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.

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

YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University

A uniquely Jewish institution 

For more than 135 years, Yeshiva University has been a place where students can immerse themselves in Jewish culture to study the Torah, learn Hebrew, and receive an education steeped in the Modern Orthodox tradition. The school gets its name from the word “yeshiva,” referring to a Jewish religious school dedicated to study of the Talmud. True to its name, all undergraduate men spend two to six hours each day intensely studying Torah. Undergraduate women take at least two Jewish studies courses every semester. Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) is observed campus wide, as are the laws of kashrut (kosher food).  

As at most yeshivas and Jewish seminaries, there are sex-segregated classes, dorms, and even campuses. Students are strongly encouraged to dress and conduct themselves consistent with Torah values. Yeshiva’s strong religious environment pervades its campuses, accommodating and supporting the school’s reason for existing and the faith of its students.  

Putting a judicial thumb on the scale 

Yeshiva lives out its religious commitment by striving to bring Torah values to the modern secular world. In this pursuit, Yeshiva has long sought both to uphold Torah moral teachings and to welcome and protect its LGBTQ students. It has strong anti-discrimination policies and has held many public events over the past decade to explore what it means to be LGBTQ and Jewish, and how the University can demonstrate greater respect and understanding for LGBTQ students.   

In 2020, a group of students asked Yeshiva to officially recognize a new student club called “YU Pride Alliance.” Following extensive discussion with the students, Yeshiva’s administrators and Roshei Yeshiva (“senior rabbis”) introduced several changes on campus to better support LGBTQ students. But Yeshiva concluded that a club called “Pride Alliance”—as described by the students and understand by the culture at large—would not be consistent with its Torah values. Nevertheless, Yeshiva remains committed to ongoing dialogue regarding forums or clubs that would be consistent with Torah values.   

Unhappy with Yeshiva’s religious decision, the students sued. They now demand that a court force Yeshiva to endorse the Pride Alliance, regardless of its 3,000-year-old religious values. 

Protected by law 

Both the U.S. Constitution—as recently affirmed by the Supreme Court in Our Lady of Guadalupeand New York City’s Human Rights Law protect Yeshiva University’s ability, as a private religious institution, to carry out its religious mission in keeping with its religious teachings. 

After the New York County Supreme Court denied Yeshiva University’s arguments and concluded that the school was not a “religious corporation” under city law and not protected by the U.S. Constitution, the Court entered a permanent injunction ordering Yeshiva to “immediately” violate its Torah values and approve the club. On behalf of Yeshiva University, Becket moved quickly to request relief from both the New York Appellate Division and the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court), but both requests were rejected on August 25, 2022. Becket filed an emergency request to the United States Supreme Court on August 29, 2022, requesting that the Court intervene to stay the violation of Yeshiva’s First Amendment rights pending appeal.  

On September 9, Justice Sotomayor entered an emergency stay, protecting Yeshiva pending a full Court decision. In a 5-4 decision, the full Court lifted that stay, while also stating that “[i]f Yeshiva seek[s] and receive[s] neither expedited review nor interim relief from the New York courts, [it] may return to this Court.” At the same time, four justices dissented, saying that Yeshiva should have been granted immediate relief. And if Yeshiva comes back, they added, “Yeshiva would likely win.” Failure by the New York courts to grant relief, they said, would be “a shocking development that calls out for [SCOTUS] review.” The following Monday, the New York Appellate Division agreed to rehear its denial of Yeshiva’s stay request. After these two court rulings, Pride Alliance agreed to voluntarily stay the injunction against Yeshiva pending all appeals, including back up to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.  

With an agreed-to stay, the parties will complete any outstanding matters in the trial court before asking the New York Court of Appeals, and potentially the United States Supreme Court, to review the merits of the ruling against Yeshiva.

Dr. A v. Hochul

Healthcare heroes on the frontlines

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

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

Lose your job or violate your conscience

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

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

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

Seeking emergency relief

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

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

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

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

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.  

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.

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.

Lebovits v. Cuomo

A long-standing Jewish tradition 

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

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

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

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

Cuomo and de Blasio crack down on Jews 

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

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

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

Protecting the fundamental right of religious education

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

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 

Department of Commerce v. New York

People of faith should have a chance to defend their rights 

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

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

Proving religious discrimination by government agencies 

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

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

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

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

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

Gundy v. United States

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

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

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

Without the nondelegation doctrine—religious liberty is at risk

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

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

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

Importance to religious liberty

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

Chahal v. Seamands

The United States Military Academy at West Point will now accommodate Sikh soldiers, allowing them to wear their essential articles of faith, after two young men persisted for the right to serve their country without being forced to abandon their articles of faith. 

Called to serve their country 

Cadet Arjan Singh Ghotra has been preparing to serve in the U.S. Army since high school. He volunteered for both the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force, and won the Virginia Defense Force Medal for his service at age 17. When he became eligible in 2015, Cadet Ghotra enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard. After completing one year in the National Guard he applied to, and was accepted at, West Point.  

Like Cadet Ghotra, Cadet Ugrian Singh Chahal knew at a young age that he wanted to serve his country through the military. Inspired by a family history of army service and the service members he met growing up near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, Cadet Chahal worked hard and, like Cadet Ghotra, gained admission to West Point in 2016. 

Denied the ability to serve both God and Country  

From World War I until 1981, the U.S. Army allowed observant Sikhs to serve honorably in the U.S. military while maintaining their articles of faith. But a 1981 policy change banned observant Sikhs from military service simply because they wore turbans and unshorn hair and beards—two of the articles of faith required by their religion.  

As observant Sikhs, Cadets Ghotra and Chahal asked for accommodations that would permit them to continue their service to their country at West Point without having to abandon their articles of faith. Their requests were denied. They were left with the heartbreaking choice: to serve their country or to follow their faith. 

Making room for faith in the ranks 

When Cadet Ghotra realized in March 2016 that he would not be able to participate in practice drills at West Point because of the prohibition on his articles of faith, he submitted his request for a religious accommodation. But because the Army refused to respond, Becket, the Sikh Coalition, and McDermott Will & Emery stepped in to challenge the Army’s policy.  

At a court hearing in August, the Army conceded that it had no legitimate grounds for denying Sikhs the full opportunity to serve their country at West Point and issued new guidelines allowing them to maintain their articles of faith while serving.   

Cadets Ghotra and Chahal are the first two fully-observant Sikh men to serve at West Point. 

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.

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.

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.

Central Rabbinical Congress v. New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene

This case involves an unprecedented government regulation of Jewish religious circumcision practices. Last year the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a new circumcision regulation. It penalizes Jewish rabbinical officials known as mohels who engage in the millennia-old circumcision practice of metzitzah b’peh unless the mohels force the infant boy’s parents to sign a form stating the City’s disapproval of the religious practice. The mohels believe the form to be both factually false and an unwarranted interference in a religious practice that has gone on for literally thousands of years.

Represented by Jones Day, several rabbis who act as mohels, along with several Orthodox Jewish rabbinical and community organizations, sued in Brooklyn federal district court, raising both freedom of speech and freedom of religion claims. The federal district court denied the rabbis’ request for an injunction against the city’s regulation, holding that as long as there was some plausible rational basis for the regulation, it would be valid. The rabbis then appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Becket filed an amicus brief in the appeal along with Prof. Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, arguing that because New York City’s regulation targeted a specific religious practice, the highest form of judicial constitutional review — “strict scrutiny” — was required under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. That is especially so because of documented levels of strong hostility towards Orthodox Jews and their religiously motivated practices in New York and surrounding municipalities. Becket did not offer an opinion on whether New York City’s regulation was justified by the health interests it is claiming to protect, only that because of the weighty interests involved, the proper level of constitutional scrutiny should have been applied by the district court judge. The brief has engendered much discussion within New York and elsewhere, particularly because it puts a spotlight on increasing government attacks on Orthodox Jewish practice in New York City and elsewhere.

On August 15, 2014, the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the Orthodox Jewish mohels, largely adopting the arguments made in Becket’s brief. The court sent the case back to the district court for the application of “strict scrutiny.”

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.

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.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

A diverse town practices a cherished tradition

In the town of Greece, New York, volunteers from any religious faith may commence legislative meetings with a prayer. The town has had a wide variety of volunteers—from Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, to leaders from the Bahá’í and Wiccan traditions. This practice of legislative prayer can be traced back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who did not see it as a forbidden “establishment of religion” but rather as a powerful reminder of their own limited political authority and the divine source of the people’s inalienable rights.

It is a practice as old as this nation, but thanks to a court decision, it soon became a forbidden practice.

Becket defends legislative prayer as our Founders saw it

In August 2013, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a decision by the Second Court Circuit of Appeals and restore the Establishment Clause to its original, founding-era meaning.

The brief explains that the Founders understood establishment of religion as consisting of four key elements: (1) government financial support of the church, (2) government control of the doctrine and personnel of the church, (3) government coercion of religious beliefs and practices, and (4) government assignment of important civil functions to the church – all linked by an underlying concern about state coercion to participate in religious activity. Because legislative prayer does not meet any of these conditions, it is not an establishment of religion.

The brief also explains how the Founders “viewed legislative prayer as a natural outflow of their political philosophy of limited government and inalienable, God-given rights.” By hearing prayer before a government meeting, elected officials are reminded of the limits of their powers, as well as the source of the inalienable rights of those they are elected to serve.

A Supreme Court victory for religious freedom

Oral arguments were heard in November 2013. In May 2014, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s opinion, protecting legislative prayer in a great victory for religious freedom. For the first time in decades, the Court addressed the constitutionality of legislative prayer and helpfully began clarifying how lower courts should interpret the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Alliance Defending Freedom and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP were counsel in this case.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression, including legislative prayer, should not be treated as dangerous or scrubbed from our public discourse.

Amandeep Singh v. Greenburgh Central School District

Amandeep Singh, a ninth-grade honor student in New York, was reprimanded and suspended indefinitely for wearing a kirpan—a ceremonial religious item worn by members of the Sikh faith—to school.

Meet Amandeep Singh, a high school honor student and a faithful Sikh

Amandeep Singh became a baptized Sikh at age eight, requiring him, like 20 million other Sikhs worldwide, to follow the five Sikh articles of faith. The best known of these is the requirement to wear hair uncut in a turban. Another lesser known requirement is to wear a kirpan, an item shaped like a sword that reminds Sikhs of their duty to speak out against injustice and stand up for the defenseless. In deference to school security concerns, school-age children like Amandeep typically wear a very small, blunt kirpan that is completely harmless.

For over seven years, Amandeep attended local public schools and continuously observed all five articles of his faith, including the wearing of the kirpan, without any incident. Many of his teachers were aware of his kirpan and specifically commended him for his dedication to his faith. None ever told him that his kirpan–which was duller than a butter knife and secured underneath his clothes–posed any sort of danger.

School officials ban a Sikh article of faith

Without explanation, school officials suddenly reversed course in February 2005 and declared Amandeep’s kirpan to be a prohibited “weapon.” Moreover, they refused to allow him to set foot on school grounds unless he abandoned his article of faith.

Becket intervened on Amandeep’s behalf, meeting with school district officials to explain the kirpan’s religious significance and Amandeep’s rights under the First Amendment. The district quickly changed course, agreeing to allow Amandeep to continue his education without compromising his faith.

This was a victory not only for Amandeep and other Sikhs, but also for students of all faiths to freely exercise religion in public schools.

Hindu Temple Society of North America v. New York Supreme Court

Venigalla v. Nori

In New York City, it’s common to hear about a hostile takeover of a corporation. What you don’t hear about every day is a hostile takeover of a Hindu Temple.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America is the nation’s oldest and most influential Hindu temple. But in 2004, it was the target of a hostile takeover attempt by six insurgents, some of whom rarely, if ever, attended the Temple. The insurgents filed suit in New York state court seeking an order putting them in charge of the Temple’s religious activities.

The New York state court system’s response to the takeover attempt was a forced restructuring of the Temple. Instead of allowing the Temple to govern itself in the traditional Hindu religious manner—which does not include a concept of “membership”—the New York courts tried to force the Temple to adopt a congregational structure similar to that of a Baptist church, where members elect leadership. In fact, since the Temple had no membership rolls, the state courts asked everyone who had signed the Temple’s visitor book if they wanted to be “members.”

To defend the Temple against this unprecedented invasion of its religious autonomy, Becket intervened in 2004, defending both the state court lawsuit and filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Temple, its Trustees, and several ordinary devotees of the Temple who wanted to keep the government out of the Temple’s affairs.

Becket argued in both lawsuits that the presiding judges had taken control of the Temple, stopped its devotees from worshiping the way they want, censored the Temple’s speech, and imposed a voting membership requirement, including the definition of who is a Hindu. If the state had gotten its way, it would have had the authority to decides which priests will be hired and what gods will be worshiped.

However, after four years of litigation, New York’s highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled in favor of the Temple and against the idea that a Temple could be treated as if it were a congregation of believers.

In a twist of irony, this victory for religious freedom came in a place where that freedom was first invoked in North America. The Temple is located in Flushing, Queens, the birthplace of religious freedom in North America. The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is an important precursor to the First Amendment and one of the oldest expressions of religious freedom in the world. It reproved the Dutch colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant for his attempts to ban Quakers, a reviled religious minority at the time. Bowne Street, on which the Temple stands, is named after John Bowne, the English resident of New Amsterdam whom Governor Stuyvesant banished from the colony for allowing Quakers to hold religious services in his home.

*Photo of Hindu Temple Society of North America.  Credit WikiCommons.


Pine Hill Zendo Inc. v. Town of Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals

Few cases better illustrate the arbitrary and even whimsical way in which local zoning boards often reject petitions for special use permits than the case of Pine Hill Zendo v. the Town of Bedford, New York. Pine Hill Zendo is a Buddhist temple, albeit a very small one. It is one of a handful of Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in North America with a resident teacher, and consists of a meditation room in the home of John and Angela Mortensen. For a few hours four days a week, the zendo’s eleven members gather at the house for silent meditation, brief liturgies and instruction.

DenkoIn the spring of 2001, however, a neighbor complained to the Town Planning Board, and the Mortensens were asked to apply for a special use permit that would allow them to use the home as a “church or other place of worship,” although neither of those terms is defined anywhere in the Town zoning ordinance. The Zoning Board of Appeals held a hearing on the application on September 5, 2001, and a group of neighbors appeared in opposition. None claimed that they had been harmed or even inconvenienced by Pine Hill Zendo during the previous two years. One resident even testified that other neighbors told her they had never seen or heard anything, and didn’t even realize the Zendo existed. Opponents simply speculated that traffic and parking problems might develop.

The ZBA rejected the application for a special use permit, citing “issues related to traffic and on-street parking,” although on-street parking is permitted in the area at any time except for overnight hours during the winter months. And, incongruously, the Board cited concern over noise, despite the fact that the Zendo’s primary activity is silent meditation.

On November 2, 2001, Becket joined the case. On November 6, 2001, Pine Hill Zendo filed suit against the Bedford ZBA in the Supreme Court for the County of Westchester, New York, seeking reversal of the Board’s decision. The Town of Bedford subsequently settled, resulting in a victory for the Zendo.

Bronx Household of Faith v. The Board of Education of the City of New York

The Bronx Household of Faith is an inner-city church serving one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Founded in 1971, it has spread hope in its local community for over forty years—serving local children, working with refugees, sponsoring neighborhood clean-ups, and providing emergency food and clothing.

But finding a church building in New York City isn’t easy. Land is expensive; rentals are scarce. For over a decade, the church had to meet in the pastor’s dining room.

Fortunately, New York City owns almost 1,200 buildings that sit empty on nights and weekends: its public schools. Each year, the City rents out empty schools to tens of thousands of community groups for any meetings that might be of interest to the community: Boy Scouts, drama clubs, taxpayer associations, senior citizen groups, sporting events, merchant associations, labor unions—you name it. In 2011 alone, the City issued over 122,000 permits for using the schools.

So Bronx Household, like tens of thousands of other community groups, applied to rent an empty school. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. City bureaucrats decided that letting a church meet in an empty school would be unconstitutional. So it banned religious worship services—and only religious worship services—from its empty schools. Other groups can still use the schools for singing, teaching, and discussion; but if the singing, teaching, and discussion is “religious worship,” it is banned. Of the fifty largest public school districts in the country, New York City is the only one that bans worship from empty schools.

Thus began a legal battle that has lasted almost 20 years. The church was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Becket supported the church at every level of the federal courts along the way, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in 2002, 2011, 2012, and 2014.

Unfortunately, the New York-based United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the City’s ban, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. But shortly after the case ended, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the City would open its public schools to churches. So for now, the City and the churches have reached a truce. And Becket stands ready to protect churches against government discrimination.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School

Becket’s amicus brief defended the right of a Christian children’s club to use public school facilities that were available to non-religious groups.  The Supreme Court agreed. It upheld the club’s free speech right and found no Establishment Clause justification for curbing its religious speech. Thomas Marcelle represented the club.

Agostini v. Felton

Becket filed an amicus brief urging the reversal of a U.S. Supreme Court 1985 ruling that prevented disadvantaged children in religious schools, but not those in public schools, from receiving federal education funds for supplemental instruction by public school teachers. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious freedom, reversed the 1985 ruling, and decided that allowing public school teachers to instruct on secular subjects at private religious schools did not violate the Establishment Clause. New York City Chief Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty represented the New York parochial school board and several students’ parents.