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Supreme Court May Decide Another Gay Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: October 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Melissa and Aaron Klein, proprietors of the now-defunct “Sweetcakes by Melissa” custom-cake business in Gresham, Oregon, filed a petition for certiorari on October 19, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the $135,000 penalty imposed by Oregon authorities for their refusal to make a wedding cake for Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman in January 2013. Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. ____ , seeking review of Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 410 P.3d 1051, 289 Or. App. 507 (2017), rev. denied by Oregon Supreme Court, June 21, 2018.  The Kleins claim in their Petition that the Oregon ruling violates their constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

The Kleins also claim that they did not discriminate against the lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation, contrary to the finding of the Commission that was affirmed by the state appeals court. And, perhaps most consequentially, they asked the Supreme Court to consider whether to overrule Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, which holds that the Free Exercise Clause does not exempt people with religious objections from complying with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religious practices.

The Kleins ask the Court to revisit a controversy it confronted last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  Both Oregon and Colorado forbid businesses in the state from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation.  In Masterpiece, baker Jack Phillips refused, initially on religious grounds, to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple, and Colorado officials found that he had violated the law, rejecting his First Amendment defense.  In his appeal of the Colorado Court of Appeals’ ruling affirming the Commission, Phillips asserted protection under both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, claiming that the government may not compel a “cake artist” to express a message contrary to his religious beliefs, both as a matter of freedom not to speak and protection for religious freedom.

The Court did not rule directly on these questions in disposing of Phillips’ appeal, instead deciding that comments by some of the Colorado Civil Rights Commissioners, and the Commission’s rejection of some other discrimination claims filed by a provocateur who charged bakers with discriminating against him by refusing to make explicitly anti-gay cakes, showed that the state had not afforded an appropriately “neutral forum” to Phillips for consideration of his defense. On that basis, the Court reversed the state court and commission rulings and dismissed the case against Phillips.  However, in his opinion for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy reaffirmed that people and businesses do not enjoy a general free exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religion.  Kennedy’s opinion avoided dealing with Phillips’ argument that as a “cake artist” he also had a valid free speech claim.  Two justices dissented, while others concurred in the result.

Justice Kennedy cited Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400 (1968), to support the Free Exercise point.  In that case, a restaurant owner cited his religious beliefs to refuse to comply with Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids businesses affecting commerce from refusing to serve customers because of their race.  The Supreme Court affirmed the 4th Circuit, which had reversed the district court’s refusal to enjoin the restaurant’s discriminatory policy.  Kennedy could have just as well cited Employment Division v. Smith, which the Colorado Commission’s Administrative Law Judge had cited in his Masterpiece ruling, but Piggie Park may have seemed more apposite, as it involved enforcement of a general anti-discrimination law over religious objections. Smith, by contrast, involved a Native American man who had consumed peyote in a religious ritual and subsequently flunked his employer’s drug test, suffering discharge and denial of unemployment benefits.  The Supreme Court rejected Smith’s religious freedom challenge to his disqualification for benefits, finding that the incidental burden this posed on his free exercise of religion did not excuse him from complying with his employer’s lawful policy against employee drug use or require that an exception be made to the state’s unemployment insurance law, which denies benefits to employees discharged “for cause.” In a concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch (joined by Justice Clarence Thomas) described the Smith ruling as “controversial,” implying that it deserved reconsideration.

The Kleins have followed up on Gorsuch’s signal by asking the Court to reconsider Smith or, alternatively, to “reaffirm” some comments Justice Antonin Scalia made in his opinion for the 5-4 Court majority in Smith, suggesting that when somebody raises a free exercise of religion claim in a case that also implicates “other fundamental rights,” such as freedom of speech, the Court should apply “strict scrutiny” to the challenged state action in order to vindicate the other fundamental right.  The Klein’s Petition points out that lower federal courts are divided about whether to follow Scalia’s suggestion for handling so-called “hybrid rights” cases – a suggestion the Oregon Court of Appeals expressly rejected in the Kleins’ case — and urges the Court to resolve a split of lower court authority by taking this case.

The Klein’s Petition also argues that they did not discriminate against Cryer and Bowman because of their sexual orientation; they would refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer who sought this service. They related that just a few years earlier, they had produced a wedding cake ordered by this very lesbian couple, to celebrate the marriage of Rachel’s mother to a man, and that it was because Rachel and Laurel “liked the Kleins’ work so much that they wanted to commission a custom cake from Sweetcakes for their own wedding.”  The Petition also notes that the women quickly found another baker to make their wedding cake, and that a celebrity chef even gave them a second custom-designed cake for free.

On the other hand, it was reported that when the Kleins posted about the discrimination claim on their Facebook.com page, showing the image of the actual discrimination charge with contact information for the lesbian couple, the women received nasty messages, including death threats, which contributed to the Oregon Bureau’s decision to assess substantial damages for emotional distress.

The Kleins devote a large part of their Petition to arguing that they are “cake artists” whose creations are expressive works, entitling them to the same vigorous constitutional free speech protection normally provided to artists in less digestible media. As such, they claim the Oregon court erred in failing to apply strict scrutiny to the Bureau’s decision against them, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects an individual’s refusal to speak a message with which they disagree, the prime example being the Court’s unanimous decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), in which, overruling a 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the Court held that parade organizers had a right to exclude a group whose message they did not desire to include in their parade, which the Court deemed to be a “quintessential expressive association.”  Whether the Court is willing to deem baking a wedding cake the free speech equivalent of staging a parade with thousands of people on a state holiday is an interesting question.

If the Court grants the Petition, the most consequential issue could be the Kleins’ challenge to Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court cast aside decades of First Amendment precedent to hold that general laws that place a heavy burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion must generally be obeyed nonetheless.  Under prior rulings, the government had the heavy burden of meeting the “compelling government interest” test in order to justify applying a general law that incidentally but substantially burdened somebody’s free exercise of religion.

Justice Gorsuch was correct in calling Smith a “controversial” decision. Congress was so incensed by Justice Scalia’s opinion (which drew dissents from liberal members of the Court) that a bipartisan coalition soon passed the first version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), introduced by Chuck Schumer (House) and Ted Kennedy (Senate) and eagerly signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993.  RFRA provided that any law imposing a substantial burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion could be challenged using the strict scrutiny standard.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Congress did not have authority to overrule the Court’s constitutional ruling, but the Court later upheld a revised version of RFRA that applied only to federal laws that burden religious free exercise, holding that Congress could create a legislative exception to federal laws when they incidentally impose a substantial burden on religious exercise.  Federal RFRA provided the example for more than twenty states to pass their own versions, similarly restricting the application of their state and local laws.  State court decisions in several other states have interpreted their state constitutional religious freedom provisions to the same effect, rejecting the Supreme Court’s narrower interpretation of Free Exercise in Smith.

If the Supreme Court were to overrule Smith and restore the previous precedents, RFRA and its state counterparts would be rendered superfluous, as the First Amendment would once more restrict states from enforcing general laws that substantially burden a person or business’s free exercise of religion in the absence of a compelling state interest.  The impact on LGBT rights could be enormous, prompting new claims that application of anti-discrimination laws to people and businesses with religious objections to LGBT people violates the businesses’ constitutional rights – one of the claims the Kleins are pursuing in this case.

Oregon state officials have thirty days to file a response to the Petition, and Petitioners can file a Reply to the Response, which means that the Supreme Court’s file in the case will not be completed for consideration by the Court until at least early December and maybe longer if the Oregon Attorney General’s Office requests an extension of time to respond. But if the petition is granted in December, that would leave plenty of time for the Court to hear arguments and render a decision during its current term, which runs through the end of June.

Illinois Federal Court Allows Discharged Gay Organist to Pursue ADA Hostile Environment Claim against Archdiocese of Chicago

Posted on: October 2nd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang ruled on September 30 that Sandor Demokovich, a church organist and choir director who was fired from his position at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, after marrying his same-sex partner, may pursue a hostile environment disability harassment claim against his former employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168584 (N.D. Ill.).  In previous motion practice, Judge Chang found that Title VII and state and local antidiscrimination claims against the defendants for discriminatory discharge because of his sexual orientation and marital status are barred by the “ministerial exception” recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  In this ruling, he found that claims of hostile environment harassment because of the plaintiff’s sex, sexual orientation and marital status are also barred, due to Free Exercise and Establishment Clause concerns.

Demkovich began working as Music Director, Choir Director and Organist at St. Andrew in September 2012, and was fired in September 2014. His immediate supervisor, Reverend Jacek Dada, St. Andrew’s pastor, knew that Demkovich was gay and that he was engaged to another man, and, according to Demkovich’s allegations, subjected him to abusive and harassing behavior, which built to a crescendo as the date of Demkovich’s impending wedding approached.  Witnesses averred that Dada told them he would fire Demkovich if Demkovich married, and he was true to his word.  In addition, Demkovich, who had an obvious weight problem traceable to his struggles with diabetes, also suffered under Dada’s unwelcome comments about his weight and medical condition.  “Reverend Dada made harassing remarks about Demkovich’s weight, often urging him to walk Dada’s dog to lose weight, and telling Demkovich that he needed to lose weight because Dada did not want to preach at his funeral,” wrote Chang, summarizing the allegations in the complaint.  “Dada also repeatedly complained about the cost of keeping Demkovich on the parish’s health and dental insurance plans because of his weight and diabetes.  In 2012, when Demkovich declined a dinner invitation from Dada because he did not have his insulin with him, Dada asked if Demkovich was diabetic and told him that he needed to ‘get his weight under control’ to help eliminate his need for insulin.”

Being an organist and choir director seems to be a profession that attracts gay men, to judge by the number of cases we have seen over the years, including some of the earliest sexual orientation discrimination cases. Lawsuits challenging dismissals of gay church organists and choir directors almost invariably founder on the courts’ solicitude for defenses based on the First Amendment protection of the decisions by churches about whom to employ in positions directly implicated in carrying out their religious mission, and there is little disagreement among those judges who have faced the question that a church organist and choir director plays a ministerial role in the life of a church.  As to that, Judge Chang found that Demkovich’s concession that his is a “minister” for this purpose precludes his pursuit of wrongful discharge discrimination claims, whether premised on Title VII and the ADA or similar state or local laws, based on the Supreme Court’s determination that the government should never be involved in telling a church whom to employ as a minister.

However, Chang found, the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor case was a discharge case, and can be read to be limited to discrimination claims with respect to tangible employment issues, such as hiring, promotion, assignments, compensation. The Court spoke in that case about the right of a church to decide whom to employ as its minister, but not necessarily how that individual would be treated based on characteristics other than their religion, as to which Title VII provides for an express exception allowing religious institution employers to establish religious criteria for employment.  On the other hand, he found, one must resort to circuit court precedent to determine whether the ministerial exemption should also bar hostile environment harassment claims by a ministerial employee against a religious employer.  Since these claims involve “intangible” harms, he concluded that it was possible that the ministerial exception does not apply to them.  Instead, on a case-by-case basis, the court would have to determine whether allowing a hostile environment claim to go forward would raise significant 1st Amendment free exercise or establishment concerns.

As to this, he concluded, given the Catholic Church’s well-known public opposition to same-sex marriage, alleging a hostile environment based mainly on adverse comments by a supervisor about an employee’s proposed same-sex marriage would intrude unduly into the 1st Amendment rights of the church, thus ruling out that claim as well. “Although the ministerial exception does not bar Demkovich’s hostile-environment claims (to repeat, he does not challenge a tangible employment action), the Court concludes that litigation over Reverend Dada’s alleged harassment based on Demkovich’s sex, sexual orientation, and marital status would excessively entangle the government in religion.”  He noted that defendants offered a “religious justification for the alleged derogatory remarks and other harassment: they ‘reflect the pastor’s opposition, in accord with Catholic doctrine, to same sex marriage,’” he wrote.

“Whether Catholicism in fact dictates opposition to same-sex marriage is not subject to court scrutiny,” wrote the judge, quoting 7th Circuit authority to the effect that “once the court has satisfied itself that the authorized religious body has resolve dthe issue, the court may not question the resolution.”  Furthermore, he observed, the Church’s “official opposition to gay marriage is commonly known (nor does Demkovich question it), and there is no reason to question the sincerity of the Archdiocese’s belief that the opposition is dictated by Church doctrine.”  Also, Demkovich’s ministerial role “weighs in favor of more protection of the Church under the First Amendment,” he continued, noting that “the church has absolute say in who will be its ministers.”  Chang pointed out several different ways in which allowing this hostile environment claim to proceed would raise Establishment Clause as well as Free Exercise Clause problems.

On the other hand, found Chang, there seemed no salient 1st Amendment concern in allowing Demkovich to pursue a hostile environment disability claim under the ADA, assuming that hostile environment claims are actionable under that statute – an issue not yet addressed by the Supreme Court.  Although the Church’s ministerial exemption bars suing it about a decision concerning whom to employ as a minister, wrote Chang, it was hard to discern a First Amendment right of the Church that would be abridged by questioning the disability-related hostile treatment of a minister whom the Church was willing to employee.

He wrote, “The Court first notes that the Seventh Circuit has not yet expressly decided that the ADA ever permits a hostile work environment claim. Instead, the Seventh Circuit has assumed – in both published and unpublished decisions – that there is such a claim under the ADA.  In light of the similarity between Title VII and the ADA in protection against discriminatory workplace conditions, this Court too assumes that the ADA does provide for hostile work environment claims.  When analyzing hostile work environment claims under the ADA, the Seventh Circuit has ‘assumed that the standards for proving such a claim would mirror those established for claims of hostile work environment under Title VII.”

Significantly, he noted, the Archdiocese “offers no religious explanation for the alleged disability discrimination. The Archdiocese justifies [Rev. Dada]’s comments as ‘reflecting the pastor’s subjective views and/or evaluation of Plaintiff’s fitness for his position as a minister.’  But this is not a religious justification based on any Church doctrine or belief, at least as proffered so far by the defense.  So the disability claim does not pose the same dangers to religious entanglement as the sex, sexual orientation, and marital-status claims.  Nothing in discovery should impose on religious doctrine on this claim.  Rather, the inquiry will make secular judgments on the nature and severity of the harassment (and whether it even happened), as well as what, if anything, the Archdiocese did to prevent or correct it.  The Religious Clauses do not bar Demkovich from pursuing the hostile-environment claims based on disability.”

The Archdiocese had also argued that “the alleged conduct was not severe or pervasive, was not physically threatening, and is not alleged to have altered the terms and conditions of Plaintiff’s employment,” but Chang noted that “this case is at the pleading stage, so Demkovich need not plead more facts than necessary to give the Archdiocese ‘fair notice of his claims and the grounds upon which those claims rest, and the details in his Amended Complaint present a story that holds together.’”  Judge Chang found that the allegations thus far were sufficient to place a hostile environment claim in issue for purposes of defeating a motion to dismiss.

Thus, the bottom line is that defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted as to the hostile environment claims based on sex, sexual orientation, and marital status, but denied as to the claims based on disability.”

Demkovich is represented by Kristina Buchthal Regal of Lavelle Law, Ltd., Palatine, IL.

Trump Administration Issues Directive Authorizing Federal Contractors to Discriminate Based on Religious Beliefs

Posted on: August 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Acting Director Craig E. Leen of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor that is responsible for enforcing the non-discrimination policies with which federal contractors must comply, issued a “Directive” to agency staff and federal contractors on August 10, construing three recent Supreme Court decisions and two Trump Executive Orders to allow contractors to discriminate in carrying out their contracts based on their religious beliefs.

The first decision cited by Leen is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court’s June 4, 2018, ruling that reversed a lower court decision against a Denver-area baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Supreme Court did not rule in Masterpiece Cakeshop that businesses have a general right to deny services to gay couples based on the owners’ religious beliefs, however.  The Court finessed that issue, finding instead that the lower court’s ruling had to be reversed because the Court discerned evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had exhibited overt hostility to religion in its treatment of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couples based on his religious objections to same-sex marriage.  The evidence for this “hostility” boiled down to public statements by two commissioners, one of whom accurately summarized the legal rule that religious beliefs do not excuse a business from complying with state anti-discrimination law, and the other characterizing as “ugly” the use of religion to justify discrimination.  Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision for the Court emphasized that generally businesses do not enjoy a right to discriminate based on the owners’ religious beliefs, and that a “neutral forum” free of overt hostility to religion could enforce the anti-discrimination laws against a religious objector.

Kennedy’s ruling also contended that Phillips could have believed he was entitled to decline the business because, at the time, same-sex marriages were not allowed or recognized in Colorado, and that the Commission had evinced hostility to religion by dismissing charges brought by a man who was turned down by several bakers who refused his request to make cakes decorated with religiously-based anti-gay scriptural quotes and slogans. The Court’s majority apparently believed the Commission was insufficiently evenhanded in dealing with cases involving religious views.

But Leen’s directive, consistent with two Trump Executive Orders and a Memorandum issued last fall by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reorients the issue as “discrimination” against religious individuals when they are required to comply with non-discrimination requirements that conflict with their religious beliefs. “Recent court decisions have addressed the broad freedoms and anti-discrimination protections that must be afforded religion-exercising organizations and individuals under the United States Constitution and federal law,” he wrote, painting individuals and businesses who want their religious beliefs to take priority over any contrary legal obligations as “victims.”

Twisting recent Supreme Court opinions to support this assertion, Leen summarized Masterpiece Cakeshop as holding that “the government violates the Free Exercise clause when its decisions are based on hostility to religion or a religious viewpoint.” He summarized Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, In., v. Comer (2017), in which the Court held that a state could not categorically disqualify religious organizations from receiving state funds for non-religious purposes, as holding that the “government violates the Free Exercise clause when it conditions a generally available public benefit on an entity’s giving up its religious character, unless that condition withstands the strictest scrutiny.”  That case involved the state’s denial of funds to a religious school for repaving its playground, based on a state constitutional provision against providing taxpayer money to religious institutions.  Finally, Leen summarized the Supreme Court’s notorious Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling (2014), a 5-4 decision, as holding that “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to federal regulation of the activities of for-profit closely held corporations.”   That case involved a demand by a business corporation owned by a small group of devout Catholics that they should not have to provide contraception coverage for their employees as required by regulations under the Affordable Care Act.  Very few federal contractors subject to federal anti-discrimination rules, which apply only to substantial federal contracts, are “closely held corporations,” so that characterization of RFRA does not seem particularly applicable to the cases where this Directive is likely to be implicated.

Leen also cited Trump’s Executive Order 13831, which states, “The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs and other Federal funding opportunities,” and Trump’s Executive Order 13798, which says, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. . .  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.”  Sessions’ memorandum ran with these directives, asserting that the government should generally refrain from enforcing federal laws against people and businesses that have religious objections to complying with them.

The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff and notifies federal contractors that, in essence, they can discriminate in employing people or providing services under federal contracts if they are doing so based on their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court arguably opened the door to this kind of thinking in the Hobby Lobby and Trinity Lutheran cases, but it is rather a stretch to cite Masterpiece Cakeshop for this purpose, in light of Justice Kennedy’s invocation of Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a 1968 case that held that a southern barbecue restaurant chain could not refuse to serve black customers based on the owner’s religious belief in racial segregation, as well as Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 case that held that people do not enjoy a Free Exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that are on their face neutral with respect to religion.

Writing for the Court in Employment Division, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that allowing individuals to claim exemptions from the law based on their individual religious beliefs unless the government could prove that it had a compelling interest was not required by the First Amendment. “Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger increases in direct proportion to the society’s diversity of religious beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them,” he wrote.  Although the Court’s holding was unanimous in that case, four justices concurred in an opinion arguing that Scalia had gone too far in contending, for a majority of the Court, that there was no need for the government to show there was an important government interest that justified burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion – in that case, a Native American who was denied unemployment benefits when he was fired after he flunked the employer’s drug test due to his ritual use of peyote.

Enforcing religiously-neutral anti-discrimination rules is not “hostility to religion” by the government. It is undertaken to prevent categorical discrimination against applicants and employees or those seeking government-funded benefits or services, because of their personal characteristics, such as race, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.  Notably, the federal laws and regulations that OFCCP is supposed to enforce do not apply to government contractors that are religious corporations or associations or religious educational institutions, “with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”

This “Directive” is not a regulation adopted in accordance with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, and Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby, responding to concerns raised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion, denied that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be invoked as a defense in an employment discrimination case. How this will all play out if OFCCP refuses to hold contractors to their non-discrimination requirements in situations involving LGBT victims of religiously-motivated discrimination is yet to be seen, but the portents are not good in light of Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where, if confirmed, he would join the conservative majority in place of Justice Kennedy.  It is also worth noting that in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, implied that the Court should reconsider its holding in Employment Division v. Smith.

Kennedy Retirement from Supreme Court May Doom LGBT Rights Agenda

Posted on: June 27th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s announcement on June 27 that he would retire from active service on the U.S. Supreme Court as of July 31, 2018, opening up a vacancy for President Donald J. Trump to fill with the assistance of the bare majority of Republican United States Senators, portends a serious setback for LGBT rights in the years ahead. Kennedy cast a crucial vote and wrote powerfully emotional opinions to establish the dignity of LGBT people under the Constitution’s 5th and 14th Amendments.  Justice Kennedy will be remembered as the author of four major Supreme Court opinions that worked a revolution in United States constitutional law concerning the rights of sexual minorities.

Before his opinion for the Court in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, was announced on May 20, 1996, the Court had never ruled in favor of gay litigants in an Equal Protection Case.   In Romer, the Court invalidated a Colorado constitutional amendment, adopted in a voter initiative that banned the state from protecting gay people from discrimination.  Kennedy condemned the measure as an attempt to render gay people as “strangers to the law,” and found it to be an obvious violation of equal protection, leading Justice Scalia to complain in dissent that the Court’s opinion was inconsistent with its ruling a decade earlier that sodomy laws were constitutional.

Before his opinion for the Court in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, was announced on June 26, 2003, the Court had never used the Due Process Clause to strike down an anti-gay law. In Lawrence, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, by making private consensual adult gay sex a crime, had unconstitutionally abridged the liberty of gay people.  (Justice O’Connor concurred in an opinion focused solely on the equal protection clause.)  This time, Justice Scalia’s dissent denounced the Court’s opinion as opening the path to same-sex marriage.

His opinions in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), established a right to marriage equality for LGBT people in the United States, the most populous nation so far to allow same-sex couples to marry. In Windsor, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Defense of Marriage Act, a statute requiring the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were valid under state law, violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment, emphasizing the affront to the dignity of gay married couples.  In dissent, of course, Justice Scalia accused the Court of providing a framework for lower courts to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage.  Scalia’s dissent was prophetic, as just two years later the Court ruled in Obergefell that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of Due Process and Equal Protection required the states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize such marriages for all legal purposes.  In the intervening years, lower courts had cited and quoted from Kennedy’s Windsor opinion (and Scalia’s dissent) in finding bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  Kennedy’s vote with the majority in the per curiam ruling in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), reinforced Obergefell’s holding that couples in same-sex marriages enjoyed the “full constellation” of rights associated with marriage, as did his vote in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), affirming that states were obligated to extend full faith and credit to second-parent adoptions granted by the courts of other states.

Justice Kennedy also joined the majority in a concurring opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a 1st Amendment challenge to a public university law school’s refusal to extend official recognition to a student group that overtly discriminated against gay students.

When LGBT litigants lost Kennedy’s vote, however, they lost the Court. In his most recent LGBT-related decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018 WL 2465172, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3386 (June 4, 2018), while reiterating his concern for the dignity of gay people to be able to participate without discrimination in the public marketplace, Kennedy could not bring himself to reject the religious free exercise claims of a Christian baker, and so engineered an “off ramp” by embracing a dubious argument that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was so overtly hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs that he had been deprived of a “neutral forum” to decide his case.  Thus, Kennedy was able to assemble a 7-2 vote to overturn the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in that case, without directly ruling on whether the baker’s religious objections would override the non-discrimination requirements of Colorado law, leading to oversimplified media headlines suggesting that the baker had a 1st Amendment right to refuse to make the cake.

Kennedy also joined the majority (without writing) in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), a 5-4 ruling holding that the Boy Scouts had a 1st Amendment right to deny membership to an out gay Assistant Scoutmaster, based on BSA’s rights of free speech and expressive association. He was part of the unanimous Courts that rejected a constitutional challenge to the Solomon Amendment, a law denying federal money to schools that barred military recruiters (mainly because of the Defense Department’s anti-gay personnel policies), in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), and that, reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, held that a gay Irish-American group could be barred from marching in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995).  However, in those cases all of the more liberal members of the Court joined in the unanimous opinions, so Kennedy’s vote did not make a difference to the outcome.

While Justice Kennedy’s majority opinions in the major LGBT rights cases were triumphs for LGBT rights, they were not viewed as unalloyed triumphs in the halls of legal academe. Commentators who agreed with the results were frequently harshly critical of Kennedy’s opinions in terms of their articulation of legal reasoning and doctrinal development.  The Romer decision left many scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether the Court had applied some sort of “heightened scrutiny” to the Colorado constitutional amendment, puzzled about the precedential meaning of the ruling for later LGBT-related equal protection challenges.  There was similar criticism of the opinions in Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell.  Kennedy failed to use the doctrinal terminology familiar to constitutional law scholars and students, such as “suspect classification,” “heightened scrutiny,” “compelling state interest” and the like, leaving doubt about the potential application of these rulings.  Indeed, three justices dissenting in Pavan v Smith in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch claimed that the Court’s Obergefell ruling had left undecided the question in Pavan – whether Arkansas had to list lesbian co-parents on birth certificates – and the Texas Supreme Court expressed similar doubts about the extent of Windsor and Obergefell in refusing to put an end to a dispute about whether the city of Houston had to extend employee benefits eligibility to the same-sex spouses of city employees.  While some courts, such as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saw Kennedy’s opinions as extending protected class status to gay people for equal protection purposes, others insisted that those rulings had produced no such precedent.

Justice Kennedy’s retirement effective July 31, 2018, seemed to signal a likely retreat from LGBT rights leadership by the Supreme Court. Assuming that President Trump will nominate and the Republican majority in the Senate will confirm a justice with the ideological and doctrinal profiles of Neil Gorsuch or Samuel Alito, the crucial fifth vote to make a pro-LGBT majority would most likely be missing, although Supreme Court appointments are a tricky business.  In the past, some presidents have been astounded at the subsequent voting records of their appointees.  President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of William J. Brennan one of the worst mistakes of his presidency, as Brennan went on to be a leader of the Court’s left wing.  Had he lived long enough to see it, President John F. Kennedy might have been similarly disappointed by the rightward drift of Byron R. White, his nominee who wrote the blatantly homophobic decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), that upheld Georgia’s felony sodomy law, calling a claim to constitutional protection by gay people “at best facetious.”  President Richard Nixon was undoubtedly disappointed with the leftward drift of Harry Blackmun, author of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), the Court’s key abortion rights decision, and vigorous dissenter in Bowers v. Hardwick.  President Ronald Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy assuming he would provide a vote to strike down abortion rights, but Kennedy was part of a moderate Republican coalition (joining with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter) that joined with the remaining Democratic appointees to reaffirm those rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).  President George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Souter ended up being a massive disappointment to conservatives, as Souter frequently voted with the Democratic appointees and the leftward veering John Paul Stevens, who had been appointed by President Gerald Ford and ended up being much more liberal than expected.  Souter was so disillusioned by the Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), handing the presidency to George W. Bush after Albert Gore decisively won the national popular vote and may well have been entitled to the Florida electoral votes needed to put him over the top, that he retired from the Court prematurely.

In other words, the past records of Supreme Court nominees are not inevitably accurately predictive prologues to how they will vote on the Court over the long term. Supreme Court justices frequently serve for several decades (Kennedy’s service stretched over 30 years), and the looming constitutional issues at the time of their appointment are inevitably replaced by new, unanticipated issues over the course of their service.  Also, the Supreme Court is like no other court in the United States, in which the constraints of precedent faced by lower court judges are significantly loosened, since the Supreme Court can reverse its prior holdings, and in which theories and trends in constitutional and statutory interpretation evolve over time.  The examples of Brennan, Souter and Kennedy have caused the confirmation process to change drastically, and the possibility of an appointee turning out a total surprise appears diminished, but it is not entirely gone.  One can hope that a Trump appointee will not be totally predictable in the Alito/Gorsuch orbit, although that may be unduly optimistic when it comes to LGBT issues.  In his first full term on the Court, Justice Gorsuch has not cast 100 predictable votes. . .

Arizona Appeals Court Cites Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision to Rule Out 1st Amendment Exemptions for Stationary Company

Posted on: June 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

The precedential meaning of a Supreme Court decision depends on how lower courts interpret it.  The media reported the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling as a “win” for baker Jack Phillips, since the court reversed the discrimination rulings against him by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  But the opinion has a deeper significance than a superficial “win” or “loss” can capture, as the Arizona Court of Appeals demonstrated just days later in its rejection of a claim that a company that designs artwork for weddings and other special events can refuse to design and provide goods for same-sex weddings.

 

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the same anti-LGBT legal outfit that represented Jack Phillips before the Supreme Court, represents Brush & Nib Studio, LC, a for-profit company that sells both pre-fabricated and specially designed artwork.  The company provides retail goods and services to the public, so it comes within the coverage of the city of Phoenix, Arizona’s, public accommodations anti-discrimination ordinance.

 

Although Brush & Nib had not received any requests to produce invitations for a same-sex wedding since such marriages became legal in Arizona, the owners had determined, based on their religious beliefs, that they would not provide their goods and services for such ceremonies.  Represented by ADF, they sued in the state trial court in Phoenix, seeking a preliminary injunction to bar enforcement of the ordinance against them in case such a customer should materialize in the future.

 

As described in the Court of Appeals’ opinion by Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop, the owners “believe their customer-directed and designed wedding products ‘convey messages about a particular engaged couple, their upcoming marriage, their upcoming marriage ceremony, and the celebration of that marriage.”  And they did not want any part of it.  They “also strongly believe in an ordained marriage between one man and one woman, and argue that they cannot separate their religious beliefs from their work.  As such, they believe being required to create customer-specific merchandise for same-sex weddings will violate their religious beliefs.”

 

They not only wanted to be assured that they could reject such business without risking legal liability; they also wanted to post a public statement explaining their religious beliefs, including a statement that they would not create any artwork that “promotes any marriage except marriage between one man and one woman.”  They haven’t posted such a statement yet out of concern that it would violate a provision of the Phoenix ordinance, which forbids a business from posting or making any communication that “states or implies that any facility or services shall be refused or restricted because of . . . sexual orientation . . . ,  or that any person, because of . . . sexual orientation . . . would be unwelcome, objectionable, unacceptable, undesirable, or not solicited.”

 

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen Mullins rejected the motion for preliminary injunction, finding that the business did not enjoy a constitutional exemption.  The Court of Appeals held up ruling on ADF’s appeal until the Supreme Court issued its Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling on June 4, then quickly incorporated references to it into the opinion by Judge Winthrop issued on June 7.

 

After reviewing the unbroken string of state appellate court rulings from around the country that have rejected religious and free speech exemption claims in such cases over the past several years, Judge Winthrop wrote: “In light of these cases and consistent with the United States Supreme Court’s decisions, we recognize that a law allowing Appellants to refuse service to customers based on sexual orientation would constitute a ‘grave and continuing harm,’” citing the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

 

He continued with a lengthy quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme court in Masterpiece Cakeshop:

“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. As this Court observed in Obergefell v. Hodges, ‘[t]he First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.’ Nevertheless, while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law. See Newman v. Piggy [Piggie] Park Enterprises, Inc. (1968) (per curiam); see also Hurley v. Irish–American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc. (1995) (‘Provisions like these are well within the State’s usual power to enact when a legislature has reason to believe that a given group is the target of discrimination, and they do not, as a general matter, violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments’).”

 

The cases cited by Justice Kennedy in the quoted paragraph evidently sent a strong message for lower courts. Piggie Park is a classic early decision under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, holding that a restaurant owner’s religious opposition to racial integration could not excuse him from serving people of color in his barbecue restaurant.  Hurley was the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade case from Boston, where the Supreme Court upheld the 1st Amendment right of parade organizers to exclude a gay Irish group from marching under their own banner proclaiming their gay identity.  The quoted language from that decision made clear that state’s may pass laws forbidding sexual orientation discrimination by businesses, but in this case the Court found that the parade organizers were not a business selling goods and services, but rather the non-profit organizers of an expressive activity who had a right to determine what their activity would express.

 

The points are clear: States can forbid businesses from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation, and businesses with religious objections will generally have to comply with the non-discrimination laws. The “win” for baker Jack Phillips involved something else entirely: the Supreme Court’s perception that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission did not give Phillips a fair hearing because members of the Commission made public statements denigrating his religious beliefs at the hearing.  Justice Kennedy insisted for the court that a litigant’s dignity requires that the tribunal deciding his case be neutral and not overtly hostile to his religious beliefs, and that was the reason for reversing the state court and the state agency.  Kennedy’s discussion of the law clearly pointed in the other direction, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed in her dissent.  And the Arizona Court of Appeals clearly got that message.

 

Turning to ADF’s free speech argument, Justice Winthrop wrote, “Appellants argue that [the ordinance] compels them to speak in favor of same-sex marriages. We disagree.  Although [it] may have an incidental impact on speech, its main purpose is to prohibit discrimination, and thus [it] regulates conduct, not speech.”

 

The court found this case similar to Rumsfeld v. FAIR, a case in which the Supreme Court rejected a free speech challenge by an organization of law schools to a federal law that required schools to host military recruiters at a time when the Defense Department’s policies discriminated against gay people. The law schools claimed that complying with the law would violate their 1st Amendment rights, but the Supreme Court said that the challenged law did not limit what the schools could say, rather what they could do; that is, conduct, not speech.

 

“We find Rumsfeld controlling in this case,” wrote Winthrop. The court found that the “primary purpose” of the city ordinance is to “prohibit places of public accommodation from discriminating based on certain protected classes, i.e., sexual orientation, not to compel speech. . .  Like Rumsfeld, [the ordinance] requires that places of public accommodation provide equal services if they want to operate their business.  While such a requirement may impact speech, such as prohibiting places of public accommodation from posting signs that discriminate against customers, this impact is incidental to property regulated conduct.”

 

Further distinguishing this case from the Hurley decision, the court said that requiring the business to comply with the law “does not render their creation of design-to-order merchandise for same-sex weddings expressive conduct. The items Appellants would produce for a same-sex or opposite-sex wedding would likely be indistinguishable to the public.  Take for instance an invitation to the marriage of Pat and Pat (whether created for Patrick and Patrick, or Patrick and Patricia), or Alex and Alex (whether created for Alexander and Alexander, or Alexander and Alexa).  This invitation would not differ in creative expression.  Further, it is unlikely that a general observer would attribute a company’s product or offer of services, in compliance with the law, as indicative of the company’s speech or personal beliefs.  The operation of a stationery store – including the design and sale of customized wedding event merchandise – is not expressive conduct, and thus, is not entitled to First Amendment free speech protection.”

 

The court also rejected an argument that the ordinance violated the right of expressive association. “We do not dispute that some aspects of Appellants’ operation of Brush & Nib may implicated speech in some regard,” wrote Justice Winthrop, “but the primary purpose of Brush & Nib is not to convey a particular message but rather to engage in commercial sales activity.  Thus, Appellants’ operation of Brush & Nib is not the type of expressive association that the First Amendment is intended to protect.”  Certainly not like a parade, which the court in Hurley described as a “quintessential” expressive activity.

 

However, the court found that the portion of the ordinance dealing with forbidden communications used vague language that was overbroad and unclear about which statements might constitute violations. “We are unable to interpret [the ordinance’s] use of the words ‘unwelcome,’ ‘objectionable,’ ‘unacceptable,’ and ‘undesirable’ in a way that would render [it] constitutional,” wrote Winthrop.  “The presence of one invalid prohibition, however, does not invalidate all of [the ordinance].”

 

“Here, by striking the second half [of the offending section] – which bans an owner of a place of public accommodation from making a person feel ‘unwelcome,’ ‘objectionable,’ ‘unacceptable,’ and ‘undesirable’ based on sexual orientation – does not render the remainder of the ordinance unenforceable or unworkable. . .   The remainder of [the provision] operates independently and is enforceable as intended.”

 

Turning to the free exercise of religion issue, the court had to deal with the state’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, which prohibits governmental entities in Arizona from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion “even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the rule is both “in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that governmental interest.” The statute’s language is taken verbatim from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The court rejected the argument that requiring the business to provide goods and services for same-sex weddings imposed a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of the business owners. “Appellants are not penalized for expressing their belief that their religion only recognizes the marriage of opposite sex couples,” wrote Winthrop.  “Nor are Appellants penalized for refusing to create wedding-related merchandise as long as they equally refuse similar services to opposite-sex couples.  [The ordinance] merely requires that, by operating a place of public accommodation, Appellants provide equal goods and services to customers regardless of sexual orientation.”  They could stop selling wedding-related goods altogether, but what they “cannot do is use their religion as a shield to discriminate against potential customers,” said the court.  Although providing those goods and services to same-sex couples might “decrease the satisfaction” with which they practice their religion, “this does not, a fortiori, make their compliance” a substantial burden to their religion.

 

And, even if it did impose such a burden, the court found that the city of Phoenix “has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination, and has done so here through the least restrictive means. When faced with similar contentions, other jurisdictions have overwhelmingly concluded that the government has a compelling interest in eradicating discrimination.”  The court quoted from the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Arlene’s Flowers, but could just as well have been quoting Justice Kennedy’s language in Masterpiece Cakeshop, quoted here.

 

Finally, the court rejected an equal protection challenge to the ordinance, finding that it did not treat people with religious beliefs about marriage differently than others, and that the owners of the business could not claim that they are members of a “suspect class” for purposes of analyzing their equal protection claim. “Phoenix has a legitimate governmental purpose in curtailing discriminatory practices,” wrote Winthrop, “and prohibiting businesses from sexual orientation discrimination is rationally related to that purpose.”

 

A spokesperson for ADF promptly announced that they would seek review from the Arizona Supreme Court, which has discretion whether to review the decision. Seeking review, however, is a prerequisite to petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court.  ADF is clearly determined to get this issue back before the Supreme Court.  It represents Arlene’s Flowers, whose petition is now pending, and it also represents a videography company in a case similar to Brush & Nibs, affirmatively litigating to get an injunction to allow the company to expand into wedding videos without having to do them for same-sex weddings.  The district court’s ruling against them in that case is now on appeal in a federal circuit court. One way or another, it seems likely that this issue will get back to the Supreme Court before too long.

 

Hawaii Appeals Court Says Religious B&B Owner May Not Reject Same-Sex Couples as Customers

Posted on: February 24th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Hawaii Appeals Court Says Religious B&B Owner May Not Reject Same-Sex Couples as Customers

The Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawaii has affirmed a ruling by the state’s 1st Circuit Court that the operator of an owner-occupied Bed & Breakfast violated the state’s public accommodations law by refusing to rent a room to a lesbian couple from California who were seeking vacation accommodations.  The opinion for a three-judge panel of the court by Chief Judge Craig Nakamura rejected the defendant’s argument that this application of the law violates her constitutional rights, and also rejected an argument that because the B&B is owner-occupied it is entitled to an exemption under a law governing residential real estate transactions.  Cervelli v. Aloha Bed & Breakfast, No. CAAP-13-0000806 (Feb. 23, 2018).

Diane Cervelli emailed Aloha Bed & Breakfast to determine whether a room was available for a planned vacation trip, then following up in a phone call with the owner, Phyllis Young, about making a room reservation for herself and her partner, Taeko Bufford.  Everything went well on the telephone until Cervelli mentioned that she was reserving for herself and another woman.  Young asked if Cervelli and the other woman were lesbians.  When Cervelli answered “Yes,” Young said, “We’re strong Christians.  I’m very uncomfortable in accepting the reservation from you.”  Young hung up on Cervelli.  Bufford then called and received the same treatment.  “Apart from Plaintiff’s sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Nakamura, “there was no other reason for Young’s refusal to accept Plaintiffs’ request for a room.”

Each of the women filed a complaint with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, alleging a violation of the state’s public accommodations law.  The Commission found “reasonable cause” to believe that Aloha B&B had violated the statute, but bowed to the plaintiffs’ desire to file a court action rather than pursue the matter administratively, issuing them a “right to sue letter.”  After the lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court, the Commission intervened as a co-plaintiff.

The law’s definition of “public accommodation” includes “an inn, hotel, motel, or other establishment that provides lodging to transient guests,” and lists “sexual orientation” as a prohibited ground for discrimination. A different statute, governing residential leases, provides an exemption from anti-discrimination requirements for “the rental of a room or up to four rooms in a housing accommodation by an owner or lessor if the owner or lessor resides in the housing accommodation.”  Aloha B&B argued that it was entitled to the owner-occupied premises exemption, but both the circuit court and the court of appeals disagreed.  They found that the exemption was intended to govern residential leases creating a landlord-tenant relationship in which the tenant moves in and resides in the premises for an extended period of time, not for “transient” customers who generally stay for a few days at best and are not establishing their residence in the rented rooms.

The court said that it was “clear based on the plain statutory language that Aloha B&B is a ‘place of public accommodation,’” and noted that the defendant had admitted in its pretrial statement that “it offers bed and breakfast services to the general public.” Reviewing the defendant’s advertising practices, and the data showing that the overwhelming majority of its customers – running up to 100 or more individuals a year – stay for only a few days, the court found Aloha’s claimed exemption inapplicable.  The court noted that Aloha generally rented rooms to anybody who applied, denying services only to gay people and smokers.

Aloha raised three constitutional defenses.

First, it argued that requiring it to rent a room to this lesbian couple violated Young’s right of privacy. “Aloha B&B argues that the right of privacy is ‘the right to be left alone,’” wrote Judge Nakamura.  “However, to the extent that Young has chosen to operate her bed and breakfast business from her home, she has voluntarily given up the right to be left alone.  In choosing to operate Aloha B&B from her home, Young, for commercial purposes, has opened up her home to over one hundred customers per year, charging them money for access to her home.  Indeed, the success of Aloha B&B’s business and its profits depend on members of the general public entering Young’s home as customers.  In other words, the success of Aloha B&B’s business required that Young not be left alone.”

“The privacy right implicated by this case is not the right to exclude others from a purely private home,” continued Nakamura, “but rather the right of a business owner using her home as a place of public accommodation to use invidious discrimination to choose which customers the business will serve. We conclude that Young’s asserted right to privacy did not entitle her to refuse to provide Plaintiffs with lodging based on their sexual orientation.”

Next, Young claimed a violation of her right of “intimate association,” but the court rejected this claim as well. “The relationship between Aloha B&B and the customers to whom it provides transient lodging is not the type of intimate relationship that is entitled to constitutional protection against a law designed to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations,” wrote Nakamura, again taking note of the large volume of customers passing through the premises for short stays over the course of a year.  “The hundreds of customer relationships Aloha B&B forms through its business is far from the ‘necessarily few’ family-type relationships that are subject to constitutional protection,” he wrote.  “With respect to the purpose for which the relationship is formed, Aloha B&B forms relationships with its customers for commercial, business purposes, and it is only the commercial aspects of the relationship” that the public accommodations law regulates.

Young had testified that the “primary purpose” of the B&B is to “make money,” wrote Nakamura, and, “She also admitted that if she could not make money by running Aloha B&B, she ‘wouldn’t operate it.’ Young does not operate Aloha B&B for the purpose of developing ‘deep attachments and commitments’ to its customers.”

Finally, Young made a “free exercise of religion” claim. This was doomed to fail under the federal Constitution, since the Supreme Court has held that individuals and businesses do not enjoy a constitutional exemption from complying with a “valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribe (or proscribes).”  See Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).  Thus, Young sought instead to locate her argument in the Hawaii constitution, arguing that the court should depart from federal constitutional precedents and “impose a compelling state interest requirement, and apply strict scrutiny in deciding its free exercise claim under the Hawaii Constitution.”

The court was unwilling to take the bait, stating, “We need not decide whether a higher level of scrutiny should be applied to a free exercise claim under the Hawaii Constitution than the United States Constitution. This is because we conclude that [the public accommodations law] satisfies even strict scrutiny as applied to Aloha B&B’s free exercise claim.”  That is, the court concluded that the state of Hawaii “has a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” and that the law is “narrowly tailored to achieve Hawaii’s compelling interest” in prohibiting such discrimination.

The court’s ruling affirmed the circuit court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and the Civil Rights Commission on the liability phase of the case. Unless the case goes up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, the next step would be to send it back to the circuit court for a determination of damages for the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are represented by Lambda Legal staff attorney Peter C. Renn and local Hawaii counsel Jay Handlin and Linsay N. McAneeley of Carlsmith Ball LLP. Robin Wurtzel, Shirley Naomi Garcia and April L. Wilson-South represented the Civil Rights Commission in the case.  And, no surprise, Aloha B&B is represented by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, a litigation organization that opposed LGBT rights at every opportunity.

9th Circuit Rejects Religious Freedom Challenge to California Law Banning Conversion Therapy for Minors

Posted on: August 24th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

California’s S.B. 1172, which prohibits state-licensed mental health providers from engaging in “sexual orientation change efforts” (commonly known as “conversion therapy”) with minors, withstood another 1st Amendment challenge in a new decision by the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the case of Welch v. Brown, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 15444, 2016 WL 4437617, announced on August 23.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the court of appeals affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb that the law does not violate the religious freedom rights of mental health providers who wish to provide such “therapy” to minors or of their potential patients.

In a previous ruling, the court had rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the law violated their free speech rights. They had argued that such therapy mainly involves talking, making the law an impermissible abridgement of freedom of speech. The court had countered that this was a regulation of health care practice, which is within the traditional powers of the state.  As such, the court found that the state had a rational basis for imposing this regulation, in light of evidence in the legislative record of the harms that such therapy could do to minors.

In this case, the plaintiffs were arguing that their 1st Amendment religious freedom claim required the court to apply strict scrutiny to the law, putting the burden on the state to show that the law was narrowly-tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.  They contended that the law “excessively entangles the State with religion,” but the court, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber, said that this argument “rests on a misconception of the scope of SB 1172,” rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims that the law would prohibit “certain prayers during religious services.”  Graber pointed out that the law “regulates conduct only within the confines of the counselor-client relationship” and doesn’t apply to clergy (even if they also happen to hold a state mental health practitioner license) when they are carrying out clerical functions.

“SB 1172 regulates only (1) therapeutic treatment, not expressive speech, by (2) licensed mental health professionals acting within the confines of the counselor-client relationship,” she wrote, a conclusion that “flows primarily from the text of the law.” Under a well-established doctrine called “constitutional avoidance,” the court was required not to interpret the statute in the manner suggested by the plaintiffs.  This conclusion was bolstered by legislative history, ironically submitted by the plaintiffs, which showed the narrow application intended by the legislature.  Thus, “Plaintiffs are in no practical danger of enforcement outside the confines of the counselor-client relationship.”

Plaintiffs also advanced an Establishment Clause argument, contending that the measure has a principal or primary purpose of “inhibiting religion.” Graber countered with the legislature’s stated purpose to “protect the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and to protect its minors against exposure to serious harm cause by” this “therapy.”  The court found that the “operative provisions” of the statute are “fully consistent with that secular purpose.”  A law that has a secular purpose with a possible incidental effect on religious practice is not subject to strict scrutiny under Supreme Court precedents.  Again, the court pointed out, religious leaders acting in their capacity as clergy are not affected by this law.

The court also rejected the contention that a minor’s religiously-motivated intent in seeking such therapy would be thwarted by the law, thus impeding their free exercise of religion. The court pointed out that “minors who seek to change their sexual orientation – for religious or secular reasons – are free to do so on their own and with the help of friends, family, and religious leaders.  If they prefer to obtain such assistance from a state-licensed mental health provider acting within the confines of a counselor-client relationship, they can do so when they turn 18.”

The court acknowledged that a law “aimed only at persons with religious motivations” could raise constitutional concerns, but that was not this law. The court said that the evidence of legislative history “falls far short of demonstrating that the primary intended effect of SB 1172 was to inhibit religion,” since the legislative hearing record was replete with evidence from professional associations about the harmful effects of SOCE therapy, regardless of the motivation of minors in seeking it out.  Referring in particularly to an American Psychiatric Association Task Force Report, Judge Graber wrote, “Although the report concluded that those who seek SOCE ‘tend’ to have strong religious views, the report is replete with references to non-religious motivations, such as social stigma and the desire to live in accordance with ‘personal’ values.”  Thus, wrote the court, “an informed and reasonable observer would conclude that the ‘primary effect’ of SB 1172 is not the inhibition (or endorsement) of religion.”

The court also rejected the argument that the law failed the requirement that government be “neutral” concerning religion and religious controversies. It also rejected the argument that prohibiting this treatment violates the privacy or liberty interests of the practitioners or their potential patients, quoting from a prior 9th Circuit ruling: “We have held that ‘substantive due process rights do not extend to the choice of type of treatment or of a particular health care provider.’”

Attorneys from the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal organization, represent the plaintiffs. The statute was defended by the office of California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris.  Attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, with pro bono assistance from attorneys at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, filed an amicus brief defending the statute on behalf of Equality California, a state-wide LGBT rights political organization.

Discharged Atlanta Fire Chief Strikes Back in Federal Lawsuit

Posted on: December 24th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Kelvin J. Cochran, who was discharged as Chief of the Atlanta, Georgia, Fire and Rescue Department (AFRD) after he self-published a book asserting negative views about homosexuality and same-sex marriage based on his religious beliefs, has struck back at the City and Mayor Kasim Reed with a lawsuit claiming a violation of his constitutional rights.  On December 16, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May issued a ruling dismissing some of Cochran’s claims, but allowing others to go forward.  Cochran v. City of Atlanta, 2015 WL 9244523 (N.D. Ga., Dec. 16, 2015).

Cochran became the Atlanta Fire Chief in 2008.  He left for ten months in 2009 to serve as Administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, D.C., but returned and continued in the Atlanta position until he was suspended as a result of the controversy surrounding his book and ultimately discharged on January 6, 2015.

Cochran, self-described as a devout evangelical Christian and an active member of Atlanta’s Elizabeth Baptist Church, wrote and self-published a book titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?: Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation.”  The book grew out of a men’s Bible study group at his church, and was intended as a guide to men to help them “fulfill God’s purpose for their lives.”  One of those purposes, according to Cochran’s book, is to avoid any sexual activity outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage, expressing the view that homosexual activity and same-sex marriage are immoral and inconsistent with God’s plan.

Cochran consulted the City’s Ethics Officer about whether a city official could write a “non-work-related, faith-based book,” and was told he could do that “so long as the subject matter of the book was not the city government or fire department,” but he did not obtain a written ruling.  He later asked the Ethic Officer if he could identify himself in the book as Atlanta Fire Chief, and she responded in the affirmative.  Cochran placed the book for sale on Amazon.com, and distributed free copies to various individuals, including Mayor Reed, some members of the city council, and various Fire Department employees whom he considered to be Christians (some of whom knew he was writing the book and had requested copies).

A Fire Department employee who saw the book and objected to its statements about sexual morality contacted City Councilmember Alex Wan to complain, which led Wan to initiate discussions at the City’s “upper management” level.  This led to a meeting of top City officials with Mayor Reed.  On November 24, 2014, Cochran received a letter informing him that he was suspended without pay for 30 days while the City determined what to do.  Among other things, the City cited an ordinance prohibiting city officials from engaging in outside employment for pay without written permission from the Ethics office.  At the same time, Mayor Reed went public about disagreeing with Cochran’s views expressed in the book, stating “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community” and disassociating his administration from those views.  Councilmember Wan released a statement to the local newspaper that “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”  Cochran’s suspension and statements by Reed, Wan and other city officials led to extensive media coverage.  On January 6, 2015, Cochran was informed of his discharge.

Atlanta has had local legislation banning sexual orientation discrimination for many years, and has long provided benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.  At the time this controversy arose late in 2014, a federal district court had ruled against the constitutionality of Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage, but the matter was still pending on appeal in the courts.  Atlanta government leaders had openly supported the litigation for marriage equality.  Cochran’s views expressed in the book were apparently out of synch with the views of the City’s elected leadership.  However, Cochran claimed in his federal complaint that he has never been accused of discriminating as Fire Chief on the basis of sexual orientation.

Cochran’s lawsuit poses a classic and recurring policy question: to what extent can a state or local government require public officials to refrain from publicizing their views on controversial public issues when those views conflict with official policies as articulated by politically-accountable officials?  The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of important decisions since first addressing this issue in 1968 in Pickering v. Board of Education.  That case involved a public high school teacher who was discharged after publishing a letter in a local newspaper that was critical of the board of education’s budget proposals (which had been twice rejected by local voters).  The Court held that public employees are protected by First Amendment free speech rights when expressing views on matters of public concern when they are speaking in their capacity as private citizens, but such protection is not absolute: the court must conduct a balancing test weighing the employee’s free speech rights against the employer’s legitimate concerns about being able to carry out governmental functions.  Speech that results in disruption of those functions may lose its constitutional protection.  Subsequent rulings have clarified that when a public employee is speaking in an official capacity, he is speaking for the government and can be disciplined or discharged when his speech contradicts government policy.

Cochran filed a nine-count complaint against the city and Mayor Reed, raising various claims under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  Although Judge May dismissed some of those claims, and ultimately found that Mayor Reed enjoyed qualified immunity from personal liability to Cochran, she concluded that his complaint alleged facts sufficient to maintain several of his 1st Amendment claims as well as one of his 14th Amendment Due Process claims.

Cochran’s complaint leads off with a claim that he was fired in retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.  Judge May determined that Cochran’s speech satisfied the requirement that it be on a matter of public concern and that he was speaking as a private citizen (even though his book’s “About the Author” section identifies him as Atlanta’s Fire Chief), making his claim subject to the Supreme Court’s Pickering balancing test.  The City argued that the AFRD has a “need to secure discipline, mutual respect, trust and particular efficiency among the ranks due to its status as a quasi-military entity different from other public employers,” and thus that Cochran’s “interest in publishing and distributing a book ‘containing moral judgment about certain groups of people that caused at least one AFRD member enough concern to complaint to a City Councilmember'” could not outweigh the City’s interests in securing discipline and efficiency.

However, Judge May pointed out that on a motion to dismiss she is to evaluate the complaint based solely on the plaintiff’s allegations, and Cochran had alleged that his book did not threaten the City’s ability to administer public services and was not likely to do so.  Cochran claimed that the book did not interfere with AFRD internal operations, and that he had not told any AFRD employee that complying with his teachings or even reading his book “was in any way relevant to their status or advancement” within the Department.  Thus, Judge May could not find at this stage in the case as a matter of law “that Defendants’ interests outweigh Plaintiff’s First Amendment freedom of speech interests.  However,” she continued, “the factual development of this case may warrant a different conclusion.”

Cochran’s second count claims unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, focusing particularly on a section of the City Code that requires department heads to obtain prior written approval from the city’s Board of Ethics before “engaging in the provision of services for private interests for remuneration,” which he had not done.  Cochran protested the self-publication of a book did not come within this policy. The City claimed he had no standing to challenge this provision since he had never applied for written permission, but Judge May disagreed, rejecting the City’s motion to dismiss this count on the basis of standing.

Cochran’s third count alleges violation of his religious liberty rights, claiming he was terminated because he expressed his religiously-based viewpoint.  The City’s response was that he failed to allege that his religion compelled him to publish his views while serving as Fire Chief without obtaining prior written approval or to distribute the book to various city employees.  Judge May ruled that such allegations were not necessary to state a religious liberty claim, and that Cochran’s allegations “raise a plausible inference that Plaintiff sincerely held the religious beliefs that he contends were the reason for his firing,” so this claim would not be dismissed.  Similarly, Judge May found that Cochran adequately alleged facts to support his fourth claim, that the city’s action violated his 1st Amendment right to freedom of association “by terminating him for expressing religious beliefs in association with his church.”  However, May found insufficient Cochran’s allegations to support his claim of a violation of the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause, stating that at the hearing on the motion to dismiss “it became clear that although the Complaint contains an Establishment Clause claim, the exact contours of that claim. . . are unclear,” and that it appeared to be duplicative of other claims.  Although May dismissed this claim, she granted leave to Cochran to file an amended claim appropriately raising Establishment Clause issues.

Turning to Cochran’s Equal Protection Claim under the 14th Amendment, May found that Cochran had failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain this claim.  Most significantly, he had failed to identify a “comparator” in order to establish discrimination.  A “comparator” is somebody similarly situated to the Plaintiff who had articulated the opposite point of view without incurring adverse action from the City.  Cochran pointed to Mayor Reed, who had publicly articulated opposition to Cochran’s views, but the judge pointed out that Reed, as the elected chief executive of the city, was not similarly situated to Cochran, an appointed department head.  “As the Mayor,” wrote Judge May, “Reed is Plaintiff’s superior. . .  As the City’s ultimate decision-maker, Reed could not be similarly situated to Plaintiff, who is subject to Reed’s decision-making power.”  She also pointed out that Reed had not “ever tried to publish a book on morality that was approved by the City or even that Reed is from a different religious group from Plaintiff.  At bottom, the Court finds that Reed is too dissimilar to serve as a similarly situated comparator for numerous reasons.”  It was not sufficient for Cochran to allege that “numerous City employees” who were similarly situated to him were treated differently in this regard.  It appears that he is the only appointed City department head who had published a work of this kind.

Judge May dismissed Cochran’s claim that the City’s policy about outside work by city officials that was cited in support of his discharge was unduly vague, pointing out that prior similarly challenges to the policy had been rejected by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is binding on Georgia federal courts.  She also found that the public comments by Mayor Reed in connection with this controversy were not sufficiently personally “stigmatizing” of Cochran to sustain a “liberty interest” claim under the Due Process Clause.  However, she refused to dismiss a procedural due process claim, finding that the ordinances cited by the City in its briefs “do not establish that Plaintiff lacks a property interest in his employment.”  Under the 14th Amendment, the Courts have held that a public employee with a property interest in his job may not be deprived of that job in the absence of fair procedures, which Cochran claims he was not accorded in this case, where the decision to fire him was made unilaterally by the mayor.

As to personal liability by Mayor Reed, the ultimate decision-maker on Cochran’s discharge, Judge May found that it would not necessarily be clear to the Mayor that his actions were unconstitutional while exercising the discretionary function to discharge his Fire Chief, since the ultimate determination of that will rest on the court’s application of the Pickering balancing test.  Depending how that weighing turns out, the City may be held liable, but a municipal official in the position of the Mayor exercising a discretionary function of his office would not unless the outcome was clearly established as a matter of law.  The courts have developed this qualified immunity doctrine to avoid stifling the ability of public officials to exercise discretionary functions in situations where there is not a definite constitutional ban in place.

Ultimately, the question confronting Judge May is whether the Atlanta city administration is required to keep in office an appointed department head who has published views that are out of synch with the City’s policies.  If Cochran were a rank and file employee, he might well win some of his claims.  But as a department head with supervisory authority over a major public safety agency, he will confront significant difficulty in arguing that the elected officials responsible to the voters are constitutionally required to keep him in office, as Judge May intimated in ruling on his first free speech claim.

The Colorado Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: December 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A Colorado Administrative Law Judge ruled on December 6, 2013, that a bakery had violated the state’s public accommodations law when its owner refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay male couple on July 19, 2012.

Colorado does not have same-sex marriage, and only enacted a civil union law open to same-sex couples early in 2013.  Back in 2012, however, Coloradans Charlie Craig and David Mullins planned to get married in Massachusetts and then have a big celebration event for family and friends back home.  Accompanied by Charlie’s mom, they went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, which sells wedding cakes, and sat down with the proprietor, Jack Phillips, at the “cake consulting table.”  According to the factual findings in the opinion by ALJ Robert N. Spencer, “They introduced themselves as ‘David’ and ‘Charlie’ and said that they wanted a wedding cake for ‘our wedding.'”  Phillips immediately said no, he doesn’t make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings.  “I’ll make you birthday cakes,” he said, “shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.”  Without any further discussion, David and Charlie and Charlie’s mom got up and left, went to another bakery, and make their cake arrangements without incident.  The next day, Charlie’s mom called Phillips, who told her that he refused to make a wedding cake for David and Charlie because of his religious beliefs and because Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Although Charlie and David got their wedding cake, they felt humiliated by their experience with Phillips and decided to file a discrimination complaint to establish that his actions were unlawful.  The Civil Rights Commission sided with Charlie and David, ruling that Phillips violated their statutory rights.  When Phillips rejected that ruling, the case was referred for trial before an administrative judge.   As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to declare statutes unconstitutional, but he does have authority to determine whether the application of a statute in a particular case violates the constitutional rights of the defendant.

Judge Spencer found, based on Phillips’ testimony, that he is a practicing Christian who believes that “the Bible is the inspired word of God, that its accounts are literally true, and that its commands are binding on him.”  He finds in the story of Adam and Eve and in a passage from Mark 10:6-9 (NIV) that only different-sex couples can marry.  “Phillips also believes,” wrote Spencer, “that the Bible commands him to avoid doing anything that would displease God, and not to encourage sin in any way.  Phillips believes that decorating cakes is a form of art and creative expression, and that he can honor God through his artistic talents.  Phillips believes that if he uses his artistic talents to participate in same-sex weddings by creating a wedding cake, he will be displeasing God and acting contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”

Phillips did not contest that his bakery is a public accommodation subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law, but he argued in defense that the law could not be applied in such a way as to violate his 1st Amendment rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.  His bakery is incorporated but wholly owned by him, and he claims for his business the same 1st Amendment rights that he enjoys.  Judge Spencer pointed out that at least for now in the states comprising the federal 10th Circuit, which includes Colorado, family-owned closely-held corporations do enjoy 1st Amendment free exercise of religion rights (as a result of a 10th Circuit decision that the Supreme Court recently agreed to review), and the Supreme Court held several years ago in the notorious Citizens United case that corporations have 1st Amendment free speech rights.  Thus, Phillips argued, he should enjoy immunity from this discrimination charge on 1st Amendment grounds.  In effect, Phillips was arguing that the 1st Amendment protects businesses and individuals from having to comply with anti-discrimination laws if their personal beliefs based on religion would be violated by compliance with the law.

In addition, Phillips argued that he did not actually discriminate because of David and Charlie’s sexual orientation, and thus could not be found to have violated the statute.  He said that he would be happy to do business with them, so long as it didn’t involve a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.  He testified he would also refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple to celebrate a civil union, so his ground of objection is not really that Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages, but rather that he feels that selling a cake for any celebration of a same-sex relationship would be state-compelled speech that violates his freedom of speech, as well as forcing him to act in conflict with his religious beliefs.

Judge Spencer first rejected Phillips’ argument that his refusal to sell the wedding cake was not sexual orientation discrimination.  “The salient feature distinguishing same-sex weddings from heterosexual ones is the seuxla orientation of its participants,” he wrote.  “Only same-sex couples engage in same-sex weddings.  Therefore, it makes little sense to argue that refusal to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for use at their wedding is not ‘because of’ their sexual orientation.”  Drawing a telling analogy, he wrote, “If Respondents’ argument was correct, it would allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner’s bias against interracial marriage,” but this kind of theory was refuted by the Supreme Court in 1983 in Bob Jones University v. United States, where the Court upheld the IRS action in revoking the university’s tax exempt status because it denied admission to interracial couples in violation of laws forbidding discrimination because of race.

On the free speech claim, Spencer rejected Phillips’ argument that “preparing a wedding case is necessarily a medium of expression amounting to protected ‘speech,’ or that compelling Respondents to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing Respondents to adhere to ‘an ideological point of view.'”  Spencer distinguished between wedding cakes and “saluting the flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto,” all forms of conduct that have been found to constitute protected speech.  Spencer noted that Phillips refused to do business with David and Charlie without any discussion about how the cake would be decorated or what might be written on it.  “For all Phillips knew,” wrote Spencer, “Complainants might have wanted a nondescript cake that would have been suitable for consumption at any wedding.”  In a footnote, Phillips mentioned that the cake they had eventually obtained from another bakery had a “filling with rainbow colors,” but questioned whether that could be seen as some sort of endorsement of same-sex marriage by the baker.  Spencer characterized Phillips’ attempt to elevate making a wedding cake to the symbolic level of a compelled flag salute as an argument that “trivializes the right to free speech.”

Finally, Spencer rejected Phillips’ free exercise of religion argument.  He said that this case is not about the government trying to regulate what Phillips believes, but rather a regulation of commercial conduct.  “The types of conduct the United States Supreme Court has found to be beyond government control typically involve activities fundamental to the individual’s religious belief, that do not adversely affect the rights of others, and that are not outweighed by the state’s legitimate interests in promoting health, safety and general welfare,” Spencer commented, and cited a list of Supreme Court cases upholding neutral laws that incidentally regulate conduct, where the conduct involves some religious belief.  “Respondent’s refusal to provide a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding is distinctly the type of conduct that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found subject to legitimate regulation,” he asserted, mentioning that the Supreme Court itself had ruled that laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination by public accommodations have specifically been mentioned by the Supreme Court as legitimate.   The Supreme Court has ruled that a valid law that is neutral with respect to religion and generally applicable will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  The Colorado public accommodations law meets that test.

As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to impose fines or penalties.  Upon finding that Masterpiece Cakeshop and Phillips had violated the law, his remedy was to issue a “cease and desist order” and take such other corrective action as is deemed appropriate by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  If Phillips appeals this ruling, it might get to a stage where he would incur financial liability, however.

The ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project and the ACLU Foundation of Colorado and attorneys from King & Greisen, LLC, represented the complainants at the hearing before ALJ Spencer.  Phillips enjoys legal support from Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in opposing gay rights under the guise of preserving the 1st Amendment rights of those who discriminate against gay people.   Given ADF’s participation, it is likely this ruling will be appealed.

The Colorado bakery case is one of only several contesting the applicability of public accommodation laws to businesses that want to avoid providing goods and services for same-sex ceremonies.  In Washington State, litigation proceeds against a florist shop, and in New Mexico, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a wedding photographer had violated the state’s public accommodations law by declining to provide photographic services for a same-sex commitment ceremony.  The Supreme Court has received a petition to review the New Mexico case.

Another Circuit Court Rules against Free Exercise of Religion Claim by a Business Corporation

Posted on: September 18th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A third federal circuit court of appeals has weighed in on the question whether for-profit business corporations have a right under the 1st Amendment to free exercise of religion, and thus to claim a religious exemption from compliance with a valid general law.  As in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, 2013 WL 3216103 (10th Cir., June 27, 2013), and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sec’y of U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 2013 WL 3845365 (3rd Cir., July 26, 2013), the case of Autocam Corp. v. Sebelius, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 19152 (6th Cir., Sept. 17, 2013), arises in the context of implementation of the Affordable Care Act regulations requiring that employer-provided health insurance plans include coverage for contraception for women.  The spreading circuit splits will likely lead to Supreme Court review of the underlying constitutional question, which would be significant for enforcement of laws banning discrimination by businesses.

As in the earlier cases, the corporate defendants are not publicly-traded, but rather are closely held corporations owned entirely by individuals or groups of individuals whose religious beliefs deem contraception to be immoral.  In Autocam, a 6th Circuit panel lines up with the 3rd Circuit in finding that such a business corporation cannot claim a right to free exercise of religion, either under the 1st Amendment directly or under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was passed by Congress in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, which had upheld the right of legislators to pass a “valid and neutral law of general applicability” outlawing conduct or requiring conduct that may be contrary to the teachings of a particular religion.

Both the 1st Amendment and RFRA speak in terms of protecting the right of “persons” to free exercise of religion, and the 3rd and 6th Circuits construe that to mean that neither the 1st Amendment nor RFRA protect business corporations from having to comply with valid general laws that contradict the religious beliefs of their shareholders.

The 10th Circuit, by contrast, holds that as for-profit corporations are treated as “persons” for purposes of due process, equal protection, and freedom of speech, they should also be treated as persons who are capable of exercising the practice of religion.  See, e.g., Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), holding that corporations are protected by the 1st Amendment from restrictions on their expenditures in political campaigns under the Freedom of Speech Clause.

The Autocam court stated its agreement with the Obama Administration’s position, presented in this case by the Justice Department, that preliminary injunctive relief against implementation of the statutory requirement should not be granted and that claims asserted by the owners of Autocam Corporation under RFRA should be dismissed.

While acknowledging that the Supreme Court has recognized free speech rights for corporations under the 1st Amendment, Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote for the court, “No analogous body of precedent exists with regard to the rights of secular, for-profit corporations under the Free Exercise Clause prior to the enactment of RFRA.  The Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment have historically been interpreted in very different ways.  Therefore, the Court’s recognition of rights for corporations like Autocam under the Free Speech Clause nearly twenty years after RFRA’s enactment does not require the conclusion that Autocam is a ‘person’ that can exercise religion for purposes of RFRA.”  The court noted that Congress had specifically stated that it did not intend by enacting RFRA to expand 1st Amendment free exercise rights beyond what they had been prior to the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, and no prior Supreme Court ruling had found any corporate exemption from compliance with general laws due to the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.

We previously suggested that it was likely that the Supreme Court would grant certiorari in one or more of these cases, since the Court has never previously ruled on the question presented here:  Whether somebody who has decided to run their sole proprietor or family-owned business as a for-profit corporation may assert his or her individual free exercise of religion rights through the control of the corporation to avoid the requirements of a valid general statute.  The question has great importance for LGBT legal rights, of course, since recognition of a right of business corporations to avoid complying with general laws based on the religious beliefs of their owners could undermine the application of enforcement against such corporations of laws forbidding discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, such as, for example, the recent New Mexico Supreme Court decision in  Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 2013 N.M. LEXIS 284, 2013 WL 4478229 (August 22, 2013), holding that the owner of a wedding photography business did not enjoy a religious exemption from the state’s public accommodations law based on the owner’s religious objection to same-sex commitment ceremonies.