Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Importance to Religious Liberty:

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

Speaker v. Fields

Centuries-old tradition under attack in Pennsylvania

For centuries, state and federal legislatures have started their sessions with prayer. The prayers are sometimes led by legislative chaplains, other times by legislative members or guests who represent faith groups from across the state.

In 2016, a group of secular atheists, many of whom publicly mock prayer and religion, requested to serve as chaplains and deliver non-religious “invocations” in the Pennsylvania State House. The Pennsylvania House speaker denied their request on the grounds that their beliefs were not religious. In August 2016, the atheists sued the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House in federal court, claiming that it violated the Establishment Clause to bar a non-religious person from offering prayer.

Legislative prayer reminds us that our rights come from something higher than government

Legislative prayer is a tradition that goes back to our nation’s founding. Both houses of the First Congress hired chaplains who, just a couple of years later, likely prayed on the days Congress debated the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court has held that such prayers, recognized by the Framers and existing for decades without leading to an establishment of religion, do not violate the Establishment Clause. Moreover, legislative prayer supports the Constitution by reminding us of the source of our rights: a power higher than the government.

Acknowledging the important place legislative prayer holds does not require government to give atheistic non-prayer the same platform. The prayer simply accommodates religious believers in what is already a secular process. The Pennsylvania State House that requires guest speakers for invocations be members of the legislature or members of a church or religious organization. This makes sense. Everyone has beliefs, but not all beliefs are religious. The purpose of the chaplaincy is to provide religious support. To allow militant and other secular atheists to occupy the chaplaincy undermines the purpose of the position in the first place. The group of atheists suing the Pennsylvania State House do not appeal to a higher power, and on top of that, they are known for mocking and ridiculing religion.

What’s at stake includes more than legislative prayer. Since our nation’s founding, religion has had a special distinction in the law as a right that cannot be overruled by government. Giving non-religious beliefs the same platform and distinction as religious beliefs would undermine more than just religion—it would weaken the legal foundation of our religious liberty.

Becket steps in

In August 2018, the district court decided in favor of the atheists, ruling that the Pennsylvania State House legislative prayer policy violates the Constitution. The Speaker of the Pennsylvania House appealed the case to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of several chaplains, and on August 23, 2019 the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the Speaker of the House, writing, “we uphold the policy because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking.”

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.
  • Legislative prayer: Contrary to thinking that legislative prayer violated the Establishment Clause, our nation’s founders in fact explicitly understood legislative prayer to be a reminder of the source of our rights: a power higher than the government. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislative prayer was constitutional in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

Government cannot take private property without “just compensation”

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

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

Takings Clause interpretation leaves houses of worship vulnerable

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

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

Becket steps in to protect RLUIPA standards

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

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

 


Importance to religious liberty

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

Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia

Faith-Based Foster Care Fact Sheet

Free To Foster: Read about heroic foster families

A history of heroic service in the City of Brotherly Love

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

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

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

Making room for diversity

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

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

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

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

Sidelining all-stars while kids are left hanging

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

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

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

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


Importance to religious liberty

  • Religious FreedomReligious organizations must be free to act according to their faith, including when caring for children in need. The government cannot exclude religious groups by demanding they give up their religious beliefs in order to continue providing much needed social services.
  • Public SquareFaith-affirming organizations serve their neighbors and provide benefits to the community when they are able to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather the expression of a natural human impulse.

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.     

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.

Sac and Fox Nation v. Borough of Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe, a living legend

Arguably one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Jim Thorpe won two Olympic gold medals and played three different professional sports – football, track and field, and baseball. In the course of his career, he was inducted to ten Halls of Fame and in 1950 the Associated Press called him the “greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete.”

Jim Thorpe’s athletic prowess undoubtedly has something to do with the Sac and Fox Nation Indian blood that ran through his veins. Born with the Indian name Wa-Tho-Huk or “Bright Path,” Jim Thorpe carried the spirit and customs of his tribe until his death in 1953.

A violation of Native American customs

Thorpe’s remaining two sons, along with the Oklahoma-based Sac and Fox Nation, have been fighting since his death to return his remains to the family grave site on sacred Sac and Fox land in Stroud, Oklahoma. The struggle began after a family dispute cut short the burial ceremony.

Thorpe’s body was taken and auctioned off to the highest bidder—a small Pennsylvania town he’d never even visited. Jim Thorpe has been buried there ever since; not next to family, not on sacred Native American land, but commercially on display in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where his remains have been mocked, vandalized, and desecrated.

Now his sons—themselves now elderly—want to bring him home, burying him near his parents and other family members in Oklahoma. Conner & Winters, LLP and Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic represented them. But the town refused, envisioning major tourist attractions that would come from the deal – an Olympic stadium, football shrine, a Jim Thorpe themed sporting goods store, and even a hotel named “Jim Thorpe’s Teepees.”

The relocation of Thorpe’s remains to Pennsylvania violates the Sac and Fox Nation’s beliefs that a sacred burial ceremony must take place to allow a body’s spirit to successfully complete its spirit journey. It also violates the federal Native American Graves Protections and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was specifically passed to defend Native American religious beliefs and help these communities reclaim sacred items and remains that were unjustifiably taken from them.

However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the sons’ request, saying the protections in the statute would lead to “absurd outcome.” This is a dangerous precedent putting courts in the business of deciding what religious beliefs are valid and which are not.

Becket defends the Sac & Fox Nation’s religious freedom

In our country, courts should not be in the business of rejecting religious protections simply because they think protecting those beliefs is “absurd.” Given the history of mistreatment of Native Americans by government officials, they take special care to protect the Native Americans’ religious practices.

In July 2015 Becket led a diverse coalition of religious groups to the Supreme Court, filing a friend-of-the-court brief to help honor the religious beliefs and final wishes of Jim Thorpe and his remaining family. Members of the coalition included Becket, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Council of Churches, and the Queens Federation of Churches. The coalition was represented at the Supreme Court by Becket, along with attorneys Troy Eid and Harriet McConnell of prominent international law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, which has a nationally-renowned Indian Law practice.

However, in October 2015 the Supreme Court denied to hear the case, thus ending the battle to bring Jim Thorpe’s body back to Oklahoma.

Freedom Baptist Church v. Township of Middletown

Becket represented Freedom Baptist Church, a small religious community of about 25 members in Middletown Township in Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia.

In the fall of 2000, Pastor Chris Keay began a search for suitable space to hold worship services in Middletown Township. Pastor Keay soon signed a lease on the first floor of an office building below a dentist’s office.

However, the building was in a “no religion” zone. After having worshipped in the space for six months, a Township Zoning Officer came after the church, claiming that it was in a zone in which religious worship was not permitted under any circumstances. The church applied for a variance but was denied. It had no choice but to bring a lawsuit under the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In its defense, Middletown challenged the constitutionality of RLUIPA, but Becket argued in favor of RLIUPA at the district court. Judge Stewart Dalzell issued a ruling issued on May 2002, upheld the law. It was the first time that a federal court had ruled on the constitutionality of RLUIPA’s land use provisions, and the decision has since been cited as precedent in other cases around the country. In November 2002, Judge Dalzell signed an agreement in which Middletown agreed to revise its zoning ordinances to comply with RLUIPA and pay attorney’s fees. Freedom Baptist Church was represented by Becket and by local attorney L. Theodore Hoppe.

*Photos of updated building used by permission: Freedom Baptist Church

 

Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Township

Since its founding in 1994, Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish synagogue, has held worship services and other religious activities at a variety of temporary locations in the greater Philadelphia area.  In 1997, it began searching for a permanent house of worship, and in early 1999, it began negotiations for the purchase of a property owned by a Catholic order of nuns.

In March 2001, the Abington Township Zoning Hearing Board refused to allow the congregation to use the facility for religious purposes, denying permission to continue “the prior nonconforming religious use of the Sisters’ property,” despite the fact that it had granted such permission just five years earlier to a different religious group based on the same set of facts. These modified township zoning laws resulted in an unreasonable burden on religious freedom. Furthermore, during hearings on Congregation Kol Ami’s application, some neighbors objected to the congregation’s move, with one stating flatly, “I don’t want a synagogue in my backyard.”

In April 2001, Becket represented Congregation Kol Ami in a lawsuit against Abington Township for discrimination against Jewish places of worship.

After prevailing in court, Kol Ami was able to settle the case on favorable terms.