Since its founding, Becket has been involved in nearly every U.S. Supreme Court case that has implicated religious liberty issues. Below is a comprehensive analysis of the Becket’s Supreme Court practice
Merits-Stage Cases where Becket served as Counsel to a Party:
- New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools v. Moses (2016)
Becket defended a New Mexico program that lends textbooks to students in public and private schools. The program was aimed at ameliorating New Mexico’s high illiteracy rate, but activists challenged the program under New Mexico’s Blaine Amendment, a provision in the New Mexico Constitution that was designed to discriminate against Catholics. Becket intervened in the case on behalf of the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools. When the New Mexico Supreme Court used the Blaine to strike down the textbook lending program, Becket appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court vacated the New Mexico decision and ordered that the New Mexico Supreme Court reconsider its decision in light of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which held that government cannot discriminate against religion in its programs. The New Mexico Supreme Court is now reconsidering its earlier decision.
- Zubik v. Burwell (Little Sisters of the Poor) (2015)
Unanimous Supreme Court erases lower court rulings and forbids IRS fines against Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious ministries
Becket, along with former Solicitor General Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC, won a significant victory on behalf of religious ministries with objections to the Affordable Care Act’s HHS mandate, which would have required them to provide health care services in violation of their religious beliefs. After oral argument, the Justices ordered supplemental briefing on the question whether there was an alternative resolution wherein the religious objectors could purchase a health insurance plan without contraceptives and the government could provide these services on its own. In its supplemental brief, the government conceded that it could deliver these services using an alternative delivery mechanism. Based on the supplement briefs, a unanimous Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion that vacated all of the Courts of Appeals’ rulings against the religious ministries, forbade the IRS from levying millions of dollars in fines against them, and told the lower courts to provide the government an opportunity “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates the petitioners’ religious beliefs.”
Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court upholds prisoners’ religious exercise rights
Becket and Professor Doug Laycock of UVA Law School won an important victory when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that an inmate has the right to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons.
In Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.’s unanimous opinion, the Court emphasized the vast protection provided for religious freedom by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—and its sister statute RFRA—calling this protection “very broad,” “expansive,” “capacious,” and “substantial.”
Applying RLUIPA’s rigorous standard, the Court held that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise; that the Department had not proven that its policy interests in preventing the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification were furthered by the prohibition against beards; and that the Department failed to show that its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests, especially when over 40 other state and federal prison systems permit similar beards.
U.S. Supreme Court protects faithful family businesses
Becket, along with former Solicitor General Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC, won a significant victory undermining the Affordable Care Act’s HHS mandate that would have required religious objectors to pay for drugs and devices against their religious beliefs.
The Court decided two important questions in a decision authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. On the first question, by a vote of 5-2, the Court left no doubt that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects private, closely held, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby.
On the second question, the Court decided, by a vote of 5-4, that the HHS Mandate as it pertains to closely held for-profit businesses violates RFRA’s terms. Specifically, the Mandate’s hundreds of millions of dollars in threatened fines “surely” creates a substantial burden on the exercise of religion here: “If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.” And the Court made quick work of the Government’s defense that the Mandate is the only way to achieve its purported interests. The Court straightforwardly stated that the Government could pay for its own mandate and not force religious objectors to do so.
Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court preserves religious hiring rights
Becket, along with Professor Douglas Laycock of UVA Law School, secured the most significant religious liberty decision in the past half-century when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with their position and upheld the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers.
The Court (in Chief Justice Robert’s unanimous opinion) declared that both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment provide “special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations” and “bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” The Court also held that the protection extends not just to ordained clergy, but to any leader or teacher who “personifies” the beliefs of the religious community.
In a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration’s position, all nine justices rejected its arguments as “extreme,” “remarkable” and “untenable.” The Court concluded its decision by saying: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”
Merits-Stage Cases where Becket filed an Amicus Brief, which was cited, quoted, or heavily relied upon in an opinion:
- Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley (2017) Becket, in conjunction with the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic, filed an amicus brief arguing that the Free Exercise Clause prevents the government from treating individuals or organizations differently based solely on their religious affiliation. Here, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether Missouri’s explicit policy of denying funding for playground resurfacing to schools simply because of their religious character was constitutional. The Supreme Court held that it was not, explaining that Missouri’s actions violated the First Amendment. In doing so, the Supreme Court followed the exact approach, and relied on the same sources, outlined by Becket in its amicus brief. As the Court explained, the Free Exercise Clause has always been understood to prohibit the government from either encouraging or discouraging religious beliefs and practices. This, however, is exactly what Missouri did when it denied Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center’s grant application—a grant for which it was otherwise qualified—based solely on its religious affiliation. Such unequal treatment constituted “the clearest possible example of an unconstitutional penalty on the exercise of a constitutional right,” as Becket’s brief explained.
- Heffernan v. City of Paterson (2015) Becket filed an amicus brief in a small-town case with national repercussions for the First Amendment. This case involved a New Jersey police officer who was demoted for picking up a political campaign sign for his bedridden mother. The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of the police officer and held that his demotion was unlawful. The Court explained that when an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to squelch constitutional activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment even if the government had some factual misunderstandings about the employee’s behavior. This ruling protects people’s ability to exercise First Amendment rights for any purpose, including religion. Becket asked the Court to protect the officer’s right of free speech and his right to freely assemble. Once regarded as the most important First Amendment right—because it safeguards all the others—in the past seventy years the concrete “right of assembly” has been replaced with the more abstract freedom of association. Justice Thomas’s dissent explicitly affirmed the importance of the freedom of assembly, but he ruled against the police officer based on a view that the officer had conceded this argument in his briefing.
- Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (2014) Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the State of Texas, in opening a virtually unrestrained license plate customization process to the general public, created a public forum for private citizens to express their personal views. Privately designed license plates could not constitute government speech, we argued, and thus the State’s selective rejection of respondents’ license plate design was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment. Justice Alito’s dissent, joined by three other Justices, adopted this exact view and underscored Becket’s concern that confusing private speech for government speech carries grave implications for constitutional free speech guarantees.
- Obergefell v. Hodges (2014) While the Becket takes no position on the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, our amicus brief urged the Court to recognize the religious liberty implications of its ruling and reaffirm the long-held position that religious objection to same-sex marriage is based in deeply held religious belief, not discriminatory animus. In holding that religious dissent to its ruling is rooted in “honorable religious or philosophical premises,” the Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s position and emphasized that the Constitution protects religious individuals as they seek to promote traditional marriage. Justice Thomas’s dissent, also addressing religious liberty concerns, went one step further and cited Becket’s brief to underscore the majority decision’s “unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” Like Becket, Justice Thomas emphasized that those who reaffirm marriage as a religious institution must be allowed to carry out their vocation.
- Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2014) In a case involving a town’s efforts to single out a local church’s sidewalk signs for especially onerous regulation, Becket’s amicus brief in Reed v. Town of Gilbert argued that petitioners should not have to prove discriminatory intent when arguing that their First Amendment right to free speech has been violated. Because intent is difficult to prove when defendants deftly cover their discriminatory motives, we argued that any regulation that treats speech differently because of its content, as was the case here, should be subjected to the highest level of judicial scrutiny. The Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s approach in its decision, holding that irrespective of their motivation, all laws that “target speech based on its communicative content” are unconstitutional unless they withstand strict scrutiny.
- Town of Greece v. Galloway (2013) Becket filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court decision that forbade the Town of Greece, New York, from starting council meetings with prayers led by a volunteer member of the public. Becket’s brief asked the Court both to uphold the ubiquitous practice of legislative prayer and to repair Establishment Clause law by bringing it back to its origins in the Bill of Rights. In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court upheld the town’s legislative prayer practice against an Establishment Clause challenge. In its opinion, the Court referred to proceedings cited in Becket’s brief indicating that the practice of local legislative bodies opening their meetings with prayer has historical precedent. The Supreme Court also cited Becket’s unanimous win in Hosanna-Tabor to support the proposition that local legislatures should not be involved in censoring religious speech.
- Sossamon v. Texas (2010) The Supreme Court decided that States, by accepting federal funding, do not waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) protections for inmate religious exercise. Becket’s amicus brief in support of Sossamon pointed out that the lack of a damages claim will make it much easier for state governments to moot out prisoner religious liberty cases by changing their behavior mid-litigation. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent (joined by Justice Breyer) picked up on this point and even cited Becket’s briefing in Moussazadeh v. Texas– the ongoing struggle to bring kosher food to the few Jews in the Texas prison system. Even though the Supreme Court held against the religious prisoner litigant, Sossamon favorably clarified a legal term frequently at issue in religious liberty litigation. The Court’s majority held: “The text of §3 [of RLUIPA] does not prohibit ‘discrimination’; rather, it prohibits ‘substantial burden[s]‘ on religious exercise.” This statement should put to rest the all-too-typical government argument that a substantial burden claim brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RLUIPA must include a showing of discriminatory intent. The Court has now made clear that a substantial burden is something different than discrimination.
- Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2010) In a case involving the constitutionality of tax credits for private contributions to private schools, Becket’s amicus brief argued that state taxpayers lacked standing the bring a lawsuit under the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court agreed, dismissing the case for lack of standing.
- Salazar v. Buono (2009) In a case involving the constitutionality of a cross memorial in the Mojave Desert, Becket’s amicus brief argued that the court of appeals should be reversed, because the plaintiff lacked standing and that the cross did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court agreed, with two Justices agreeing that the plaintiff lacked standing, and three Justices agreeing that the court of appeals misapplied the Establishment Clause.
- Pleasant Grove v. Summum (2008) Because a Utah city had chosen to include a Ten Commandments monument—along with other monuments—in its city park, a small religious group wanted to include its own religious monument in the same park, but was denied the permission to do so by the city. Defending the city’s right to exclude the additional monument, Becket’s amicus brief argued that the city park displays were government—not private—speech, which meant that the city could legitimately decide which monuments to include and which to exclude.
- Kelo v. City of New London (2004) The Supreme Court held that the city’s use of eminent domain power to take private property for the purpose of furthering its economic development plan did not run afoul of the constitutional “public use” requirement. In her dissenting opinion, Justice O’Connor (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas) cited Becket’s amicus brief to highlight the uniquely burdensome effect an expansive view and overuse of eminent domain poses to houses of worship, church schools, and religious social service organizations like soup kitchens.
- Locke v. Davey (2003) The Supreme Court held that the State of Washington did not violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by forbidding the use of state-funded scholarship money to receive degrees in devotional theology. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s majority opinion took note of Becket’s brief, which highlighted the anti-Catholic bigotry behind state Blaine Amendments. (State Blaine Amendments prohibit the use of state funds to support religious institutions such as parochial schools.) The Court concluded that the relevant Washington state constitutional provision (which also forbade the use of tax funds to support ministers) was not sufficiently related to the Blaine Amendment so its anti-religious history was not implicated in this case.
- Mitchell v. Helms (1999) In a case challenging the constitutionality of a government school aid program as applied to parochial schools, the Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had found that the program violated the Establishment Clause. Justice Thomas’s plurality opinion (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Kennedy) relied on Becket’s amicus brief, which described the anti-Catholic animus motivating state Blaine Amendments (forbidding state funds from supporting religious institutions). In rejecting a method of analyzing an Establishment Clause challenge by asking whether the benefitted institution is “pervasively sectarian,” Justice Thomas’s opinion echoed the sentiments of the Becket’s brief: “hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow” and “[t]his doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.”
Merits-Stage Cases where Becket filed an Amicus Brief and the Court decided our way:
- Lee v. Tam (2017) The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the government could deny Simon Tam, who is Asian-American, federal trademark protection for “The Slants” – his rock band. The government argued that it did not have to give trademark protection to “disparaging” speech, and cited “demeaning illustrations of … religious figures” as examples of speech it did not wish to protect. Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the government should not refuse to protect speech it views as “disparaging.” Becket pointed out that laws forbidding “disparagement” of religion are used to unfairly prosecute religious minorities around the world and that for that reason, the U.S. government has long opposed religious disparagement bans in other countries. Becket urged the Supreme Court to hold the government’s trademark office to the same standard that the U.S. government supports internationally: free speech for all. The Supreme Court agreed and in an 8-0 decision ruled that the government could not refuse to protect Tam’s private speech.
EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (2014) In a case involving a Title VII claim against an employer for refusing to hire an applicant due to her use of a religious headscarf, Becket’s amicus brief argued that “any notice of a potential religious conflict should trigger the employer’s duty not to discriminate on religious grounds.” The Supreme Court agreed, holding that an employer’s decision not to hire an applicant violates Title VII when it is motivated by even the mere suspicion that an applicant may require a religious accommodation.
Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International (2012) Prof. Eugene Volokh filed an amicus brief on behalf of Becket and Christian Legal Society, where we argued that “a government’s recognized power to limit speech within the programs that it funds cannot justify a power to compel speech as a condition of government funding.” The Court agreed and based its opinion on this critical distinction, holding that the government cannot go “beyond the contours of the program itself” to create funding requirements that compel “a grant recipient to adopt a particular belief as a condition of funding.”
- Negusie v. Mukasey (2008) Daniel Negusie was imprisoned by the Eritrean government for converting to Christianity and refusing to fight in Eritrea’s seemingly endless war against Ethiopia. As part of his imprisonment, Negusie was tortured and threatened with even more punishment if he refused to serve as a prison guard. Negusie luckily escaped Eritrea—making it to the United States after hiding in a shipping container—but the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denied him asylum because it determined that he “assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others.” In our amicus brief supporting Negusie before the Supreme Court, Becket argued that federal law has always condemned the forced persecution of others, in part because it is both a physical and psychological tactic to force religious adherents like Negusie to violate their religious beliefs. As a result, we maintained, Negusie’s case must be reconsidered in light of the fact that he was forced to serve as a prison guard. A nearly unanimous Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Becket’s argument, remanding the case to the BIA in light of the persecution Negusie had suffered.
- Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita (2005) In a case challenging the federal government’s restrictions on a controlled substance— hoasca tea—used in the ceremonies of a religious group, Becket’s amicus brief defended the constitutionality of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that provides accommodations for religious organizations. The Supreme Court held that the government had not shown under RFRA’s standard a sufficiently compelling governmental interest to ban the substance for religious use by this group.
- Cutter v. Wilkinson (2004) Becket’s amicus brief defended against an Establishment Clause challenge to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s provision that increases protection for prisoners’ religious rights. The Supreme Court agreed that the provision was constitutional.
- Van Orden v. Perry (2004) In an Establishment Clause challenge to a Ten Commandments display on the Texas State Capitol grounds, Becket’s amicus brief argued that such displays are constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court ruled our way.
- Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2003) In a case involving the constitutionality of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Becket’s amicus brief argued that the words “under God” were permissible cause they reflect our nation’s founding principle that freedom is grounded in an authority higher than the state. Three Justices agreed that the Pledge was constitutional; the other Justices agreed that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiff lacked standing.
- Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2001) Does Ohio’s school voucher program violate the Establishment Clause? Becket, and the Supreme Court, said “No.”
- Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2000) 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.
- Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (1999) In a case where the New Jersey Supreme Court had held that a state public accommodations law required the Boy Scouts to readmit a homosexual leader, Becket’s brief urged the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the First Amendment right of expressive association concerning religious institutions. The Supreme Court did just that, ruling that applying the public accommodation law violated the Boy Scout’s First Amendment right of expressive association.
- Agostini v. Felton (1996) Becket’s amicus brief urged reversal of a 1985 ruling that prevented disadvantaged children in parochial schools (in contrast to those in public schools) from receiving federal education funds for supplemental instruction by public school teachers. The Supreme Court ruled our way and overturned the 1985 ruling deciding that allowing public school teachers to instruct on secular subjects at private religious schools did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Merits-Stage Cases where Becket filed an Amicus Brief and the Court’s decision is pending:
- Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton (2017) Becket filed a brief arguing that religious hospitals and other religious groups engaged in social service are just as much part of a church as houses of worship and therefore should be able to participate in church pension plans. The case concerns lawsuits brought by plaintiffs’ lawyers against Catholic and Protestant religious hospital systems claiming that the hospital systems should not be allowed to participate in church pension plans. They claim that because the hospitals are not houses of worship they cannot participate in church pension plans. If their view is upheld, it would mean that in the view of the law religious orphanages, universities, homeless shelters, and many other religious organizations would no longer be part of a church. Becket argues that this would be a very negative outcome for religious groups of many different faiths
Merits-Stage Amicus Briefs:
- Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (2017) Becket filed a brief explaining the religious liberty implications when the Supreme Court addresses deep social conflicts. In this case, the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether laws prohibiting sex discrimination also include gender identity discrimination. Becket’s brief explained that changing the definition of the word “sex” to include gender identity would have implications for individuals and organizations with traditional religious beliefs about gender identity, including, for example, by forcing doctors to provide gender transition surgeries. The Supreme Court did not consider the case on its merits, and instead sent it back to the lower courts to determine whether it was moot for technical reasons.
Emergency Applications for Injunctions Pending Appellate Review:
- Wheaton College v. Burwell (2013) In one of the country’s most high profile HHS mandate cases, Becket petitioned the Supreme Court to enjoin the government from enforcing the mandate against Wheaton College, a Christian university governed by Christian beliefs, while it continued to fight the contraception mandate in federal court. Relying on our previous victory in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius, in which the Supreme Court held that the Little Sisters did not need to inform their insurance administrator of their religious objection while they were litigating their case, we urged the Court to provide Wheaton College similar relief. We noted that this remedy satisfied both Wheaton’s religious requirements and the government’s policy goals, since the government now knew that Wheaton objected and thus could provide contraception to Wheaton’s employees on its own accord. The Supreme Court again handed down a victory for religious liberty, granting Becket’s application for injunction.
- Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius (2013) The HHS contraception mandate put the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns who provide assistance to the elderly poor, in a disturbing bind: either abandon their religious convictions and participate in the government’s system to distribute contraception, or be subjected to draconian fines. Becket, in a last minute appeal to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, urged the Supreme Court to enjoin the government from enforcing the mandate against the Little Sisters and hundreds of other Catholic ministries while they were continuing to make their case in federal court. Our brief underscored that the government had offered no justification to infringe on the Little Sisters’ deeply held beliefs—the government in fact admitted that it did not need the Little Sisters to pursue its contraception policy—and thus the Court could easily grant an injunction without any policy ramifications. Fortunately for the Little Sisters, the Supreme Court granted the injunction and thus gave the Little Sisters another day to protect their religious beliefs.
Cert-Stage Petitions for a Writ of Certiorari filed by Becket where the Court denied cert:
- Stormans v. Wiesman (2015) Becket petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari when Washington state regulations required a family-owned pharmacy and two pharmacists to dispense certain drugs in violation of their religious convictions, erasing a time-honored practice of facilitated referrals. The petition presented a compelling opportunity for the Court to resolve important conflicts over the 1st Amendment’s Free Exercise jurisprudence—and to rein in a Ninth Circuit ruling that threatened our longstanding national consensus on the right of conscience in health care. Justice Alito wrote a 15-page dissent from denial of certiorari that was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. Justice Alito wrote: “[I]t seems to me likely that the Board’s regulations are not neutral and generally applicable. Quite the contrary: The evidence relied upon by the District Court suggests that the regulations are targeted at religious conduct alone, to stamp out religiously motivated referrals while allowing referrals for secular reasons (whether by rule or by wink). If that is so, the regulations are invalid unless the State can prove that they are narrowly tailored to advance a compelling government interest. The Ninth Circuit did not reach this question, as it upheld the regulations under far less demanding rational-basis review. I will not try to answer here whether the regulations meet strict scrutiny, except to observe that the State’s justification that the regulations advance its ‘interest in ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful and lawfully prescribed medications,’ seems awfully hard to square with the State’s stipulation that ‘facilitated referrals do not pose a threat to timely access to lawfully prescribed medications.'” But this issue may come back to the Court in the future, as Justice Alito pointed out: “The Court’s denial of certiorari does not, of course, preclude petitioners from bringing a future as-applied challenge to the Board’s regulations.”
- Big Sky Colony v. Montana Dep’t. of Labor and Industry (2013) Becket petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari when the State of Montana forced a small religious community of Hutterites, who believe that the Bible requires them to hold all property as communal goods, to participate in the State’s workers’ compensation scheme. Because workers’ compensation required the Hutterites to pay individual salaries when working for the outside community, the State’s edict forced the Hutterites to violate 500 years of their religious practice. We argued that the Montana Supreme Court’s stilted reading of the Free Exercise Clause—particularly its view that established anti-religious animus is required to invalidate government action—was both wrong on the merits and in conflict with numerous Supreme Court and Circuit Court opinions. We urged the Court to grant the petition and reassert the long-held view that plaintiffs need only show unfavorable treatment, when compared to other religions, to raise a successful Free Exercise claim.
- Elmbrook School District v. Doe (2013) In response to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ erroneous decision that a public school district violated the Establishment Clause when it elected to hold entirely secular graduation ceremonies in a church auditorium, Becket sought to send the case to the Supreme Court. In our petition for a writ of certiorari, we maintained that the school district’s rational and secular explanations for selecting the graduation venue—the church auditorium was both cheaper and more comfortable than competing options—precluded any Establishment Clause challenge. We also noted that the 7th Circuit’s decision threatened to “unsettle longstanding practices in public schools across the country and expose governments to liability for a host of common practices.”
- The Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. The City of Long Branch (2007) The City of Long Branch denied a local Church’s numerous petitions to open a building it had recently purchased as a worship hall and soup kitchen, citing zoning regulations. However, those same ordinances allowed for the building to be used as an “assembly hall” or for other secular purposes. Becket petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn this blatantly discriminatory application of zoning laws, arguing that the City’s tactics were clear violations of the plain text of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Neither provision requires religious adherents and churches to prove discriminatory intent, we argued, as both RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause protect religious exercise from unequal treatment irrespective of its motivation.
- Living Water Church of God v. Charter Township of Meridian (2007) The Town of Meridian refused to allow churches or religious schools to be located anywhere within its borders without a special use permit. After the Town arbitrarily reversed its decision to grant Living Water such a permit, Becket represented the Church and argued that the Town’s discriminatory behavior constituted a substantial burden on the Church’s religious exercise. Becket eventually petitioned the Supreme Court to hear Living Water’s case, asserting that the Third Circuit’s incorrect reading of the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden requirement greatly cabined religious organizations’ ability to fight back against blatantly discriminatory government action.
- Adkins v. Kaspar (2004) After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that denying an inmate the opportunity to observe the Sabbath at least three weeks out of every month was not a substantial burden on his free exercise of religion, Becket petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth Circuit’s remarkably narrow definition of “substantial burden” under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). We argued that the Fifth Circuit’s construction of “substantial burden”—which effectively denied religious adherents any relief if they sought to protest a neutrally applied law—was both out of step with every other Circuit and demonstrably wrong on the merits. The explicit text of RLUIPA clearly allows inmates to safely practice their religion despite a neutrally applied policy, we maintained, and thus the Fifth Circuit’s ruling could not stand.
Cert-Stage Briefs in Opposition filed by Becket:
- Ganulin v. U.S. (2000) After securing a momentous victory at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Becket asked the Supreme Court to put a stop to needless litigation and summarily reaffirm a basic truth in American society: designating Christmas as a federal holiday is plainly consistent with the Establishment Clause. The government is allowed to discuss and even celebrate the cultural aspects of religion, we argued, and the long history of federally recognized religious holidays only further emphasizes that government need not expunge its speech of any religious element. The Supreme Court evidently agreed with Becket’s position, as it dismissed the cert petition and thus allowed all Americans to continue enjoying their Christmas holiday.
Cert-Stage Briefs for Respondents in Support of Cert filed by Becket:
- Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2013) Despite our victory in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Becket filed a brief in support of the Government’s petition for a writ of certiorari. We argued that while the lower court’s decision was correct on the merits, the novel threats to religious exercise posed by the Affordable Care Act and the Circuit Courts’ contrasting responses to those threats justified Supreme Court review. We noted that Hobby Lobby, as a self-insured and closely held corporation with an explicitly Christian mission, was ideally suited to both articulate its religious objection and benefit from injunctive relief. The Supreme Court agreed, granting the petition and ultimately ruling in our favor.
Cert-Stage Amicus Briefs filed by Becket in Support of Certiorari:
- Michigan Catholic Conference v. Burwell (2014) After the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals forced a number of Catholic ministries to provide abortion-inducing drugs or face crushing penalties from the IRS, Becket filed an amicus brief supporting the ministries’ petition to the Supreme Court. In our brief, we argued that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College—both Becket victories—precluded the often discredited arguments relied upon by the Sixth Circuit. We noted that both of those cases made clear that forcing religious organizations to provide or assist in providing contraception against their religious beliefs violated federal law. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Becket’s position, vacating the Sixth Circuit’s decision and remanding the case for a rehearing in light of the Court’s strong precedent in support of religious liberty.
- University of Notre Dame v. Burwell (2014) After the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ surprising decision made Notre Dame the only religious nonprofit in the nation without protection from the HHS contraception mandate, Becket filed an amicus brief supporting the Catholic university’s petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. We asked the Court to grant the petition and vacate the Seventh Circuit’s decision in light of Becket’s victories in Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College. Both of these cases, we argued, gave ample grounds to protect Notre Dame from the government mandate while contraception cases were being litigated in the Seventh Circuit and around the country. The Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s position and remanded the case back to the Seventh Circuit for rehearing and a new opinion.
- Bronx Household of Faith v. The Board of Education of the City of New York (2014) New York City allowed community groups to rent out empty public school buildings for meetings, discussions, musical performances, and a host of other activities. However, as soon as the Bronx Household of Faith wished to rent out school space for weekly church services, the City denied its request solely because the Church hoped to host religious events. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this blatant act of religious discrimination, and Becket urged the Supreme Court to take up the case and overrule the Second Circuit’s erroneous decision. In our amicus brief, we argued that the City’s actions violated the long-held principle that private religious activities and private religious speech cannot be curtailed solely because of their religious nature.
- Ilagan v. Ungacta (2012) The Supreme Court of Guam, citing the controversial Supreme Court opinion in Kelo v. City of New London, ruled that a town mayor could use eminent domain authority to seize an apartment complex’s parking lot for the sole purpose of giving himself better road access from his private home. In response to this blatant abuse of government power, Becket joined eleven other organizations and a team of renowned constitutional law scholars to urge the Supreme Court to take the case and overrule not only this dangerous decision, but also the Kelo opinion that enabled it. We argued that Kelo and its progeny explicitly allowed government officials to use their eminent domain authority for private gain, and we noted how this places Americans of all faith traditions, and particularly those of locally disfavored religious minorities, in danger of having their churches and other ministerial centers arbitrarily confiscated.
- The Falls Church v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (2013) In a case involving a church’s property rights, the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered a local church to cede its property to the national congregation’s offices based almost entirely on its reading of Episcopalian canon law. Supporting the local church’s petition for a writ of certiorari at the Supreme Court, Becket argued that secular courts have no business making determinations of religious law, and furthermore, that such tinkering with a church’s internal structure violated free exercise guarantees long enshrined by the U.S. Constitution. Instead, we argued, the Court should uphold the simple principle that state courts should only enforce state law. That way, churches are left most free to draft the religious and legal agreements they wish to see govern their affairs.
- Timberridge Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Greater Atlanta (2011) After the Supreme Court of Georgia interpreted church by-laws and other ecclesiastical documents to force a local Presbyterian Church to hand its land over to the denomination’s national office, Becket supported the local church’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. In our amicus brief, we argued that courts should stick to the legal documents they are trained to interpret—the actual titles to real property held by the local church—and not use their own readings of church theology to eliminate perfectly legal property ownership. Because the Georgia courts universally determined that normal rules of property law clearly allowed the local Church to keep its property, we maintained that the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision must be overturned.
- Gauss v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (2011) Filed as a companion brief to our amicus brief in Timberridge, the Becket further expanded on the Supreme Court’s need to address State Courts’ erratic behavior in interpreting property agreements between local churches and their national offices. We noted that Gauss presented different legal questions that could be decided alongside Timberridge, especially given the different political structures of the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches. Furthermore, by deciding the cases together, we noted that the Supreme Court could address the property usurpation issue from various vantage points and thus avoid the need to hear these cases again in the future.