Hello and welcome to Learning the Law, a podcast about all things legal with a focus on current events where we try and teach you things in an hour. My name is Ashley, aka PhoenixNymphy and my co-host who is the man of the hour, my husband Ron. This podcast is purely educational and should not be taken as legal advice, this podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship, this podcast is based on his interpretation of relevant law. Any opinions expressed are the opinions of the individual making them and do not reflect the opinions of any firm, company or other individuals. Ron is a licensed practicing attorney in the state of California.
- Our Weeks
- Questions from the audience
- Topic of the week – 1st Amendment
- Updates on the Supreme Court rulings
- Cheerleader case
- What does 1st Amendment actually say: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
- Updates on the Supreme Court rulings
Free Exercise Clause
From the beginning, courts in the United States have struggled to find a balance between the religious liberty of believers, who often claim the right to be excused or “exempted” from laws that interfere with their religious practices, and the interests of society reflected in those very laws. Early state court decisions went both ways on this central question.
- The Mormon dilemma
Did the Mormons have the right to practice polygamy?
The Supreme Court first addressed the question in a series of cases involving nineteenth-century laws aimed at suppressing the practice of polygamy by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), also known as Mormons. The Court unanimously rejected free exercise challenges to these laws, holding that the Free Exercise Clause protects beliefs but not conduct. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” Reynolds v. United States (1878). What followed was perhaps the most extreme government assault on religious freedom in American history. Hundreds of church leaders were jailed, rank-and-file Mormons were deprived of their right to vote, and Congress dissolved the LDS Church and expropriated most of its property, until the church finally agreed to abandon polygamy.
The belief-action distinction ignored the Free Exercise Clause’s obvious protection of religious practice, but spoke to the concern that allowing believers to disobey laws that bind everyone else would undermine the value of a government of laws applied to all. Doing so, Reynolds influenced the meaning of the Free ExercReynolds warned, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
ise Clause well into the twentieth century. In 1940, for example, the Court extended the Clause—which by its terms constrains only the federal government—to limit state laws and other state actions that burden religious exercise. Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). Though it recognized that governments may not “unduly infringe” religious exercise, the Court reiterated that “[c]onduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society,” citing Reynolds as authority. Similarly, the Court held in 1961 that the Free Exercise Clause did not exempt an orthodox Jewish merchant from Sunday closing laws, again citing Reynolds.
The Amish dilemna
Could the Amish have the right to stop sending their children to school after age 14
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Court shifted, strengthening protection for religious conduct by construing the Free Exercise Clause to protect a right of religious believers to exemption from generally applicable laws which burden religious exercise. The Court held that the government may not enforce even a religiously-neutral law that applies generally to all or most of society unless the public interest in enforcement is “compelling.” Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). Yoder thus held that Amish families could not be punished for refusing to send their children to school beyond the age of 14.
Although the language of this “compelling-interest” test suggested powerful protections for religion, these were never fully realized. The cases in which the Supreme Court denied exemptions outnumbered those in which it granted them. Aside from Yoder, the Court exempted believers from “availability for work” requirements, which denied unemployment benefits to workers terminated for prioritizing religious practices over job requirements. But it denied exemptions to believers and religious organizations which found their religious practices burdened by conditions for federal tax exemption, military uniform regulations, federal minimum wage laws, state prison regulations, state sales taxes, federal administration of public lands, and mandatory taxation and other requirements of the Social Security system. In all of these cases the Court found, often controversially, either that the government’s interest in enforcement was compelling, or that the law in question did not constitute a legally-recognizable burden on religious practice.
3. The Indiginous Dilemma
Do Native Americans have the right to use peyote in their religious rituals?
In 1990, the Supreme Court changed course yet again, holding that the Free Exercise Clause “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Though it did not return to the belief-action distinction, the Court echoed Reynolds’ concern that religious exemptions permit a person, “by virtue of his beliefs, to become a law unto himself,” contradicting “both constitutional tradition and common sense.” Any exceptions to religiously-neutral and generally-applicable laws, therefore, must come from the “political process.” Smith went on to hold that the Free Exercise Clause does not protect the sacramental use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, by members of the Native American Church.
Congress steps in
In 1993, overwhelming majorities in Congress voted to reinstate the pre-Smith compelling-interest test by statute with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA authorizes courts to exempt a person from any law that imposes a substantial burden on sincere religious beliefs or actions, unless the government can show that the law is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling governmental interest.”
In 1997 the Supreme Court held that Congress had constitutional authority only to apply RFRA to federal laws, and not to state or local laws. Congress then enacted a narrower law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which applies the compelling-interest test to state laws affecting prisoners and land use. RFRA and RLUIPA have afforded exemptions in a wide range of federal and state contexts—from kosher and halal diets for prisoners, to relief from zoning and landmark regulations on churches and ministries, to exemptions from jury service.
Although some exemption claims brought under these religious freedom statutes have been relatively uncontroversial—the Supreme Court unanimously protected the right of a tiny religious sect to use a hallucinogenic drug prohibited by federal law and the right of a Muslim prisoner to wear a half-inch beard prohibited by state prison rules
Current “religious liberty” rulings
The Court by a 5-4 vote excused a commercial family-owned corporation from complying with the “contraception mandate,” a regulation which required the corporation’s health insurance plan to cover what its owners believe are abortion-inducing drugs. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. (2014). In the wake of Hobby Lobby and the Court’s subsequent determination that states may not deny gays and lesbians the right to civil marriage, state RFRAs have become a flashpoint in conflicts over whether commercial vendors with religious objections may refuse their products and services to same-sex weddings.
Besides RFRA and other exemption statutes, the Free Exercise Clause itself, even after Smith, continues to provide protection for believers against burdens on religious exercise from laws that target religious practices, or that disadvantage religion in discretionary, case-by-case decision making.
In Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah (1993), for example, the Court unanimously struck down a local ordinance against the “unnecessary” killing of animals in a “ritual or ceremony”—a law that was drawn to apply only to a small and unpopular religious sect whose worship includes animal sacrifice.
The Court recently recognized that the Free Exercise Clause (along with the Establishment Clause) required a religious exemption from a neutral and general federal antidiscrimination law that interfered with a church’s freedom to select its own ministers. The Court distinguished Smith on the ground that it “involved government regulation of only outward physical acts,” while this case “concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C. (2012).
The Cake Controversy
The Supreme Court upheld a baker’s right to refuse service to a same-sex couple looking to employ him to bae a wedding cake on the grounds of religious liberty.
This embolden others to dent services to same-sex couples. However, the Court rejected the appeal of a county workers who’s job it was to issue marriage licenses in a state where such marriage had be legalized. The government worker could not refuse to issue the license if there was no other worker in the department that would issue such.
Most recently the Court upheld the appeal o a Catholic adoption agency, giving them the right of refusal to same se couples based on religious liberty.
Supreme Court denied reviewing a case where a florist denied service to a same-sex cople and was fined by the State of Washngton.
Thank you so much for listening to Learning the Law. If you liked this podcast and want to hear more, don’t forget to like, subscribe, follow, and share in all your favorite places. You can find it hosted on twitch at twitch.tv/phoenixnymphy use the hashtag #learningthelaw on tiktok to follow more there. You can find Ron on twitter at Necrokijo and Ashley on most social media platforms at PhoenixNymphy. If you have any questions please tweet, comment, or email at email@example.com. This has been a Two Lazy Dogs production.