9th Cir. rejects challenge to SF anti-Catholic resolution

(Note: This is a more thorough treatment of last week’s Legal Brief about Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights v. City and County of San Francisco.)

In 2006 the City Council of San Francisco adopted a resolution that criticized the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. Catholic Charities, like LDS Social Services, acts as an adoption agency. The Archdiocese of San Francisco had instructed the agency to not place children with gay couples, and the San Francisco City Council’s response called the policy an “insult to all San Franciscans” and “unacceptable to the citizenry of San Francisco, and also stated:

Such hateful and discriminatory rhetoric is both insulting and callous, and shows a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered by this Board of Supervisors 

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit against the City for violations of the Establishment Clause. That action was quickly tossed out on a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim, and the Catholic League appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals. The Ninth Circuit issued its ruing on Wednesday, and once again rejected the Catholic League’s claims.

At its heart, this case is an application of the misnomered Lemon test. As the Ninth Circuit cites it, the Lemon test permits government action if  it “(1) has a secular purpose; (2) has a principal or primary effect that neither advances nor disapproves of religion; and (3) does not foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion.” Failure to meet any of the three factors will cause the action to fail constitutional scrutiny.

In what I believe is a flawed analysis, the Ninth Circuit held that the City’s statement passed the Lemon test. As an initial matter, it is worth pointing out that the so-called Lemon test can be somewhat misleading, since the balancing process was really established in two previous Supreme Court cases. Under U.S. v. O’Brien and Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, the courts are to balance the secular purposes of the government with the principal or primary effect of advances/prohibits religion. This is essentially the same framework the Supreme Court established to deal with accidental interferences with religion or free speech. Under the O’Brien/Clark doctrine, an interference with religion is unconstitutional if the interference is intentional. I think it is clear that the City of San Francisco’s pointed statement intentionally targeted a specific denomination and criticized its beliefs.

The Ninth Circuit found that the City’s purpose was primarily secular. I can see good arguments on both sides, since sexual orientation equality is a valid secular purpose under California law. I’m not sure I agree that the City’s purpose was to establish equality — more likely it was to criticize the Catholic Church — but reasonably minds could differ. What I find untenable is the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the primary effect of the City’s resolution did not disapprove of religion.

This is not a well-crafted opinion. The Ninth Circuit’s language on pages 11-12 of the preliminary copy of the opinion is ambiguous at best, and may even evince the judges’ predispositions. That portion of the decision refers to the City’s secular interest in promoting same-sex adoption; if the City indeed had such a goal to support same-sex adoptions over heterosexual adoptions it would be unconstitutional.

Another significant flaw in the decision was pointed out by Richard Thompson, who argued the case on behalf of the Catholic League:

“This dismissal was based on grounds that the pleadings failed to state a claim under the rules of civil procedure.  Although the panel correctly posited the rule that they must accept all of Plaintiffs’ allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the Plaintiffs, the court totally ignored the rule in its opinion and drew all inferences in favor the San Francisco including their intent in enacting the resolution without allowing Plaintiffs to engage in any discovery.”

Even though the decision was unanimous, Judge Marsha Berzon filed a concurring opinion that signaled at least some discomfort with government criticism of religious views. Citing Judge John Noonan’s dissent in the similar case American Family Association v. City and County of San Francisco, Judge Berzon wrote:

“. . .I am acutely aware that ‘the Constitution assures religious believers that units of government will not take positions that amount to the establishment of a policy condemning their religious belief,’ . . . and that resolutions such as the ones in American Family and the one in this case are near – if not at – the line that separates establishment of such a policy.”

In my opinion, that line was crossed in both American Family and Catholic League.

The issue is probably not settled yet — the Thomas Moore Law Center, which conducted the appeal, plans on seeking rehearing en banc.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Catholic League for Religious and Civil Righst v. City and County of San Francisco            peterrtenn                             A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling rejecting a challenge to a San Francisco City Board resolution that criticized the Catholic Church’s policies on homosexuality.                                      
 
Photo credit: brothergrimm.

Arizona Judge Prohibits Mormonism


Is it proper for a judge to prohibit a father from taking his children to the Mormon Church? I found myself asking this question after I read an article written by Sarah Fenske of the Phoenix New Times.

Fenske gives some background on the case. “Two years ago, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Budoff decreed that Richard Franco could not take his children to a Mormon church.”

“Never mind that Franco had been a Mormon his whole life. Or that on weekends when he had custody of his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, the extended Franco clan attended Sunday services together. Nope, Judge budoff ordered in writing that the Franco kids’ ‘only religious training shall be in the Catholic faith and that they not be taken to an LDs church or LDS church training.”

Judge “Budoff’s decision was upheld by the appellate court in December. More recently, this spring, the Arizona Supreme Court took a pass, refusing to give Franco so much as a hearing.”

Fenske continues “reading the court file, it’s clear that Judge Budoff found Franco abrasive, arrogant, and annoying. But Budoff never found Franco to be an unfit parent. The children’s parenting coordinator, in fact, described the kids as ‘thriving, intelligent, and articulate’ and said that they ‘remain bonded to both their parents,’ despite a difficult divorce.”

Mike McCormack, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children offered that “without a finding that he (Franco) was unfit, he was informed—make that, flat-out told—‘You can’t expose these children to your religious beliefs. That’s over the top. Do we want that micromanagement from our judiciary? From our perspective, this was a real over-reach. This is an area where judges are getting ahead of themselves, to say that children will or will not be raised a particular way…The religious training question should be left in the hands of the parents.”

Fenske raises a valid question: (religious) “plurality can make things rough once the kids reach school age. But it can also be awesome. How to better learn tolerance than to have relatives with whom you disagree? How better to sort out how you really feel about God than understanding that good people see Him in different ways?” I agree with Fenske that some of the best learning experiences I’ve had in life have come through sharing ideas with people who have different beliefs then I have. Also, growing up in Maricopa County these children are going to be exposed to Mormonism whether it’s through their father, class-mates, or friends.

Below I highlight the pertinent part of Judge Budoff’s ruling. (Read the Entire Ruling Here)

2. The Decree provided that the parties would share joint custody of the children and contained a parenting time schedule which provided that Mother would be the primary residential parent and that Father would have regularly scheduled parenting time with the children including alternating weekends.

7. Extensive testimony was presented at the September 6, 2007, hearing from the parties and others relative to the parties’ communication and cooperation with each other, the circumstances surrounding the incidences of April 13, May 27 and July 11, 2007, and the matter of the children’s religious upbringing, and from the testimony presented the following findings are made:

a. Father has been aggressive, abusive and intimidating to Mother in phone conversations, e-mails and in conference with the Parenting Coordinator.

b. Father has been rude and intimidating to Daughter’s dance director and teacher.

c. Father is controlling and dictatorial with Mother over parenting schedule issues as he does not discuss issues with her and merely dictates to her as to how issues should be resolved immediately after she refuses to accede to his wishes.

g. Father has failed to return the children on time from his parenting time periods. The Court considers this behavior to be an example of passive-aggressive behavior towards Mother which adds to the parties’ inability to trust each other and to work together with regard to co-parenting.

h. Notwithstanding that the Decree provides that the children would be raised in the Catholic faith and only attend the Mormon church if they desired to do so, it is clear that Father has intimidated and coerced the children to attend Mormon church services when they are in his care although Father has agreed that the children be raised in the Catholic religion and the children appear to be committed to this religion, Father apparently believes that regardless of the children’s wishes he should be able to take the children to his church and expose them to his religion when they are in his care. Parenting Coordinator, Dr. Waldman, believes that this is not generally in the children’s best interest. Waldman opined that the children should not be forced to choose between religions and must be directed towards one, and only one religion, during their childhood.

k. The children’s Best Interest Attorney reports that the children have a good relationship with and enjoy their time with both parents except for those times when Father forces them to go to the Mormon church.

Based upon the foregoing and having considered the relevant factors of A.R.S. 25-403 and 25-403.01, the Court finds that continuation of joint legal custody for the parents is not in the children’s best interest.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED awarding Mother sole legal custody of the children with full final decision-making authority relative to all educational, medical and religious issues.

(the Mother) is most supportive of the children’s Catholic upbringing to which the parties previously agreed and which they affirmed in open Court

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED in accordance with the recommendations of Parenting Coordinator, Dr. Larry Waldman, and to avoid further confusion and conflict in the children’s lives, that their only religious training shall be in the Catholic faith and that they not be taken to an LDS church or LDS church training. In making this decision relative to the religious issue, a decision that this Court has, in the past, avoided when at all possible, the Court determines that the conflict between the parents over this issue and the need for the children to have consistency in this area requires that such an order be entered in their best interest.

Under ARS 25-410(A)- the parent with custody chooses the children’s religion but that is completely different than a total ban on Mormonism. When this Father has his children over the weekend is he supposed to leave them home alone while he goes to church or is he not supposed to attend church either?

Could this Court ordered ban on Mormonism be seen as an endorsement of Catholicism? Would that be a violation of the First Amendment?

Even if the situation were the same I can’t see Judge Budoff, ruling the same way if the father were a member of a different religion; he would not have banned this father from sharing his beliefs with them.

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

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.

Church property and public use

Last month the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights found probable cause in a discrimination claim brought by a lesbian couple against a religious group that refused to rent its property to the couple to perform a civil union ceremony. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is non-profit group affiliated with the Methodist Church, and until recently it rented out its Boardwalk Pavilion to the public for receptions and other events. In addition to being rented for events, worship services were held there every week. The rest of the time the Pavilion was completely open to the public. However, the Association refused to rent the Pavilion to Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster for their civil union ceremony because such unions conflicted with the Association’s beliefs. United Methodist Church policy “recognizes marriage only in terms of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman,” and provides that civil union ceremonies “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

In its Finding the NJ Division of Civil Rights held:

When it invites the public at large to use it, the [Ocean Grove Camp Meeting] Association is subject to the [New Jersey] Law Against Discrimination, and enforcement of that law in this context does not affect the Association’s constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.

The Association stopped renting the Pavilion for events after April 1, 2007. Another lesbian couple tried to rent the facility after that point and sued when they were rejected, but the NJ Division of Civil Rights rejected that case.

I’m not licensed in New Jersey but I have a few thoughts on this issue. The clear message from the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights is that churches should think twice before they make their property available to the public. For the most part, the Mormon Church is ahead of this trend, controlling most of its property in such a way that it could not be construed to be public use. However, the result of the Division’s ruling is lamentable, since it prevents certain religious organizations from providing a service to their communities.

Secondly, this case underscores the growing conflict between the gay rights movement and religious liberties. Presumably, a different religious organization that does not object to same-sex marriages or civil unions would still be free to operate a facility such as the Boardwalk Pavilion. This can have significant tax financial implications for religious organizations. In this case, the Association had received a tax exemption under the New Jersey Green Acres program, which provides tax benefits to organizations that make their land available for public use. The Boardwalk Pavilion property’s tax-exempt status was revoked by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection after the Association stopped renting the property to the public. This case reminds me to some extent of the famous Bob Jones University Supreme Court case.

The Religion Clause notes that an appeal related to this case is pending before the 3rd Circuit, so we haven’t heard the last of the Boardwalk Pavilion.

Photo credit: Asbury Park Press.

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.