free exercise » ADL Blogs
Posts Tagged ‘free exercise’
March 1, 2016

Alito Got It Right In Jewish Inmate Case

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a troubling lower court decision involving the religious liberty rights of an observant Jewish inmate from North Carolina.  In a powerful dissent, Justice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fellow Justices should have taken up the case.supreme-court

Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying his request to study Torah with two other Jewish inmates.  In rejecting his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate misunderstood his own faith.  For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jewish men – a minyan – or qualified Jewish leader such as Rabbi.  The lower court agreed with this argument and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not subject to future harm because he had been transferred to a prison with a Rabbi.

Justice Alito’s dissent correctly pointed out that this decision was discriminatory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s policy rests on its understanding of Jewish doctrine, the policy does not apply to other religions.”  Furthermore, it violates longstanding First Amendment case law against government interpreting religious doctrine:

[F]ederal courts have no warrant to evaluate  “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” … By ignoring Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focusing solely on NCDPS’s understanding of Judaism, respondent and the courts below considered the wrong question.  

Although the Supreme Court’s rejection of the case does not approve of the lower court decision, we could not agree more with Justice Alito that “the Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

December 4, 2014

The Price of Religious Exclusion

The Township of Bridgewater, NJ recently settled a lawsuit filed by a local Muslim congregation – the Al Falah Center – for $7.75 million.  The lawsuit alleged that the Township’s expeditious passage of a new land use ordinance which effectively barred the Center from converting a former 15,500 sq. foot banquet into a mosque violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).bridgewater

In October 2010, the Center signed a contract to purchase a former Red Roof Inn with the intent of converting it into a mosque.  A prior Township traffic study concluded that the proposed conversion would not increase traffic.  And in March 2011, the Summit County Planning Board found that the conversion raised minimal traffic issues and it conditioned approval of Al Falah’s land use application on installation of a new traffic light paid for by the Center.

But six days after the County issued its finding and shortly before a new state law favorable to the Center’s land use application went into effect, the Township adopted a new land use ordinance that effectively barred Al Falah from using the property for a mosque.  Interestingly, the same ordinance did not affect the operation of the other seventeen existing houses of worship within the Township, none of which are mosques.

A federal district court found that the Township’s actions likely violated RLUIPA, as well as denied Bridgewater’s motion for summary judgment.  The Township appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The Interfaith Coalition on Mosques (“ICOM”), which is sponsored by ADL, filed a friend-of-the court (amicus) brief with the Third Circuit in support of the Center.  However, the case settled during the pendency of the appeal.

Under the settlement terms, the Center will not build a mosque on the Red Roof Inn property.  But the Township will pay $2.75 million to buy an alternative 15-acre property for the Center and Bridgewater’s insurance carrier will pay Al Falah another $5 million for alleged damages and attorney’s fees.

The legal settlement is not an admission of liability or discrimination.  But perhaps it has taught the Township and others municipalities an expensive and vital lesson: religious freedom in America is for all faiths, not just some.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

July 14, 2014

Hobby Lobby Elicits Varied Editorial Responses

On June 30, the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby affirmed the right of family-owned companies to deny employees, based on the religious beliefs of the employer, health insurance coverage for contraceptives. As Professor Erwin Chemerinsky warned at the ADL’s 2014 Supreme Court Review, the decision could have far-reaching implications for workers’ civil and religious rights.newspapers-hobby-lobby

Editorial boards for the nations’ top newspapers opposed the landmark decision by a 2-1 ratio. Of the fifty newspapers with the highest circulation, twenty-five disagreed with the Supreme Court’s position in Hobby Lobby. Thirteen supported the decision. Twelve offered no opinion on the topic.

Of those periodicals that opposed the decision, some objected to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to grant legal protections to corporations that traditionally have been reserved for human beings. The Cleveland Plain Dealer insisted that “corporations are not ‘persons’ who think, breathe and exercise first-amendment rights or practice religious beliefs,” and warned that “[t]reating them as if they are will inevitably narrow freedoms for others.” The Detroit Free Press called the decision an expansion of “the majority’s already inflated notion of corporate personhood.”

Other opponents view the decision as a setback for reproductive rights. The San Jose Mercury News criticized the Court for failing to recognize the importance of access to contraceptives for women’s rights: “Worldwide, the single greatest factor in lifting societies out of poverty is women gaining the ability to control when they become pregnant.” The Minneapolis Star Tribunesaid that “allowing an employer to choose which type of contraception merits coverage reverts to an earlier, darker age in attitudes about women’s role in reproduction.”

Still others fear that the decision opens the door to further erosion individuals’ rights and government entanglement in the exercise of religion. The New York Times called the decision “a radical departure from the court’s history of resisting claims for religious exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability when the exemptions would hurt other people.” USA Today warned of the “deeply disturbing proposition” that the decision could force the government to judge “whether a business’s religious principles merit special treatment that its more secular competitors don’t get.” The Washington Post urged Congress to limit the damage of the decision by legislatively overturning it.

Supporters, however, hail Hobby Lobby as a bold recognition of religious liberty. The Wall Street Journal called the decision “an important vindication of religious liberty in this (still, blessedly) constitutional republic.” The New York Daily News celebrated that Court’s conclusion that “owners of closely held companies should not be forced to sacrifice their religious liberty simply because they incorporated to do business.”

However one views the Court’s decision, Hobby Lobby clearly touches on many political and legal fault lines. The ADL believes that the decision threatens many anti-discrimination laws and will work to limit its impact.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,