Tuesday, July 28, 2015

50 Islamic Texts Finally Removed From Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials

Forum 18 reported yesterday on the difficulty of getting Russian authorities to remove books from the Federal List of Extremist Materials, once they have been placed on the list. In mid-July, Russia's Justice Ministry did delete 50 of the 68 Islamic texts banned by a local court in 2012.  Even after successful appeals, it took authorities at least four months to remove the titles. According to the report:
... 11 of the 50 works are already banned in different editions. Of ten other religious texts removed from the Federal List after difficult and protracted efforts, seven (Muslim and Falun Gong) were soon re-banned. Three Jehovah's Witness brochures removed from the List in 2014 and 2015 have not been re-banned. 

Court Refuses To Dismiss EEOC's Suit Against Meat Plant Alleging Failure To Accommodate Muslim Employees

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. JBS USA, LLC, (D CO, July 17, 2015), a Colorado federal district court refused to dismiss a suit brought by the EEOC charging that a Swift & Co. beef processing plant in Colorado failed to reasonably accommodate Muslim employees' need to leave the production line to pray at or near sundown. A large number of Muslim employees were terminated in 2008 after they and the company could not reach agreement for accommodations during Ramadan. The suit also charged a pattern of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge.The EEOC previously lost a similar suit involving the same company's processing plant in Nebraska. The court held that the EEOC is not collaterally estopped by that case. Moving to the substantive issues, the court concluded that genuine issues of material fact remain both as to the reasonableness of the company's and the EEOC's proposed accommodations and as to whether the EEOC's proposal imposes an undue hardship on the company. Similarly disputes of fact remain as to the EEOC's discrimination and retaliation claims-- including issues of whether a one-time layoff of numerous employees amounts to a pattern or practice of discrimination. An EEOC press release summarizes the decision which is discussed at greater length at Workplace Class Action Blog.

Boy Scouts End Ban on Gay Adult Leaders and Employees, But Allow Church-Sponsored Troops To Refuse Gay Leaders

In a press release yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America announced:
On Monday, July 27, the National Executive Board ratified a resolution that removes the national restriction on openly gay adult leaders and employees. Of those present and voting, 79 percent voted in favor of the resolution. The resolution was recommended for ratification by the Executive Committee earlier this month. The resolution is effective immediately.
Chartered organizations will continue to select their adult leaders and religious chartered organizations may continue to use religious beliefs as criteria for selecting adult leaders, including matters of sexuality. This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families. This change also respects the right of religious chartered organizations to choose adult volunteer leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.
Religion News Service yesterday reported on the 14-page Legal Memo (full text) that the Scouts received from their outside counsel titled Effect of Changes in Adult Leader Standard on Religious Chartered Organizations. The memo reads in part:
The change in the BSA policy would still allow units chartered by religious organizations that as a matter of religious belief consider homosexual conduct inconsistent with their religion to limit adult leadership in accordance with that belief. Units not chartered by religious organizations could not exclude homosexuals who otherwise meet the BSA’s high adult leader standards and the chartered organization’s standards.
All other leader requirements, including “duty to God,” would remain in effect for all chartered organizations....
We understand that some religious organizations are concerned that if they exclude homosexuals from leadership in Scouting units that they charter after the BSA changes its policy they will be vulnerable to lawsuits from the potential leaders they exclude. Those concerns should be allayed by the legal defenses that religious organizations have under place of public accommodation statutes and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
 The Boy Scouts removed restrictions on gays becoming scout members in 2013. (See prior posting.)

Federal Prison System Agrees To Recognize Humanism As A Religious Belief

The American Humanist Association announced yesterday that it has entered an Enforceable Settlement Agreement (full text) with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a suit brought by a federal prisoner in Oregon who sought to form a Humanist study group and have Humanism recognized as his religious affiliation. (See prior related posting.) The settlement agreement, applicable to the entire federal prison system, is summarized by the AHA in its press release:
Under the terms of the enforceable settlement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will acknowledge humanism as a worldview that deserves the same recognition as theistic religious beliefs. The Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices will include a section on humanism, and inmates may identify as humanists for official assignment purposes. The prison will also authorize humanist study groups and permit humanist inmates to annually observe Darwin Day.

Monday, July 27, 2015

North Carolina Supreme Court Upholds School Voucher Program

In Hart v. State of North Carolina, (NC Sup. Ct., July 23, 2015), the North Carolina Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision reversed the trial court and upheld against constitutional attack the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program which offers some low-income students scholarships to attend private schools. The majority held that the state constitutional provision on the state school fund was intended "to protect the 'State school fund' in order to preserve and support the public school system, not to limit the State’s ability to spend on education generally." The provision requiring "a general and uniform system of free public schools" also does not bar the state's voucher program:
The uniformity clause applies exclusively to the public school system and does not prohibit the General Assembly from funding educational initiatives outside of that system.
The majority went on to hold that the appropriations for vouchers satisfy the public purpose requirement, and that taxpayer plaintiffs lack standing to  assert religious discrimination claims on behalf of students. Justices Hudson, Easley and Ervin dissented. AP reports on the decision.

The court also issued a short opinion in a companion case, Richardson v. Staterelying on its holding in Hart.

Suit Threatened Over Kentucky Juvenile Prison Rule Limiting Counselors' Statements About Homosexuality

Liberty Counsel is threatening a lawsuit against the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) over its policy that provides:
DJJ staff, volunteers, interns, and contractors, in the course of their work, shall not refer to juveniles by using derogatory language in a manner that conveys bias towards or hatred of the LGBTQI community. DJJ staff, volunteers, interns, and contractors shall not imply or tell LGBTQI juveniles that they are abnormal, deviant, sinful, or that they can or should change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In its press release last Friday, Liberty Counsel indicated that it has sent a demand letter (full text) to DJJ insisting on the reinstatement of a counselor and mentor, Christian pastor David Wells, who apparently had his volunteer prison minister status revoked when he refused to sign a form promising to refrain from telling any juvenile inmates that homosexuality was sinful. The demand letter argues in part:
DJJ 912 violates the First Amendment by prescribing an official state religious “orthodoxy:” now, only a religious belief that homosexuality is not “sinful” may be expressed in DJJ facilities, 

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:

Michigan Supreme Court: Wrong Oath For Jurors In Murder Case Does Not Require New Trial

An interesting decision from the Michigan Supreme Court last week illustrates the distance we have moved from the original conception of oaths as invocations of Divine retribution for straying from that which was promised.  In People v. Cain, (MI Sup. Ct., July 23, 2015), the jury in defendant's murder trial were sworn in with the wrong oath, though no one noticed at the time.  The Clerk swore them in using the oath given at voir dire -- to truly answer questions relating to their qualifications to serve as jurors-- instead of the oath to return a true and just verdict based only on the evidence and the judge's instructions. In a 5-2 decision, the majority held that:
the jurors were conscious of the gravity of the task before them and the manner in which that task was to be carried out, the two primary purposes served by the juror’s oath. Thus, we cannot say that the error here of failing to properly swear the jury seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.
Justice Viviano (joined by Justice McCormack) dissented, saying in part:
the oath was, and has always been, a defining criterion of “jury.” In light of this deep etymological pedigree, it seems quite implausible that the Framers, who lived in a time in which society placed great emphasis on oaths, intended anything other than a sworn jury when they drafted the Sixth Amendment. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Littell v. Kennell, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93757 (CD IL, July 20, 2015), an Illinois federal district court held that a Muslim inmate stated a valid First Amendment claim alleging that Muslims were not permitted to congregate for prayer, but because he is no longer held by the Illinois Department of Corrections injunctive relief is not available; only nominal (and possibly punitive) damages are.

In Snodgrass v. Robinson, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95026 (WD VA, July 21, 2015), a Virginia federal magistrate judge recommended that a Muslim inmate be permitted to proceed against various defendants on his RLUIPA, free exercise and due process challenges to a policy that denied inmates the right to participate in the Ramadan fast if they had missed more than three consecutive religious services.

In Aragon v. Erlanger, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96185 (D CO, July 23, 2015), a Colorado federal magistrate judge recommended that a Messianic Jewish inmate be permitted to proceed against the food services supervisor on his complaint that Passover meals and messianic Jewish diets were prepared without special preparation cleaning of the kitchen area and equipment to meet kosher requirements. A claim against the outside rabbi who advised on kosher standards was dismissed,as was a complaint that Messianic Jews should have been permitted to celebrate Passover on a different date than Jewish inmates.

In Dearwester v. Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96413 (ED CA, July 22, 2015), a California federal magistrate judge recommended that  plaintiff,a Christian inmate who believed that the New Testament required his eating a kosher diet, be permitted to move forward with his First Amendment damage claim based on denial of kosher meals.

In Blankenship v. Setzer, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96871 (WD NC, July 23, 2015), a North Carolina federal district court permitted to proceed on his complaint that he was not allowed to take his Bible with him when he was being transported to court in another county, and that his Bible was confiscated for not having a cover.

NYT Magazine Chronicles Plight of Christians In the Middle East

Today's New York Times Magazine carries a long article, captioned in its online version: Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?,with the subtitle: "ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight." The article comments:
It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents — Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal — to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing. In 2007, when Al Qaeda was kidnapping and killing priests in Mosul, Nina Shea, who was then a U.S. commissioner for religious freedom, says she approached the secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice, who told her the United States didn’t intervene in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues. Rice now says that protecting religious freedom in Iraq was a priority both for her and for the Bush administration. But the targeted violence and mass Christian exodus remained unaddressed. 

Obama Takes Kenya To Task Over Gay Rights; Kenyan President Responds

At a news conference (full text) yesterday on his visit to Kenya, President Obama criticized Kenya for its treatment of gays and lesbians. Kenyan President Kenyatta responded:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: ... Similarly, with respect to the rights of gays and lesbians, I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this.  I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation.  And I say that, recognizing that there may be people who have different religious or cultural beliefs.  But the issue is how does the state operate relative to people.  
If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently -- not because of any harm they’re doing anybody, but because they’re different -- that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.  And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread.  
And as an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law, and there were all sorts of rationalizations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong.  
So I’m unequivocal on this.  If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working in a job, an obeying the traffic signs -- (laughter) -- and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do, and not harming anybody -- the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong.
And the state does not need to weigh in on religious doctrine.  The state just has to say we’re going to treat everybody equally under the law.  And then everybody else can have their own opinions....
PRESIDENT KENYATTA: ... With regard to the second question, just like President Obama, I think we also need to be able to speak frankly about some of these things.  And the fact of the matter is that Kenya and the United States, we share so many values -- our common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families.  These are things that we share.  But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share -- our culture, our societies don’t accept.  It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.  
This is why I repeatedly say that, for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue.  We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people:  The health issues that we have discussed with President Obama.  These are critical.  Issues of ensuring inclusivity of women, a huge section of society that is normally left out of the mainstream of economic development.  What we can do in terms of infrastructure; what we can do in terms of education; in terms of our roads; in terms of giving our people power, encouraging entrepreneurship.  These are the key focuses.  
Maybe once, like you have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones.  But as of now, the fact remains that this issue is not really an issue that is on the foremost mind of Kenyans, and that is the fact.
Homosexual acts between men are punishable by 14 years (and in some cases 21 years) in prison in Kenya. (Background.)

$1M Gift To Emory Will Support Expanded Religious Freedom Education

Emory Law School's Center for the Study of Law and Religion announced last week that it has received an anonymous $1 million gift for a 4-year project called "Restoring Religious Freedom: Education, Outreach, and Good Citizenship," The fund will support internships and externships for students, lectures, conferences and  will begin a new series of publications on law and religion practice guidelines.

Texas Supreme Court OK's Referendum Petitions On Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance

As previously reported, in May 2014 the Houston, Texas City Council passed an Equal Rights Ordinance that attracted significant opposition because of its ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents circulated petitions to get a repeal referendum on the ballot.  The City Secretary certified that there were sufficient signatures on the petitions, but the City Attorney disputed that conclusion and City Council refused to move ahead with the reconsideration of the Ordinance that is required when a valid referendum petition is filed. (See prior posting.) Litigation ensued in various courts.  In In re Jared Woodfill, et. al.,  (TX Sup. Ct., July 24, 2015), the Texas Supreme Court conditionally granted a writ of mandamus to proponents of the referendum, holding:
The Charter ... gives the City Council no discretion to reevaluate the petition; instead, it requires “immediate[]” action by the City Council following the City Secretary’s certification....
The City Council is directed to comply with its duties, as specified in the City Charter, that arise when the City Secretary certifies that a referendum petition has a sufficient number of valid signatures. Any enforcement of the ordinance shall be suspended, and the City Council shall reconsider the ordinance. If the City Council does not repeal the ordinance byAugust 24, 2015, then by that date the City Council must order that the ordinance be put to popular vote during the November 2015 election. The writ will issue only if the City Council does not comply.
Josh Blackman's Blog has more on the decision, as does the Houston Chronicle.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Indiana Deputy Clerk, Fired For Refusing To Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licences, Sues [UPDATED]

Linda Summers, a former deputy clerk in the Harrison County, Indiana Superior Court Clerk's Office, last week filed a federal court lawsuit alleging violation of her First Amendment free exercise rights. religious discrimination in employment.  The Louisville Courier Journal reports that after the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a case from Indiana upholding marriage equality, County Clerk Sally Whitis sent an e-mail to all employees telling them that even if it conflicted with their religious beliefs, they were required to process licenses for same-sex couples. Summers responded with a hand-delivered letter asking that she not be required to do so based on her religious beliefs.  She was fired for insubordination. The lawsuit seeks damages and a change in employment practices.

UPDATE: Despite the Courier Journal's quote from plaintiff's counsel that the lawsuit is "just a generic First Amendment free exercise case", now that I have a copy of the complaint it appears that the suit is based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Here is the full text of the complaint in Summers v. Whitis, (SD IN, (filed 7/17/2015).  [Thanks to Greg Lipper for the copy of the complaint.]

Cert. Petition Filed In Challenge To Non-Profit Contraceptive Coverage Accommodataion

Yesterday a petition for certiorari (full text) was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, Denver Colorado v. Burwell.  In the case, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld against RFRA and constitutional challenges the Obama Administration's Affordable Care Act accommodation for religious non-profits that object to furnishing contraceptive coverage. (See prior posting.) Becket Fund issued a press release announcing the filing of the petition for review.

Satanic Temple Chooses Detroit To Unveil Statue Aimed At Oklahoma or Arkansas Statehouse Lawns

The Detroit News reports that The Satanic Temple has chosen Detroit as the site to unveil its 9-foot tall bronze statute of the goat headed Baphomet-- a statue that it hopes to place next to an existing Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma state capitol grounds in Oklahoma City, or next to one on the Arkansas state capitol grounds in Little Rock.  The original plans for the Oklahoma location have become less certain after the Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier this month ruled that the Ten Commandments monument must be removed. (See prior posting.)  According to an interview with a Satanic Temple leader published in Wednesday's Detroit Metro Times, Detroit was chosen for the unveiling of the $100,000 sculpture because the city has a strong local chapter and is the location of The Satanic Temple's first chapter house.

Plans for the unveiling, however, have faced difficulties. The owner of the space in Detroit's Eastern Market district where the unveiling was originally planned backed out after a campaign against the statute by the pastor of Detroit's St. Matthew Baptist Church. Salon Magazine discusses at length the threats to destroy the statue posted on Facebook. So now the unveiling is scheduled for tomorrow at a location that will be revealed only to ticket holders through e-mail on the day of the event. The Satanic Temple's website-- though which tickets may be purchased-- extends an invitation reading in part:
The Satanic Temple invites you to join us for a night of chaos, noise, and debauchery at The Unveiling, a hedonistic celebration introducing the controversial Baphomet monument accompanied by provocative performances and installations.
Never before seen in public, The Satanic Temple Baphomet monument is already the most controversial and politically charged contemporary work of art in the world.... The event will serve as a call-to-arms from which we’ll kick off our largest fight to date in the name of individual rights to free exercise against self-serving theocrats.

9th Circuit Rejects Free Exercise Challenge By Pharmacies To Required Filling of Emergency Contraception RX

In Storman's, Inc. v. Wiesman, (9th Cir., July 23, 2015), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld against constitutional challenge rules of the Washington Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission that provide only limited accommodation to pharmacists and pharmacies that object on religious grounds to filling prescriptions for emergency contraception. The rules require a pharmacy to deliver all prescription medications, even if the owner of the pharmacy has a religious objection. An individual pharmacist with religious objections may refuse to fill the prescription if another pharmacist working for the pharmacy does so.

The court held that these rules are both facially and operationally neutral, and are generally applicable, so that  heightened scrutiny need not be applied to plaintiffs' free exercise challenge:
The possibility that pharmacies whose owners object to the distribution of emergency contraception for religious reasons may be burdened disproportionately does not undermine the rules’ neutrality.
The court also rejected plaintiffs' substantive due process challenge, rejecting the argument that there is a fundamental liberty interest in owning, operating or working at a licensed professional business free from regulations requiring activities that one sincerely believes lead to the taking of human life. Alliance Defense Fund immediately announced that it would appeal the court's decision. The Olympian reports on the 9th Circuit's decision.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

European Court Holds Italy Gives Inadequate Protection To Same-Sex Couples

In a Chamber judgment in Oliari and Others v. Italy, (ECHR, July 21, 2015), the European Court of Human Rights in a Chamber judgment awarded damages to three same-sex couples whose relationships were not adequately protected by Italian law.  While the award was unanimous, 3 concurring judges thought that the case could be decided on narrower grounds than did the 4-judge majority opinion.  The Court's press release describes the majority opinion in part as follows:
In previous cases, the Court had already found that the relationship of a cohabitating same-sex couple living in a stable de facto partnership fell within the notion of “family life” within the meaning of Article 8. It had also acknowledged that same-sex couples were in need of legal recognition and protection of their relationship....
The Court considered that the legal protection currently available in Italy to same-sex couples ... not only failed to provide for the core needs relevant to a couple in a stable committed relationship, but it was also not sufficiently reliable. Where registration of same-sex unions with the local authorities was possible – only in a small share of municipalities in Italy – this had merely symbolic value, as it did not confer any rights on same-sex couples. 
As regards the possibility, since December 2013, to enter into “cohabitation agreements”, such contracts were limited in scope. They failed to provide for some basic needs ... such as mutual material support, maintenance obligations and inheritance rights. The fact that cohabitation agreements were open to any set of people who were cohabiting, such as friends, flatmates or carers, showed that those agreements did not primarily aim to protect couples. Furthermore, such a contract required the couple concerned to be cohabiting, whereas the Court had already accepted that the existence of a stable union between partners was independent of cohabitation, given that many couples – whether married or in a registered partnership – experienced periods during which they conducted their relationship at long distance, for example for professional reasons.
Among the authorities cited by the majority was the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Obergefell decision. A Chamber judgment may be appealed to the Grand Chamber. Frontiers Media reporting on the decision points out that Italy is the only major Western European country that does not provide either civil partnerships or same-sex marriage.

Anti-Proselytizing Provision In Nepal Draft Constitution Creates Controversy

Reuters reports that on June 30, the government of Nepal released a preliminary draft of its first republican constitution. A new constitution was called for in a 2006 peace agreement with Maoist rebels that ended a 10-year civil war, but the process for producing and approving it has remained controversial. Yesterday's Christianity Daily reports that Christians and Muslims in the largely Hindu country are critical of a provision in the proposed new charter that prohibits religious proselytizing.  The draft provides:
No one shall behave, act, or undertake activities that breach public order or break public peace/peace in the community; and no one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardise the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law.
The provision responds in part to charges by the pro-Hindu Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal that Christians have engaged in mass forced conversions.

Sale of Mt. Soledad Memorial Site To Private Organization Completed

The  Mt. Soledad Memorial Association announced this week that it has completed the purchase from the Defense Department of the half-acre parcel on Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, California, on which the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is located. It said in part:
The sales price was $1.4 million with the all-cash transaction completed on Friday, July 17. It follows the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, signed into law by Congress and signed by the President of the United States in December 2014, calling for the sale of the property by the federal government to the Association.
The sale apparently ends the dispute-- in litigation for over 25 years-- over the constitutionality of the 43 foot high cross that is the centerpiece of the memorial.

UAE's New Law Bars Discrimination, Hate Speech and Insulting of Religion

The National reports that on Monday the United Arab Emirates adopted the Anti-Discriminatory Law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, color or ethnic origin. The new law also bans actions that promote religious hatred or insult God, his prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards. It prohibits hate speech or the promotion of discrimination or violence against others using any form of media.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

White House Honors Climate Faith Leaders

RNS reports that on Monday the White House honored 12 "Climate Faith Leaders" as part of its Champions of Change program. The White House website highlights the accomplishments of the twelve leaders-- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu-- in the environmental area.

9th Circuit: Indian Tribe's Challenge To California Geothermal Leases Can Proceed

In Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Management, (9th Cir., July 20, 2015), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's dismissal of an Indian tribe's challenge to the Bureau of Land Management's extension of 26 unproven geothermal leases in northeastern California’s Medicine Lake Highlands. Several environmental groups were also plaintiffs.  The Pit River Tribe contends that development on geothermal leases will interfere with its members use of the area for spiritual and traditional cultural purposes. The Court held that plaintiffs' claims include a challenge under a provision of the Geothermal Steam Act that requires the BLM to conduct environmental, historical, and cultural review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Sacramento Bee reports on the decision.

Plaintiff Entitled To Accommodation From Affordable Care Act's Hyde Amendment Arrangement

In Howe v. Burwell, (D VT, July 20, 2015), a Vermont federal district court dealt with yet another permutation of religious objections to provisions in the Affordable Care Act.  Under the ACA, health insurers which offer policies through state exchanges may, but are not required to, cover abortion services.  If they do, in order to comply with the Hyde amendment that bars use of federal funds to pay for abortions, the insurance company is required to segregate at least $1 per month of the premium paid by each individual and use those funds to pay for abortion services. All policies offered through the Vermont exchange have this arrangement for abortion services which plaintiff claims, among other things, violates his free exercise rights under RFRA. He objects on religious grounds to funds he is required to pay in as a premium being used to pay for others' abortions.

The court held that most of plaintiff's RFRA claims against the federal government arise out of decisions third parties, such as private insurance companies, have made. However the federal government could accommodate plaintiff by refraining from enforcement actions against any insurance company that agrees not to comply with the segregation requirement for the policy offered to plaintiff. The court went on:
The Federal Defendants have already agreed not to enforce the segregation requirement against any third party health insurer willing to offer Plaintiff health insurance coverage. Notwithstanding that agreement, because the Federal Defendants have not offered this as an accommodation under RFRA on a permanent basis, Plaintiff retains standing to request it in the form of declaratory relief. ...
Plaintiffs request for a declaratory judgment that he is entitled to non-enforcement of the segregation requirement (and the separate payment) is therefore sufficiently plausible to avoid dismissal at this stage in the proceedings.

Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Does Not Require Dismissal of Breach of Contract Claim

In Shannon v. Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church U.S., (TX App., July 21,2015), a Texas state appeals court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not applicable to a claim by former Church Elementary Ministries Director Jessica Shannon that the Church breached a confidential separation agreement she had signed. The agreement involved payment to her of $25,000 to settle her claim that she had been dismissed for making sexual harassment allegations against a Church elder. As part of the agreement, the Church and Shannon each agreed not to "disparage" the other. After Shannon was hired by the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a development officer, it called the Church for references and was told by officials that the Church would not rehire Shannon and that she would not be able to raise funds anywhere in Houston. This led the Seminary to fire Shannon on the grounds that she had misrepresented the circumstances surrounding her departure from the Church.

Shannon sued the Church, claiming among other things that it violated the non-disparagement provision. The court held in part:
We may interpret a contract in a civil law controversy in purely secular terms when doing so does not require us to rely on religious precepts or resolve a religious controversy.... Making the determination of whether the Church disparaged Shannon merely involves interpreting the contract as a matter of law and applying the facts as found by the fact finder. Moreover, under these circumstances, we are not required to intervene in the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of the Church’s clergy, address the Church’s standards of morality, or address any other matters traditionally held to involve religious doctrine.... We conclude that this lawsuit, revolving around the Church’s purported disparagement of Shannon in violation of the Agreement, is a civil law controversy in which Church officials happen to be involved.... Accordingly, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply.
The court also concluded that the trial court had erred in invoking several other grounds for dismissing Shannon's claims. It affirmed only the trial court's dismissal of Shannon's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

British House of Lords Debates Resolution On Religious Freedom

Law & Religion UK blog reports on the debate last week in the House of Lords (full text of July 16 debate) on a motion to:
[take] note of worldwide violations of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the case for greater priority to be given by the United Kingdom and the international community to upholding freedom of religion and belief.
Introducing the debate, Lord Alton said in part:
The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. Seventy years later, all over the world, from North Korea to Syria, Article 18 is honoured daily in its breach, evident in new concentration camps, abductions, rape, imprisonment, persecution, public flogging, mass murder, beheadings and the mass displacement of millions of people. Not surprisingly, the All-Party Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, in the title of its influential report, described Article 18 as “an orphaned right”....

New Jersey Archdiocese Sues Challenging Restrictions On Its Cemeteries Selling Headstones

According to the New York Times, the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark filed a federal lawsuit yesterday challenging the constitutionality of a New Jersey law (see prior posting) that bars religious groups which operate cemeteries from also selling headstones or offering various other kinds of funeral services.  The law, which takes effect next year, was enacted earlier this year in response to pressure from the trade association representing small independent companies that produce monuments and private mausoleums. Yesterday's lawsuit was filed on the Archdiocese's behalf by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that pursues cases defending economic liberty.

8th Circuit: Parents Have Standing To Challenge ACA Contraceptive Coverage Requirement For Family Policy

Yesterday the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision that could be the precursor to a new round of challenges to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate. In Wieland v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (8th Cir., July 20, 2015), the court held that parents have standing to challenge provisions preventing them from obtaining insurance coverage for their daughters under a policy that excludes coverage for contraceptives.  Prior to the Affordable Care Act, Missouri law required that health insurers offer an employer a health care plan that excludes contraceptive coverage if coverage violates the employer’s religious beliefs. Also individual enrollees were permitted to opt out of contraceptive coverage based on religious objections. In a suit brought by insurance companies, a federal district court held that these provisions were pre-empted by the Affordable Care Act.

Plaintiffs in this suit are a Missouri legislator and his wife who receive family health coverage through the state of Missouri's health plan for its employees. According to the court:
The Wielands, parents of three daughters, are committed to the health and well being of their children and thus seek to ensure that their daughters have comprehensive healthcare coverage. As devout Roman Catholics, they believe that they cannot pay for or participate in a healthcare plan that includes coverage for contraceptives or provide such coverage to their daughters without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.
National Law Journal reports on the decision.

6th Circuit: School Had Non-Retaliatory Reason To Fire Imam From Instructional Assistant Job

In Haji v. Columbus City Schools, (6th Cir., July 16, 2015), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that while a prima facie case of First Amendment retaliation was made out by a Somali Muslim imam who was fired from his position as an instructional assistant in the Columbus, Ohio public schools, his suit should be dismissed because the school system showed a non-retaliatory reason for his termination. Plaintiff Abdurahman Haji claims that he was dismissed because of remarks he made at his mosque-- captured on a YouTube video-- criticizing the school system for exposing Muslim students to the polytheistic belief system of Greek mythology.  However the court found that the dismissal was justified because of Haji's leaving early on Friday's to attend mosque services, in violation of the school's attendance policy which was enforced against Haji after the controversial video was discovered.  The court also rejected Haji's Title VII religious discrimination claim growing out of his termination and earlier disciplinary action taken against him for his criticism of actions by students that he considered inconsistent with Islam. Middle East Forum blog discussed the decision.

Religion In Schools Lawsuit Settled

The American Humanist Association announced yesterday that it has reached a settlement with the Hall County, Georgia school system in a suit that sought to enjoin prayers and religious activities that are part of the District's football and other athletic programs. (See prior posting.)  According to the AHA:
Under the settlement, the school superintendent will issue a memorandum detailing the standards for religious neutrality required by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act to the principals in all of its 36 schools. The district will host a training session before the start of the school year for administrators, who will educate staff and coaches on their constitutional duties. The district also agrees to pay the American Humanist Association’s legal fees of $22,500.
The school district also posted an announcement of the settlement, saying in part:
All parties agree it is paramount that the Constitution of the United States is protected and upheld. Furthermore, in a manner similar to the routine training provided to staff in areas such as child abuse reporting and the security of personal records, we agree that routine professional training for staff should include the legal rights and responsibilities of individuals regarding issues related to religion in the public school setting.  While public school students are guaranteed wide-ranging religious freedoms, employees’ rights are more limited when in their work settings.
The Hall County School District admits to no violations of state or federal laws. The district will continue to hold the expectation that individuals within our organization abide by the laws of our land. The Hall County School District will make no monetary compensation to the plaintiffs. Insurance carriers are negotiating all questions regarding legal fees.