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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Some thoughts on Holt v. Hobbs

Like Paul, I say "congrats" to Doug Laycock for the win in Hobbs.  And, while waiting for Paul's as-per-usual detailed and thoughtful take on the case, I gathered a few quick thoughts of my own:  

First, it seems to me that the opinion by Justice Alito is exceptionally well crafted.  It should win a Green Bag award or something.  It touches the necessary bases and stops.  The language is clear and functional.  (It reveals no idiosyncratic aversion to adverbs and includes no cringe-inducing attempts at grandeur.)  One knows, at every point in the analysis, where one is.

Second, Justice Alito confirmed (as he had in Hobby Lobby) that RLUIPA (and RFRA) should not be read narrowly so that it reaches no farther than did the more narrow of the Court's Free Exercise Clause decisions.  Here, he rejected the notion (which some earlier cases might have endorsed) that "the availability of alternative means of practicing religion is a relevant consideration" for purposes of deciding whether RLUIPA's protections are triggered.

Third, Justice Alito reminded readers that "RLUIPA . . . applies to an exercise of religion regardless of whether it is 'compelled'" by the claimant's religious beliefs or traditions.  (Put another way, RFRA and RLUIPA do more, as Justice Alito reads them, than protect religious claimants from being compelled to do what they believe their religion absolutely forbids.)  Fourth, and related, the lead opinion insists that "the protection of RLUIPA, no less than the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause, is 'not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.'"  So, it would not be relevant to the "substantial burden" inquiry under RLUIPA if not all Muslims believe men must grow beards.

These last three points, together, are very helpful, I think, in helping me think about the idea of "substantial burdens" in the accommodation-of-religion context.  What it is that we are asking about, I think, when we ask about "substantiality" is not the power or weight of the belief, or its centrality, or its orthodoxy, or its plausibility.  We are asking, instead, about the nature, weight, size, etc., of the government's imposition on the sincerely asserted religious belief or practice-obligation.  There is no question, for example, that a Roman Catholic's obligation to worthily receive the Eucharist at least once a year is a very serious one, but a neutral and generally applicable law that, in application, (somehow) increased the cost to Catholics of doing so by $.01  would not impose a "substantial" burden on religious exercise.  Here, in Holt, the question is whether the penalty imposed or threatened by the government is substantial.  And, it is.

Next, the Court was appropriately underwhelmed by the invocation - in broad and general terms -- of a "compelling interest" in prison security and safety. Rather, "RLUIPA, like RFRA, contemplates a  'more focused' inquiry and 'requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law 'to the person'––the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened."  And, relatedly, the Court meaningfully -- while giving appropriate consideration to the prison context -- engaged the question whether applying the prison-grooming rule to the claimant, without exception, was the least-restrictive means of accomplishing the government's important goals.

In a separate opinion, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor clarified (and perhaps qualified) their agreement with the lead opinion.  Justice Ginsburg wrote:

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v.
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. ___ (2014), accommodating
petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not
detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s
belief. See id., at ___, ___–___, and n. 8, ___ (slip op., at 2,
7–8, and n. 8, 27) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting). On that
understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.

While I understand why Justice Alito (and others who joined his opinion) would not think it necessary to respond to this statement, I also wish one of the Justices had.  The claim that it violates the Establishment Clause to accommodate religion in ways that impose costs or burdens on third parties is one that, of course, is advanced by a number of very smart people, but I do not think it is correct -- at least, not as a broad, general matter.  As I see it (see more here), the question whether a proposed accommodation is too costly is one that RFRA and RLUIPA call to be answered through the statutorily prescribed balancing inquiry, and not through an additional, accommodation-skeptical Establishment Clause inquiry.

Finally:  today's opinion offers a very, very welcome counter to the unfair and inaccurate assertion one hears in some quarters that concerns about "religious liberty" are merely "dog whistles" or "fig leaves" for bigotry and prejudice, and so can be dismissed as such.  Some invocations of "religious liberty," and some demands for accommodation, have been, are, and will be insincere, or morally offensive, or simply ungrantable.  Many others will not.  We should take the time to distinguish -- carefully, thoughtfully, reasonably sympathetically -- between the two.

Posted by Rick Garnett on January 20, 2015 at 01:14 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Religion, Rick Garnett | Permalink

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