Category archives: Conscience protection

Little Sisters of the Poor Are Once Again Denied Freedom of Conscience

by Katherine Beck Johnson

October 23, 2019

The Little Sisters of the Poor were back in court yet again yesterday, this time losing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Back in 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The mandate required employers to provide contraceptives, including the week-after pill, free-of-cost in their health insurance plans. HHS offered only a very narrow religious exemption. So narrow, it did not include non-profits—such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who assist the impoverished who are at the end of their lives with nowhere else to go. These nuns have dedicated their lives to their faith and to serving the poor. Yet, these women were sued and told that they must violate their conscience by providing contraception through their insurance.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters. The Court said the government should be provided an opportunity “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates the petitioners’ religious beliefs.” On May 4, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that directed the secretaries of federal agencies to consider regulations that would address the conscience-based objections to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. On November 7, 2018, the federal government complied with the Supreme Court’s ruling and the president’s executive order by issuing a new rule protecting religious liberty. This new rule provided religious ministries, entities, and persons holding sincere religious beliefs with an exemption to the contraceptive and sterilization coverage.

Soon after the rule was issued, states including Pennsylvania and California sued the federal government to ensure that the Little Sisters of the Poor would not be exempted from providing contraception. Even though these states have programs that provide contraceptives to women who want them, these states insist that non-profits, including the Little Sisters, must either be forced to violate their conscience or else cease to exist.  

In July 2019, the Third Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Third Circuit claimed that the Women’s Health Amendment to the ACA did not grant the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA, a component of HHS) the authority to exempt entities from providing insurance coverage for contraceptive services. On October 22, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued a similar ruling and affirmed the preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit said, “the statute delegates to HRSA the discretion to determine which types of preventative care are covered, but the statute does not delegate to HRSA or any other agency the discretion to exempt who must meet the obligation.” Thus, the Ninth Circuit and the Third Circuit prevented relief for the Little Sisters of the Poor by issuing an injunction and blocking the implementation of a rule that would allow religious protections.

The Supreme Court needs to settle the debate and rule that the government cannot require people and groups to violate their conscience by providing contraceptive services. The Court should uphold the HHS rule, which protects the inherent human right of religious liberty. This liberty promotes the common good and allows society to flourish. The Little Sisters of the Poor certainly promote the common good as they assist the poorest in society. Violating their conscience ought not to be a precondition for the Little Sisters assisting those most in need.

Federal Court Ruling in Texas Is a Big Win for Religious Liberty

by Katherine Beck Johnson

October 16, 2019

An Obama-era regulation went to court recently at a U.S. federal courthouse in Texas. In Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, Judge Reed O’Connor issued an opinion striking down a Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring doctors to perform gender transition procedures. Judge O’Connor held that the Rule violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

In May 2016, the federal government, through HHS, issued a mandate that would require a doctor to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including a child. The Rule required doctors to provide these procedures even if the doctor believed it could harm the patient. In addition, the mandate required virtually all private insurance companies and many employers to cover gender reassignment therapy. If the insurance companies or employers refused, they would face severe penalties and legal action. While HHS exempted Medicare and Medicaid, they expressly prohibited religious exemptions. The Plaintiffs asked the District Court to vacate the Rule and convert its previously entered preliminary injunction to a permanent injunction.

Judge O’Connor held that the Rule violates RFRA. The Rule substantially burdened Plaintiffs’ sincere religious beliefs without a compelling interest. In addition, the Rule expressly prohibits religious exemptions.

The Plaintiffs’ refusal to perform, refer for, or cover transitions or abortions is a sincere religious exercise. In order to follow this sincere religious belief, the mandate requires extensive expenses. The Rule places significant pressure to perform and cover transition and abortion procedures, it forces Plaintiffs to provide the federal government an extremely persuasive justification for their refusal to perform or cover such procedures, and it requires them to remove the categorical exclusion of transitions and abortions. Judge O’Connor found that the Rule makes the practice of religion more expensive in the business context.  

Judge O’Connor ruled that the Defendants did not provide a compelling interest that would justify the burden on religious exercise. Those advocating in favor of the mandate argued that a compelling interest was specified in the preamble to the Rule, which states, “the government has a compelling interest in ensuring that individuals have nondiscriminatory access to health care and health coverage.” Judge O’Connor found that although that could arguably satisfy a categorical application of strict scrutiny, it cannot satisfy RFRA’s “more focused” inquiry. He said that even if those in favor of the mandate had provided a compelling interest, they failed to prove the Rule employs the least restrictive means.

The Rule was vacated (as opposed to a less severe permanent injunction) because it was found to be arbitrary and capricious. The Rule was found to be “contrary to law” under the APA due to its conflict with Title IX, its incorporated statute.

Judge O’Connor’s ruling is a huge win for religious liberty. HHS under President Trump is also working to take strides that further protect religious liberty. In May 2019, HHS proposed bringing its regulations into compliance with those decisions and ensuring that the government did not interfere and require a person to go against their convictions to provide gender transition procedures. The win in Texas coupled with the new rules from HHS provide optimism for the future of religious liberty.

Eighth Circuit: Minnesota Can’t Force Small Business to Make Same-Sex Wedding Videos

by Peter Sprigg

September 5, 2019

National media gave scant attention to an important court decision on August 23. The ruling in Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, was another landmark in the ongoing debate about whether governments can force small businesses in the wedding industry to participate in same-sex weddings, over the conscientious objection of their owners.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a baker who had declined to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. However, the court ruled that Phillips had been a victim of specific anti-religious discrimination by the Colorado tribunal that sought to punish him, so they did not definitively address the fundamental free speech concerns that his attorneys had raised.

Telescope Media Group (TMG) is a business founded by Carl and Angel Larsen, videographers who wished to create a business that would make wedding videos, and in the process promote natural marriages between one man and one woman. They sued Minnesota public officials to prevent them from using the Minnesota Human Rights Act to force the couple to make videos of same-sex weddings as well.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit panel ruled in the Larsens’ favor, saying that “the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say.” Perhaps that’s why it was largely ignored by the national media.

The breakdown of the vote also shows how important judicial appointments are. The opinion was written by David Stras, a 45-year-old Trump appointee, on the bench since January 2018. He was formerly on the Minnesota Supreme Court (having been appointed by former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty). The other judge in the majority was 67-year-old Bobby Shepherd, appointed by George W. Bush and on the bench since 2006. Meanwhile, there was a dissent by Judge Jane L. Kelly, a 54-year-old Obama appointee who has been on the bench since 2013.

This was on appeal of the District Court’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction, so it is not a final decision on the merits. However, it is an encouraging decision in that it is based squarely on the free speech claims (or in this case, the right to be free from government-compelled speech) made by the plaintiffs. The court also accepted a “hybrid rights” claim incorporating the free exercise of religion.

Since precedent has established that videos represent a form of speech, whether the principles articulated would apply with equal force to bakers or florists may still have to be argued in other cases. However, the fact that this case was decided (at least for now) on free speech grounds, rather than the anti-religious discrimination grounds used in Masterpiece, makes it a stronger precedent for those concerned about protecting free speech and religious liberty.

Tell the government what you think. Should conscience rights be protected? Should discrimination based on sex include ‘gender identity?’

by FRC

August 8, 2019

Do you ever wish that government officials had to listen to what you have to say? Comment here and they must review your comment. No, really, it’s required by federal law.

The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is considering a rule making important changes to Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and is still taking public comments. This rule would protect the conscience rights of people of faith who have a moral objection to performing abortions. It would also undo an Obama-era regulation on Section 1557 that shoehorned “gender identity” into the definition of “sex” (as opposed to meaning just “male” and “female”).

Here’s what Family Research Council Action said in an alert on this HHS Rule:

Doctors – and patients – need your help! Here’s how: send a comment to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar! The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a proposed rule to remove old Obama Administration regulations that would prevent doctors from being able to treat patients based strictly on science, biology, and their medical judgment!

The old regulation said that “sex” means “gender identity” meaning that if a doctor didn’t affirm a patient’s self-identified gender they could be sued for discrimination. Medical judgment and what is best for the patient didn’t matter!

Just a few weeks ago a woman sadly lost her baby because she presented to the hospital as a man and she was not properly diagnosed has having pregnancy-related difficulties.

In order to help ensure that this bad regulation is replaced, HHS needs to hear from you today! By law, HHS is required to review your public comment so your voice will be heard! Even if you comment anonymously! The activists on the left are mobilizing comments and your voice is needed!

Please comment today!

Thank you!

Dilshat Perhat Ataman: A Prisoner of Conscience in China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 3, 2019

As the United States and China continue to discuss trade, we have a unique opportunity to raise religious freedom concerns such as that country’s ongoing detention of Christian pastors and mass repression of Uyghur Muslims. It is therefore encouraging to see Family Research Council President and chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Tony Perkins announce yesterday that he was formally adopting Dilshat Perhat Ataman as a prisoner of conscience to highlight his case of unjust imprisonment due to his faith.

Dilshat is a Uyghur Muslim currently detained in a “re-education” internment camp in China’s Xinjiang province.

Dilshat founded and managed a popular website called “Diyarim,” which promoted Uyghur history and culture and provided a social media platform to the Uyghur community. In 2009, he was arrested by Chinese authorities and charged with “endangering state security” after a comment was posted in a chatroom on his website about the Chinese government’s suppression of Uyghur protests.

After serving five years in prison, Dilshat was released in 2014. Yet, his freedom was short-lived. In June 2018, he was rearrested without reason from the Chinese authorities—this time he was taken to a “re-education” internment camp.

Those who have been released from these camps describe how Uyghurs are tortured during interrogation, live in crowded cells, and are subjected to extensive daily regimens of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination (as seen in this BBC report). Detainees routinely face harsh treatment and are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, sometimes leading to their death. 

The Chinese government has invested a lot of resources to surveil and suppress Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who are mostly Muslim. Yet, it is not a contradiction to say that Christians must care about the suffering they face due to their religious beliefs and advocate on their behalf.  

Christians believe that God is in control of human affairs yet gives people the freedom to choose their beliefs. Just as God gives people that freedom, we should defend the freedom of others to choose and live out their religious convictions without any government harassing, oppressing, imprisoning, or killing people for expressing their basic right to religious freedom.

What the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghurs is evil—and that should be something everyone is concerned about.

Dilshat is one of at least 880,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uyghurs who are detained in Chinese “re-education” internment camps.

The injustice of China’s detention of Dilshat Perhat Ataman in a “re-education” camp is obvious. Hopefully, by bringing Dilshat’s case to light, there will be a greater awareness of the plight of Uyghur Muslims who are targeted for persecution because the Chinese government views their religious beliefs as a threat to the political ideology and authority of the Communist Party.

Is Chai Feldblum Reconsidering Religious Freedom?

by Peter Sprigg

December 21, 2018

I found it interesting that Chai Feldblum saw fit to respond to Everett Piper’s op-ed on the “Fairness for All” proposal, and to deny that her position is “that LGBT rights must always prevail, no matter what.” Her summary statement does sound more generous to religious liberty than other things she’s been quoted as saying in the past:

I believe there are some situations in which the rights of religious liberty for organizations who believe homosexuality is sinful will conflict with and should prevail over the rights of LGBT people who might experience discrimination at the hands of such religious organizations.

But what are some examples of those “situations?” And how does she define “religious organizations?” She never says.

I don’t doubt that Feldblum, in her concern for “religious pluralism,” would probably say pastors should not be forced to perform same-sex weddings, and churches should not be forced to hire pastors who identify as homosexual. But do “religious organizations” include anything other than churches, synagogues, and mosques? It would be nice to know.

Throughout her op-ed, she mentions only “religious organizations.” She does not talk about protecting the rights of profit-making organizations (e.g., Masterpiece Cakeshop), nor about the rights of religious individuals (e.g., Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran). My guess is that her concern for the “rights of religious liberty” simply does not extend to them.

I carefully analyzed her position in our paper opposing her renomination to the EEOC a year ago. Here is an excerpt:

Feldblum was best known to conservatives, however, for her blunt statements discounting the idea that the free exercise of religion should ever be allowed to trump “rights” asserted by those who identify as homosexual.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty held a conference in December 2005 regarding potential conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Feldblum participated, and Maggie Gallagher drew attention to Feldblum’s views in a 2006 Weekly Standard article.

Sexual liberty should win in most cases,” Feldblum declared. “There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win …” In fact, she declared, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

Feldblum understands what this means for religious believers. In a related article [2006], she declared that “we are in a zero-sum game: a gain for one side necessarily entails a corresponding loss for the other side,” adding later, “And, in making the decision in this zero-sum game, I am convinced society should come down on the side of protecting the liberty of LGBT people.” Indeed, she openly endorses government coercion of the believer: “To the extent that forced compliance with an equality mandate burdened an individual’s belief liberty, my argument … is that such a burden is likely to be justified.”

Feldblum admitted that the heavy-handed approach she favors goes well beyond Supreme Court precedent, noting that:

[T]he Supreme Court, for the moment, has come down clearly on the side that the liberty protected by the substantive Due Process Clause is solely a negative liberty. … But in many circumstances, the only way to achieve real liberty for some individuals will be for the government to take affirmative steps to bring about that liberty—even if such steps might then interfere with the liberty of others.”

Feldblum deserves some credit for describing more accurately than most the moral concerns that social conservatives have regarding homosexual conduct, and for at least acknowledging the reality of the conflict between “gay rights” and religious liberty. And she has been gracious to participate in events like the Becket conference, and even in a 2008 panel discussion held at Family Research Council.

However, this should not be allowed to mask the extremism of her positions. After she wrote that the courts should essentially ignore the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment (recognizing only a more nebulous “belief liberty” instead), she admitted that “my suggestions are radical.”

And more recently, since she has been on the EEOC, she has also expressed skepticism of religious exemptions:

Feldblum has continued to state her view that religious liberty exemptions should be extremely narrow. For example, at an “LGBT Summit” sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in December 2015, she participated in a panel discussion with David Boaz of the Cato Institute, who identifies both as gay and 5 as a libertarian (and who supported the redefinition of marriage). The issue of private businesses impacted by non-discrimination laws, such as those in the wedding industry, was discussed, as Reason magazine reported:

Boaz stated: “I think we have millions of small businesses, and I would like to leave the heavy hand of government out of their relationships with their customers and their employees as much as possible.”

… Feldblum, however, dismissed the idea that religious beliefs could ever justify discrimination. “When someone has not been educated [about tolerance of LGBT individuals] and wants to keep discriminating,” she said, “there is only one federal government, there is only one state government, one local government that can say: We will not tolerate this in our society.”

Feldblum then referred to an EEOC case against a funeral home charged with “gender identity” discrimination:

With a religious exemption to non-discrimination laws, the funeral home owner “could say, ‘well, actually, we’re religiously based,’” said Feldblum, raising her arms high and rolling her eyes. “It’s a funeral home! We do not want to allow that and the only thing that can protect us is a law that doesn’t have [a religious] exemption.”

LGBT activists like Feldblum are unlikely to accept any vision of religious liberty that extends beyond the four walls of a church’s sanctuary. But the “free exercise” of religion extends not just to churches but to individuals, and in every sphere of endeavor, including the public square and marketplace.

Religious Liberty and the “Wedding Vendor” Cases

by Family Research Council

December 4, 2018

This year, the United States Supreme Court vindicated the free exercise rights of Jack Phillips, a cake baker from Colorado, who had suffered government discrimination after he declined to bake a cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony based on his conviction that a marriage is only between a man and a woman. Yet Jack’s ordeal wasn’t done; he was subsequently sued and has an ongoing case because he didn’t want to be forced to create a cake with a message about the transgender lifestyle he believed to be false.

Melissa and Aaron Klein, bakers from Oregon and formerly of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, are now asking the Supreme Court to review their case, which arose under similar circumstances. The Supreme Court could decide any day whether to review their case. If the Court does, they may get relief. If it doesn’t, the Kleins are stuck with an oppressive and unconstitutional state court ruling against them.

Their cases are not unique; attacks against traditional beliefs in marriage have been on the rise. Why is that?

Several years ago, the United States Supreme Court observed that “[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” That quotation came from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court decision that ushered in a new era in the law surrounding religious liberty.

It is important that the Supreme Court recognized the sincerity of the orthodox belief that marriage is a sacred institution only available between one man and one woman. But by making marriage between two people of the same sex a constitutional right, Obergefell made it easier for courts and legislatures around the nation to conclude that same-sex couples have rights that somehow trump those of all who disagree—and thus violate their consciences.

We have seen this primarily in the wedding vendor industry, the subject of our newly updated publication released today, Religious Liberty and the “Wedding Vendor” Cases. Business owners across the country have had to face the unacceptable choice of violating their religious beliefs or losing their livelihoods—all because they will not use their skills to affirm or facilitate the celebration of a same-sex wedding.

Today, we bring to your attention fifteen cases where business owners have had to collectively endure thousands of hours of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for sticking to their beliefs in natural marriage. This is an unacceptable affront to every American’s constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion, and we must stand to ensure that this latest campaign against the freedom of conscience comes to an end.

For more information, read our newly updated publication.

Hacksaw Ridge and the Value of Conscientious Objectors

by Family Research Council

October 12, 2018

Seventy-three years ago today, on October 12, 1945, President Harry S. Truman awarded Private First Class (then-Corporal) Desmond T. Doss the Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts during his service in the Pacific theater of World War II. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist. When he entered the military as a conscientious objector, he did so with the convictions that his faith required that he take a sabbath and that, under the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” he must never touch a weapon to kill another man, even in war.

The deeply-rooted, American value of religious liberty protected Doss’s beliefs. Rights of conscience have been considered a component of religious freedom since the origins of this nation. Indeed, from the time of the Colonies, the government has exempted conscientious objectors from service or from the bearing of arms.

When Doss entered the service during World War II, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 protected those “subject to combatant training and service . . . who, by reason of religious training and belief, [were] conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”

The Act thus enabled Doss to participate in the war to the extent he believed his faith permitted. As his biography states, “He believed his duty was to obey God and serve his country. But it had to be in that order.”

While serving as a medic, Doss continually carried the wounded to safety during battle in the Philippines, Guam, and Japan, all without using any weapons. In Okinawa, Japan, Doss saved the lives of 75 men over the course of a single day. American soldiers had faced an unexpected counterattack by the Japanese and were ordered to retreat. Only one-third of the soldiers were able to escape from the counterattack. Despite the order to retreat, Doss remained, and he took each of the 75 men, one by one, off of the battlefield to safety.

Doss’s feats in Okinawa were detailed in his Medal of Honor Citation and were the subject of the award-winning 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, which Doss’s son said represents his father faithfully.

Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph G. LaPointe Jr. were also conscientious objectors, and they posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their acts of valor in the Vietnam War.

These men are proof that we do not accomplish freedom by boxing conscientious objectors or religious expression out of military service or the public square.

As Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone once said, “liberty of conscience” is “vital . .  to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature,” and “nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation.” Even then, “it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.”

By defending the rights of conscience, we enable individuals like Doss, Bennett, and LaPointe to contribute, in accordance with their beliefs, towards the common good and the preservation of our country.

Attacks on Counseling Threaten Pastors and Churches

by Travis Weber

March 23, 2018

Recently, California state legislators proposed a bill which would outlaw counseling—even that which is freely entered—for anyone who wanted help changing their unwanted same-sex attraction. We have seen such efforts before, but this one is noteworthy for how expansive it is—it covers individuals, associations, and “other group[s],” in addition to traditional businesses. As Alliance Defending Freedom points out, it could even implicate churches: “It could be a violation [of this proposed law] if a pastor encourages a congregant to visit the church bookstore to purchase books that help people address sexual issues, perhaps including the Bible itself, which teaches about the importance of sexual purity within the confines of marriage between a man and woman.” While outlawing such pastoral advice (the bill would consider it fraudulent “goods and services”), the bill completely endorses advice designed to cement same-sex attraction.

Masquerading as consumer protection and medical oversight, this is simply blatant and open discrimination against one side of our society’s debate on sexual ethics. Yet sin wants to suppress the truth, and even the idea that someone can help someone else change their sexual attractions implies that what one may be doing is not all good and healthy. This threat implicates not just businesses and Christians in the public eye, but all Christians who hold to a biblical position on these issues. It won’t matter how one approaches the issue. We should always speak the truth in love because that’s the right thing to do, but that won’t exempt us from being targeted. Our biblical beliefs themselves are the target. It is crucial that all Christians in America understand this social dynamic.

This legislative development in California echoes the situation involving Metro City Church in Michigan, which took heavy criticism for offering a program to help teens who are questioning their sexuality walk through their situation from a biblical perspective. The program approached the issue very cautiously—and was defined by merely discussing the matter of sexuality by looking at what the Bible had to say about it. Yet in response, numerous activists subjected the church and its pastor, Jeremy Schossau, to vitriolic online attacks, criticism, and threats (including potentially criminal behavior), and two state legislators have called for the church to be “investigated” for offering “conversion therapy.”

While we have seen such vitriol often directed at those who advocate a biblical worldview on this issue, direct targeting of churches and pastors has been relatively rare. Yet this incident serves as a reminder that many of the religious freedom struggles we are facing will eventually reach any church which teaches an orthodox biblical position on questions of sexuality.

Moreover, in this case, nothing remotely controversial was occurring; the church was just trying to go to the Bible for answers on this topic. Along with the proposed California legislation, these developments make clear that the problem is not the way something is said, but the Christian position on these issues itself is what is opposed.

We must defend the ability of pastors and their churches to decide what is said in church … not the government. The First Amendment makes absolutely clear that the government has no power to tell churches what advice they can give or require a license to give that advice, and the First Amendment to the Constitution still guarantees the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Additionally, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from assessing theology and targeting the theological beliefs it doesn’t like. This is the current law, but we must give voice to our rights to see them protected.

After the Supreme Court constitutionalized same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, many wondered whether pastors would be pressured into performing same-sex marriages. Perhaps the bigger question now is whether they will be threatened into compromising their larger biblical perspective on sexuality.

FRC is standing with Pastor Jeremy, and attempting to raise awareness of the religious freedom implications of this situation. To stand with Pastor Jeremy, please sign our petition at FRC.org/Metro to tell these legislators they cannot prohibit this pastor or his church from exercising their First Amendment rights.

For more information on Pastor Jeremy’s situation, please see:

FRC Washington Update articles:

Also: 

 

Sixth Circuit Shows Why SOGIs Are a Threat to Religious Freedom

by Travis Weber

March 12, 2018

Last week, in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the religious freedom claim of a funeral home owner who wanted to run his business in accordance with his faith—and did not want to accede to the “gender identity” discrimination claim of an employee who desired to remain an employee while living out his transgendered lifestyle as he saw fit. The case is still ongoing (the appeals court ordered the case remanded for a lower court to continue sorting out), but there’s a very real possibility that business owner Thomas Rost may now be forced out of the marketplace rather than violate his faith.

This is the first federal court case dealing with a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim in the context of a sexual orientation and/or gender identity (SOGI) nondiscrimination claim (the only other such case is the state-level case of print shop owner Blaine Adamson in Kentucky), and SOGI came out the victor. The concerns of those who have warned of the religious freedom threat of SOGIs are validated by this decision.

The Sixth Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Karen Moore, got its analysis wrong on several levels. First, the court claimed it was somehow very clear that Title VII sex discrimination prohibitions include “gender identity”—despite the fact that no court considered such a possibility for decades. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginburg, writing about the proposed Equal Rights Amendment decades ago, did not take “gender identity” under consideration as she dismissed concerns that sex nondiscrimination provisions could force bathrooms to be opened up to the opposite biological sex. So when the Sixth Circuit says “[n]or can much be gleaned from the fact that … statutes, such as the Violence Against Women Act, expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of ‘gender identity,’ while Title VII does not,” it isn’t very convincing. If it was so clear, no court would ever have rejected the notion that “gender identity” falls under sex discrimination—yet many have.

The court continued to err when it analyzed the religious freedom issue here. The funeral home relied on RFRA as a defense to the SOGI claim, asserting that a sincere religious belief had been substantially burdened. At that point, the EEOC could only have prevailed if it had a compelling government interest which was accomplished through the least restrictive means.

Judge Moore incredibly (and erroneously) claimed it was not a “substantial burden” on religious exercise to “forc[e] [the Funeral Home] to violate Rost’s faith,” which “would significantly pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.” Yet it is an elementary principle of RFRA analysis to observe there is a substantial burden on someone who is told they must compromise their beliefs in order to retain their job. The court accepted that Rost sincerely believed he should not be “directly involved in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift,” but then summarily dismissed his concern, concluding that “tolerating [his employee’s] understanding of … sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

The court tries to rely on lower federal court adjudications in the HHS mandate contraceptive litigation, claiming that “[m]ost circuits, including this one, have recognized that a party can sincerely believe that he is being coerced into engaging in conduct that violates his religious convictions without actually, as a matter of law, being so engaged.” Yet this second-guessing of religious beliefs has been roundly repudiated by the Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court observed decades ago that “[r]epeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim.” Moreover, despite citing HHS mandate cases from the lower courts, Judge Moore skips over the fact that when the Supreme Court handled those cases on appeal in Zubik v. Burwell, the justices told the parties to come to a resolution while honoring the religious exercise at issue, rather than flatly dismissing the substantial burden on the religious claimants.

After concluding there was no substantial burden on religious exercise, Judge Moore didn’t need to continue her analysis, but did so anyway, offering her view that it was a compelling interest to force the funeral home to accede to the transgendered employee’s demands: “Failing to enforce Title VII against the Funeral Home means the EEOC would be allowing a particular person—Stephens—to suffer discrimination, and such an outcome is directly contrary to the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in the workforce.” The court did not want to “hoist automatically Rost’s religious interests above other compelling governmental concerns.” The Sixth Circuit then concluded that uniform enforcement of sex nondiscrimination provisions without religious exceptions was the least restrictive means to accomplish this compelling government interest of eradicating discrimination.

What are we to make of this? Aside from realizing that judges are not exempt from the temptation to arrive at a conclusion and then craft reasoning to help one get there, the court’s opinion shows us that businesses seeking religious freedom protections need to state clearly and regularly their religious nature (though part of a separate ministerial exemption analysis, the court did hold the business’s lack of numerous and overt religious indicia against it).

More relevant for our current religious freedom concerns, this case shows the inability of RFRA to adjudicate modern religious freedom disputes with certainty, as the statute allows judges the leeway to craft conclusions of their own liking, an even bigger danger when issues of sexuality—on which they want to be on the “right side of history”—are involved in the case.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, this opinion demonstrates that when RFRA and SOGI claims intersect, the SOGI claims will likely win (and will almost certainly win in the hands of judges under social and cultural pressure to reach a certain result), thus vindicating many who have claimed that SOGI laws themselves are a threat to religious freedom.

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