accomplish a “compelling” government interest. RFRA has protected Becket clients like Lipan Apache Pastor Robert Soto, who can now freely use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies, Army Major Simratpal Singh, who can practice his Sikh faith while serving his country, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, who can continue serving the elderly poor without violating their religious beliefs.   

What:
RFRA 30th anniversary Webinar hosted by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation

Who:
Eric Baxter, vice president & senior counsel at Becket
Senator James Lankford (R-OK)
Christopher Bates, Deputy Solicitor General, Utah Attorney General’s Office
Jennie Bradley Lichter, Deputy General Counsel, The Catholic University of America
Matt Sandgren, Executive Director, Orrin G. Hatch Foundation

When:
Thursday, November 16, 2023, at 12:00 p.m. ET

Where:
Zoom Webinar registration: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_jDZaZsN-QMSyUlgDCeWdqw#/registration 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

California Jewish parents & schools ask federal appeals court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON – A group of Los Angeles-area Jewish families and schools asked the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court to strike down a California law that excludes religious families from special education funding for their children with disabilities and prevents religious schools from serving those students. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, Orthodox Jewish parents want to send their children with disabilities to Orthodox Jewish schools, and two Orthodox Jewish schools want to welcome children with disabilities. However, California politicians have blocked federal and state special education funding from being used at religious schools. In August, a Los Angeles federal district court ruled against the parents and schools, contrary to controlling Supreme Court precedent. Now, Becket and Teach Coalition, an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equal funding in nonpublic schools, have asked the Ninth Circuit to stop California from denying special education benefits to Jewish children with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities can receive an education that meets their unique needs. IDEA funds help pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA is designed to ensure all children can receive a free and appropriate education, including in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. However, California politicians exclude religious schools and the religious families they want to serve from even applying to receive this funding. 

“California should be helping disabled kids, not excluding them,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Children with disabilities should never be deprived of safe, compassionate learning environments just because they and their families are religious.” 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who want to send their children with disabilities to schools that provide an education that allows them to reach their full potential and that is centered around their Jewish traditions and beliefs. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools in Los Angeles that both provide an excellent education and want to serve the needs of children with disabilities. 

Becket and Teach Coalition are working together to ensure that these religious parents, their children with disabilities, and these religious schools are given equal access to special education funding—a result that, according to a recent poll, most Californians would support.  

“Sacramento got this wrong,” said Rassbach. “We are asking the Ninth Circuit to put things right and let our clients have both a Jewish education and the special education services they are entitled to.” 

Oral argument at the Ninth Circuit is expected to take place next year. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Court protects Catholic healthcare clinic’s care for pregnant women in need

WASHINGTON A federal court in Colorado late last night protected a Catholic healthcare clinic’s ability to help women reverse the effects of the first abortion pill. Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser is a challenge to a new Colorado law that forbids doctors and nurses to give progesterone to help women who took the first abortion pill, even if they were tricked or forced into taking it. The decision by a federal judge protected Bella and the many women who come to them for medical help to continue their pregnancies.  

Founded by Catholic mother and daughter nurse practitioners Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, Bella offers life-affirming, dignified healthcare to men, women, and children. Like healthcare clinics across the nation, Bella offers progesterone—a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy—to women at risk of miscarriage. Studies also show that progesterone can help women who have taken the first abortion pill but decide they want to continue their pregnancies. Consistent with its religious mission to uphold the dignity of every life, Bella offers progesterone to these women who seek help to keep their unborn children after taking the first abortion pill.    

“Some of these women have had abortion pills forced on them, and others change their minds,” said Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, cofounders of Bella Health and Wellness. “We are relieved and overjoyed to continue helping the many women who come to our clinic seeking help.”  

Earlier this year, Colorado passed a law that targets pro-life clinics like Bella Health and Wellness by making it unprofessional conduct to offer women progesterone when seeking to reverse the effects of the first abortion pill. Bella asked a federal court to block the law and protect its ability to help pregnant women in need of life-saving care. In April, Colorado agreed to put the law on hold until three state boards weighed in on the safety of abortion pill reversal. During that time, Bella successfully helped multiple women continue their pregnancies, including one who recently gave birth to a healthy baby. However, despite evidence of progesterone’s safety and effectiveness, the state still banned it. Late last night, Judge Daniel Domenico temporarily stopped Colorado’s ban after Bella asked the court to protect its care for women last week.  

“Colorado is trying to make outlaws of doctors and nurses providing life-saving and compassionate care to women they serve,” said Rebekah Ricketts, counsel at Becket. “This ruling ensures that pregnant women across the state will receive the care they deserve and won’t be forced to have abortions against their will.”  

Colorado has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

Catholic healthcare clinic fights to help pregnant women in need

WASHINGTON A Catholic healthcare clinic was in federal court today challenging a Colorado law that bans giving women a natural hormone to reverse the effects of the abortion pill. In Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser, Colorado agreed earlier this year not to enforce the law until three state licensing boards had implemented the regulations required by the statute. Now that these regulations have been issued—leaving Bella and its patients in jeopardy—Bella once again asked the court to protect its life-saving ministry to help women discontinue unwanted abortions.  

Founded by Catholic mother and daughter nurse practitioners Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, Bella offers life-affirming, dignified healthcare to men, women, and children. Like healthcare clinics across the nation, Bella offers progesterone—a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy—to women at risk of miscarriage. In some cases, progesterone has also been shown to maintain healthy pregnancies when women take the first drug in the two-step abortion pill process but then change their minds and decide to continue their pregnancies. Consistent with its religious mission to uphold the dignity of every life, Bella also offers progesterone to these women who seek help to keep their unborn children after taking the first abortion pill.  

“We founded Bella because we believe that the miracle of life is worth protecting at every stage and in every circumstance,” said Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, cofounders of Bella Health and Wellness. “Under our care, mothers who choose life have access to a safe treatment that increases the chances they will give birth to healthy babies. I pray that we will be able to continue this life-saving ministry to women who come to us in need of help.” 

Earlier this year, Colorado passed a law that targets pro-life clinics like Bella by making it unprofessional conduct to offer women progesterone when seeking to reverse the effects of the abortion pill. Bella asked a federal court to block the law and protect its ability to help pregnant women in need of life-saving care. In April, Colorado agreed to put the law on hold until three state medical boards weighed in on the safety of abortion pill reversal. During that time, Bella successfully helped multiple women continue their pregnancies, including one who recently gave birth to a healthy baby. However, despite evidence of progesterone’s safety and efficacy, the state has still banned it. As a result, providing progesterone to women who change their minds about abortion remains unprofessional conduct in Colorado—and Bella’s providers run the risk of losing their medical licenses and suffering crippling fines if they continue their ministry to women who seek their help. 

“Colorado is forcing women to continue unwanted abortions and punishing the doctors who help them safely continue their pregnancies,” said Rebekah Ricketts, counsel at Becket. “It is outrageous and wrong for Colorado to deprive these women of their ability to choose life, and to ban faith-based clinics like Bella from serving them.” 

A decision from the court is expected in the coming weeks.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219. 

BREAKING: Feds Agree to Repair Native American Sacred Site

WASHINGTON – The federal government has agreed to restore a Native American sacred site in Oregon 15 years after bulldozing it to add a turn lane to a nearby highway. In Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde asked the Supreme Court last year to hold the federal government accountable for needlessly destroying the site in 2008. Today, in a landmark settlement agreement, the government agreed to replant a grove of native trees, pay for the reconstruction of a sacred stone altar, and recognize the historic use of the site by Native Americans. 

Since time immemorial, Native Americans have used the land around Mount Hood in Oregon to hunt, gather food, fish, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies. The sacred site known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat (the “Place of Big Big Trees”) lay along an ancient Native American trading route and consisted of ancestral grave sites, a campground, old-growth trees, and an ancient stone altar, all on less than one acre of land. Wilbur Slockish, who is a Hereditary Chief of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Carol Logan, who is a spiritual practitioner and elder in her tribe, regularly visited the site for decades to pray, meditate, and pay respects to their ancestors through traditional ceremonies. However, in 2008, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration ignored tribal members’ pleas to protect the site and bulldozed it to add a turn lane to U.S. Highway 26, even while admitting it could have added the turn lane without harming the site. (Watch their story.) 

“Our sacred places may not look like the buildings where most Americans worship, but they deserve the same protection, dignity, and respect,” said Carol Logan, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “It is heartbreaking that even today the federal government continues to threaten and destroy Native American sacred sites, but I’m hopeful that our story and this settlement agreement can help prevent similar injustices in the future.” 

After failed negotiations with the government to restore the sacred site, the tribal members continued pressing their claims in federal court. In 2018, a lower court decided that federal law does not prohibit the government from destroying sacred sites located on federal land. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government could not be held accountable because it was impossible to provide relief to the tribe members. With the help of Becket, the tribe members asked the Supreme Court last year to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Once the case reached the Justices, the federal government agreed to settle the case and make efforts to restore the site by replanting trees, allowing the tribal members to rebuild a centuries-old stone altar, and recognizing historic Native American use of the site.  

This settlement comes as the Ninth Circuit is still considering the case of Apache Stronghold v. United States, in which the federal government is seeking to give away another Native sacred site to a multinational mining giant, which will destroy the site in a massive copper mine.  

“Our nation has a long, dark history of needlessly destroying Native American sacred sites without consequence,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “While the government can never entirely undo the damage it caused in this case, we hope this is the start of a new chapter—in which our nation’s promise of religious freedom will fully extend to Native American ceremonial, cultural, and religious ways of life, as it should have all along.” 

The restoration of the sacred site is set to be completed by spring 2024. In addition to Wilbur Slockish and Carol Logan, the plaintiffs were joined in their lawsuit by Chief Jonny Jackson, who was also a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Michael Jones, who led the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. Chief Jackson and Jones unfortunately passed away before the case could be resolved. In addition to Becket, the plaintiffs are represented by Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Major victories for faith-based foster care in South Carolina

WASHINGTON – A federal court on Friday upheld South Carolina’s decision to do the right thing: continue partnering with faith-based foster care ministries that provide loving homes for children. In Rogers v. Health and Human Services and Maddonna v. Health and Human Services, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Governor Henry McMaster to try to stop the state from working with religious foster agencies. On Friday, a federal court shut down these attempts to shutter faith-based foster care, rejecting challenges to South Carolina’s efforts to protect children in foster care and the families who serve them. These decisions will make it easier for all foster families in South Carolina to find an agency that meets their unique needs and for more foster children to find loving homes. 

“These two rulings from the U.S. District Court represent significant wins for religious liberty and South Carolina’s faith-based organizations like Miracle Hill, which will be able to continue their crucial mission of connecting children in foster care with loving homes,” said Governor Henry McMaster. “These victories will directly benefit countless children by further ensuring that faith-based organizations will not be forced to abandon their beliefs to help provide critical services to our state’s youth.” 

South Carolina works directly with families seeking to foster and adopt children in crisis situations, serving children and families from all backgrounds. The state also partners with an array of private agencies that help find and support more families for foster children who need a safe place to live. Governor McMaster issued an executive order protecting the religious freedom of foster agencies in South Carolina. However, the ACLU recruited individuals to sue South Carolina over the inclusion of a single faith-based agency, Miracle Hill. Rather than reach out to any other organization or to the South Carolina Department of Social Services, the plaintiffs went straight to federal court. 

“South Carolina admirably stood up against two transparent efforts to reduce the number of options available to children in foster care and the foster parents who selflessly serve them,” said Miles Coleman, partner at Nelson Mullins. “Around the country, too many governments have forced religious foster care agencies to close down. Governor McMaster has made sure that won’t happen in his state.” 

In its two opinions, the federal court protected the state’s freedom to partner with faith-based agencies who serve children in need, pointing out that those who sued the state “could [have] foster[ed] the same children at any of twenty-six other private agencies in the State, including eighteen in the Upstate or with the State itself.” The Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously in Fulton v. Philadelphia that the U.S. Constitution protected Catholic Social Services’ right to stay faithful to its religious beliefs while still serving foster children in Philadelphia. The federal court in this case relied on Fulton to stop similar attempts to shut down faith-based foster care ministries. 

“This is a major victory for the children in South Carolina’s foster care system who were at risk of losing out on loving homes,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The attempt to shutter faith-based foster care agencies and decrease the number of foster homes for these kids violated the law and common sense. We are glad that South Carolina stood up for foster children and faith-based agencies and that the court protected them.” 

The ACLU and Americans United will now have to decide whether to appeal the decisions to the Fourth Circuit. 

Becket represented Governor McMaster in the two cases, together with Miles Coleman of Nelson Mullins, and Thomas Limehouse, Grayson Lambert, and Erica Shedd with the Office of the Governor.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court 2023-24 Term: Sidewalk counselors, Native sacred land, government mandates

WASHINGTON The new Supreme Court Term will provide the Justices with important opportunities to protect religious speakers and activities from unlawful government restrictions. Cases concerning counselors offering help to pregnant women, the destruction of Native American sacred lands, and religious groups fighting government mandates are all headed toward the Court.  

“Religious liberty and free speech are central to our ability to live together in peace,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket. “The Court has an important role to play in protecting the First Amendment rights for people of all faiths.” 

In Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, Debra Vitagliano, a devout Catholic and sidewalk counselor, is asking the Supreme Court to take her case. Last year, Westchester County, New York passed a law restricting offers of help and information to women on public sidewalks outside clinics. The law was modeled on one upheld by the Supreme Court in Hill v. Colorado. It makes it much harder to offer help to women outside abortion clinics. Even on a public sidewalk, no one can approach within 8 feet of another person to offer help or alternatives unless they somehow get explicit consent from that distance. After a federal appeals court upheld the law, Becket asked the Supreme Court to get rid of the Hill decision and protect Debra’s ministry to women in need. 

In Apache Stronghold v. United States, Western Apache and other Native tribes are fighting to save their sacred site at Oak Flat in Arizona (known in Apache as Chi’chil Bildagoteel) where they have gone to worship, pray, and perform essential religious ceremonies since time immemorial. For decades, Oak Flat has been protected by the federal government from mining and other practices that would destroy the Apache land. But in 2021, the United States government pushed ahead on a decision to give the land away to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company with a history of cultural and environmental degradation. Resolution Copper has announced its plan to blow a 2-mile wide, 1,100-foot crater into the land, ending native religious practices forever. Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native tribes, and non-Native allies—sued the federal government in federal district court in Arizona, where the trial court denied the request to protect the sacred site. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit denied the Apaches’ request to save Oak Flat —a decision the whole Circuit decided to reconsider en banc. In March 2023, the Ninth Circuit heard the case, and a decision is expected any day. Should the en banc court decide not to protect Oak Flat, Becket plans to file a petition for writ of certiorari at the Supreme Court. 

In Loper Bright v. Raimondo, the Supreme Court will hear argument in a case that could overturn a ruling that has severely damaged religious liberty. In its 1984 ruling Chevron v. NRDC, the Supreme Court gave significant power to unelected lower-level Executive Branch officials, requiring courts to defer to federal agencies’ interpretations of law. For years, agency deference has empowered hostile federal government officials to target religious believers—like Becket’s client the Little Sisters of the Poor—for special disfavor. On July 24, 2023, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Little Sisters. 

Read about other cases headed to the Supreme Court from Becket’s Supreme Court preview.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.

Federal court restores equal access for faith-based student clubs

WASHINGTON – The nation’s largest federal appeals court ruled today that Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ student clubs can freely gather and hold events on public high school campuses. In Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, school district officials in San Jose removed FCA clubs from all local high schools simply because the clubs—which welcome everyone—ask their leaders to embrace their core religious beliefs. The Ninth Circuit’s en banc panel (consisting of eleven federal appellate judges) ruled today that FCA and similar religious clubs do not have to give up their faith to have equal access to campus. 

Local Fellowship of Christian Athletes clubs had served students in San Jose high schools for over a decade. They held regular meetings open to all students, and supported the local community by leading sports camps and donating sports equipment to underserved groups. But in 2019, after years of strong relationships with local school leaders, FCA clubs were removed from San Jose high schools and faced harassment and protests simply because the clubs asked their student leaders to agree with their faith. Today’s ruling ensures FCA will once again be treated equally and can return to campus for prayer, service, and ministry. 

“FCA is excited to be able to get back to serving our campuses,” said Rigo Lopez, the local FCA leader for Bay Area schools. “Our FCA teams have long enjoyed strong relationships with teachers and students in the past, and we are looking forward to that again.”  

After a lower court sided with the school district, FCA successfully defended its ability to meet on campus in a federal appeals court last year. However, a few months later, the school district took the case into overtime—asking the appeals court to hear the case again, but this time before a panel of eleven federal judges (a process called an “en banc” rehearing).   

The Ninth Circuit today ruled that “anti-discrimination laws and the protections of the Constitution work in tandem to protect minority views in the face of dominant public opinion,” and that the District had regrettably used a discriminatory “double standard” against FCA that failed to “treat[] FCA like comparable secular groups” and instead “penalized it based on its religious beliefs.” The Court explained that, just as it makes sense that the “Senior Women club” would have all-female members, or that honors clubs would set standards of “good moral character” for their members, “it makes equal sense that a religious group be allowed to require that its leaders agree with the group’s most fundamental beliefs.” The Court concluded that “the First Amendment ‘counsel[s] mutual respect and tolerance for religious and non-religious views alike,’” requiring that FCA must be treated equally once again. 

“This is a huge win for these brave kids, who persevered through adversity and never took their eye off the ball: equal access with integrity,” said Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Today’s ruling ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”   

“Public schools should respect every student’s religious beliefs and treat every student with dignity,” said Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law & Religious Freedom. “We are grateful the court has reaffirmed this foundational right of every student.” 

FCA is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, and Christopher Schweickert of Seto Wood & Schweickert LLP. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Catholic ministry asks court to recognize that serving the poor is religious

WASHINGTON – The Diocese of Superior’s Catholic Charities Bureau was in the Wisconsin Supreme Court today to explain that its care for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled is part of its religious mission. In Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to review a lower court decision that said that Catholic Charities Bureau’s charitable activities were not religious. This decision meant that Catholic Charities Bureau was barred from leaving the state’s unemployment compensation program and joining the Wisconsin Catholic Church’s more efficient unemployment program. 

Most Catholic Dioceses have a social ministry arm that serves those in need. Catholic Charities Bureau carries out this important work for the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, by helping the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty—regardless of their faith. This requirement to serve everyone in need comes directly from Catholic Church teaching and advances the Church’s religious mission by carrying out the corporal works of mercy.  

“Catholic Charities Bureau is the social ministry arm of our Diocese. It fulfills the essential work of bringing love, healing, and hope to those whom our society has left behind,” said Bishop James Powers, Bishop of the Diocese of Superior. “We pray the Court will recognize what we firmly believe: that this work of improving the human condition is rooted in Christ’s call to care for all our brothers and sisters.” 

Religious non-profits are generally exempt under Wisconsin law from the state’s unemployment program, allowing them to join other unemployment compensation programs. A lower court in the state, however, found that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for this exemption because it serves everyone, not just Catholics. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau could only qualify if it preached the faith and tried to convert those it served—even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s teachings. 

“It is patently absurd to say that a Catholic ministry’s care for the disabled, the poor, and the hungry is not religious,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “But Wisconsin has done just that, mainly because Catholic Charities Bureau serves non-Catholics, too. We are hopeful the Court will correct Wisconsin’s misguided attempt to tell the Catholic Church what is and is not religious.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Wisconsin Supreme Court to decide if serving the poor is religious

WASHINGTON – A Catholic ministry will be in the Wisconsin Supreme Court next week to explain that its care for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled are part of its religious mission. In Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to review a lower court decision finding that Catholic Charities Bureau’s charitable activities were not religious. This decision meant that Catholic Charities Bureau was barred from leaving the state’s unemployment compensation program and joining the Wisconsin Catholic Church’s more efficient unemployment program.  

Most Catholic dioceses have a social ministry arm that serves those in need. Catholic Charities Bureau carries out this important work for the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, by helping the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty—regardless of their faith. This duty to serve everyone in need comes directly from Catholic Church teaching and advances the Church’s religious mission by carrying out the corporal works of mercy. 

Religious non-profits are generally exempt under Wisconsin law from the state’s unemployment program, allowing them to join other unemployment compensation programs. A lower court in the state, however, ruled that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for this exemption because it serves everyone, not just Catholics. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau could only qualify if it preached the faith to and tried to convert those it served—even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s teachings. 

What:
Oral Argument in Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission

Arguing before the court:
Eric Rassbach, vice president & senior counsel at Becket

When:
Monday, September 11, 2023, anticipated start time of 11:00 a.m. CT

Where:
Wisconsin Supreme Court
16 East State Capitol
Madison, WI 53701 

Becket attorneys will be available for comment following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Religious parents ask federal appeals court to allow individual opt-outs from storybook mandate

WASHINGTON – A diverse group of religious parents in Maryland asked a federal appeals court yesterday for the ability to opt their children out of storybooks that push one-sided ideology regarding gender and sexuality. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the Montgomery County Board of Education took away parental notice and opt-outs for storybooks that advocate pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids as young as pre-kindergarten. After a lower court upheld the storybook mandate, these Muslim, Christian, and Jewish parents are asking the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to restore their ability to raise their children consistent with their faith. 

The new “inclusivity” books were announced last fall for students in pre-K through eighth grade. However, instead of focusing on basic principles of respect and kindness, the books champion controversial ideology around gender and sexuality. For example, one book tasks three and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to say doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The School Board revoked notice and opt-outs for these storybooks earlier this year, contrary to Maryland law and the Board’s policies, and over the objection of their own elementary school principals. 

“The Board forged ahead with its storybook mandate over the concerns of thousands of parents and its own principals,” said Grace Morrison, board member of Kids First, an association of parents and teachers advocating for notice and opt-outs in Montgomery County Schools. “But the School Board does not replace parents, who know best about how and when to introduce their elementary-age children to complex and sensitive issues around gender and sexuality.”  

Soon after the School Board announced it would take away parental notice and opt-outs for the storybooks, a diverse coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Jews, and Christians, sued the School Board in federal court. Despite faith differences, these parents believe the new storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids and inconsistent with their beliefs. Last week, a federal district court judge ruled against the parents, writing that notice and opt-outs to the books are “not a fundamental right.” In the opinion, the judge even dismissed the claims of a religious couple whose daughter’s disabilities make it impossible for them to teach her their beliefs after the storybooks have been read to her. Today, the coalition of parents asked the Fourth Circuit to immediately restore their ability to help their own children on such complex issues and put a stop to the School Board’s no notice, no opt-out policy.  

“Children deserve the guidance of their parents when learning about complex issues around gender and sexuality,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “That’s why we are asking the Fourth Circuit to step in to protect the right of parents to guide their children’s education consistent with their religious beliefs.” 

A preliminary decision on the Parents’ motion for an injunction pending appeal is anticipated early this fall.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Broad coalition urges Supreme Court to protect sidewalk counselor

WASHINGTON – A coalition of states, legal experts, sidewalk counselors, pregnancy resource centers, pro-life feminist groups, and more filed friend-of-the-court briefs yesterday in Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, urging the Supreme Court to restore sidewalk counselors’ ability to offer compassionate support to women outside abortion clinics. Last month, Catholic sidewalk counselor Debra Vitagliano asked the Court to reconsider its heavily criticized decision in Hill v. Colorado, which allowed states and local governments to ban peaceful, life-affirming conversation on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics.

“I want to offer abortion-vulnerable women a message of hope and compassion, letting them know that they are loved and can keep their babies,” said Debra Vitagliano, a sidewalk counselor and resident of Westchester County. “I am thankful for this outpouring of support for my ministry and sidewalk counselors across the country, and I pray that the Justices will take my case and vindicate my First Amendment rights.”

Motivated by her Catholic faith and experience as an occupational therapist for special-needs children, Debra Vitagliano felt called to offer compassionate, face-to-face support to women considering abortion. Debra desires to help these women in the most critical moment—when they are approaching the abortion clinic. But last year, Westchester County, New York, passed a law restricting discussions about abortion, its alternatives, and resources available to abortion-vulnerable women on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics. The law established a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics—including public sidewalks—preventing anyone from approaching within eight feet of another person in that zone unless given explicit consent. Such bans on sidewalk counseling deprive abortion-vulnerable women of a final opportunity to receive help and learn about additional resources before potentially making a life-altering choice.

Westchester County’s law was modeled after and virtually identical to the Colorado law that the Supreme Court upheld in Hill v Colorado. But legal scholars and judges have long criticized Hill, and last year, five Justices of the Supreme Court stated that Hill was a major departure from our nation’s protections of free speech. Debra’s case presents an ideal opportunity for the Supreme Court to right Hill’s wrong and protect all those who want to serve abortion-vulnerable women.

Highlights from the friend-of-the-court filings in Vitagliano v. County Westchester include:

  • First Amendment experts Eugene Volokh (of UCLA School of Law), Richard W. Garnett (of Notre Dame Law School), and Michael Stokes Paulsen (of the University of St. Thomas Law School) highlighted the widespread disagreement with Hill by pro-choice and pro-life scholars alike, as well as by the ACLU.
  • Fourteen States argued that continued reliance on Hill curtails free-speech rights and explained how governments can protect public safety outside abortion clinics without Hill.
  • Life-affirming feminist organizations argued that Hill reflects a “paternalistic belief” “rooted in the sexist assumption that women are too fragile to hear alternative viewpoints.”
  • Sidewalk counselor Jeannie Hill—the plaintiff in Hill itself—highlighted Hill’s departure from pre-existing First Amendment jurisprudence and destabilizing effect on the rule of law.
  • Alliance Defending Freedom argued that recent “hostility toward the pro-life community has exacerbated the need for an end to Hill.”
  • Pregnancy resource centers explained how they offer tangible help to expectant and new mothers, with testimonials from women who benefitted from such help.

The list of friend-of-the-court briefs can be found here.

“Governments should not try to outlaw peaceful conversations on public sidewalks, and they certainly shouldn’t make it harder for women to get complete information,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket. “As this wave of support shows, it’s time for the Court to fix the mistake in Hill and make clear that the law protects people like Debra Vitagliano who want to offer help to women in need.”

A response from Westchester County is due to the Supreme Court by September 25.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Religious parents in Maryland will appeal to opt kids out of inappropriate storybooks

WASHINGTON – Contrary to Maryland and Montgomery County regulations, a federal court today ruled that parents have no right to be notified when their elementary-school children will be read storybooks that address complex and sensitive issues regarding gender and human sexuality. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the Montgomery County Board of Education removed state-mandated parental notice and opt-outs rights for storybooks that advocate pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids as young as pre-kindergarten. Becket represents parents of diverse faiths who challenged the mandate in court earlier this month. After today’s ruling, these religious parents will quickly ask a federal appeals court to protect their ability to guide their children’s education in accordance with their faith. 

The new “inclusivity” books were announced last fall for students in pre-K through fifth grade. However, instead of focusing on basic principles of respect and kindness, the books champion controversial ideology around gender and sexuality. For example, one book tasks three and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to say doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. Other books focus on children’s romantic feelings.  

The School Board revoked notice and opt-outs for these storybooks earlier this year, contrary to Maryland law and the Board’s policies. Even the Board’s elementary school principals protested that the books were age-inappropriate, dismissive of students’ religious beliefs, and present as facts information that is not factual. 

“Parents know and love their children best; that’s why all kids deserve to have their parents help them understand issues like gender identity and sexuality,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The School Board’s decision to cut parents out of these discussions flies in the face of parental freedom, childhood innocence, and basic human decency.” 

Soon after the School Board announced it would take away parental notice and opt-outs for the storybooks, a diverse coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, among others, sued the School Board in federal court. Despite faith differences, these parents are united in their view that the LGBTQ storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids and inconsistent with their religious beliefs. These parents fought in court earlier this month seeking to restore their ability to help their own children on such complex issues and put a stop to the School Board’s no-notice, no opt-out policy. Today the court left the mandate in place, putting the case on a fast track to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  

“The court’s decision is an assault on children’s right to be guided by their parents on complex and sensitive issues regarding human sexuality,” said Baxter. “The School Board should let kids be kids and let parents decide how and when to best educate their own children consistent with their religious beliefs.” 

Oral argument is expected in the fall at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

BREAKING: Religious preschools fight to serve Colorado families

WASHINGTON – Two Catholic preschools filed a lawsuit against Colorado today for excluding religious preschools from participating in the state’s Universal Preschool Program. In St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy, St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s are parish preschools that were eager to serve families who wanted to use Colorado’s preschool funding benefit at a Catholic preschool. However, the state has banned funding for religious preschools because they provide an education rooted in their beliefs. With the help of Becket, St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s are asking a federal court to ensure that religious preschools can participate in the funding program just like every other private secular school. 

St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s are Catholic parishes in Colorado that operate excellent preschool programs to serve Denver-area families. For decades, these parish preschools in the Archdiocese of Denver have faithfully assisted parents with the religious and educational upbringing of their children. Many of the families they serve are of limited means. A full 20% of families who send their children to preschools in the Archdiocese qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program. At St. Bernadette’s, that number is 85%. At St. Mary’s over a quarter of families also receive scholarships or discounts on their preschool education.  

“Our preschool exists to help kids harness the skills they need to flourish and grow into individuals prepared to serve others in hope, joy, and love,” said Tracy Seul, Director of Development and Preschool at St. Mary Catholic School. “We are called to offer this ministry to every parent who wants to provide their child with an authentic Catholic education.” 

In 2022, Colorado created its Universal Preschool Program to provide all children access to a free, quality preschool education the year before they are enrolled in kindergarten. After Colorado created the program, St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s were excited to begin assisting parents in providing their children an education that upholds their beliefs. But faith-based preschools like St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s cannot participate in the program because they prioritize the admission of Catholic families and have religious expectations for the teachers who operate their ministries. This ban forces parents to choose between paying out of pocket for the cost of faith-based preschool or receiving a free preschool education at any other private school in Colorado. It also hurts the ability of schools like St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s to compete with other preschools that can offer free preschool education.  

“Universal should mean universal,” said Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket. “Colorado is slamming the door on hundreds of parents that need help sending their kids to preschool, all because the schools that are best for their kids reflect their beliefs. We are asking the court to stop Colorado’s campaign against preschoolers and the schools that want to serve them. Families should be free to choose the private school that best meets their needs—whether it is secular or religious.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Jewish parents & schools ask federal appeals court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON – A group of Jewish families and schools asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday to strike down a California law that excludes religious families from accessing special education funding for their children with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, a group of Orthodox Jewish parents want to send their children with disabilities to Orthodox Jewish schools, and two Orthodox Jewish schools want to welcome children with disabilities. However, California politicians have blocked federal and state special education funding from being used at religious schools. After a lower court ruled against the families and schools last week, Becket, with the support of Teach Coalition—an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equal funding in nonpublic schoolshas asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to stop California from denying education benefits to Jewish children with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities can receive an education that meets their unique needs. IDEA funds help pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA is designed to ensure all children can receive a free and appropriate education, including in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. However, California politicians exclude religious schools, and the religious families they want to serve, from even applying to participate in this program.  

“Our son has to overcome many obstacles to have his unique needs met in the classroom, and California is making it even harder for him because of our faith,” said Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Jewish parents of a child with a disability in Los Angeles. “We pray that the court will stop this attack on children like ours and allow special education funding for every child with disabilities in California.”  

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who want to send their children with disabilities to schools that provide an education that allows them to reach their full potential and that is centered around their Jewish traditions and beliefs. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools in Los Angeles that both provide an excellent education and want to serve the needs of children with disabilities. 

“We are proud to fight alongside these parents, who have been forced to grapple with this unimaginable situation,” said Maury Litwack, Founder, Teach Coalition. “All children with disabilities, regardless of their religious beliefs, should have the same opportunity to receive a quality education and parents should never have to compromise on how or where their child is educated just because they are religious. That’s what we’re fighting for.” 

Becket and Teach Coalition are working together to ensure that these religious parents, their children with disabilities, and these religious schools are given equal access to special education funding—a result that, according to a recent poll, most Californians would want to see. 

“California is waging an indefensible and needless campaign against kids with disabilities just because they come from religious families,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We have asked the Ninth Circuit to strike down this law and ensure that all kids with disabilities receive the care and support they need to thrive.” 

Oral argument at the Ninth Circuit is expected to take place this winter.  

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

New Jersey Supreme Court protects religious schools

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court of New Jersey today protected the ability of religious schools to make key choices about matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance without courts getting involved. In Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, a former teacher at a Catholic school in New Jersey sued the school, which is part of the Archdiocese of Newark, after the school did not offer her a new contract because she had violated both her previous contract and Catholic teaching. Becket argued the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization that represents the interests of many Orthodox Jewish schools in New Jersey. Today the court ruled that religious schools throughout the state are free to decide who should carry out their ministries of passing on the faith to the next generation.

The Archdiocese of Newark operates St. Theresa School, which has served families in the town of Kenilworth, New Jersey, for over sixty years. Since the late 1970s, it has been run by Salesian Sisters who strive to offer their students a faith-centered education inspired by the teachings of St. John Bosco. To ensure that ministry remains strong, St. Theresa—like all other schools in the Archdiocese—requires all its staff to respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all staff must sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike. This is similar to the practices of many other religious schools in New Jersey, including Orthodox Jewish schools. 

“Teachers make the school,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, who argued the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court. “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.” 

During the 2013 school year, a teacher named Victoria Crisitello voluntarily told St. Theresa that she was in violation of Church teaching and the Code of Ethics she had agreed to when she was hired. The school therefore declined to offer her a new contract for the following school year. Soon after, Crisitello filed suit. 

Becket intervened in the case on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, and argued the appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court in April 2023. In briefing and at the oral argument, Becket explained that church autonomy—which provides religious groups the power to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance—protects Orthodox Jewish schools and other religious schools. Today the court, in a unanimous opinion, held that under New Jersey law, “The religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law.” 

“This decision is a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey, but it is especially important for Orthodox Jews,” said Rassbach. “There are too many examples in history of governments interfering with Jewish schools, or worse. Today the Court did the right thing for Orthodox Jews and all other New Jerseyans by stopping this attempt to drag government into direct control of religious schools.”   

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Religious parents fight sex and gender storybook mandate in court

WASHINGTON – A diverse group of religious parents in Maryland were in federal court today fighting for their ability to opt their children out of storybooks that push extreme ideology regarding gender and sexuality. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the Montgomery County Board of Education took away parental notice and opt-outs for storybooks that advocate pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids as young as pre-kindergarten. Becket is supporting these Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox parents who are fighting to restore their ability to raise their children consistent with their faith. 

The new “inclusivity” books were announced last fall for students in pre-K through eighth grade. However, instead of focusing on basic principles of respect and kindness, the books champion controversial ideology around gender and sex and focus on children’s romantic feelings. For example, one book tasks three and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to say doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The School Board revoked notice and opt-outs for these storybooks earlier this year, contrary to Maryland law and the Board’s policies and over the objection of their own elementary school principals. 

“Children deserve their parents’ guidance on how they learn about complex issues of gender identity, gender transitioning, and sexuality,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The School Board’s decision to cut parents out of these discussions prematurely destroys childhood innocence and wrongfully ignores the right of children to be guided by their own parents. The School Board should let kids be kids.”  

Soon after the School Board announced it would take away parental notice and opt-outs for the storybooks, a diverse coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, sued the School Board in federal court. Despite faith differences, these parents believe the new storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids and inconsistent with their religious beliefs. These parents fought in court today seeking to restore their ability to help their own children on such complex issues and put a stop to the School Board’s no notice, no opt-out policy.  

“Education works best when schools team up with parents to guide what children are learning in the classroom,” said Baxter. “We asked the court today to recognize that and protect the ability of every parent to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs and age-appropriateness.” 

A decision from the court is expected in the coming weeks.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish

Massachusetts bans faithful Catholics from adopting children

WASHINGTON – A religious couple in Massachusetts took the Commonwealth to court today for banning them from welcoming vulnerable children into their home through the Commonwealth’s foster care program. In Burke v. Walsh, Mike and Kitty Burke wanted to foster and someday adopt children in need of a family. Even though Massachusetts has a foster care crisis, state officials refused to let the Burkes foster any children in the state. The reason was their religious beliefs about marriage, sexuality, and gender. With the help of Becket, the Burkes are asking the court to ensure that qualified families no longer suffer for their religious beliefs and that vulnerable children are given a loving home.  

Mike and Kitty Burke are a Catholic couple from Massachusetts who have long wanted to become parents. Mike is an Iraq war veteran, Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs kids, and together they run a business and perform music for Mass.  Mike and Kitty began exploring becoming foster parents through the state’s foster care program, hoping to care for and eventually adopt children in need of a stable, loving home like theirs. 

“After months of interviews and training, and after years of heartbreak, we were on the verge of finally becoming parents,” said Mike and Kitty Burke. “We were absolutely devastated to learn that Massachusetts would rather children sleep in the hallways of hospitals than let us welcome children in need into our home.”  

Children in foster care throughout Massachusetts are waiting for families like the Burkes. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) currently does not have enough foster homes or facilities to meet the needs of the children in its care, leaving over 1,500 children without a family. The crisis has become so extreme that the state has resorted to housing children in hospitals for weeks on end. Now more than ever, Massachusetts needs the help of parents like Mike and Kitty to foster children in need. 

During their application process, the Burkes underwent hours of training, extensive interviews, and an examination of their home. Mike and Kitty completed the training successfully and received high marks from the instructors. However, during their home interviews, the Burkes were troubled that many questions centered on their Catholic views about sexual orientation and gender dysphoria. In response, the Burkes emphasized that they would love and accept any child, no matter the child’s future sexual orientation or struggles with gender identity.  

However, because Mike and Kitty said they would continue to hold to their religious beliefs about gender and human sexuality, they were denied the ability to foster. The couple’s home study said, “Their faith is not supportive.” DCF officials said that while they had strengths, their answers about sexuality and gender barred them from being licensed.  This denial was as unnecessary as it was unconstitutional. Massachusetts law protects the religious liberty of foster parents. And Massachusetts is supposed to put the best interests of children first.   

“It takes the heroic effort of parents like Mike and Kitty to provide vulnerable children with loving homes through foster care,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Massachusetts’ actions leave the Burkes, and families of other faiths, out in the cold. How can they explain this to children waiting for a home?”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Religious parents head to court to fight sex and gender storybook mandate

WASHINGTON – A diverse group of religious parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, will be in federal court next week fighting for their ability to opt their children out of storybooks that push extreme ideology regarding gender and sexuality. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the Montgomery County Board of Education took away parental notice and opt-outs for storybooks that advocate pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids as young as pre-kindergarten. Becket is helping a group of Muslim, Catholic, and Ethiopian Orthodox parents who want to restore their ability to raise their children consistent with their faith. 

The new “inclusivity” books were announced for pre-K through eighth-grade students last fall. However, instead of focusing on basic principles of respect and kindness, the books champion controversial ideologies around gender and sex and focus on children’s romantic feelings. For example, one book tasks three- and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to say doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. 

These religious parents believe the storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids and inconsistent with their faith. The lawsuit seeks to restore their ability to help their own children on such complex and sensitive issues. 

What:
Oral Argument in Mahmoud v. McKnight

Arguing before the court:
Eric Baxter, vice president & senior counsel at Becket

When:
Wednesday, August 9, 2023, at 10:00 a.m. ET

Where:
U.S. District Court for Maryland
6500 Cherrywood Lane
Greenbelt, MD 20770  

Before oral argument, there will be a rally at 8 a.m. in the parking lot outside the courthouse hosted by Kids First, an association of parents and teachers interested in preserving the parental right to notice and opt-out in the Montgomery County Public Schools.  

Becket attorneys will be available for comment following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Historic religious college asks federal appeals court to protect its ministry

WASHINGTON – A 137-year-old religious college and seminary that trains students for ministry has asked a federal appeals court to protect its beliefs about religious leadership from second-guessing by judges or juries. In Garrick v. Moody Bible Institute, a former faculty member at Moody is enlisting federal courts to punish Moody for its beliefs about the composition of the clergy. With the help of Becket, Moody is asking the court to keep the federal judiciary from entangling itself in disagreements over who should be clergy, and uphold its ability to train students for Christian leadership free from government interference.

Moody Bible Institute was founded in 1886 in downtown Chicago by prominent evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Originally named the Chicago Evangelization Society, Moody’s college and seminary prepares women and men to bring the Christian faith to all people. In the course of sharing this faith, Moody’s graduates have served worldwide, flying medical supplies to remote parts of Indonesia, feeding the poor in Cambodia, caring for refugees from South America, supporting displaced families in war-torn Ukraine, and running a women’s shelter in downtown Chicago. 

“For over 130 years, our school has trained and formed faithful Christian women and men who will commit their lives to spreading the gospel and bringing hope, joy, and love to all those in need,” said Dr. Mark Jobe, president at Moody Bible Institute. “This mission is rooted in Christ’s command to announce the good news to all people, and it has served as the bedrock of Moody since our founding.”  

Moody ensures that its ministry remains steadfast by asking all faculty to affirm its core religious beliefs, including its belief that the church office of pastor (or “elder”) should be filled by men. But despite knowing about this belief and agreeing to adhere to it, a Moody faculty member began advocating against it within Moody’s ministry. When Moody approached her about the situation and received her confirmation that she rejected Moody’s religious views, the professor’s contract was not renewed. In response, she moved her advocacy to federal court and sued, asking the government to take her side in a religious dispute.  

“If the separation of church and state means anything, it means that the federal government can’t punish a religious college for its beliefs over who should serve as a pastor, priest, imam, or rabbi,” said Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Religious groups should be free to make up their own minds on clergy qualifications without judges or juries putting a finger on the scales.”  

Oral argument is expected to be scheduled for Winter 2023 or Spring 2024.   

Moody is also represented by Christian Poland of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Jewish parents & schools fight in court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON A group of Jewish parents and schools were in federal court on Friday fighting a California law that excludes religious schools from receiving special education funding to serve children with disabilities. Loffman v. California Department of Education involves a group of parents whose faith compels them to send their children with disabilities to Orthodox Jewish schools, and two Orthodox Jewish schools that want to welcome children with disabilities. California politicians, however, have made this impossible by blocking federal and state special education funding from being used at private religious schools. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, with the support of the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, is supporting these parents and schools in their fight to stop California from denying education benefits to Jewish children with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities can receive an education that meets their unique needs. IDEA funds help pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA is designed to ensure all children can receive a free and appropriate education, including in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. However, California politicians exclude religious schools, and the religious families they want to serve, from even applying to participate in the program.  

“We want to educate our son in a safe, supportive learning environment that meets his unique needs and upholds our shared religious beliefs,” said Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Jewish parents of a child with disabilities in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, California is forcing our family to choose between raising our son in our faith tradition and providing him the help he needs to reach his full potential.” 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who believe that their children with disabilities should go to schools that provide both an education that allows them to reach their full potential and one centered around their Jewish traditions and beliefs. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools in Los Angeles that both provide an excellent education and want to serve the needs of children with disabilities. Becket and Teach California, an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equal funding in nonpublic schools, are working together to ensure that these religious parents, their children with disabilities, and these religious schools are given equal access to special education funding—a result that, according to a recent poll, most Californians would approve. 

“California’s campaign against Jewish children with disabilities and the schools they want to attend is shameful and unconstitutional,” said Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket. “We argued in court on Friday that the government cannot exclude religious people and schools from a public benefit simply because they are religious.” 

A decision from the federal district court is expected in the coming months. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Sidewalk counselor asks Supreme Court to protect ministry

WASHINGTON A sidewalk counselor asked the Supreme Court today to restore her ability to offer compassionate support to abortion-vulnerable women outside abortion clinics. In Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, a federal appeals court ruled last month that Catholic sidewalk counselor Debra Vitagliano could ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its heavily criticized decision in Hill v. Colorado, which allowed states and local governments to ban peaceful life-affirming advocacy on public sidewalks. Today, Debra—who is challenging a recent law in Westchester County, New York, that is modeled after the law upheld in Hill—asked the Supreme Court to reconsider Hill and protect all those who wish to offer help and information to women in need.  

Motivated by her Catholic faith and experience as an occupational therapist for special-needs children, Debra Vitagliano felt called to offer compassionate, face-to-face support to women considering abortion. Debra desires to help these women in the most critical moment—when they are approaching the abortion clinic. But last year Westchester County, New York, passed a law restricting discussions about abortion, its alternatives, and resources available to abortion-vulnerable women on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics. The law establishes a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics—including public sidewalks—and prevents anyone from approaching within eight feet of another person in that zone unless given explicit consent. This ban on sidewalk counseling deprives abortion-vulnerable women of a final opportunity to receive help and learn about additional resources before potentially making a life-altering choice.    

“I am called to be a compassionate voice to abortion-vulnerable women, letting them know that that they are loved, supported, and can choose life for their babies,” said Debra Vitagliano, a sidewalk counselor and resident of Westchester County. “I pray that the Justices will take this case and allow me to help women in need.” 

Westchester County’s law is modeled after and materially identical to the Colorado law that the Supreme Court upheld in Hill. But legal scholars and judges have long criticized Hill, and last year five Justices of the Supreme Court stated that Hill was a major departure from our nation’s protections of free speech. Debra’s case presents an ideal opportunity for the Supreme Court to right Hill’s wrong and protect all those who want to serve abortion-vulnerable women. 

“No one should be arrested and put behind bars for having peaceful, face-to-face conversations on a public sidewalk,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket. “The Court should fix the mistake of Hill and make clear that the First Amendment protects these offers of help and information to women in need.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal appeals court upholds religious school’s freedom to choose its leaders

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court today ruled that faith-based schools are free to choose leaders who will uphold their core religious beliefs. In Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Catholic teaching. Today the court dismissed her case, ruling that the Constitution forbids the government from interfering with a religious school’s selection of who will pass on the faith to the next generation. 

At Roncalli High School, education goes beyond the basic subjects to help form students’ hearts and minds in the Catholic faith. To accomplish that mission, Roncalli asks its teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors to sign contracts agreeing to uphold Church teaching in both word and deed. In 2018, Shelly Fitzgerald, the co-director of guidance, told the school she was in a same-sex union in violation of her contract and millennia-old Catholic teaching. The school then declined to renew her contract for the following year. Soon after, Fitzgerald sued the school and Archdiocese. Today the court threw out her lawsuit, stating that the law protects Catholic schools’ ability to choose leaders who will impart the faith to students. 

Religious schools exist to pass on the faith to the next generation, and to do that, they need the freedom to choose leaders who are fully committed to their religious mission,” said Joseph Davis, counsel at Becket.The precedent keeps piling up: Catholic schools can ask Catholic school teachers and administrators to be fully supportive of Catholic teaching.” 

This ruling is the latest in a string of court decisions protecting the leadership choices of the Archdiocese and other faith-based schools. Last summer, a federal court threw out a similar lawsuit by another guidance counselor at Roncalli High School in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Soon after, the Indiana Supreme Court did the same in Payne-Elliot v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis. These rulings build on Becket’s successful defense of religious groups’ leadership decisions at the Supreme Court in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical School v. EEOC. 

“Today’s ruling is common-sense: decisions about who conveys the Catholic faith to Catholic school children are for the Church, not the government,” said Davis. “Many parents entrust their children to religious schools precisely because those schools help to pass on the faith, and this victory ensures they remain free to do so.” 

Fitzgerald has 90 days to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Jewish parents & schools head to court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON A group of Jewish parents, children, and schools are headed to federal court next week to fight a California law that excludes religious schools from obtaining special education funding to serve children with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, a group of Orthodox Jewish parents want to send their children to Orthodox Jewish schools, and two Orthodox Jewish schools want to serve children with disabilities. However, they are unable to do so because politicians in California exclude all “sectarian” schools from participating in the State’s funding program. Becket, with the support of the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, is helping these parents and schools fight to stop California from denying crucial benefits to Jewish children with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring all children with disabilities can receive an education that meets their unique needs. This funding helps pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA is designed to ensure all children can receive free and appropriate education, including at private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. However, in California, politicians have categorically excluded religious schools from participating.

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents whose religious beliefs require them to send their children with disabilities to schools that will both equip them with an education that allows them to reach their full potential and one centered around the Jewish tradition. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools that offer excellent education and wish to serve children with disabilities. Becket and Teach California, an initiative of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equal funding in nonpublic schools, are working together to ensure that these religious parents, their children with disabilities, and these religious schools are given equal access to special education funding—a result that most Californians would approve of according to a recent poll.

 

What:  

Oral Argument in Loffman v. California Department of Education  

Arguing before the court:  

Laura Slavis, counsel at Becket 

 Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket  

When:  

Friday, July 21, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. PT  

Where:  

U.S. District Court for the Central District of California  

350 W 1st Street 

Los Angeles, CA 90012  

 

Before oral argument, Becket and Teach California will host a rally  at 8:30 am PT outside the courthouse. Speakers will include supporters, parents and representatives from Teach California. 

 Becket attorneys and Teach California representatives will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.  

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Supreme Court protects religious business owner’s speech

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today that the government cannot force religious people to choose between their faith or their business. In 303 Creative LLC v Elenis, web designer Lorie Smith challenged a Colorado law that prevented her from expanding her business to create wedding websites in accordance with her Christian beliefs about marriage.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court wrote, “Consistent with the First Amendment, the Nation’s answer is tolerance, not coercion. The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands. Colorado cannot deny that promise consistent with the First Amendment.”

As the owner of 303 Creative, a custom website design business, Smith wanted to expand her operation to include wedding websites. However, Colorado law prevented her from doing so unless she made wedding websites for same-sex couples, violating her Christian beliefs about marriage and forcing her to say something she did not believe.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that religious speech, like political speech, is at the core of the freedom of speech and must be protected. The Court’s opinion picked up on this argument, saying that unlike “commercial advertising,” governments cannot compel speech “about a question of political and religious significance.”

“Religion and work are not at odds,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Yesterday, the Court protected religious workers in secular workplaces, and today the Court protected religious business owners. That is good news for religious Americans of all stripes.”

The ruling corrects a lower court decision that failed to respect speech with “political and religious significance.” Four times, the Court recognized the distinct “significance” of such speech.

“Colorado seems to be a reluctant student when it comes to the First Amendment,” said Rassbach. “How many cases will Colorado have to lose before it stops trying to squelch speech? The Court’s ruling today emphasizes just how quixotic it is to force conformity of thought on Americans.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Supreme Court protects religious workers

WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court just dramatically strengthened protections for religious employees. In Groff v. DeJoy, a U.S. Postal Service carrier named Gerald Groff was forced to leave his job after the USPS denied him a religious accommodation to observe his Sunday Sabbath. Today, the Court called the standard applied to Groff’s case—a standard developed from its own prior rulings—“erroneous” and imposed a stronger test to ensure that religious Americans won’t have to leave their faith at home when they go to work.

In Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court had said employers were not obligated to provide religious accommodations to employees if those accommodations resulted in a “de minimis,” or minor cost to the employer. The Hardison standard was particularly problematic for workers who are members of minority faiths or have unpopular beliefs, placing additional hardships on marginalized communities. This includes the ability of Jewish employees to wear yarmulkes in the workplace or Muslim employees to pray during the workday.

“Big corporations got away with firing employees for their religious practices for decades, thanks to a fundamental misreading of civil rights law,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “That mistake by the Court long pushed faith out of daily life by giving employers free rein to give religious workers the boot for observing holy days and taking time to pray. Today’s ruling corrects decades of rulings against religious Americans.”

In its opinion today, the Court fixed its mistake in Hardison, ruling that employers must show much more than a “de minimis” burden to demonstrate an “undue hardship.” The Justices explained that there is a “big difference” between its interpretation here and the old “de minimis” standard. Now, employers can only deny religious accommodations if they can prove that a burden is so big as to be “substantial in the overall context of an employer’s business.” That must be “more severe” than a mere burden and “have to rise to the level of hardship” that is “excessive” or “unjustifiable.”

Becket has represented multiple religious workers left to the whims of billion-dollar businesses that either did not understand or care about their religious convictions. In fact, the Court cited several of Becket’s earlier cases, including Patterson v. Walgreen Co., Tagore v. United States, and EEOC v. Walmart Stores.

“Today was a win for the little guy—all those who want to live and work in accordance with their religious beliefs,” said Rienzi. “The Supreme Court has made it so hardworking religious Americans no longer have to choose between their job and their faith.”

Groff is represented by Aaron Streett of Baker Botts L.L.P. and First Liberty Institute.

Second Circuit sends sidewalk counselor to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – A devoutly religious sidewalk counselor will soon ask the Supreme Court to restore her ability to offer compassionate support to women considering abortion outside abortion clinics. In Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, a federal appeals court held that sidewalk counselor Debra Vitagliano could ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its heavily criticized decision in Hill v. Colorado (2000), which allowed states and local governments to ban peaceful sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics. With the help of Becket, Debra—who is challenging a recently enacted law in Westchester County, New York, that is modeled on the law upheld in Hill—will soon ask the Supreme Court to do exactly that.

Motivated by her Catholic faith and experience as an occupational therapist for children with disabilities, Debra Vitagliano has been called to offer compassionate, face-to-face support to women considering abortion. Debra desires to counsel these women outside abortion clinics, but Westchester County recently passed a law restricting discussions about abortion, its alternatives, and resources available to women in need, among other things, on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics. The law establishes a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics—including public sidewalks—and prevents anyone from approaching within eight feet of another person in that zone unless given explicit consent.

“My faith calls me to offer help to pregnant women considering abortion. In her most vulnerable state, a woman considering an abortion needs to know that she is loved and that there are other options for her and her child,” said Debra Vitagliano, a sidewalk counselor and resident of Westchester County. “I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear my plea and allow me to help these women.”

The County’s law is closely modeled on the Colorado law that the Supreme Court upheld in Hill. But legal scholars and judges have severely criticized Hill, and in 2022 five Justices of the Supreme Court stated that Hill “distorted First Amendment doctrines.” This case presents an ideal opportunity for the Supreme Court to right Hill’s wrong and protect all those who want to counsel women considering abortion. The Second Circuit ruled that Debra suffered harm from the County’s law, giving her the right to “pursue [her] appeal in the hope that the Supreme Court will revisit and overrule Hill.” The Second Circuit even recognized that Hill “appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions.”

“Americans like Debra have every right to engage in peaceful, face-to-face conversations with women in need on public sidewalks,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket. “Nobody should have to risk jail time and go to court for a peaceful conversation on public sidewalks—even when local government disagrees with them. We are hopeful that the Court will take this case and protect Debra’s ability to serve women in need.”

With the help of Becket, Debra will ask the Supreme Court to protect her ministry as early as next month.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal government backs down on transgender mandate

WASHINGTON The Biden Administration yesterday declined to appeal a federal court ruling that stops the government from forcing religious doctors and hospitals to perform controversial gender-transition procedures against their conscience and professional medical judgment. The decision in Sisters of Mercy v. Becerra is now the second time a federal appeals court has blocked the Administration’s mandate, and the second time the Administration has chosen not to seek Supreme Court review. The rulings mark a victory for compassionate, evidence-based healthcare and protect religious doctors and hospitals across the country from suffering multimillion-dollar penalties for following their religious beliefs, conscience, and informed medical judgment.  

In 2016, the federal government reinterpreted the Affordable Care Act to require doctors and hospitals across the country to perform controversial gender-transition procedures, including on children, even when doing so would violate doctors’ consciences and could harm the patient. A coalition of Catholic hospitals, a Catholic university, and Catholic nuns who run health clinics for the elderly and poor sued the federal government to stop the mandate, and a federal court agreed that the mandate was unlawful and permanently blocked it from taking effect. When the Biden Administration appealed that decision, the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision. Today, the government let the final deadline for appealing to the Supreme Court expire, putting this harmful and unlawful mandate to rest. 

“After multiple defeats in court, the federal government has thrown in the towel on its controversial, medically unsupported transgender mandate,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Doctors take a solemn oath to ‘do no harm,’ and they can’t keep that oath if the federal government is forcing them to perform harmful, irreversible procedures against their conscience and medical expertise.”  

This case is Becket’s second successful challenge to the transgender mandate. In Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra, Becket defended a religious hospital network sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Becket won a victory for its clients at the Fifth Circuit, and the Biden Administration also declined to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court.   

“These religious doctors and hospitals provide vital care to patients in need, including millions of dollars in free and low-cost care to the elderly, poor, and underserved,” said Goodrich. “This is a win for patients, conscience, and common sense.”  

The government’s deadline to appeal the case to the Supreme Court was June 20. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Minnesota pauses attack on faith-based education

WASHINGTON – The state of Minnesota promised today not to enforce a newly amended law that strips some faith-based schools of their ability to offer free college credits to high school students using the Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. In Loe v. Walz, a group of Christian families and schools recently filed a lawsuit challenging an amendment to the program that excludes schools from participating if they require a statement of faith from students. Today, Minnesota agreed to a federal court order that bars state officials from enforcing the new law while the legal process is ongoing. Students across the state can now continue to learn at faith-based schools and join communities that uphold their beliefs.

Minnesota created the PSEO program nearly 40 years ago to encourage and enable high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit for free. Through this program, students have been able to attend any eligible school in the state, public or private. Melinda and Mark Loe and Dawn Erickson are parents in Minnesota whose older children have used PSEO funds at two outstanding Christian schools—the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and Crown College—that uphold their religious values. Their current high-school aged children hope to do the same, but last month Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that bans colleges like Northwestern and Crown from the program because they ask on-campus students to sign statements of faith in order to build Christian communities.

With Becket’s help, these families and schools challenged the law in federal court to stop Minnesota from punishing religious students and the faith-based schools they want to attend because they are religious. The Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed that public benefits that are open to private organizations cannot exclude organizations because they are religious.

Today, Minnesota’s attorney general saw the writing on the wall and agreed not to enforce the law while the case is ongoing. Minnesota schools now have the freedom to continue shaping their campus environments according to their religious beliefs, and students have the choice of an education that aligns with their beliefs.

Statements for media use:

Mark and Melinda Loe:

“We are glad that Minnesota has agreed not to punish our children and many students like them for wanting to learn at schools that reflect their values. They should be able to pursue the same great opportunities as all other students in the state without politicians in St. Paul getting in the way. We hope the court will eventually strike this law down for good and protect all religious students and the schools they want to attend.”

Corbin Hoornbeek, president at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul:

“The entire Northwestern community is grateful to continue to foster a Christ-centered community on campus that serves all our students, including our PSEO students. The state cannot single out schools such as Northwestern due to our campus culture and the integration of faith and learning. We hope the court will permanently recognize that and continue to permit us to help on-campus PSEO students flourish in their faith and education.”

Andrew Denton, president of Crown College:

“We are thankful that Crown can continue welcoming PSEO students who seek to join our Christian community and earn college credit without taking on debt. The law protects our current and future PSEO students’ ability to use PSEO funds at schools that reflect their beliefs and values. The state should never have singled us out for our faith. We remain steadfast in our commitment to upholding our mission of providing PSEO students a boldly Christian, biblically based education, and we are hopeful the court will permanently protect our faith-based culture and the students we serve.”

Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket:

“It’s not every day that a state asks a federal court to tie its hands to prevent it from enforcing its own anti-religious law—but Minnesota has done just that. As this effort to walk back demonstrates, the state didn’t do its homework before it passed this unconstitutional law. The next step is for the court to strike down this ban for good.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Religious parents & schools sue state for punishing faith-based education

WASHINGTON – A Catholic family of five and a Catholic high school filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging Maine’s exclusion of faith-based schools from a state tuition assistance program that has served rural families for over a century. Even though the Supreme Court struck down Maine’s religious ban last year, bureaucrats in the state are continuing to exclude faith-based schools and families who rely on the program. In St. Dominic Academy v. Makin, the Radonis family and St. Dominic Academy, a high school operated by the Catholic Diocese of Portland, are fighting for their ability to help rural families educate their children in accordance with their beliefs.

Keith and Valori Radonis are organic farmers in rural Maine who want to send their children to schools that uphold their Catholic beliefs. Both Keith and Valori grew up in Catholic homes, and they believe it is their religious duty to help plant, nurture, and cultivate the seed of faith in their own children. For years, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Portland—including St. Dominic Academy—assisted families like Radonises in providing their children with an education that reflects their beliefs through Maine’s tuition assistance program.  This program allows parents in rural school districts to educate their children at private schools with no public schools nearby. That changed in 1982 when Maine began disqualifying faith-based schools and the families they serve from the program. Today, Maine is willing to pay for families in rural areas to send their kids to out-of-state boarding schools and public schools in Canada, but it won’t pay a penny for parents that choose a religious school in Maine.

“As Catholic parents, we want to provide our children with an education that helps them grow in heart, mind, and spirit, preparing them for lives of service to God and neighbor,” said Keith and Valori Radonis. “All families should have the option to provide the education that’s right for their children using Maine’s tuition program, including religious families like ours.”

Fortunately, the Supreme Court said last year in Carson v. Makin that Maine could no longer exclude faith-based schools from the program. But Maine bureaucrats tried to do an “end run” around the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court was considering Carson, Maine passed a new law to reimpose the same restriction challenged in Carson—and add a few new ones for good measure.

Maine’s new laws block schools that receive tuition funds from allowing any religious expression unless they allow every kind—meaning that a Catholic school like St. Dominic can’t have Mass unless it also allows a Baptist revival meeting. It also gives the state’s Human Rights Commission—not parents and schools—the final word on how the school teaches students to live out Catholic beliefs regarding marriage, gender, and family life. As a result, faith-based schools are still being barred from serving rural families through the program.

With the help of Becket, the Radonis family and St. Dominic are asking a federal court to strike down Maine’s anti-religious policy. The state cannot deny parents the choice to educate their children at religious schools simply because they provide an education rooted in faith. It also cannot sidestep the Supreme Court by changing its law to stop religious schools from being religious.

“Maine is willing to pay for kids to go to all-girls boarding schools in Massachusetts and public schools in Quebec, but parents who choose Catholic schools like St. Dominic—which have been educating Maine kids for more than a century—are still out in the cold,” said Adèle Auxier Keim, senior counsel at Becket. “Maine lawmakers boasted about changing the law to avoid the Supreme Court’s decision in Carson. That’s illegal and unfair. We are confident that Maine’s new laws will be struck down just like their old ones were.”

Becket will ask the court to halt Maine’s ban on faith-based education immediately while the court considers the case.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Religious parents & schools take state to court for punishing religious education

WASHINGTON – A group of Christian parents and schools filed a lawsuit today challenging an amendment to Minnesota law that strips some religious universities of their ability to offer free on-campus college credits to high school students. In Loe v. Walz, two Christian families want to use funding from Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program for their kids to attend two colleges of their choice in the state to get a head start in higher education. They are unable to do so, however, because Minnesota has removed religious schools’ eligibility in the program if they require a statement of faith from students. 

Minnesota created the PSEO program nearly 40 years ago to encourage and enable high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit without having to take on additional debt. Students are able to attend any eligible institution that aligns with what they want for an educational experience. Melinda and Mark Loe and Dawn Erickson are parents in Minnesota. Their older children have used their PSEO funds at two outstanding Christian schools—the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and Crown College—that uphold their religious values. Their current high-school aged children are now being barred from the schools of their choice because of Minnesota’s new ban on colleges with statements of faith.  

Today, Minnesota governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that amends the law governing PSEO to exclude religious schools like Northwestern and Crown from participating because they require a statement of faith from those students who chose to attend their on-campus programs. The statements simply ask students to affirm the schools’ religious beliefs for the purpose of upholding their Christian communities. Other schools are free to create the campus environment they want to attract students with shared values and interests.  Minnesota’s sudden change to the law hurts students who want to attend schools that uphold their religious values–schools that have attracted thousands of Minnesota high school students over the past three and a half decades.  

With the help of Becket, these families and schools asked a federal court to strike down this new discriminatory law. Minnesota cannot deny religious students the learning environments they prefer just because they are religious, nor can they exclude schools from participating in the program because of the schools’ religious practice. The Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed that public benefits that are open to private secular organizations must also be open to religious ones.  

Statements for media use: 

Mark and Melinda Loe:
“The PSEO program guarantees all students equal opportunity to pursue excellent academics at a school of their choice. It gave our older children a head start on college in Christ-centered communities at Northwestern and Crown. All we want is for the rest of our children to have the same opportunity to be educated in an environment consistent with their religious beliefs. Rather than discriminating against people of faith, Minnesota should be looking for ways to help all students find a school that best fits their interests and values.” 

Corbin Hoornbeek, president at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul:  

“Northwestern exists to provide Christ-centered education, equipping students to grow intellectually and spiritually, to serve effectively in their professions, and to give God-honoring leadership in the home, church, community, and world. As the largest PSEO provider in Minnesota, Northwestern desires to continue helping on-campus PSEO students flourish in preparation for the next chapter of their academic journey. We’re hopeful that the court will uphold our ability to do so, just like any other Minnesota school is permitted to do.” 

Andrew Denton, president of Crown College: 

“For over 100 years, Crown College has remained a boldly Christian college dedicated to our mission to provide a biblically based education.  The First Amendment protects our current and future PSEO students’ right to participate in PSEO without abandoning our faith.  Even in the face of legislation designed to hinder students who want the education we provide, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting our mission and our community’s deeply held religious beliefs” 

Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket: 

“Minnesota politicians just slammed the door on thousands of kids in their state who want to get a head start on college, all because the schools they want to attend share their religious beliefs. That decision is not only patently anti-religious; it is also against the law. We are confident this ban will not stand for long.”  

 

Photo courtesy of Fotofilm Studios LLC.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Professor Michael W. McConnell to receive religious liberty’s highest honor

WASHINGTON Professor Michael W. McConnell, Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and a former federal judge, has been named Becket’s 2023 Canterbury Medalist for his decades-long commitment to the cause of religious liberty. The Canterbury Medal, religious liberty’s highest honor, recognizes an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious freedom in America and around the globe. As a professor, scholar, advocate, and public servant, Professor McConnell’s career has provided a strong and unfailing defense of religious liberty for all. Becket will honor Professor McConnell with the 2023 Canterbury Medal at its annual Gala in New York on Thursday, May 25. 

In his distinguished career, Professor McConnell has played a key role in advancing the principle of religious freedom for all people. As an advocate, Professor McConnell has argued many religious liberty cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. Following his unanimous confirmation by the Senate, Professor McConnell served as federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit from 2002-2009. He also played a central role in founding the first religious liberty law clinic at Stanford Law School, where he continues to teach courses on constitutional law, the First Amendment, and constitutional history.   

“The bedrock of a free and just society is the ability of citizens to follow their faith without fear of punishment—that is why the Founders enshrined religious liberty as our first freedom,” said Professor Michael W. McConnell. “I am honored to receive the Canterbury Medal, and to stand with others in the defense of religious liberty.”  

Professor McConnell has previously held chaired professorships at the University of Chicago and the University of Utah and visiting professorships at Harvard and NYU. He has honorary degrees from both Notre Dame and Michigan State and was the 2000 winner of Christian Legal Society’s William Bentley Ball Award for Life and Religious Liberty Defense. His new book, “Agreeing to Disagree: How the Establishment Clause Protects Religious Diversity and Freedom of Conscience,” will be published this year. 

“Few individuals have done more to protect religious freedom in principle and in practice than Professor McConnell,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “His work as a scholar, judge, and advocate has strengthened religious liberty in America and will continue to do so into the future. We are thrilled to recognize his outstanding achievements with the Canterbury Medal, religious liberty’s highest honor.” 

The Canterbury Medal draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, which occurred between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, the law firm’s namesake, and King Henry II of England. The annual Canterbury Gala honors the award recipient in a black-tie event at the Pierre Hotel in New York and is attended by the world’s most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates. 

Past medalists include the late Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; Cuban poet and former political prisoner Armando Valladares; Orthodox rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik; First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dallin H. Oaks; and 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Chaplain Barry C. Black.

At every Canterbury Medal Gala, Becket also bestows an individual with the Legal Service Award, thanking them for their efforts to advance the cause of religious liberty for all. This year’s award will be given to Dean G. Marcus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School, for his trailblazing work launching Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative.

Maryland parents sue for right to opt kids out of “pride” storybooks

WASHINGTON  A group of parents filed a federal lawsuit last night against the Montgomery County Board of Education for mandating storybooks that push extreme ideology regarding gender identity and sexuality. Maryland law and the School Board’s own policies require parental notice and opportunity to opt out of any instruction concerning “family life and human sexuality.” But after mandating new books that advocate pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for kids, the Board announced it would no longer follow the law: parental notice will not be provided, and opt-outs will not be tolerated. Becket represents Muslim and Christian parents who simply want their kids to have alternatives to storybooks that are age-inappropriate or inconsistent with their religious beliefs and sound science.

The new “inclusivity” books were announced last fall for students in pre-K through eighth grade. But rather than focusing on basic principles of civility and kindness, the books promote controversial ideology around transgenderism and focus excessively on children’s romantic feelings. For example, one book tasks three- and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “drag queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense”; teachers are instructed to add that doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The learning guide to another book about a playground same-sex romance invites school kids to share with classmates how they feel when they “don’t just ‘like’ but … ‘like like’” someone.

“Children are entitled to guidance from their own parents, who know and love them best, regarding how they’ll be introduced to complex issues concerning gender identity, transgenderism, and human sexuality,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.“Forced, ideological discussions during story hour won’t cut it, and excluding parents will only hinder, not help inclusivity.”

When the School Board first went public with the “pride” storybooks, it assured hundreds of concerned parents they would be notified when the books were read and could opt their children out. It repeated that assurance to parents as recently as March 22, 2023. But the very next day, everything changed. After announcing that the books would be mandatory for all elementary school students, one School Board member accused concerned parents that opting out their child “is just telling that kid, ‘[h]ere’s another reason to hate another person.’”

Soon after the School Board announced its intent to flout Maryland’s opt-out law, a diverse coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others, began pushing back. Despite faith differences, these parents believe the new storybooks are age-inappropriate, spiritually and emotionally damaging for kids and inconsistent with their religious beliefs and sound science. The lawsuit seeks to restore their ability to help their own children on such complex and sensitive issues.

“Like states nationwide, Maryland has long recognized that parents have the right to opt their children out of school activities that conflict with their religious beliefs or push sham science,” said Baxter. “When it comes to kids, it’s still ‘mom and dad know best.’ Schools can best help kids learn kindness by teaming up with parents, not cutting them out of the picture.”

Becket will ask the Court to immediately block the Board’s “no notice, no opt-out” policy.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Jewish parents and schools ask Los Angeles federal court to protect children with disabilities

WASHINGTON – A group of Jewish parents and schools asked a Los Angeles federal court today to immediately halt a California law that excludes religious parents and schools from using special education funding to serve children with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, a group of Orthodox Jewish parents want to send their children to Orthodox Jewish schools, and two Orthodox Jewish schools wish to explore serving such children. But they cannot do so because California politicians block federal and state special education funding from being used at religious private schools, even though those funds can be used at secular private schools. Becket, with the support of the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, is helping these parents and schools fight to stop California from arbitrarily punishing children with disabilities. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities in America can receive a free appropriate public education that meets their needs. This funding is offered to states to help pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA ensures that children with disabilities can receive a free and appropriate public education in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. 

But in California, the Legislature has decided that only secular private schools may participate in this benefits program and categorically excludes religious schools from participation. There is no good reason to deprive Orthodox Jewish children of a religious education merely to access special-education services. Indeed, according to Dr. Ronald Nagel, a prominent pediatrician in the Los Angeles area who filed a declaration in support of the preliminary injunction, when Orthodox Jewish children must attend public schools to obtain special-education services, that can lead to psychological issues, as it is more difficult for those children to integrate into their families and religious communities. Becket and the Orthodox Union are therefore working together to ensure that religious parents, their children with disabilities, and religious schools are treated equally under the law, a result that most Californians would like to see, according to a recent poll. 

“It’s already outrageous enough that California legislators are denying special education benefits to Jewish kids with disabilities,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “But even worse, they’re denying benefits specifically because these kids want to go to a Jewish school. We’re asking the court to put a stop to this discriminatory law and let these kids get the benefits and services they need.” 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who want their children with disabilities to go to schools that provide an education that allows them to reach their full potential as well as one centered around Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Orthodox Jewish schools in Los Angeles that provide excellent dual-curriculum education and seek to explore serving the needs of children with disabilities. However, politicians in Sacramento are making that impossible by denying religious schools the right to access publicly available funding to help children with disabilities.  

A recent Supreme Court decision, Carson v. Makin struck down a Maine law that attempted to do precisely what the California law does here—allow private secular schools and families to access public funding but exclude religious schools and families from the same access. Carson builds on a long line of cases holding that religious people cannot be excluded from government benefits programs just because they are religious. 

How many Jewish kids have to suffer because California legislators are excluding them?asked Rassbach.The court should step in, block this discriminatory law, and ensure that access to essential benefits isn’t cut off from families and schools just because they are religious. 

The Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing nearly 1,000 congregations as well as more than 400 Jewish non-public K-12 schools across the United States, has been supporting Becket’s effort to protect religious parents, their children, and religious schools’ right to access special education funding in the state of California. Orthodox Union is organizing a petition on this issue, which can be viewed here: teachcoalition.org

 For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Feds see the light, give up attack on Catholic hospital’s sanctuary candle

WASHINGTON – The federal government has hastily abandoned its attempt to force a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma to either blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients. Saint Francis Health System, which includes the largest hospital in Oklahoma and twelfth largest in the nation, keeps, with many prudent safeguards, a sacred candle always lit inside its hospital chapels in accordance with its Catholic faith. After a hospital inspection earlier this year, the government said a single candle in the chapel was too dangerous and threatened to strip the hospital of the ability to care for patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP—unless it snuffed out the eternal flame. Becket sent a letter to the Biden administration reminding it that the law protects Saint Francis’ religious freedom and telling the feds to expect legal action. Today, the government surrendered the fight, allowing Saint Francis to keep its living flame.

Saint Francis Health System is a premier health system with five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma. The health system cares for nearly 400,000 patients each year, has given away more than $650 million dollars in free medical care in the past five years, and employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans. Saint Francis’ mission is to extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ. In addition to providing compassionate and excellent care to its patients, Saint Francis lives out its religious mission by maintaining multiple chapels throughout its hospitals, all blessed by the local Bishop.  

For over 60 years, the health system has had a sanctuary candle with a living flame as an act of worship. The flame is far from medical equipment and patients, shielded by two glass holders, sits on a brass basin, is affixed to a wall, and has a brass top covering it, with many sprinkler heads above it. For Catholics, the living flame is a sign of the living presence of Jesus. The federal government tried to intimidate Saint Francis into extinguishing the candle by threatening to revoke its ability to care for patients who depend on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. 

“At the heart of Saint Francis’ mission is love for God and man. The living flame of our chapel candle indicates to all who enter our hospitals that we will serve them with religious devotion as Christ commands us,” said Dr. Cliff Robertson, chief executive officer of Saint Francis. “We are grateful for the support of Becket and Yetter Coleman, of the Oklahoma Delegation, and of countless persons all throughout the nation, and we are grateful for The Joint Commission and HHS’s recognition of our Religious Liberties.”

In February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said one candle posed a threat to hospital safety. Even though the candle has been approved repeatedly by the government and the local fire marshal, Saint Francis was told to extinguish it. If it refused, the government vowed to revoke one of its hospital’s abilities to care for Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients, cutting off critical healthcare access for thousands of people in Oklahoma. 

With the help of Becket and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP, Saint Francis sent a letter to HHS explaining how its actions violated federal law. It told the government that it was trampling on the hospital’s religious duty to maintain a flame and was trying to separate Saint Francis’ religious activities from its health care. The letter gently warned that, “if we go to court, you will lose.” Today, the government was able to see the light, allowing Saint Francis’ flame to continue to live on as it has for years without issue. 

“The game was simply not worth the candle for HHS,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It realized that it would be playing with fire in court if it stood by its absurd demand, so it chose wisely. We are glad Saint Francis can continue to serve those most in need while keeping the faith.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Feds tell Catholic hospital to blow out sanctuary candle or face penalties

WASHINGTON – The federal government recently told a Catholic hospital in Oklahoma to either blow out a small candle or stop serving elderly, disabled, and low-income patients. Saint Francis Health System, the twelfth largest hospital in the nation, keeps, with many prudent safeguards, a sacred candle always lit inside its hospital chapels, in accordance with its Catholic faith. After a hospital inspection in February, the government said a single candle was too dangerous and now threatens to strip the hospital of the ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP if it does not extinguish the flame. Becket sent a letter to the Biden administration reminding it that Saint Francis has the right to religious freedom and warning federal bureaucrats to leave the candle alone. 

Saint Francis Health System is a premiere health system with five hospitals in Eastern Oklahoma. The health system cares for nearly 400,000 patients each year, has given away more than $650 million dollars in free medical care in the past five years, and employs more than 11,000 Oklahomans. Saint Francis’s mission is to extend the presence and healing ministry of Christ. In addition to providing compassionate and top-notch care to its patients, Saint Francis lives out its religious mission by maintaining multiple chapels throughout its hospitals, each of which has been blessed by the local Bishop.  

Since Saint Francis opened its doors in 1960, the health system has had a sanctuary candle with a living flame as an act of worship. The flame, far removed from medical equipment and patients, is shielded by two glass holders, sits on a brass basin, is affixed to a wall and has a brass top covering it, with many sprinkler heads above it. For Catholics, the living flame is a sign of the living presence of Jesus. The federal government now threatens to tell all patients who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP that they can no longer receive care at Saint Francis—all over a candle. 

“Over 60 years ago, Saint Francis was founded by William K. and Natalie Warren as an act of gratitude and service to God and to the people of Oklahoma. The cornerstone of Saint Francis is love for God and man. To this day, the Saint Francis torch insignia indicates a space of hope: a place where the medical and spiritual stand as one,” said Barry Steichen, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saint Francis. “We’re being asked to choose between serving those in need and worshipping God in the chapel, but they go hand in hand. To share a quotation of Saint Francis Xavier that is familiar to many Saint Francis staff, ‘it is not the actual physical exertion that counts towards one’s progress, nor the nature of the task, but by the spirit of faith with which it is undertaken.’ Our work depends upon our faith in the living God, and the sanctuary candle represents this to us.”  

Earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), deemed one of these candles too great a threat to hospital safety. Even though the candle is encased in glass and covered on top and has been approved repeatedly by the government and the local fire marshal, Saint Francis was told to snuff it out. If it does not extinguish the flame, the government will revoke Saint Francis’ ability to see Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP patients, cutting off critical healthcare access for thousands of people in Oklahoma.  Saint Francis asked the government four separate times for a waiver, explaining that its sanctuary candle is not a danger to anyone.  

To stop this attack, Becket and the law firm Yetter Coleman LLP sent a letter to HHS explaining how its actions violated federal law. The government is trampling on the hospital’s religious duty to maintain a flame in its chapels and its belief that the candle represents the eternal presence of Jesus. It is also trying to separate Saint Francis’ religious activities from its health care. There are over a dozen similar flames around the hospital kept lit for other reasons—like pilot lights for stoves and ovens, flames in gas water heaters—that the government has made accommodations for. Saint Francis should not be threatened with extreme penalties over its religious candle.  

“The government’s demand is absurd and unlawful—it is targeting Saint Francis’s sincere beliefs without any good reason,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The government has a simple choice: either stop this attack on Saint Francis’s faith or expect a legal firestorm.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Colorado abortion pill law put on hold

WASHINGTON A federal judge today issued an order finding that Colorado’s new abortion pill law—which would have outlawed helping women who change their minds after taking the first abortion pill—has been put on hold.  

In Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser, a Catholic non-profit medical clinic filed a lawsuit challenging a state law that makes it illegal to offer women progesterone, a natural hormone commonly used to prevent miscarriage, to reverse the effects of the abortion pill. Two weeks ago, immediately after the law was signed, the Court entered a temporary restraining order preventing the government from punishing providers for offering the hormone treatment. That order allowed an anonymous woman to continue abortion pill reversal treatment at Bella, and a second to begin receiving care at Bella soon after. 

The Court’s original order was set to expire tomorrow, April 29. But rather than defend the law, Colorado committed at a hearing on Monday that it will not enforce the law—promising instead to act as if the law “never existed.” The State’s lawyers said they were “disclaiming any enforcement” of the law, and witnesses from the Attorney General’s Office and the State Medical and Nursing Boards gave sworn testimony that they were not aware of any complaints against doctors or nurses about abortion pill reversal. Dede Chism, one of the nurse practitioners who founded Bella and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, reported that both of her current abortion-pill-reversal patients and their babies are continuing to thrive under Bella’s care.  

“I could never turn away these women in need,” said Dede Chism, NP, cofounder and CEO at Bella Health and Wellness. “I know from experience that we can help women who have changed their minds after taking the abortion pill—I’ve held their beautiful babies in my arms, and Bella still treats some of those babies now as toddlers and schoolkids.” 

In today’s ruling, a federal judge held that the State has “agreed to suspend any enforcement that would affect the plaintiffs” and “will not enforce the new Colorado law against any licensee” in the immediate future. The judge emphasized that the State is “treating SB 23-190 as if it were not yet in effect” and that it “will preserve the status quo ante” pending rulemaking by the licensing boards. The judge relied on the State’s “having made it clear to the Court that the plaintiffs’ current and planned activities do not subject them to the threat of enforcement in the imminent future.” 

“Colorado’s attorney general ran away from this law once he realized the legislature had shot from the hip,” said Rebekah Ricketts, counsel at Becket. “Now that the state has promised under oath to act as if the law does not exist, women in Colorado will not be forced to undergo abortions they seek to reverse.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Foreign mining giants enter legal fight to seize sacred Native land

WASHINGTON A massive foreign-owned mining corporation has joined forces with the United States government in its ongoing legal battle to destroy Oak Flat, an ancient Apache sacred site in Arizona. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a coalition of Western Apaches is fighting to stop the federal government from giving Oak Flat to a mining giant that will swallow the site in a nearly two-mile-wide, 1,100-foot-deep crater—ending Apache religious practices forever (Watch this short video to learn more). Today, that mining corporation—Resolution Copper—told a federal court for the first time that the company must be allowed to join the lawsuit on the side of the federal government and oppose the Apache people and their efforts to protect a sacred place.

“The United States and Resolution Copper are not only destroying our holy and sacred place, they are severing native peoples’ spiritual connection from God through our Mother Earth, as they have done to everyone else’s spirit in this country,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “They are also allowing an unacceptable environmental impact study to move forward. Reports clearly show billions of gallons of water will be contaminated with devastating environmental impacts on every level. The impacts are not only against the Apache Stronghold, they are against mankind and Mother Earth—the U.S. Government led by corporate interests (Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto and BHP) to destroy God’s greatest gift to all the people, our Mother Earth.”

Resolution Copper is owned by the world’s two largest mining corporations, Rio Tinto and BHP. Rio Tinto has an abysmal track record of destroying indigenous sacred sites, previously sparking international outrage when it deliberately destroyed 46,000-year-old indigenous rock shelters at one of Australia’s most significant cultural sites. Rio Tinto’s largest shareholder is Chinalco, China’s state-owned aluminum producer.

Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Oak Flat is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other harmful practices for decades. Those protections fell by the wayside in 2014, when a last-minute provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. The mining giant plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater.

During the current lawsuit over Oak Flat, Resolution Copper has opted to sit on the sidelines for over two years. But the case is now under consideration by a full panel of eleven judges in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with a decision expected within months. Only today did Resolution Copper ask the trial court to allow it to intervene in the case so it can make legal arguments alongside the government. Its sudden about-face signals that the international mining company is concerned about what might happen in the case, as the Supreme Court may have the last word on the protection of Oak Flat.

“There’s a reason Resolution Copper is trying to jump into this case now, after sitting on the sidelines for two years,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It knows Apache Stronghold has strong legal arguments that could carry the day with the Ninth Circuit or with nine Justices, and it wants to have its say before it’s too late.”

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon of Portland, Oregon, and Clifford Levenson of Phoenix, Arizona.

A decision by the Ninth Circuit is expected this spring or early summer.

Wisconsin Supreme Court to decide if Catholic ministry is religious

WASHINGTON – The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed yesterday to reconsider a lower court decision saying that Catholic Charities Bureau—which ministers to those in need by feeding the poor, serving the elderly, and caring for the disabled—isn’t sufficiently “religious.” In Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission, a Wisconsin lower court held that Catholic Charities Bureau’s “activities” — including providing assistance to those with disabilities — were secular, not religious. Because of this, the lower court concluded that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for a religious exemption from Wisconsin’s unemployment program. By preventing Catholic Charities Bureau from leaving the state’s program, the government has imposed significant costs on Catholic Charities Bureau—costs that come at the expense of serving those most in need. If allowed to leave the state’s burdensome program, Catholic Charities Bureau would join the Wisconsin Catholic Church’s own unemployment assistance program, providing the same benefits with significant cost savings and increased efficiency.

Catholic Charities Bureau is the social ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin. Catholic Charities Bureau helps the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty—regardless of their faith. This mandate to serve all those in need comes directly from Catholic Church teaching and advances the Catholic Church’s religious mission by carrying out the corporal works of mercy.

“Catholic Charities Bureau, our Diocese’s social ministry arm, carries on the work of Christ by reflecting gospel values; everything they do advances the mission of the Church,” said Bishop James Powers, Bishop of the Diocese of Superior. “This backbone of our Diocesan ministry has, for over a century, served those who have been forgotten, ignored, and pushed to the margins of society.” 

Religious organizations operated for a “primarily religious purpose” are generally exempt under Wisconsin law from the state’s unemployment program, allowing them to join other unemployment compensation programs. But the lower court held that because serving those in need is not “inherently” a religious activity, Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for this exemption. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau needed to proselytize and preach the faith to those it served for their ministry to be religious, even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s doctrine.

“The lower court ruling would have punished Catholic Charities Bureau for its good deeds,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “But saying a charity is religious only if it restricts its good deeds to those of the same faith misunderstands Catholic teaching, ignores Wisconsin law, and conflicts with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’re glad that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is stepping in to review the lower court’s misguided view that Catholic Charities Bureau can’t participate in a Catholic unemployment assistance program because it’s not coaxing the poor, the elderly, and the marginalized it serves to join the faith.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court to decide if employers can discount the Sabbath

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard arguments today in the case of Gerald Groff, a former U.S. Postal Service postal carrier who was denied a religious accommodation to observe his Sunday Sabbath. In Groff v. DeJoy, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Groff, asking the Court to revisit Trans World Airlines v. Hardison and restore the protections Congress created for religious employees.  

In Hardison, the Supreme Court ruled that employers were under no obligation to provide religious accommodations to employees if those accommodations resulted in even a minor cost to the employer. The Hardison standard is particularly problematic for Americans who hold to minority faiths or have unpopular beliefs, placing additional hardships on marginalized communities. This includes the ability of Jewish employees to wear yarmulkes in the workplace or Muslim employees to pray during the workday.

“For almost 50 years, very large employers have been given a get-out-of-jail-free card any time they wanted to kick their religious employees to the curb for observing a holy day or taking time to pray,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “That’s all because one bad Supreme Court decision has allowed businesses to exile the faithful to the margins of society.”  

Becket has represented multiple religious workers who have been left to the whims of billion-dollar businesses that either did not understand or care about their religious convictions. Becket’s brief argues that employers have an obligation to offer accommodation and the Court should look to other areas of civil rights law – such as protections for employees with disabilities – to protect religious employees.  

“The public is often skeptical of how Supreme Court decisions affect their real lives, but there should be no doubt here: many Americans have been denied their rights because the Supreme Court got it wrong almost five decades ago,” said Rienzi. “In Groff’s case, the Court can get the law right once and for all. Fixing this mistake will help protect millions of hard-working religious Americans from having to choose between their job and their faith.”

Groff is represented by Aaron Streett of Baker Botts L.L.P. and First Liberty Institute. A decision is expected by Summer 2023. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Catholic healthcare clinic fights to serve pregnant women in need

WASHINGTON – A Catholic healthcare clinic in Colorado filed a lawsuit today challenging a state law that makes it illegal to offer women a natural hormone to attempt to reverse the effects of the abortion pill. In Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser, the clinic argues that the law targets clinics that have a religious duty to help all pregnant women in need, including those who decide to continue their pregnancies after willingly or unwillingly taking the abortion pill. With the help of Becket, Bella Health and Wellness asked a federal court to strike the law down and uphold its right to serve women who choose to continue their pregnancies.

Founded by Catholic mother and daughter nurse practitioners Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, Bella Health offers life-affirming, dignified healthcare to men, women, and children. Like healthcare clinics across the nation, Bella’s OB-GYN practice offers women progesterone, a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy, including for women at risk of miscarriage. In some cases, progesterone has also been shown to maintain a healthy pregnancy after a woman has willingly or unwilling taken the first drug in the two-step abortion-pill regimen before deciding to carry her pregnancy to term. Consistent with its religious mission to uphold the dignity of every life, Bella offers progesterone to women who change their minds after taking the abortion pill.

“We opened Bella because of our belief that life is a precious gift from God, worthy of protection at all stages,” said Dede Chism, NP, cofounder and CEO at Bella Health and Wellness. “When a woman seeks our help to reverse the effects of the abortion pill, we have a religious obligation to offer every available option for her and her child.”

On April 14, Colorado passed a law that targets pro-life clinics like Bella Health by making it illegal to offer women progesterone in cases of abortion pill reversal. Even though Bella can offer the hormone to women in any other circumstance, including natural miscarriage, it is barred from doing so if the purpose is to reverse the effects of the abortion pill. This forces pro-life clinics to choose between their deeply held religious beliefs and their ability to operate as healthcare ministries in the state. The law would also force the women who seek Bella’s help to abort pregnancies they wish to continue. If it continues to offer and advertise progesterone for women who seek abortion pill reversal, Bella Health faces up to $20,000 per violation and the loss of the medical licenses for its providers. 

“All we want is to continue our ministry of serving expecting mothers in need, regardless of circumstance,” said Abby Sinnett, NP, cofounder and COO at Bella Health and Wellness. “In their most vulnerable state, a pregnant woman needs to know that she and her unborn child will be treated with the utmost dignity and care.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Oak Flat gets a second chance in federal court

PASADENA, Calif. A federal court of appeals heard arguments again today in Apache Stronghold’s plea to save their sacred site at Oak Flat. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit previously ruled that the government could transfer Oak Flat to a foreign-owned mining company that will turn the site into a massive crater, ending Apache religious practices forever (Watch this short video to learn more). Last November, the court voted to rehear the case “en banc”—in front of a full panel of eleven judges—and today the Apaches and their allies made their case in the courtroom in Pasadena, California.  

“Oak Flat is where my people have come to connect with our Creator for millennia, and we have the right to continue that sacred tradition,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “Today we stood up in court for that right, determined to stop those who think that our place of worship can be treated differently simply because it lacks four walls and a steeple. We are hopeful that this time around, the Ninth Circuit will save Oak Flat.”

Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Oak Flat has been protected for decades by the federal government from mining and other harmful practices that would make the land unusable for the Apache’s religious exercise. Those protections were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. 

This past November, the Ninth Circuit decided to reconsider its decision, granting Apache Stronghold and their sacred site at Oak Flat another chance in court. Eleven judges on the Ninth Circuit reheard the case today and will decide whether the government can legally destroy sacred sites. 

“The government’s position in this case is that it can obliterate a place of worship for any reason or none at all, and not face consequences under federal religious liberty law,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We asked the court today to recognize the obvious—that when the government destroys a sacred site, religious liberty law has something to say about it. A win for Apache Stronghold will be a win for people of all faiths.” 

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson.  

A decision by the Ninth Circuit is expected in the summer of 2023.  

Apache Stronghold back in court fighting for Oak Flat

WASHINGTON – A group of Western Apaches, tribal leaders, faith leaders, National Congress of American Indians, and grassroots organizations are headed back to federal court to protect the Apaches’ most sacred site from complete destruction by a foreign-owned mining company. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit will hear arguments again in Apache Stronghold v. United States after the court decided last fall to hear the case “en banc” — in front of a full panel of eleven judges. Becket’s Luke Goodrich and attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson are defending the Apaches’ right to continue their longstanding religious practices at Oak Flat.

Since time immemorial, Western Apaches have come to Oak Flat for their most important and longstanding religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. The sacred site is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining and other destructive practices for decades. In 2014, however, the government ordered Oak Flat to be sold to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, tribal leaders, faith leaders, the National Congress of American Indians, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and grassroots organizations—sued the federal government to halt the demolition of Oak Flat.

After the Ninth Circuit ruled against them last summer, the court reconsidered its decision—giving Oak Flat another chance. Apache Stronghold asks the court to protect Oak Flat just as it would protect any church, mosque, or synagogue from government destruction.

What:

Oral argument in Apache Stronghold v. United States

Who:

Luke Goodrich, vice president & senior counsel at Becket

Attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson

When:

Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at 10:00 a.m. PDT

Where:

Listen to the live stream here:

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – YouTube U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

125 S Grand AvePasadena, CA, 91105Courtroom 3

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Jewish parents & schools sue California to stop it from punishing children with disabilities

WASHINGTON – A group of Jewish parents and schools filed a lawsuit today challenging a California law that excludes religious parents and schools from using special education funding to serve children with disabilities. In Loffman v. California Department of Education, a group of parents want to send their children to Orthodox Jewish schools but are prevented from doing so because California politicians prohibit federal and state special education funding from being used at religious private schools while allowing those funds to be used at secular private schools.  

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities in America can receive a free appropriate public education that meets their needs. This funding helps pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA provides this funding to states to assist children with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate education, including by placing children with disabilities in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs. 

But in California, the Legislature allows only secular private schools to participate in this benefits program and has categorically excluded religious schools from participation. This court challenge aims to make sure that religious parents, their children with disabilities, and religious schools are treated equally under the law, a result that nearly 60% of Californians would like to see, according to a recent poll. 

Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who want to send their children with disabilities to schools that provide both an education that allows them to reach their full potential, as well as one centered around Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools in Los Angeles that provide an excellent education and seek the ability to serve the needs of children with disabilities. However, politicians in Sacramento have made that impossible by denying religious schools the right to access publicly available funding to help children with disabilities.  

“It takes a special kind of chutzpah to deny Jewish kids with disabilities equal access to special education benefits,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “California politicians can end this unlawful discrimination the easy way or the hard way. Either they change the law that is hurting children with disabilities, or they can shamefully fight in court for the right to discriminate.” 

A recent Supreme Court decision, Carson v. Makin struck down a Maine law that attempted to do precisely what the California law does here—allow private secular schools and families to access public funding but exclude religious schools and families from the same access. Carson builds on a long line of cases holding that religious people cannot be excluded from government benefits programs solely because they are religious. 

“California’s elected officials should want to help the most vulnerable members of our society, not hurt them,” said Rassbach. “There is no reason to stand by this outmoded law instead of giving kids with disabilities equal access to benefits.” 

The Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing nearly 1,000 congregations as well as more than 400 Jewish non-public K-12 schools across the United States, is supporting Becket’s effort to protect religious parents, their children and religious schools’ right to access special education funding in the state of California.

Becket will be hosting a press call at 12 p.m. PDT today to discuss California politicians’ failure to help children with disabilities.  

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727  

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Witness the Faithful: Oakwood’s Unprecedented Championship Run

WASHINGTON — Oakwood Adventist Academy’s remarkable journey in the Alabama boys’ state basketball tournament came to an end in Birmingham yesterday when they competed in the school’s first-ever trip to the state championship, narrowly losing 50-46 to last year’s champion.

Last year, Oakwood’s championship hopes were dashed when they were denied an accommodation to change the time of a playoff game that was scheduled during their Sabbath observance, forcing the team to forfeit and lose their chance at a championship run. After standing up for its faith, Oakwood then stood up for its rights. With the help of Becket and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Oakwood filed a lawsuit against the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) and successfully changed the policy, paving the way for its own success and for all schools of minority faiths that want to compete equally in high school sports.

“The Sabbath isn’t just a day off for these students; it’s so much more. It is an opportunity to pause and celebrate God’s goodness – honoring Him in His sacredness,” said Todd McFarland, deputy general counsel for the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists. “This championship run proves that no one has to sacrifice their faith in order to compete at the highest level.”

Oakwood Adventist Academy is a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama, that honors the Sabbath as a central part of its religious tradition. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, students and staff take a break from activities like work or competitive sports to observe this sacred obligation. In February 2022, Oakwood’s boys’ basketball notched a school first by reaching the regional semifinals. However, when the game was scheduled for 4:30 pm on a Saturday, Oakwood faced a dilemma – a conflict between their most deeply held religious beliefs and the pre-sundown start time. The other three teams agreed to swap game times so that Oakwood could play during the 7:30 pm game slot, but AHSAA intervened and refused to allow the schedule swap. Unable to violate the Sabbath, this left Oakwood with no choice but to forfeit. Oakwood filed suit in May 2022, and four months later, AHSAA changed its rules to accommodate Sabbath observers.

This season, Oakwood defied the odds and made it to their first-ever state title match against the defending championship team. After a hard-fought battle, Oakwood lost by just four points, 50-46, but the team’s Cinderella story stands as a testament not only to their hard work on the court, but their commitment to their faith in the face of enormous adversity.

“The boys of Oakwood Academy have shown what it means to put first things first,” said Eric Rassbach, senior counsel and vice president at Becket. “These players remained true to their faith but also stood up for their rights as Americans.”

Oakwood Adventist Academy was represented by Becket and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Becket to Supreme Court: No one should be fired for keeping holy days

WASHINGTON – Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court yesterday in support of Gerald Groff, a former postal carrier who was denied a religious accommodation to observe his Sunday Sabbath. At the center of the case is a legal standard the Court adopted in the 1977 case Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, which has allowed businesses to discriminate against religious employees for years. 

Hardison stripped civil rights protections from religious Americans—especially people of minority faiths—by allowing businesses to deny their employees religious accommodations if it even minimally burdens their bottom line.  Becket’s brief argues that the Court’s ruling in Hardison was the direct result of outdated thinking about the Establishment Clause from Lemon v. Kurtzman, which was overruled last summer. Lemon made the Hardison Court fear that even accommodating minority religious practices would somehow be unconstitutional.  

“The Supreme Court was scared of its own shadow on religious questions in the 1970s, but that is no excuse for denying people their civil rights today,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Becket has represented multiple religious Americans who were discriminated against because of Lemon and Hardison, including in Patterson v. Walgreens and Dalberiste v. GLE Associates. With Lemon now overturned, Becket’s brief argues that the Court can fix the law and protect religious employees like Gerald Groff from discrimination. The brief proposes that Hardison should be replaced by a similar standard to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the only other federal law with the exact same language regarding workplace accommodations.    

Lemon has haunted the law for too long, and too many American workers have had their rights taken away because of outdated Establishment Clause thinking that helps big corporations like Google or Facebook but hurts workers,” said Rienzi. “Those are harms inflicted by bad Supreme Court decisions, and the Court now has a chance to get it right and make clear that religious people don’t have to leave their faith at home when they come to work.” 

Groff is represented by Aaron Streett of Baker Botts L.L.P. and First Liberty Institute. Oral arguments will take place on April 18, 2023.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Catholic ministry asks court to recognize that it is religious

WASHINGTON – Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior just asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to affirm that their mission of feeding the poor, helping the elderly, and caring for the disabled is a religious one. Under state law, religious employers in Wisconsin are eligible for an exemption from the state unemployment benefit program if they are operated primarily for religious purposes. But in Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission, a Wisconsin appellate court denied Catholic Charities Bureau and four of their subsidiary ministries this exemption. That effectively prevents Catholic Charities Bureau from providing their own benefit program to their employees, even though other religious organizations do so. 

Every Roman Catholic diocese in America has a social ministry arm that serves those in need. In the Diocese of Superior, Catholic Charities Bureau helps the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty, regardless of their faith. Guided by Church teaching that requires Catholics to serve all in need, this ministry fulfills the Church’s religious mission by offering in-home healthcare, housing, childcare services, and other vital resources.  

“As our Diocese’s social ministry arm, Catholic Charities Bureau and their subsidiary ministries provide essential resources to the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Bishop James Powers, Bishop of the Diocese of Superior. “These ministries carry out the redeeming work of our Lord by reflecting gospel values; everything they do is steeped in the mission of the Church.” 

In Wisconsin, religious organizations are generally exempt from the state’s unemployment program. That allows Catholic dioceses and others to set up their own unemployment benefit programs, in accordance with Catholic teaching. But a state court recently denied Catholic Charities Bureau’s request for such an exemption. The court reasoned that because serving the poor, disabled, and hungry is not “inherently” religious, Catholic Charities Bureau was not religious enough for the exemption. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau needed to proselytize and preach the faith for their ministry to be sufficiently religious, even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s religious message. 

“The lower court’s reasoning flies in the face of both the Constitution and simple common sense,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious. Catholic Charities Bureau should not be penalized for serving all those in need or because they do not proselytize to those they serve. The Wisconsin Supreme Court should step in and correct the lower court’s error.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Diverse coalition urges federal appeals court to protect Oak Flat

WASHINGTON – A diverse coalition of religious groups, native tribes and legal experts filed half a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs yesterday in Apache Stronghold v. United States, asking a federal appeals court to protect Oak Flat, the spiritual lifeblood and sacred site of the Apache people in Arizona. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently agreed to take a closer look at the case in March 2023. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will give this historically protected land to a mining company that will swallow the site in a massive crater, ending Apache religious practices forever.  

“The diverse voices calling for protection of Oak Flat remind us that the government’s threat to destroy Oak Flat is a threat to destroy religious freedom for people of all faiths,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We hope these voices will help the court understand that Oak Flat deserves no less protection than the many historical churches and other religious landmarks the government protects from coast to coast.”  

Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have come to Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else (video). The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected for decades. But in 2014, the government ordered Oak Flat to be given to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies dedicated to preserving Oak Flat—sued the federal government to stop the destruction of Oak Flat. 

Apache Stronghold lost their initial appeal to the Ninth Circuit after a three-judge panel decided that the land-swap deal did not violate their free exercise of religion. The court announced in November that it will rehear the case “en banc”—in front of a full panel of eleven judges—giving Apache Stronghold a second chance to win protection for Oak Flat. 

Highlights from the friend-of-the-court filings in Apache Stronghold v. United States include: 

  • Tribal Nations and Tribal Organizations arguing that this case will set vital precedent for tribal nations across the continent. 
  • A diverse array of religious organizations—including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute, and the Christian Legal Society—highlighting how the government’s position in this case would gut civil rights protections for people of all faiths; 
  • The Mennonite Church USA explaining how the government can manage federal lands while still providing full protection to Native American religious practices; 
  • Religious liberty law scholars arguing that the plain language of federal civil rights law requires protection of Oak Flat; 
  • The Sikh Coalition noting that the legal standard for judging Native religious liberty claims should be consistent with that for land use and prisoner claims; 
  • The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and Protect the First asking the court of appeals to reconsider its narrow, inflexible approach toward Native American sacred site cases.  

Polling from last year shows that nearly 89% of Americans favor protecting Native American sacred sites on federal land. Strong support for these protections outnumbered strong opposition by a ratio of nearly 20 to 1. Americans overwhelmingly agree that the government should not interfere with the longstanding religious traditions of Native groups.  

“It is encouraging to see a diverse coalition of tribes, religious groups, and scholars stand up in defense of the religious freedom of Western Apaches,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is long past time for our nation to ensure that Native American religious practices receive the same respect and protection enjoyed by all other faiths.”  

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument in this case at its Pasadena courthouse during the week of March 20, 2023. A specific day and time are yet to be determined. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish. 

BREAKING: Federal court rules Sikhs can serve God and country

WASHINGTON – A federal court just protected the right of Sikhs to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps. Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were denied accommodations to enter basic training even though the Marines regularly allow beards for secular reasons. 

In Singh v. Berger, the D.C. federal appeals court vindicated the recruits’ right to maintain a religious beard and wear a turban during basic training. The court wrote that the Marine Corps has never explained “why the Corps cannot apply the same or similar [religious] accommodations that the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Coast Guard provide,” especially in light of “the exemptions already made for other Marine recruits’ beards, hair, and other individual physical indicia,” as well as the Corps’ “own history of flexible grooming and uniform requirements” since its creation in 1775. In light of all this, the Court found that the Sikh recruits “not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits—it is difficult to imagine them losing.” 

The Marine Corps argued that allowing Sikhs to maintain religious beards would disrupt troop uniformity and appearance among recruits and ultimately threaten national security. However, the Marines already allow recruits to grow beards for medical reasons if they have psuedofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps) and have recently loosened restrictions on uniformity requirements by allowing tattoos and women to keep long hair. Other U.S. military branches—including the largest, the Army—have accommodated religious beards for years, as well as many respected militaries around the globe.  

“Today’s ruling is a major victory for these Sikh recruits, who can now begin basic training without having to forfeit their religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is also a victory for our nation, as three brave and dedicated men will soon serve our nation with valor in the Marine Corps.” 

Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious teachings that instruct them to defend the defenseless. Many Sikhs live out this duty by serving their countries while maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But for years, the Marine Corps—unlike other branches of the military—barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from entry into basic training. Today, the federal circuit court struck that rule down as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). 

“Sikhs have a storied history of capable service in the U.S. Army and Air Force as far back as World War I, doing so with beards, turbans, and other articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition. “Today’s ruling means that faithful Sikhs who are called to serve our country can now also do so in the U.S. Marine Corps.” 

Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are also representing the recruits. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

County bans religious holiday decorations in employees’ homes

WASHINGTON – The most outrageous offender of this year’s Christmas and Hanukkah season and Becket’s 2022 Ebenezer Award winner is King County, Washington, for banning holiday decorations in employee video backgrounds. In a memo sent last month, the county’s Department of Human Resources told employees that they should not display nativity sets, menorahs and other religious holiday displays because they could be offensive to their colleagues.  

The announcement, entitled “Guidelines for Holiday Decorations for King County Employees” told county employees that religious symbols could not appear in their video backgrounds. While images of snowflakes, wreaths, and pine trees are still permissible, the grinch-like King County HR department has made it its mission to erase religious emblems from the online workplace this holiday season. 

King County’s rationale for banning religious symbols—that it might offend coworkers—also conflicts with Becket’s latest findings in our Religious Freedom Index. Overall, we found that 85 percent of Americans support the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others, which would certainly include displaying a nativity scene or menorah in someone’s video background.

“Religious employees of King County will likely feel like the ransacked residents of Whoville this Christmas and Hanukkah season,” said Montse Alvarado, COO and executive director of Becket. “The government has no right to rob its employees of holiday cheer by forcing them take down their nativity sets and menorahs, particularly in their own homes.” 

Each year the Christmas and Hanukkah season inspires a slew of outrageous offenses against the free exercise of religion. At Becket, we do Santa’s dirty work for him, delivering a lump of coal as an acknowledgment of scroogery on a grand scale. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include the American Humanist Association, which tried to stop schools from sending care packages to children in need; the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans; and the University of Minnesota, which two years ago banned from campus holiday colors, Santas, bows, dreidels, and even wrapped presents. (See list of previous winners).   

Finally, this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who avoided a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, goes to the Dedham public library in Massachusetts. After news broke that the Dedham library refused to display a Christmas tree because it made people feel “uncomfortable,” the library reversed itself and ensured distraught residents that a tree would be on display soon. Although library officials initially erred in their judgement, we salute them for turning their hearts back towards holiday cheer! 

“This is the time of year that Americans ought to come together in the spirit of Christmas to support one another and spread joy and hope,” said Alvarado. “But as always, there are bureaucrats like those in King County that scrub religion out of the holiday season. Let’s hope their hearts grow a few sizes this Christmas.” 

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous New Year! 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Federal appeals court blocks controversial Biden Administration transgender mandate

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court today permanently blocked the Biden Administration’s attempt to force religious doctors and hospitals to perform gender-transition procedures, concluding that the Administration’s plan would violate a key federal law protecting religious freedom. This is the second appeals court ruling blocking the Administration’s controversial transgender mandate.

“The federal government has no business forcing doctors to violate their consciences or perform controversial procedures that could permanently harm their patients,” said Luke Goodrich, VP and senior counsel at Becket. “This is a common-sense ruling that protects patients, aligns with best medical practice, and ensures doctors can follow their Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’”  

In Sisters of Mercy v. Becerra, a coalition of Catholic hospitals, a Catholic university, and Catholic nuns who run health clinics for the poor challenged the Biden Administration’s attempt to invoke the Affordable Care Act to force doctors and hospitals to perform controversial gender-reassignment procedures—on pain of multimillion-dollar financial penalties—even when doing so would violate the doctor’s conscience and could harm the patient. A federal district court held that this transgender mandate was unlawful and blocked it from taking effect. The Biden Administration then appealed to the Eight Circuit, which today concluded that the “district court correctly held that ‘intrusion upon the Catholic Plaintiffs’ exercise of religion’” supported permanent protection.  

“Today’s victory sets an important precedent that religious healthcare professionals are free to practice medicine in accordance with their consciences and experienced professional judgment,” said Goodrich. “The government’s attempt to force doctors to go against their consciences was bad for patients, bad for doctors, and bad for religious liberty.”

The mandate, first issued in 2016 and applicable to nearly every doctor in the country, interpreted the Affordable Care Act to require doctors to perform gender-transition procedures on any patient, including children, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Immediately, religious organizations and states sued, challenging the legality of the mandate in multiple courts.  

In addition to the Religious Sisters of Mercy case, Becket also represents the plaintiffs in Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra including a religious hospital network sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations—defending them from the same government mandate. That case also resulted in a court order stopping the mandate from taking effect, which Fifth Circuit affirmed in August 2022. 

The Administration now has 45 days to ask the Eighth Circuit to rehear the Religious Sisters of Mercy case, or 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Becket will host a press call at 2:00 p.m. ET to discuss the opinion. 

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727  

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org
 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Religious Freedom Index 2022: Americans remain committed to religious liberty

WASHINGTON – Becket just released the fourth edition of the Religious Freedom Index, the nation’s only annual poll that tracks American opinion on religious freedom. The 2022 Index remained at its highest overall score, showing that Americans are unified in their support of religious liberty for people of all faiths. This year’s Index also asked respondents additional questions that provide insight into Americans’ robust support for religious pluralism and minority faith groups.  

Backing for religious freedom remained at its 2021 high score of 68 on a scale of 0 to 100. Driving this score was a jump in Americans’ support for people to choose and practice religion without fear of persecution as well as strong protections for lesser-known faith groups. While some dimensions of the 2022 Index lagged prior scores, Americans still strongly support the core pillars of religious liberty. 

“The highest level of support for religious pluralism in the 2022 Index is an encouraging sign for the years to come,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “Our society can only remain free if we continue to believe that our neighbors shouldn’t have to pray to the same God as we do.”  

When asked about religious pluralism, more respondents than ever said that they think people should be free to choose a religion, to worship without fear of persecution, and to practice religion in daily life. Since 2020, this dimension of religious freedom increased by over 10 points, with over 90 percent of respondents completely or mostly agreeing to protect these freedoms.  

Americans’ support for religious minorities was also high. New questions on the Index asked respondents about protections for Native American sacred sites on federal land. Overall, 89 percent of respondents supported these protections, with strong support for these protections (57 percent) dwarfing strong opposition (three percent) by nearly 20 to 1. 

“Americans’ overwhelming concern for minority religious groups is a key takeaway of this year’s Index results,” said Montse Alvarado, COO and executive director of Becket. “It shows that religious expression does not have to take place within the four walls of a church to have a protected place in our country.”  

The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a broad overview of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each fall. The Index’s focus on core religious liberty principles, contextualized with questions on some of the year’s most pressing societal issues, provides a yearly cross section of public sentiment on the intersection of law, religion, and culture. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action. 

Heart+Mind Strategies conducts surveying and scale construction for Becket’s Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment, using an online panel assembled by Dynata. Becket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument and analysis broadly reflect America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious liberty issues.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Religious speech to have its day at the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an important free speech case on Monday to decide whether the government can force a religious person to speak against her conscience or give up her chosen profession. In 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, web designer Lorie Smith is fighting to operate her business while maintaining her Christian beliefs about marriage. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that religious speech like Smith’s is at the historical core of the freedom of speech and must be protected. 

As the owner of 303 Creative, Smith wishes to expand her website design business to include wedding websites. However, a Colorado law has prevented her from expanding her business because of her Christian religious beliefs. She is now asking the Supreme Court to protect her against being forced to say something she does not believe.  

“Thomas Becket, Thomas More, the Quakers, and Martin Luther King Jr. all had something in common—they spoke their religious consciences and were punished for it by government officials,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “History shows that religious dissenters have always been at the center of battles over freedom of speech, and that in the long arc of history, they have won freedom of speech rights we all enjoy. The Supreme Court should stand within that tradition and protect Smith’s right not to say what she does not believe.” 

What:
Oral argument 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis

When:
Monday, December 5, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. ET  

Where:
Listen to the CSPAN live stream here. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Sikhs fight to serve as Marines

WASHINGTON – Three Sikhs were in federal court today fighting for their right to maintain religious beards and serve in the United States Marine Corps. In Singh v. Berger, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were denied religious accommodations to begin basic training even though the Marine Corps regularly allows beards for secular reasons. Because the recruits are barred from entry, their careers have been on hold for over a year.  

The Marine Corps argues that allowing Sikhs to maintain religious beards during basic training would disrupt troop uniformity and ultimately undermine national security. However, the Marine Corps regularly permits recruits to grow beards for medical reasons if they have psuedofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps) and has broadly relaxed uniformity requirements by allowing tattoos and permitting women to wear long hair in various styles.   

“These recruits are simply asking to serve our country without having to abandon their religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Marine Corps should follow in the footsteps of other branches of the military—including the Army and Air Force—that already accommodate Sikh servicemembers who serve with valor and distinction. At a time of severe recruiting shortages, it hurts our military to broadly exclude fully qualified individuals who want to serve.” 

Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious duty to defend the defenseless. Many Sikhs live out this duty by serving their countries while maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But for years, the Marine Corps—unlike other branches of the U.S. military—have barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from entry into basic training. Today, the recruits asked for accommodations that will allow them to serve just as the Marine Corps has provided secular accommodations to allow others to serve.          

“Sikhs have a long history of capable service in the United States military since at least World War I,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “These brave recruits should not have to forfeit their faith to pursue a career that would allow them to continue this tradition in the Marine Corps.”

Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are also representing the recruits. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

South Carolina fights back against ACLU attempt to shutter faith-based foster agencies

WASHINGTON – South Carolina’s 3,500+ foster kids need loving homes. Governor Henry McMaster has asked a federal district court to protect the state’s right to partner with private faith-based foster care ministries that provide loving homes for children in need. In Rogers v. Health and Human Services, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Governor Henry McMaster to penalize South Carolina for working with religious foster agencies that serve children in need.  

Over 3,500 of South Carolina’s children are currently in foster care and we need all the help we can get to see that they are placed in loving homes,” said Gov. Henry McMaster. This lawsuit is a shortsighted attack against every South Carolinian’s constitutionally-protected religious liberty. We will continue to fight against any attempt to stop our private partners from being able to help provide these critical services simply because they choose to do so in accordance with their faith.” 

South Carolina’s Department of Social Services works directly with families seeking to foster and adopt children in crisis situations, serving children and families without regard to religion, race, disability, sex, or sexual orientation. The state also partners with an array of diverse private agencies that help recruit and retain more parents for foster children who need a safe place to live. Gov. McMaster issued an executive order protecting the religious freedom of foster agencies in South Carolina. Out of dozens of private agencies serving South Carolina, one agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, chooses to partner with families who share its Christian faith. Miracle Hill has an 80-year tradition of recruiting and serving families. Upon learning about Miracle Hill’s foster parent requirements, the ACLU used social media to recruit individuals who did not share Miracle Hill’s faith to apply to foster with the agency. Rather than reach out to any other agency or the state of South Carolina, which supports and licenses foster families directly, the ACLU sued South Carolina and the federal government, alleging that allowing Miracle Hill to serve foster families violated the law. 

“South Carolina’s efforts to protect all avenues of foster care should be applauded, not forced into a courtroom,” said Miles Coleman, partner at Nelson Mullins. “Too many places around the country have shuttered religious foster care agencies, making it harder to find children a home. South Carolina is doing all it can to prevent that.” 

Thankfully, the law does not allow the government to exclude foster agencies because of their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court recently affirmed this in Fulton v. Philadelphia, ruling unanimously that the law protected Catholic Social Services’ right to stick to its religious beliefs and continue serving foster children in Philadelphia. Just as in Fulton, South Carolina licenses many private agencies. This provides families looking to open their homes to children in need with numerous opportunities to find an agency that will be a good fit, while also protecting the religious freedom of all South Carolinians. 

“Faith-based agencies are effective at placing children in loving homes, and the Supreme Court unanimously protected their rights,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This attempt to shutter faith-based agencies means fewer choices for foster parents and fewer homes for kids. South Carolina decided it could do better, and it shouldn’t be hauled into court for doing the right thing.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Federal appeals court gives Oak Flat another chance

WASHINGTON A federal appeals court will take a second look at Apache Stronghold’s appeal to save their sacred site at Oak Flat. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, the Ninth Circuit previously ruled that the federal government could give Oak Flat to a foreign-owned mining company that will swallow the site in a massive crater, ending Apache religious practices forever (Watch this short video to learn more). Today, the court announced that it will rehear the case “en banc”—meaning in front of a full panel of eleven judges—giving Apache Stronghold a second chance to win protection for Oak Flat. 

“Apache have gathered at Oak Flat to connect with our Creator for millennia, and we want to continue this sacred tradition,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “The government protects historical churches and other important religious landmarks, and our site deserves no less protection. We are glad the Ninth Circuit is going to take a closer look at this decision, and we hope it will do the right thing and protect Oak Flat.” 

Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have come to Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. For decades, Oak Flat has been protected by the federal government from mining and other practices that would render the hallowed land unusable for the Apache’s religious practices. The longstanding protections for Oak Flat were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight rider was inserted into a must-pass bill ordering the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. 

This past June, a panel of three Ninth Circuit judges ruled 2-1 against Apache Stronghold, with Judge Berzon dissenting and calling the ruling “illogical,” “incoherent,” “flawed,” and “absurd.” Now, a majority of the Ninth Circuit’s 29 active judges has voted to rehear the case and will convene a special panel of eleven judges to decide whether the law allows the government to destroy sacred sites.  

“The court now has an opportunity to correct its earlier mistake and protect Apache religious exercise at Oak Flat,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “A win for Apache Stronghold will be a win for people of all faiths.” 

Oral argument will take place the week of March 20, 2023. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

Sikhs fight to be Marines without sacrificing faith

WASHINGTON Three Sikhs appeared in federal court today asking for their right to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps. Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were all denied religious accommodations to enter basic training even though the Marine Corps routinely allows beards for other reasons. In Singh v. Berger, Becket, Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are representing the recruits in their fight to serve both God and country. 

The Marine Corps argues that allowing Sikhs to maintain their religious beards will disrupt uniformity of appearance among recruits and undermine national security, even though the Army and other branches allow religious beards and the Marine Corps has many exceptions to its uniformity requirements for secular reasons. It allows recruits to grow beards if they have pseudofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps). It allows women to keep long hair. It also allows tattoos, including sleeve tattoos and tattoos on the face, neck, and hands. The Marine Corps itself permits religious beards, but only after basic training, barring access to religious minorities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral argument today, considering the Sikh recruits’ emergency appeal to be allowed to begin boot camp instead of being left on hold while their case winds its way through the courts. During argument, members of the court questioned whether the government’s arguments even made sense, and wondered whether the government was “splitting hairs.”

“It’s time for the Marines Corps to follow the footsteps of the Army and Air Force–branches that have already accommodated many Sikh servicemembers who serve with honor and distinction,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If the Marines can allow sleeve tattoos, medical beards, and varying hairstyles for female recruits, they can also make way for Sikhs to be counted among the Few and Proud without offending uniformity.”  

Sikhs have a long history of military service, stemming from religious teachings that instruct them to defend the defenseless. Many devout Sikhs live out this duty by serving in militaries around the globe while also maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But Sikhs who want to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps are forced to choose between their faith and their call to serve their country. Even though other branches of the U.S. military allow religious beards, Sikh Marine recruits are told to leave their beliefs at the door. 

“Sikh Americans have a proven record of capable service in the U.S. Army and Air Force dating at least as far back as World War I–and doing so with their articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “The Marine Corps is doing our country a great disservice by stopping distinguished Sikhs from entering its ranks, especially while it seeks to foster and sustain a diverse and inclusive culture within the Corps.” 

A decision is expected within the coming months. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Sikh recruits fight to serve both God and country

WASHINGTON – Three Sikhs are fighting for their right to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps. Next Tuesday, a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C., will hear the emergency appeal of Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal as they ask for religious accommodations during basic training. In Singh v. Berger, Becket, Winston & Strawn LLP, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are representing the recruits in their fight to freely exercise their religion throughout their service.

The Marine Corps refuses to accommodate Sikhs during basic training because it claims that will disrupt uniformity of appearance among recruits and ultimately undermine national security. But other U.S. military branches—including the largest, the Army—allow religious beards, as do respected militaries worldwide. And the Marine Corps already allows significant secular deviations from its uniformity requirements to diversify its ranks. It allows thousands of recruits to grow beards if they have pseudofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps). It allows women to keep long hair. And it allows tattoos, including sleeve tattoos and tattoos on the face, neck, and hands. The Marine Corps itself will permit religious beards as well—but only after basic training, barring access to religious minorities. 

The Sikh recruits here are asking the government to provide them with religious accommodations that will allow them to serve, just as it has provided secular accommodations to allow others to serve. These Sikh men—and all other religious observers in the armed forces—should not have to choose between exercising their faith and serving their country.

What:
Oral argument Singh v. Berger 

Who:
Eric Baxter, VP & senior counsel at Becket
Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP
Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition

When:
Tuesday, October 11, 2022, at 1:00 p.m. ET 

Where:
Listen to the live stream here
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
333 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington D.C. 20001
Courtroom 31 

Becket will be hosting a Twitter Spaces event following the hearing with a post-argument reaction from Eric Baxter at approximately 2:00 p.m. ET. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Native Americans seek protection for sacred land at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde yesterday asked the Supreme Court to hold the federal government accountable for bulldozing their sacred site to add a turn lane to a nearby road in Oregon near Mount Hood. In Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, the Native American plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to tell the federal government it must consider all possible options for repairing the site—such as by removing an embankment placed over an ancient burial ground, replanting trees, and allowing reconstruction of a sacred stone altar.  

Native tribes have used the land around Mount Hood, Oregon, to hunt, gather food, fish, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies for centuries. The sacred site at issue in this case, known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat (the “Place of Big Big Trees”), lay along an ancient Native American trading route now followed by U.S. Highway 26 and consisted of a burial ground, campground, old-growth trees, and ancient stone altar, all on less than one acre of land. Wilbur Slockish, who is a Hereditary Chief of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Carol Logan, who is a spiritual practitioner and elder in her tribe, regularly visited the site for decades to pray, meditate, and pay respects to their ancestors through memorial ceremonies. But in 2008, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration ignored their pleas to protect the site and bulldozed it to add a turn lane to the nearby highway, even while admitting it could have added the turn lane without harming the site. (Watch their story.) 

“Native American sacred sites should be given just as much respect and protection as churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, where the federal government can wantonly destroy Native American sacred sites without consequence; after this latest tragedy, the very least the government can do is to pursue every possible avenue for repairing this site and allowing the plaintiffs’ religious practices to resume.”  

After failed negotiations with the government to restore the sacred site, the tribe members pursued their claims in federal court, arguing that the land should have been protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Free Exercise Clause, and several environmental laws. In 2018, a lower court decided that federal law does not prohibit the government from destroying sacred sites located on federal land. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit similarly ruled that the government would not be held accountable for its destruction of the tribes’ sacred site. With the help of Becket, the tribe members now ask the Supreme Court to correct this injustice. 

“For centuries Native Americans have endured the destruction of sacred places by the federal government, and it’s heartbreaking that the court would say this completely preventable destruction was okay,” said Carol Logan, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “All we want is the return of our sacred artifacts, the rededication of the area for our ancestors, and the promise that we can continue to worship as our tribes have done for centuries.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal court protects school’s right to hire faithful teachers

WASHINGTON- A federal court in Indiana today ruled that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and its schools are free to choose leaders who will uphold their core religious teachings. The ruling in Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis is the latest in a string of court victories protecting religious institutions from government interference in internal religious matters.   

At Roncalli High School, education goes beyond the basic subjects by forming students’ hearts and minds in the Catholic faith. To that end, Roncalli asks its teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors to sign contracts agreeing to uphold Catholic Church teachings in both word and deed. In 2018, Shelly Fitzgerald, the Co-Director of guidance at the school, confirmed to the school that she had entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. The school then declined to renew her contract for the following year. Ms. Fitzgerald sued the school and the Archdiocese, alleging that its desire to uphold the Catholic faith is a form of discrimination. Today, the federal court threw out her lawsuit, stating that the Constitution protects Roncalli’s decision, because “Roncalli entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out Roncalli’s religious mission.” 

“The Supreme Court has long recognized that religious organizations have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This is a common-sense ruling: Catholic schools exist to pass on the Catholic faith to their students; to do that, they need freedom to ask Catholic educators to uphold Catholic values.”  

The ruling is the latest in a string of court decisions protecting the hiring decisions of the Archdiocese and other religious schools. In July 2022, a federal appeals court in Chicago threw out a similar lawsuit by another guidance counselor at Roncalli High School in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In August 2022, the Indiana Supreme Court did the same in Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, explaining that the “Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government.” These rulings build on Supreme Court precedent set in other Becket cases, including the 2020 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and the 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical School v. EEOC 

“Today is a great victory for not only the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, but for every religious institution seeking to instill their faith in the next generation,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel and vice president at Becket. “Teachers, counselors, and other school staff have an important role in students’ lives. We are glad the court decided to let Roncalli decide for itself who should have that responsibility.” 

The Archdiocese is also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

A win for religious freedom in high school sports

WASHINGTON – Oakwood Adventist Academy today announced that the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) has adopted a rule that would adjust game schedules to accommodate religious requests, a change that comes in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this year. The case Oakwood Adventist Academy v. Alabama High School Athletic Association arose after Oakwood’s boys basketball team was forced to forfeit a semi-final tournament game scheduled on their Sabbath. Today’s action by AHSAA provides lasting protection for religious schools and their athletes and will serve as an example for other states.  

Oakwood Academy is the oldest Black Seventh-day Adventist school in the U.S, and in 2022, the basketball team set a school record: they made it to the regional semi-finals. But their big game was scheduled on a Saturday at 4:30 p.m., forcing the school to choose between playing the game and keeping their Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists consider the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, holy. During this time, they do not work or play competitive sports games, an obligation taken seriously by all Oakwood Academy students and staff. 

Because of their religious beliefs, the team requested to swap game times for the later 7:30 p.m. slot, a request that the other teams competing in the playoffs agreed to. However, AHSAA denied the request, resulting in Oakwood having to forfeit the semi-final matchup. Today’s rule change ensures that championships will be decided on the field and on the court. 

“We applaud AHSAA for doing the right thing,” said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists. “The new rule allows the Oakwood Mustangs to give their all both in their faith and in their sport.”  

Consistent with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rule for religious accommodations, the new rule will guarantee that schools from minority faith traditions are not excluded from the playing field or pressured to abandon their beliefs for a shot at the big game. The First Amendment requires workable accommodations in state sports to allow participants of all faiths to compete on an equal basis.  

“This new rule is a win for both the Mustangs and the First Amendment,” said Joseph Davis, counsel at Becket. “We hope that other state athletic associations will follow AHSAA’s lead so that no school or student will ever be excluded from participating on account of their faith.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Both sides in Yeshiva lawsuit agree to stay

WASHINGTON – Yeshiva University and the Pride Alliance group have independently agreed that a stay should be entered to allow Yeshiva to appeal a ruling against it without the threat of sanctions. In June, a state court ordered Yeshiva to “immediately” give official recognition to Pride Alliance, an LGBTQ pride group. Yeshiva had been seeking the stay of that order from various courts since June, with Pride Alliance arguing that a stay was improper.

Yesterday, however, the Pride Alliance reversed course and agreed to enter into a stay. The change comes a few days after the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling directing further state court action, with four Justices indicating Yeshiva is “likely” to prevail on its claims, and the other five Justices inviting Yeshiva back if the state courts failed to grant relief. In the wake of that order, the New York Appellate Division on Tuesday, September 20, agreed to reconsider its prior ruling against Yeshiva. And now Pride Alliance has agreed that Yeshiva should be able to conduct its appeals without being forced to violate its religious identity.

“As explained yesterday, we are starting clubs after the Jewish Holidays when students are back on campus,” said Hanan Eisenman, Director Of Communications at Yeshiva University. “Now that Pride Alliance has offered a stay, we have sent their lawyers a signed agreement to stay the trial court order. We look forward to working together to quickly resolve this issue.”

Justice Sotomayor issues stay protecting Yeshiva University

WASHINGTON – Justice Sonia Sotomayor just ruled that America’s flagship Jewish university can continue to live out its religious mission without threat of government interference. After over a year of being denied protection in New York courts, Yeshiva University asked the Court to vindicate its religious identity and First Amendment rights through an emergency application. Today, Justice Sotomayor responded by issuing a stay in favor of Yeshiva’s religious liberty.  

“We are pleased with Justice Sotomayor’s ruling which protects our religious liberty and identity as a leading faith-based academic institution,” said Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University. “But make no mistake, we will continue to strive to create an environment that welcomes all students, including those of our LGBTQ community. We remain committed to engaging in meaningful dialogue with our students, Rabbis and faculty about how best to ensure an inclusive campus for all students in accordance with our Torah values.”

Established in 1886, Yeshiva University is the nation’s flagship Jewish university that empowers its students to apply Torah values in the world through education. 

“Yeshiva shouldn’t have been forced to go all the way to the Supreme Court to receive such a commonsense ruling in favor of its First Amendment rights,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We are grateful that Justice Sotomayor stepped in to protect Yeshiva’s religious liberty in this case.”  

Justice Sotomayor’s stay order indicates that it will remain in force until further order of Justice Sotomayor or the full Court.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Diverse religious groups, legal scholars, and Jewish groups ask Supreme Court to protect Yeshiva University

WASHINGTON– There was an enormous outpouring of support today for Yeshiva University’s emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, with ten friend-of-the-court briefs filed by leading legal scholars and organizations from across the religious spectrum, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other faith traditions. On August 29, 2022, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an emergency application to the Supreme Court after the New York courts said that the nation’s oldest Jewish university could not be considered religious. 

When the University decided that it could not officially recognize an LGBTQ Pride Alliance club on campus due to its commitment to Torah values, a group of students sued the school. The lawsuit and ensuing lower court rulings in YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University seek to force Yeshiva University to compromise its religious mission.  

“This is a broad and monumental showing of support for Yeshiva at the highest court in our nation,” said Eric Baxter, VP and senior counsel at Becket. “It shows that this case does not just concern Yeshiva’s individual case but the right of all religious institutions to carry out their missions without interference from the civil court system. We are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize that social reality and intervene.”  

Highlights from the wide array of friend-of-the-court briefs include:

The full list can be found here.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Indiana high court upholds religious freedom for Catholic schools

WASHINGTON – The Indiana Supreme Court just unanimously protected the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education. In Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the state’s highest court upheld religious institutions’ ability to choose the religious values that they will pass on to the next generation.  

Catholic school teachers in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed. In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, who taught at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, entered a same-sex union in violation of both his employment agreement and Catholic teaching. After an extensive period of discernment and dialogue with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, it was made clear to Cathedral that it needed to require teachers to uphold Church teaching to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church. After Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott and provided him with a settlement, he sued the Archdiocese.  

“Courts can’t decide what it means to be Catholic—only the Church can do that,” said Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values.” 

An Indiana trial court originally dismissed the lawsuit in favor of the archdiocese, but Payne-Elliot appealed the decision. After the Indiana Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty asked the Indiana Supreme Court to review the case. 

Today, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the Archdiocese’s religious autonomy from state interference in sensitive internal religious decisions. As Justice Slaughter’s opinion explained, the “Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government.” This ensures that all religious organizations can freely govern themselves in accordance with their beliefs.  

“The court’s decision today was a commonsense ruling in favor of our most fundamental rights,” said Goodrich. “Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is. We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Yeshiva University seeks Supreme Court protection for religious identity

WASHINGTON – The nation’s oldest Jewish university just asked the Supreme Court to protect its First Amendment rights. Yeshiva University has been fighting in New York State courts for over a year to defend its right to conduct its internal affairs in accordance with its religious beliefs. Yeshiva is now asking the Court to protect its religious mission from government interference.   

In YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University, a group of students is demanding that the University officially recognize an LGBTQ Pride Alliance club on campus. The lower court rulings would force Yeshiva to put its stamp of approval on a club and activities that are inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain on its undergraduate campuses.  

“The Torah guides everything that we do at Yeshiva—from how we educate students to how we run our dining halls to how we organize our campus,” saidAri Berman, president of Yeshiva University. ”We care deeply for and welcome all our students, including our LGBTQ students, and continue to be engaged in a productive dialogue with our Rabbis, faculty and students on how we apply our Torah values to create an inclusive campus environment. We only ask the government to allow us the freedom to apply the Torah in accordance with our values.” 

Established in 1886, Yeshiva University is the United States’ foremost expression of the Torah Umadda philosophy, which advocates for participation in secular culture in accordance with Torah values. Those values pervade all life at the university.   

While the school welcomes and provides support services to its LGBTQ students and bans anti-LGBTQ bullying and discrimination in accordance with its multimillennial tradition of Torah values, in 2020, a small group demanded that Yeshiva recognize a “Pride Alliance” club on campus. These few alumni and students sued the school, insisting that – despite its 136-year commitment to its religious identity – the school was not in fact a religious institution, and demanded a court order the school to accept the club on campus while the lawsuit played out. 

“When secular authorities try to tell Yeshiva University that it is not religious, you know something has gone terribly wrong,” said Eric Baxter, VP and senior counsel at Becket. “The First Amendment protects Yeshiva’s right to practice its faith. We are asking the Supreme Court to correct this obvious error.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal court strikes down Transgender Mandate

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court just blocked a harmful Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that would have forced doctors and hospitals to perform gender-transition procedures on their patients against their conscience and best medical judgment. In Franciscan Alliance v Becerra, the court ruled that a Catholic healthcare network and a group of nearly 19,000 healthcare professionals cannot be required to carry out these procedures in violation of their deeply held beliefs and professional medical judgment. 

In the unanimous ruling, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order “permanently enjoining [HHS] from requiring Franciscan Alliance to perform gender-reassignment surgeries or abortions in violation of its sincerely held religious beliefs.” The court explained that while the government argued it should get more chances to show why it needed religious healthcare providers to participate in gender-transition procedures, other cases showed that permanent protection was appropriate—including, ironically, cases brought by the ACLU, who had intervened in Franciscan to support the government.   

“This ruling is a major victory for conscience rights and compassionate medical care in America,” said Joseph Davis, counsel at Becket. “Doctors cannot do their jobs and comply with the Hippocratic Oath if the government requires them to perform harmful, irreversible procedures against their conscience and medical expertise.” 

Six years ago, the federal government issued the mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act and tried to apply it to virtually every doctor nationwide. The requirement would have forced doctors to perform these procedures on any patient, including on children, even if the procedures went against their conscience and professional medical judgment. A group of religious organizations and nine states quickly sued and received protection from federal courts in North Dakota and in Texas. Today’s ruling is another successful step in this fight to protect doctors’ conscience rights. 

“For years, our clients have provided excellent medical care to all patients who need it,” said Davis. “Today’s ruling ensures that these doctors and hospitals may continue to do this critical work in accordance with their conscience and professional medical judgment.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Doctors challenge harmful Transgender Mandate

WASHINGTON – The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just heard a case involving a challenge to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires doctors to perform harmful, irreversible gender transition procedures against their conscience and best medical judgment. In Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra a group of doctors and hospitals argue that the Biden Administration’s mandate violates their medical conscience rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  

“Franciscan Alliance and the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration seek to carry on Jesus Christ’s healing ministry by providing the best possible care to every person who comes through our doors,” said Sister Petra Nielsen, Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration and member of the Corporate Board for Franciscan Alliance. “We are simply asking the courts to let us keep caring for all our patients with joy and compassion—as we’ve done for over 145 years.” 

In 2016, almost 20,000 healthcare professionals, eight states and two religious hospitals challenged the HHS requirement in a federal district court in Texas. After years of litigation, including an appeal to the Fifth Circuit and a remand, a federal district court granted this relief to the doctors and hospitals involved and protected their medical conscience rights. In response, the federal government, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, appealed the ruling back to the Fifth Circuit to force doctors to perform these controversial, harmful procedures. 

“No medical professional should be forced to participate in controversial and irreversible gender transition procedures that can be deeply harmful to patients,” said Dr. André Van Mol, member of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. “The federal government has no business forcing doctors to violate their conscience, professional medical judgment, and Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’”  

The government’s requirement, known as the Transgender Mandate, is an HHS rule that forces doctors and other medical professionals to perform gender transition procedures, even if it goes against their conscience and medical judgment. It also requires private employers to cover these procedures or be threatened with crippling fines and potential litigation. Just last week, the Biden administration proposed a new, revised version of the mandate this week, but it will remain unenforceable against tens of thousands of religious doctors and hospitals across the country if the Fifth Circuit affirms the lower court’s ruling in this case.  

“We asked the court today to let doctors keep caring for all patients with compassion, conscience, and common sense,” said Joseph Davis, counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We are hopeful the court will agree that the Transgender Mandate clearly violates federal law and doctors’ freedom of conscience.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here). 

Doctors seek legal protection from Biden Administration’s Transgender Mandate

WASHINGTON – Doctors are fighting for their medical conscience rights against a Biden Administration Health and Human Services’ (HHS) mandate that requires doctors and hospitals to perform controversial gender transition procedures in violation of their conscience and medical judgment, or else face severe financial penalties. This Thursday, a Catholic healthcare network and a group of almost 19,000 healthcare professionals will be asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to protect their freedom to care for all patients in accordance with their conscience and best medical judgement. In Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra, these doctors and hospitals sued the federal government in 2016 over the HHS rule known as the Transgender Mandate, which would force doctors to perform harmful gender transition procedures on children. A federal court permanently blocked the mandate, finding it unlawful, and Becket is now asking the Fifth Circuit to uphold that decision.  

Despite the Biden Administration proposing a new, revised version of the mandate this week, it remains unenforceable because of this litigation, and a decision against the mandate by the Fifth Circuit would block the mandate permanently.  

What:
Oral argument at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra  

Who:
Joseph Davis, counsel at Becket
Sister Petra Nielson, vice president of mission integration for Franciscan Health Michigan City

When:
Thursday, August 4, 2022, at 11 a.m. ET 

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 
600 Camp Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Listen live at https://5thcircuit.streamguys1.com/east.
(Link will be live once oral argument begins) 

A Becket attorney will be available for comment following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Appeals court protects religious school’s right to choose its leaders

WASHINGTON – The Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose leaders who will uphold their core religious teachings. In Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Catholic teaching. The court ruled that the lawsuit must be dismissed, because the Constitution forbids the government from interfering with a religious school’s selection of who will pass on the faith to students.  

Roncalli High School in Indianapolis asks its teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors to sign a contract agreeing to uphold Catholic Church teachings in both their professional and personal lives. In August 2018, Lynn Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in a same-sex union in violation of her contract and centuries-old Catholic teaching. The school then explained that it could not renew her contract in light of her not conforming to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both Roncalli and the Archdiocese, arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation. 

“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our justice system has consistently ruled that the government cannot intrude on a religious organization’s choice of who will pass on the faith to the next generation.” 

In its opinion, the Seventh Circuit looked to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical School v. EEOC, which protect churches and religious institutions from government interference. Both are prior Becket cases, and both recognize the principle of the “ministerial exception”—the right of religious organizations to choose who will carry out their religious responsibilities.  

Catholic schools are tasked by the Church to uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” said Goodrich. “The Seventh Circuit’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Sikh Marines fight to serve and keep the faith

WASHINGTON – Three Sikh recruits to the United States Marine Corps will be in the District Court for the District of Columbia tomorrow to defend their right to maintain their religious beards during basic training. Recruits Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were all granted religious accommodations by the Marines, except during basic training and when deployed to “combat zones.” The Marine Corps contends that accommodating during basic training would disrupt troop uniformity. In Toor v. Berger, Becket, Winston & Strawn LLP, the Sikh Coalition, and BakerHostetler are representing the recruits in their fight to freely exercise their religion throughout their service.

In recent years, the Marine Corps has significantly relaxed its uniformity requirements to diversify its ranks. In recent months, it introduced rules making it easier for Marines suffering from pseudofolliculitis barbae (razor bump) to get medical accommodations for their beards, including during boot camp. It also relaxed rules prohibiting tattoos, so that individuals with tattoos anywhere except on the face, neck, and hands are now eligible to serve. And female recruits have never been asked to shave their heads, as is required of all male recruits. Other rules allowing diverse hairstyles, painted nails, and foreign characters on nameplates have been introduced, specifically to facilitate greater diversity among recruits.  

Plaintiffs Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Chahal are simply asking the government to provide them religious accommodations that will allow them to serve, just as it has provided secular accommodations to allow others to serve. These Sikh men—and all other religious observers in the armed forces—should not have to choose between exercising their faith and serving their country.
 

What:
Hearing in Toor v. Berger 

Who:
Eric Baxter, VP & senior counsel at Becket
Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney
Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP  

When:
Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at 3:00 p.m. ET 

Where:
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
333 Constitution Avenue N.W.
Washington D.C. 20001 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court overrules Lemon test, rules in favor of prayer for football coach

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the high school football coach who fought for his right to pray after games, and overturned a decision that had long restricted religious expression in public schools. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Bremerton School District fired Coach Kennedy from his coaching position after school officials decided his quiet, midfield post-game prayer was “coercive” and “divisive” speech that violated the Establishment Clause.  

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explaining that “[t]he only way to escape future Establishment Clause confusion” is to overrule the Lemon test. In place of Lemon, Becket explained that the Court should apply our nation’s tradition of free exercise even on school or government grounds. Muslims and Sikhs wear beards, Orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes, and Catholics carry rosaries or wear crucifixes. Forcing prayer into a private booth—the “solution” offered to Coach Kennedy before the Supreme Court intervened—is contrary to the best traditions protected by the First Amendment. 

“We must always remember the importance of prayer in American life,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty. “The freedom to pray is essential to the moral duty all people possess toward the truth. The Court’s decision to prevent the forced expulsion of voluntary prayer from public life is a major victory for all Americans who wish to discover and live the truth.” 

In its opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that “[r]espect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.” Coach Kennedy, the Court held, was pursued by the government “for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses.” 

The Court also pointed out that Coach Kennedy had observed this tradition for years and did not force any of his players to join him. In addition, he made sure his team knew it was optional, and did not play favorites to those athletes that decided to partake in his prayer. All Kennedy wanted to do was retain his position as head coach while adhering to his faith, a right shared by all Americans. Nothing about this is unconstitutional coercion. As the Supreme Court held, “‘[o]ffense does not equate to coercion.’”  

Becket’s brief had also asked the Court to strike out 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. 

“Since our Founding, our constitutional tradition upholds public religious expression as a natural part of human life and culture,” said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “Scrubbing religious expression from the public square, based on nothing more than offense, is as unnatural as it is unconstitutional.” 

Coach Kennedy was represented at the Supreme Court by First Liberty Institute, Paul Clement and Erin Murphy of Clement Murphy PLLC, Spencer Fane LLP, and The Helsdon Law Firm, PLLC.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal appeals court greenlights destruction of native sacred land

WASHINGTONNative American sacred land is on the chopping block after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today refused to protect Oak Flat from a foreign-owned copper mining company. In a 2-1 decision, which dissenting Judge Marsha Berzon called “absurd,” “illogical,” “disingenuous,” and “incoheren[t],” the court ruled that the government’s decision to transfer Oak Flat to Resolution Copper does not substantially burden Apaches’ religious practices—even though the mine will swallow the sacred site in a massive crater, ending those practices forever. Apache Strongholda coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies, which is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us—our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families, and our land,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “It is a place of healing that has been sacred to us since long before Europeans arrived on this continent. My children, grandchildren, and the generations after them deserve to practice our traditions at Oak Flat.” 

Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat has been protected from mining interests for more than six decades and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Western Apaches and other tribes have worshipped at Oak Flat since time immemorial (watch their story) and they still go there today to gather medicinal plants, visit sacred springs, and conduct essential ceremonies like the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women—practices which cannot happen anywhere else.  

The longstanding protections for Oak Flat were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight rider was sneaked into a must-pass bill and the United States government decided to transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company. Resolution Copper’s mine will swallow the site in a 2-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep craterrendering longstanding religious practices impossible and devastating the Apache way of life. 

Today’s decision is, as the dissent says, ‘absurd,’ ‘illogical,’ and incoheren[t]’: if anything violates the free exercise of religion, it is the complete destruction of a sacred site that ends religious practices forever,said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.This ruling not only is devastating to Apaches and other Native Americans but also threatens people of all faithsand should not stand up on appeal.”  

Apache Stronghold’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is due on September 22, 2022. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Catholic high school defends right to pass faith to next generation

WASHINGTON – The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments in Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis today, a case that will decide whether the government can overturn a private Catholic school’s selection of its own religious leaders. The former Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School sued the school and the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Church teaching. A federal district court threw out the lawsuit, concluding that the constitution prohibits the government from forcing the Catholic Church to hire educators who reject Catholic teachings. But the former guidance counselor appealed. 

 “The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution protects the freedom of religious schools to choose their leaders without government interference,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic school educators to support Catholic teaching.” 

Parents who send their children to Roncalli High School trust the school to provide a first-class education guided by the Catholic faith.  Schoolteachers, administrators, and guidance counselors at Roncalli sign contracts agreeing to support the school’s religious mission and uphold the Catholic Church’s teachings in their personal and professional lives.  

Lynn Starkey formerly taught religion classes and led the school’s choir, where she helped students prepare music for Mass. After several years, she was elevated to a key leadership role in the school, where she supervised the Guidance Department and served on the school’s Administrative Counsel, helping guide the school’s religious mission. In 2019, the school declined to renew her contract after she informed the principal that she had entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Church teaching. In response, Ms. Starkey sued the Archdiocese alleging employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.  

However, the Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution bars the state from second-guessing the leadership decisions of religious organizations, including religious schools. The Supreme Court recently ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that schools like Roncalli have a right to make such hiring and firing decisions without government interference. Moreover, in Title VII, Congress included an explicit religious exemption designed to allow religious organizations like Catholic schools to create and maintain communities dedicated to their beliefs and practices. 

“Many parents choose Catholic schools because they trust those schools to teach their children the faith in word and deed,” said Goodrich. “If Catholic schools can’t ask their teachers and leaders to support Catholic teaching, it undermines the entire mission of the school. We’re glad the district court recognized this common-sense principle, and we expect the Seventh Circuit to do the same.”  

Wooton Hoy LLC is co-counsel in the case. 

A press call will be held today at 1 p.m. ET.

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email media@becketlaw.org with questions  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Appeals court weighs religious freedom for Catholic schools

WASHINGTON – The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit will hear oral arguments in Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis on Monday, in a case that will decide whether Catholic schools can select leaders who fully support their religious mission. The former Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli Catholic high school sued the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and the school’s Catholic mission. A federal district court threw out the lawsuit, concluding that the constitution prohibits the government from forcing the Catholic Church to hire educators who reject Catholic teachings. The former guidance counselor has now appealed. 

Roncalli combines high-quality education with an emphasis on passing the Catholic faith on to each student. Out of respect for this obligation, schoolteachers, administrators, and guidance counselors at the school sign agreements to uphold the Catholic Church’s beliefs in their personal and professional lives. When Lynn Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she had broken that agreement by entering a same-sex marriage, the school declined to renew her contract due to her rejection of Catholic teaching. 

Becket is defending the Archdiocese and asking the Seventh Circuit to protect the freedom of religious institutions to choose leaders who fully support their religious mission.  

What:
Oral Argument in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis 

Who:
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket  

When:
Monday, May 16, 2022, at 11:00 a.m. ET  
A press call will be held after the hearing at approximately 1:00 p.m. ET 

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
219 S. Dearborn Street
Chicago, Illinois 60604 

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email media@becketlaw.org with questions 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Faith and basketball: High school team fights for right to compete and keep Sabbath

WASHINGTON – After a historic winning season, Oakwood Adventist Academy’s basketball team had its dreams of competing for a state championship dashed after the Alabama High School Athletic Association refused to make a minor shift in the postseason schedule. In Oakwood Adventist Academy v. Alabama High School Athletic Association, a Seventh-day Adventist school’s basketball team was forced to choose between playing in a semi-final game on Saturday afternoon and keeping their Sabbath—a defining religious practice of the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Oakwood Academy is now asking to have its right to straightforward religious accommodations vindicated in federal court.

As a private Seventh-day Adventist school, Oakwood Academy has educated its students in accordance with its faith for over a century. This February, the school’s varsity basketball team made it to the regional semi-finals in the Alabama state postseason tournament but were kept from playing because their game was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, which fell during the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath.

“This is not just another day of the week for us,” said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists. “The Sabbath is the day we stop our work, rest and worship God. It is far more important to the members of the team to keep holy the Sabbath than play in any playoff game. The AHSAA should have made the simple schedule change – agreed upon by all teams – instead of making Oakwood Academy choose between faith and basketball.”

For Seventh-day Adventists, the Sabbath lasts from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. They consider the day holy and refrain from working to honor God’s command to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8). They therefore typically spend time at church and with their families. Knowing that it was a day of rest, Oakwood Academy asked the AHSAA to simply switch the two games scheduled for the day. The team could play in the second game in the semi-finals, which was occurring after the sunset on Saturday, and therefore no longer on the Sabbath. But even after the other teams involved agreed to the switch, AHSAA denied the accommodation. Oakwood was forced to forfeit the game.

It is common for sporting organizations to grant scheduling accommodations to religious groups, especially since refusing them has a disproportionate impact on minority faiths. For example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has found common-sense solutions that ensure Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist schools can compete without issue.

“It’s bad enough that AHSAA would intentionally exclude a religious school for honoring the Fourth Commandment,” said Eric Rassbach, senior counsel and vice president of Becket. “But it’s worse when the exclusion is entirely unnecessary—like most Americans faced with this issue, the schools had worked out a simple, common-sense solution. But the bureaucrats said no. The First Amendment demands much more.”

Becket will host a press call at noon ET to discuss the case. Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org.

What:
Press call for Oakwood Adventist Academy v. AHSAA

Who:
Eric Rassbach, VP and senior counsel at Becket
Orlan Johnson, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Director for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

When:
Wednesday, May 4, 2022, at noon ET

Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join  https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Coach’s prayer to be heard at the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in an important religious freedom case on Monday to decide whether a high school football coach’s brief prayer at midfield after games is protected or considered a coercive endorsement of religion. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to emphasize the importance of protecting religious expression and the longstanding tradition of public prayer in our nation.After every football game, Coach Joseph Kennedy would take the time to pray. School officials urged him to halt the tradition and eventually suspended Kennedy from his job. They reasoned that failing to censor Kennedy’s prayer would amount to government endorsement of religion and would make onlookers uncomfortable.

Becket’s brief emphasizes that visible expressions of faith are common to many faith traditions, and even required in others. Banning Kennedy’s public prayer is on par with excluding Orthodox Jews who wear yarmulkes, Catholics who cross themselves and carry rosaries, Sikhs who carry a kirpan, and Muslims who grow beards. Both history and Supreme Court precedent show that these religious expressions should be protected, not barred, by the Constitution.

Coach Kennedy is represented at the Supreme Court by First Liberty Institute, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Spencer Fane LLP, and The Helsdon Law Firm, PLLC.

What:
Supreme Court Oral Argument in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

When:
Monday, April 25, 2022
10:00 a.m. ET

Where:
The argument will be live-streamed via CSPAN.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court protects prayer in death chamber

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has just protected the right of pastors to pray over the condemned in the execution chamber. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez asked the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber, including laying hands on him. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is required to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s argument. Becket’s brief, which was co-authored by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic headed by Professor Josh McDaniel, was cited extensively by Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court to explain the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.”

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president & senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court correctly recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim clergy into the death chamber. In 2019, TDCJ denied prisoner Patrick Murphy’s request that his Buddhist priest be allowed into the execution chamber, but after Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking clergy of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a second prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ changed course again, allowing clergy to be in the execution chamber, but prohibiting any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. Today’s ruling said that TDCJ’s policy of silencing clergy runs afoul of federal civil rights law.

As Becket’s brief showed in detail, TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices until 2019.

Coauthor Prof. McConnell is a frequent advocate before the Supreme Court, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, the head of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, and a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic, founded in Fall 2020, gives law students hands-on experience providing pro bono legal services in matters addressing many different religious practices.

Becket will host a press call at 2:00 p.m. ET to discuss the opinion.

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Becket backs on-field prayer at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Becket just filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, urging the Supreme Court to protect a person’s right to pray in public.

The brief — filed on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — supports Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington. Kennedy had a practice of quietly praying after the close of each football game but was ordered by school officials to stop praying or engaging in conduct that appeared religious in nature.

Public prayer has long been a staple of American life. Laymen, clergymen, statesmen and private citizens throughout American history have prayed publicly over everything from lunch to armed conflict. But Coach Kennedy was told by school officials that his personal prayers somehow violated the Constitution because onlookers might feel uncomfortable.

“The Constitution exists to protect public expressions of faith, not to stop Americans from praying in public,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “The idea that high school football players can handle a tough game, but not the sight of someone kneeling in prayer at the end of the night, is ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, Bremerton school officials suspended Coach Kennedy. When he filed a lawsuit in response, the school officials argued that his personal prayer after football games was an endorsement of religion by the school district and constituted “coercion” against those who might happen to see him praying. But visible outward expressions of faith are common, and even required in many religious traditions. Equating the public display of religion with “coercion” would effectively close the public square to Orthodox Jews who wear yarmulkes, Catholics who cross themselves and carry rosaries, and Muslims who grow beards. Becket’s brief points to history and Supreme Court precedent to show that these forms of religious expression have always been protected, not barred, by the Constitution.

“If there’s one thing more American than football, it’s religious freedom,” said Windham. “We hope the Supreme Court confirms what everyone with common sense knows: when a Christian coach kneels in prayer, or a Sikh schoolteacher wears a kirpan, or a Muslim principal fasts for Ramadan, they are expressing their faith, not establishing a religion.”

Coach Kennedy is represented at the Supreme Court by First Liberty Institute, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Spencer Fane LLP, and The Helsdon Law Firm, PLLC.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Homeless get bah humbugged by city council

WASHINGTON – The most outrageous offender of this year’s Christmas and Hanukah season and Becket’s 2021 Ebenezer Award winner is the Brookings, Oregon City Council for restricting church efforts to feed the homeless. An ordinance passed in late October by the council has severely restricted area ministries like St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church from feeding the city’s rapidly growing homeless population.

The ordinance was passed after some city residents complained about safety issues during the hours church ministries were operating their soup kitchens. But the new regulation doesn’t resolve any safety concerns and instead cuts St. Timothy’s food ministry from four days a week to just two. St. Timothy’s Rev. Bernie Lindley calls the ordinance unjust, noting that it solves nothing and prevents his ministry from doing the Lord’s work of serving the least among us.

“Feeding hungry people is at the core of what our church believes Jesus calls us to do,” said Reverend Bernie Lindley, vicar of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. “We do not see how a municipality can interfere with that mission without violating our constitutional right to freely practice our faith.”

Like many cities on the West Coast, Brookings is grappling with a surge in homelessness following months of lockdowns and isolation aggravated by the COVID pandemic. Church ministries that provide critical care to the homeless are essential in Brookings, because the city doesn’t provide homeless services and the county doesn’t have shelters to help keep the homeless warm and indoors during the cold winter months. Churches like St. Timothy’s are happy to step in to provide care and resources that the city is incapable of providing.

Reverend Lindley isn’t complying with the ordinance and plans to continue to feed the homeless — on the church ministry’s schedule — throughout the Christmas season.

“Lockdowns and isolation have caused a surge in homelessness across the country, and church ministries should be supported for the work they are doing to help restore human dignity to the most vulnerable,” said Montse Alvarado, Becket’s vice president and executive director. “I applaud St. Timothy’s for not backing down to the whims of government bureaucrats and continuing to do what religious ministries all around this country do best in times of adversity– serve.”

Each year the Christmas and Hanukkah season inspires a slew of outrageous offenses against the free exercise of religion. At Becket, we do Santa’s dirty work for him, delivering a lump of coal as an acknowledgment of scroogery on a grand scale. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include Freedom from the Religious Foundation for stealing presents from children, the Dunwoody, Georgia City Counsel which banned all religious symbols in response to an email from a disgruntled citizen, and the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans. (See list of previous winners).

Finally, this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who has shown persistence in the face of adversity – or even offered an exception to a long-standing rule, goes to Michigan State University for allowing menorah lightings in its residence halls during Hanukkah for the first time. We salute the University for making an exception to its candle ban in residence halls so that Jewish students could fully celebrate the Hanukkah season without leaving their dorms!

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous New Year!

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Nuns and Catholic hospitals ask court to stop harmful transgender mandate

WASHINGTON – Several Catholic hospitals, a Catholic university, and the Religious Sisters of Mercy—a group of Catholic nuns who run health clinics to care for the elderly and the poor—were in court today challenging a federal mandate that forces doctors to ignore science and their medical judgment and perform controversial gender-transition procedures, including on children, even if those procedures could cause permanent harm.

The mandate would force religious healthcare providers—on pain of financial and criminal liability—to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs. The government has not required its own military doctors to perform these procedures. It also has not required coverage of gender transition procedures in Medicare or Medicaid—even in adults—because HHS’s medical experts who oversee those programs do not believe research demonstrates that gender reassignment surgery improves health outcomes. Some studies, in fact, indicate that these procedures are harmful. But under the HHS rule developed by political appointees, doctors or hospitals citing the same evidence and using their best medical judgment could face multimillion-dollar penalties and lose their jobs.

“Both federal courts to consider this controversial mandate have struck it down as bad for patients, bad for doctors, and bad for religious liberty,” said Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “It is past time for this Administration to stop forcing doctors to go against conscience and sound medical judgment and to start respecting their Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’”

The religious doctors and hospitals in the case gladly serve all patients regardless of their sex or gender identity and provide top-notch care to transgender patients for everything from cancer to the common cold. However, research shows that certain gender-transition procedures can be deeply harmful to patients and that up to 94 percent of children with gender dysphoria (77 to 94 percent in one set of studies and 73 to 88 percent in another) will grow out of their dysphoria naturally and live healthy lives without the need for surgery or lifelong hormone regimens.

“The federal government has no business forcing doctors to perform controversial procedures that could be deeply harmful to patients,” said Goodrich. “We look forward to a commonsense ruling that is good for patients, good for doctors, and good for religious liberty.”

Becket is defending the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the University of Mary, Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Center, and SMP Health System. In August 2016, Becket, joined by eight state governments, filed a parallel lawsuit in Texas on behalf of Franciscan Alliance, a religious hospital network sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, defending them from the same government mandate.

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

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Nuns and Catholic hospitals challenge transgender mandate in court

WASHINGTON – Several Catholic hospitals, a Catholic university and the Religious Sisters of Mercy—a group of Catholic nuns who run health clinics to care for the elderly and the poor—will be in court this week challenging a federal mandate that forces doctors to ignore science and their medical judgment and perform controversial gender transition procedures, including on children, even if those procedures could cause permanent harm.Those fighting the mandate are Catholic doctors, hospitals, and clinics who joyfully serve all patients regardless of sex or gender identity, and routinely provide top-notch care to transgender patients for everything from cancer to the common cold. The transgender mandate, however, threatens them with multimillion-dollar penalties for “sex discrimination” unless they perform controversial gender-transition procedures that can be deeply harmful to patients. Despite two different federal courts striking down the mandate as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Biden Administration has appealed.

What:
Oral Argument in Sisters of Mercy v. Becerra 

Who:
Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at Becket 

When:
Wednesday, December 15, 2021, at 10:00 a.m. EST 

Where:
Audio available by telephone: 1-888-363-4749
Access Code: 5800357 

A Becket attorney will be available for comment following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court to decide if religious schools are “too religious”

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court just heard oral argument in Carson v. Makin, which will decide if parents in Maine can use the state’s scholarship program to send their kids to local religious schools just as the program allows them to send their children to elite private secular schools.

Since many Mainers live in rural areas there are few education opportunities for students. To fix this issue, Maine offers to pay tuition fees for students to attend the primary schools of their choice. Students can choose elite private secular prep schools and even schooling in other countries but cannot use the scholarship program to attend a local school with a religious curriculum. The state of Maine itself chooses what schools are “too religious” to bar certain institutions from the tuition assistance program.

“Imagine thinking it is fair for privileged students attending elite out-of-state boarding schools to reap the benefits of tuition assistance, but not economically-disadvantaged kids wanting to attend their local religious school down the road,” said Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket. “Maine has created an absurd divide that treats religious education as second-class and harms the poor too.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Maine’s parents and students, arguing that religious people are not second-class citizens and that religious schools must not be excluded from public benefits, as the Supreme Court has affirmed and reaffirmed. The Court ruled four years ago in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that religious schools cannot be barred from generally available government programs. That decision was strengthened in last year’s case, Espinoza v. Montana Board of Revenue, which ruled that Montana could not exclude religious schools from a scholarship program due to bigoted anti-Catholic laws known as Blaine Amendments.

“Maybe the third time’s the charm,” said Thomson. “It shouldn’t take multiple Supreme Court rulings to stop Maine from treating religious people like second-class citizens, but now that the issue is back before it, the Supreme Court should not hesitate to protect religious people not just for who they are but also for what they do.”

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court to decide: Can Maine take the religion out of religious schools?

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear Carson v. Makin on December 8 concerning Maine’s tuition assistance program, which compensates students who live in rural areas with no public school district for tuition. These students are allowed to attend the private school of their choice – unless it is religious. Students have used state funds to attend elite out-of-state New England prep schools but are barred from using them to attend even local religious schools.

Now the Supreme Court will decide if those students may use those funds to attend their local religious schools. In 2020, Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a similar law which excluded students from religious schools was unconstitutional, noting the dark history of using anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendments” to exclude religious institutions from public programs.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the First Amendment does not permit states to exclude children from government education programs simply because they want to attend a faith-based educational institution.

What:
Oral Argument in Carson v. Makin

When:
Wednesday, December 8 at approximately 10:00 a.m. EST

Where:
Livestreamed at this link: Live Oral Argument Audio (supremecourt.gov)

 For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Religious Freedom Index results: Americans increase support for religious freedom with highest Index score yet

WASHINGTON – Becket has just released the third annual Religious Freedom Index, the only annual poll that tracks trends across the full spectrum of opinions on American religious freedom. This year’s Index reached a new high as Americans bounced back from a uniquely divisive year with revitalized support for religious liberty. In addition to the Index’s standardized annual questions, this year Becket also asked about Americans’ opinions on faith-based organizations, free speech, and the pandemic.

Across the board, backing for religious freedom increased in this year’s Index, pushing it to a new high of 68 on a scale of 0 to 100. Driving this new high score was a broad shift toward stronger support of religious freedom. More respondents than ever signalized their strong support for religious freedom across numerous questions.

“As Americans bounce back from a divisive year, we see an increased commitment to a wide range of religious freedom principles,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket and co-editor of the Index. “This across-the-board support shows a renewed confidence that protecting religious exercise and expression benefits American culture and civic life.”

Asked about the role of faith-based organizations, more respondents than ever before said they think that religious organizations in the community should be just as eligible to receive government funding as non-religious organizations, with a six-point increase to 71 percent. Turning to free speech, a majority of respondents, 62 percent, believe that people of faith should be free to voice their religiously based opinion in public, even on controversial topics. That view extended to the schoolroom, where 63 percent of respondents said that parents are the primary educators of their children and should have the final say in what their children are taught, supporting the freedom to opt children out of public school content parents find morally objectionable.

Regarding the pandemic and religious liberty, a majority of respondents said that funerals and religious services should be considered essential activities, protected from government closures throughout the pandemic. Respondents were also more likely to support religious exemptions from vaccine mandates in the workplace than they were to oppose them, with respondents who had religious coworkers indicating even greater support for religious exemptions.

“After a period where we all have experienced restrictions on daily life at some level, Americans seem more averse to placing restrictions on their neighbors, coworkers and friends for their religious beliefs,” said Katie Geary, content manager at Becket and co-editor of the Index. “As Americans work together to bridge partisan divides, this naturally extends to greater support for religious freedom.”

The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a holistic view of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each fall. The Index’s focus on core religious liberty principles, contextualized with questions on some of the year’s most pressing societal issues, provides a yearly cross section of public sentiment on the intersection of law, religion, and culture. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions:  1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action.

Surveying and scale construction for Becket’s Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment are conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies, using an online panel assembled by Dynata. Becket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument and analysis broadly reflect America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious liberty issues.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Native Americans in court for broken promises

WASHINGTON – Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde were at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today seeking justice after the United States government bulldozed a sacred site to add a highway turn lane near Mount Hood, Oregon. Members of the tribes had shared their pleas with the government to save the site but were ignored. In today’s Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration oral argument, Becket asked the court for remedies against this injustice and for protection of the site in the future.

For many worshipers in traditional Native American faiths, religious practice centers on sacred land. In the Mount Hood area, indigenous people have used the land to fish, hunt, gather food and medicine, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies for centuries. But in 2008, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration refused to listen to tribal members’ pleas about a small, less-than-one-acre sacred site and chose to demolish it, destroying the ancient sacred stone altar and burying ancestral gravesites to make way for a highway turn lane. Sadly, the government also chose to ignore the numerous alternatives for widening the highway, leaving the other side of the road untouched.

“We have been waiting for over a decade for this injustice to be set right,” said Carol Logan, tribal elder of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “It is past time for the court to recognize that without our sacred land, our religious traditions will be lost.”

After failed negotiations for restoration of the site, the tribal members pursued claims in federal court, arguing that the sacred site should have been protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, and several environmental laws. But even after acknowledging that the destruction of the sacred site would make it impossible for the tribal members to engage in their religious practices, the lower court ruled in February of 2021 that federal law does not prevent the government from destroying Native American sacred sites. Tribal leaders are now asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to provide justice for the destroyed site and assurances that this will not happen again.

The Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in a similar case, Apache Stronghold v. United States, last month. A group of Apaches and other native and non-native allies are fighting to protect sacred indigenous land in Arizona called Oak Flat from a foreign mining company that will swallow the sacred site in a nearly two-mile-wide, 1,100-foot deep crater. The United States tried to get the case thrown out of court, saying that because the destruction hasn’t occurred yet, the Apaches brought their lawsuit too soon. Ironically, in Slockish, the United States is making the opposite argument, saying that because the site has already been destroyed, the lawsuit should be thrown out as too late. The tribal members are asking the Ninth Circuit to end this injustice to Native American people.

“The government’s priorities were made abundantly clear when they decided to raze a sacred site into oblivion but protected a tattoo parlor on the other side of the highway,” said Joe Davis, counsel for Becket. “Native Americans have faced injustice from the United States government since before our nation’s founding and the discrimination isn’t over yet.”

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

Press Call Information:

Becket will host a press call at 5:45 p.m. ESTDial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Becket releases third annual Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON – On November 17, Becket will release the third edition of its annual Religious Freedom Index, a comprehensive study that tracks trends in American perspectives on religious freedom. Each year, the Index explores American attitudes across a wide range of religious liberty issues. This year, Becket also asked additional, timely, questions to gain insight into how Americans view faith-based organizations partnering with government, the place of religious voices in free speech, and the importance of religion and religious community during the pandemic. Join us on November 17, 2021, for a presentation and panel discussion examining the findings of the third annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment 

When:
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
1:00 p.m. EST 

Where:
Zoom: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84689674024 
or call in: 1-312-626-6799
Meeting ID: 846 8967 4024  

Presenters: 
Dee Allsop, Ph.D. – CEO and a managing partner at Heart & Mind Strategies
Caleb Lyman – director of research and analytics at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 

Panelists:
Kelsey Dallas – deputy editor and reporter at Deseret News
Jonathan Silver – editor of The Mosaic and senior director of the Tikvah Fund
Montse Alvarado  executive director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Michael Wear – founder, Public Square Strategies  

Moderator:
Katie Geary  creative content manager at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 

Media Contact:
Ryan Colby – associate communications director
media@becketlaw.org
(202) 349-7219 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Ninth Circuit to consider destruction of indigenous sacred site

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court will hear a case of major significance to Native American tribes today after the U.S. Federal Highway Administration bulldozed a longstanding sacred site near Mount Hood, Oregon in 2008 to add a turning lane to a nearby highway.

Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde say the government broke numerous federal laws by bulldozing their sacred site, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, and several environmental laws. Hereditary chiefs Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson, and elder Carol Logan, alerted the federal government to their use of the site before construction began. But their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the government destroyed the site anyway. In response to their lawsuit, the government says it has complete authority to destroy sacred sites located on federal land, and the trial court agreed.

Today’s argument comes shortly after the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in a similar case, Apache Stronghold v. United States. There, Becket represents Apaches whose sacred site, Chi’chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, is on the brink of being obliterated by a foreign-owned copper-mining company. If Oak Flat is destroyed, it will render the sacred land unusable by the Native peoples who worship there, just like in the sacred burial ground at issue in this case.

Becket counsel Joe Davis will ask the Ninth Circuit to make amends for the destruction of the sacred burial site and ensure that similar destruction of Native American sacred sites cannot be perpetrated in the future.

Becket is co-counsel in the case, along with Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch and Oregon City attorney James Nicita.

What:
Oral Argument in Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration

Who:
Joe Davis, counsel at Becket

When:
Today, November 16, 2021, at 2:00 PM PST and will last approximately 20 minutes.
A press call will be held immediately after.

Where:
The hearing will be live streamed in Courtroom 3 here.
James R. Browning U.S. Courthouse Room 307
95 7th Street, San Francisco, California 94103

Press Call Information:
Becket will host a press call at 2:45p.m. PST
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court hears request for prayer during execution

WASHINGTON The Supreme Court has just heard a Texas death row inmate’s request that the Justices protect his first freedom in his final hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has asked the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber, including laying hands on him. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case. Becket’s brief, which was co-authored by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic headed by Professor Josh McDaniel, was mentioned at oral argument.

“Apparently everything really is bigger in Texas, even the mistakes,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “And Texas is making a doozy by trying to stop condemned prisoners from getting right with God in their final minutes. Centuries of precedent and the example of the federal government and other states show there’s no good reason for Texas to deny Ramirez’s final request for his pastor to pray over him. The Supreme Court should reaffirm that a religious freedom George Washington himself protected is still protected by the First Amendment.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In 2019, TDCJ denied prisoner Patrick Murphy’s request that his Buddhist priest be allowed into the execution chamber, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate.

As Becket’s brief shows in detail, TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019.

The Court will likely decide the case sometime in the next few months. 

Press Call Information: 

Becket will host a press call at 1:30 p.m. EST
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

Supreme Court to hear oral argument on clergy access for the condemned

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear oral argument today in a case regarding access to clergy prayer for the condemned. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez, a Texas death row inmate, is seeking the ability to pray with and be touched by his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—in his final hour. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas prison system (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments.

The TDCJ’s recent record on clergy access in the death chamber is poor. Prior to 2019, TDCJ allowed chaplains in the death chamber, but after inmate Patrick Murphy asked to be accompanied by his Buddhist minister at his execution in 2019, TDCJ blocked all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber. The State revoked its ban after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of chaplain access in Dunn v. Smith, but TDCJ still prohibits spoken prayer and physical contact in the death chamber, practices it allowed for decades before 2019. In Ramirez v. Collier, the Court is expected to set the record straight once and for all.

What:
Supreme Court Oral Argument in Ramirez v. Collier

When:
Today, November 9, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. EST

Where:
C-SPAN
https://www.c-span.org/video/?514696-1/ramirez-v-collier-oral-argument

Press Call-in:
Becket will host a press call at 12:45 p.m. EST
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

A Becket attorney will be available for comment following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court rules in favor of nuns seeking opt-out from abortion mandate

WASHINGTON –The Supreme Court just ordered New York courts to reconsider Diocese of Albany v. Emami, a case challenging New York’s coercive abortion mandate, in light of Becket’s unanimous victory in Fulton v. Philadelphia. New York requires employers to cover abortions in their health insurance plans—even if the employers are religious groups like the Sisterhood of Saint Mary, an Anglican order of nuns dedicated to a peaceful, contemplative monastic life and youth outreach. After New York courts upheld the coercive mandate, Becket and Jones Day joined Tobin and Dempf, LLP, to represent the Diocese of Albany at the Supreme Court, which today vacated the lower courts’ rulings and ordered a rehearing of the case.

“We believe that every person is made in the image of God,” said Mother Miriam of the Sisterhood of Saint Mary, the oldest Anglican religious order founded in America. “That’s why we believe in the sanctity of human life, and why we seek to serve those of all faiths—or no faith at all—in our community. We’re grateful that the Supreme Court has taken action in our case and hopeful that, this time around, the New York Court of Appeals will preserve our ability to serve and encourage our neighbors.”

New York’s law has only a limited religious exemption—for religious groups that primarily serve and employ people of their own religion. This exemption, which is so narrow that Jesus himself would not qualify for it, excludes the Sisterhood of St. Mary because they sponsor a 4-H club and allow local youth to lease some of their prized Cashmere goats as part of their agricultural outreach ministry.

“New York clearly learned nothing from the federal government’s own attempts to force nuns to pay for contraceptives and is now needlessly threatening charities because they believe in the dignity and humanity of every human person,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Punishing faith groups for ministering to their local communities is cruel and counterproductive. We are thankful that the Supreme Court won’t allow the New York Court of Appeals’ bad ruling to be the last word on the right of religious ministries to serve New Yorkers of all faiths.”

Other religious groups targeted by the abortion mandate include the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, the First Bible Baptist Church of Hilton, New York, and Catholic Charities, the Catholic Church’s charitable arm, which all joined forces against the abortion mandate. What all of these diverse groups have in common is that they seek to serve all people in their communities: the First Bible Baptist Church conducts outreach via its local youth ministry, Catholic Charities provides adoption and maternity services to its community, and the Carmelite Sisters operate the Teresian Nursing Home in Albany. But because they offer these services to people in their communities regardless of their faith background, the state holds that they must offer abortion services in their insurance plans—or else.

“We are gratified and grateful that the Supreme Court has recognized the serious constitutional concerns over New York State’s heavy-handed abortion mandate on religious employers,” said The Most Rev. Edward B. Scharfenberger, bishop of the Diocese of Albany, New York. “We are confident that now that the Court has ordered the case remanded for reconsideration in light of last year’s Fulton v. Philadelphia decision, the unconstitutional regulatory action taken by New York State will ultimately be completely overturned as incompatible with our country’s First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty.”

The religious groups are also represented by Michael Costello of Tobin and Dempf, LLP, and Noel Francisco and Victoria Dorfman of Jones Day. Mr. Francisco was counsel of record at the Supreme Court.

Apaches in federal court to save their sacred land

SAN FRANCISCO – Apaches from Arizona were in federal court today to save their sacred site known as Oak Flat from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide crater deeper than the Eiffel Tower. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will turn this historically protected land over to a foreign-owned mining company that will obliterate the sacred ground where the Apaches conduct their most important religious ceremonies.

In Apache Stronghold v. United States, Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, is asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a land swap, which would completely destroy the sacred land and religious exercise of the region’s first inhabitants. Becket is representing Apache Stronghold, arguing that the destruction of sacred sites is a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion (watch their story).

“As it was at the beginning of our people with one prayer, one drum and one circle we again must defend our sacred land and our home with one prayer, one drum and one circle,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We have worshipped on Oak Flat since time immemorial in reverence just as Abrahamic faiths reverence Mt. Sinai and we will continue to defend and protect our sacred place.”

Apache Stronghold is asking the Ninth Circuit to halt a land transfer to a foreign-owned mining company, which plans to destroy a traditional Apache sacred site as part of a multi-billion-dollar copper-mining plan. Oak Flat – known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel – is part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The federal government has protected the land from mining interests for more than six decades, recognizing that the Western Apaches and other tribes have long celebrated sacred ceremonies and gathered natural resources from the area. The worship of Western Apaches is inseparable from Oak Flat, where they gather medicinal plants, visit sacred springs, and conduct essential ceremonies such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women—practices which cannot happen anywhere else.

Unfortunately, a midnight rider was slipped into a must-pass defense bill in 2014, directing the government to transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company whose parent company, Rio Tinto, recently destroyed a sacred 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia. Now Apache Stronghold, a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies, has asked the court to stop the land transfer because it would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

“The brazen destruction of a sacred site like Oak Flat is a tragic reminder of how terribly the United States government has treated, and still treats, Native peoples,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of Becket. “This kind of abuse would never be tolerated for other faith groups, and it is long past time for the courts to stop this injustice.”

A ruling in this case is expected in the coming months. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael Nixon and Bill Carpenter.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

This week: Apaches in court to save their sacred land

WASHINGTON – Apaches in Arizona will be in federal court this week to save their spiritual lifeblood and sacred site known as Oak Flat from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide crater deeper than the Eiffel Tower. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will turn this historically protected land over to a foreign-owned mining company that will obliterate the sacred ground where the Apaches conduct their most important religious ceremonies.   

In Apache Stronghold v. United States, Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, is asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a crooked land swap with a mining company that will completely destroy the sacred land and devastate the Apaches’ religious life. Becket is representing Apache Stronghold, arguing that the destruction of sacred sites is a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion.  

Members of Apache Stronghold, Poor People’s Campaign and supporters will be protesting outside the courthouse during the virtual hearing. Details about the protest and hearing are below.  

What:
Oral Argument in Apache Stronghold v. United States 

Who:
Luke Goodrich, Becket vice president & senior counsel 
Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr., Apache Stronghold  

When:
Friday, October 22 at proximately 12 p.m. PST (time may change) 

Where:
Protest location (outdoors):
Civic Center Plaza
Larkin St between Grove St and Fulton St, San Francisco
9 a.m. – 1 p.m. PST

Oral argument will be held virtually at this link: Live Video Streaming of Oral Arguments and Events (uscourts.gov) 

Attorney Luke Goodrich and Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. Join us for statements live on Twitter @BECKETlaw. 

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael Nixon and Bill Carpenter. 

Statements for media use:  

“As it was at the beginning of our people with one prayer, one drum and one circle we again must defend our sacred land and our home with one prayer, one drum and one circle,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We have worshipped on Oak Flat since time immemorial in reverence just as Abrahamic faiths reverence Mt. Sinai and we will be outside the courthouse to defend and protect our sacred place.” 

“The government’s plan to destroy Oak Flat is a tragic reminder of how terribly our nation has treated, and still treats, native peoples,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Such callous disregard of religious practices would never be tolerated for other faith groups, and it is long past time for our nation to provide equal protection for Native Americans and their religious practices.” 

Photos © Russ McSpadden 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court asked to protect clergy prayer for the condemned

WASHINGTON – A Texas death row inmate is asking the Supreme Court to protect his first freedom in his last hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has appealed to the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber. The Court will hear argument in the case on November 1. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief yesterday arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them threatens centuries-old religious rituals that long predate the United States and continue to be practiced in prisons around the country. 

Becket argues that both audible clergy prayer and clergy touch stand at the center of the “historical practices and understandings” that define the Free Exercise right to clergy access for the condemned. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires TDCJ to prove that it has a really important reason to enforce these restrictions, and can accomplish its goals no other way—which it cannot do. 

“For some reason, Texas wants to turn back the clock hundreds of years on the rights of clergy to minister to the condemned,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “If King George III could do it back then, and Alabama can do it today, Texas ought to be able to figure it out. The Supreme Court should tell Texas to allow Ramirez’s pastor to minister to him in the death chamber, including by praying aloud and laying hands on him. Human dignity and simple common sense demand no less.” 

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In a 2019 case, Patrick Murphy asked the TDCJ to allow his Buddhist priest into the execution chamber with him and to chant his prayers with him as he died. TDCJ denied Murphy this right, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded to Murphy’s “equal treatment” claim by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. This runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019. 

Ramirez’s request is not unusual. Clergy of choice have been allowed in most executions performed over the history of the United States, and in the lethal injection context, clergy members have offered touch and audible prayer in the final moments for decades.  

“Our country allowed clergy to minister to Revolutionary War traitors and Nazi war criminals at the gallows. We have always given condemned prisoners the chance to get right with God not because of who they are, but because of who we are,” said Rassbach. 

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Ramirez v. Collier on November 1. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Becket releases Season 2 of Stream of Conscience

WASHINGTON– Becket has just released Season 2 of Stream of Conscience, its highly acclaimed religious liberty podcast. In this brand-new season, hosts Katie Geary and Dr. Angela Wu Howard lead listeners on a deep dive into religious liberty’s fundamental constitutional components—the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause—and explore religious freedom in relation to other fundamental rights like the freedom of speech and the right to property. Over the coming months, Becket will release a total of ten new episodes, each featuring a case with lasting impact on religious freedom in America. 

In Season 2, Katie Geary and Dr. Angela Wu Howard bring to bear their collective expertise representing Americans of all faiths and telling their stories in the public square. The episodes include interviews with Americans who have put everything on the line to defend their First Amendment rights, the attorneys who have represented them, and experts in constitutional law. 

“Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has demonstrated a strong appetite for protecting Religious Freedom, setting critical precedents that benefit people of all faiths, and even people of no faith at all. There’s never been a more opportune time to dive into our First Freedom and learn more about its importance to every day Americans like you and me,” said Montse Alvarado, Vice President and Executive Director of Becket. “Stream of Conscience is designed to be thought provoking for everyone—from the veteran Supreme Court advocate to the student exploring religious freedom for the first time.” 

 The first three episodes will include: 

  • How the Lemon Test Soured the First Amendment. A look at how the meaning of the Establishment Clause was distorted—from its original purpose of preventing the establishment of a state-sponsored church, to a misunderstood “wall” keeping religion out of the public square—and how the Supreme Court is setting the record straight. 
  • Live Where You Serve. How one church in Chicago’s South Side provides a powerful example of the importance of a federal tax credit for the pastors who live among and serve underprivileged communities, and why it’s perfectly constitutional under the Establishment Clause.   
  • Why Won’t You Be my Neighbor? When a growing Chabad attempted to build a new synagogue and center, a small but vocal opposition used the court system to block its efforts—until Becket stepped in to correct the course.

An early, bonus episode of Stream of Conscience Season 2 was released on Tuesday, featuring the history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, championed by Becket’s 2021 Canterbury Medal recipient, Senator Orrin G. Hatch.  

Episodes of Stream of Conscience Season 2 will premiere on a bimonthly basis and will be available for download on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, and Spotify.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here). 

 

Supreme Court 2021-22: Goat-herding nuns, religious schools, prayer in the death chamber

WASHINGTON – Last year, in a range of cases concerning COVID-19, college campuses, the federal no-fly list, and foster care, the Supreme Court repeatedly strengthened religious liberty. In the upcoming 2021 Term, which opens October 4, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to protect rural families and their children’s access to religious private school education, prisoner’s comfort of clergy in the death chamber and goat-herding nuns from mandated abortion coverage in their insurance plan.  

In Carson v. Makin, the State of Maine has a religious discrimination problem. It provides funding to students in rural parts of the state who want to attend a secular elite prep school in another part of New England—or even overseas—but it won’t do the same for those who want to attend religious private schools down the street. Becket’s brief argues that this type of religious discrimination is unconstitutional because states can’t punish families and children for choosing religious schools. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in July of 2021 and oral argument is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.  

In Ramirez v. Collier, a condemned man is asking for his pastor to pray for him in the death chamber. The State of Texas has refused to allow John Ramirez’s pastor to pray aloud for Ramirez, or hold Ramirez’s hand in prayer, in the death chamber. As one of the oldest religious exercises in human history, allowing clergy to assist the condemned at the moment of death is at the heart of religious liberty. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Ramirez’s emergency application at the Supreme Court last week. That application was granted and the case was scheduled for argument before the Court on November 1, 2021.   

In Diocese of Albany v. Emami, nuns are back at the Supreme Court. This time, an order of nuns that provides healthcare services is among a coalition of religious groups fighting a New York state abortion mandate that would force them to cover abortion in their health plans. The mandate does have a narrow religious exemption—except Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify because Jesus served people of all faiths. That’s a problem for the Carmelite Sisters, because they perform social work for people of all faiths. Becket and the law firm Jones Day have filed a petition to the Supreme Court, and a decision to take the case could come as early as October 8.  

Join the Nation’s religious freedom experts to discuss these and other religious liberty cases to watch this coming term. On the call we will discuss the themes for the upcoming term, cases being heard this term and preview petitions currently pending before the Court. We will take questions at the end of the call. 

For more information about the agenda click here.

What:
Preview of the SCOTUS 2021-22 term 

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket
Montse Alvarado, COO of Becket 

When:
Tuesday, September 14, 2021 at 2:15 p.m. EDT 

Call-in:
Zoom ID: 849 8489 2727 or join us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email questions in advance to: media@becketlaw.org.

This press call has already concluded. Click here listen to a recording.

Additionally, Becket has just launched season 2 of its Stream of Conscience podcast with the release of episode one: A Love Letter to RFRA. It can be found on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify and wherever else you stream!  

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Becket to Supreme Court: Stop state discrimination against religious schools

WASHINGTON – Becket just filed its friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in Carson v. Makin in support of religious schools’ ability to teach their faith without fear of government discrimination. The brief is in support of students in Maine who are wrongly barred from using Maine’s flexible schooling subsidy program to attend the school of their choice—a religious school.

Maine pays the private school tuition of students who live in certain thinly populated rural areas where no public schooling is available. This allows them to attend the school of their choice – unless they choose to attend a school with too much religious content according to the State, which reviews schools’ curriculums to ensure that they aren’t engaging in “sectarian” behavior. 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.

“Maine will pay a student’s tuition if they want to attend a private school in England, but not if they want to attend a local faith-based school,” said Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket. “It is time for the Supreme Court to put an end to this unfair double-standard once and for all.”

States have a long history of excluding religious institutions from public benefits, often due to discriminatory Blaine Amendments that were passed during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment starting in the late nineteenth century. However, as Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief points out, the Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution prevents laws that burden religious beliefs or actions simply because they are religious. In a previous case, Espinoza v. Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court ruled that Montana couldn’t single out religious schools for exclusion from a state scholarship program.

“It’s not right to target religious parents, students, and schools for a denial of government benefits,” said Thomson. “The Supreme Court has said that schools cannot be excluded for their religious status—that should have been enough. But now it should clarify that this rule includes schools that want to actually teach the faith to their students.”

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

South Texas Catholics want Texas to let them carry out their ministry

WASHINGTON – As the fight between the federal government and the State of Texas over the border escalates, South Texas Catholics and the largest temporary migrant respite center in the Rio Grande Valley are caught in the middle. They are asking a federal court to continue their religious mission of serving the most vulnerable. A hearing on the case will be held this morning in El Paso federal district court.

An executive order issued on July 28 by Texas Governor Abbott that prohibits group vehicle transportation of migrants would have the opposite of its intended effect. It means that young families, pregnant mothers, and single women crossing the border may lose access to food, clothing, a place to rest, and a free COVID test. Local Texas communities may also lose a critical partner in preventing the spread of COVID in their community.

Sister Norma Pimentel leads Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Humanitarian Respite Center. Catholic Charities and the respite center are a ministry of the Diocese of Brownsville, headed by Bishop Daniel E. Flores. Sister Pimentel and her team provide food, clothing, medical care, and a place to briefly rest out of the heat for young women and families brought to their doorstep by federal border patrol agents. Since 2014, the Center has served over 100,000 migrants. But in July 2021, Governor Abbott issued an executive order that would stop and impound the cars of people who transport migrants in Texas, supposedly in an effort to limit the spread of COVID. Unfortunately, this order threatens to exacerbate the COVID crisis by preventing Catholic Charities from transporting COVID-positive migrants to quarantine locations. On August 3, the federal district court in El Paso issued a temporary restraining order against Governor Abbott’s order. It will now decide whether to issue an injunction against the order while the lawsuit is pending.

“Caring for the stranger in need has always been at the core of the Catholic faith,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This order solves nothing and wrongfully endangers Catholic Charities’ religious mission to care for migrants.”

Catholic Charities tests all migrants who arrive at the respite center for COVID; those who test negative are served onsite, while those who test positive are transported to one of several hotels contracted by Catholic Charities or the City of McAllen to serve as a place to quarantine. If the respite center could no longer engage in its ministry, migrants would be dropped by federal border patrol agents at bus stations in the local community without receiving a COVID test, increasing the likelihood of community spread.

“We want to stop the spread of COVID-19 as much as the state does,” said Reverend Daniel E. Flores, bishop of Brownsville, Texas. “But for that to happen, we need the government to let us do what Christ called us to do: minister to the strangers among us in their time of distress.”

In support of the federal government’s legal challenge to Abbott’s July 28 order, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining how the order restricts religious exercise, harms migrants, and increases the community spread of COVID.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Additional Information:

###

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Court affirms hiring rights for religious schools

WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled today in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, reaffirming its right to provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education. In Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and of centuries-old Catholic teaching. Becket defended the Archdiocese, arguing that the government is constitutionally prohibited from forcing the Catholic Church to hire educators who reject Catholic teachings while serving in roles entrusted with passing on its faith. The court agreed, ruling that when an employee is “tasked with guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood,” “[o]ne may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work.”  

Every administrator, teacher, and guidance counselor at Roncalli High School signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives. In August of 2018, Lynn Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in a same-sex union in violation of her contract and centuries-old Catholic teaching. The school then explained that it could not renew her contract in light of her opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both Roncalli and the Archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation. 

“Today’s ruling is common sense: religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “At all levels of the judiciary, courts have made clear that the government has no place interfering with a religious organization’s decision about who can pass on the faith to the next generation.”  

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in important personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The Court’s most recent decision came last year in Becket’s landmark case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berruin which it confirmed the principle of the “ministerial exception,” that religious schools should be free to choose their teachers without government interference. The full Seventh Circuit applied that ruling just last month in Becket’s win in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. And today, the federal court in Starkey upheld the principle of church autonomy by keeping secular courts out of questions of faith. 

“Many parents make sacrifices so their children can attend Catholic schools that uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” said Goodrich. “Today’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their religious mission.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Federal court shuts down harmful Transgender Mandate

WASHINGTON – A federal court in Texas just blocked a harmful Biden administration policy known as the Transgender Mandate, which would force religious doctors and hospitals to perform gender transition procedures on their patients—including children—even when the procedures can be medically harmful. The case of Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra was brought by a religious hospital, an association of over 20,000 healthcare professionals, and nine states, and it is now the second court ruling blocking the administration from enforcing the policy.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for compassion, conscience, and common sense,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “No doctor should be forced to perform controversial, medically unsupported procedures that are contrary to their conscience and could be deeply harmful to their patients.” 

Five years and two presidents ago, the federal government issued a mandate that applied to nearly every doctor in the country — interpreting the Affordable Care Act to require them to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including children, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Doctors who refused to violate their medical judgment would face severe consequences, including financial penalties and private lawsuits. Immediately, religious organizations and states sued, challenging the legality of the mandate in multiple courts. In 2016, a federal court in North Dakota put the rule on hold, and in 2019 another federal court in Texas struck it down. Recently, the Biden administration announced that it would revive the same policy. Today’s ruling stops that attempt.  

“These religious doctors and hospitals provide top-notch medical care to all patients for everything from cancer to the common cold,” said Goodrich. “Everyone benefits when doctors are able to follow their professional medical judgment and their Hippocratic Oath to ‘Do No Harm.’”  

The Biden administration will have 60 days to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Three for three: student clubs prevail against religious discrimination

WASHINGTON – In Becket’s unanimous win today in InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, the federal court for the Eighth Circuit told University officials it was “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination” than their discrimination against religious student groups, marking the third time religious groups successfully prevailed against discriminatory university administrators in recent months. The victory today and similar wins in InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa make clear that universities must not discriminate against religious student clubs—and the Court warned that university officials who “make calculated choices about enacting or enforcing [such] unconstitutional policies” should be on notice that they are not entitled to qualified immunity but instead will be held personally accountable for their actions.  

“Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought, but the school officials here punished opinions they didn’t like and promoted ones they did—all while using taxpayer dollars to do it,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “The good news is that they’ve been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice. We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination, when it comes to religious exercise on campus.”

In 2018, the University of Iowa deregistered InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship and numerous other religious groups—including Muslim and Sikh groups—because of their common-sense requirement that their leaders agree with their religious beliefs. As in the Wayne State and BLinC cases, the University justified its targeting of religious clubs by accusing the clubs of “discrimination” for wanting their leadership to share their values—even while the schools permitted other organizations (such as sororities, fraternities, and political or activist groups) to consider criteria such as a student’s sex, race, or ideology in the selection of club leadership and membership. Today’s victory will bring all campus religious student groups lasting protection from religious discrimination by officials at public universities. 

The Court encapsulated the situation—and the unconstitutionality—neatly: 

What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy—while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions [the University] presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. 

Religious student clubs like InterVarsity provide a valuable place for students to meet, pray, study, and worship. They also help students serve the community, mentoring at-risk youth, raising funds to combat global poverty and cleaning up local neighborhoods. Religious student groups provide a way for students to take time from their studies to focus on their faith and on helping others. And religious groups rely on their student leaders to keep that focus strong.  

“Religious groups should be able to have religious leaders. Government officials don’t get to tell Christians, Muslims, or Sikhs who will lead their prayers or their worship,” said Blomberg. “That’s not just bedrock constitutional law, it’s also common sense. And now the University of Iowa knows it.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Court rules church allowed to select & supervise ministers

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled that religious organizations have the freedom to choose and supervise their religious leaders, free from government intrusion. In Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the former music director of St. Andrew parish sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for requiring its liturgical leaders to follow the Catholic faith. After a Seventh Circuit panel ruled against the Archdiocese, Becket joined the Archdiocese to ask the entire court to rehear the case. On Friday, the en banc Seventh Circuit reversed the panel’s previous ruling and declared that the “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that protects against government intrusion into the employment relationships between churches and their ministers, protects the entire ministerial relationship and not just the beginning or end.  

“Worship is sacred. That’s why worship leaders who select and perform elements of worship are ministers of the faith, conveying its teachings to the faithful,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “That’s also why the church—not the state—gets to make sure that its music ministers are directing its congregation in a way that’s faithful to its beliefs.” 

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling upholds important First Amendment principles for the interaction of church and state, reminding lower courts that “we cannot lose sight of the harms—civil intrusion and excessive entanglement—that the ministerial exception prevents.” Thus, instead of merely safeguarding the beginning and end of a ministerial relationship, the First Amendment “covers the entire employment relationship, including hiring, firing, and supervising in between.”  

As a church music director and organist, Sandor Demkovich played a central role in planning and performing the liturgy and conveying the Catholic faith to St. Andrew’s congregation. When Mr. Demkovich entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his employment agreement and 2,000-year-old Church teaching, the pastor had to terminate his employment. Mr. Demkovich then sued the Archdiocese.  

“The court ruled that the government can’t interfere in the ministerial relationship between a church and worship leaders,” said Blomberg. “It’s common sense that if the government can’t tell a church which ministers to hire or fire, it also can’t manage churches’ ministerial relationships in between.”  

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also represented by its General Counsel, James Geoly, who argued the case before the panel and the en banc court, and by Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Unanimous Supreme Court protects foster moms & 200-year-old ministry

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court just 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. Catholic Social Services supports foster mothers like Sharonell and Toni and serves children without regard to race, religion, or sexual orientation. Thanks to today’s decision, it can continue that vital work. In the Court’s unanimous decision, Chief Justice Roberts made clear that the city cannot exclude foster parents like Sharonell and Toni or Catholic Social Services simply because city officials disagree with the religious agency’s sincere Catholic beliefs about marriage. The Justices also recognized that protecting faith-affirming agencies will ensure foster children in need have every opportunity available to find a loving home. As the Court explained, “[t]he City apparently prefers to risk leaving children without foster parents than to allow CSS to follow its religiously dictated policy, which threatens no tangible harm.”

The Court’s opinion also confirmed “CSS has ‘long been a point of light in the City’s foster-care system.’ CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.” The decision is a strong message in favor of religious freedom: “so long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.”

Today’s decision recognizes that diverse foster agencies will help diverse families thrive. Catholic Social Services welcomes women of color like Sharonell and Toni and is committed to serving those most in need. More than 70 percent of the children supported by this religious ministry’s foster care program are racial minorities.

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the important work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home,” said foster mom and named plaintiff Sharonell Fulton. “My faith is what drives me to care for foster children here in Philadelphia and I thank God the Supreme Court believes that’s a good thing, worthy of protection.”

“The Justices understand that foster parents like me share in the common, noble task of providing children with loving homes,” said Toni Simms-Busch, also a foster mom and named plaintiff. “Our foster-care ministry in Philadelphia is vital to solving the foster care crisis and Catholic Social Services is a cornerstone of that ministry. The Supreme Court’s decision ensure the most vulnerable children in the City of Brotherly Love have every opportunity to find loving homes.”

In Sharonell Fulton et. al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia told Catholic Social Services that it had to either change its religious practices or close down, thus preventing children from being placed with loving foster parents like Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch.

Becket Senior Counsel Lori Windham argued on behalf of Sharonell, Toni, and Catholic Social Services, explaining to the Supreme Court how the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to serve those in need without giving up the religious beliefs that motivate their ministry.

“It’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket who argued the case in Fulton. “Taking care of children, especially children who have been neglected and abused, is a universal value that spans all ideological divides. Today, I am grateful that the Supreme Court protected heroes of the foster care system like Sharonell and Toni, who give of themselves daily to care for children in need.”

Becket will hold a press call today at 11:45 AM EST
Foster mom Toni Simms Busch, Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia, and Becket Fund senior counsel Lori Windham who will deliver remarks and answer questions about the Supreme Court decision, respectively.

Call-in information:
 Join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

Texas Supreme Court: First Amendment bars clergyman’s million-dollar suit against Catholic Church

WASHINGTON –The Texas Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-1, rejected a million-dollar defamation lawsuit today against the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, ensuring that religious organizations are free to speak transparently with their flocks about their clergy. 

The Texas Supreme Court recognized the full scope of the First Amendment’s freedom for religious institutions to shape their own faith and missions. Religious institutions are not only free to make “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” They are also free to make any “publications that relate to a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission.”  

As the court said, a religious institution’s freedom “is based not on whether a publication goes beyond church walls but rather whether the substance and nature of the … claims implicate ecclesiastical matters, including a church’s internal affairs, governance, or administration.” It is not enough that a secular court can think of a way to make a claim sound non-religious. As the court stated in its opinion, “a civil suit that is inextricably intertwined with a church’s directive to investigate its clergy cannot proceed in the courts.” Any other conclusion would mean that religious institutions are not free to make decisions “consistent with [their] own norms and policies.”   

 “The Church carries its mission well beyond its four walls,” said William Haun, counsel at Becket. “We are happy that the court recognized that fundamental truth today, and that the First Amendment does not allow government bodies—including courts—to interfere with internal religious decisions. Religious organizations do not surrender their freedom to govern themselves just because they speak in public on matters affecting their faith, clergy, and moral witness.”  

In 2019, the Catholic dioceses of Texas agreed to compile and release lists of clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. This was part of the Catholic Church’s broader effort to reform its governance around transparency toward clergy misconduct, better protect vulnerable community members, and restore lost trust. The list was drawn up in accordance with the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which defines a “minor” as any person habitually lacking the use of reason. Deacon Guerrero was placed on the list after he had been permanently removed from public ministry following allegations of sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional illness.   

As a Catholic clergyman, Deacon Guerrero knew about Canon Law and was obliged to follow it. He sued the Diocese in 2019 claiming defamation because the woman he was accused of abusing was older than 18 years of age.   

After two lower courts ruled against the Diocese, Becket represented the Diocese on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The Diocese’s petitions received the support of 34 members of the Texas legislature, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, prominent legal scholars, and a diverse array of religious organizations.  

“Today the Texas Supreme Court said ‘Don’t mess with Texas churches,’” said Haun. “Any other decision would have amounted to punishing the Church for doing the right thing by its members.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Senator Orrin G. Hatch awarded religious liberty’s highest honor

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, who represented Utah in the United States Senate from 1977-2019, was awarded Becket’s highest honor for his unfailing dedication to the defense of religious freedom for all. His principled leadership and legacy of bipartisan lawmaking has helped protect freedom of thought and uncommon religious beliefs to this day. Senator Hatch was honored at last night’s Canterbury Medal Gala in Park City, Utah.  

As a United States senator for 42 years and the longest-serving Republican and Utahn senator, Senator Hatch shepherded more than 750 bills into law. One of his greatest triumphs, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), is considered a cornerstone of religious freedom protection for minority faith communities. The legislation was passed by an overwhelming majority of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. In 2000, he was the primary author of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress. 

“I am proud to have preserved religious freedom for people of all faiths through legislation such as RFRA, which is needed today more than ever.  Religious freedom was sewn into the very fabric of this country from the beginning, and protecting the right of conscience for every American is essential to the future of our republic,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch. “I am humbled tonight to have received the Canterbury Medal, and I take confidence knowing that the defense of religious liberty is in good hands.”

As Chairman Emeritus, Senator Hatch continues his important work through the efforts of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, advancing issues relating to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief. He also writes on topics such as politics, law, and faith. Senator Hatch is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“Senator Hatch’s relentless work to pass RFRA unquestionably solidified religious liberty protections for all Americans,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Through his efforts, he has helped protect faithful Sikhs serving in the military, Native American worship traditions and sacred sites, prisoners who turn to their faith while incarcerated, and nuns who care for the elderly sick and dying. Without RFRA and without Senator Hatch’s commitment to religious liberty, our freedom of conscience would simply not be what it is today.” 

The Canterbury Medal is given to a leading figure who champions a robust role for religion in society and refuses to render unto Caesar that which is God’s. Its name draws from one of the most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, repeatedly blocked King Henry II’s encroachments on the church’s liberties. Past medalists include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and apostle and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader President Dallin H. Oaks. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Indiana court upholds religious freedom for Catholic schools

WASHINGTON – An Indiana trial court today issued an important ruling in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, confirming its right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education. In Payne-Elliot v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former Catholic high school teacher sued the Archdiocese after he was dismissed for entering a same-sex union in violation of his contract and millennia of Church teaching. The trial court initially ruled that the lawsuit could move forward, but the Indiana Supreme Court sent the case back down and authorized the trial court to reconsider. The court then threw out the entire case, vindicating the Archdiocese’s constitutional right to set religious standards for its schools.

Every Catholic school teacher in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed. In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, who taught at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, entered a same-sex union in violation of both his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. After an extensive period of discernment and dialogue, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed Cathedral High School that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it needed to require its teachers to uphold Church teaching. After Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott and provided him with a settlement, he sued the Archdiocese.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the Archdiocese. “This has always been a very simple case, because the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose teachers who support their religious faith.”

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution protects the personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The Court’s most recent decision came earlier this year in Becket’s landmark cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of religious organizations to “autonomy” in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance. Prior to that, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the same right in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, another Becket case. Today, the Indiana court applied that principle and affirmed that the government has no business interfering in religious standards at religious schools.

In September 2020, both the United States Department of Justice and the State of Indiana filed briefs in the case, arguing that “settled law on the church-autonomy doctrine makes clear that the First Amendment prohibits the [lawsuit].” It is not yet clear if the plaintiff intends to appeal.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Corte Internacional es urgida a permitir que las iglesias, sinagogas y mezquitas elijan a maestros de religión, no el Estado

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WASHINGTON – Hoy, el Fondo Becket Pro Libertad Religiosa presentó un escrito amicus curiae en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. El Fondo Becket aclaró la importancia de este derecho argumentando que las iglesias, sinagogas y mezquitas de todo el hemisferio occidental, no los funcionarios estatales, son quienes deberían elegir quién enseña religión en las escuelas. El caso, Sandra Pavez vs. Chile, se refiere a una demanda presentada contra la Diócesis de San Bernardo, Chile, por un maestro de escuela cuya certificación para enseñar la fe católica fue revocada por la diócesis por una violación del derecho canónico católico.

El escrito de Becket explica que los tribunales internacionales y nacionales de todo el mundo han reconocido el principio fundamental de autonomía de la iglesia: el control religioso sobre cuestiones religiosas, como es el caso de decidir quién enseña la fe a la siguiente generación. El escrito de Becket insta a la Corte Interamericana —un tribunal internacional con jurisdicción sobre 35 naciones del hemisferio occidental, incluidos los Estados Unidos, Canadá, México y Argentina, entre otras naciones— a reconocer dicho principio como ya lo han hecho otros tribunales internacionales.

“La autonomía de los grupos religiosos es fundamental para toda sociedad democrática”, dijo Diana Verm, asesora senior de Becket. “Los funcionarios estatales simplemente no deberían de ingerir en la elección de obispos, rabinos, imames o maestros de religión”.

En Chile, una nación predominantemente católica, las clases de religión se imparten en escuelas públicas, pero al tratarse de una cuestión de autonomía religiosa, los maestros de estas clases deben ser certificados por el obispo católico local como calificados para enseñar la religión católica. Cuando Sandra Pavez, profesora de religión en una escuela pública en San Bernardo se casó con una persona del mismo sexo en violación de la enseñanza de la Iglesia, la Diócesis de San Bernardo revocó su certificación.

A pesar de que la Sra. Pavez fue retenida en su empleo e incluso promovida a un mejor puesto por la escuela, demandó a la diócesis —que no era su empleador— por discriminación laboral. Cuando los tribunales chilenos fallaron en su contra, presentó una demanda contra la nación de Chile en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, alegando que Chile había permitido una “injerencia arbitraria en la vida privada” en violación de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos.

El escrito de Becket explica que una amplia gama de precedentes legales —provenientes del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos, de las constituciones y leyes de los Estados Unidos y del Tribunal Europeo de Derechos Humanos— apoyan sistemáticamente el principio de autonomía religiosa como fundamental para todos los Estados democráticos. De hecho, la autonomía religiosa proporciona una protección especial para los grupos minoritarios e impopulares. Por el contrario, estados autoritarios como Irán y Rusia no respetan ni la autonomía religiosa ni a las personas LGBTQ.

“Es mejor tanto para la Iglesia como para el Estado que el Estado no decida sobre cuestiones religiosas”, dijo Verm. “Todas las sociedades democráticas reconocen ese hecho fundamental. La Corte Interamericana debería estar del lado de esos países, no de violadores seriales de los derechos humanos como Arabia Saudita o Corea del Norte”.

Para obtener más información o para concertar una entrevista con un abogado de Becket comuníquese con Ryan Colby a media@becketlaw.org o al 202-349-7219. Las entrevistas se pueden realizar en inglés, chino, francés, alemán, portugués, ruso y español.

International court urged to let churches, synagogues, and mosques choose religion teachers, not the state

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WASHINGTON – The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief late yesterday at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the Western Hemisphere—not state officials—should choose who teaches religion in schools. The case, Pavez v. Chile, concerns a lawsuit brought against the Diocese of San Bernardo, Chile, by a schoolteacher whose certification to teach the Catholic faith was revoked by the diocese over a violation of Catholic canon law.

Becket’s brief explains that international and national courts around the world have recognized the fundamental principle of church autonomy: religious control over religious questions like who teaches the faith to the next generation. Becket’s brief urges the Inter-American Court—an international tribunal with jurisdiction over 35 nations in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Argentina, among others—to recognize the same principle that other international tribunals have.

“The autonomy of religious groups is fundamental to any democratic society,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “State officials simply should not be in the business of picking bishops, rabbis, imams, or teachers of religion.”

In Chile, a predominantly Catholic nation, religion classes are taught in government schools, but as a matter of religious autonomy, the teachers of these classes must be certified by the local Catholic bishop as qualified to teach the Catholic religion. When Sandra Pavez, a religion teacher in a government school in San Bernardo, entered a same-sex mar