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July 30, 2015

Mezuzah Is Fair Housing Decision’s Overlooked Beneficiary

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 25th favorable fair housing decision was a big win for the civil rights of all Americans, including Jewish condominium owners and renters who are prohibited from placing Mezuzahs on their outer door posts.

A mezuzah is a small, unobtrusive object – typically less than six inches long and an inch wide – which for millennia has been placed on the outer doorposts of Jewish homes in fulfillment of religious obligations.  It is not a decorative choice for Jews, or a choice of any kind.  Rather, an observant Jewish person cannot buy, rent or reside in a residence where placement of a mezuzah on the outer doorpost is prohibited.

Mezuzah-RS Many condominiums, developments and rental communities are subject to generally applicable aesthetic or other restrictions which prohibit the display of all religious or secular symbols on outer doorposts and doors, including the mezuzah.  In the vast majority of these situations, homeowner associations or landlords accommodate Jewish residents by allowing them to post their mezuzahs without issue.

However, in the minority of cases where associations or landlords refuse to allow the mezuzah, the Court’s decision is a valuable legal tool.  In Texas Dept. of Housing v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Court recognized “disparate impact” theory under the federal Fair Housing Act.  As a result, generally applicable housing rules or practices that have the effect of unintentionally discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin, including restrictions barring display of the mezuzah, violate the Act.

In light of the Court’s ruling, ADL has issued a new publication entitled, “Religious Accommodation for the Mezuzah: Your Rights Under Fair Housing Laws,” which in addition to discussing accommodations under federal law covers the four state laws (Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Texas) that specifically prohibit rules barring displays of the mezuzah and other religious symbols in outer door areas.

Providing religious accommodations for the mezuzah is a principled and worthy practice.   Now that the Court has ruled in favor of disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act, homeowner associations and landlords should be on notice that providing such accommodations is not only the right thing to do, but legally required in most instances.

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July 3, 2015

Yes, Justice Thomas, the Government Can Deprive People of Dignity

The word “dignity” appears 30 times in last week’s Supreme Court marriage equality case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Describing the same-sex couples who aspired to marry, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, stated:

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. supreme-court-civil-rights




In a bitter dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas demurred, stating that “the Constitution contains no ‘dignity’ Clause.” He argued that the government is “incapable of bestowing dignity,” stating flatly that” human dignity cannot be taken away by the government.”

Astonishingly, Justice Thomas then attempted to prove his dubious proposition by citing two extreme and reprehensible government actions that were actually designed to deprive victims of “equal dignity under the law” – slavery and the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II:

Slaves did not lose their dignity … because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them.

But the government did not “allow” blacks to be enslaved – the laws of the time facilitated and empowered slave owners and enforced slavery.

And the Japanese American Citizens League was rightly “appalled” by Justice Thomas’ blindness to the impact of the government’s shameful and unwarranted forcible relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, the vast majority of whom were citizens.

In 1942, just 10 weeks after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his Execution Order 9066, providing the legal authority for this deprivation of liberty and dignity. Roosevelt’s executive action was issued against the backdrop of widespread, baseless fears that Americans of Japanese ancestry might pose a threat to the U.S – anxiety that was certainly fed by a long history of prejudice and xenophobia direct against Japanese Americans.

Those incarcerated in the camps were uprooted from their communities, separated from their families, their homes, and their possessions, and lost their personal liberties and freedoms until the end of the war.

Tragically, the president’s executive order was bolstered by additional congressional enactments. And when the constitutionality of these actions was challenged in two main cases before the U.S. Supreme Court – Hirabayashi v. U.S. andKorematsu v. United States – the Court held that these clearly discriminatory actions by the government were, in fact, justified and constitutional.

Now, 73 years later, the Anti-Defamation League uses the cruel and unwarranted wartime treatment of Americans of Japanese descent as a teachable moment for our nation on the dangers of stereotyping, prejudice, and racial profiling. While we can honor and admire individuals that can retain their personal dignity under the most adverse conditions, there should be no doubt, Justice Thomas, that the government can deprive people of their “equal dignity.”

Fortunately, a Supreme Court majority has now held that the Constitution mandates that same-sex couples are entitled to equal treatment – and marriage equality.

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November 20, 2014

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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