The Supreme Court’s term ended at the end of June. That means it’s a good time of year to take a look at their recent rulings. There was something of a theme this first term with Justice Gorsuch on the bench. There were a number of rulings related to the First Amendment. And mostly it turns out the majority, by a thin—and stretched—line, supports what our Founders thought of as God-given, self-evident rights.
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Remember, the Bill of Rights wasn’t included in the original Constitution, not because those were afterthoughts, but because they were so well accepted as obvious that they didn’t require being spelled out. But some of them, including George Mason, Governor of Virginia, who had been a major contributor to much of the Constitution, decided they’d better include that Bill of Rights—in case there came a time when the people didn’t have the same understanding as the Founders.
That was prescient. Now it’s hard to come up with Supreme Court justices, let alone a majority of people on the street, who are aware of natural rights, and recognize they are bestowed by God, not by government. Now we have people positing we should “repeal” the Second Amendment, as if that would take away our God-given right to defend ourselves. You can’t “repeal” a God-given right; but you can have a tyrannical government that not only fails to protect that right, but also infringes on it—or even stomps on it.
So, back to the list of First Amendment rulings:
· National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra
· Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
· Janus v. American Federation
· Rowan County v. Lund
National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra
“A government that tells you what you can’t say in dangerous, but a government that tells you what you must say—under threat of severe punishment—is alarming.” Those are the words of Michael Ferris, President of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), following oral arguments in this case. This case is out of California, where people think differently from freedom-loving Americans. There are some freedom-loving Americans in California, as there probably are in all tyrannical regimes, but they’re outnumbered there.
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NIFLA, a crisis pregnancy center, offering free services and followup care in service of their pro-life beliefs, were ordered by the state to advertise, on their walls, abortion services. Other similar service centers had joined NIFLA in the suit. Becerra is California’s Attorney General, who was enforcing the state’s reproductive FACT Act (reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency).
Let’s put this in some other terms. Say there’s a fast food chain, Chick-fil-A, which sells chicken sandwiches, rather than hamburgers. Suppose government insisted that they must advertise nearby hamburger fast food restaurants on their walls: McDonald’s, Burger King, Whataburger. Their mission is to provide non-beef food. Wouldn’t it go against their mission to advertise other restaurants that do other things?
Maybe we can get the analogy even closer to home. Suppose there’s a vegan restaurant, whose mission is to sell non-meat foods. But the meat lobby convinces government that they need to force vegan restaurants to advertise, on the walls of their establishment, nearby meat-providing restaurants. Should government be allowed to make and enforce such a law?
That’s the kind of question we’re looking at in the NIFLA case. It’s a bit more complex, because of arguments about professional speech (which, it turns out, is still protected speech), and that these nonprofits are being coerced to advertise the government’s services that go against their beliefs and mission.
The ruling, reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, was a 5-4 decision. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, and Gorsuch. Justice Kennedy also wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch. Justice Breyer wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg.
It’s a bare win. Which shows how very important it is to get yet another judge who will follow the Constitution, rather than try to argue for a political goal and pretend they’re arguing for the Constitution. [The announcement came as I was writing.]
After the ruling, ADF’s Michael Farris said this:
No one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions, especially on deeply divisive subjects such as abortion. In this case, the government used its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion. The Supreme Court said that the government can’t do that, and that it must respect pro-life beliefs. Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a diverse society lie ours. They enable us to peacefully coexist with one another. If we want to have freedom for ourselves, we have to extend it to others.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
I wrote about this case when the ruling came down in early June. In short, the case pits public accommodations laws against First Amendment freedom of religion rights.
|Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop|
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The Court drew up short in finalizing that decision, saying that courts could not show prejudice against religious beliefs, which the Colorado commission had done. So the actual question—Can the government force a cake artist to design a wedding cake that celebrates a same-sex marriage? Or, more broadly, Can the government force a person who provides a creative service to use those talents/abilities in direct opposition to the person’s religion?—that question will have to be settled another time. There are pending cases.
One of those cases awaiting the answer to the questions was Barronelle Stutzman’s case, Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington State. It was on the docket for ruling, but in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, on June 25th the judgment was vacated, and the case was remanded to the Supreme Court of Washington for further consideration.
That means the state court will have to consider whether it’s decision was biased against religious beliefs. They may claim that it was not, even though we know that it was—the persecution against her is pretty obvious, since she never denied service to anyone, and her client wasn’t even miffed with her, let alone injured. If the state supreme court rules the same again, it goes to a Circuit Court of Appeals again, with the same possible results. But in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Colorado Commission actually spoke its prejudice aloud.
But, if it comes before the Supreme Court again—with another conservative judge replacing Justice Kennedy—then the outcome is highly likely to go in her favor. And the real question is much more likely to get answered: no, the government cannot coerce a person into servitude against that person’s religion. As the Founders though, that should go without saying.
Anyway, additional cases awaiting that answer are still in lower court jurisdictions:
· Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, owners of art studio Brush & Nib, asking Arizona’s Supreme Court to protect them from the threat of jail time or burdensome fine for claiming the right not to be forced to create art that conflicts with their beliefs.
· Blaine Adamson, a promotional printer, with a business called Hands On Originals, asking Kentucky’s Supreme Court to prevent him from being forced to print messages that conflict with his faith.
· Atlanta Fire Chief Kevin Cochrane, whose case has not been heard by a jury and ruled on, but who is suing for wrongful firing, after being terminated for religious writings he wrote in his spare time and shared never shared during office hours or to professional colleagues. The terrible thing he wrote? That marriage is between one man and one woman—which is the very thing Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton were both claiming to believe in 2008 and beyond.
Masterpiece Cakeshop and others have this “et al.” in their titles, meaning there are other parties involved. I’m not sure of all the individual other parties. There was a family-owned bakery in Oregon, Melissa's Sweet cakes, who were fined $135,000 and lost their family business due to the persecution over the religious freedom issue. There’s a farm that used to host weddings at their farm/home, until they refused to be forced to host same-sex “weddings” in what is their actual home, where their children reside. There are photographer cases as well.
So the question will probably be answered eventually. And, if the choice for SCOTUS is a good one, it is likely to go in favor of religious freedom.
Janus v. American Federation
In this case, the state of Illinois has had a law requiring workers in public sector jobs to pay union dues, regardless of membership in a union, even when they disagree with the union’s efforts, both political and in collective bargaining.
The syllabus, the brief summary before the written opinions in the ruling, offers this explanation (I’ve skipped over the citations).
The State’s extractions of agency fees from nonconsenting public sector employees violates the First Amendment. Abood [previous similar case] erred in concluding otherwise, and stare decisis cannot support it. Abbod is therefore overruled…. Abood’s holding is inconsistent with standard First Amendment principles…. Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable raises serious First Amendment concerns…. That includes compelling a person to subsidize the speech of other private speakers…. In Knox and Harris v. Quinn…, the Court applied an “exacting” scrutiny standard in judging the constitutionality of agency fees rather than the more traditional strict scrutiny. Even under the more permissive standard, Illinois’ scheme cannot survive.
This was an incremental ruling. Past cases allowed employees to object to their dues being spent for political purposes. The Janus case extends that to other purposes. The union was speaking for the employee, saying things in the bargaining process on his behalf that he did not want to have said. But he was compelled to pay for the union to say those things against his will.
In summary, this is what the case rules:
The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.
It was another 5-4 decision, along the usual lines, this time with Kennedy going in favor of First Amendment speech rights.
In other words, four of the justices believe it is acceptable to compel speech—or agreement by forced payment of dues—of employees in order to avoid the free ride issue.
We need to talk sometime about the use of the word “liberal” in relation to those who are not in favor of “conserving” the Constitution. The Constitution is about freedom, and protecting that freedom. The opposition to that, therefore, is anti-freedom, which is anti-liberty—or illiberal. Coerced behavior is what the four dissenting judges favor.
Rowan County v. Lund
The case of Rowan County v. Lund was denied a writ of certiorari—in other words, the Supreme Court didn’t rule on it after all.
In this case, the legislators in Rowan County, North Carolina take turns offering prayers at the beginning of their meetings. There is no paid or invited clergy. No one dictates the content of the prayer. This has been done historically since such meetings in this county began. But some citizens decided to sue the legislators for establishing a religion. The citizens won their suit up through the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Fourth Circuit said Rowan County must bring in paid sectarian chaplains to offer the prayers.
Justice Thomas dissented from the denial, and was joined by Justice Gorsuch. As Justice Thomas put it,
This Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is in disarray. Sometimes our precedents focus on whether a “reasonable observer” would think that a government practice endorses religion; other times our precedents focus on whether a government practice is supported by this country’s history and tradition…. Happily, our precedents on legislative prayer tend to fall in the latter camp…. Yet the decision below did not adhere to this historical approach. In ruling that Rowan County must change the prayers it uses to open its board meetings, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit emphasized that the county’s prayers are led by the legislators themselves, not by paid chaplains or guest ministers. This analysis failed to appreciate the long history of legislator-led prayer in this country, and it squarely contradicted a recent decision of the Sixth Circuit. I would have granted Rowan County’s petition for certiorari.
Of the direction given by the Fourth Circuit, to bring in paid clergy, Justice Thomas adds this footnote:
In addition to having little basis in history, the Fourth Circuit’s decision has little basis in logic. It is hard to see how prayers led by sectarian chaplains whose salaries are paid by taxpayers—a practice this Court has upheld…, could be less of a government establishment than prayers voluntarily given by legislators.
He offers this final point about conflicting rulings:
The Sixth Circuit, also sitting en banc, recently surveyed this history and upheld a municipal prayer policy virtually identical to Rowan County’s…. The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that its decision was “in conflict with the Fourth Circuit’s” but found the latter “unpersuasive,”… not least because the Fourth Circuit “apparently did not consider the numerous examples of [legislator-led] prayers” in our Nation’s history…. Thus, the Sixth and Fourth Circuits are now split on the legality of legislator-led prayer. State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia. This Court should have stepped in to resolve this conflict.
Indeed, conflicting circuit court decisions are a usual reason for the Supreme Court to take on a case.
This one shouldn’t be so difficult. There seems to be a misunderstanding of what establishing a religion means. It is a far cry from allowing, or even encouraging, religion or religious behavior. To establish a religion is to make a particular set of beliefs the state-endorsed and state-enforced religion. Not stepping in to prevent free Americans to behave in religious behaviors of their choice ought to always be the default choice of a government protecting the free exercise of religion—the first of the First Amendment rights.
What is the best remedy for Rowan County, North Carolina, now? To continue doing what it is doing, assert its Tenth Amendment rights to decide issues not enumerated as powers given to the federal government, and assert its First Amendment rights to both exercise their religion freely, but to prohibit the federal government from making any law (including by judiciary, which has no lawmaking powers in the first place) prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
If all of us, in every state, had that reaction to Supreme Court overreach, we could breathe easier over whomever the President appoints to that bench.