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March 1, 2016 2

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.”

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December 4, 2014 0

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.

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July 14, 2014 0

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.

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