The Church on YouTube

While not legal news, strictly speaking, it’s worth noting that the Church has started in recent months at least three YouTube channels, all of which are geared towards a general audience:

Mormon Messages and LDS Public Affairs, which consists of news and comments of a general nature; and, Mormon New Era Messages, which, like the magazine of the same name, emphasizes moral and spiritual teachings to a younger demographic.

These sites, coupled with media.lds.org (emphasis on issue-oriented news and comment), mormon.org (basic doctrinal information geared to non-members), and the original site at lds.org, can all be used to help answer questions about the Church, and in some cases, to address criticisms directed at the Church or its members regarding positions taken on contemporary or moral issues. –SJR

Uproar in Connecticut

The Mirror of Justice blog reports that the last week’s controversial Connecticut legislation aimed at the Catholic Church has been tabled. According to Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford, the bill would “force a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of [Catholic] parishes.” In case you think that wasn’t descriptive enough, PrawfsBlawg’s Rick Hills called the measure “The Connecticut Legislature’s preposterously unconstitutional attack on Catholicism.” Sensational enough for you now?

Professor Hills points out that, among other things, the proposed Connecticut measure is patently unconstitutional under Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. (For a brief but excellent analysis of all the issues, see the open letter written by several prominent law professors to the Connecticut legislature.) For all the ugliness directed towards Mormons after Proposition 8 in California, there hasn’t been such an overt legislative assault on the LDS Church in any jurisdiction.

I certainly don’t see this as a Catholic or Mormon issue. Even with in a divisive political climate, I am utterly surprised that any legislator in the nation would sign his or her name to such a bill. In a Q&A on the National Review Online, Katheryn Jean Lopez asked Brian Brown (executive director of the National Organization for Marriage) “Why should anyone who’s not Catholic in Connecticut or Mormon in California care?” He responded:

All Americans, whatever their political leanings, should care when politicians propose to take out a specific religious group because partisans in one party don’t like its moral stands on important public issues.

Brown goes on to call for “a response that makes these partisans regret it.” I don’t support Brown’s vindictive approach, but I certainly agree that all Americans should be concerned that such a provision was ever contemplated.

Photo credit: Brent Danley

New federal lawsuit challenges Defense of Marriage Act

The same group that won the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision paving the way for gay marriages in that state has filed a new federal lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The suit alleges equal protection violations of same-sex spouses who were denied federal benefits (such as pensions or Social Security) under DOMA. I can’t go into great detail without access to the actual filings, but at first blush this seems like a clear-cut equal protection violation. In my opinion DOMA cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny, and this lawsuit could very well be the first step in dismantling DOMA.

Today’s lawsuit doesn’t challenge the provisions of DOMA that allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages effectuated in other states. Mary Bonauto, head of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), insists that her organization has no plans to challenge that portion of DOMA, but it’s only a matter of time before the rest of DOMA is challenged. If the federal benefits portion of DOMA is faulty (and I believe it is), then a similar argument can be made that the state provisions violate the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

I’ve never heard any of the legal counsel to the LDS Church give an explanation as to why the Church supported a federal constitutional amendment on traditional marriage, but I have always assumed it was because the Church’s legal advisers recognized that DOMA was probably unconstitutional. From a legal perspective I think an amendment to the U.S. Constitution on marriage is a bad idea, since marriages have always been left to the states. But if I am right and DOMA is destined to fail, then only a federal constitutional amendment could preserve the traditional definition of marriage on a national level.

God in the courtroom

I recently was present for oral arguments where a pastor was representing himself pro se. The judge mentioned that a party associated with the case was absent due to family health reasons, and the pastor requested that the court observe a moment of silence for the family. Not knowing how to respond, the judge and the rest of the court awkwardly complied and bowed their heads until the pastor declared the moment over, while I looked on incredulously.

This episode with a pro se litigant was unusual, but Deity is regularly invoked in many courtrooms. Where I currently practice, it is common for a court to open with with an announcement such as “May God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” Many judges and members of the bar bow their heads as this invocation is proclaimed. In many jurisdictions the swearing of an oath ends in “so help me God,” a phrase that was recently challenged again with respect to the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Religious references are also common in the legislative branch. Sessions of Congress and state legislatures are traditionally opened with a prayer.

The bizarre courtroom incident with the pastor made me consider my own position on religion in the courtoom and other government functions. Despite being a personally religious person, I have always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the institutionalization of religion. Perhaps this is due in part to having grown up in a region of the United States where Mormonism was a very small minority religion. I had a sense that whenever God was invoked in public, it was done in such a way and with language that was different from my own religious beliefs. I also identified at an early age that there was a certain amount of hostility or rejection associated with my denomination. I was a Mormon kid, and being Mormon was a little weird. I only encountered invocations or public religious observations occasionally, but whenever they occurred I was keenly aware that they represented a difference between everyone else and me.

But even though I’m not always comfortable with religious references in government, I don’t think that they should be done away with entirely. I think it’s important that the democratic process be a free marketplace of all ideas, religious or otherwise. Consequently, I generally think that the exclusion of all religious references in any branch of government is inappropriate, and contrary to the purpose and language of the First Amendment. My general rule of thumb is that personal statements of conviction should always be allowed.

Prayers before legislative sessions or “so help me God” oaths are usually called “de minimis” religious references by the Supreme Court, and the Court seems to take a fairly tolerant approach to these references, since they were common practices long before the United States was even formed. But this isn’t an opinion that is universally shared. In January, MichaelNewdow (the same litigant who challenged the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance) sought to exclude a clergy invocation and benediction from the presidential inauguration and enjoin Chief Justice John Roberts from using the phrase “so help me God” in the presidential oath. Mr.Newdow had filed a similar lawsuit before at the second inauguration of President George W. Bush, and this most recent wasn’t likely to prevail because he made all the same arguments.

I noticed that U.C. Berkley Law professor Eugene Volokh had an interesting thought about the prayers at the inauguration. He suggested that “a President’s inviting a particular clergyman to say things at the President’s inauguration might well be treated as an extension of the President’s own right to express whatever views — including denominationally specific views — he wants to express as part of his own speech.” This seems like it touches on my rule of thumb regarding personal expression of speech, although it may not be applicable to courtroom oaths or legislative prayers because the courts and the legislatures are not embodied in one person.

As you likely know, Mr. Newdow’s lawsuit was again rejected and both the oath and the prayers went forward as planned. And thanks to a slip of the tongue by the Chief Justice and racial rhymes in the inaugural benediction, the references to Deity became the least controversial parts of the day.

Same-sex Marriage ban defeated in Wyoming legislature

The Casper Star-Tribune is reporting this week that a proposed amendment to the Wyoming state constitution that would define marriage between one man and one woman was defeated in the state legislature this week. The defeat was due in part to the opposition by two LDS legislators, State Senator Katheryn Sessions and State Representative Joe Barbuto . I think the peculiar circumstances in Wyoming present an interesting fact pattern. First of all, Wyoming is no Utah. It ranks in the bottom half of the U.S. in terms of religiosity and Mormons are clearly a minority of the population. However, unlike other regions of the country, there are no dominant religious denominations. As my friend from Wyoming once said, “If you’re driving down the road in Wyoming and you see a church, it’s probably a Mormon church.” So while Mormons aren’t a large block of the population, they are essentially the only denomination with any significant presence in the state.

It seems that the stereotypical Western you-mind-your-business-and-I’ll-mind-mine approach has some truth in Wyoming. So it would be easy to interpret the same-sex marriage vote as one falling down religious lines. And yet the bill’s sponsor isn’t a Mormon and at least some of the Mormon legislators voted against the measure. It seems to me that this isn’t a simple matter of religious persuasion, but the normal complicated political process in action.

Ever since last year’s Proposition 8 campaign most media reports have depicted the LDS Church as a monolithic group that universally supported the referendum. And while many members of the LDS Church did just that, the Wyoming vote shows that there is clearly room for differing opinions. I’ll follow this post up soon with my thoughts on the use of state constitutional amendments and the future of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

New scrutiny on the billable hour

Last week the New York Times featured an article on how the down economy has forced many top law firms and their clients are reexamining the common law firm practice of billable hour. The billable hour is the focus of many young associates’ waking hours, and everyone in the legal industry recognizes it is a flawed model. Not only does it make for extremely stressful working conditions when associates are expected to bill 2400 hours or more a year, it also presents a strong financial incentive to the firm that runs counter to the interests of the clients. The Times article highlights how the poor economy has forced some of the big firms to make concessions to their clients that demand cheaper fees.

None of these critiques are new. In his now-infamous ABA Journal article “The Billable Hour Must Die,” Scott Turow recites many of the problems the billable hour poses to the profession. It creates tensions and suspicion between a lawyer and her client; it prevents lawyers from serving the public and underprivileged segments of society through pro bono work; it results in diminishing returns for ladder-climbing associates who have smaller and smaller chances of ever making partner.

The pressures of the billable hour are perhaps more acute for young LDS attorneys, who often hold ecclesiastical positions and have young children in addition to the significant burdens placed upon them by their employers. Everyone talks about a balanced lifestyle, but the current billable hour system virtually guarantees imbalance. I know quite a few LDS attorneys who have left private practice at large or mid-size firms and have entered the public sector. They all say the same thing — they don’t make as much money, but they are much happier. During law school I summered at a small immigration firm that mostly billed by project or by visa petition rather than by the hour. We still worked a few evenings or weekends when things were busy, but the stress level was significantly lower and the firm’s financial incentives didn’t conflict with those of the clients. Immigration practice might be particularly suited for that kind of billing, but I’m sure it’s not the only practice that could be more effectively without the billable hour.

In “The Billable Hour Must Die,” Turow cites the 1977 Supreme Court case of Bates v. Arizona (which invalidated previous prohibitions on lawyer advertising on First Amendment grounds) as the opening of the competitive floodgates in American law firms. And while I’m not completely naïve, I’d like to believe that the current economic turmoil might apply those same market forces in a positive way.

Photo credit: Darren Hester.

Prop 8 Maps and NAACP v. Alabama

California Proposition 8 is the news event that keeps on giving. The latest bit of news that has caught my attention was a rather clever mash-up of Google Maps and the California political contribution disclosure information. Under the California Political Reform Act of 1974, all political contributions over $100 require public disclosure of the donor’s name, address, occupation, and other personal information. Prop 8 Maps is a website that plots all of that information on Google Maps, making it searchable by city name or zip code.

As you might imagine, this has made many donors nervous. One group of Proposition 8 supporters already filed suit in Indiana federal court seeking an injunction. The lawsuits alleges that Proposition 8 supporters have experienced “death threats, acts of domestic terrorism, physical violence, threats of physical violence, vandalism of personal property, harassing phone calls, harassing e-mails, blacklisting and boycotts,” and that an the donor information should not be disclosed.

Ironically, there are a couple Ninth Circuit cases that might have protected this disclosure if the supporters of Proposition 8 had been fewer. But because the referendum passed, those cases would not apply. Thus, there doesn’t appear to be any case law that would allow withholding donor information of a large political group, even in the face of a hypothetically strident or threatening minority. Eugene Volokh has more discussion here, including whether technological changes (like Prop 8 Maps) should alter the calculus.

I was interested in the case because it reminded me of the situation in NAACP v. Alabama, a civil rights-era case that challenged a somewhat similar law in Alabama that required all corporations to disclose their membership or shareholders. In 1956 the State of Alabama sought to obtain a list of all the members of the NAACP in the state, and the organization refused. The resulting lawsuit was appealed up to the Supreme Court, where the Court recognized a high likelihood of a substantial restraint on the NAACP members’ exercise of their right to freedom of association. Justice Harlan wrote:

We hold that the immunity from state scrutiny of membership lists which the Association claims on behalf of its members is here so related to the right of the members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in so doing as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The Alabama law was similar to laws in many states, and there was no evidence shown that it was recently passed or specifically tailored to apply to the NAACP. Any resulting infringement of free speech was, therefore, an accidental interference. Accidental interferences with free speech should be resolved by balancing the degree of interference with the state’s regulatory interest. In the case of the Alabama law the state had a valid interest in knowing the personal information of corporation members/shareholders, but it was vastly outweighed by the enormous interference with the free speech of organizations such as the NAACP. This was particularly important because there are few alternatives to organized political speech.

Now consider the California law that requires disclosure of political donors’ personal information if the donors contribute more than $100. At the outset, it is important to courts recognize a free speech insterest in engaging in anonymous speech, so the compelled disclosure of donor information does constitute a restriction on free speech. But almost all courts have upheld disclosure requirements on political contributions. Like the Alabama law, the California law doesn’t appear to have been enacted or amended to specifically apply to the supporters of Proposition 8, so any interference with free speech is probably accidental rather than intentional.

Once again the analysis requires a balancing of the free speech interests and government regulatory interests, but the outcome should be different in the current situation. The threats, vandalism, and harassment experienced by Proposition 8 supporters so far don’t come close to the widespread, institutional persecution and prejudice experience by civil rights supporters in Alabama in 1956. Additionally, the California law does not require disclosure of all members of groups favoring the passage of Proposition 8, or even all donors to the cause. The $100 donor threshold is admittedly quite low, but it still represents a lesser infringement on free speech interests than the Alabama law. The California law also presents stronger regulatory interests, since the disclosure of political contributors can help prevent fraud and illegal donations. These interests are designed to ensure the successful operation of the democratic system, and therefore serve some of the same goals as the First Amendment itself.

The bottom line is that the California disclosure law and any initiative using that data are almost certainly legal and permissible under the First Amendment. Projects like Prop 8 Maps are definitely creepy, and as many same-sex marriage supporters have observed, they are the “perfect tool for backlash.” I would consider it unconscionable to participate in a similar project. But this is part of the price we pay for maintaining free speech in America.

2008 a year of headlines for the Mormon Church

Howard Friedman of Religion Clause recently posted his Top 10 Church-State/Free Exercise Stories of 2008. Significantly, the LDS Church comes in at #2.

2. The Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) gains widespread national attention after Mitt Romney seeks Republican nomination and LDS members are active in opposing California’s Proposition 8.

The Church also played a prominent role in the clash between religious liberties and sexual orientation non-discrimination (#3), the high-profile raid on the FLDS Church compound in Texas (#5), and the challenge to IRS rules on church involvement to political campaigns (#6). Other similar lists, such as the one by Time Magazine, carried similar rankings. For better or for worse, 2008 was a banner year for the Mormon Church in the news.

Denial of Burris in the Senate recalls the Reed Smoot Hearings

One of the major headlines in the news this week was the denial by the U.S. Senate of Roland Burris, the man appointed by beleaguered Illinois Senator Rod Blagojevich to assume President-Elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat. This may sound somewhat familiar to some of you, since a similar (but more extreme) incident occurred in the history of the Mormon Church when Reed Smoot was prevented from taking his seat in the Senate. The Huffington Post carried an article by Chris Weigant about the denial of Roland Burris in which Weigant highlighted the Smoot case as only the second time the Senate blocked a Senator from taking his seat. The first rejection was that of Hiram Revels, the first African-American Senator in 1870.

The second historical case is where the Senate again showed its bigotry by attempting to block the first senator from Utah, after it was admitted as a state. Reed Smoot was blocked from voting (although the Senate did allow him to be sworn in) for two years while the Senate investigated not just whether Smoot was a polygamist (he wasn’t) but also dissected the entire Mormon religion.

Last year Weigant wrote about the Smoot Hearings, and he referenced a portion of that piece in the Huffington Post article:

[W]hile Smoot wasn’t a serial marriage type of guy, he was pretty high up in the church hierarchy of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). So the entire LDS church was put under the public microscope of a Senate investigation. Two full years were spent examining the Mormons, and the head of the church was called before the committee to be grilled on every aspect of the Mormonism, down to secret church rituals and dogma. The media of the day went along for the ride, with scandalous charges printed along with demonizing political cartoons. The hearings were packed, with lines outside for spectators to view.

Weigant also cites the preface of Vanderbilt professor and historian Kathleen Flake’s book, The Politics of Religious Identity.

The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, “secret oaths,” open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics. The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day’s admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.

If the previous Senate denial cases have taught us anything, it is that this is dangerous ground. Virtually all legal scholars from Erwin Chemerinsky to Eugene Volokh agree that until Governor Blagojevich steps down or is removed, he maintains the legal authority under Illinois law to appoint a replacement when a U.S. Senator from Illinois vacates his seat. And as UC Irvine Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote, “Senate Democrats are on weak constitutional ground in trying to deny a seat to a properly selected individual. Their claim to the power to exclude a lawfully chosen senator could create a dangerous precedent.” The 1969 Supreme Court case Powell v. McCormack makes this pretty clear: “the Constitution does not vest in the Congress a discretionary power to deny membership by a majority vote.” Alas, Powell was decided nearly a century too late for Senator Smoot, but perhaps it can quickly dispense with the current senatorial shenanigans.