Catholic Charities v. Whitmer

Children Are Struggling 

Between 2017 and 2021, the number of American young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria—an experience of severe distress over their biological sex—increased 300%. Research shows that the vast majority of these children will grow out of their distress naturally if allowed to go through puberty unhindered. Nevertheless, thousands of these children have instead been put through a “gender transition,” including a regime of puberty blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries, to make their bodies resemble the opposite sex. There is no reliable evidence that these procedures offer any long-term benefits, and abundant evidence that they cause lasting harms—including loss of bone density, increased risk of cancer, sexual dysfunction, and permanent sterilization.  

Because of these harms, 25 states and five European countries have banned or severely restricted gender transitions for children. And victims of this treatment are increasingly coming forward, asking why they were offered medical treatment to change their bodies, instead of compassionate care to help them navigate natural puberty and careful counseling to help them heal from the underlying causes of their discomfort. (See their stories.) 

Counselors Can Help 

Emily McJones is a Catholic therapist living in Lansing, Michigan. After serving for years as a therapist for suicidal teens, Emily opened her own counseling practice, Little Flower Counseling, where she helps both children and adults with a wide range of issues. At Little Flower, Emily integrates evidence-based psychotherapy techniques with her religious beliefs, including the belief that God made human beings male or female. 

Some of Emily’s clients are children experiencing discomfort with their biological sex. Emily helps these children by talking with them to address the underlying causes of their discomfort, alleviate their distress, and, if possible, allow them to accept their bodies without resorting to irreversible life-altering medical intervention. In Emily’s experience, this cautious approach is the best way to help children experiencing such discomfort. This approach is also supported by the best available scientific evidence and by recently enacted laws in 25 states and five European countries, which have banned or severely restricted medical gender transitions for minors. 

Michigan Muzzles Counselors 

Unfortunately, Michigan recently enacted a new law that prevents counselors from using this cautious, science-backed approach to helping children in distress. Rather than allowing children to work through the root causes of their challenges, the law requires counselors to affirm children in their belief that they were born on the wrong bodies and to “provide[] assistance to [a child] undergoing a gender transition”—which often includes puberty blocking drugs, cross sex hormones, and surgeries that cause irreversible harm. As a result, counselors like Emily, who believe they have an ethical and religious duty not to rush children into harmful, life-altering medical procedures, face the prospect of losing their licenses and fines of up to $250,000. The law thus deprives children and families of the compassionate counseling they desperately need. 

Counselors Take a Stand  

On July 12, 2024, Emily, along with the local Catholic Charities’ counseling ministry, filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan. They argue that the state’s law blocks them from counseling in a way that is consistent with the best available scientific evidence and violates the constitutional protections for freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and parental rights. They also argue that the laws will have real consequences for youth struggling with their biological sex—kids who already suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The counselors are asking the court to protect their freedom to offer cautious, compassionate therapy to help these children. They do not want to deny children the counseling services they need to live whole, integrated lives. 

Importance to religious liberty:  

  • Free speech: Free speech includes the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas with others—including religious ideas. Freedom of speech and religious liberty go hand-in-hand; protecting one protects the other. 
  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. 
  • Parental Rights: Parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Teachings around family life and human sexuality lie at the heart of most religions, and Becket defends the right of parents to guide their own children on such matters.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. District of Columbia

Bringing together faith, service, and sports 

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

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

FCA sidelined for its faith 

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

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

FCA seeks equal access to public school campuses 

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

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

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on public-school campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public school. 
  • Religious Communities—Religious groups must be able to select the members of their ministries according to their religious mission and sincere faith, free from government interference. 

M.C. and J.C. v. Indiana Department of Child Services

Indiana officials investigate Catholic parents for their religious beliefs 

Mary and Jeremy Cox are a faithful Catholic couple living in Indiana. In 2019, their son left them a note informing them that he identified as a girl. Because of their religious belief that God creates human beings with an 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. As a result, they provided therapeutic care for their child’s mental health and scheduled appointments with a specialist to help him with the eating disorder. During this time, Mary and Jeremy spoke to their son about their religious beliefs regarding sexuality, and they agreed to find middle ground with him by calling him by the nickname “A”.  

In 2021, Indiana investigated Mary and Jeremy following a complaint that they were not referring to their child by his preferred gender identity. The reporting source falsely claimed that the parents were neglecting and verbally abusing their child. The state’s report also accused them of failing to utilize Indiana’s LGBTQ resources for parenting transgender children. Indiana then removed the teen from his parents’ custody and placed him in a home that would affirm his preferred identity.  

State courts allow removal of child from fit parents 

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 Mary and Jeremy’s 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 and neglect were unsubstantiated. State officials then surprised the parents by pointing to the disagreement over gender as a reason to keep him away from his parents. The state said it contributed to an 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. And an appeals court upheld the removal, reasoning that the Coxes’ First Amendment rights did not apply to private speech in the home.

Religious parents ask Supreme Court to protect parental rights 

Almost two years after Indiana removed their child from their home, Mary and Jeremy had no other option but to ask the Supreme Court to step in. On February 15, 2024, Becket and attorney Joshua Hershberger filed a reply brief at the Court, asking the Justices to protect the parents and others from government interference in raising their children. The Coxes fear that Indiana could remove their other children from their home, and that other loving parents throughout the nation may lose custody of their children because of their religious beliefs.  

On March 18, 2024, the Supreme Court declined to take the case. Mary and Jeremy remain committed to fighting for religious freedom and parental rights, to ensure that what happened to their family does not happen to others.


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Parental Rights: Parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Teachings around family life and human sexuality lie at the heart of most religions, and Becket defends the right of parents to guide their own children on such matters. 

 

Civil Rights Department of California v. Tastries

Meet Cathy Miller, an expert baker and faithful Christian

Cathy Miller is a faithful Christian and a baker living in Bakersfield, California. For 40 years, she worked as a schoolteacher while raising a family and pursuing her interests in floral arranging, event planning, and baking. In 2013, she felt called to open her own bakery, Tastries, where she sells pastries, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods. Tastries also creates custom-designed items ordered in advance for important life events such as birthdays, graduations, and weddings.

Miller believes that her bakery is “God’s business.” Her bakery’s mission statement is to “honor God in all that we do,” and her Christian faith influences everything from the Bible verses she puts on her business cards to the music she plays in the shop.  Early on, she realized that sometimes customers would ask her to bake things that her faith forbids, so she developed written design standards to ensure that all of Tastries’ custom bakery items reflect her religious beliefs. For example, Tastries will not design custom bakery items that depict gory or pornographic images, celebrate drug use, witchcraft, or violence. Miller will also not design wedding cakes that violate the Christian sacrament of marriage—including cakes celebrating divorce and same-sex unions. When customers ask for custom items that conflict with these design standards, Tastries refers them to a nearby bakery.

A baker’s livelihood targeted by California

In 2017, a same-sex couple visited Tastries to buy a custom-designed cake to celebrate their wedding ceremony. During their visit to the store, Miller realized that she was being asked to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, which she could not do. After a moment of prayer and reflection, she kindly told the couple that she could not design their cake but would be happy to refer them to a nearby bakery. In the days and weeks that followed, Tastries was flooded with angry social media posts and harassing emails and phone calls. The California Department of Civil Rights soon filed a lawsuit in state court to punish Miller for upholding her religious beliefs.

Miller seeks to serve her community in accordance with her beliefs

Six years after California started its prosecution of Miller, and after a five-day trial, a judge on the Superior Court of California ruled that Miller cannot be forced to design a wedding cake that violates her sincere religious beliefs. On October 23, 2023, the state appealed the court’s decision to the California Fifth District Court of Appeal.

With the help of Becket, Miller filed her appeal brief on January 18, 2024. Miller should not be forced to make the choice between upholding her faith and operating her business. Americans have the freedom to bring their beliefs into the public square without being prosecuted by government officials.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace.
     

Huntsman v. Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Revitalizing the spiritual home of the Church 

During the late 1840s, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints migrated to the American West to escape religious persecution in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and other states. Led by the Church’s second president, Brigham Young, these pioneers eventually settled in the Salt Lake Valley, where Young selected a plot of land to build a temple dedicated to God. Today, that site—known as Temple Square—serves as the spiritual seat of the Church’s worldwide leadership and is home to the iconic Salt Lake City Temple and renowned Tabernacle Choir. 

When the area south of Temple Square needed renovation in the early 2000s, Church leaders made a religious decision to invest in its revitalization. Through its then-president Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church announced it was developing the property to protect the environment surrounding the Temple and to promote the economic vitality of the local community. Church leaders explained that the Church would not directly finance the project through tithing, the millennia-old, Scripture-based practice of voluntarily donating a portion of one’s income to the Church as an act of financial support and trust in God. Instead, it would use earnings from invested funds it had set aside for future use.  

A church community attacked from within 

Over a decade after the Church decided to revitalize the area surrounding Temple Square, businessman James Huntsman—who has deep family ties and a long history of leadership roles within the Churchsued to recoup millions of tithing dollars he had paid in religious offerings over the prior two decades. He argued the Church had committed fraud by not describing with greater clarity that the earnings from reserve funds used to finance the revitalization project had tithing as their principal. The Church explained that its statements were all true, since it never solicited, let alone used, tithes themselves for the project. Moreover, its statements could not have possibly misled anyone, least of all someone as knowledgeable about Church affairs as Huntsman, who was well aware that all Church assets have their origin in tithing. 

Protecting the Church from disgruntled donors 

In 2021, Huntsman filed a lawsuit against the Church in federal court, attempting to recover at least five million dollars of his tithing offerings. The district court ruled for the Church, concluding that all its statements about the use of tithes for the revitalization project were true. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s decision, ruling that a jury ought to decide whether the Church had committed fraud in not describing more clearly how it would fund the project.  

On September 20, 2023, the Church asked the Ninth Circuit to reconsider the case in front of a full panel of judges. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of rehearing, arguing that the court’s decision poses a serious threat to religious institutions’ ability to carry out their missions. The brief explains that courts have no business second-guessing a church’s inherently religious decision about how to define tithing, which is itself an inherently spiritual practice. The ruling thus threatens religious organizations by allowing disaffected members to sue anytime they disagree with how a Church, through the exercise of its spiritual judgement, chooses to carry out its mission. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Pleasant View Baptist Church v. Beshear

Faithful education in the Bluegrass State

Kentucky is home to an array of faith-based schools that exist to help students harness the skills they need to thrive and grow deeper in faith. Many of these schools operate as ministries of their churches, including Pleasant View Baptist School, Veritas Christian School, and Micah Christian School. As part of their mission to provide children with an education in their faith, these schools teach religion in the classroom and hold chapel services for their students. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky’s faith-based schools were diligent in implementing significant and costly measures to stop the spread of the virus, including social distancing, temperature checks, and mask wearing. 

Governor Beshear targets faith-based schools 

Eight months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued two executive orders. The first required all elementary, middle, and high schools—including private religious schools—to stop in-person instruction and transition to virtual learning. In contrast, the second allowed other businesses, like daycares, preschools, colleges, factories, gyms, bowling allies, theaters, and casinos, to continue to operate in person so long as they followed public health guidance. 

This unequal treatment was particularly troubling for private religious schools. The Governor’s actions denied religious communities the ability to pass down their faith to the next generation of believers. It also kept religious schoolchildren from vital in person chapel services, religious instruction, and other communal events that cannot be translated to an on-line format. The Governor’s rules led to absurd results: a church could offer Sunday School classes on Sunday and open a daycare on Monday, but if it used the same classrooms—and the same public health measures—to operate a religious school, it could face criminal penalties and fines.  It also meant that kids could go to the movies and teachers go gambling, but neither could go to school. 

Worse, the Governor was a repeat offender. He had already been slapped down twice by federal courts for shuttering religious ministries while allow secular entities to continue operating. And just after his order came out, the Supreme Court barred the governor of New York from doing the same thing to Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches. Yet Governor Beshear issued his new order closing religious schools and kept enforcing it even after the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

Vindicating religious education in Kentucky 

On November 23, 2020, a group of churches, religious schools and individual parents filed a lawsuit against Governor Beshear, challenging his restrictions on faith-based education. They argue that the governor’s actions unlawfully treat religious activity worse than other activities that posed the same risk of spreading COVID-19.  

The district court ruled that the governor’s actions were protected by qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that can shield public officials from legal liability. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. In September of 2023, the coalition of churches, schools, and parents, asked the court to reconsider the case in front of a full panel of judges. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a rehearing, arguing that the court’s ruling violated its prior decisions and Supreme Court decisions.  

On October 3, 2023, the Sixth Circuit denied rehearing the case. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened.  

St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy

Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools Fact Sheet

Supporting parents as the primary educators of their children 

Families who send their kids to Catholic preschools in the Archdiocese of Denver expect them to receive a high-quality education and to be part of a faith-filled Catholic community. And that is exactly what the Catholic preschools at St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s parishes provide. For years, both of these Catholic preschools have assisted parents with the religious and educational upbringing of their children by providing excellent intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation.  

Both preschools work hard to make this formation available to families of all backgrounds and economic circumstances. At St. Bernadette’s, 86% of students qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program and 64% of students are ESL (English as a Second Language) learners. At St. Mary’s, over a quarter of students receive tuition discounts or scholarships. 

“Universal” preschool, unless you are Catholic 

In 2022, Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood established a universal preschool program to provide all preschoolers with 15 hours of free education per week at a private or public school of their parents’ choice in the year before kindergarten. As the word “universal” would seem to indicate, the Department repeatedly emphasized that this program was intended for all Colorado families. After the Department announced the creation of this program, families in Catholic schools across Colorado were eager to participate. 

When implementing this program, however, the Department chose to deny preschool funding to parents who send their kids to Catholic schools. Rather than work with all licensed preschools in the State, the Department imposed funding restrictions that categorically excluded all Archdiocesan Catholic preschools from participating—excluding over 1,500 kids attending 36 different preschools simply because their parents chose a Catholic preschool. 

The Constitution forbids religious exclusion 

The government is punishing families who choose to send their kids to Catholic schools. The State didn’t have to create a program that provides free preschool tuition to families at all private and public schools. But what the government cannot do is use this program to discriminate against families based on their choice of a religious school. The Supreme Court has three times in the past six years affirmed that the government cannot exclude some people from public benefits because of their religious beliefs or exercise. Families should be free to choose to send their kids to a Catholic preschool without forfeiting a public benefit—especially one the government has described as “universal.”  


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Crisitello v. St. Theresa School

Religious education in New Jersey

Religious schools are common in New Jersey, and reflect the wide diversity of the state, including Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Adventist schools, among many others. These schools strive to provide a top-notch education for children, including in matters of faith. To ensure that their religious ministry remains strong, religious schools in New Jersey often request that their staff respect and promote their faith’s teachings by following a personal code of conduct.  

A challenge to St. Theresa School’s educational ministry 

One such school is St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Kenilworth, New Jersey, that is a ministry of the Archdiocese of Newark headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Like all other schools in the Archdiocese St. Theresa 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. 

During the 2013 school year, a teacher named Victoria Crisitello voluntarily told St. Theresa that she was in violation of her contract and Church teaching. As a result, St. Theresa decided not to offer a new contract for the following school year. Soon after, Crisitello sued the school, alleging discrimination. Nine years of litigation ensued, culminating in an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court that was heard in April 2023. 

The law protects the ability of religious schools to follow their faith 

Religious institutions, especially religious schools that exist to instill religious beliefs, values, and conduct in their students, must have the ability to require that their employees conduct themselves in ways that uphold and advance their beliefs. That is especially so for Orthodox Jewish schools, which are crucial to the continuing existence of Orthodox Judaism. In its brief for Agudath Israel of America and at oral argument at the New Jersey Supreme Court, Becket argued that the doctrine of church autonomy—which provides religious groups the power to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance—protects religious schools, including especially Orthodox Jewish schools, in making such decisions. Requiring a religious school of any faith to keep a teacher on staff who publicly violates religious teaching would undermine its ability to carry out its mission of educating future generations in the faith. 

On August 14, 2023, 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. 

Mark Roselli of Roselli Griegel Lozier & Lazzaro, PC in Hamilton acted as New Jersey co-counsel in the appeal.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Burke v. Walsh

Religious couple opens their hearts to children in need

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

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

Massachusetts cuts foster kids off from loving, faithful homes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty:  

Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs.

Garrick v. Moody Bible Institute

A historic beacon of faith and hope 

Moody was founded in 1886 by prominent evangelist Dwight L. Moody, at the behest of Emma Dryer – a teacher who was instrumental in helping launch the school. Originally named the Chicago Evangelization Society, the purpose of the school was to train men and women from all walks of life to bring the Christian faith to all people. Today, Moody offers undergraduate, seminary, and missionary aviation training to equip students to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be Biblically grounded, and to engage the world through Gospel-centered teaching and living. Moody offers various degrees to develop the next generation of Christian leaders, including Biblical Studies, Biblical Languages, Biblical Preaching, Pastoral Studies, Theology, Worship Music, Children and Family Ministry, Ministry Leadership, and Communications. Moody offers full-time residential undergraduate students at Moody’s Chicago campus a full tuition grant to help minimize the cost of an undergraduate education, allowing graduates to serve wherever they are called.  

Moody graduates have served the most vulnerable members of society in the U.S. and around the world—all while sharing their faith. For example, Moody missionary aviators fly patients to hospitals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and medical supplies to remote parts of Papua, Indonesia. A Moody Theological Seminary graduate operates a women’s shelter in Chicago to care for and minister to victims of sexual exploitation. Moody graduates feed the poor in Cambodia and care for refugees from Central and South America. Graduates have also recently traveled to war-torn Ukraine to bring hope and comfort to families driven from their homes and their country. And a statue honoring Moody alumnae Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and civil rights activist, was recently erected in the U.S. Capitol’s Statutory Hall. 

In addition to its faith-centered in-person and online education, Moody educates and equips through its media ministries, Moody Radio and Moody Publishers. Moody relies on all aspects of its ministry to share the Gospel message around the world. Moody’s Communications Department and other faculty are foundational in equipping students with the knowledge and expertise to communicate faith and hope to the world.  

A threat to Moody’s 137-year-old ministry 

Every member of the Moody faculty plays a role in the formation of Moody’s students in foundational Biblical truths. Moody ensures that its ministry remains steadfast by asking all faculty to adhere to its religious beliefs. One of these beliefs is that men and women have unique, complementary roles in the local church. Moody believes that all people have equal dignity and value as lovingly created by God, and that Christian women and men can serve as leaders in faith and ministry. Consistent with its interpretation of Scripture, Moody also believes that the specific biblical church office of pastor (or “elder”) is reserved for men who meet the Bible’s stringent spiritual qualifications.

Despite knowing about and agreeing to adhere to these religious beliefs, a Moody faculty member began advocating against them. After her own admission that she did not share Moody’s beliefs and her inability to sincerely sign Moody’s annual doctrinal statement affirmation, the professor’s teaching contract was not renewed. In response, she is asking the government and the courts to take her side in a religious dispute and punish Moody for acting in accordance with its religious beliefs.  

Protecting a religious college’s religious mission 

Faith-based ministries like Moody are free to decide matters of faith and doctrine—including the qualifications for those who hold senior church offices, without judges or juries getting to second-guess those decisions. The law protects the ability of churches and religious organizations to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the teachings of their faith. This is especially important within the context of a religious school like Moody, which is charged with forming the next generations of pastors, leaders, and ministers. 

Further, several religions—including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims—make specific distinctions between men and women in their doctrines of religious leadership and worship. The law protects against government intrusion and entanglement in such sensitive religious beliefs at the heart of so many houses of worship. 

On March 18, 2024, a divided panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled 2-1 against Moody.


Importance to Religious Liberty:  

Religious communities — The ability of individuals to gather freely together to worship and teach their religion is a cornerstone of religious liberty. U.S. law has always protected the rights of religious ministries, schools, and churches to be able to make their own rules and live out their own values free from government interference. 

St. Dominic Academy v. Makin

Commitment to Catholic education   

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

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

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

Maine skirts the law to bar funding to religious education 

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

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

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

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


 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Mahmoud v. McKnight

Montgomery County’s Pride Storybooks 

In fall 2022, the Montgomery County Board of Education announced over 20 new “inclusivity” books for its pre-K through eighth grade classrooms. But rather than focusing on basic civility and kindness, these books champion pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for children. 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 encourages fifth graders to discuss what it means to be “non-binary.” Other books advocate a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense” and that doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The teacher’s guide to another book about a playground same-sex romance invites schoolkids to share with classmates how they feel when they “don’t just ‘like’ but … ‘like like’” someone. The curriculum suppresses free speech and independent thinking by having teachers tell students they are “hurtful” if they question these controversial ideologies.  

When the Board first went public with its Pride Storybooks, it assured hundreds of concerned parents they would be notified when the books were read and could opt their children out. This meant parents troubled by the books’ blatant disregard for widely held religious beliefs and scientific perspectives would be respected. Upholding parental rights also meant that children would not be subjected to age-inappropriate instruction against their parents’ wishes. Indeed, in Maryland—as in most states across America—teaching family life and human sexuality requires parental notification and the ability to opt-out. Historically, the Board has respected that law, allowing parents to opt their children out of sex ed classes and controversial readings on related topics. The Board’s own “Guidelines” regarding religious diversity go even further. They guarantee that parents may seek opt-outs and alternative assignments for their children on a wide range of potential classroom activities, discussions, and reading assignments.

“Inclusion” as exclusion of parents 

Everything changed in March 2023, when the School Board issued a statement saying it would no longer notify parents or honor requests to opt-out. Immediately, parents of the more than 70,000 elementary schoolkids in Montgomery County were denied their right to decide when their elementary-aged children would be exposed to books promoting transgender and queer ideology. One Board member justified the decision by claiming that allowing opt-outs because these books “offend[] your religious rights or your family values or your core beliefs is just telling [your] kid, ‘Here’s another reason to hate another person.’”  

Soon after, a diverse coalition of religious parents including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others began to fight back. While coming from different faith backgrounds, these parents all believe the books are age-inappropriate, harmful to children, and portray notions of sex and gender that conflict with their religious beliefs and sound science. Though they have many different beliefs, these parents are united in protecting their right to direct their children’s religious and intellectual education on such sensitive matters regarding family life and human sexuality.   

The law protects parents’ right to guide their children’s education 

The Board cannot refuse parents who want to opt their children out of instruction that violates their religious beliefs on sensitive matters. The Board is unlawfully coming between parents and their kids and targeting them because of their religious beliefs about gender and sexuality.  That violates the Board’s own policies, Maryland law, and the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that children are not wards of the state, and that parents have the right to make key decisions about the education of their children on such critical matters concerning family life and human sexuality. 

After filing the lawsuit on May 24, 2023, the district court ruled against the parents. They appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and on May 15, 2024, the appellate court ruled to keep the school board’s no-notice, no-opt-out policy. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Parental Rights: Parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Teachings around family life and human sexuality lie at the heart of most religions. Becket defends the right of parents to opt their children out of one-sided indoctrination on such matters when it conflicts with their religious beliefs and sound principles of science. 

Loe v. Jett

An education that accommodates faith  

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

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

Minnesota targets religion in higher education 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

 

Photo credit: Fotofilm Studios LLC.

HotChalk v. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

Maintaining the faith 

Founded in 1847, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the Church) is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. As part of its religious mission, the Church has “ecclesiastical stewardship” over the Concordia University System, a group of Lutheran colleges and universities spread across the United States. Consistent with its religious polity (or organizational structure), the Church exercised its responsibility to ensure that leaders at Concordia University – Portland adhered to the Church’s Lutheran religious beliefs in operating the University, in part by making religiously-informed decisions regarding the appointment of the school’s new spiritual leader, its president.  

Tech giant goes on fishing expedition 

For numerous reasons, including financial difficulty, Concordia University – Portland closed its doors in 2020. In the aftermath of the closure, HotChalk, a multimillion-dollar technology firm that helped run the University’s online courses, sued the school and Church, demanding over 300 million dollars. The Church agreed to produce documents regarding the contract with HotChalk, and its related finances. HotChalk, however, also sought access to internal religious communications among Church leaders about religious doctrine, church governance, and the selection of religious leaders at Concordia. 

But this is not the first time HotChalk has found itself in hot water. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education conducted an investigation into the company’s mismanagement of online student programs, resulting in a one-million-dollar settlement. 

Protecting religious organizations from government intrusion  

The First Amendment protects the right of religious groups to make internal religious decisions without threat of government interference. Forcing the Church to hand over private deliberations about matters of faith to courts would seriously interfere with the church’s ability to oversee its schools and ministry. As Becket’s amicus brief also argues, disrupting this balance would have damaging consequences for minority religious groups throughout Oregon.  

In the Jewish community, for example, rabbis frequently must make important determinations regarding what Jewish law requires. These decisions often entail sensitive internal deliberations about religious doctrine and Jewish law. The ability of religious minorities like Jews to speak freely without fearing intrusive, costly litigation is crucial to the survival of these communities and their religious beliefs.  

On May 2, 2024, the Oregon State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, prohibiting HotChalk from accessing the Church’s internal religious deliberations. The case will continue in trial court.

Importance to religious liberty 

Religious communities: Religious communities must be free to operate and minister without government interference, including by keeping internal church communications private, especially when it comes to matters of doctrine and theology. 

Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser

Healthcare rooted in faith 

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

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

Colorado law targets life-affirming healthcare clinics 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Vitagliano v. County of Westchester

A call to serve society’s most vulnerable

Debra Vitagliano is a devout Catholic and an occupational therapist. At a young age, she discerned her vocation to serve children with special needs after seeing a poster of a little girl using Lofstrand crutches. For over 40 years, Debra has lived out her vocation by working with children diagnosed with various physical and neurological disabilities, including severe disabilities that some seek to address by abortion.

Debra’s work with special needs children has led her to see the inherent worth of each person, no matter their level of functioning. Consistent with her Catholic faith, Debra opposes abortion and sees it as the deliberate termination of an innocent human life.

Two years ago, Debra began participating in a prayer vigil at the Planned Parenthood in White Plains, New York. As part of her vigil, Debra engaged in peaceful prayer and held signs about the impacts of abortion on both expecting mothers and fathers. During this time, Debra trained to volunteer as a counselor to abortion-vulnerable women. She views this ministry as a final attempt to turn pregnant women away from abortion and to save the lives of unborn children.

Westchester “buffer zone” restricts free speech

Just before Debra started sidewalk counseling, Westchester County passed a law restricting free speech around abortion clinics. The law established a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics and prohibited anyone from approaching within eight feet of a person in that zone to provide information or counseling unless given express consent. Enacted after the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, the law was passed to stop life-affirming advocates from peacefully engaging with women in their time of most need.

Debra is motivated by her faith to help vulnerable women approaching abortion clinics, but the Westchester law barred her and all others who seek to offer this help by threats of fine or imprisonment. It also deprived women of receiving peaceful and often welcomed offers to help.

Protecting free speech in the public square

The First Amendment protects the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas, which includes an individual’s ability to have personal conversations about matters of public concern in public places. Under the Westchester law, if Debra approached a woman to tell her that she is loved and that there are alternatives to abortion, Debra could have been criminally punished.

Once Debra appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court, Westchester County quickly backtracked and repealed the law. With the support of Planned Parenthood, Westchester County admitted that it did not need to threaten sidewalk counselors with jail time for peacefully approaching and offering help and information to women in need. On December 11, 2023, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. 


Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speech: Free speech includes the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas with others—including religious ideas. Freedom of speech and religious liberty go hand-in-hand; protecting one protects the other.
  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.

 

 

PHOTO CAPTION: Debra Vitagliano, sidewalk counseling outside a Westchester County abortion clinic on October 12, 2023.

Seattle Pacific University v. Ferguson

About Seattle Pacific University

A Christian Liberal Arts University Engages the Culture

For over 130 years, Seattle Pacific University has welcomed students to join a diverse community of thoughtful scholarship and outward-focused Christian faith. Seattle Pacific holds fast to its mission to engage the culture and change the world. While SPU welcomes students from all (or no) faith backgrounds, it encourages every student to explore or grow deeper in Christian faith. This mission requires engaging in complex topics with personal and spiritual sensitivity. At Seattle Pacific, employees are asked to be committed to and embody this mission and belief. Yet that mission is now under threat.

A Political Test for a Religious Institution

In June 2022, The Washington Attorney General’s office launched a probe into Seattle Pacific University’s beliefs and policies on marriage and human sexuality. They demanded personal information about employees and years’ worth of sensitive employee documents. The University had no choice but to ask a federal court to protect its religious identity and mission.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the state has targeted Seattle Pacific because of its religious beliefs. In the 1980s, the state of Washington attempted to interfere in Seattle Pacific University’s faith-based hiring decisions. The university sought protection in court, and after eighteen months of litigation, the state backed down. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has only further protected the right of religious institutions to make faith-based hiring decisions and resolve issues of doctrine and practice within their own religious communities, free from governmental interference.

Faced with an unconstitutional investigation, Seattle Pacific is again asking a federal court to protect the healthy separation of church and state and the University’s ability to make its own decisions about faith, employees, and leadership. If the University is subject to this kind of government scrutiny, the same thing can happen to religious schools of every faith. Fortunately, the law is clear on this point and has been for years: governments cannot tell religious institutions what to believe or who should lead them.

Government Attempt to Change Doctrine

On October 26, 2022, a Washington federal district court heard Seattle Pacific’s case. The court ruled against Seattle Pacific on purely procedural grounds, saying that the University should continue its claims in state court. Becket appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it asked the court to protect the school’s ability to educate students in accordance with its faith without government interference.  On June 7, 2024, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Seattle Pacific University could continue its efforts to defend itself and its First Amendment rights in federal court. 

 


Importance to Religious Liberty:

Church Autonomy: Seattle Pacific University is supported by a legacy of church autonomy cases, including Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe. These cases and other lower court decisions highlight the importance of a religious community being able to make its own decisions about what it believes, what it teaches, and who can lead it. Therefore, a victory for the University means that many diverse religious groups are free to decide for themselves what they believe and who leads them.

 

Photo Credit: Ian Dewar Photography

Groff v. DeJoy

SCOTUS guts religious rights 

For decades, many Americans have been forced to choose between their faith and their job because of the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison. In that case, the Court ruled that one of the nation’s largest airlines did not have to provide a religious accommodation to an employee who could not work on his Sabbath day due to his religious beliefs. Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act says that employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices, the Court ruled that employers only need to prove a minimal burden on the operation of their business to deny employees accommodations.  

As legal scholars have pointed out, Hardison was the result of the Supreme Court’s outdated Establishment Clause thinking from its now-overturned decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman.  Lemon made the Hardison Court fear that even accommodating minority religious practices would be unconstitutional. In the years that followed, this legal standard has been used by large companies to discriminate against religious employees in ways that would be unthinkable to other protected groups under federal law.  

Hardison punishes religious minorities 

Over the years, Becket has defended multiple religious Americans—especially those of minority faiths—who were discriminated against by their employers under Hardison. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in EEOC v. Abercombie, a case in which an Abercrombie & Fitch store refused to hire a Muslim woman because the district manager said her headscarf might conflict with the store’s dress code policy.  

In Patterson v. Walgreen Co., Becket represented Darrell Patterson, a dedicated Walgreens employee and devout Seventh-day Adventist who was fired from his position after he could not attend a training session on his Sabbath. Patterson asked the Supreme Court to hear his case, and while three Justices expressed the need to reconsider Hardison, the Court declined to review. In Dalberiste v. GLE Associates, Becket represented a devout Seventh-day Adventist who was also denied his religious rights soon after receiving a job offer. Mitche Dalberiste requested a scheduling accommodation for his Sabbath observance from his new employer, but instead of respecting his religious beliefs, the company rescinded his offer of employment. Again, the Court decided to delay reconsidering Hardison for a future case. 

In 2023, the Supreme Court decided to review a case of a religious employee who was discriminated against by the U.S. Postal Service. Gerald Groff began working as a USPS carrier in 2012, and his religious beliefs require him to observe the Sunday Sabbath. After USPS began delivering packages on Sunday for Amazon, Groff offered to take extra shifts on weekdays and holidays to avoid working on his Sabbath. USPS initially granted him an accommodation, but then changed its mind and began scheduling Groff for Sunday work. Groff refused to violate his faith, and faced termination until he ultimately resigned in 2019. Groff’s case before the Supreme Court now has the potential to overturn Hardison, which would protect religious employees nationwide and bury this discriminatory legal standard for good. 

Religious Americans deserve protection in the workplace 

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Groff’s case, arguing that the Hardison decision was the result of outdated Establishment Clause thinking from the now-overturned decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The brief outlines the history of Lemon’s impact on Hardison and argues that because Lemon is now overturned, the court has the chance to set a better legal standard that protects religious employees as Congress intended.  

Becket argued that the new standard should resemble the one from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the only other federal law with the same language regarding workplace accommodations. Under the ADA, employers must reasonably accommodate a person’s disability unless the employer can show that the accommodation imposes a substantial hardship to business operations. Applying this same standard to religious accommodations would replace the minimal burden test under Hardison that has allowed businesses to discriminate against their employees for decades.  

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the “minimal burden” test from Hardison. Instead, the Court imposed a much higher standard, ruling that 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.” The Court’s decision protects religious Americans from choosing between their jobs and their faith. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industry Review Commission

Fulfilling the Catholic Church’s religious mission 

Catholic dioceses across the country organize their efforts to meet the needs of the disadvantaged within the local community through Catholic charities and other similar entities. Since 1917, Catholic Charities has fulfilled this mission for the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin, providing a wide range of services to help the disabled, the elderly, and the poor throughout the Diocese. Catholic Charities’ mission, consistent with their Catholic faith, is to serve all those in need, regardless of their religious beliefs. Accordingly, each year Catholic Charities ministers to thousands of individuals and families in need by offering in-home healthcare, housing for the elderly and disabled, childcare services, employment opportunities, and other vital resources.  

Wisconsin court of appeals denies Catholic Charities’ religious mission 

Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance program provides financial assistance to those who have lost their job through no fault of their own. Under state law, certain nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin can opt out of the program, including those operated primarily for religious purposes.  

Catholic Charities requested an exemption from the state’s unemployment program so that they could enroll in the Wisconsin Bishops’ Church Unemployment Pay Program (CUPP), a more efficient unemployment compensation program that provides the same level of benefits as the State’s program. 

In ruling that Catholic Charities did not qualify for a religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation program, the Wisconsin court of appeals both misinterpreted state law and violated the First Amendment. The court of appeals’ decision essentially cuts Catholic Charities off from the Diocese of Superior, concluding that the clear religious purpose of the Catholic Church and the Diocese in setting up and running Catholic Charities is irrelevant. Instead, the court of appeals concluded that Catholic Charities—looked at in isolation—was engaged in merely “charitable” (not religious) activities. The court thus denied Catholic Charities the exemption, forcing them to remain in the state’s less efficient unemployment compensation program.  

State law and the U.S. Constitution confirm that Catholic Charities’ mission is religious 

The Wisconsin court of appeals’ decision is deeply problematic. By separating Catholic Charities from the Diocese, the court ignored the Catholic Church’s determination regarding how to structure their own religious ministry. By concluding that Catholic Charities’ activities are not religious because Catholic Charities serves all those in need and doesn’t proselytize, the court penalized faiths that make caring for those in need—regardless of their religious background—a religious obligation. And, by engaging in a standardless inquiry to determine “how religious” Catholic Charities and their subsidiary ministries are, the court of appeals entangled secular courts in deeply religious questions, violating the separation of church and state.  

This outcome was wholly avoidable. Wisconsin’s unemployment compensation statute, Wisconsin’s Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution all require that courts look to the undisputed religious purpose of the Diocese of Superior when determining whether Catholic Charities qualifies for a religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation program.   

On April 18, 2023, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court’s decision. Oral argument took place in Madison on September 11, 2023. On March 14, 2024, the Justices affirmed the lower court and held that Catholic Charities’ ministry to the poor and needy was not religious. Catholic Charities plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel

A Parish community dedicated to faith 

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

Michigan law redefines sex 

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

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

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

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

Sisters of Life v. McDonald

A dedication to life 

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

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

Bullying laws target nuns 

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

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

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

A duty to protect women 

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


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

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

 

Photo Credit: Sisters of Life

303 Creative v. Elenis

An Artist’s Mission 

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

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

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

A case designed for the Supreme Court 

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

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

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

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

On June 30, 2023, the Supreme Court decided that the government cannot force religious people to choose between their faith or their business. In its 6-3 ruling, the Court picked up on Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief, saying that unlike “commercial advertising,” governments cannot compel speech “about a question of political and religious significance.” 

Oakwood Adventist Academy v. Alabama High School Athletic Association

A team of believers deeply rooted in faith

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

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

A simple solution 

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

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Billard v. Diocese of Charlotte

The Diocese’s Dedication 

As an essential part of its mission to pass on the Catholic faith, the Diocese of Charlotte operates 19 schools across western North Carolina, including nine in the fast-growing Charlotte area. The Diocese’s schools are sought after for a reason: they not only provide an academically rigorous education in a diverse environment; they are also committed to teaching students the Catholic faith. To accomplish its religious mission, the Diocese asks all employees to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

The Lawsuit  

Lonnie Billard taught English and Drama at Charlotte Catholic High School for 12 years before retiring and transferring to a substitute role. To teach at Charlotte Catholic, he signed a contract agreeing to uphold teachings of the Catholic Church. But in 2015, he entered a same-sex marriage in knowing violation of Catholic teaching and made public statements on social media advocating against Church teaching. When the school chose not to keep calling Billard as a substitute teacher, he partnered with the ACLU to sue the school and the Diocese for asking their teachers to support the school’s religious mission. 

Upholding a Religious Mission 

The Constitution and federal law protect the right of parents to direct the religious education of their children, and the right of religious institutions like the Diocese of Charlotte to select teachers who agree to uphold their religious mission. These rights have repeatedly been upheld by the Supreme Court, which has emphasized that “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.” Religious organizations must be free to choose those who carry out their religious mission. This not only protects the fundamental freedoms of parents and religious schools to decide how to pass on their faith, but also protects the proper separation of church and state. 

On September 3, 2021, a federal district court in Charlotte, North Carolina, ruled against the Diocese of Charlotte. The Diocese appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which on May 8, 2024, reversed the district court and affirmed that faith-based schools like Charlotte Catholic enjoy broad freedom to employ teachers who agree to uphold their faith. The court explained that Billard was a minister because Charlotte Catholic required all its teachers to “model and promote Catholic faith and morals, making Billard, as a teacher at the school, a messenger’ of its faith.” The Fourth Circuit reiterated that teachers at faith-based schools “are different, because they are entrusted with “responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.Since the First Amendment states that civil courts are “’bound to stay out’ of employment disputes involving ministers,” the court held that Billard’s lawsuit could not proceed. 

The Diocese of Charlotte is represented by Becket and Troutman Pepper. 

Importance for Religious Liberty: 

  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and organize themselves in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.  

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

Fired for public prayer

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

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

Six years off the field and in court

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

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

Public prayer is not a boogie man

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: First Liberty Institute

Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District

Creating a safe environment for students to learn and grow

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

Targeted for their faith

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

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

Standing together in faith

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

After discussions with the district failed, FCA and its student leaders asked a federal court to order the district to allow it equal access to meet on campus—just like other student clubs. As FCA explained, its request is eminently reasonable: all FCA asks is that those students who lead its ministry—directing Bible studies, leading worship, and determining the direction of the club’s ministry—agree with the very beliefs that animate the club’s mission and ministry. On August 29, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that FCA students must be treated fairly and equally and that the District could not discriminate against their religious leadership standards under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act. 

The District responded by shutting down all other student groups for Fall 2022 and asking the full Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision protecting FCA. On January 18, 2023, the Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the caseen banc” (before a panel of eleven federal judges). Oral argument took place on March 23. On September 13, 2023, the en banc Ninth Circuit overturned the district court’s decision and upheld the ability of FCA student clubs to freely gather on campus. 

Shurtleff v. City of Boston

Permit application to raise a Christian flag denied  

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

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

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

Courts ignore the Constitution

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

Understanding the Establishment Clause

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gutierrez v. Saenz

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

Spiritual Comfort– for some or for none 

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

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

Need of Clergy for the Condemned 

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:  

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

 

Ramirez v. Collier

View: A HISTORY OF CLERGY PRESENCE IN THE EXECUTION CHAMBER

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia v. Belya

ROCOR: A History of dealing with Big Government 

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) began in the 1920s after a contingent of Russian Orthodox priests and bishops were forced out of Russia by the Bolshevik government. Following their exile, the bishops went to Western Europe and eventually to the United States. 

Over the past century, ROCOR has grown across the world, especially in the United States. Today, of their 400 parishes worldwide, 232 are within the U.S. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate agreed to an act of communion in May 2007, reestablishing their canonical ties.  

An Internal Dispute 

Father Alexander Belya was a ROCOR priest for several years. He claims that in December 2018, ROCOR’s Synod of Bishops—the executive organ of the Church’s highest ecclesiastical body—elected him to be the Bishop of Miami. The Church maintains that Father Alexander was not elected. In response to Father Alexander’s claim, several ROCOR leaders wrote a letter to the Synod describing complaints about Father Alexander’s conduct as a priest that violated church laws. The letter also noted several irregularities under church law in the documents supposedly showing that Father Alexander was elected as Bishop of Miami and called on Metropolitan Hilarion to suspend Father Alexander from priestly duties and to open a Church investigation into the alleged election. Metropolitan Hilarion then suspended Father Alexander. Rather than submit to investigation or appeal the suspension within the Church, Father Alexander left ROCOR and sued the Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, and other Church leaders for defamation. He claims damages for the loss of income from members leaving his congregation, and for “severely impaired reputation and standing” within the ROCOR community.  

Defending Church Autonomy: 

Religious freedom has allowed ROCOR to thrive in the United States. This freedom includes protections from government interference in churches’ internal religious affairs—especially in their decisions related to the selection, discipline, or removal of clergy. But this right means little if a church can be sued for communicating these decisions to its members. After the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss Father Alexander’s suit, Becket stepped in and appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. On August 17, 2022, the Second Circuit ruled against the church, declining to protect ROCOR’s First Amendment rights. Becket plans to appeal the decision. The Church is also represented by Feerick Nugent MacCartney, PLLC. 


Importance for Religious Liberty: 

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: Churches and other religious groups have the right to select, discipline, and, if necessary, remove their leaders without government interference. Only the church—not a court—gets to say who the bishop is. This right is protected by a First Amendment principle called the “ministerial exception.”
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.  

Hedican v. Walmart

Sabbath day observance, a pillar of faith 

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

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

A corporation’s disregard for religious rights 

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

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

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

Correcting a harmful precedent 

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

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

United States of America v. State of Texas

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

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

Concerned about the negative impact this order would have on the federal government’s operations, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on July 30, seeking to block enforcement of the order. On August 3, a federal judge in El Paso granted temporary relief, set to expire on August 13. On August 11, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that the order impeded the religious rights of Catholic Charities contrary to federal and state law.

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

After a court hearing on August 13, the district court issued an injunction that protects Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley from Governor Abbott’s order while the case continues in court. The court recognized the vital role of religious ministries, finding “sufficient evidence” that federal officials must rely on the transportation efforts of “NGO-partners” like Catholic Charities “in order to operate the immigration system successfully.”

Fernández Martínez v. Spain

Should Church or State Determine Who Teaches Religion?

In Spain, religious communities’ leadership determines who is allowed to teach children at religious schools about their faith. Mr. Fernández Martínez, a former (“laicized”) Catholic priest, was approved by the local bishop to teach Church beliefs for almost six years – but in 1997, the bishop declined to renew Fernández Martínez’s contract because he had publicly voiced his opposition to the Church’s position regarding priestly celibacy.

Fernández Martínez initiated a lawsuit, claiming his right to personal autonomy trumped the Church’s right to select teachers of the faith. The Constitutional Court of Spain rejected this argument. On appeal to the ECHR, the European Court’s Grand Chamber followed Becket’s amicus brief and recognized that churches must be free to decide who teaches their faith to the next generation without interference from the state. This decision was in line with decisions in earlier Becket cases Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC and Sindicatul “Pastorul cel Bun” v. Romania, demonstrating that religious autonomy is a truly global principle.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities: Religious communities have the right to choose their own leaders, and to decide who teaches their faith without interference from the state. Issues of doctrine like priestly celibacy or church leadership and teaching are matters for the church to decide – not government agents.

Pavez vs. Chile

Read in English

Libertad para elegir profesores calificados

Incluso en países sin separación constitucional entre iglesia y Estado, las organizaciones religiosas tienen derecho a elegir a sus maestros. Al ser un país predominantemente católico, Chile ofrece clases de religión sobre la fe católica en muchas de sus escuelas gubernamentales, sin embargo, al ser materia de libertad religiosa y autonomía, el obispo católico local debe tener la capacidad de certificar quién está calificado para impartir esas clases.

Rompimiento con la Iglesia

Sandra Pavez fue profesora de religión durante mucho tiempo en una escuela gubernamental en San Bernardo, Chile. En 2007, la Sra. Pavez le informó a la Diócesis de San Bernardo que estaba en una relación con una persona del mismo sexo. Debido a que este hecho viola el derecho canónico católico, que es el cuerpo legislativo que rige a la Iglesia Católica, la Diócesis revocó la certificación de la Sra. Pavez para enseñar la fe católica en su escuela. Sin embargo, la escuela retuvo a la Sra. Pavez como maestra e inmediatamente la promovió a Inspectora General, que es un cargo de mayor prestigio.

A pesar de esta promoción, la Sra. Pavez demandó a la Diócesis ante los tribunales chilenos, que reconocieron correctamente que la Diócesis tenía autoridad para determinar quién estaba capacitado para enseñar su fe, y que la Sra. Pavez había sido promovida en lugar de perjudicada por esa decisión. El 28 de octubre de 2008, la Sra. Pavez presentó una queja ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, alegando que Chile había violado su derecho a la “no injerencia arbitraria en la vida privada”, constatada en la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos. La Comisión falló a favor de la Sra. Pavez el 7 de diciembre de 2018, y Chile apeló ante la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, que aceptó el caso el 11 de setiembre del 2019, y fijó el caso para audiencia pública el 12 de mayo de 2021 en San José, Costa Rica.

Autonomía religiosa en el país y en el extranjero

Becket está presentando un escrito amicus curiae ante la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, argumentando que los grupos religiosos deben ser libres de tomar decisiones sobre quién puede enseñar su fe a la siguiente generación de creyentes. El escrito de Becket cita el artículo 12 de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos, el artículo 18 de la Declaración Universal de Derechos Humanos y otros tratados líderes en materia de derechos humanos, todos los cuales incluyen un lenguaje robusto que protege la libertad religiosa de las personas y las comunidades. El escrito de Becket, con un enfoque comparativo, muestra cuántos países latinoamericanos y europeos, así como los Estados Unidos y Canadá, han reconocido el principio de autonomía religiosa y han protegido el derecho de las organizaciones religiosas a elegir a sus líderes y a sus maestros. Y Becket también señala que los países que violan la autonomía religiosa tienden igualmente a violar otros derechos humanos, especialmente los derechos de las personas LGBTQ+.

La acción de Becket en este caso forma parte de una serie de casos similares en los que Becket ha participado en todo el mundo, incluso en tribunales internacionales tales como el Tribunal Europeo de Derechos Humanos y en los tribunales de los Estados Unidos. En el caso de Fernández Martínez vs. España, Becket presentó un escrito amicus curiae argumentando que el principio de autonomía religiosa protegía el derecho de la Iglesia Católica a no renovar el contrato del profesor de religión que se había unido a una campaña pública oponiéndose a sus creencias. En 2014, el Tribunal Europeo adoptó este enfoque, defendiendo la libertad de la Iglesia de elegir quién está calificado para enseñar la fe. Y en el caso de Sindicatul “Pastorul cel bun” vs. Rumania, Becket presentó un escrito similar argumentando que las iglesias, sinagogas y otras organizaciones religiosas tienen derecho a ordenar sus asuntos internos sin interferencia del gobierno. En 2013, el Tribunal Europeo confirmó el derecho de autonomía religiosa de la Iglesia Ortodoxa Rumana sobre el derecho de los sacerdotes disidentes a crear un sindicato o unión gremial.

En 2012 y 2020, Becket ganó casos similares en la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos en la Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School vs. EEOC y en Our Lady of Guadalupe vs. Morrissey-Berru, en los que la Corte dictaminó que las escuelas religiosas tienen derecho a seleccionar a los maestros que enseñan sus creencias.

Tanto en la Corte Europea de Derechos Humanos como en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Becket ha abogado por que la misma norma se aplique internacionalmente, de modo que ningún grupo religioso pierda su capacidad de elegir a sus líderes y maestros, un derecho ampliamente reconocido en el derecho internacional de los derechos humanos.


Relevancia para la libertad religiosa:

  • Comunidades Religiosas Los grupos religiosos deben estar plenamente facultados para seleccionar a sus sacerdotes, rabinos, ministros y otros maestros religiosos libres de interferencia gubernamental. La Corte Suprema ha reconocido este derecho en los Estados Unidos, pero es fundamental brindar esas mismas protecciones sólidas a la libertad religiosa a nivel internacional.

Pavez v. Chile

Leer En Español

Freedom to choose qualified teachers  

Even in countries without constitutional separation between church and state, religious organizations have the right to choose their teachers. As a predominantly Catholic country, Chile offers religion classes on the Catholic faith in many of its government schools, but as a matter of religious freedom and autonomy, the local Catholic bishop must be able to certify who is qualified to teach those classes.

Disunion with the Church

Sandra Pavez was a long-time religion teacher at a government school in San Bernardo, Chile. In 2007, Ms. Pavez told the Diocese of San Bernardo that she was in a same-sex relationship. Because this violated Catholic canon law, the governing body of laws of the Catholic Church, the Diocese revoked Ms. Pavez’s certification to teach the Catholic faith in her school. However, the school retained Ms. Pavez as a teacher and immediately promoted her to the more prestigious position of Inspector General.

Despite this promotion, Ms. Pavez sued the Diocese in the Chilean courts, which correctly recognized that the Diocese had authority to determine who was qualified to teach its faith, and that Ms. Pavez had been promoted rather than harmed by that decision. On October 28, 2008, Ms. Pavez filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that Chile had violated her right to “no arbitrary interference in private life,” found in the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission ruled in favor of Ms. Pavez on December 7, 2018, and Chile appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which accepted the case on September 11, 2019, and set the case for public hearing on May 12, 2021 in San José, Costa Rica.

Religious autonomy at home and abroad

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that religious groups must be free to make decisions about who may teach their faith to the next generation of believers. Becket’s brief cites Article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other leading human rights treaties, which all include robust language protecting religious freedom for individuals and communities. Becket’s brief takes a comparative approach, demonstrating how many Latin American and European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, have recognized the principle of religious autonomy and protected the right of religious organizations to choose their leaders and teachers. And Becket also points out that countries that violate religious autonomy tend to violate other human rights as well, especially the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.

On April 13, 2022, the Inter-American Court released its decision in favor of Ms. Pavez. The decision failed to grapple with the importance of religious autonomy, and it ignored the consensus of the international human rights community that religious groups have a right to decide who is qualified to teach their faith to the next generation without fear of government interference.

Becket’s action in this case is part of a series of similar cases Becket has participated in worldwide, including in international tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights and in the United States courts. In the case of Fernández Martínez v. Spain, Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the principle of religious autonomy protected the Catholic Church’s right to not renew the contract of religion teacher who had joined a public campaign opposing their beliefs. In 2014, the European Court adopted this approach, upholding the Church’s freedom to choose who is qualified to teach the faith. And in the case of Sindicatul “Pastorul cel bun” v. Romania, Becket filed a similar brief arguing that churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations have a right to order their internal affairs without government interference. In 2013, the European Court upheld the Romanian Orthodox Church’s right of religious autonomy over the right of dissident priests to create a trade union.

In 2012 and 2020, Becket won similar cases at the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC and Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Court ruled that religious schools have the right to select teachers of their faiths.

At both the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Becket has advocated for the same standard to apply internationally, so that no religious group will lose their ability to choose their leaders and teachers, a right which is broadly recognized in international human rights law.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Religious groups should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers free from government interference. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this right in the United States, but the same robust protections are fundamental to religious freedom internationally.

 

Diocese of Albany v. Harris

Pushing the envelope beyond the contraceptive mandate

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

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

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

Standing up for the right to stand aside

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

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

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

Seeking relief from the High Court

On April 23, 2021, represented by Becket and Jones Day, the coalition of religious organizations asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case. The Supreme Court granted the petition, vacated the bad rulings from the New York state courts, and told the state courts to reconsider the case in light of Becket’s other landmark victory in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia . The New York Court of Appeals reconsidered the case, and on May 21, 2024, the court failed to protect the religious groups and again upheld the abortion mandate. The decision may now be appealed to the Supreme Court. 

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Gateway City Church v. Newsom

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

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

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

Santa Clara County goes against U.S. Supreme Court

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

 

Dunn v. Smith

Leveling down to avoid religious accommodations

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

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

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

Defending the comfort of clergy in the death chamber

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

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

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

The most extreme restrictions in the nation

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

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

Fighting for the right to worship

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

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

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

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

Throwing open the doors of churches

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

 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser

A beacon of hope in dark times 

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

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

No room for worshipers in the church?  

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear

Preserving public health while pursuing academic excellence  

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

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

Denying educational opportunities  

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

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

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

Vindicating the right to religious education  

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo

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

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

Standing up for equal treatment

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

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

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

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

Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser

Protecting the health and safety of our communities

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

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

Religious worship held to a double standard

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

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

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

Even-handed application of the Constitution

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish

Walking with the Church

St. Andrew the Apostle Parish has been serving a Polish immigrant neighborhood in the city of Chicago for over 120 years. As part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, St. Andrew Parish is dedicated to ministering to all Catholics, including LGBTQ Catholics seeking to walk with the Church.

For over 25 years, the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO) has been a community of accompaniment that seeks to meet LGBTQ people where they are. During the AIDS epidemic, AGLO worked closely with the Catholic Charities HIV/AIDS ministries and generously contributed its time, money, and prayer to help the afflicted and offer them hope in the face of a terrible disease. Today, AGLO offers weekly Mass and Sacraments, retreats and days of reflection, and prayer and discussion groups to help LGBTQ Catholics find a place of pastoral outreach in the Church.

Violating Church Teachings

Sandor Demkovich was hired by St. Andrew Parish in 2012. During his time with St. Andrew, Mr. Demkovich served as music director, choir director and organist. These positions are important roles within the religious life of the parish. As music director, Mr. Demkovich shared the Catholic faith with members of the parish through music—he helped select scripturally appropriate music for Masses and other important sacraments, played the organ during services, and helped lead the congregation in singing hymns.

As a minister of the faith and a representative of the parish, Mr. Demkovich was responsible for upholding the teachings of the faith in word and action. But in 2014, after working at the parish for two years, the parish was required to end Mr. Demkovich’s participation in its ministry because he entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his agreement to bear witness to and promote the Church’s 2,000-year-old teachings, including those on marriage.

Ignoring the ministerial exception

In December 2016, Mr. Demkovich sued St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago, claiming that he had been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and subjected to a hostile work environment.

The district court allowed some of Mr. Demkovich’s claims against the Archdiocese to proceed, even though Mr. Demkovich admitted that the religious importance of his position at the parish made him a minister. In August 2020, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also ruled against the Archdiocese. The ruling conflicted with previous Seventh Circuit decisions, rulings of other federal circuits, and the Supreme Court’s just-issued decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of churches to select and supervise their leaders and ministers free from government interference. 

The Archdiocese of Chicago, represented by Becket, asked the entire 11-judge Seventh Circuit to reconsider the panel’s decision.  The court agreed, with one judge recused, and heard arguments on February 9, 2021.  

On July 9, 2021, the Seventh Circuit ruled 7-3 to reverse its previous decision and declare that the “ministerial exception” protects the entire ministerial relationship and not just the beginning or end.  

Plaintiff chose not to seek Supreme Court review, ending the case in favor of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also represented by its general counsel, Jim Geoly, who presented oral argument before the panel and the en banc court, and by Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

Sharing his faith in Jesus

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

Threatened with arrest for sharing his faith

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

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

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

Holding the government accountable

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

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

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

On March 8, 2021, the Court ruled that Uzuegbunam deserved remedy for his constitutional injury when school officials silenced his religious speech.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Woodring v. Jackson County

A multi-denominational coalition that serves its community and brings people together

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association is a coalition of diverse Christian ministers in Jackson County, Indiana, that serves its community through prayer, fellowship, outreach, and direct aid. Twice each year, the Ministerial Association holds services to encourage Christian fellowship and raise funds for its direct aid program, which includes a community food pantry and direct aid for those who need temporary assistance with rent, mortgage, and utility bills.

In 2003, the Ministerial Association purchased, with broad community support, a nativity scene to display in front of the Jackson County Courthouse during the Christmas season. In addition to commemorating the Christmas season, over the years the nativity scene has become a staple in the local “Hometown Christmas celebration.” And the area around the display—replete with a Christmas tree, presents, and numerous other holiday fixtures—serves as a gathering place for the community, encouraging people to socialize and support nearby local businesses (the Chamber of Commerce is even a sponsor).

A longstanding tradition at risk

For almost two decades, the Brownstown nativity scene has been displayed without incident. But in 2018, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the county asking for the nativity to be removed because of its religious symbolism. Not long after, the ACLU of Indiana sued the county on behalf of an out-of-town individual who passed by the display and felt offended by it.

On April 29, 2020, the district court ruled against Jackson County, holding that the display violated the Establishment Clause. The County appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Recognizing the role of religion in our nation’s traditions—past and present

 On August 5, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Ministerial Association, owners of the nativity scene. The brief explains why the First Amendment permits the government to include religious symbols and practices in its annual holiday traditions—because they are a part of our nation’s rich religious history that has long been celebrated in Jackson County. Requiring governments to strip the religious elements from Christmas and to only celebrating the secular would not only deny the religious roots of the holiday, it would sanction government hostility to religion by favoring the non-religious over the religious.

In striking down the display, the district court applied the much criticized and now specifically rejected  Lemon test. But, as Becket’s brief explains, the Supreme Court held in American Legion v. American Humanist Association (June 20, 2019) that the Lemon test no longer applies to religious displays. Instead, the Establishment Clause must be interpreted to allow governments to celebrate our history and traditions—not to scrub the public square of religious imagery.

On February 2, 2021, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the nativity scene at the Jackson County courthouse could stay, saying that the County’s display “fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to ‘depict the historical origins’ of Christmas– a ‘traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday.'”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. The government is not required to strip the public square of important symbols just because they are religious. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.

Dalberiste v. GLE Associates

A commitment to the Sabbath

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

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

Denied employment for religious reasons

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

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

A poor judgment

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

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

The chance to right a wrong

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Wisconsin Churches Reopen

Houses of Worship are Essential

The Catholic Diocese of Madison has been committed to preserving the health and safety of its community members throughout the coronavirus pandemic, voluntarily suspending public masses before it was mandated by the state and generally cooperating with the directives of the local and state health officials from the beginning. They have not neglected their Christian duty either, heroically springing into action to provide remote schooling, care for the sick and dying in Catholic hospitals, and continue serving the hungry, uninsured and incarcerated.

On May 18, 2020, Madison/Dane County officials put out an order listing houses of worship as “essential services” and thus allowing them to resume holding in-person services at 25 percent capacity. The Diocese of Madison got straight to work to put together a plan for safely reopening with appropriate social distancing and hygiene protocol.

Dashed expectations

But just when members of the Catholic community thought that they would finally receive the spiritual solace and healing they’d been craving, Madison/Dane County pulled the rug out from under the Diocese. After the Diocese published its safe reopening plan, on May 22, 2020, Madison/Dane County put out a new order capping in-person worship services at 50 people. This new order meant that some Catholic churches in Madison would be limited to less than five percent capacity, while shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, trampoline parks and more were free to open at 25 percent capacity.

Following the May 22 order, the Madison/Dane County Health Department contacted Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that overseers would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

Constitutional consequences

On June 3, 2020, Becket, Sidley Austin LLP, and Troutman Sanders LLP sent a letter to County Executive Parisi and Mayor Rhodes-Conway explaining that the 50-person cap is unconstitutional and illegal. On June 5, 2020 Mayor Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Parisi released a new “Forward Dane” executive order returning houses of worship to equal footing with secular services at 25 percent capacity for in-person worship services.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Minnesota Churches’ Challenge to COVID-19 Executive Order


Leaders in protecting public health  

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota have been leaders in protecting public health. They voluntarily suspended in-person services to prevent the spread of COVID-19 well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect. Since then, these faith communities have been ministering to their communities any way they can—serving meals to the homeless, donating medical supplies, accompanying the elderly, and raising money for those in need.

Aware of the deep spiritual, mental, and emotional loss that comes from being deprived of in-person worship, on May 7 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On May 13, Governor Walz issued an executive order allowing retailers to open their doors to fifty percent capacity, businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person work, and even announced a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants. In-person worship, however, remained banned beyond ten people. No guidance or plans for reopening were announced.

This meant that while the Mall of America could open its doors to those seeking retail therapy, houses of worship were barred from providing spiritual healing to their congregations.

Retail therapy, but no spiritual healing

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota remain committed to mitigating the risk of spreading coronavirus in their congregations and communities by instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But, if the state deems the risk low enough to reopen non-essential businesses, why should religious communities be forced to comply with a ten-person limit?

Acting in defense of religious liberty

After weeks of negotiation between the churches and the governor to try to achieve equal treatment for churches and houses of worship, on May 20, Becket sent a letter to Governor Walz on behalf of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota explaining that continuing this discriminatory treatment of in-person worship violates federal and state law.

The letter announced that on May 26, 2020, in advance of Pentecost Sunday (May 31), the faith communities would resume holding in-person worship services and ministering to their congregations at one-third capacity whether or not Governor Walz amended his executive order. Governor Walz returned to the negotiating table after the Churches acted in defense of their free exerciseannouncing on May 23 that he would clear the way for houses of worship of all faith traditions to open to larger groups starting May 27, 2020. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Sossamon v. Texas

Getting right with God

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

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

Pursuing equal access

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

Denied just recourse

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

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

Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary

Training ministers of the gospel

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

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

The right to define ministry training

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

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

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

Defending a healthy separation of church and state

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

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

Whatever you do for the least of my brothers

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

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

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

Caring for the stranger in our midst

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

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

Discriminatory retaliation

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

 

Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

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

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

A conflict of commitment

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

Educating hearts and minds

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

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

Next Steps

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

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

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

A conflict of commitment

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

Educating hearts and minds

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

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

On July 13, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in the case, protecting the school’s First Amendment right to make employment decisions that align with their religious mission. 

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

 

United States of America v. Scott Warren

The good Samaritans of the border

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

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

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

No good deed goes unpunished

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

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

Free to act on faith

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty

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

Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston v. HHS

Caring for the poor, the widow, and the immigrant

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

A regulation standing in the way of helping children in need

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

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

Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

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

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

A broken agreement

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

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

Defending church autonomy

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

On May 7, 2021, the Marion Superior Court of Indiana agreed and dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the Archdiocese. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reversed, permitting the lawsuit to proceed. Becket then asked the Indiana Supreme Court to step in.

On August 31, 2022, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously protected the Archdiocese, explaining that the “Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government.” The decision protects the Archdiocese’s freedom to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero

Promoting healing and protecting the vulnerable

This case was based on the January 2019 decision of Texas Catholic bishops to compile and release lists of clergy that, based on Catholic Church law and in accordance with internal church investigations, were credibly accused of sexually abusing “minors” as defined by Catholic law. The lists were part of an ongoing effort throughout the Church to speak with Catholics in a transparent manner about past sexual abuse, promote healing within the Catholic Church, and protect the vulnerable.

Punished for transparency

Among the names published by the Diocese of Lubbock was that of Deacon Jesus Guerrero, who was suspended in 2003 and permanently suspended from the diaconate in 2007 due to alleged sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional issues.

Deacon Guerrero threatened to sue the Diocese of Lubbock for including him on the list. He claimed that his inclusion was defamatory, because the person he is accused of abusing was not under 18 years of age at the time of the alleged misconduct. The diocese explained that under Canon Law—the centuries-old body of law of the Catholic Church, which clergy are bound to follow—any person over the age of 18 who lacks the mental faculties of an adult (non sui compos) is considered a minor. Nevertheless, on March 22, 2019, Guerrero brought a million-dollar defamation lawsuit against the diocese.

Churches must be able to self-govern free from government interference

Guerrero’s suit asked that a civil court adjudicate whether the Catholic Church’s religious understanding of “minor” was reasonable, and, as applied to his conduct, true. At the Texas Court of Appeals, Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops—all 22 bishops in the State of Texas—arguing that the government cannot tell churches how to resolve church controversies and cannot evaluate church standards of morality. Allowing courts to decide religious questions would open a Pandora’s box of lawsuits over internal church affairs, obliterating the healthy separation of church and state.

On December 6, 2019, Texas’s Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Diocese of Lubbock’s appeal. Becket, representing the Diocese, appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Texas. Its appeal received the support of 34 members of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, prominent legal scholars, and diverse religious organizations. On June 11, 2021, the Supreme Court of Texas dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the Diocese of Lubbock by a vote of 8-1.  The  Court recognized the full scope of the First Amendment’s freedom for religious institutions to shape their own faith and missions. Religious institutions, the Court said, 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.”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Chung v. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association

Meet the Chungs: Star athletes, faithful to their Sabbath

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

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

Kept off the court for their faith

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

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

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

Defending the right to play while keeping the faith

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Belen Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District

Brothers bound by a sacred promise 

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

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

Forced to sever a core part of their identity 

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

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

Defending students’ freedom to express their faith 

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

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

Our Lady of Guadalupe fights for excellence 

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

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

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

Catholic schools must be free to choose who teaches the faith 

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

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

Morrissey-Berru sues Our Lady of Guadalupe 

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to religious liberty: 

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

New York v. HHS

A doctor’s mission: hope and healing for everyone

Dr. Regina Frost has practiced medicine for 15 years, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She helps lead a network of female healthcare professionals called Women Physicians in Christ, a ministry of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) that is committed to supporting women physicians and dentists by integrating their personal, spiritual, and professional lives 

CMDA is an organization of over 19,000 healthcare professionals, including Dr. Frost, who are committed to living out their faith in their practice of medicine. CMDA members serve everyone and seek to treat all of their patients like Christ would, providing all with compassionate care, healing, and hope. CMDA medical professionals take an oath to do no harm and would never deny routine or life-saving care to anyone. 

Their mission to heal takes CMDA doctors and nurses all over the globe. Within the U.S., CMDA members serve vulnerable populations including the homeless, prisoners living with HIV, and victims of opioid addiction, sex trafficking, and gang violence. Abroad, CMDA members serve in war zones, refugee clinics, and remote areas without quality healthcare. Several even contracted Ebola while providing treatment to patients during the deadly outbreak in Liberia. 

Religious healthcare professionals face an impossible choice  

Dr. Frost and other religious healthcare professionals are called to serve everyone with compassion. They only ask not to be forced to perform certain medical procedures that they believe would be inconsistent with their faith.  

In May 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Conscience Rule, reinforcing an existing law which allows religious doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals to serve their patients without being forced to violate their conscience. Several states, including the State of New York, immediately sued to overturn that rule and are willing to drive religious healthcare professionals like Dr. Frost out of the medical field 

No doctor should have to choose between giving up their faith and abandoning a vital medical mission. Indeed, recent polling from CMDA and USCCB confirms the importance of these conscience protections, both for religious healthcare professionals seeking to care for those most in need and for the clients they serve. But New York’s lawsuit needlessly threatens the health, safety, and lives of at-risk, underserved populations who voluntarily seek care from CMDA members across the nation and around the world. 

Becket defends religious healthcare professionals and the people they serve 

On June 25, 2019, Becket intervened to defend Dr. Frost and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations from New York’s lawsuit, arguing that healthcare professionals should not be forced to perform medical procedures that would require them to violate their beliefs. The Conscience Rule reaffirms what the First Amendment and dozens of federal statutes already guarantee: religious Americans—including doctors—do not have to compromise their faith to serve those in need. 

On November 6, 2019, a federal court ruled against the Conscience Rule, threatening the ability of religious doctors to serve communities without being forced to perform procedures against their beliefs. CMDA, Dr. Frost, and HHS appealed to the Second Circuit, and filed their opening briefs on April 27, 2020.

Dr. Frost’s participation in the case is solely in her personal capacity and not on behalf of her employer. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Individual FreedomReligious freedom protects the rights of individuals to live out their faith in all facets of their lives—including in their professions. This lawsuit threatens the ability of religious healthcare professionals to provide quality, compassionate healthcare, forcing them to choose between their conscience and their practice 

Patterson v. Walgreens

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

Work six days, rest the seventh  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to religious liberty: 

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

Buck v. Gordon

Faith-Based Foster Care Fact Sheet

A national foster care crisis

Our nation is facing a national foster care crisis. Thousands of vulnerable children are waiting for their forever family, but there are not enough families willing to foster and adopt.

There are over 13,000 foster children in Michigan alone. Each year, over 600 Michigan children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family to provide stability, love and support or a permanent place to call home. No one addresses this issue more effectively than faith-based agencies. That’s why the State of Michigan depends on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities to recruit and support foster and adoptive families.

The ACLU and the Attorney General of Michigan try to end ties with faith-based agencies

St. Vincent is particularly good at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area. St. Vincent also helped Melissa and Chad Buck adopt five children with special needs and continues to provide them with loving support and resources.

Yet in March 2019, the Attorney General of Michigan announced a new policy to try to end the state’s vital partnership with faith-based agencies like St. Vincent. The state claims this action is necessary to protect same-sex couples, but no same-sex couple has ever been unable to foster or adopt because of St. Vincent’s religious beliefs, and St. Vincent refers any couples it cannot serve to other agencies who can. The state’s actions will only lead to fewer agencies to help all parents and harm to thousands of children who are in desperate need of loving homes.

Becket defends foster children, families, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities

On April 15, 2019, Becket filed a lawsuit representing a former foster child, the parents of five adopted children with special needs, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, asking the court to allow faith-based agencies to continue what they do best: uniting children with loving families. Oral argument was heard on August 22, 2019. On September 26, 2019, the district court ordered the State of Michigan to continue working with St. Vincent while this case continues, ruling that “the State’s real goal is not to promote non-discriminatory child placements, but to stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with the State’s own.”

On January 26, 2022, in light of the Supreme Court decision in Fulton, the State of Michigan entered a settlement agreement allowing St. Vincent Catholic Charities to continue its vital ministry.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs.
  • Public square: Faith-based organizations have the same right as secular organizations to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse.
  • Free Speech: The government can’t coerce religious organizations to speak a government-approved message. It cannot force them to choose between closing their doors and engaging in speech and actions contrary to their religious teaching.

Ricks v. Idaho Board of Contractors

One man’s religious convictions 

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

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

No social security number, no job 

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

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

Becket defends free exercise 

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

Importance to religious liberty

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

Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago

A diverse Catholic community, singing since 1893

St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish was founded over a century ago in Chicago by Polish families who desired a church community to call home. Today the modest church is dedicated to conveying its Catholic message to a diverse congregation by celebrating Mass in three different languages—English, Spanish, and Polish. One way it does that is through music.

In 1992, the church hired Stanislaw Sterlinski as its musical director. His responsibilities included performing music and leading the choir and congregation in singing during Mass and other liturgical celebrations such as weddings and funerals. The Catholic Church has always placed great importance in the role of music in religious worship, as whoever stands before the congregation in song expresses the Catholic message—both visually and audibly. Nor is that at all unusual: from Catholic Gregorian chant, to the Psalms of David sung in the synagogue, to the Vedic hymns sung by priests at Hindu weddings, music has held religious significance for millennia.

After the church ended Mr. Sterlinski’s employment, he sued the church in federal district court in Illinois. Although Mr. Sterlinski agrees that the government cannot dictate who a church selects to represent its faith, he argues that the church was wrong to say he did anything “religiously meaningful” because he viewed himself as only “robotically play[ing] notes.”

Churches—not the courts—gets to choose ministers

In a previous Becket case, EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously protected the right of a Lutheran school to select its religion teacher, free from government interference. The 2012 ruling set an important precedent confirming the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which ensures that the church—not the state—gets to choose its leaders.

But Mr. Sterlinski’s lawsuit demands courts to become entangled in church affairs by second-guessing the church’s sincere determination that helping lead worship is religiously significant. In July 2018, the federal district court followed Supreme Court precedent and protected the church. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit’s second chance at bolstering Supreme Court precedent

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a similar case in the Seventh Circuit, which in 2018 protected a Jewish day school’s right to select its Hebrew teacher without government interference. Becket also previously won unanimous victories in the Second and Third Circuit courts protecting the right of a Catholic school to choose its principal and of a Baptist church to choose its pastor, respectively. Becket is currently defending a Catholic school’s right to choose its religion teacher in a similar case before the Ninth Circuit.

On February 21, 2019, Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Seventh Circuit, arguing that St. Stanislaus Church has the undisputed right to choose who its ministers are, free from governmental second-guessing. On August 8, 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with Becket, unanimously ruling in favor of St. Stanislaus Church. The Court also expressly rejected a bad recent Ninth Circuit decision, Biel v. St. James School, agreeing with Becket’s arguments about that case.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious groups should be fully empowered to select the ministers who lead their congregations. The Supreme Court unanimously acknowledged that right in its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision concerning the “ministerial exception” and all courts should follow that precedent. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry.

St. James School v. Biel

A Catholic parish school since 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to religious liberty

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

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa

A faith community for students, focused on fellowship and service

For 25 years, the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship student group has been part of campus life at the University of Iowa, a campus that features over 500 student groups. As a Christian group, InterVarsity fulfills its mission by providing a community where students can grow in their faith while pursuing their academic education. The student group hosts weekly Bible studies, monthly meetings that include prayer and worship, and discussions on important religious and social issues on campus. It also serves the local, state, and global communities by hosting and participating in community service initiatives, including Oxfam and the C.R.O.P. Hunger Walk to combat global poverty. Intervarsity has been the top fundraiser for the C.R.O.P. Walk six times in the last decade. The University of Iowa has previously recognized the student group for its outstanding service to the student body.

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

Banned from campus

On June 1, 2018, following the end of the school year, the University of Iowa sent a notice to InterVarsity, threatening the student group with deregistration. Why? For the first time in 25 years, the University deemed the Christian group’s reasonable requirement that its leaders share its faith to be “noncompliant” with university non-discrimination policies. The University gave InterVarsity two weeks to change its constitution.

No group, especially a religious group, can expect its mission to survive without leaders who share and further its mission—religious or not. When InterVarsity explained that the group’s very existence depended on leaders who share its faith mission, the University doubled down, insisting that the student group could not even “encourage” leaders to believe in and live by its religious mission. Shortly after, University officials deregistered the student group, effectively eliminating it from campus.

A sweeping, discriminatory assault on student rights

In July 2018, the University of Iowa officially deregistered InterVarsity, along with 38 other student groups —including the Sikh Awareness Club, the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Organization, Geneva Campus Ministry, and the Latter-day Saint Student Association. Yet, despite the University’s insistence that it must scrub the campus of groups with “non-compliant” leadership requirements, sports clubs, fraternities and sororities, and political and ideological groups can require their leaders (and members) to share their mission or their unique identity. The University’s inconsistency is more than puzzling—it is discriminatory.

On August 6, 2018, Becket, on behalf of InterVarsity student group, sued the University of Iowa in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, defending InterVarsity’s right to require its leaders to believe in and live its religious mission. The University of Iowa is a public university and an extension of the government. It has no right to interfere with the way religious groups, including student groups, choose the leaders who represent and further their faith teachings.

As result of the lawsuit, the University agreed to temporarily reinstate InterVarsity, as well as all other religious groups that had been deregistered, including Sikh, Muslim, and other Christian organizations. But the reinstatement only lasted while litigation against the University was ongoing, and the University continued to argue that it had authority to kick out religious groups like InterVarsity.

On September 30, 2019, a federal district court found that the University had violated the First Amendment’s protections for free speech, free association, and free exercise of religion. The court also ruled that the individual University officials who discriminated against InterVarsity had violated clearly established law, and so were personally liable for their actions. The University appealed to the Eighth Circuit. On July 16, 2021, the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court ruling and said that “[w]hat the University did here was clearly unconstitutional” and “turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.”

Importance to religious liberty:

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

Whole Woman’s Health v. Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops

No good deed goes unpunished

The Catholic Church has long been known for its pro-life stance. In line with these beliefs, Catholic churches in Texas have worked with hospitals and families for many years to provide burial for unborn remains. When the State of Texas passed a law requiring all hospitals and abortion clinics to bury or cremate all unborn remains, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops offered support—as an act of ministry, the bishops publicly offered to donate free space in Catholic cemeteries across the state for this purpose.

In December 2016, Whole Woman’s Health, a group that runs abortion facilities in Texas, sued the State to stop the fetal remains law. Even though the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops was not part of the lawsuit, in March 2018 Whole Woman’s Health retaliated against the bishops for publicly supporting the fetal remains law. Whole Woman’s Health served them with a subpoena demanding that the bishops hand over all communications about abortion. The bishops handed over more than 4,000 pages of communications, but the bishops stood their ground when it came to private religious deliberations among the bishops, refusing to hand them over.

Church theology is not a public affair

Churches should be free to lend tangible support to public initiatives without fear that they will be forced to hand over private, internal communications, especially on matters of doctrine and theology. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops had already handed over thousands of communications with outside groups. Handing over their private, internal religious deliberations between the bishops regarding matters of faith would seriously interfere with the Church’s ability to conduct its ministries – not to mention that handing them over to advocacy groups who believe differently than the Church does on matters like abortion would be damaging.

Despite this, on June 17, 2018, a trial judge ordered the bishops to hand over their internal communications about abortion to Whole Woman’s Health. The bishops appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for emergency protection from the order. On June 18, 2018, the Fifth Circuit suspended the trial court’s order, protecting the bishops until the case could be fully considered. Simultaneous briefs were filed at the Fifth Circuit on June 25, 2018.

Fifth Circuit Court protects bishops from “Hobson’s choice”

On July 15, 2018, the Fifth Circuit granted the bishops permanent protection from the order. The Court found that the bishops’ claims “go to the heart of the constitutional protection of religious belief and practice as well as citizens’ right to advocate sensitive policies in the public square.” The Court also stated that the abortion facilities’ efforts against the bishops “looks like an act of intimidation,” placing the bishops’ conference in a “‘Hobson’s choice’ of retreating from the public square or defending its position.” On July 30, Whole Woman’s Health asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. On August 16, 2018, the en banc Fifth Circuit rejected Whole Woman’s Health’s petition for rehearing.

In November 2018, Whole Woman’s Health asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision. On January 11, 2019, Becket filed a brief opposing that request. On February 19, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Whole Woman’s Health’s appeal, putting an end to the abortion group’s intrusion efforts.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops was represented by Becket and by Steven Levatino of Levatino | Pace PLLC in Austin, Texas.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Religious communities: Religious communities must be free to operate and minister without government interference, including by keeping internal church communications private, especially when it comes to matters of doctrine and theology.
  • Public square: Churches should be free to support public initiatives that affect their religious beliefs without being forced to forfeit their privacy.

Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church

A small African-American church serving the people of Pittsburgh

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church is a small, historic African American church in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1899, its current worship services host about 100 people. The community served by Sixth Mount Zion is one of Pittsburgh’s poorest: one-third of the households in its neighborhood are headed by single moms, one quarter of the houses sit vacant, and one person is unemployed for every three that have a job. To support its community, Sixth Mount Zion hosts a number of ministries to the poor, including a monthly food-bank.

A pastor leads the church’s ministries into decline

In December 2012, the membership of Sixth Mount Zion called Reverend William David Lee to be its pastor. As the church’s pastor, Reverend Lee was expected to be the “only leader of the flock.” This meant leading the spiritual life of the church, including leading worship services, educating the congregation, and conducting weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Three months after taking over the church’s leadership, Rev. Lee insisted that the church sign a contract giving him a 20-year term in office. When church members expressed concern, he assured them that they could still fire him if they believed he wasn’t leading the church in the right direction.

But two years after Reverend Lee became pastor, it became apparent that church life had changed under Lee’s religious leadership—for the worse. A joint board of church deacons and trustees found that membership had plummeted 61 percent, Sunday worship attendance had dropped 32 percent, and tithing and offerings had decreased 39 percent, while church expenses had increased 200 percent. Concerned for the church’s future, the church membership voted to have Rev. Lee step down from the pulpit in January 2015.

Becket defends Sixth Mount Zion’s right to choose its leader

In September 2015, Rev. Lee sued Sixth Mount Zion and eleven of the church’s lay leaders in federal court for $2.6 million.  In August 2017, the court rejected Rev. Lee’s lawsuit. Relying on Hosanna-Tabor, the court ruled that judges cannot second-guess a church’s decision about the quality of its pastor’s religious leadership.

In September 2017, Rev Lee appealed the federal court’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket filed its response brief on behalf of Sixth Mount Zion in April 2018. Oral argument took place in July 2018 (audio here).

In September 2018, the Third Circuit ruled 3-0 for the church, stating that the First Amendment prevents courts from deciding questions of spiritual leadership. The Third Circuit’s ruling bolsters the right of all houses of worship to select their leaders—a right called the “ministerial exception”—stating that “While the amount of church contributions and members is a matter of arithmetic, assessing Lee’s role … requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership.” That raises “questions that would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause.”


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of groups to choose their own leaders: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor set a precedent protecting a church’s right to choose its own leaders. Both church and state are better off when the state isn’t evaluating the internal religious decisions of a religious ministry.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Lehigh County

Seals and flags reflect our nation’s history and culture

Images of historic significance are common on the seals and flags of states, counties, and towns across America. New Mexico’s flag has a single image: the sacred sun symbol of the Zia Native American tribe. Louisiana’s flag has a symbol of a pelican with a bleeding heart that feeds its hatchlings, a symbol long used to illustrate how Christians are nourished by the Eucharist and reflecting the early French Catholic influence in the Louisiana Territory. Utah’s flag and seal have images recalling the Mormon pioneers. And many seals and flags in the American southwest have images of friars and mission churches reflecting the early influence of Spanish Catholics in that region.

Militant atheists try to scrub history from Lehigh County’s seal

Lehigh County, Pennsylvania’s seal includes a collection of images that reflect its history and culture. These images include cement silos, textiles, and a farm, symbolizing significant aspects of the County’s early economy; the Liberty Bell and a red heart, symbolizing its role in the American Revolution and its sense of patriotism; a lamp with books, representing its schools; and a cross, recalling the early Christians who settled Lehigh County in pursuit of religious freedom.

The county’s seal has existed for over 70 years without controversy. But in 2016, militant atheists from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued, demanding that the federal court in Pennsylvania scrub the cross from the county’s seal. They claim that including the cross among the dozen symbols on the seal establishes the Christian religion as the official county religion, and so it must be removed.

Lehigh County fought back—not to endorse one religion over another or religion over nonreligion—but simply to preserve a small reminder that the religious minorities who settled Lehigh County played an important role in its history that is worth remembering, just as it is worth remembering Lehigh County’s early role in the American Revolution, its early economic influences, and its patriotism and schools. Memorializing history is not unlawful just because aspects of it happen to be religious.

Defending religious symbols in the public square

In September 2017, a federal district judge issued an opinion noting that Lehigh County’s seal complies with the actual text of the First Amendment and with the intent of the founding fathers, who wanted to protect citizens from having to worship against their will or pay for churches they didn’t like, but never intended to strip every reference to religion from the public square. The court thought the case should be “cut and dry” for the county. But instead of applying the actual text and meaning of the First Amendment, the court felt bound by an old Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires courts to guess whether the government is trying to “endorse” religion whenever it mentions God or religion. Thanks to Lemon, the courts are flooded with cases challenging “In God We Trust” on our coins, the phrase “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, prayers in public meetings, and the countless religious images on state and federal buildings, flags, seals, and war memorials.

Even the Supreme Court seems to agree that enough is enough. In recent years it has moved away from the Lemon test, ruling that manifestations of religion in government and in the public square that were acceptable at our nation’s founding are still acceptable today and that recognizing the role of religion among our nation’s peoples, history, and culture does not violate the Constitution.

The case reached the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, to decide whether Lehigh County included the cross to force Christianity on its citizens or whether the cross is simply a reminder, among a dozen others, of one significant aspect of the county’s history. The Third Circuit placed the case on hold while the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a historic war memorial in the form of a cross on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland. On June 20, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Bladensburg cross.

On August 8, 2019, following the Supreme Court’s precedent, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that Lehigh County can maintain the Latin cross in its seal as a symbol significant to the county’s history. The court recognized that “Lemon does not apply” to religiously expressive imagery in the public square in light of the Bladensburg decision, and that requiring “the cross’s extirpation” could be hostile, not neutral, toward religion.

Becket has also defended a World War II religious memorial in a Montana ski resort, a historic Pensacola park cross monument, and a 9/11 Ground Zero cross artifact, among others.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public Square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. The government is not required to strip the public square of important symbols just because they are religious.     

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

Community and service for 75 years

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

Kicked off campus for their religious beliefs

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

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

InterVarsity stands up to religious discrimination

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

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

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


Importance to religious liberty

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

Pacific Lutheran University v. SEIU Local 925

Pacific Lutheran University is a private university in Tacoma, Washington offering undergraduate and graduate studies in a liberal arts environment. It is committed to “diversity, justice, and sustainability,” and at the same time, fosters a proud Lutheran tradition.

But Pacific Lutheran had to fight to maintain autonomy as a religious university. In 2013, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) tried to unionize non-tenured professors at the University, even though until then religious universities had been exempt from unionization in order to preserve church-state separation. SEIU claimed that Pacific Lutheran was not “sufficiently religious” to qualify for the exemption and therefore was subject to labor laws enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Represented by Gordon Thomas Honeywell LLP, Pacific Lutheran appealed an initial regulatory decision against it to the NLRB, emphasizing its status as a religious university, and that as a religious university it is up to Pacific Lutheran to make decisions about employees’ status based on its religious mission. Otherwise Pacific Lutheran risked losing its independent authority to guide practices for its adjunct professors, which is crucial to promoting faith-based values. In a religious university like Pacific Lutheran, teachers are expected to reflect their institution’s faith, and the law must reflect — and protect — that reality.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Pacific Lutheran arguing that the First Amendment principle of church autonomy as recognized in cases like Becket’s Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor meant that the NLRB could not oversee unionization contests within religious universities.

Despite these arguments, the NLRB ruled against Pacific Lutheran saying that adjunct professors do not overtly perform a religious function and therefore fall under NLRB jurisdiction. The decision also claimed that an institution must prove its religious affiliation, and the religious roles played by employees, before asserting the exemption. This decision was tantamount to a complete reversal of the Board’s former policy, which provided broad latitude to churches and other religious employers.

After the NLRB issued its decision—which is binding nationwide—SEIU withdrew its unionization petition, meaning that the NLRB’s change in policy narrowing the religious exemption could not be tested in a higher court. Since then, unionization efforts have begun at a number of religious (primarily Catholic) universities across the country.

First Resort, Inc. v. Herrera

mission to care for women 

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

City ordinance restricts speech—and women’s options 

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

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

Becket defends free speech for all 

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

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

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

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


Importance to religious liberty: 

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

Myrick v. Warren

Targeted for her religious beliefs

Religious liberty and LGBT rights don’t have to be in conflict. No one knows that better than Gayle Myrick.

Gayle Myrick was a well-respected magistrate in North Carolina for many years. As a magistrate she issued warrants, set bail, handled traffic fines, and—on rare occasions—performed wedding ceremonies.

Gayle loved helping others and treating everyone fairly. She always received top performance reviews and positive feedback. When same-sex marriage became legal, Gayle didn’t want to stop anyone from getting married. But she also knew that her religious beliefs prevented her from performing a same-sex wedding ceremony.

A commonsense solution

Since handling weddings was such a small portion of her work, Gayle’s immediate supervisor proposed a solution—simply shift Gayle’s schedule by a couple hours so that she was not on duty when the county offered weddings. The government frequently offered similar scheduling accommodations to other magistrates for a variety of reasons, from simple things like going fishing to larger issues like night classes or even drug rehab.

This was a reasonable solution: Every couple would still get married without any delay or embarrassment, and Gayle would get to keep her job.

Unfortunately, the state government rejected this solution and made clear Gayle had to choose: her faith or her job. Gayle was forced to resign, which meant she lost her retirement and the job she loved.

Becket defends dignity in our diverse society

With the help of Becket and North Carolina attorney Ellis Boyle, Gayle filed a claim of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under a federal civil rights law that protects government workers. In March 2017, a federal judge said in a landmark ruling that the government broke the law when it refused to let Gayle shift her schedule, especially since other magistrates were allowed to shift their schedules all the time. The government also acknowledged it had treated Gayle unfairly, and in January 2018, agreed to pay a substantial amount to make her whole and give back the pay and retirement benefits that were unjustly taken from her. The state later passed a law making sure no magistrates would be targeted for their religious beliefs and no one would be denied a prompt marriage.

Faith and sexual orientation are deeply important to the identity of many people, and this case shows that these two things don’t have to be at odds with each other. From a Jewish worker’s need to keep the Sabbath, to a Muslim employee’s need to engage in daily prayer, there are thousands of examples of reasonable solutions in the workplace that protect the dignity of everyone. Our civil rights laws help us create a society where people with diverse views can live alongside each other without conflict.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: The government cannot force religious individuals to violate their deeply held beliefs to further a government goal when there are other ways for the government to accomplish that goal, and when the government already accommodates exemptions for secular reasons.

Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

A reminder of the reason for the season

Every Christmas season, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., conducts a holiday campaign called “Find the Perfect Gift” to remind people of the religious meaning of Christmas and to invite them to give to those in need. The campaign includes extensive advertising in public spaces as well as on social media. Buying advertisements on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s buses and Metro subway cars is one of the most effective way for the Archdiocese to spread its message of giving and hope to the DC metro area.

Religious speech censored on the metro

But in 2017, as the Christmas season approached, the Metro denied the Archdiocese request to purchase ad space because of the campaign’s religious message. Metro’s 2015 ad policy bans any ad Metro deems controversial, including political, advocacy, and religious advertising. WMATA’s guidelines disqualified the Archdiocese from using ad space simply because the ads are religious. Ads about the secular or commercial meaning of Christmas – such as department store sales – were permitted, whereas religious ads encouraging generosity and service during the holiday season were prohibited. Although a secular organization can post meeting times, addresses, or contact information on a Metro ad, religious groups, including a monastery, were banned from doing the same thing.

In November 2017, represented by former Solictor General Paul Clement of Kirkland & Ellis, the Archdiocese of Washington sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for banning religious speech. The district court denied a preliminary injunction and the Archdiocese appealed to the D.C. Circuit. In January 2018, Becket along with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. (ISKCON), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit defending the Archdiocese’s free exercise rights, arguing that the government does not get to arbitrarily exclude messages from the public square just because they are religious. Targeting and censoring religious messages violates the First Amendment.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

On July 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, stating that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising. The Archdiocese appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court on May 20, 2019.

Because not all nine justices could hear the case, the Supreme Court decided to not take the case. Along with the denial of certiorari, Justice Gorsuch stated that if they had agreed to intervene, “a reversal would be warranted.” He also stated that the “Constitution requires the government to respect religious speech, not to maximize advertising revenues…The one thing it cannot do is what it did here–permit a subject sure to inspire religious views, one that even WMATA is ‘half’ religious in nature, and then suppress those views. The First Amendment requires governments to protect religious viewpoints, not single them out for silencing.” 


Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speechFreedom of speech is not only an inherent human right, but also a fundamental building block of our society. The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. This involves religious speech as well.
  • Public squareReligious organizations must be free to operate in the public square according to their beliefs.

Dumont v. Lyon

WEBSITE for Religious Adoption Cases

A Desperate Need 

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

ACLU would put children’s needs last 

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

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

Protecting children and families 

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

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

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


Importance to religious liberty 

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

BLinC v. University of Iowa

Students integrating faith and work

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

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

University of Iowa targeted BLinC for its religious beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPORTANCE TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

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

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

WEBSITE for Little Sisters Cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance to religious liberty 

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

California v. Little Sisters of the Poor

WEBSITE for Little Sisters Cases

More information on the history of the HHS mandate and HHS cases can be found here. 

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

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

But the Little Sisters are still in court. Following the new mandate announcement, the state of California sued the federal government to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption. California admits that it has many of its own programs to provide contraceptives to women who want them. California never filed suit over the much larger secular exemptions created by the Obama Administration for big corporations—exemptions that applied to tens of millions more people than the religious exemption. California’s own mandate does not even apply to the Little Sisters of the Poor. And California has not identified a single actual person who had contraceptive coverage but will lose it because of this new rule. Despite all this, California asked a judge to find that the Little Sisters should be forced to comply with the federal mandate (not a state mandate) or pay tens of millions of dollars of government fines. 

Becket is seeing the Little Sisters through their fight 

On November 21, 2017, Becket intervened on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in California and Pennsylvania. Becket has argued all along that the government has many ways to provide services to women who want them as well as protect the Little Sisters. Neither the federal government nor the state governments need nuns to help them give out contraceptives. 

On December 12, 2017, the Little Sisters argued in an Oakland, California district court for their right to participate in the case and receive protection from government fines. On December 29, 2017, the court granted their motion to intervene in the case. In January 2018, the Little Sisters appealed to the Ninth Circuit to overturn a federal judge’s decision to invalidate the new HHS rule protecting the Sisters. Becket’s brief, filed in April 2018, explained why the states have no right to challenge this regulation, and why the new regulation is required by law and the 2016 Supreme Court order in Zubik v. Burwell. 

Ninth Circuit gives CA the go-ahead to continue its fight against the Little Sisters 

Oral argument took place on October 19, 2018. On November 7, 2018 the government issued a new rule finalizing its exemption protecting religious ministries. On December 13, 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled against HHS’s interim exemption and allowed California to continue its fight against the Little Sisters. The Ninth Circuit ruling did not address the final HHS rules. 

On January 11, 2019, Becket represented the Little Sisters at oral argument in federal court in Oakland, California to defend their religious exemption from the HHS mandate. On January 14, 2019, the court ruled against them – a decision which the Little Sisters immediately appealed. The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on June 6, 2019. On October 22, the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the Little Sisters, stating it would “welcome guidance from the Supreme Court.”

On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Little Sisters in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania protecting the Little Sisters for the third time, and sent California v. Little Sisters of the Poor back to the Ninth Circuit to be decided in light of the Court’s decision.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

American Legion v. American Humanist Association

“The nation’s founders knew what an unconstitutional establishment of religion looked like, and a passive symbol like a memorial cross wasn’t it.” –Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket

A beloved symbol of sacrifice and honor

Known locally as the Peace Cross, the Bladensburg memorial was erected in 1925 on private land with funds raised by the American Legion, a military veterans association. The memorial was designed by mothers who lost their sons in the war, and they modeled it after those memorialized in the celebrated poem “In Flanders Fields” that stood “row on row” to “mark [the] place” where their sons lay.

Today the Peace Cross stands among a number of other war memorials and, since 1961, it has been owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as a historic site.

Atheist activists attempt to tear down history

Yet in 2014 the American Humanist Association sued, arguing that the Peace Cross is a government establishment of religion. But the Constitution does not require religion to be stripped from our nation’s history and culture. The cross is an internationally recognized symbol of sacrifice and loss and a frequently used symbol to honor fallen soldiers. Mere disagreement with something one sees should not be confused with a forbidden religious establishment.

In April 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief with Sidley Austin LLP at the U.S. Court of Appeals at the Fourth Circuit defending the memorial, stating it “does not violate the Establishment Clause because it bears none of the historical hallmarks of an establishment of religion.” But in October 2017, the Fourth Circuit ruled against the memorial using the notorious Lemon test, a malleable three-part legal test that has been criticized harshly by many Supreme Court justices. The American Legion, represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, and the Jones Day law firm, appealed to the Supreme Court.

Defending religion in the public square at the Supreme Court

In December 2018, Becket, represented by Stanford law professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael W. McConnell, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision and scrap the Lemon test in favor of an approach that returns the Establishment Clause to its historical meaning. Oral arguments took place on February 27, 2019. During oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts raised the argument Becket had urged in brief suggesting that a historical approach offers a clear way for resolving disputes about religious symbols in the public square.

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of the Peace Cross, allowing it to remain standing. The Court’s opinion reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision against the Peace Cross and stated that, for many, “destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.” Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief was cited in concurring opinions by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch.

In Kondrat’yev, et al v. City of Pensacola, Becket is also fighting a militant atheist lawsuit against a World War II-era cross in Pensacola, Florida, that has stood as a symbol of patriotism and fellowship for more than 75 years. On June 28, 2019 the Supreme Court sent the Pensacola case back to the Eleventh Circuit to be reconsidered in light of their Bladensburg decision. In February 2020 the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the cross is constitutional and should remain standing.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Public Square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. The government is not required to strip the public square of important symbols just because they are religious.  

Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

An artist’s livelihood at stake

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

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

Forced to violate his beliefs—or forfeit his business

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

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

Victory for free speech and religious liberty

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

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

Importance to religious liberty

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

Caplan v. Town of Acton, Massachusetts

Would France let Notre Dame fall into ruin? Should India let the Taj Mahal crumble or England let Big Ben go into disrepair? ­Of course not. Historic structures enrich cities all over the world as reminders of our diverse and rich history.

The state of Massachusetts understands the importance of preserving historic landmarks. Through its Community Preservation Act, the state makes perseveration funds available to secular and religious structures alike, recognizing that both are significant to the history of the state and should be preserved. Since 2000, more than 8,000 projects have been performed on secular and religious buildings to preserve them for future generations and public use.

Yet a small group of residents in Acton, Massachusetts, are claiming that funds can be made available for all sorts of historic buildings – just not churches. The group claims that allowing churches to participate in this widely available program violates part of the Massachusetts Constitution known as the Anti-Aid Amendment. The Anti-Aid Amendment, like the Blaine Amendments adopted in numerous state constitutions during the 19th and 20th centuries, was adopted during a movement of anti-Catholic bigotry. To this day, state laws like these are used by anti-religion activists in attempts to prohibit state funds to anything remotely religious.

Yet courts have consistently ruled that churches cannot be banned from widely available public benefit programs. In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that a state can’t deny church schools from participating in a shredded-tire resurfacing program to make playgrounds safer for kids.

The town of Acton went to court, represented by Anderson & Kreiger LLP. In 2016, two historic churches in Acton were protected. But the small group of residents appealed. In August 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending the churches’ right to receive preservation funds on equal footing with secular structures. This case was heard in September 2017. In March 2018 the Supreme Judicial Court said that despite Trinity Lutheran, a church’s status as a church is an “important” factor weighing against a grant of preservation funds. The court’s ruling requires Massachusetts communities to discriminate, instructing them to hold churches to a higher standard than secular buildings in determining whether churches qualify to participate in historic preservation programs.

FFRF v. Morris County Board of Freeholders

At the Supreme Court, changes to the law are often slow and incremental. Sometimes these changes take place even when the Court decides not to take a case, as when one or more Justices write in a way that helps lower courts see the issues in a new light. This case, involving government grants for the preservation of historic buildings, including churches, is one such matter. Although the Court declined to hear the case, an opinion written by Justice Kavanaugh, and joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, reveals their commitment to equality for religion in the public square.

Historic buildings are an important part of our national heritage, from Independence Hall, to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King served as pastor until his death. These buildings need frequent restoration to remain available to the public for future use. In 2002, Morris County created a historic preservation fund to help restore beautiful, historic buildings within the County. The program is a competitive grant program and requires applicants—both secular and religious—to establish the historic significance of the building, typically by showing they are on the state or national historic registry.  

In December 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued Morris County in New Jersey Superior Court, complaining that allowing churches to participate in the program violated the New Jersey Constitution. They claimed that Morris County can restore historic buildings—just not churches. Yet courts have consistently ruled that churches cannot be banned from widely available public benefit programs. In June 2017, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer  that a state can’t deny church schools from participating in a shredded-tire resurfacing program to make playgrounds safer for kids. Similarly, in January 2017, the New Jersey court had ruled in Morris County’s favor and protected the right of religious historic buildings to participate in the program. But in April 2018, and despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and ruled in FFRF’s favor, saying that under the New Jersey constitution the government cannot provide grants to preserve the architecture of historic churches. 

On September 19, 2018, Morris Country, represented by Becket, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to let Morris County continue treating all historic sites the same, without having to engage in religious discrimination. 

On March 4, 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review the case, but Justices Kavanaugh, Alito, and Gorsuch issued an opinion that goes a long way toward steering lower courts in the right direction. The opinion suggested that it would be inappropriate for the Court to take another case like Trinity Lutheran so soon after it was decided. This policy gives the lower courts more time to work through new decisions on a particular issue before the Supreme Court considers what gaps or confusion remain in the law. But in a promising move for his first writing on religious liberty at the Court, Justice Kavanaugh made clear that excluding sites from a historic preservation program because they are religious creates “serious tension with this Court’s religious equality precedents.”

This is not the last time the Court will have a chance to definitively resolve the issue. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court’s bar against religious organizations remains in place, a church suing the State of New Jersey or one of its counties after being denied funds could point to Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion to support a claim of religious discrimination. And Justice Kavanaugh himself agreed that “[a]t some point” the high court will have to step back in. In the meantime, the lower courts are on warning: according to Justices Kavanaugh, Alito, and Gorsuch, excluding religious organizations from generally available government programs is “pure discrimination against religion.”


Importance to religious liberty

  • Public Square: Houses of worship that have historical significance should qualify for the same benefits as other historically significant sites.
  • Reinforcing precedent: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that the state of Missouri couldn’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.

Kondrat’yev, et al v. City of Pensacola

A historic cross in a historic city 

The City of Pensacola has a rich history older than the U.S. itself. A key seaport connected to the Gulf of Mexico, it is named after the Native American people who lived there as early as the 1100s, and it was one of the first areas to be settled by Spanish explorers. Today, Pensacola is known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and is home to many members of the military.    

On a scenic bayou within the City lies Bayview Park, a popular location for social and civic gatherings. The 28-acre park features a senior center, amphitheater, two dog parks, tennis courts, a bocce ball court, playground, several boat ramps and docks, walking trails, picnic areas, and a memorial to a local citizen who died in a waterskiing accident. Tucked in the northeast corner of the park is the Bayview cross, a monument first erected in 1941 by the Jaycees, a non-profit civic group, to unite the community just months before the U.S. entered World War II.  

A needless lawsuit 

For over 70 years, Pensacola citizens have held community events at the monument, such as sunrise services, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remembrances, and other voluntary gatherings. More than a religious symbol, the Bayview cross has become part of the history of Pensacola and a reminder of the many diverse groups, religious and nonreligious alike, that make the City what it is. But in May 2016, four plaintiffs, represented by the American Humanist Association, filed a lawsuit in federal court to remove the cross. Two of the plaintiffs live in Canada; one has held his own ceremonies at the cross; the fourth lives seven miles away from the park. But they all claim that seeing the cross is offensive.  

Becket defends the cross 

 In June 2017, despite recognizing that the cross “is part of the rich history of Pensacola,” and that the cross “might well pass constitutional muster,” the federal court ruled that the cross has a “religious purpose” and must be removed. Becket immediately came to the City’s defense, arguing that that religion is a fundamental aspect of human culture and history, and the Constitution does not require the government to strip every religious symbol from the public square.

In September 2018, the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals ruled that it was “bound” by earlier precedent to rule against the cross. But two of the three judges said the earlier precedent was “wrong” and “needs to be reversed.” They urged the full Eleventh Circuit or Supreme Court to uphold the cross.

In September 2018 Pensacola appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 28, 2019 the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Eleventh Circuit to be reconsidered in light of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland. The court decided on February 19, 2020 that the cross is constitutional.


Importance to religious liberty 

  • Public SquareBecause religious exercise is natural to human culture, it has a natural place in the public square. Religious symbols should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.

Newdow v. United States of America (Second Circuit)

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually upheld their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the national motto violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” Becket’s amicus brief countered those arguments, explaining that for the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state – and that honoring our nation’s religious heritage on our coinage is not one of them.

Newdow’s latest two lawsuits in his crusade against the word God are in the Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit courts of appeals. These lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. Becket’s briefs in the Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit explain to the courts that if Newdow succeeds here, church-state conflict will balloon, and we will see a lot more litigation against God around the country.

US Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York is counsel in this case.

New Doe Child # 1 v. United States of America (Eighth Circuit)

“God” is not a dirty word

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually protected their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government in courts across the country. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. Newdow’s lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

In 2017, Newdow filed two separate lawsuits in the Sixth and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals to erase “God” from the public square, demanding “In God We Trust” literally be scrubbed from all U.S. coins and bills. In each case, Newdow represented a group of atheists claiming that the national motto violates their practice of atheism under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. The Department of Justice represented the government to defend the motto. Becket filed friend-of-the-court briefs defending the government’s use of “In God We Trust” in both cases.

“In God We Trust” does not violate the First Amendment

In April 2017, Becket’s brief in the Eighth Circuit countered Newdow’s argument that the motto establishes a religion. For the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state. As Becket’s brief pointed out, “Virginia’s earliest settlers attended twice-daily services on pain of losing daily rations, whipping, and six months of hard-labor imprisonment…” While that constituted an establishment of religion, “[t]he motto’s presence on currency, of course, does not involve church attendance, compulsory or otherwise.”

This is not the first time Becket, or the courts, have weighed in to protect the national motto. In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the motto violates the First Amendment by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” As Becket wrote in our friend-of-the-court brief in that case, it is not an establishment of religion simply to pay tribute to our nation’s religious heritage.

Court protects “In God We Trust”

On March 13, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held oral argument in St. Paul, Minnesota. On August 28, 2018, the Court rejected the atheists’ attempt to strip the national motto from U.S. coins and bills and adopted Becket’s argument that recognizing our national heritage does not violate the First Amendment by establishing a religion.

On October 12, 2018, Newdow sought a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit Court. On November 26, 2018, the Court shut down Newdow’s case when it denied the request.

Newdow then sought review from the Supreme Court, which denied his request on June 10, 2019, ending the case.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public squareReligion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. “God” is not a dirty word, and paying tribute to our nation’s heritage in a national motto does not violate the First Amendment. 

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. City of New York

The homeless in New York can always count on Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to find a place to rest.

For years, the church has welcomed homeless people to sleep on the steps and sidewalk of its property as part of its religious mission. The church also operates a homeless shelter inside its basement, but that space is limited to just ten elderly people. Thirty more homeless individuals regularly sleep outside the church doors. The church has a sign that says “This is God’s House, All are Welcome.” And they mean it.

But in 2001, city officials decided they could no longer tolerate the church’s policy. They roused the homeless people from their sleep and cleared the steps and street. Represented by Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, LLP, the church sued the city for violating their right to put their faith into practice by serving those less fortunate – as protected in our Constitution and by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In January 2002, a judge ruled that the city could not remove the homeless on the steps of the church, but that they could remove homeless who were on the sidewalk, which the church also owned. Not taking no for an answer, the city appealed.

In March 2002, Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf a number of religious groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Christian Legal Society, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, the Queens Federation of Churches, and the Rutgers Presbyterian Church.

In June 2006, the court protected the church, stating that providing homeless with outdoor sleeping space is sincere religious practice, which is protected by the Constitution.

New Doe Child # 1 v. The Congress of the United States (Sixth Circuit)

“God” is not a dirty word

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually upheld their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

Newdow’s latest two lawsuits in his crusade against the word God are in the Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit courts of appeals. In each case, he has led a group of atheists claiming that the national motto violates their practice of atheism under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to defend the government’s use of “In God We Trust” in both cases.

Becket’s Sixth Circuit amicus brief, filed in February 2017, stated: “Plaintiffs want to have it both ways. They want to reject any notion of religious belief and transcendent truth and yet call it an ‘exercise of religion.’ Neither the English language nor the law can stretch that far.”

“In God We Trust” does not violate the First Amendment

In April 2017, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri. In that case, Newdow argued not only that the motto violates atheists’ religious freedom, but that it establishes a religion as well. Becket’s amicus brief countered those arguments, explaining that for the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state – and that honoring our nation’s religious heritage on our coinage is not one of them. The brief states, “Virginia’s earliest settlers attended twice-daily services on pain of losing daily rations, whipping, and six months of hard-labor imprisonment … . The motto’s presence on currency, of course, does not involve church attendance, compulsory or otherwise.”

These are not the first cases to consider the national motto, which has been upheld in court before. In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the national motto violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” Becket filed an amicus brief defending the motto, arguing that it is not an establishment of religion to simply pay tribute to our nation’s religious heritage.

Newdow’s lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. Becket’s briefs explain to the courts that if Newdow succeeds here, church-state conflict will balloon, and we will see a lot more litigation against God around the country.

Court protects “In God We Trust”

The Sixth Circuit heard oral argument in June 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Newdow and the Department of Justice argued on each side. On May 29, 2018, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the challenge to the national motto. On August 8, 2018, the Sixth Circuit denied en banc review.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public squareReligion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. “God” is not a dirty word, and paying tribute to our nation’s heritage in a national motto does not violate the First Amendment. 

Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore

An honest commitment to care for women 

The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which operates on Catholic Church-owned property, helps more than 1,200 women each year. The Center provides women with basic services like pregnancy tests, baby and maternity clothes, parenting books, diapers, bottles and formula, and sonograms—all free of charge. The Center also counsels more than 8,000 local women per year through its 24-hour helpline.

The Center’s staff and volunteers are motivated by their faith to help women and children during a vulnerable time in their lives. Displayed in each waiting room is a “Commitment of Care,” a document that explains the Center’s promises of nondiscrimination, honesty, and confidentiality, and also states that the Center “does not offer, recommend, or refer for abortion or birth control, but we are committed to offering accurate information about abortion procedures and risks.”

The government’s discriminatory double standard

In 2009, the City of Baltimore targeted the Center, demanding they display government signs about the services they do not offer. The city mandated that the Center display signs on the walls of their church-owned property stating that they “do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control services.” Yet, the only centers targeted by this discriminatory law were pro-life centers. The city of Baltimore did not require abortion clinics to display signs about services they do not offer, such as adoption or prenatal care.

The city claimed that the government-mandated abortion message did not alter the Center’s speech, because the Commitment of Care already notified women that the Center did not offer referrals for abortion. But this reasoning completely missed a crucial part of the First Amendment promise of free speech: that people, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Defending free speech for all

In March 2010, the Center sued the mayor and city counsel of Baltimore in district court for the right to continue to serve and communicate with women who come to them for help, in a way that respects each woman’s choice and circumstances as well as the Center’s mission. The Center already accurately informs women about the help they provide in a way that is in line with their mission; that should be enough.

In January 2011, the Center won. But the government wouldn’t take no for an answer. On appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the city again lost in January 2018. In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit explained that the city’s law essentially forced the Center to portray “abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices”—a message “antithetical to the very moral, religious, and ideological reasons the Center exists.” The law therefore violated the First Amendment.

In March 2018, the city made a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the city’s appeal, definitively protecting the Center’s free speech rights.

The Center was represented by Becket, by David Kinkopf and Steve Metzger from Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones LLP, and by Peter Basile from Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Free speech: The government cannot control the way an individual or organization speaks about its own beliefs. People, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius

Unconstitutional mandate threatens a Benedictine college

Founded by Benedictine monks, Belmont Abbey College celebrates a rich thousand-year-old monastic tradition of dedicated prayer and learning. Since 1876, the college has striven to carry out a clear mission: “That in all things God may be glorified.” But in 2011, Belmont Abbey’s right to live out its Catholic values was threatened by the federal government.

A new federal mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) required the Catholic college to provide services such as the week-after pill in its insurance plans. The HHS mandate forced Belmont Abbey to either violate the Catholic values that drives its mission or pay massive fines to the IRS.

Becket defends religious groups from government interference

As a Catholic liberal arts college, Belmont Abbey upholds the teachings of the Catholic Church, including the respect for all human life. Participating in a system to provide services such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion pills would contradict the Catholic mission it seeks to advance.

Although the government exempted certain religious employers, the requirements were extremely narrow, limited only to religious employers who primarily serve and employ those of their same faith. Belmont Abbey had no choice but to go to court to defend its right to remain true to its Catholic convictions. With Becket’s help, Belmont Abbey challenged the HHS mandate in federal court in November 2011.

In September 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, granted a motion for expedited appeal. In December, the court handed an intermediate victory to Belmont Abbey when it commanded HHS to act quickly to fix the HHS Mandate. But after the government’s new promised accommodation still infringed on the Catholic university’s beliefs, Becket refiled Belmont Abbey’s lawsuit in November 2013. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit stayed the case pending decisions in similar cases before the same court.

After joining a class-action lawsuit, Belmont Abbey College voluntarily dismissed their own case in November 2014.

On October 6, 2017, Health & Human Services issued a new rule with an exemption that protects religious ministries, in compliance with the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling and a Presidential Executive Order. In its new rule, the government admitted that it broke the law by trying to force religious groups to provide services in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs like the week-after pill. On November 7, 2018, the government finalized that rule, continuing to protect religious ministries.


Importance to religious liberty 

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

Wheaton College v. Azar

A college with a mission of faith

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

An unconstitutional federal mandate 

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

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

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

A five-year fight ends in resounding victory

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


Importance to religious liberty:

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

U.S. v. Sterling

Our nation’s military was practicing religious liberty even before our country recognized it’s inherently beneficial traits: solving religious conflicts and advancing the human right to freely seek God. If there is one lesson our military history has taught us it’s that religious diversity works.

A recent military court ruling threatens that heritage. A member of the Marine Corps, Monifa Sterling, was forced to take down a Bible verse from her desk despite other soldiers’ permission to decorate their workspaces. The court ruled that the verse, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” was not “religious” enough to be protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The ruling also noted that religion was “divisive” and “contentious” and government is allowed to censor it to avoid the risk that other Marines might be “exposed” to it.

But scripture is religious, and religion is not some sort of toxic cousin of profanity that deserves suppression instead of protection. The court’s ruling is very dangerous, particularly for minority religious groups with lesser-known faiths, who will more likely be targeted for “preemptive” censorship. The ruling also forgets the lesson of history: respectful religious pluralism enhances both individual rights and the military mission. To correct these errors, a diverse coalition of experts on military religious liberty joined the Becket’s amicus brief explaining why the lower court’s ruling must be overturned. The experts include military veterans, chaplains, and senior-level military commanders who have extensive personal and professional experience supporting soldiers’ free exercise of faith. They come from a variety of religions: Jewish, Catholic, Sikh, Southern Baptist, Muslim, Presbyterian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican, and Assemblies of God. Bancroft PLLC (Paul Clement), Liberty Institute, and Major John Stephens represented Ms. Sterling.

On August 10, 2016, the military’s highest court ruled against Monifa Sterling.

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

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

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

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

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

*Photo Credit: Flickr

 

Reaching Souls International v. Azar

Evangelical ministries challenge a federal mandate

In 2013, an orphan care ministry, a Christian college, and a 100-year-old Baptist ministry went to court to challenge the HHS mandate, which forced them to violate their beliefs or pay crippling IRS fines. The mandate required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans but did not accommodate religious ministries like Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources.

Reaching Souls International is a nonprofit evangelistic ministry that has preached the Gospel to over 20 million people and rescued hundreds of orphans in Africa, India, and Cuba by placing them into loving homes. If Reaching Souls does not comply with the government’s mandate, it will face each year in IRS fines.

Truett-McConnell College is a Georgia Baptist college committed to training students to share the Gospel by providing a biblically-centered education. If Truett-McConnell does not comply with the mandate, it will face millions of dollars each year in IRS fines.

GuideStone Financial Resources has been the benefits arm of the Southern Baptist Convention for over 100 years and provides retirement and health benefits to thousands of Southern Baptist churches and evangelical ministries like Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell College.

Defending their religious mission and beliefs

These evangelical ministries simply could not comply with the mandate to provide free access to abortion-inducing drugs and devices through the GuideStone health plan because doing so would violate their Christian beliefs about the sanctity of human life. While the government exempted churches and church-controlled ministries from the mandate, it refused to exempt religious ministries like Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell College.

Faced with no choice but to defend their beliefs, the ministries filed suit in October 2013, representing over 187 ministries that both relied on GuideStone for health benefits and faced massive IRS fines for refusing to violate their beliefs.

In December 2013, their case became the first class-action suit to win relief from the government’s HHS mandate. But on July 14, 2015, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court decision and ruled against the evangelical ministries. On July 23, 2015, GuideStone, Reaching Souls, and Truett-McConnell appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court and a new federal rule protect ministries

Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone’s fight brought them all the way to the Supreme Court, which on November 6, 2015 agreed to hear their case along with several other religious ministries. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case, Zubik v. Burwell. Zubik granted a victory to religious non-profits by directing the government to find another way to achieve its goals without violating religious liberty. Because of that ruling, the Tenth Circuit threw out its previous ruling against Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone, instead ordering the ministries and the government to address possible alternatives to the mandate.

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

Becket and Locke Lord LLP represented Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone in their fight for religious freedom. This was the second class action filed challenging the administration’s mandate; the first was filed by Becket and Locke Lord LLP on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor and hundreds of Catholic ministries participating in the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, a national plan for Catholic employers. Becket also represented Eternal Word Television Network, Houston Baptist University, and others in similar lawsuits against the HHS mandate.

Importance to religious liberty:

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

Oliver v. Hofmeister

A program to give children with learning disabilities better opportunities

In 2010, the State of Oklahoma enacted the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities to give students with learning disabilities access to private education by granting scholarships based on the cost of their public education. The program allowed students to attend a school that could help them with their specific learning disabilities. The vast majority of the state’s 541 school districts immediately complied with the law by issuing scholarship checks to eligible students. But four school districts decided that complying with the law would somehow violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic provision in the state constitution that targets “sectarian” groups.

The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that these provisions were “born of bigotry” in an era of widespread anti-Catholicism. Yet these four districts unilaterally asserted the Oklahoma Blaine Amendment to deny students the funds, arguing that it might aid religiously-affiliated schools. Conveniently, this allowed those school districts to keep the funds for themselves. After Becket sued to defend the students’ rights, the legislature learned of their plight and changed the law so the scholarships would issue directly from the State Board of Education, bypassing the renegade school districts.

A five-year battle with public school bureaucrats

Two of the school districts—Jenks and Union Public Schools—then turned around and sued the parents for accepting their scholarships. Becket defended the students’ rights again, this time all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which dismissed the lawsuit, chastising the school districts for going after their own students.

Despite that ruling, the school districts renewed the lawsuit, this time against the State Board of Education for granting the scholarships. In 2014, a lower court upheld the scholarship program, but only for students attending schools that were secular or religious “in name only.” Becket stepped in again, arguing what should have been obvious: when the state makes benefits generally available to its citizens, it can’t discriminate against some of them just because they are religious. Becket pointed out that this bizarre ruling would require the state to examine the beliefs of every religious school and decide which ones were too religious to accept the students’ scholarships.

Giving children with special needs equal access to public programs

In February 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court once again ruled in the students’ favor, finally upholding the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities for good. Oklahoma children with learning disabilities are free to use their share of the state’s education funds for an education best suited to their individual needs.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirms that the government is not allowed to create a Goldilocks scenario of deciding which religious beliefs are ”just right.” The First Amendment requires that public programs be administered neutrally, without regard to religious belief. Thanks to Becket, the students and their families are finally able to participate in Oklahoma’s scholarship program on equal footing with everyone else.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools. 
  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws: So long as anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century called Blaine Amendments remain in the books, people of all faiths can face discrimination, simply because they choose to attend a religious school. 

Neely v. Wyoming Ethics

The story of a small-town, Wyoming judge raises a big question: Is there room in our society for people to live according to different views of marriage?

Ruth Neely is a municipal judge and part-time circuit court magistrate from Pinedale, Wyoming. Shortly after Wyoming legalized same-sex marriage, a local reporter published an article stating that Judge Neely would be unable to perform same-sex weddings because of her religious beliefs. Based on the article, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics launched an unprecedented investigation against her.

Even though Wyoming law does not require (or pay) judges to perform weddings at all, and she has never been asked to solemnize a same-sex wedding, and there are several other magistrates who would be happy to do so, the Commission recommended that Judge Neely be stripped of all her judicial duties and fined up to $40,000 because of her beliefs. Town residents, including members of the LGBT community, were incredulous. In Pinedale, Judge Neely is known as an exemplary, caring judge who has spent 21 years treating everyone fairly.

Judge Neely was forced to defend her religious beliefs in the Wyoming Supreme Court, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. In May 2016, Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that it would violate the Wyoming and federal constitutions to penalize Judge Neely because of her religious beliefs. In March 2017, the Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously rejected the government’s request for extreme sanctions, allowing Judge Neely to keep both of her judicial positions. But a bare majority of the Court, in a 3-2 vote, ruled that she cannot continue performing any marriage ceremonies unless she’s willing to violate her faith by personally performing same-sex ceremonies. The dissenting justices defended Judge Neely and got the big question right: “In our pluralistic society, the law should not be used to coerce ideological conformity. Rather, on deeply contested moral issues, the law should ‘create a society in which both sides can live their own values.’”

Becket stands ready to defend others like Judge Neely, who, despite government pressure to conform, courageously choose to follow their conscience.

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Azar

An unconstitutional federal mandate 

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

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

Five years of litigation—including at the Supreme Court 

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

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

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

Resolution at last, and a win-win outcome 

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

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

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


IMPORTANCE TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY 

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

Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers

Meet Barronelle Stutzman, a floral artist and faithful Christian

For nearly forty years, Barronelle Stutzman has run Arlene’s Flowers, creating custom floral arrangements in the small town of Richland, Washington. As a Christian, she believes her creativity is a gift, and she uses that gift to honor God in her life’s work. As an artist, she enjoys helping her customers celebrate their life events and over the years has come to know many of them as friends.

For nine years Barronelle joyfully served long-time customer and friend Rob Ingersoll, designing custom arrangements for birthdays, Valentine’s Day and other holidays that he celebrated with his partner Curt Freed. In 2013 Rob asked Barronelle to do the flowers for his wedding. Although Barronelle has hired and served gay customers in the past with arrangements for other celebrations, she could not create something for a ceremony that violated her beliefs. She took Rob’s hands and told him with tears in her eyes that she values his friendship but could not participate in his wedding because of her faith. He told her he understood, and another florist quickly provided their wedding’s floral arrangements for free.

Washington Attorney General and ACLU sue Barronelle because of her beliefs

Barronelle was soon sued by the state’s Attorney General and the ACLU. In 2015, a state court ruled that Barronelle was personally liable for Rob Ingersoll’s $8 dollars in damages as well as his attorney’s fees, which means that she could lose her business, her home, and her life savings.

The Washington Supreme Court heard oral argument in Barronelle’s case in November 2016. Becket filed an amicus brief in February 2016 supporting Barronelle, who is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Other groups supporting Barronelle include the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Coalition of African American Pastors USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Cato Institute, 27 law professors, and 13 states. In February 2017, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against Barronelle.

Becket defends people of faith from government hostility 

In August 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case in tandem with the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, and remanded Barronelle’s case back to the Washington Supreme Court. In March 5, 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that state acted with religious hostility against Barronelle, in violation of her First Amendment rights, and that the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision requires the government to allow religious individuals to freely practice their faith.

On June 6, 2019, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against Barronelle Stutzman. On September 11, 2019, Barronelle appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. In this case, the government is forcing Barronelle to choose between her deeply held religious convictions and her livelihood.
  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. In this case, Barronelle’s artistic expressions were a form of speech, and the government should not force her to create something that violates her religious beliefs.

Baker v. Hands On Originals

A Christian printer ordered to violate his faith

Blaine Adamson owns Hands On Originals, a small screen printing shop in Kentucky that creates promotional materials like shirts, hats, blankets, and mugs. Blaine serves everyone regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. But he doesn’t print messages that are contrary to his faith, such as messages promoting violence. As printers across the country have agreed, it is standard industry practice for printers to decline messages that contradict their core beliefs. Blaine has operated this way for years without a problem.

Until 2012, when the Gay and Lesbian Services Organizations (GLSO) asked Blaine to create t-shirts promoting the local Pride Festival. Because the message of the t-shirts conflicted with Blaine’s religious beliefs, he offered to connect GLSO with other printers who would match his price. GLSO received numerous offers to print the t-shirts and ultimately received them for free. But GLSO filed a complaint with the local human rights commission, which ordered Blaine to print the shirts and attend “diversity training” to change his views.

Support from the LGBT community

Two different Kentucky courts have ruled that this sort of coercion is illegal. Blaine has also received strong support from the printing industry and LGBT business owners.

“This isn’t a gay or straight issue. This is a human issue. No one really should be forced to do something against what they believe in. It’s as simple as that,” said Kathy Trautvertter & Diane DiGeloromo of BMP T-shirts.

Becket defends Blaine’s free speech

The human rights commission has now appealed the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court. In February 2018, Becket and University of Virginia Law Professor Doug Laycock, together with Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLCS, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Blaine. The brief argues: “Just as a pro-choice printer has a right to decline to print a religious message attacking Planned Parenthood, and a gay photographer has a right to decline to photograph a religious anti-gay rally, a Christian printer who believes in traditional marriage has a right to decline to print materials contradicting that view. The law protects the freedom of individuals in a pluralistic society to disagree.”

On October 31, 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hands On Originals, further protecting free speech and our pluralistic society.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. In this case, the government is forcing Blaine Adamson to choose between his deeply held religious convictions and his livelihood.
  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. In this case, Blaine’s artistic expressions are a form of speech, and the government should not force him to create something that violates his religious beliefs.

Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra

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

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

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

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

Back at the district court, in August 2021, the judge granted the permanent relief the doctors and hospitals sought. The federal government and ACLU appealed. Then, on August 26, 2022, the Fifth Circuit unanimously affirmed the district court, permanently protecting the freedom of doctors and hospitals to care for all patients in accordance with their conscience and experienced professional judgment.  


Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Eternal Word Television Network v. Azar

An unconstitutional mandate threatened nun-founded Catholic television network

Thirty years ago, a cloistered nun named Mother Angelica started a small television network in her monastery garage to spread the teachings of the Catholic church. Today, the network she started, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), continues her mission. But in 2011, EWTN’s ability to remain to its Catholic faith was threatened by the federal government.

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate that required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans, free of cost. Because the government refused to grant religious exemptions to religious non-profits like EWTN, the mandate would force the nun’s network to authorize and take part in providing contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion drugs to EWTN’s employees—fundamentally violating EWTN’s Catholic beliefs and mission. If EWTN did not comply with the mandate, it would face millions of dollars in fines from the IRS.

To continue its religious mission, EWTN spent seven years in court

EWTN refused to be part of the government’s plan to provide contraceptive services and drugs that destroy human life. In February 2012, Becket stepped in to represent EWTN in federal court.

What followed was nearly seven years of constant litigation. In June 2014, an Alabama district court ruled against EWTN days before the non-profit was due to face millions of dollars in IRS fines. Becket filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which granted EWTN emergency protection from the fines while its case was still ongoing. Then, in February 2015, the Eleventh Circuit ruled against EWTN—but it gave them shelter from the mandate until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case, Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court’s decision in that case granted a victory to religious non-profits by directing the government to find another way to achieve its goals without violating religious liberty. Because of that ruling, the Eleventh Circuit threw out its previous ruling against EWTN and instead ordered EWTN and the government to address possible alternatives to the mandate.

A hard-won victory, at last

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption, and on November 7, 2018, HHS issued a rule finalizing the exemption. On November 29, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally granted EWTN a hard-won victory when it ruled to end EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.


Importance to religious liberty:

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

East Texas Baptist University & Houston Baptist University v. Azar

Two Christ-centered Texas universities share a mission

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

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

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

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

Challenging the HHS mandate

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

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

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

Unanimous win-win outcome at the Supreme Court

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Dermody v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)

Churches must have the right to follow their own religious rules, even if some church members disagree with how those rules apply to them. In this case, a disgruntled minister who had failed a church financial audit, threatened that right by asking the court to override the church’s enforcement of its internal financial guidelines against him.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s “1001” movement” is a mission project aimed at creating 1,001 new worshiping communities. Under watch of the project executive, a church minister, two employees violated church financial policy when they transferred $100,000 from the church’s accounts into a private entity they had set up. Although the employees did not intend to misuse the money and the money was ultimately recovered, the minister was cited by the church for his failed oversight. The Presbyterian Church immediately published the audit findings on its website and detailed the corrective measures it was taking. Although the church initially never published the minister’s name, he publicly admitted responsibility and then sued the church for defamation.

The minister’s lawsuit was filed in May 2015, and sought monetary compensation for the church’s allegedly defamatory statements. Last September, the trial court denied relief because the church’s statements appeared to be true and the First Amendment barred the court from second-guessing the church’s decision to enforce its standards of ethical conduct for religious leaders. The minister then appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in June 2016 on behalf of the church, arguing that, under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, courts cannot interfere with churches’ statements to their members about the conduct of their religious leaders. In July 2017, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), protecting the right of churches to operate their internal affairs without government intrusion. The church was represented by Stoll Keenan Ogden PLLC.

Colorado Christian University v. Azar

“A university like Colorado Christian University, whose employees and students share its religious convictions concerning the sanctity of life, should not be forced against its beliefs to distribute drugs that it deems to be morally wrong.” – Senior Counsel Eric Baxter

An unconstitutional mandate threatens a Christ-centered university

For almost a century, Colorado Christian University has offered an education that develops students intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. It’s faith-central mission seeks to cultivate knowledge and a love of God in a Christ-centered community, with an enduring commitment to spiritual formation. But in 2011, CCU’s founding principles were threatened by the federal government.

In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate requiring employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans.  The government’s unprecedented intrusion into the health care realm forced the university to authorize and take part in providing services that violated their beliefs, or face crippling fines.

CCU fights back

In December 2011, CCU launched its initial lawsuit against the government’s unconstitutional mandate, making it the first interdenominational Christian college to challenge the HHS mandate in federal court. In August 2013, Becket stepped in to refile CCU’s lawsuit after the government’s new promised “accommodations” still infringed on the Christian university’s religious beliefs. In June 2014, the university won temporary relief at the federal district court.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption for religious non-profits. On July 11, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted the university a permanent injunction, protecting CCU from having to violate its faith. And on November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like CCU.

Colorado Christian University is now free to continue carrying out its educational mission according to its religious beliefs.


Importance to Religious Liberty

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

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ave Maria University v. Burwell

A service-oriented university inspired by Mother Theresa

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

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

The HHS mandate threatens the university’s faith

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

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

Ave Maria fights back—and wins—in court

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty

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

Sisters of Mercy v. Becerra

In May 2016, the federal government began implementing a mandate that would require a doctor to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including a child, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. The mandate required virtually all private insurance companies and many employers to cover gender reassignment therapy or face severe penalties and legal action.

But there were two major insurance plans exempted from HHS’s mandate—the plans run by HHS itself: Medicare and Medicaid. Why? Research shows that not only are there significant risks with gender reassignment procedures – especially in childhood – such as heart conditions, increased cancer risk, and loss of bone density, but studies of children with gender dysphoria found that fewer than 1-in-4 children referred for gender dysphoria continued to experience that condition into adulthood. The government’s own panel of medical experts concluded that these therapies can be harmful and advised against requiring coverage of these medical and surgical procedures under Medicare and Medicaid. 

Becket filed the lawsuit in federal court in November 2016 on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy, the University of Mary, and SMP Health System. The State of North Dakota also joined Becket’s legal challenge. In December 2016, two different federal courts ruled that the policy was an unlawful overreach by a federal agency and a likely violation of religious liberty. The decision to undergo gender reassignment therapy is a difficult and deeply personal one, and it is especially complicated and sensitive in the case of children. It is a healthcare decision that should be left between a family and their doctor, and not decided by politicians and government bureaucrats. 

In 2020, the government attempted to fix the unlawful rule, but that effort was blocked by other courts. On January 21, 2021, a court struck down the mandate. The court’s decision protects patients, preserves the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, and vindicates crucial conscience rights in medicine.  

The federal government appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which heard oral argument on December 15, 2021. On December 9, 2022, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, protecting religious doctors and hospitals by blocking the government mandate. The ruling was the second appellate ruling to do so, following the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra a few months earlier. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York

A school dedicated to teaching Catholic values

For over 200 years, Catholic schools in New York have provided top-notch elementary schools for ethnically and economically diverse students. And for over 60 years, St. Anthony’s Parish has run a school that is an integral part of that community of schools. Like other Catholic schools, St. Anthony’s is dedicated to create a Christ-centered, academically excellent and welcoming communities by teaching students to pursue knowledge in keeping with their Catholic faith. Every day at St. Anthony’s is infused with Catholic values.

Choosing the leaders of its faith

We all know schools don’t run themselves. For St. Anthony’s to be true to its Catholic teachings, it must have leaders who will respect and protect its Catholic identity. At St. Anthony’s, this all starts with the principal. The principal guides the religious mission of the school, ensuring that the school teaches its faith to its students on a daily basis. The principal exercises her leadership in many ways, including by offering daily prayer, attending the School’s monthly mass and annual feasts, encouraging students and faculty to participate in religious observances, and ensuring that the school curriculum embraces Catholic tradition.

The Supreme Court upholds the ministerial exception 

For decades, courts have ruled that religious schools can require their teachers to share their faith. In fact, in 2012 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor that a 4th grade teacher at a Lutheran religious school is a minister for their faith, and a school has a right to select their ministers without permission from a government bureaucrat.

That right clearly applies to St. Anthony’s. As a Catholic school, St. Anthony’s has the right to choose its religious leaders free from government interference. But a former principal of the school, Joan Fratello, recently challenged that right after St. Anthony’s declined to renew her contract because of insubordination. She thinks that allowing St. Anthony’s to select its own leaders will aid “malevolent organizations and potential terrorists” and contribute to the “destruction of our future” as a country. Sadly, she’s supported by a group of trial lawyers who make money off of litigation and by an anti-religious academic who has long opposed what every justice on the Supreme Court supported in 2012.

Ms. Fratello not only personally provided religious prayer, guidance, and instruction, she also supervised all the teachers with the same duties. Under the law, that means she was a minister. A religious leader who supervises a religious school’s ministries is herself a minister.

Becket stepped in to represent St. Anthony’s. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument in the case in March 2017. In July 2017, the court protected the right of St. Anthony School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to choose their own leaders.

In August 2017, Fratello’s lawyer filed a frivolous request for the full Second Circuit to reverse its unanimous ruling, which he compared to the infamous Dred Scott decision while comparing the church to “slave owners.” Becket opposed his attempt to prolong the lawsuit and urged the court to put an end to his abusive attacks on the church and the court. The Court denied Fratello’s petition shortly after Becket filed its opposition.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

Chi Alpha v. Cal State

For 40 years, a group of Christian students have been gathering at Cal State Stanislaus in California’s Central Valley. They call themselves Chi Alpha (Greek letters standing for “Christ’s Ambassadors”) and they were long a recognized part of student life. All that changed this fall when the university yanked their charter and locked them out of their meeting space.

Chi Alpha’s sin? Asking their student religious leaders—who lead worship and Bible study—to share Christian beliefs. Cal State accused Chi Alpha of “religious discrimination” and told the students that, after 40 years, their Christian group was not welcome on campus.

Chi Alpha exists to help college students live out their faith in worship, prayer, and service.

The Chi Alpha group at Cal State Stanislaus is a chapter of Chi Alpha National, the student arm of the Assemblies of God, one of the ten largest churches in the U.S. Chi Alpha was founded in 1953 as a place where college students could learn about Christianity and live out their faith together.

Today, more than 28,000 students gather in Chi Alpha groups across the country. They gather to worship God, study the Bible, pray, and to give back through programs like feedONE, which provides food for over 140,000 hungry children worldwide. Their Christian faith is what unites them and motivates them to serve. And while Chi Alpha membership is open to any student, Chi Alpha asks that the students that lead its worship services and teach its Bible studies actually believe its Christian message.

Cal State’s selective “all-comers” policy

Believe what you teach – most places, that’s called integrity. But not at Cal State.

California State University (Cal State) is the largest public university system in the nation. Chi Alpha has been a recognized part of the Cal State community for over 40 years. That changed this fall, when Cal State Stanislaus told Chi Alpha students that they were guilty of “religious discrimination” for asking that their student religious leaders be Christian.

Within twenty-four hours of being branded as “discriminators,” Chi Alpha’s students found themselves locked out of their reserved meeting space and shut out of the other parts of campus life open to all other student groups.

Today at Cal State, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance can (and should be allowed to) require its leaders to be feminists. The Young Democrats can (and should be allowed to) require their president to be a Democrat. And frats can require their leaders to be men. But neither Chi Alpha—nor any other religious group—can require its leaders to believe in the message the group exists to teach.

If a religious student group stands its ground, Cal State will brand it a “religious discriminator,” pull its charter, and shut it out of the campus community of recognized student groups. Because these consequences are so severe, many of the students leading these groups feel they have no option but to give in.

Chi Alpha fights back

On March 17, 2015, Chi Alpha wrote a letter to Cal State insisting that the Chi Alpha group at Cal State Stanislaus be reinstated immediately. Religious students shouldn’t be branded “discriminators” and have their groups excluded from the campus community for asking their leaders to have integrity.

After over a year of having various chapters kept off campus, Chi Alpha was finally reinstated at all campuses within the California State University system on November 19, 2015. The decision affirmed Chi Alpha’s right to choose leaders who lived by their standards and their Christian faith.

 

Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville Beach

The Church of Our Savior, an Anglican congregation in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, is now free to begin construction on a new, permanent house of worship for its growing congregation.

A small church in an even smaller building

In 2013, Resurrection Anglican Church joined with another Anglican church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to form the Church of Our Savior. Since its founding, the Church has worshiped in six different facilities, including the historic Beaches Museum Chapel. The Church leased the Chapel for Sunday worship, as well as major holiday celebrations, weddings and Bible studies.

Yet the Chapel was a less than ideal home. The facility’s maximum capacity of 140 people forced the Church to split into two separate Sunday services, which limited the Church’s growth and inhibited its ability to worship in one unified celebration. To make matters worse, the congregation could not secure a long-term lease with the Chapel, and therefore had no permanent place to worship.

The search for a permanent building to call home

Reverend David Ball, pastor of the Church of Our Savior, had long dreamed of one day building and owning a permanent home for the Church. He searched throughout Jacksonville Beach for a property that was affordable, visible, and accessible. After years of searching, he finally found a property located in a charming residential area that was all three.

Hopeful in its prospects, the Church applied for a permit to be able to construct the new facility. But its permit application was denied twice.

Becket defends the Church of Our Savior

The Church of Our Savior sued, citing a federal civil-rights law that protects churches –  the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) –  and arguing that it had been treated unequally to other similar, nonreligious organizations seeking permits. Becket, along with attorneys Dan Dalton of Dalton & Tomich and Charles Stambaugh of Stambaugh & Associates, defended the Church of Our Savior in its fight for a new, permanent house for worship.

After a federal district court ruled in the Church’s favor in the fall of 2014, the Church and the City settled the case, allowing the Church to begin construction on its new home. The church dedicated their new church facility in October 2017. 

Odgaard v. Iowa

Meet the Odgaards

It was their home away from home.

Betty and Richard Odgaard are a small-town Mennonite couple. In 2002, they rescued a nearly century-old church that was going to be torn down to make room for a gas station. Instead, they converted the church into an art gallery to display Betty’s and other local artists’ work. Inside the Görtz Haus Gallery, the couple also ran a bistro and a small framing, flower, and gift shop.

The Odgaards also personally hosted weddings in the old sanctuary several times a year. For every wedding, Betty would meet with the bride multiple times, plan the celebration, and design the wedding flowers and decorations. Richard would prepare the sanctuary for the ceremony, handle the sound system, and assist the officiant and guests. Each wedding kept them at the gallery from morning until night to set up, facilitate, and clean up after the ceremony. Running the gallery wasn’t just a business; it was the Odgaards’ life’s work.

Their life’s work as an expression of their faith

Betty and Richard chose to keep the church’s religious elements as an expression of their Christian faith. Latin crosses still adorn the building, both inside and out. Stained glass windows depict Biblical images, and a scripture verse on the wall welcomes all visitors. Many of Betty’s paintings displayed in the gallery also express religious themes.

Through the years, the Odgaards gladly hired gay employees and served gay customers at the gallery’s shops and bistro. However, they could not participate in a wedding ceremony that violated their religious beliefs.

After over a decade, the Odgaards were forced to shut down the gallery when the Iowa Civil Rights Commission tried forcing them to personally host a same-sex wedding ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs. The state’s prosecution began after a same-sex couple sued the Odgaards, even though there were numerous nearby venues that are eager to host same-sex weddings.

An intense media campaign was launched against the Odgaards. They were subjected to hate mail, boycotts, personal attacks, and even death threats. Officials in the Civil Rights Commission showed open disdain for the Odgaards’ religious rights, and even denied them access to state court to defend their religious liberty claims. Shockingly, the state refused to dismiss its case against the Odgaards even after the two men—contrary to their prior sworn statements—admitted they had been married months before asking the Odgaards to host their ceremony.

Becket defends the Odgaards’ religious liberty

Becket defended the Odgaards in their lawsuit. Facing growing pressure from the state and potentially years of legal proceedings, the Odgaards chose to remain true to their faith. They settled the charges brought against them, paying thousands of dollars to the couple, and agreed to stop hosting all weddings. Without this vital income, the Odgaards were forced to close the gallery.

While heartbroken to see their life’s work end this way, the Odgaards’ faith is stronger than ever, and they’re certain they did the right thing in staying true to their beliefs.

A local church later purchased the gallery as a house of worship, which would mean it can continue to express the Odgaards’ Christian faith—and this time, even the state of Iowa has to respect it.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen & Holy Cross Anglican Church

As a minister with over 25 years of service and a Benedictine abbot, Father Patrick Malone has long been serious about his faith.

So when he  became the vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church, Father Malone carried that commitment into preaching how to live as faithful Christians. This includes guiding Holy Cross’s 55 members about seeking justice and protect the disadvantaged in society, especially those who are threatened by unjust laws.

To Father Malone and Holy Cross, this requires preaching on issues like abortion and against the politicians and candidates who support abortion. They believe that silence on the sanctity of life, even while remaining true to other Anglican beliefs with fewer public policy implications, would be just as unfaithful to God as churches that preached against gambling in the antebellum South while failing to stand against slavery. Instead, they follow the tradition of their Anglican forbears who preached to reform child labor laws, the slave trade, and prison policies.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit demanding that the IRS enforce a law banning Father Malone’s sermons to Holy Cross. While the IRS has long banned sermons that concern political candidates or certain hot-button moral issues, it has generally avoided actually enforcing the ban against churches, likely because it knows that its rules stand on shaky constitutional ground.

The anti-religious FFRF noticed, and sued in a Wisconsin-based federal district court to force the IRS to start enforcing the ban against churches like Wisconsin-based Holy Cross Anglican.  FFRF wanted the IRS to punish Father Malone and the Church for his sermons by imposing regulations that would revoke the Church’s tax-exempt status, involve the IRS in the Church’s finances, and levy fines against both the Church and individual leaders, such as Father Malone.

Becket successfully intervened on behalf of Father Malone and Holy Cross to defend their rights to freely preach. While there’s room for religious disagreement over what pastors should preach, those religious decisions should be left to churches, not the IRS or FFRF. This case presented a unique opportunity to defend a church’s right to preach free from IRS censorship.

On August 1, 2014, the Court granted FFRF’s request to dismiss its own lawsuit, fleeing from its attempt to use the IRS to censor houses of worship who preach on moral issues with political implications.

 

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

A family seeking the American Dream        

David and Barbara Green founded Hobby Lobby in a garage. From the beginning, it has been a family business—David worked an extra job to support his family, Barbara mailed out orders, and their children glued picture frames at the kitchen table in exchange for money to buy baseball cards. Hobby Lobby has since grown from one 300-square-foot store to more than 700 stores across the country, becoming one of the nation’s leading arts and crafts retailers. Their success story is a true example of the American dream.

The Greens are devout Christians who seek to honor God by “operating their company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” All stores are closed on Sundays and only operate 66 hours per week to allow employees to spend evenings and Sundays with their families.  The Greens start all full-time hourly workers at more than double the federal minimum wage because they believe in treating people well.

A mandate that violates the Green family’s faith

In 2011, the government’s HHS Mandate required the Greens to provide insurance coverage for potentially life-terminating drugs and devices, contrary to the family’s religious convictions—or pay millions of dollars in fines to the IRS.

The Green family has no moral objection to 16 of 20 contraceptives required in the mandate, and Hobby Lobby has continued its longstanding practice of covering these drugs and services for their employees. However, the Greens could not provide or pay for four drugs and devices like the morning-after pill and the week-after pill. Covering these services would violate their deeply held religious belief that life begins at the moment of conception.

Becket leads the Green family to a Supreme Court victory

The Green family respects the rights of all Americans. But they believed that Hobby Lobby could not stay true to its mission while providing services that go against their beliefs. All they asked was that the government allow them to continue running their family business—providing quality jobs for the employees and quality products for their customers—according to their faith.

With the help of Becket, the Green family went to court to defend their rights and won, proving you don’t leave your religion at the door when you open a family business. After a two-year legal battle, on June 30, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a landmark victory for religious liberty, ruling 5-4 in favor of David and Barbara Green and their family business.

To hear the in-depth story, listen to our Stream of Conscience Podcast episode about this case, Pills and Principles.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. Americans do not lose their religious beliefs when they open a family business.
  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Weber (Big Mountain Jesus)

A mountain memorial to honor fallen soldiers

Since 1954, a statue of Jesus has stood atop a Montana ski slope as a monument to soldiers who died in World War II.

After World War II, soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returning to Montana sought to commemorate their fallen comrades with a monument that evoked memories of the shrines and statues they had seen in their battles through the mountains of Europe. To honor these soldiers who had sacrificed so much for their country, the Knights of Columbus (Kalispell Council No. 1328) commissioned the statue of Jesus and applied to the United States Forest Service for a permit to place it on Big Mountain. Since 1954, the statue has stood on a 25’ x 25’ plot of Forest Service land, near the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort—which also leases the plot and the surrounding land from the Forest Service for its ski slopes.

Atheists seek to scrub religion from our history

The Knights’ permit had been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010. Then, the Wisconsin-based FFRF threatened to sue the Forest Service for offending its supposed right to be free from seeing anything religious—even across the country in Montana. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure, initially denied the permit. Amidst the public outcry that followed, it eventually recognized the statue’s historical and cultural significance to the local community. In February 2012, FFRF sued to have the statue permanently removed.

Becket defends “Big Mountain Jesus”

Just after Memorial Day in May 2012, Becket joined the lawsuit to represent the Knights of Columbus and several individuals who had voluntarily maintained the statue for more than sixty years. Becket argued that religious symbols should be treated on fair grounds with other commercial, historical, and cultural symbols that abound on public land.

In June 2013, the district court ruled in Becket’s favor and dismissed the case. FFRF appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral argument in July 2015. In August 2015, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Becket that “Big Mountain Jesus” can remain standing.

FFRF’s deadline to appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision passed in February 2016, protecting the war memorial in place for good.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public SquareBecause religious exercise is natural to human culture, it has a natural place in the public square. Religious symbols should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.

For the in-depth story, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, Slopes and Statues.”

Sindicatul “Pastorul cel bun” v. Romania

The stakes could not be higher for European churches. Sindicatul v. Romania concerns a group of priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church who sought to form a trade union against the wishes of their ecclesiastical leaders.

The Romanian courts and the Romanian government found that the establishment of such a “rogue” union would violate the church’s religious freedom, in that it would permit the government to meddle in the employment decisions of a church. However, the priests appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and a small panel ruled that the priests’ right to unionize trumped the church’s religious liberty. The Romanian government appealed to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, which is the highest panel within the European human rights system.

Becket and other civil society groups publicly urged the Grand Chamber to take up the case and undo the smaller panel decision. To that end, Becket published an article in a Romanian law review, Revista de Drept Social, and presented remarks regarding the case at the Council of Europe in June 2012.

A month later, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR decided to take the case. The Grand Chamber then permitted Becket to file a third-party brief, along with the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, headed by BYU law professor Cole Durham, and Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell. The brief argued that churches, synagogues and other religious organizations have a right to order their internal affairs without government interference.

In July 2013, the ECHR made its groundbreaking 11-6 decision affecting the rights of religious groups in Europe. The Grand Chamber ruled that the Romanian Orthodox Church’s right of religious autonomy trumped the right of dissident Romanian Orthodox priests to create a trade union.

Why is it important for churches to have autonomy in managing the ministers who communicate their faith? Becket’s brief provides a simple answer to this question: Just as the conscience of a person – how he or she decides what to believe – is absolutely protected from government interference, so are the processes by which a church decides what it believes, namely, its ability to order its relationships with employees who teach and communicate the faith. Therefore, government officials should not have power to invade the interior life of the church by imposing outside decisions on the church. This non-interference principle is essential in any pluralistic, democratic society — especially as Europe and America become increasingly religiously diverse.

Notably, Becket argued a similar church autonomy case, Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. The Court unanimously decided in favor of religious freedom, ruling that religious organizations have special rights when it comes to hiring people who communicate their doctrine and minister to their congregants.

Romeike v. Holder

In January 2010, the Romeikes were presented with a choice no parents should have to make: abandon their religious beliefs, or lose custody of their children.

The Romeike family is from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, and chose to educate their children at home in order to follow their Evangelical Christian beliefs. However, state authorities refused to accept this and sent police to march the Romeike children to the local public school, invoking the Schulpflichtgesetz, or School Duty Law. The family fled from their homeland to Tennessee, and sought asylum in the United States.

In July 2010, Becket submitted an amicus brief to the United States Board of Immigration Appeals. It described the disturbing Nazi-era background of the School Duty Law, and explained that the original purpose of the law was to suppress “the development of religiously and philosophically motivated parallel societies.” The Romeikes were not evading their duty to educate their children, only the state’s attempt to indoctrinate their children against their religious beliefs.

An immigration judge granted the Romeikes’ request for asylum, but the federal government appealed that decision, and in May 2013 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled against the Romeikes.

Watch Becket’s Daniel Blomberg discuss the religious liberty implications of this case at FRC University (starts at 22:00 min).

daniel

 

Watch Becket’s Luke Goodrich debate Does Germany’s Ban on Homeschooling Count as Religious Persecution? at the University of St. Thomas.

http://www.frc.org/eventregistration/should-the-state-raise-your-kids

Gaylor v. Mnuchin

Pastor Chris Butler serves communities in South Side, Chicago

The leader of a predominantly African-American congregation, Pastor Chris Butler devotes his life to serving communities in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Pastor Chris spends countless hours leading his church’s community ministries, including the Chicago Peace Campaign, which has been successful in bringing peace to areas devastated by violence; the Journeymen program that mentors at-risk youth; and a homeless ministry focused on feeding the hungry and providing blankets and toiletry kits.

The church can’t afford to pay Pastor Chris a salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance so he can afford to live just minutes from his church and the community he serves.

FFRF’s lawsuit harms Pastor Chris’s church and other underserved communities

For over 60 years, federal law has recognized that housing allowances like Pastor Chris’s shouldn’t be taxed as income. This helps ensure that pastors, rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders—who often use their homes for their ministries—are able to live close to the communities they serve. The law is based on the same tax principle that allows employers to reimburse travel and overseas housing costs and provide tax-free housing allowances to teachers, business leaders, military service members, and thousands of other employees who use their homes for their jobs.

But in 2011, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS to eliminate the tax exemption for housing allowances—putting communities, like the ones Pastor Chris serves, at risk.

Becket defends all faith leaders from discrimination

In 2011, a federal court ruled that the tax exemption for housing allowances was unconstitutional. After the Seventh Circuit threw out that ruling on technical grounds, FFRF sued again in 2016. In January 2017, the court allowed Becket to intervene in the case on behalf of Pastor Chris Butler and Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. In October 2017, the district court again struck down the tax exemption for housing allowances.

In February 2018, Becket appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on behalf of the churches, which agreed to hear the case. Oral argument took place on October 24, 2018.

On March 15, 2019, the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled that the parsonage allowance is constitutional, stating it “is simply one of many per se rules” that “allow hundreds of thousands of employees (including ministers) to receive tax-exempt housing every year,” and that it is consistent with the nation’s “lengthy tradition of tax exemptions for religion, particularly for church-owned properties.”

In June 2019, FFRF decided not appeal the Seventh Circuit’s decision, definitively securing a victory for the parsonage allowance and houses of worship across the country.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Establishment Clause: The longstanding tax exemption for housing allowances ensures that ministers are treated the same way as teachers, business leaders, military service members and hundreds of thousands of other workers who receive tax-free housing for their jobs. Equal treatment doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause.

American Atheists v. Port Authority of New Jersey and New York

Two days after the September 11 attacks, a recovery worker discovered something in the rubble: a steel cross beam shaped like a Latin cross. It was a comforting sign for many Americans who saw it as a symbol of hope and healing as they cleared debris in search for survivors.

The 17-foot cross was to be displayed as a historical artifact in the National September 11 Museum as part of an exhibit called “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” which portrayed how rescue workers at Ground Zero struggled to deal with their harrowing circumstances. But in 2011, angry members of the American Atheists, Inc. sued the Museum and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, arguing that displaying the cross would offend them as citizens and taxpayers, in violation the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Though the Museum is a private foundation making a private decision, the American Atheists argued that no religious symbol should ever be allowed on property leased by the government.

Over and over again groups like the American Atheists have tried removing all traces of religion from the public square. Now they wanted to go so far as scrubbing it from our nation’s history.

Thankfully, the federal district judge ruled in favor of the cross, saying that it helps tell the 9/11 story. The American Atheists then appealed in August 2013. In February 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief stating that as a historical artifact, the cross rightfully belongs in a historical museum. For the first time in the case, we also pointed out that the American Atheists had no right to sue in the first place, since taking personal offense over the role that religion actually plays in American life is not grounds for suing.

Separating church and state does not mean separating religion from public life. By removing the cross from the Museum, the American Atheists would deny future generations what was spiritually significant to many Americans during those terrible days. No matter how hard they try, they cannot write religion out of our nation’s history.

In July 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the effort by American Atheists, Inc. to force the National 9/11 Museum to remove the Ground Zero Cross from its display or to include a plaque honoring atheists alongside the cross. The museum was represented by Paul, Weiss of Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Ahlquist v. City of Cranston

The Becket Fund is defended the School Committee of the City of Cranston, Rhode Island against a lawsuit from the ACLU of Rhode Island. The ACLU sued the School Committee over a historic mural designed by students that has existed in Cranston High School West’s auditorium for almost 50 years. According to the Committee, the lawsuit is a misguided attempt to rid public buildings of historic references to religion.

The Supreme Court has made clear that displays on public property, like the one at Cranston West, can contain some historically significant references to religion because the government can promote history and art without promoting religion. That hasn’t stopped the ACLU from attempting to scrub the historic mural off the walls of Cranston West High School.

The federal district court in Rhode Island ruled against the School Committee of the City of Cranston on January 11, 2012.

Atheists of Florida v. City of Lakeland

The Atheists of Florida hauled the City of Lakeland into court for opening their meetings with Christian prayer – a practice that dated back more than 60 years. After the city commission opened the invocation to all faiths, the district court ruled that the legislative prayer practice was permissible. The Atheists of Florida then appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where they argued that some prayers contained language that was “too” Christian.

The city’s formal policy was elaborately developed to ensure that all faiths have an opportunity to participate and no favorites were picked. In fact, the city developed an exhaustive list of congregations in the county to invite to give the invocation. They created a list of more than 600 diverse religious organizations, spending approximately $1,500 a year to ensure that the net was cast as wide as possible.

Nevertheless, the Atheists still wanted all “sectarian” references stripped from the prayers. In other words, don’t say “Jesus.”

But Supreme Court precedent is clear that legislative prayer – which traces its roots to the Continental Congress in 1774 – is constitutional as long as the prayer is not used to proselytize, advance one faith, or disparage another. So, groups that want to put an end to this American tradition are trying a new tactic. They’re saying that legislative prayer is okay as long as it is stripped of any specific religious references.

GrayRobinson, P.A. represented the City of Lakeland. Becket filed an amicus brief providing the Eleventh Circuit with a thorough historical analysis of legislative prayer. The brief noted that the Atheists essentially wanted to hollow out Supreme Court precedents “to exclude prayers that reflect the faith of the person praying” and that their approach would actually “invite courts to engage in amateur theological inquiry that could itself violate the Establishment Clause.” The court reached a similar conclusion and upheld Lakeland’s policy.

Big Sky Colony v. Montana Department of Labor and Industry

The Hutterites are a peaceful and industrious people who have lived every aspect of their lives in religious communities for almost 500 years—eating meals in a communal dining hall, educating their children in a communal school, wearing the same homemade clothing, and working together on a communal farm.

All Hutterite members take a vow of poverty, renounce private property, and hold all their possessions in common. They devote all of their time, labor, and energy to the community as an act of service and religious devotion. They also pledge to resolve any disputes among themselves without using secular courts. They have been successfully living by these religious principles for almost 500 years.

In 2009, however, powerful labor unions and construction lobbyists in Montana complained that Hutterites receive a supposed “competitive advantage” because they do not pay wages to their members, and therefore are not required to provide workers’ compensation insurance. In response, the state passed a new law forcing the Hutterites to provide workers’ compensation insurance for their members. The new law would force the community to violate its 500-year-old commitment to holding all possessions in common, working without expectation of compensation, and refusing to assert legal claims against each other.

The new law is also pointless, because the Hutterites already provide expensive, comprehensive medical care to all of their members, regardless of the reason for their illness or injury. Thus, the workers’ compensation requirement does nothing to protect the health of Hutterite workers; it only forces the community to violate its religious beliefs. Unfortunately, because Hutterites shun politics and do not vote, the legislature never consulted them before passing the new law, and was unaware that the law would serve no purpose.

When the colony discovered that they would be forced to violate their religious beliefs, they petitioned the Montana state courts for relief. A district court decided that the law violated the First Amendment because it was “drafted with such care to apply only to Hutterites,” and because it imposed “property rights concepts [that are] forbidden by the fundamental communal living and community of goods doctrine upon which the [community] is founded.” In a sharply divided 5-4 ruling, the Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision.

The Hutterites then asked Becket to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but Becket ultimately helped the Hutterites work out a solution with the Montana legislature. Today, the Hutterites continue to live in accordance with their religious beliefs without legal persecution.

Moss v. Spartanburg County School District No. 7

In 2006, South Carolina passed legislation to allow public school students to take outside religious classes and receive elective credits. Thousands of public school children across the nation receive religious education through released-time classes, and the Supreme Court has allowed it since 1952.

The classes are provided off-campus by third parties unaffiliated with the public schools. South Carolina’s Released Time Credit Act (RTCA) made it easier for public schools to accommodate the religious interests of their students. In 2007, Spartanburg County School District No. 7 passed its own policy permitting released-time programs in compliance with state law.

In 2009, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the School District, claiming that the school’s policy violates the Establishment Clause. Becket successfully defended the school district in district court and in appeal, where the Fourth Circuit unanimously upheld the program saying, “[T]he program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment.”

In November 2012, the Supreme Court denied FFRF’s final appeal. “This is a big win for public school students and for religious education,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at Becket, who argued the case at the Fourth Circuit. “The Supreme Court’s rejection of this case is a blow against anti-religious legal theories that would treat religion with suspicion.”

The court’s decision has implications for released-time programs across South Carolina and throughout the country. It also affirms that private schools and public schools can work with each other for their students’ benefit.

 

 

Ward v. Wilbanks

Julea Ward was kicked out of Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program after she declined to counsel a student against her religious beliefs. Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ward lost in the lower courts, but in January 2012 the Sixth Circuit issued a major victory for the rights of individuals with religious beliefs. The court ruled that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling Ward based on her religious beliefs, and sent the case back to the district court. In December 2012, Eastern Michigan University quietly settled the lawsuit.

Ward was expelled for trying to use a patient referral mechanism that other student counselors were allowed to use. Her sin?  She wanted to refer patients for religious reasons; she felt she could not provide good-faith relationship advice to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. The university allowed student counselors to refer patients for all sorts of other reasons, and Ward violated no written university policy; Ward was simply being targeted.

The university earned a rebuke from the Sixth Circuit, which ruled that the university was “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones” and “failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.” This reasoning echoed Becket’s amicus brief in the appeal.

Ward v. Wilbanks is another example of government officials using their power to force ideological conformity onto those who dissent from academic pieties. The university’s decision to give up, pay Ward, and issue her a clean academic record indicates that the First Amendment is still a bulwark against the bureaucratic urge to squelch diversity of ideas – but it is a bulwark that still requires defenders.

Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, making arguments that the court ultimately adopted under the Free Exercise Clause. Becket also assisted with Ms. Ward’s primary brief.

*Photo Courtesy of ADF

Yoder v. Morristown

An Amish community’s centuries-old practice threatened

The Swartzentruber Amish community of Morristown, New York believe in living a simple life, separate from modern worldly customs. They exercise this belief by not using electricity in their homes, driving horse drawn carriages rather than cars or other gasoline-powered vehicles, and wearing simple and modest clothing, among other practices. The home is a central part of their faith because it is where the community gathers to meet and worship. And the way they build their homes is essential to their religious tradition, since they use construction plans handed down from generation to generation.

The Amish community have been living peacefully in Morristown for decades. They never had trouble obtaining building permits or legally maintaining their property—until 2006, when they began receiving tickets for building code violations.

Becket defends the Amish community’s right to live by their faith

The Amish community’s traditional building methods require that they do not install battery-powered smoke detectors, use certified architectural plans, or install hurricane tie-downs. But under a new local law enforced by a newly appointed town official, the Amish were suddenly barred from obtaining building permits while following this religious practice. The Amish feared that if the town’s actions continued, their entire community would be forced to either leave Morristown because they would be unable to live according to their religious beliefs or face government fines. In 2009, Becket and the New York-based Proskauer Rose LLP represented twelve Amish individuals in a lawsuit to end Morristown’s continued violation of the Amish community’s rights under the United States and New York constitutions.

Cooperation and compromise: a win-win for religious liberty and local government

With Becket’s help, the Amish proved that their homes were structurally sound and just as good as what is required under the law. In 2012, the Amish and Morristown signed a settlement agreement which dismissed all criminal charges against the Amish and allowed them to continue to practice their traditional building methods. The town inspected the Amish homes and deemed them compliant with the state building code.

For the in-depth story and more about Amish American communities, listen to our Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Codes and Communities.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom means having the freedom to live out one’s faith in all aspects of life. Just because a religious belief is unusual—like building homes according to centuries-old religious practices, as the Amish do—does not mean the government can trample on that belief.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities that stand out from the rest of society are often vulnerable to religious liberty violations from governments, sometimes as a result of misunderstandings or ignorance. Government and religious communities must work together to come up with solutions that allow the government to do its job, while accommodating religious exercise.
  • Minority religions: Minority religions are particularly at risk of religious liberty violations, but government has no right to selectively target minority faith practices because they are unusual or unpopular. Protecting minority religious beliefs and practices is critical for strengthening the fundamental principle of religious freedom: that all human beings must be free to seek the truth and live out their convictions.

Elijah Group v. City of Leon Valley

Houses of worship in Texas must be treated fairly, thanks to Becket. Becket stepped in when the City of Leon Valley, Texas refused to allow a church, the Elijah Group, use its building for worship.

The city enacted a new zoning ordinance with a retail corridor intended to boost tax revenues for the city. The ordinance prohibited churches from the corridor while allowing nonreligious assemblies like theaters, auditoriums and private clubs. The Elijah Group, a small congregation looking to relocate near its old location, bought a former church building which was poorly suited for any other use but which was located within the retail corridor.  Although Leon Valley allowed the Elijah Group to move its daycare and administrative offices to its new home, it prohibited them from gathering there for worship.  The Elijah Group sought a zoning change to allow it to worship in its new church, which the city denied.

The Elijah Group sued the city, arguing that the city’s code was unenforceable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), because the city was not treating the church the same as secular assemblies. The district court sided with the city, but after Becket joined the case on appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that the city had indeed violated RLUIPA.  Specifically, the Fifth Circuit recognized that RLUIPA requires churches to be treated the same as the non-religious assemblies like private clubs.

 

Third Church of Christ, Scientist v. District of Columbia

After years of litigation, Washington DC’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist finally won its battle with DC preservationists, and will soon enjoy a new church building. Its previous building was an eyesore with the dubious honor of being a landmark of the “Brutalist” style, a 1960s French school that emphasizes large expanses of windowless raw concrete. The previous bunker-like structure had blighted a corner just a few blocks north of the White House for forty years, and was often mistaken by unwitting tourists for a fallout shelter.

Originally an architectural “experiment”, the church building was first designed without the local congregation’s input into the architect’s ‘artistic vision.’ The Brutalist structure thus never met the church’s needs and in fact sent a message counter to the church’s. Instead of welcoming visitors and newcomers and portraying the church as a positive contribution to the neighborhood, the imposing concrete building had few windows, an entrance that was difficult to find, and a stifling atmosphere. It was frequently compared to a “concrete straitjacket.”

When the congregation first decided that it could no longer suffer the Brutalist structure and attempted to replace it, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board retaliated by designating the building as a landmark—forcing the church to preserve a building that was unwelcoming and unstable. That’s when Becket stepped in to defend the church.

The church argued that the preservation board was interfering with its First Amendment right to exercise its religion. The building’s imposing architecture hampered the church’s message and its ministry. Religious liberty required that the church be able to decide how best to use its property in accordance with its faith.

Finally, in 2014, after several years of litigation, the Church prevailed. It demolished the old Brutalist bunker and began the process of building a new, light-filled building. It has hired world-renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern to design a new building that meets the needs of a downtown church while also contributing to the beauty of the surrounding area. Now the church can move forward in its mission, celebrating a hard-fought victory for both beauty and religious liberty.

*Photo Credit: Third Church of Christ Scientist (rodeomilano, creative commons)

Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission Ministries

A ministry with a Christian mission: serving those in need

What if a Christian homeless shelter were forbidden from holding a Christian chapel service? That almost happened to the Boise Rescue Mission, a ministry that had served the needy in Boise, Idaho for over 50 years.

The Mission serves the homeless by offering addiction recovery programs, a Veterans Ministry program, holiday meals, job searches, counseling, and after-school activities for children. From 2012 to 2013 alone, it welcomed nearly 5,000 new guests, served about 700,000 meals, and provided 250,000 beds. Hundreds have graduated from its recovery program and have moved on to build productive, successful lives. The Boise Rescue Mission has never turned away a person in need.

The Rescue Mission is a Christian ministry, one that provides a Bible-based curriculum and chapel services to those in need. Its commitment to the Word of God inspires it to welcome the homeless and needy with open arms.

A lawsuit threatens the ministry’s vital work

But in 2008, its faith-based programs and the people it serves were threatened when a federally funded fair housing group in Idaho sued the Rescue Mission under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The lawsuit claimed that the Rescue Mission discriminated on the basis of religion by encouraging guests at the homeless shelter to attend chapel services and by requiring members of the Christian discipleship program to participate in religious activities. This is despite the fact that participation in the Rescue Mission’s programs is voluntary and free of charge, and the Rescue Mission receives no government funding.

In response to the lawsuit, the Rescue Mission argued that the FHA protected the right of the homeless shelter to conduct chapel services, and that forcing the Rescue Mission to accept members of the discipleship program who reject its core beliefs would violate the First Amendment.

Court victory for religious ministries and the communities they serve

The federal district court in Idaho ruled in favor of the Rescue Mission, and the fair housing group appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In July 2011, Becket attorney Luke Goodrich argued the case in the Ninth Circuit.

In September 2011, Becket won a resounding victory when the Ninth Circuit issued a unanimous opinion in favor of the Boise Rescue Mission. The court victory enshrined the right of religious groups to minister to the poor and needy in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Learn more about this case by listening to our Podcast episode, “Religion and Recovery.”


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Religious CommunitiesReligious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental interference or discrimination.

Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County

Bethel World Outreach Church is a Christian church located in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is made up of people from more than 45 nations and cultures, and it has grown so much that it has been forced to turn people away from services in its current facilities. Eight years ago, Bethel bought land in Montgomery County, Maryland, with plans to build a church home large enough to accommodate its growing congregation.

But Montgomery County had other plans.  Although churches were permitted on Bethel’s land, the county held up what should have been a routine water and sewer hookup application, then passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to get those permits.  So Bethel did what the county wanted, and submitted a new application for a smaller church that would comply with the new water regulations.  What did the county do?  Again, it held up the church’s application, and again, it passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to build a church on its own land.

Represented by Storzer & Greene, PLLC, Bethel sued the county for violations of the state and federal constitutions, and violations of RLUIPA.  A lower court sided with the county, so the church appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Becket submitted a brief in support of Bethel, joined by several other churches and ministries who wish to see churches treated fairly.  Becket’s brief highlighted the special problems faced by new and minority-dominated churches, problems that RLUIPA was designed to fix. The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the church, setting a strong precedent in favor of religious freedom for houses of worship.

 

McCullen v. Coakley

Meet Eleanor McCullen, who ministers to women in crisis

Since 2000, Eleanor McCullen has knitted baby hats and lovingly counseled women outside of abortion clinics near her home in Massachusetts. Driven by her faith, Eleanor aspires to see mothers become parents and to see families flourish by supporting an expectant mother’s decision to say yes to life. As a sidewalk counselor, Eleanor ensures struggling women she meets outside the clinic do not feel alone in their journey, and that, while it may not seem like it, they have a choice. She also directs expectant mothers to important resources such as housing, medical care, sonograms, and food supplies. She even hosts baby showers.

But starting in 2000, the State of Massachusetts passed a series of laws that threatened free speech—and Eleanor’s ability to give women the support they willingly accepted.

Massachusetts “buffer zone” restricts free speech

By 2007, Massachusetts had imposed a 35-foot buffer zone around every abortion clinic in the state. The law made it illegal for Eleanor to have conversations with women who wanted her help on the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics.  Instead, Eleanor was forced off the sidewalk, away from the clinic, and at times into the streets

The buffer zone not only restricted Eleanor’s freedom of speech, but also religious freedom. Eleanor is motivated by her faith to help women in need. A Catholic priest, who joined Eleanor in her lawsuit, wanted to provide religious counseling to women in need.  Another individual simply wanted to stand silently on the sidewalk and pray. Yet the Massachusetts’s law banned all of these peaceful activities. By stopping religious people from offering help to women in need, the law also harmed countless women by depriving them peaceful and often welcomed offers of help.  [There is a heartbreaking brief by women who WISH they’d had such help outside of abortion clinics.

In January 2008, Becket President Mark Rienzi co-counsel Michael DePrimo, and lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom represented Eleanor in federal court. The court ruled against Eleanor in August 2008. In July 2009, Eleanor lost again on appeal at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court ruling protects free speech and religious liberty 

Central to the First Amendment is the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas, which requires an individual’s ability to have personal conversations and distribute literature in public places. Under the new law it would have been a crime punishable with jail time if Eleanor so much as uttered, “Good morning, Jesus loves you,” to a passerby.

In January 2014, Becket President Mark Rienzi argued the case before the Supreme Court. On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Massachusetts buffer zone law violated the First Amendment because it overly interfered with people’s rights to converse and interact with others.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speech: Free speech includes the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas with others—including religious ideas. Freedom of speech and religious liberty go hand-in-hand; protecting one protects the other.
  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.

Calvary Assembly of God, Wisconsin

For more than 50 years, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has used an extremely broad interpretation of the tax code to censor and intimidate religious leaders of every faith. In short, they occasionally come out of the shadows and threaten a house of worship with losing its religious tax exemption if its religious leaders speak too openly about political issues. Such threats often coincide with heated political races where moral issues are of high importance. And the IRS is often put up to it by hyperseparationist groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

So Becket decided to take the challenge right back to the IRS.

On January 16, 2008, Becket publicly dared the IRS to investigate the Calvary Assembly of God in Algoma, Wisconsin, after its pastor, Kenneth Taylor, used his pulpit to preach about the moral implications of a number of different campaigns going on at the time. We made sure the IRS wouldn’t miss the challenge and printed it as an open letter in Wall Street Journal, knowing that if they pressed forward with the threat, the public would be outraged, and if they backed away, they would essentially concede that you cannot muzzle religious speech in the name of the tax code.

Pastor Taylor has yet to hear from the IRS. Paper tiger?

EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School

“The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” – Chief Justice Roberts, Supreme Court Opinion

A church dispute

In 2007, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan found itself in a surprising position: a commissioned minister and teacher was suing them. Cheryl Perich, a commissioned minister in the church, taught fourth grade, taught religion, and led worship services. The church school had dismissed her for insubordination, disruptive conduct, and threatening to sue the church—all in violation of church teachings. The Church and its denomination have long taught that disputes over fitness for ministry must be resolved within the denomination.

But in September 2007, Perich sued in federal court, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the school retaliated against her for threatening to file a discrimination claim.

Can government force a church to retain a minister who violates church teachings?

The church argued that forcing it to retain Perich as a commissioned minister and teacher against its will was an unconstitutional restriction on its right to choose its own religious leaders – a concept known as “ministerial exception.” The federal trial court agreed, applying the ministerial exception, and ruled for the church in October 2008. But after Perich and the EEOC appealed the decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church in March 2010, ruling that Perich was not a minister but merely a teacher. Becket stepped in to represent Hosanna-Tabor as it appealed to the US. Supreme Court.

Because of the difference of opinion among the federal courts of appeals concerning which church employees count as ministers, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral argument was held in October 2011.

At the Supreme Court, Perich and the EEOC escalated their arguments, arguing that there should be no ministerial exception at all and that any minister—including a priest, a rabbi, or a pastor of a congregation—should be able to sue the church that employs him. Becket’s arguments rejected this extreme perspective on church-state relations, instead explaining that the ministerial exception is a constitutionally protected right, one that avoids unnecessary entanglement between government and churches and allows religious groups the autonomy they need to operate freely.

Supreme Court rules 9-0: churches are free to choose their own leaders

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Hosanna-Tabor, a decision the Wall Street Journal called one of the “most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” The decision adopted Becket’s arguments, saying that religious groups should be free from government interference when they choose their leaders.

The court rejected the government’s narrow view of religious liberty as “extreme,” “untenable,” and “remarkable.” The decision stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

For the in-depth story and more about this case, listen to our Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Synods and Statutes.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

Stormans v. Wiesman

Your job or your conscience: It’s a choice no American should have to make. But it’s a choice that led faithful family pharmacists all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Family behind the Pharmacy 

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over 60 years. Because of their beliefs, they cannot sell the morning-after or week-after pills—both of which can potentially cause an abortion.

Instead, when a customer asks for one of these drugs, the pharmacists refer them to one of over 30 pharmacies within a five-mile radius that willingly offer these drugs. This referral process is approved by the American Pharmacists Association and has long been legal in all 50 states.

Government Coercion 

But in 2005, abortion-rights activists rewrote the rules in Washington state. Although the state pharmacy commission had long supported the right of conscience, Governor Christine Gregoire opposed conscience rights. She publicly threatened to disband the commission, appointed several new members recommended by abortion rights activists, and asked those activists to write a new regulation. Buckling under pressure, the commission adopted a new regulation requiring pharmacies to sell the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs.

The new regulation allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of business, economic, and convenience reasons—such as a when a drug is unprofitable, attracts an undesirable clientele, or falls outside the pharmacy’s chosen business niche. But it forbids referral for one—and only one—reason: conscience. The commission adopted the regulation even though it admitted that no one in the state has ever been denied timely access to any drug because of a conscience-based referral.

Defending Conscience 

Because of the regulation, Margo was fired from her pharmacy, Rhonda was threatened with firing, and the Stormans family was placed under investigation and threatened with the loss of their pharmacy license. In July 2007, Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family sued to stop the regulation. In February 2012, after a 12-day trial, a federal court ruled the regulation unconstitutional. The court concluded that the commission’s rules intentionally discriminated against people of faith like Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans’.

The State appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in July 2015 ruled against the pharmacists’ right of conscience. Then came the Supreme Court appeal. Represented by Becket, Alliance Defending Freedom, and leading scholar Michael McConnell, the pharmacists needed the votes of four Justices to hear their case. Yet just weeks after they appealed, Justice Scalia died, leaving the Court short one member. Their appeal received three votes—one shy of what was needed.

Although the missing vote ended the case, the three dissenting Justices noted that the pharmacists can still challenge the discriminatory regulations again in the future, if the state attempts to punish them. Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family remain committed to their faith, and Becket remains ready to defend them.

Center for Inquiry v. Jones


Meet Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries

Addiction is a major problem and cause of criminal recidivism in the United States. To help break this vicious cycle, the state of Florida works with private organizations like Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries to help those recently released from prison assimilate back into society.

For as little as $14 a day from the state, the groups help men find transportation, medical services, job training and whatever basic services they need to find work, stay sober, and make a successful transition back into society. The groups also provide, at no cost to the state, substance abuse treatment modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous. The entire program is voluntary—individuals can choose to participate, choose which sessions best fits their needs, and also choose to join in optional religious discussions if they find them helpful.

Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries’ success rate is nearly three times the national average, and Prisoners of Christ alone has helped over 2,300 people get back on their feet. Although the state only covers a fraction of their costs, they serve at a financial loss because their faith calls them to serve.

The atheists who wanted them gone

The Center for Inquiry—an atheist group affiliated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science—sued the state of Florida and the ministries in an attempt to shut down the partnerships. The atheist group claimed that state funds should never go to “pervasively sectarian” groups—even when those groups provide valuable services like room, board, and job training assistance. Even though the services are provided at a bargain price. Even though no state money goes to religious activities. Even though the program works.

Becket defends religious ministries who do valuable work for society

Becket represented Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries together with prominent Florida firm Ausley McMullen. The state of Florida also defended the program.

The issue was a provision of the Florida constitution enacted more than a century ago during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that barred state aid to “sectarian” institutions. Many states enacted laws during that time period that barred state funds for “sectarian,” or Catholic organizations. Today, these archaic laws, known as Blaine Amendments, are often dredged up and used against public-private partnerships with a wide variety of faith groups.

In January 2016, a Tallahassee court ruled in favor of Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries. The court rejected the atheist group’s argument as “discriminatory” and stated that its extreme view of the law could stop the state from partnering with Florida’s large Baptist and Catholic hospital systems to serve the poor. The atheist group chose not to appeal the ruling, meaning the case is over and the ministries may continue their valuable service to society.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws: While anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century remain in place, people of all faiths are at risk of facing discrimination. Faith-based ministries have the right to partner with the state to provide a valuable service to society.

Reed v. Town of Gilbert

Everyone is welcome at Good News Community Church.

Services are held Sundays. The Church encourages Christian fellowship through Bible study, religious song, and prayer. Its mission is outreach, inviting everyone into its community. As a fledgling congregation with limited financial means and no permanent location, the Church depends on sidewalk signs to spread word of events.

But in 2005, the town of Gilbert, Arizona, imposed strict regulations on the church’s signs, demanding they be no larger than six square feet and stand for no more than fourteen hours. Claiming safety and aesthetic concerns, the code threatens violators with fines and even jail time. Yet political, ideological, and other noncommercial signs can be up to thirty-two square feet in size and can stand for many months—sometimes indefinitely.

Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Church Pastor Clyde Reed sued challenging the town’s discriminatory ordinance, but the Ninth Circuit ruled in the town’s favor, deeming political and ideological speech more valuable than the church’s religious speech.

Becket filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, supporting the Church and urging reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. Local governments should not be permitted to impose regulations that favor some kinds of speech, while discriminating against religious speech. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case in January 2015.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously 9-0 in favor of Pastor Reed of Good News Community Church. The Court agreed with Becket’s argument, ruling that Gilbert’s sign ordinance violated the First Amendment because it showed no reason to justify discriminating against a church’s speech. This landmark ruling means that the government must treat religious speech the same as political speech and cities can’t treat churches as second-class citizens.

Darling v. Bakersfield School District

Danielle and Alexandra Darling are students in the Bakersfield City School District and observant Episcopalians. In March 2006, their mother Nona Darling followed school policy and contacted her daughters’ school to be excused at noontime in order to attend Ash Wednesday services. Following their beliefs, the Darling sisters fasted in the morning and planned to break their fast at the noon Ash Wednesday service at their church.

Instead of being allowed to miss part of the day like one would typically be excused for a dentist appointment or sick day, the school refused to grant the Darlings an excused absence and punished them for observing this important religious holiday. The school even went so far as to treat the siblings as if they were skipping school or did something illicit—even sending them a truancy letter.

The school district conveyed a message to the Darlings, and the other students, that it is wrong to honor their God according to their beliefs. This was unacceptable and unconstitutional, as students of faith should not be punished for adhering to their faith by attending church on important religious holidays.

After Becket stepped in on behalf of the Darling family, the school district backed down and not only excused Danielle and Alexandra, but also rewrote their existing excused absence policy to accommodate students of faith.

Heffernan v. City of Paterson

In 2006 New Jersey police officer Jeffrey Heffernan was spotted picking up a campaign sign for the candidate opposing the mayor of Paterson. Officer Heffernan didn’t live in the city and was picking up the sign for his bed-ridden mother. And in any case, the Constitution protects nonpolitical employees who decide to get involved in elections. None of that mattered to the chief of police, who demoted Officer Heffernan from detective to patrol officer as punishment for opposing the sitting mayor. Officer Heffernan sued the city, the mayor, and the police chief of Paterson, New Jersey for violating his freedom of speech and association. Becket joined his fight in a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court explaining how important it is to protect freedom of assembly, and citing scholars such as Washington University School of Law Professor John Inazu, who advocate that approach. Officer Heffernan was represented by Mark B. Frost & Associates, UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

 

Guzzi v. Thompson

Rosario Guzzi is a prison inmate in Massachusetts who requested kosher meals based upon his “Orthodox Catholic” beliefs. The state denied his request and when he sued, the federal district court upheld the denial based on the judge’s declaration that the tenets of Catholicism do not require believers to keep kosher.

Representing himself, Guzzi appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. That Court, presumably concerned about the district court’s decision to interpret and apply the content of Catholic doctrine, invited Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund’s National Litigation Director, to brief and argue the case as a friend of the court in support of neither party. Rassbach told the court that, “governments should not be deciding whether a religious belief is orthodox.” The Becket Fund further argued that such out-of-the-ordinary requests must be judged by the inmate’s sincerity and truthfulness (a factual test common in many areas of law), not by a state-created list detailing which religious practices belong to which religion. Otherwise the state would back into the role of deciding what religious beliefs are allowed and which are not, a censorship role that would harm all religious believers. Rassbach suggested that the district court should first have decided whether Guzzi was really telling the truth about what he believed or was simply trying to provoke the prison administration with an insincere claim.

After oral argument but before the First Circuit issued its decision, Massachusetts tried to end the case prematurely by suddenly ordering a kosher diet for Guzzi. This would have left in place the district court’s decision giving Massachusetts a right to define orthodoxy in religion. The Becket Fund immediately asked the First Circuit to vacate the lower court’s decision, getting rid of the district court’s “theology police” opinion. The First Circuit ruled in favor of the Becket Fund.

It was a victory for all who believe that government officials should not be in the business of theological interpretation.

Centennial Baptist Church, Oklahoma

The city of Sand Springs, Oklahoma needed a new property to build a new commercial development complex, and it had eyes on the Centennial Baptist Church property. The city offered to purchase Church property and had indicated that it would invoke eminent domain to seize it if necessary. The church officially rejected the offer, refusing to leave the home that its small, but vibrant African-American congregation had worshiped in for decades.

In March 2006, Becket sent a letter to the City of Sand Springs, Oklahoma on behalf of Centennial Baptist Church, demanding that the city immediately end further attempts to seize the church’s property in violation of the Constitution.

“To put it simply,” the letter stated, “the church property is not for sale, and any attempt by the City to seize the Church’s property through eminent domain will be challenged by immediate legal action.”

The letter further cautioned the city that “the Church’s right to engage in religious exercise on its property, free from government burden and interference, is fully protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.”

Rather than face Becket in court, the city immediately dropped its plans to use eminent domain to seize the property, and the people of Centennial Baptist Church were able to continue worshiping in their house of worship as they had for decades.

Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Boulder County


In 2004, Rocky Mountain Christian Church was growing. The nondenominational church and school in Niwot, Colorado applied for the routine permits needed to expand its sanctuary and school buildings.

In a classic case of discriminatory zoning, Boulder County commissioners rejected the church’s application despite allowing a secular school just a mile away to do exactly what the church wanted to do. As a result, the church had to conduct classes in the hallway. Becket stepped in to represent the church.

Becket argued that denying the permit not only treated the church unequally, but substantially burdened the church’s ability to function and dissuaded other houses of worship from locating in the County. (The County had also told a local synagogue it could have only 100 seats because the county did not want any more “mega churches.”)

After a multi-week trial in federal district court, a jury ruled in the church’s favor on all three of its RLUIPA claims. The county then appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where its appeal was rejected. Intent on discriminating against the church, the county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally put an end to it all by refusing to hear the case. This left intact the ruling that Boulder County had unfairly discriminated against the church in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) – a lesson that overly zealous and anti-religious zoning boards should take to heart.

Negusie v. Mukasey

Daniel Negusie, an Eritrean Christian, was imprisoned in inhumane conditions for his refusal to serve in his country’s military. While in prison, he was punished and threatened with death for his conversion to Christianity.  After two years of imprisonment, he was made a guard and threatened with more punishment if he did not carry out his duties as a guard.  However, Negusie disobeyed orders to inflict violent punishment on prisoners, allowed prisoners to take showers, and sneaked basic amenities to prisoners. After two more years, he was able to flee the prison and the country, hiding in a container on a ship bound for the United States.

However, upon arriving at a U.S. port, he was denied asylum because, as a prison guard, he “assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others.” The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, saying “the fact that [Negusie] was compelled to participate as a prison guard, and may not have actively tortured or mistreated anyone, is immaterial.”

The case went before the Fifth Circuit Court in Louisiana and ultimately the Supreme Court, where Becket created and led a coalition of religious and human rights organizations which filed an amicus brief in his support. The brief argued that Mr. Negusie should not be punished for acting as a guard, since he was forced to do so as a part of his punishment. This was a crime committed against Negusie, not by Negusie. Becket argued that it is common for thug regimes to set believers against one another and alienate the religious from their consciences, a form of persecution the U.S. must condemn.

The Supreme Court sided with Becket and Mr. Negusie, ordering the lower court to rethink its decision.

Becket’s brief was co-signed by a range of human rights organizations that included the American Islamic Congress, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), China Aid Association, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Hindu American Foundation, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Human Dignity International, the Institute for Global Engagement, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jubilee Campaign, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Open Doors USA, the Queens Federation of Churches, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs.

Negusie was represented by Mayor Brown LLP; Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic.

 

American Atheists v. Duncan

*Now known as Davenport v. American Atheists.

William J. Antoniewicz, a 27-year-old Utah state trooper, was shot to death on December 8, 1974 while making a routine traffic stop near the Utah-Wyoming border. Many years later, the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private group dedicated to supporting the state troopers, decided to erect a 12-foot memorial cross with a biographical plaque near the site of his death. The patrol association has since erected 13 more crosses in Utah commemorating all of its fallen patrolmen. In every case the trooper’s family has agreed to have a memorial cross set up.

In December 2005, American Atheists, a Texas-based organization, sued in federal court, seeking to have the crosses removed. American Atheists claimed that Utah violated the Establishment Clause simply by allowing the patrol association to erect the privately owned, designed and erected memorial crosses on public property. In 2008 the Utah federal district court ruled in favor of the state, and American Atheists appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Becket filed an amicus brief in the Tenth Circuit Circuit on behalf of the States of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, arguing that the memorial crosses do not violate the Establishment Clause because they constitute private speech, not government speech. In February 2009, the states and Becket were granted their request to participate in oral argument before the Tenth CIrcuit. Becket attorney Luke Goodrich was designated Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado to argue the appeal for the amici, and presented argument in early March 2009. Sadly, the Tenth Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision.The full panel decided not to grant a rehearing before the full court.

But what was remarkable is that the court’s decision focused in large part on Becket’s arguments, which were the strongest ones before the Court.

Becket filed an amicus brief in support of Utah’s appeal to the Supreme Court in May of 2011. Although the Supreme Court denied review of this case, Justice Thomas believed review should be granted (see dissent here). Utah was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, National Legal Foundation, Mylar Law, and Colorado’s Office of the Attorney General.

Ake Green

In the summer of 2003, Pastor Ake Green preached a sermon to his congregation about marital conduct based on his interpretation of the Bible. The sermon was later printed in a local newspaper, and soon after, Green was prosecuted for violating Sweden’s hate speech law. He was convicted and sentenced to one month in prison, and he appealed.

In January 2005, Becket filed an amicus brief with the intermediate court of appeals in Sweden to remind the court of its international treaty obligations under Articles 18, 19, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protect Green’s right to religious exercise, religious expression, and equal protection of the laws, respectively. Sweden is a signatory to the ICCPR.

In February 2005, the court of appeals overturned Green’s conviction under domestic law, citing free speech considerations. The prosecutor requested an appeal to the Supreme Court of Sweden and that request was granted.

Becket then filed a second amicus brief in this case, before the Supreme Court of Sweden, calling for the Court to affirm the reversal Green’s conviction. The Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

Green was represented by Percy Bratt, a Swedish human rights lawyer.

Photo Credit: Sonja Palm 

Christ Church New Jersey v. Rockaway Township

Cramped—that’s how members of Christ Church felt after an exhausting seven year search for a new house of worship. In less than twenty years, a home Bible study of eight people had grown to a church of more than 5000 members. Their 800-person sanctuary was bursting at the seams; it couldn’t keep pace with the needs of a rapidly expanding congregation.

In April 2003, the Church signed a contract to purchase a large property from a bio-tech firm in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. It seemed like a perfect fit. Conveniently located just 21 miles away from the Church’s primary campus in Montclair, the new facility could seat over 2,500 people, every service. But when Christ Church requested approval for its site plan from the Rockaway Township Planning Board, local officials actively sought to block construction. Although couched in terms of concerns about traffic and congestion, there were also indications that some of the resistance came from the fact that Christ Church’s membership was diverse, and its Senior Pastor, Rev. David Ireland, was African-American.

Becket stepped in to advise Christ Church and counter the city’s attempts to drag out the approval process. City bureaucrats sought to foment local opposition, and even went as far as to question whether Christ Church was, legitimately, a “church” as defined by city regulations. Rockaway Township, observed Derek L. Gaubatz, Becket’s former director of litigation, tried “to hunker down and throw sand in the gears at every step of the process.” In a private meeting with Rev. Ireland, the Mayor of Rockaway said “we don’t want you here,” and threatened to seize the property by force of eminent domain.

On April 15, 2005, Christ Church filed suit against Rockaway Township officials for placing unconstitutional, discriminatory burdens upon its right to pursue its religious mission.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the federal statute that supplied the core of Christ Church’s claims, shields religious institutions from the imposition of land use regulations which place them “on less than equal terms” with nonreligious assemblies. Local officials did just that. Rockaway Township did everything it could to create an antagonistically unequal playing field for Christ Church.

After two years of litigation, the Rockaway Township Planning Board relented, settled out of court, and in October 2007, granted Christ Church approval for the construction of its interim sanctuary. The church celebrated receiving its final Certificate of Occupancy on June 1, 2009, six years after buying the property.

Living Faith Ministries v. Camden County Improvement Authority

Living Faith Ministries, a 6,000-member, 20-year-old New Jersey church, filed suit in federal court on February 15, 2005. Living Faith charges that Pennsauken Township, Camden County, and the Camden County Improvement Authority are violating the United States and New Jersey Constitutions and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by attempting to seize the church by eminent domain.

The vibrant, predominantly African-American religious community has been growing at a rate of 30% annually. In 2002, Living Faith bought the South Jersey Expo Center property after a two-year search that turned up no other suitable alternatives.

The complaint remarks that the Authority “seeks to seize Living Faith’s Church to demolish it and transfer the property to a private developer for the purpose of building private residential units.” This is not a “public use,” such as a park or highway, so the taking would violate the Fifth Amendment. The Pennsauken Township has already acknowledged that the church would be a beneficial use to the community, with no negative impact on the neighborhood or surrounding businesses.

“Living Faith’s outreach to the community is provided through 27 specialized ministries that are dedicated to improving the lives of all within the larger community in accordance with the vision of the Church,” the complaint says. Living Faith holds several weekly religious services, fellowship programs, Bible study, and youth ministries, and a television show titled “Faith Speaks.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the team of lawyers representing Living Faith Ministries in this suit, and successfully secured a favorable outcome for the church.

Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District

“This is about a lot more than just how school kids start their day. It’s about where the next generation thinks its rights come from – the Creator or the State.”
—Seamus Hasson, Becket’s Founder

Atheist activist continues attack on “under God” in Pledge of Allegiance

Just a year after his procedural defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court, atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow made another attempt to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance—this time in California. In May 2005, Becket intervened on behalf of public school parents whose children sought to continue voluntarily reciting the Pledge in school.

After the federal district court sided with Dr. Newdow, Becket appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which previously issued what the L.A. Times called one of its “most controversial opinions,” that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional. In December 2007, the Ninth Circuit heard a lively argument in a packed courtroom that included several of Dr. Newdow’s boisterous supporters.

In the hearing, Becket founder Seamus Hasson argued that the phrase “under God” in American history protects rights, not violates them. Mr. Hasson demonstrated that historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious but instead embody our Founding Fathers’ political philosophy. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress not only contrasted mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the Soviet Union, but affirmed that our rights come from an authority higher than the state.

Ninth Circuit changes its mind—thanks to Becket

After considering the case for almost two and a half years, in March 2010, the Ninth Circuit reversed itself, affirming the constitutionality of the words “under God.” Remarkably, the same court that in 2002 ruled that saying “under God” was like saying a prayer, adopted Becket’s position that the Pledge is a statement of political philosophy.

Dr. Newdow has since made similar attempts in other states to alter the Pledge of Allegiance as well as to scrub the national motto “In God we trust” from U.S. currency. Becket continues to defend religion in the public square, arguing that “God” is not a dirty word that needs to be scrubbed from society.

To learn more about the case, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Rights and Recitations.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public Square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have a place in the public square. Becket fights to assure free religious expression in public schools, including the right of students to voluntarily say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Morr-Fitz v. Blagojevich

Americans who work in the healthcare field often do so out of concern for their fellow citizens – their careers allow them to make a living and make a difference in the lives of those who need their help. Unfortunately, healthcare workers are increasingly being told by the government that they have to make a choice—abandon their religious beliefs or abandon their careers. Under the First Amendment, that is a choice no American should have to make.

Consider the policy Illinois imposed in 2005 to force pharmacists to sell emergency contraceptives, including “morning after” and “week after” pills. For Luke Vander Bleek and Glenn Kosirog, this requirement was troublesome because their religious beliefs prohibited them from selling these products.

The aim of the rule was clear from the outset. Governor Rod Blagojevich announced that its purpose was to stop religion from “stand[ing] in the way” of dispensing drugs, and to force pharmacies to “fill prescriptions without making moral judgments.” Governor Blagojevich announced that pharmacists with religious beliefs about these drugs should “find another profession.” VanderBleek and Kosirog had each spent more than twenty-five years building pharmacy careers. Being told to “find another profession” at mid-life because they had the wrong religious beliefs was an unwelcome mandate.

At trial, Illinois was totally unable to support its new rule. The state had no evidence of any person who had been unable to get the drugs in question. In fact, evidence showed that there were many neighboring pharmacies willing to sell the products, which were also available over the internet. Worse, the government admitted that pharmacies could avoid this rule for “common sense business” reasons, but not for religious reasons. Refusing to sell the drugs because you want to make more money was allowed; refusing to sell because of religion was not.

The pharmacists were represented in this fight for nearly seven years by Becket attorney Mark Rienzi. Ultimately the Circuit Court ruled the law was invalid for violating two state laws designed to protect religious liberty, as well as unconstitutional for violating the Free Exercise of Religion clause in the First Amendment.

In December 2012, Illinois declined to appeal, delivering a final victory for the pharmacists.

Even for those who disagree with the religious persuasion of the pharmacists, it is important to protect minority rights and honor America’s tradition of diverse opinions by upholding their right to Free Exercise.

*Becket handled the case on appeal, along with attorneys from ACLJ and WilmerHale, LLP.

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a Christian student group was denied official recognition by a public law school because the group insisted that its voting members and leaders accept and adhere to a statement of faith.  UC Hastings College of Law, located in San Francisco, decided that the Christian Legal Society (CLS) policies violated the school nondiscrimination policy. CLS limited voting membership and leadership to Christians who agreed with the group’s statement of faith, including its teachings on sexual morality. Becket filed an friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh groups, arguing that religious groups have the constitutional right to determine the requirements of membership in their organizations. Mike McConnell, Christian Legal Society, Alliance Defending Freedom were counsel in this case.

In April 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of UC Hastings, calling into question the associational rights of student groups across the nation. Four justices filed a strong dissent, calling the decision “deeply disappointing” and “serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.” That dissent relied in part on the arguments made by Becket.

Living Water Church of God (Okemos Christian Center) v. Township of Meridian

One of the fundamental principles underlying “freedom exercise of religion” is the right to establish church facilities of sufficient size to meet a congregation’s needs.

For several years, Meridian Township, Michigan has blocked the Living Water Church of God from expanding its facility to carry out vital ministries of the Church. In August 2005, a federal district court held that the Township’s actions violated RLUIPA and stopped the Township from taking any further actions to prevent the Church from expanding its facility in order to accommodate its growing congregation and operate a Christian school.   The township appealed.

Becket lead the appeal at the Sixth Circuit, but unfortunately, the Court ruled that the township’s denial did not place a substantial burden on Living Water.

“At the heart of the matter is the right of any religious organization to practice its beliefs without government interference,” said Becket attorney Derek Gaubatz. “That includes protection from laws that unfairly stop church members from gathering together for basic activities like worship and religious teaching.”

 

Michele Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Academy

When Michele Curay-Cramer, an English and religion teacher at the private, Catholic school Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, came out publicly in favor in abortion, she was immediately terminated from her position teaching Catholic doctrine. More specifically, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2003, Curay-Cramer signed onto a full-page ad in the Wilmington News Journal praising the Roe decision and declaring her pro-choice position. Adding to the irony, that same day her employer sponsored a field trip for students to travel to Washington, DC to protest the Roe decision and declare the school’s pro-life position.

The ad conflicted with fundamental Catholic teaching on abortion, and when the school confronted Curay-Cramer with the ad, she declined to recant her views and was subsequently fired.

But she soon sued the school, and the case went first to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal district court in Delaware, and eventually the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket represented the school and the Diocese successfully getting Curay-Cramer’s claims soundly dismissed on First Amendment grounds in 2006.

In dismissing Ms. Curay-Cramer’s complaint, Judge Kent Jordan of the Delaware federal district court was unequivocally clear on the religious rights of the school and the Diocese, saying:

“Short of a declaration that the Pope should pass draft encyclicals through the courts for approval, it is hard to conceive of a more obvious violation of the free exercise rights of the Catholic Church or a clearer case of inappropriate entanglement of church and state … It is not the place of this or any other court to say what system of beliefs constitutes ‘true’ Catholicism or makes for a ‘good’ Catholic. Ours is a system which, wonderfully, forbids any intrusion of the sort.”

Tong v. Chicago Park District

Chicago bureaucrats would have smothered religious speech in a display of privately funded messages in a neighborhood park if Becket had not secured an important victory for free religious speech.

A park fundraiser overseen by the Chicago Park District invited the community to purchase bricks engraved with an inscription chosen by the donor to be included in a neighborhood park walkway.  Becket’s clients wanted to engrave the message “Jesus is the cornerstone” on their brick, but the proposed message was rejected because of its religious content.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois agreed with Becket that rejecting the proposed engraving violated the First Amendment.

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries

Imagine thanking one of the most successful prisoner rehabilitation programs in the nation with a $1.5 million dollar plus fine. But a federal judge in Iowa, acting at the behest of the hyperseparationist group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, did just that.

The Iowa InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is a comprehensive, faith-based pre-release rehabilitation program for prisoners that was designed by Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. It has an exemplary record of successfully rehabilitating hardened criminals into contributing members of society. The program presents viable, cost-saving solutions for helping prisoners, something with which state and local governments often struggle. However, in 2006, after a lawsuit was brought by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an Iowa federal judge ordered that the IFI program in Iowa be shut down, and that IFI and its affiliate, Prison Fellowship Ministries, repay the state of Iowa the more than $1.5 million which IFI had received for services over the previous six years.

The reasoning? According to the court, IFI is “pervasively sectarian,” and therefore simply cannot interact with the state. This discredited doctrine had already been rejected by the federal courts, making the ruling even more preposterous. After losing in trial court, Prison Fellowship contacted Becket and asked us to take on the appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2007, we argued the case before an Eight Circuit panel that included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In a huge win for all faith-based programs, the Eighth Circuit reversed the most damaging part of the district court’s judgment, rejecting the idea that Prison Fellowship had to repay the amounts they had earned for providing rehabilitation services. Although political changes in Iowa resulted in an end to the program there, the result in this case ensured that Prison Fellowship could continue its ministries in many other state prison systems and continue to help many prisoners repent and rebuild their lives.

Gallart v. City of Frederick and Frederick Presbyterian Church

In 1998, members of a Frederick, Maryland church decided to build an addition to their church building. A new 180-square-foot lobby area would provide handicapped access to the church, an elevator, improved bathrooms and a wider stairwell. When the church’s attorney met with the city zoning administrator to determine what approvals were needed, he was told that the church did not conform to current zoning requirements mandating that on-site parking be provided. Although the existing church was grandfathered from the regulation, the construction of an addition would trigger the parking requirement. Because it was physically impossible, due to size constraints, to build a parking lot meeting the city’s zoning requirements on the church’s property (the church was built in 1825, well before invention of the automobile), Dean was told that the church would need a variance for the existing sanctuary if they wished to proceed with construction of the addition.

Multiple hearings were conducted followed by a rejection of the variance application.

A few months later, in the fall of 2000, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was signed into law, and the church asked the office of the City Attorney for an opinion on how the new law would affect Frederick Presbyterian ‘s ongoing effort to win approval of the new addition.

On January 30, 2001 Becket wrote a letter to the city attorney, noting that Frederick’s “zoning regulations place a substantial burden on the church’s use of the property for religious exercise,” and that “imposing the parking requirements on the church would violate RLUIPA.” The city agreed, and the Zoning Administrator and Historic District Commission unanimously approved the addition.

In the meantime, a disgruntled neighbor appealed the city’s decision. Becket stepped in to defend the church in court.

*Image Credit: Fredrick Presbyterian Church

Lt. Ryan Berry v. U.S. Air Force

Lt. Ryan Berry, 26, is a West Point graduate who followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force to become a nuclear missileer. Berry morally objected to sex-integrated silo duty where each missile silo had one bed and toilet facilities shielded only by a retractable curtain — rendering privacy minimal. Berry sought counsel from the base Catholic chaplain who agreed that mixing of the sexes among silo crews was improper and a likely occasion of sin.

From May 1997 to December 1998, Berry’s religious waiver was honored and he worked silo duty exclusively with men. He received excellent job performance evaluations. Then several squadron members complained about “preferential” treatment, and the new wing commander, Col. Ronald Haeckel, refused to continue Berry’s religious accommodation.

In an April job performance review, Haeckel blasted Berry for “unacceptable professionalism.” He wrote that Berry “refuses to accept personal responsibilities … (and) will not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members.” Berry was then decertified from working with nuclear missiles and assigned to a desk job.

Recognizing a violation of Lt. Berry’s religious liberty, Becket stepped in to negotiate a favorable settlement for Berry with the U.S. Air Force.

Calvary Chapel O’Hare v. Village of Franklin Park

Calvary Chapel O’Hare was founded in 1996 in a former real estate office. By 2000, the church had doubled in size to 200 members, and its 2500 square foot facility was no longer adequate for its congregation.

So in 2002, Calvary Chapel signed a contract with a bowling alley that suited the church’s needs. The following month, however, city officials informed Pastor Jeff Deane that the church was in a zone that did not allow churches, even with a conditional permit. Though many other assembly and institutional uses were allowed in that zone, the church could not use its building as a place of worship.

Represented by Becket and local attorney Timothy P. Dwyer, Calvary Chapel O’Hare sued the Village of Franklin Park, charging violations of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

In July 2002, in a great victory for the church, the Village changed its Zoning Code to allow churches to apply for conditional uses in commercial zones, ensuring that all forms of assembly, religious and non-religious, were treated equally. In January 2003, Franklin Park approved the permit, the church formally purchased the property. Today Calvary Chapel O’Hare continues to worship freely in its bowling alley.

Greenwood Community Church v. City of Greenwood Village

Greenwood Community Church was organized in 1991, when it took over property that had been owned by the Belleview/Holly Baptist Church at a major city intersection (Belleview Avenue and Holly St.). The city had given zoning approval for construction of the church facility in 1985. It consists of just under 32,000 square feet of space, including a 600 seat sanctuary. (The original city permit allowed a 1,135 seat sanctuary, but it was later reduced somewhat in size so that a 125 child day care center could be built. The city issued a permit for day care use in 1988.)

The church has grown considerably in recent years, and the present building is no longer larger enough to accommodate all of its activities – worship services, youth group meetings, adult bible studies and other religious meetings and events – and so in the spring of 2000, it applied for an amendment of its Special Use Permit to expand both the building and associated parking spaces.

A member of the congregation had donated an additional four and a half acres of land immediately adjacent to the original 9 acre property in 1997, and the application proposed using the additional vacant property for the expansion. The expanded facility would occupy up to 61,485 square feet, roughly doubling available floor space and including an expanded sanctuary (at 900 seats, still 75 seats fewer than authorized under the original CUP), chapel, music room, classrooms and community area.

The church was meticulous about meeting city requirements for the proposal. A required (and noticed) neighborhood input meeting was held on July 26, 2000. Other than church and city representatives, only one area resident attended, and testified that the church does not cause traffic problems on Sunday mornings. The church spent some $250,000 on engineering, planning and architectural fees and expenses, and to prepare its application plans and respond to city requests.

On November 6, 2001, the city Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing on the application, and in response to newly raised concerns expressed at the meeting, the church agreed to drop its proposed day care use of the property. A month later, the Commission voted 5 to 1 to recommend that the City Council approve the application. In January, 2002, the city’s planning staff sent a memo to the Council stating that the application met all applicable standards, codes and criteria, and recommended approval.

The City Council held a public hearing on the application on January 28, and then took no action on it. Forty-nine days later, on March 18, 2002, the Council abruptly adopted “Findings of Fact, Conclusions and Order,” denying the application unconditionally, without proposing any changes or conditions for approval. Among the Council’s “findings” was that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was unconstitutional, and that it would therefore ignore the law’s requirements.

On May 6, 2002, Greenwood Community Church filed suit against the City of Greenwood Village in Arapahoe County District Court, charging that the City’s actions were “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and an abuse of discretion.” It alleges violations of the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions and RLUIPA, and asks the court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction against the city, as well as an order directing the city to “issue all permits and authorizations necessary” for the expansion project.

On June 7, 2002, Becket joined the lawsuit on behalf of Greenwood Community Church.

In September 2002, the church and the city agreed to explore resolution of the case. Aft