Religious conservatives have won a revolutionary victory in the Supreme Court

“For the past six years, the Supreme Court’s right flank has wanted to revolutionize the law governing so-called “religious liberty” cases, in which a plaintiff who objects to following a particular law on religious grounds seeks an exemption from that law.

Late on Thanksgiving eve, in a decision handed down while much of the country was already asleep, the Court made this vision a reality. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomoa decision allowing some houses of worship to operate in defiance of New York state’s rules seeking to limit the spread of Covid-19, is one of the two most significant religion cases of the past 30 years, and may prove to be one of the most important religion decisions in the Court’s history.”

“Under the old rules, religious objectors typically could not seek exemptions from the law if granting them an exemption could harm people who do not share their faith. And the old rules were much more concerned with preserving equality between secular and religious individuals than with giving special advantages to people of faith. In the business context, for example, the Court was primarily concerned with ensuring that religious business owners did not obtain legal exemptions that would give them a leg up over their competitors.” 

Hobby Lobby established a strong presumption that when a religious objector seeks an exemption from a federal law, the objector will get that exemption barring unusual circumstances.

Yet, for reasons explained below, Hobby Lobby only benefited religious objectors who sought exemptions from a federal law. State law still applied with considerable force against religious objectors, even after Hobby Lobby.

The practical effect of Roman Catholic Diocese is that it extends the Hobby Lobby regime to a wide range of cases involving religious objections to state law. There are still technical differences between the law governing plaintiffs who seek exemptions from a federal policy and those who seek to avoid state law, but the practical differences are now thin or even potentially nonexistent.”

“The implications of this doctrinal revolution are profound. Among other things, the Court is currently weighing whether religious objectors have a right to defy laws barring discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Subsequent cases could potentially give religious conservatives a right to engage in gender discrimination, or to violate a bevy of other laws.

And, as Roman Catholic Diocese involves a challenge to state rules seeking to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, religious objectors may even prevail when their claims could endanger human life.”

“As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, until Hobby Lobby, “no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.”

Hobby Lobby was also significant for another reason. Rather than applying the watered-down version of the compelling interest test required by SherbertHobby Lobby applied the full force of strict scrutiny to the federal birth control regulation — a test that, as Justice Samuel Alito noted in his majority opinion, is “exceptionally demanding.”

Thus, Hobby Lobby effectively abandoned Lee’sholding that businesses generally must comply with the law, at least with respect to federal laws. It also held that plaintiffs with religious objections to a federal law benefit from the strong version of strict scrutiny applied to race discrimination cases — not the less rigorous test created by Sherbert.”

“the state effectively banned all public gatherings where large numbers of people gather in auditorium-like settings. It then gave a special exemption to houses of worship that allowed them to have small, limited gatherings. Whatever you think of that policy, it does not single out places of worship for inferior treatment. Indeed, it does the opposite.

  Nevertheless, a majority of the Supreme Court struck down New York’s headcount limits on houses of worship because the state’s rules treat those institutions less favorably than businesses that do not involve public gatherings in auditorium-like settings.

“In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons,” a majority of the justices explained in an unsigned opinion, “businesses categorized as ‘essential’ may admit as many people as they wish.” The opinion then lists several examples of “essential” businesses, including “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, [and] garages.”

Yet, while it is true that garages and acupuncturists are subject to different rules than churches, the reasons are hardly arbitrary. As Justice Stephen Breyer writes in dissent, “members of the scientific and medical communities tell us that the virus is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when a person or group of people talk, sing, cough, or breathe near each other.”

Large groups of people typically do not gather in an acupuncture facility for hours at a time and sing. But they do engage in such potentially dangerous activity in churches and many other houses of worship. So it makes sense that places of worship should be treated differently than businesses that bear little, if any, resemblance to those places of worship.

The point is this: Justice Breyer’s dissent suggests that a state law is a “neutral law of general applicability” so long as that law treats religious institutions the same way as similar secular institutions. The majority opinion, by contrast, suggests that a law is suspect if a court can find any example of a secular institution that is treated differently than a religious institution.”

“the implications of this decision are likely to be profound. It means that, when someone objects to a law on religious grounds, they will typically be exempt from the law unless the law survives strict scrutiny, because it is very easy to find secular exemptions to even the most unobjectionable laws.

A state’s ban on murder, for example, may have an exemption for people who kill in self-defense. State bans on animal cruelty typically permit livestock to be slaughtered for food. Laws banning individuals from possessing machine guns still permit members of the military to carry such weapons as part of their service. The tax code is absolutely riddled with provisions allowing people not to pay some part of their federal taxes if, for example, they have a mortgage or are raising a child.

Does this mean that the Supreme Court is likely to permit religious objectors to kill? Or to refuse to pay taxes? Or to allow them to torture animals (provided that the state’s ban on animal cruelty doesn’t single out people of faith for inferior treatment)? Most likely not. Among other things, such laws would still be enforceable so long as they survive strict scrutiny — meaning that the law uses the “least restrictive means” to advance a “compelling governmental interest.”

But the new approach announced in Roman Catholic Diocese suggests that any law is subject to strict scrutiny if a religious objector can point to any exemption to that law. And, as Winkler’s research shows, the overwhelming majority of laws subject to full-bore strict scrutiny fail that test.”

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