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April 3, 2015 6

Arkansas’ and Indiana’s Fixes to “Religious Freedom” Laws are Illusory

Arkansas’ and Indiana’s pas­sage of dis­crim­i­na­tory “reli­gious free­dom” laws was met with national back­lash from civil rights groups, the busi­ness com­mu­nity, and oth­ers.  Under intense pub­lic pres­sure, both state leg­is­la­tures made “fixes” to these laws, which their respec­tive Gov­er­nors promptly signed.   But these revi­sions are illu­sory and do lit­tle to mit­i­gate the harms of these laws.

Nei­ther of the orig­i­nal Arkansas or Indi­ana mea­sures men­tioned sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or dis­crim­i­na­tion. Under the guise of reli­gious free­dom, how­ever, both allowed busi­nesses and employ­ers to dis­crim­i­nate against the LGBT com­mu­nity, as well as against reli­gious and eth­nic minori­ties, by pro­vid­ing them with a vir­tu­ally insur­mount­able religious-based legal defense.Arkansas-StateSeal.svg

Pro­po­nents of these laws erro­neously claimed that they were mod­eled on the 1993 fed­eral Reli­gious Free­dom Restora­tion (“RFRA”).  That RFRA, which the Anti-Defamation League sup­ported, was much nar­rower and explic­itly designed to pro­tect indi­vid­u­als and faith-based insti­tu­tions’ reli­gious exer­cise from gov­ern­ment infringe­ment.   It was never meant to apply to for-profit enti­ties or pri­vate dis­putes, or to enable enti­ties to dis­crim­i­nate against indi­vid­u­als in the name of “reli­gious freedom.”

Indiana’s fix to its law pro­hibits busi­nesses from deny­ing ser­vices to cus­tomers based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity.  And Arkansas’ revi­sion now tracks the lan­guage of RFRA and states that it should be inter­preted con­sis­tent with the fed­eral law.  While these fixes may make good media sound bites, they are misleading.

The revised Indi­ana law does not pro­vide statewide civil rights pro­tec­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity or pre­vent its use to harm oth­ers.  Because the state does not have an inclu­sive anti-discrimination statute, and because the vast major­ity of Indi­ana cities and towns lack local civil rights pro­tec­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity, busi­nesses and employ­ers remain free to dis­crim­i­nate on the basis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity.   Even with this fix, the Indi­ana law still pro­vides a pow­er­ful religious-based defense to indi­vid­u­als and busi­nesses in civil and crim­i­nal actions, and infringes on the rights of oth­ers.  For exam­ple, a police offi­cer could refuse to pro­tect a casino, liquor store, phar­macy, butcher shop, lend­ing insti­tu­tion, or women’s health clinic.

Indiana-StateSeal.svg

The amended Arkansas law is per­haps more disin­gen­u­ous.  Although it is now con­sis­tent with RFRA, the U.S. Supreme Court’s deeply dis­turb­ing Hobby Lobby deci­sion expands RFRA’s pro­tec­tions to for-profit, closely held cor­po­ra­tions (rang­ing from small busi­nesses to nation­wide com­pa­nies like Hobby Lobby).  And a 1999 fed­eral U.S. Court of Appeals deci­sion applic­a­ble to Arkansas ruled that RFRA applies to pri­vate disputes.

So a fam­ily owned busi­ness, large or small, can invoke the new law’s pow­er­ful defense in vir­tu­ally any civil action, includ­ing claims of dis­crim­i­na­tion or wrong­ful denial of ser­vice, employ­ment or hous­ing.  Keep in mind, 96.6% of Arkansas’ employ­ers are small busi­nesses.  Trans­la­tion: the vast major­ity of Arkansas’ busi­nesses can use the law to deny ser­vices, employ­ment, and hous­ing to the LGBT com­mu­nity and other minori­ties.  Mak­ing mat­ters worse, Arkansas has no state-wide civil rights pro­tec­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity, and it recently enacted another law bar­ring local gov­ern­ments from pro­vid­ing such pro­tec­tions for their residents.

To truly rem­edy the harm­ful effects of their so-called “reli­gious free­dom” laws, Arkansas and Indi­ana must enact statewide anti-discrimination pro­tec­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity, insert addi­tional safe­guards against use of the laws to harm oth­ers, and limit their appli­ca­tion to indi­vid­u­als, reli­gious insti­tu­tions, and religiously-affiliated non-profits against gov­ern­ment action that sub­stan­tially bur­dens religion.

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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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November 20, 2014 0

Good D.C. Circuit Ruling on ACA Contraception Mandate Opt-Out Rule

The influ­en­tial U.S. Court of Appeals for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia recently rejected legal claims by reli­gious non­prof­its assert­ing that even the min­i­mal require­ments for opt­ing out of the Afford­able Care Act’s (ACA) con­tra­cep­tion man­date vio­late their reli­gious free­dom rights.

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Building

DC Cir­cuit Court of Appeals Building

The ACA requires employer-provided health insur­ance to cover all FDA– approved pre­scrip­tion con­tra­cep­tion at no cost to employ­ees.  Houses of wor­ship and other sec­tar­ian insti­tu­tions are wholly exempted from this require­ment.  And religiously-affiliated orga­ni­za­tions may opt out of the con­tra­cep­tive man­date by merely sub­mit­ting a one-page form or oth­er­wise pro­vid­ing notice to its health plan issuer or the Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices (HHS).  In that cir­cum­stance, the health insur­ance com­pany or a third-party admin­is­tra­tor pays for and admin­is­ters the coverage.

Despite this nom­i­nal require­ment, plain­tiffs in the case called Priests for Life v. U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices claim that it “sub­stan­tially bur­dens” their reli­gious exer­cise in vio­la­tion of the fed­eral Reli­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act (“RFRA”).  They assert that the opt-out notice require­ment “trig­gers” sub­sti­tute cov­er­age and thereby – makes them “con­duits” for pro­vid­ing con­tra­cep­tion cov­er­age in vio­la­tion of their reli­gious beliefs.

The Court soundly rejected this claim.  It found that the fil­ing of the form excuses plain­tiffs “… from play­ing any role in the pro­vi­sion of con­tra­cep­tion ser­vices, and they remain free to con­demn con­tra­cep­tion in the clear­est terms.”  And it fur­ther deter­mined that the ACA  — not the opt-out notice –oblig­ates health insur­ance com­pa­nies or HHS through third-party admin­is­tra­tors to pro­vide con­tra­cep­tion cov­er­age.  As a result, the Court cor­rectly con­cluded that:

Reli­gious objec­tors do not suf­fer sub­stan­tial bur­dens under RFRA where the only harm to them is that they sin­cerely feel aggrieved by their inabil­ity to pre­vent what other peo­ple do to ful­fill reg­u­la­tory objec­tives after they opt out.  They have no RFRA right to be free from the unease, or even anguish, of know­ing that third par­ties are legally priv­i­leged or oblig­ated to act in ways their reli­gion abhors.

The Court also deter­mined that the con­tra­cep­tion require­ment advances the com­pelling inter­ests of “pub­lic health and gen­der equal­ity” and the opt-out rule is the least restric­tive way to achieve these  inter­ests because it “requires as lit­tle as it can from the objec­tors while still serv­ing the government’s com­pelling state interests.”

The Court’s deci­sion appro­pri­ately ref­er­ences the real­ity of our nation’s reli­giously diverse work­force, stat­ing “[r]eligious non­prof­its like Plain­tiff orga­ni­za­tions employ mil­lions of Amer­i­cans — includ­ing indi­vid­u­als who do not share their beliefs.”   Given this diver­sity and our plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy, the Court’s deci­sion strikes the right bal­ance between reli­gious lib­erty and civil rights.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court’s dis­turb­ing Hobby Lobby deci­sion,  the Court in this case prop­erly rec­og­nized the true leg­isla­tive intent of RFRA: to shield to reli­gious prac­tice — not to serve as a sword to impose reli­gious beliefs on others.

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