Tag Archives: First Amendment

Why Judges Matter

I was astonished when I read this report in The Washington Post, mostly because the judge was so obviously, incredibly wrong about both the law and the facts.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor found that the pandemic “provides the government with no license to abrogate” the freedoms that any American has, and that the service members had a right to avoid getting a vaccination on religious grounds.

“This Court does not make light of COVID-19′s impact on the military. Collectively, our armed forces have lost over 80 lives to COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic,” O’Connor wrote Monday in a 26-page order.

But the judge added that the “loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy” and that “even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights.”

A first-year law student would know that “religious freedom” does not give citizens the right to harm others. I used to explain to my students that your sincere belief that God wants you to sacrifice your newborn does not trump laws prohibiting you from doing so.  As “originalist” Justice Scalia wrote in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, general laws prohibiting drug use take precedence over the plaintiffs’ right to participate in tribal religious observances that included smoking peyote.  

Smoking peyote during a religious ceremony didn’t harm anyone. A requirement that military personnel be vaccinated  protects others against a very dangerous disease. It would clearly be constitutional even if vaccine denial posed a genuine religious concern.

But it doesn’t.

The fact is that no religion  (with the possible exception of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, who don’t believe in any medical science) teaches vaccine denial. If I simply invent a “religious” precept that is not grounded in the actual doctrine of my faith, I can hardly demand that American courts respect my “religious” beliefs.

I was sufficiently incensed by this ridiculous ruling that I decided to Google the judge, who–unsurprisingly–is a high-profile member of the Federalist Society.

Here’s what the Texas Tribune had to say about him when he ruled that Obamacare was unconstitutional. (Remember that?)

In 2015, it was an Obama administration effort to extend family leave benefits to gay couples. In 2016, it was an Obama administration guideline allowing transgender children to use school bathrooms that align with their gender identity. And on Friday, it was the entirety of Obamacare that U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down as unconstitutional after a Texas-led coalition of 20 states sued this year to kill it.

Over the past four years, O’Connor has handed Texas major wins in several high-profile Texas v. United States lawsuits. And it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that those cases landed in his court. The North Texas judge has emerged as something of a favorite for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, a notoriously litigious legal battalion known for challenging the federal government in cases and controversies across the country.

Since 2015, almost half of challenges to the federal government that Texas filed in district courts here landed in O’Connor’s courtroom, attorney general’s office records show. He is one of several dozen federal judges of his rank in the state.

The Obamacare decision, which was reversed by higher courts, was criticized by both conservative and liberal legal scholars as misguided and politically motivated.

The conservative legal scholar Jonathan Adler and the liberal legal scholar Abbe Gluck came together to write in The New York Times that the decision “makes a mockery of the rule of law and basic principles of democracy.

O’Connor is routinely described as a reactionary, and his vaccine decision is just the most recent evidence that he ignores legal precedents incompatible with his far-right politics. In 2015, he held a portion of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 unconstitutional and enjoined the federal government’s definition of marriage in the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

In 2016, as previously noted, he struck down an Obama administration rule requiring that transgender students be allowed to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. In 2018, he ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act was unconstitutional. That 1978 law was passed in response to concerns over the high number of Indian children that were being removed from their families by public and private agencies and placed in non-Indian families. It gave tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over children who reside on, or are domiciled on a reservation.

It goes on.

O’Connor’s rulings are frequently reversed, but the damage done goes far beyond the time and money wasted on appeals. The initial publicity garnered by his off-the-wall rulings gives an aura of legitimacy to arguments that have no legitimacy, and that are inconsistent with settled constitutional precedents.

Thanks to this decision, people will die. Unnecessarily.

Judges matter.

Some Conflicts Never Die…

Back in 2000, I wrote a couple of newspaper columns and an academic article about litigation involving the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home. The Children’s Home had fired a youth counselor solely because she was a lesbian; they admitted that she was an excellent counselor, but justified the firing by explaining that “the gay lifestyle” (discovered because her picture appeared in media snapped at a Pride parade) was inconsistent with their theological beliefs.

Ordinarily, this firing would not have given rise to a lawsuit-even in those few states that had then extended civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, religious organizations were (and are) exempt from civil rights laws. But the Home was essentially funded by the state of Kentucky. Some $12 million of its $15 million dollar annual budget came from state tax dollars paying for the children placed in the facility by the state. The lawsuit challenged the propriety of using tax dollars to discriminate.

The case ran into some technical issues not germane to the principle being litigated, and I lost track of its subsequent path. (A very similar case from Georgia was settled when that state agreed to abide by the Constitution.) Evidently, the Kentucky Home did not lose its state support–nor its insistence on disadvantaging members of the LGBTQ community–because AP has reported on the emergence of a similar conflict between the Home–now renamed Sunrise Children’s Services–and the state.

A cultural clash pitting religious beliefs against gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.

It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings. An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing a refusal by Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.

The original case–twenty-one years ago–involved the home’s refusal to employ LGBTQ staff members, no matter how professionally competent. I was unable to determine whether that situation has changed, but this time, the argument is about the agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex foster or adoptive parents.

Sunrise wants its religious beliefs to exempt it from a law that applies to other agencies doing business with the state, a requirement imposed by what lawyers call a law of general application. It wants to continue benefitting from tax dollars paid by all Kentucky residents, gay and straight, while picking and choosing which rules it will follow.

That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

“If Sunrise doesn’t want to abide by that, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in the state’s care,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights advocacy group.

Hartman said he worries LGBTQ children in Sunrise’s care are “deeply closeted,” hiding their sexual orientation out of fear of “indoctrination and proselytization.”

Whether that fear is justifiable or not is beside the point. It was actually Justice Scalia–no champion of secularism–who wrote the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, confirming that religious belief does not exempt citizens from compliance with laws of general application.

Sunrise is perfectly free to follow its theological principles. It isn’t free to demand continued public funding at the same time it is refusing to follow the rules that govern distribution of that funding.

I sometimes wonder whether America has turned into a version of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some folks (“good Christians”) think they’re entitled to be more equal than others.

 

While We’re Talking About Hypocrisy…

Over the years, opponents of equal civil rights for LGBTQ citizens manufactured all manner of secular justifications for their bigotry. They claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder, that gay men were all promiscuous, that children require a “traditional” marriage between a male and female in order to thrive, and more.

There was no credible evidence for any of these assertions, and as a result, gay folks won important legal victories, including the right to legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Opponents of that progress are left with what has always been the actual justification for their animus: religious doctrine.

Thanks to the First Amendment’s religion clauses, doctrinal homophobia is a protected belief. Pastors can inveigh against homosexuality from the pulpit without fear of official sanction, and people who accept those beliefs are free to avoid socializing with gay folks.

What religious beliefs cannot be used to justify, however, is legal discrimination. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, some “Christians” opposed it because they claimed their religion required separation of the races and submission of women. The First Amendment doesn’t include a right to make those beliefs the law of the land.

The First Amendment protects religious belief. Civil rights laws protect members of marginalized groups from discrimination. What happens when those two rights collide?

In Indianapolis, we’ve seen recent examples of that collision. Two Catholic high schools have fired employees–guidance counselors and teachers of secular subjects–for the sin of same-sex marriage. 

Joshua Payne-Elliott, the teacher fired from Cathedral High School because of his same-sex marriage, is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Until now, Payne-Elliott had not been identified publicly. His husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, is a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. They married in 2017. The couple have been at the center of a fight between their schools and the Catholic Church, which directed the schools to fire both men.

Brebeuf refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, so the archdiocese stripped the school of its Catholic status. Cathedral fired Joshua Payne-Elliott to avoid the same fate.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Marion County alleges that the archdiocese illegally interfered with Joshua Payne-Elliott’s contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing Cathedral to terminate him.

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliott said in a news release

The Archdiocese is arguing that they are within their rights under the current jurisprudence of religious liberty, and that “religious organizations may define what conduct is not acceptable and contrary to the teachings of its religion, for its school leaders, guidance counselors, teachers and other ministers of the faith.”

Payne-Elliott taught world languages and social studies, and Cathedral confirmed that his termination had nothing to do with his performance. The principal acknowledged that he was a very good teacher. Evidently, Cathedral would have preferred not to fire him, but gave in to the demands of the Archdiocese.

Brebeuf, the Jesuit school that employs Payne-Elliott’s spouse, did not, and it deserves credit for its refusal to terminate him.

Given the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is likely that the law will continue to favor assertions of religious doctrine over the civil and contractual rights of gays and lesbians. But  the court of public opinion is a different matter. After all, Catholic dogma isn’t confined to disapproval of same-sex marriage. Church doctrine opposes divorce, sex out of wedlock, adultery, even–as I understand it– refusal to attend mass, among other sins. To the best of my knowledge, Catholic schools haven’t been terminating teachers who transgress those rules.

Why this very selective enforcement of doctrine?

And why does the State of Indiana allow public voucher  funds to be used at schools like Cathedral and Roncalli that openly discriminate against a subset of Indiana citizens? Inquiring minds want to know–or really, we can guess.

 

The Hate Eruption

Asian women have been mowed down in Georgia. Unarmed Black men continue to be killed or maimed by police and self-appointed “good guys with guns.” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have proliferated. A new report links these eruptions to a surge in White Supremacy propaganda.

Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic could prevent white supremacist groups from deluging American cities with extremist propaganda in 2020. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses. Stickers were slapped onto street signs. Fliers were dropped onto the windshields of parked cars.

An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study published Wednesday recorded 5,125 incidents of white supremacist physical propaganda last year, marking the highest level of cases reported since the non-profit began tracking such data five years ago. The findings average to about 14 incidents per day—and are nearly double the 2,724 cases reported in 2019.

The data highlights the stunning growth of new splinter movements that did not exist when President Donald Trump took office. At least 30 white supremacist groups disseminated propaganda in the U.S. in 2020, but three of them—Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club—were responsible for 92% of the activity, according to the ADL. All of them were founded within the past three years.

This research gives us a lot to unpack.

First and foremost, these findings support the accumulating evidence that the Republican Party, now for all intents and purposes the Trump Party, has become little more than a White Supremacy Party. The politicization of hate–the partisan retreat into full-scale culture war–is incredibly worrisome. Equally troubling, the language of hate is amplified daily by media outlets that can only be considered GOP PR appendages rather than genuine journalistic endeavors.

Those of us who insist that language matters–that “mere words” may not be the sticks and stones that break your bones but nevertheless can incentivize actions inflicting bodily harm–find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Giving government the right to suppress any idea (even, in Justice Holmes’ memorable phrase, the “idea we hate”) would be incredibly dangerous and even counterproductive. The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment was based upon recognition that giving government that power would be more dangerous than even the expression of truly horrible ideas, and efforts at suppression more often than not simply give oxygen to such materials.

That leaves those of us who are horrified by the surge in hateful incitement with only the tool of social opprobrium, often derided as “political correctness” or even “cancel culture.” Although in the age of social media, criticism of language deemed bigoted or stereotyping can certainly go too far (in the jargon of the day, be too “woke”), expressing disapproval is arguably less damaging to the social fabric than ignoring the dissemination of hateful and hurtful characterizations.

Perhaps, in a weird way, the increasingly overt expressions of animus and bigotry may force us to confront some unpalatable realities. Surface niceties allowed many of us to assume that we’d made much more progress than we had. Just as the Trump presidency reminded Americans that the absence of honest, competent governance really hurts us all, the explosion of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other hatreds reminds the rest of us that we humans have to live together on a small and endangered planet, and that we need to find ways to cooperate and co-exist.

You can’t lance an invisible boil, and you can’t solve a problem until you recognize how extensive it is.

 

 

Information Silos And The First Amendment

The First Amendment contemplates and protects a “marketplace of ideas.” We have no precedent for an information environment in which there is no marketplace–no “agora” where different ideas and perspectives contend with each other for acceptance.

What we have instead are information “silos”–a column in the New York Times recently quoted Robert Post, a Yale professor, for the observation that people have always been crazy, but the internet has allowed them to find each other.

In those silos, they talk only to each other.

Social media has enabled the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain, and we are seeing the results. The question is: what should we do?

One set of scholars has concluded that the damage being done by misinformation and propaganda outweighs the damage of censorship. Rick Hasen, perhaps the most pre-eminent scholar of election law, falls into that category:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

I don’t know what Hasen considers “necessary reform,” but I’m skeptical.

I have always been a First Amendment purist, and I still agree with the balance struck by the Founders, who understood that–as pernicious and damaging as bad ideas can be–allowing government to determine which ideas get voiced is likely to be much more dangerous. (As a former ACLU colleague memorably put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”)

That said, social media platforms aren’t government. Like brick-and-mortar private businesses, they can insist on certain behaviors by their customers. And like other private businesses, they can and should be regulated in the public interest. (At the very least, they should be required to apply their own rules consistently. People expressing concern/outrage over Twitter’s ban of Trump should be reminded that he would have encountered that ban much earlier had he been an ordinary user. Trump had flouted Twitter and Facebook rules for years.)

The Times column suggests we might learn from European approaches to issues of speech, including falsehoods and hate speech. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. Europeans have decided that hate speech isn’t valuable public discourse– that racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.

The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly — so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal. Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it — so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.

The First Amendment was crafted for a political speech environment that was markedly different than today’s, as Tim Wu has argued.  Government censorship was then the greatest threat to free speech. Today, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics” that humiliate, harass, discourage, and even destroy targeted speakers.”

Wu argues that Americans can no longer assume that the First Amendment is an adequate guarantee against malicious speech control and censorship. He points out that the marketplace of ideas has become corrupted by technologies “that facilitate the transmission of false information.”

American courts have long held that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition that characterizes a marketplace. They haven’t addressed what happens when there is no longer a functioning market–when citizens  confine their communicative interactions to sites that depend for their profitability on confirming the biases of carefully targeted populations.

I certainly don’t think the answer is to dispense with–or water down– the First Amendment. But that Amendment was an effort to keep those with power from controlling information. In today’s information environment, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. are as powerful and influential as government. Our challenge is to somehow rein in intentional propaganda and misinformation without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Any ideas how we do that?