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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Espinoza's Recasting of Trinity Lutheran Raises Religious Liberty Questions

On its surface, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue (No. 18-1195) appears to be a complete victory for religious liberty. A 5-4 majority held that discriminating on the basis of religious status in the context of school funding violated the Free Exercise Clause. As the majority declared, “once the a State decides to [subsidize private education], it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” Slip op. 20. And the decision cast serious doubt on the discriminatory Blaine Amendments found in a majority of state constitutions. The outcome clearly belongs in the win column for Free Exercise Clause fans.

But perhaps more so than case outcomes, it is the doctrinal seeds down in the pages of the U.S. Reports that steer the course of the law. And the seeds sown in Espinoza raise unanswered questions for religious freedom. Specifically, Espinoza recasts a little discussed but significant point in Trinity Lutheran in such a way as to call into question the chances that some future religious discrimination claims will prevail.

First, a little conceptual background. The Court’s free exercise jurisprudence has three tiers of protection. In the lowest tier—laws deemed neutral and generally applicable under Employment Division v. Smith—the government must only satisfy rational basis (if even that), the least protective doctrinal test of the Court. Needlessly to say, free exercise challenges never win in this tier.

The middle tier of free exercise jurisprudence applies a strong version of strict scrutiny. The government must not only demonstrate that a law or action “advance[s] interests of the highest order,” but also that the law or action is “narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests.” Slip op. 18 (cleaned up). Not surprisingly, government infringement of religious liberty “will survive strict scrutiny only in rare cases.” Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 546.

However, there is a third tier—the most protective—in the Court’s free exercise pantheon. Sometimes the Court is unwilling to engage in any balancing with government interests, so the state’s infringement of religious liberty is categorically barred. The ministerial exception is one example of this: once a religious organization demonstrates that someone is its minister, no government interest of any kind can authorize interference with the organization’s constitutional right to control its ministers. See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 181 (2012) (“Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”) See also id. at 196 (“When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”). No judicial balancing of government interests and free exercise freedoms required.

It is not just the ministerial exception that applies this categorical prohibition. Religious tests, whether for public office or otherwise, also trigger this categorical bar, with the Court grounding this prohibition in the Free Exercise Clause (admittedly the Test Oath Clause would do the same work regarding federal office). See Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961); Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565, 621 (2014) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (“[G]overnment, in its various processes and proceedings, imposes no religious tests on its citizens.”). No judicial balancing here either.

Finally, there is a third instance that gets tier-3 categorical protection: “government mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.” Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 547. Thus, “a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4 (emphasis added) (quoting Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 533). Strict scrutiny does not apply to such a law. Id. Rather, “[t]he Free Exercise Clause categorically prohibits government from regulating, prohibiting, or rewarding religious beliefs as such.” McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618, 626 (1978) (plurality opinion) (emphasis added). And the Court has referred to this as a “rule.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4.

Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran recognized the existence of tier-3 protection, wherein the government is categorically prohibited from infringing religious liberty. While much attention has been paid to Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 3, it is footnote 4 that contains a real nugget. There Roberts declared on behalf of a majority of the Court that “[w]e have held that ‘a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.’” 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4 (quoting Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 533) (emphasis added). He also cites McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978). But, he observes, “[w]e do not need to decide whether the condition Missouri imposes in this case falls within the scope of that rule, because it cannot survive strict scrutiny in any event.” In other words, in Trinity Lutheran, a state’s discrimination in funding based on religious status may fall under the categorical bar (tier 3) or it may fall under strict scrutiny (tier 2), but because it fails the lesser test (tier 2), the Court saw no need to decide which tier applied.

Now, fast forward to the Espinoza decision. Repeatedly, Chief Justice Roberts relies on Trinity Lutheran for something that case did not actually decide: that discriminating in public funding based on religious character triggers strict scrutiny—

  • Trinity Lutheran distilled these and other decisions to the same effect into the “unremarkable” conclu­sion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character” imposes “a penalty on the free exercise of religion that trig­gers the most exacting scrutiny.” (quoting Trinity Lutheran, slip op., at 9-10). Slip op., at 8.
  • The Free Ex­ercise Clause protects against even “indirect coercion,” and a State “punishe[s] the free exercise of religion” by disqual­ifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here. Trinity Lutheran (slip op., at 10–11). Such status­ based discrimination is subject to “the strictest scrutiny.” (slip op., at 11). Slip op., at 11-12.
  • It is enough in this case to conclude that strict scrutiny applies under Trinity Lutheran because Montana’s no-aid provision discriminates based on religious status. Slip op., at 12.
  • [T]he[] dissents follow from prior separate writings, not from the Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran or the decades of precedent on which it relied. These precedents have “repeatedly confirmed” the straightforward rule that we apply today: When otherwise eligible recipients are disqualified from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character,” we must apply strict scrutiny. Trinity Lutheran (slip op., at 6-10). Slip op. at 17.
  • Because the Montana Supreme Court applied the no-aid provision to discriminate against schools and parents based on the religious character of the school, the “strictest scru­tiny” is required. (quoting Trinity Lutheran, slip op., at 11). Slip op., at 18.

This is a re-characterization of Trinity Lutheran. That case saved for another day the question of whether that religious discrimination fell “within the scope of [the categorical] rule, because it c[ould not] survive strict scrutiny in any event.” 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4. But in Espinoza the Chief unequivocally cites Trinity Lutheran for the proposition that religious discrimination based on funding requires the application of strict scrutiny. Whether accidental or not, this is a revisionist reading. And this revisionist reading makes even less sense when Espinoza points out that “the infringement of religious liberty” there “is far more sweeping than the policy in Trinity Lutheran,” and “burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend or hope to attend them.” Slip op., at 19.

This recasting of Trinity Lutheran has raises important questions for religious liberty down the road. For instance, is it no longer an open question as to whether specific targeting of religious status in the context of public funding fits under the rule of categorical prohibition (tier 3) or under strict scrutiny (tier 2)? After Espinoza, it certainly seems such discrimination fits under the latter. Though it is odd to answer that question by claiming it was decided by a previous case that refused to answer that question.

Likewise, what implications does Espinoza have for the scope of this categorical prohibition? Is it narrower? After Trinity Lutheran, the rule was that “a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4. And Trinity Lutheran relied on McDaniel, which declared that “[t]he Free Exercise Clause categorically prohibits government from regulating, prohibiting, or rewarding religious beliefs as such.” 435 U.S. at 626. After Espinoza, though, one has to wonder whether this “rule” now does not apply to the context of public funding? What about other contexts? Is Espinoza the start of a trend to narrow the scope of the categorical prohibition? Time will tell.

The devil is in the details, they say. It is especially so in doctrine. While Espinoza is at some level a gift for religious liberty, and one hates to look a gift horse in the mouth, some legal victories can contain a Trojan horse hidden in plain sight.

Posted by James Phillips on July 2, 2020 at 11:10 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Religion | Permalink


"If the school takes public funding (directly, or through tax credits), does Brown v. Board or Engel v. Vitale apply to it? If only one of the two, why?"

One barred racial segregation, the other state crafted prayers. How would the latter work here? The better question to me is limits on religious based exclusions in return for funds such as requiring parochial schools to accept students of all faiths or beliefs. Or, maybe something like children of same sex couples or trans students even if the faith is against it.

This would seem to be problematic if one held a strong free exercise position, perhaps.

"Is the fourteenth amendment more central to human flourishing than the bill of rights? Is that why the bill of rights doesn't apply on Native American reservations?"

The two are not really separate -- the Fourteenth Amendment "incorporates" the Bill of Rights protections to the states.

It doesn't totally apply to Native Americans because they are separate sovereigns while the 14A applies to states. Many provisions do apply by statute but one thing that doesn't is the Establishment Clause, official tribal religions making that complicated. Since Native Americans are also American citizens, this is complicated.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 4, 2020 2:47:53 PM

If the school takes public funding (directly, or through tax credits), does Brown v. Board or Engel v. Vitale apply to it?
If only one of the two, why?
Which amendments (and their corresponding section 5 legislation) apply to private institutions and which are only for public institutions, and why?
Why would it be wrong for a private institution to discriminate, but not to censor or indoctrinate?
Is the fourteenth amendment more central to human flourishing than the bill of rights? Is that why the bill of rights doesn't apply on Native American reservations?

Posted by: The detailed Devil | Jul 2, 2020 12:53:41 PM

By the way, one may reach Hosanna, here:


Posted by: El roam | Jul 2, 2020 12:47:39 PM

Important one, and well organized post. Just concerning the ministerial exception:

What has been held in the case of Hosanna, is not so absolute and overwhelming. It is stated, that the church has the right indeed to choose freely its own ministers, so, in that particular case, held indeed so. Yet, the court has left open for further rulings, other potential cases of wrongdoing made by the church, in regard one must notice, to employment issues. I quote:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.

End of quotation:

So, effectively, not really total discretion. In other suits as stated above, it may interfere effectively, with the free choice of the church.


Posted by: El roam | Jul 2, 2020 12:32:40 PM

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