Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Tale of Two Religious Liberty Decisions: SCOTUS Versus NY's Court of Appeals

(This is a brief detour to address significant decisions just rendered by the Supreme Court and New York State's Highest court.)

One tribunal, the Supreme Court, took constitutionally protected free exercise of religion seriously. Perhaps, the Court even went overboard in doing so.

By the sharpest contrast, another tribunal, New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, seemed entirely indifferent to that fundamental right. That court refused even to hear an appeal sought by religious objectors who are being required to violate their most sacred beliefs.

The contrast is just the latest consequence of the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Oregon v. Smith, which effectively reduced free exercise of religion to second class status. The majority opinion, authored by Antonin Scalia, ruled against a Native American religious ritual on the ground that the state law in question was "generally applicable." According to Scalia's opinion for the Court, as long as a state law is "otherwise valid"--does not volate some other constitutional right or does not discriminate against religion--federal constitutional religious liberty does not entitle sincere religious objectors to any religious exemption. 
(I've often discussed this decision--dishonest and dreadful in my view, as well as in the view of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who authored a separate opinion in that case, and of virtually all religious liberty scholars. See e.g., Religious Institutions Must Pay Abortion Coverage in NY [Part 1] )

In this week's recent Supreme Court decision, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo [November 25, 2020], a 5-4 majority halted the enforcement of New York State's "very severe restrictions on attendance at religious services." In an unsigned Per Curiam opinion, the majority agreed with the religious objectors that the pandemic-triggered "regulations treat houses of worship much more harshly than comparable secular facilities." Accordingly, because "the challenged restrictions are not 'neutral' and of 'general applicability,'" they fail even the reduced free exercise protection remaining from Oregon v. Smith. In short, the restrictions, in the majority's view, discriminated against religion.

Notably, the majority--comprised of Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett--chose not to follow two decisons of the Court earlier this year that had upheld similar restrictions. In both South Bay United Pentacostal Church v. Newsom [May 29, 2020] and Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak [July 24, 2020], the Court had rejected the religious objections from churches in California and Nevada, respectively, and kept the pandemic restrictions in place. In those cases, also 5-4, Chief Justice Roberts had joined with the Court's four liberals--Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan--to form the bare majority. As Roberts put it in his concurring opinion in the California case, the Justices "lack[] the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health" and, therefore, ought not to be "second guessing" the judgments of officials regarding the "safety and the health of the people.”

But now, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, the dissenters in the California and Nevada cases have a majority. And the Chief Justice, together with the remaining three liberals, is in the minority. 

Right or wrong, wise or foolish, the fact is that a current majority at the Supreme Court has weighed the scales heavily in favor of religious liberty, refusing to defer to the health and safety judgments of elected state officials, and disallowing intrusions on free exercise. Add that to the several decisions in favor of free exercise of religion the last two terms. (See e.g., Religious Institutions Must Pay Abortion Coverage in NY [Part 1a--addendum].) In those cases, Chief Justice Roberts was part of the majority to advance religious liberty. So the signals are clear. The current Supreme Court is taking the constitutional free exercise of religion very seriously.

Then there's the New York Court of Appeals. In a case involving the state's regulation requiring employers to provide abortion insurance coverage, New York's highest court wouldn't even hear an appeal. In Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v. Vullo, religious objectors--to whom abortion is, for some, the equivalent of killing a human being and, for others, akin to it--were seeking an exemption on tha basis of religious liberty. But apparently, the Judges of New York's highest court didn't even think that the fundamental right of free exercise of religion is serious enough to deserve a hearing. 

Here is the entirety of the Court of Appeals' ruling:
On the Court's own motion, appeal dismissed,
without costs, upon the ground that no substantial
constitutional question is directly involved.
Motion for leave to appeal denied with one hundred
dollars costs and necessary reproduction
Chief Judge DiFiore and Judges Rivera, Stein,
Garcia, Wilson and Feinman concur.
Judge Fahey dissents and votes to retain the appeal.
(Mo. No. 2020-549, Nov. 24, 2020) [My emphasis added.] 
 "No substantial constitutional question." And "On the Court's own motion." It is difficult to see anything but contempt on the part of the court for sincere, central religious beliefs and for genuine claims that constitutional religious liberty is being violated. Regardless of how the court would or should ultimately have ruled after an appeal, the refusal to even hear the appeal seems inexcusable.
[Disclosure: As those who follow New York Court Watcher are aware, I have been assisting counsel for the Catholic Diocese in religious liberty cases. Though I support the right to choose and I am not a religious believer, I do believe that protecting free exercise of religion is vital to a free society, and that intrusions should be permitted only when in conflict with the most compelling societal needs--e.g., eliminating invidious discrimination and dangers to the public health and safety. See e.g., Religious Institutions Must Pay Abortion Coverage in NY (Part 2).]

To be sure, religious objectors in New York face formidable precedential obstacles. First, under Scalia's majority opinion in Oregon v. Smith,  1st and 14th Amendment federal constitutional religious liberty provides no protection from any "otherwise valid" law. Because New York's abortion mandate does not violate any other federal constitutional right and it is "generally applicable"--i.e., it does not treat religion less favorably--it is perfectly constitutional under Smith.

Second, under the Court of Appeals' 2006 decision in Catholic Charities v. Serio  (7 N.Y.3d 510), New York state constitutional law is no more favorable to religious liberty--maybe even less so. In that case, religious objectors to the state's contraceptive insurance mandate lost a unanimous decision. New York's highest court ruled that those seeking to protect their sincere free exercise rights must bear the burden of showing that the "interference" with their religious liberty is "unreasonable."

So in New York, the government need not justify its conceded intrusion on freedom of religion. It need not show that there is some compelling or even important reason to interfere with religious liberty. Rather, the entire burden is placed on those who seek to vindicate their fundamental right of religious freedom to show that the state's law is "unreasonable." As has been pointed out by numerous constitutional scholars--and by myself in these pages, in articles, in presentations, etc.--no other fundamental constitutional right is treated so poorly.

Every 1st year law student learns that government must justify infringements on fundamental constitutional rights. Government must satisfy the so-called strict scrutiny test--i.e., that there is a "compelling" interest being served and there is no other way to serve it that is less intrusive on the fundamental right. But under Oregon v Smith and Catholic Charities v. Serio, both the Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals chose to treat religious free exercise much less favorably.

Currently, however, the Supreme Court has been treating religious liberty with great favor. It has been finding ways to protect free exercise despite its Smith decision. Primarily it has been doing so by finding discrimination against or hostility to religion. There are even rumbles of overturning Smith and returning to the strict scrutiny test for intrusions on free exercise. 

At the same time, New York's highest court won't even consider a serious religious liberty case. While the Court of Appeals has a tradition of protecting constitutional rights more than the Supreme Court requires--even, in the past, for freedom of religion (see e.g., People v. Barber, 1943)--it now appears to have considerably less regard for free exercise of religion than the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in recent years hears very few appeals--~60 each year. Nevertheless, because a majority of the Court today is increasingly protective of free exercise of religion, it is possible that some of the Justices may feel very strongly about reviewing and reversing Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v. Vullo. As one who rarely chooses the Supreme Court over the New York Court of Appeals, I am doing that in this case. 
[Again, disclosure: I am assisting counsel for the Catholic Diocese of Albany. Indeed, I am urging a petition to the Supreme Court for certiorari.]

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Supreme Shift (Part 3): More Barrett's Record

In the last post, we looked at two opinions of then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett while on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. They were dissents. One involved immigration, the other gun rights. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
Forget about originalism or strict construction or deference to the legislative branch or other species of "judicial restraint." (I feel compelled to keep repeating that.) If you simply considered how a social and political conservative would be expected to vote--or more specifically, how a conservative Republican politician would be expected to vote--you'd have guessed her positions correctly.

In those opinions--dissenting opinions, which are the most self-revealing--Barrett disagreed with her colleagues on immigration restrictions and on gun regulations. In one case, the majority invalidated some strict Trump administration restrictions on immigration; she thought they were fine. (Cook County v. Wolf, 2020.) In the other, the majority upheld federal and state laws prohibitiing firearm possession by convicted felons; she argued against those restrictions on gun rights. (Kanter v. Barr, 2019.)

Let's now look at two more of her dissenting opinions. One dealing with prisoner rights and one with rights of the accused. Again, consider how a social and political conservative would be expected to vote. Yep, you guessed right.

Prisoner Rights
In McCottrell v. White (2019), two inmates, peacefully eating lunch, were struck by buckshot. Two correction officers had fired shotguns into the dining hall, triggered by a scuffle between other inmates which, however, had already been quelled. The non-involved injured inmates instituted a lawsuit claiming that their 8th Amendment rights were violated.

The majority at the 7th Circuit ruled that the lawsuit could proceed. There was evidence to show that the correction officers had fired the shotguns directly into the dining hall in bad faith and for no legitimate purpose.

(Click to enlarge)
In her dissenting opinion, Barrett argued that the lawsuit againt the correction officers should have summarily been dismissed. To quote her directly, there was "no evidence to prove [that the guards] intentionally hit  anyone...The guards may have acted with deliberate indifference to inmate safety by firing warning shots into the ceiling of a crowded cafeteria in the wake of the disturbance. In the context of prison discipline, however, 'deliberate indifference' is not enough." [My emphasis.]

So, the majority held that the guards' firing into the dining hall in bad faith and without any legitimate purpose was enough to support the injured inmates' lawsuit. Barrett insisted that even criminal recklessness on the part of the guards would not suffice.

Fair Trial
In Sims v. Hyatte (2018), the defense learned in the course of a post-conviction hearing that the prosecution had withheld evidence. The prosecution's sole witness identifying the defendant had been hypnotized to enhance his recollection. That witness testified at trial as an eyewitness, but the prosection never disclosed the hypnosis.

Barrett's colleagues in the majority ruled that, because defense counsel could have used the hypnosis information to impeach the prosecution's witness, that information was Brady material (Brady v. Maryland, 1963) and, accordingly, the prosecution was obligated to disclose. Inasmuch as that information would have been beneficial to the defense in discrediting the state's only eyewitness, the majority ordered that the writ of habeas corpus be granted and the conviction reversed.

(Click to enlarge)
In her dissent, Barrett acknowledged that "the undisclosed evidence of [the witness's] hypnosis constitutes a Brady violation." Nevertheless, she argued that it was not such a "clearly established" Brady violation that justified ruling for the defendant. According to Barrett, under current Supreme Court precedent, deference was owed to the state court below because that court applied the correct standard under Brady. The fact that the state court reached an erroneous conclusion was not enough to grant habeas corpus to the defendant.

So, Barrett disagreed with colleagues when they sided with innocent inmates who were injured by the recklessly indifferent actions of prison guards. And she disagreed with her colleagues when they reversed a conviction that had been obtained with a conceded constitutional--i.e., Brady--violation. Add that to what we discussed in the previous post--i.e., Barrett's dissent against immigration rights and dissent against restricting convicted felons' gun rights.

A pattern begins to emerge that is hard to miss. Dissenting to disfavor immigration, to restrict protection for inmates, to disregard a prosecutor's constitutional violation, and to support gun rights for convicted felons. Must it be repeated. This is hardly a matter of judicial restraint versus activism or any of the various permutations of either of those. This is support for the same positions one would generally expect of a socially and politically conservative politician or voter. Good or bad, wise or foolish, that is what it is.

We'll continue with then-Judge Barrett's record of revealing dissents in the next post.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Supreme Shift (Part 2): Barrett's Record

(Since the previous post, Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the Republican controlled Senate, without a single Democratic, and Republican President Trump who nominated her was defeated in the election by Democratic candidate Joe Biden.  Back to now-Justice Barrett.)

Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS
In her three years as a federal appellate judge, Amy Coney Barrett established a distinct record. That is--need it be said again--distinctly politically conservative.

And need I repeat, not judicially conservative, as in judicial restraint, strict interpretation, adherence to stare decisis, deference to the laws and policies of the elected branches and the states, textualism, originalism, etc. But politically conservative, as in voting like a conservative Republican politician would vote on the those "hot-button" issues like guns, abortion, immigration, criminal law, etc. Whether that's good or bad, right or wrong, wise or foolish is not the point. It's just what her record is.

From the time she was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017, Barrett disagreed publicly with the majority of her colleagues on that court several times. That is, she dissented either in a separate opinion of her own or, at times, she voted to join a dissent written by others. When she did dissent, it was uniformly for the politically conservative legal result. And as judicial scholars understand, dissents are extremely revealing.

Dissents tell us what it is that a judge thought--oftentimes, felt--was very important. So important that it justified going public with a disagreement. Consider that the dissenting judge is announcing to the world, "I lost." The judge is announcing that, despite having lost the majority vote, "I feel compelled to register a public disagreement."

A public disagreement, that is, instead of going along with the majority. Instead of going along to get along. It entails expending collegial capital. Irritating and, yes, sometimes antagonizing the majority by telling the world that my colleagues on the court are so seriously wrong, about something that is so seriously consequential, that the public must know just how wrong they are and how their decision is so harmful to the law, society, or both.

Beyond that, if the judge who disagrees with the majority is actually authoring a dissenting opinion--i.e., not just voting to join someone else's dissenting opinion--that judge is personally choosing to expend time and effort and the resources of her chambers to engage in a public act of protest. She is not required to do so. There's no institutional requirement or obligatory directive that she must do so. This is purely a matter of personal choice. So too is casting a vote to join another dissenting colleague, even if not as exacting as writing one's own dissenting opinion.

That's a long way of restating that dissents are very revealing. Voting in dissent and, even more so, writing a dissenting opinion.

So let's start looking at then-Judge (now-Justice) Barrett's dissents. Let's consider the common threads. You know: connect the dots. 

In several cases, Barrett joined the majority of her colleagues or actually wrote the majority opinion, ruling against immigrants and immigration rights--e.g., approving deportation, despite issues of due process or equal protection or the likelihood of torture upon return to the home country.

But she dissented in one case, Cook County v. Wolf (2020). The majority had ruled for the immigrant.

(click to enlarge)
In that case, the majority of Barrett's court rejected the Trump administration's expansion of the "public charge" rule. That Trump expansion would deny entry to any immigrant who might need any public assistance at any time. That expansive restriction on immigration was held by the majority to be well beyond the authorized bounds of governing immigration law.

Barrett authored a dissenting opinion. She approved the Department of Homeland Security's restrictive rule. She argued that the immigration law should be read to bestow very broad regulatory discretion to the Department, enabling it to decide who should be considered a "public charge" and, therefore, inadmissible.

Gun Rights
Barrett dissented in several cases involving various issues of criminal justice. In her dissenting opinions, she always argued against the accused, or the criminal defendant, or the inmate, or the convict--except once. That one case involved the gun rights of convicted felons.

(click to enlarge)
In that one case, Kanter v. Barr (2019), the convicted felon, following his release from prison, challenged the constitutionality of laws that prohibit his possession of firearms. The court upheld the federal and state laws in question. The majority held such laws to be reasonable regulations consistent with a non-absolute 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. According to the majority, both Congress and the Wisconsin legislature found that persons who have committed felonies, whether their crimes were violent or not, were more likely to abuse firearms.

Barrett disagreed. In her dissenting opinion--again, the only dissenting opinion or vote in which she sided with a criminally accused, a defendant, an inmate, or a convict--she sided with the convicted felon. According to her, the federal and state laws were unreasonable restrictions on gun rights. Declining to defer to Congress or the state legislature, she argued that such restrictions should only apply to persons proven to be dangerous, not merely convicted of felony that was non-violent.

We'll continue with  other cases involving criminal justice in the next post. But it already bears repeating after discussing only two cases: the point is not whether then-Judge Barrett's positions were right or wrong, wise or foolish, etc., etc. The point is the common thread--i.e., politically conservative. Not judicially conservative or restrained.

In the immigration case, Barrett declined to give a strict reading to a federal statute and, instead, approved an extremely broad reading by an administrative agency. In the gun rights case, she declined to defer to the other branches of the federal government or to the state--both of which had adopted what they believed to be reasonable restrictions.

This is not strict construction or deference to the politically accountable branches and the states. Not judicial restraint. It's today's political conservativism.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Supreme Shift: Ginsburg to Barrett (Part 1)

The magnitude of the shift was certainly not matched by a magnitude of serious deliberation.

Olivier Douliery/AFP
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18th. President Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the resulting vacancy a mere eight days later. One and a half weeks later, on October 5th, Senator Lindsey Graham scheduled a four day confirmation hearing. It began the next week.

Democrats decried the hypocrisy of the Republicans who had refused to hold a hearing during an election year when President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland. The Democrats also sounded alarms about the likely ramifications of an ideologically conservative Barrett replacing liberal Ginsburg. Republicans, not surprisingly, insisted that there was no such hypocrisy. They also lauded Barrett's avowed judicial restraint in decision-making, while insisting that her asserted embrace of originalism and textualism had nothing to do with any perceived ideological bent. After four days, the pre-ordained result seemed nothing but pre-ordained.

Whatever the partisan wrangling and dissembling may otherwise suggest--about the Barrett nomination and Barrett herself--there are some simple realities. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was selected by Democratic President Bill Clinton. She was heralded for her successful litigation on behalf of equal rights for women, and her record on the Court over 27 years was unmistakably liberal across the wide swath of issues from abortion rights to affirmative action to gender equality to immigration to LGBTQ rights to racial justice to the rights of the accused, etc.

By contrast, Amy Coney Barrett was selected by Republican Donald Trump. Her nomination was urged by supporters because of her ideological leanings that are distinctly contrary to those of Ginsburg, and for her judicial record which, albeit brief, reflects a polar opposite jurisprudence. In short, by all accounts, she is very ideologically conservative.

So let's take a look at the change that's in store--a change for the Court with a Justice Barrett who presumably would behave consistently with her record as Judge Barrett.

Here's what the ideological line-up of the Justices looked like in the immediately past term, with Ginsburg still on the Court:

(click to enlarge)

When considering those issues where there is a clear divide between liberals and conservatives, there is a clear breakdown of the Justices. As depicted above, the liberal or "left" wing of the Court has included Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan whose records have been slightly--and just slightly--more ideologically mixed. On the Court's conservative or "right" wing are Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, followed closely by Neil Gorsuch and, somewhat less ideologically consistent, Brett Kavanaugh. More ideologically mixed, yet still conservative--especially when contrasted with the Court's liberals--is the Chief Justice, John Roberts.

But what about the terms "liberal" and "conservative"--how exactly are those terms being used? Well, not at all as synonymous with so-called judicial "activism" versus "restraint," loose versus strict interpretation, adherence to precedents and deference to the elected branches versus the opposite. No, none of that. Those dichotomies tell us precious little about judges being ideologically "liberal" or "conservative."

Rather, just think about liberal Democratic politicians and their supporters contrasted with conservative Republican politicians and theirs. Think about those issues where those two camps generally and usually vehemently divide. Think separation of church and state, gun rights, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action, abortion rights and other women's rights, voting rights, immigration, the death penalty, environmental regulations, worker rights versus business, campaign finance, and, of course, Trump. When considering those "hot button" issues and how the Justices vote on them, there are clear patterns. That's what's depicted in the line-up, and that's how we popularly and pretty accurately characterize the Justices.

So it's certainly no surprise that on those issues just listed, as well as other similarly "hot button" matters, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg rarely, if ever, voted on the same side as Justices Thomas and Alito. Indeed, all four liberal Justices were almost always on the opposite side of Thomas and Alito. Moreover, it was uncommon for any of the the four liberals to be on the same side as any of the four most conservative Justices. And among the Court's conservatives, only the Chief Justice--at least during the past two terms--sided with the liberals on a somewhat regular, if not usual, basis.

So, the line-up has been 4 liberals and 5 conservatives on the Court--again, with the Chief Justice's voting record being more moderate or centrist than the other conservatives, at least within the Court's ideological spectrum. Let's look at that line-up once more before looking at the change that's in store if Judge Barrett is confirmed. 
(click to enlarge)

Now, let's remove Ginsburg from the depiction and add Barrett:
(click to enlarge)

Based upon the politically conservative groups that urged the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the promises President Trump has made about the kind of judges and Justices he would nominate, the support Barrett has been receiving from politically conservative Republican Senators, her academic writings and lectures, her record as a federal appellate judge--based on all of that evidence, there is every reason to believe that a Justice Barrett would be positioned firmly within the politically conservative wing of the Court. That is, there is every reason to believe that she would be voting with the politically conservative Justices on the politically conservative side of the liberal versus conservative, "hot button" issues.

Based on the previously listed evidence, it is safe to assume that her ideological bent is no less conservative than that of Trump's first two nominees, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Indeed, she might well be even more ideologically aligned with most conservative among the conservative Justices--i.e., Thomas and Alito.

At the least, her appointment to the Court would alter the previous 5 to 4 politically conservative majority on the Court--or the arguable 4 to 4 ideological balance with Chief Justice Roberts as the "'swing" vote. That would change to a 6 to 3 conservative majority--or arguably a 5-4 conservative majority with Roberts splitting his votes between the Court's two ideological wings. Putting the change more starkly, Judge Barrett's addition to the Court, filling the Ginsburg vacancy, would mean twice as many politically conservative Justices on the Court as liberals. Even more stark? The politically conservative Justices would still constitute a majority without Roberts' vote. The liberals on the Court would need two of the politically conservative Justices to vote their way to ever reach a majority.

To be sure, it is within the realm of possibility that Judge Barrett might experience an ideological and jurisprudential conversion over her tenure on the Court. It has certainly happened to others. Republican appointees have sometimes transitioned to staunch jurisprudential liberals. Nixon appointee Harry Blackmun, Ford appointee John Paul Stevens, and Bush (41) appointee David Souter come readily to mind. And Reagan appointees Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, even if never quite liberals, both became "swing votes" during their tenures, joining their liberal colleagues on some major social issues.

Absent such a dramatic ideological transformation, however, Judge Barrett's addition to the Court will result in a dramatic ideological transformation of the Court itself. Amy Coney Barrett replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg? That is dramatic. 

One more note before concluding. Imagine for a moment that remote chance that the Barrett nomination were to fail. What would the Court look like if a President Biden, rather than President Trump, were to fill the Ginsburg vacancy? Take a look:

(click to enlarge)

A Biden appointee to fill the Ginsburg vacancy would not change the ideological line-up of the Court from what it has been. Presumably, Biden would nominate a political liberal, someone in the mold of a Ginsburg or Sotomayor--or Breyer or Kagan. His nominee would certainly not be in the politically conservative mold of a Thomas or Alito or Gorsuch or Kavanaugh--or even Roberts. But such a nominee, if successfully appointed and then aligned with the other liberal Justices, would merely keep the Court's ideological line-up as it was before: 5 politically conservative Justices to 4 liberals, or 4 to 4 with the Chief Justice as the swing vote.

In short, with Trump's pick--a dramatic ideological shift to the right. With a Biden pick--status quo ante; no liberal tilt.

In the next post, we'll consider Barrett's record as a federal appellate judge on the 7th Circuit.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Religious Institutions Must Pay Abortion Coverage in NY (Part 3)

More Aftermath of Scalia's Dreadful Oregon v. Smith Opinion

We've previously discussed how New York's highest court, when deciding Catholic Charities v. Serio in 2006, did so with the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Oregon v. Smith as a backdrop. The Supreme Court in Smith significantly reduced the 1st Amendment protection for religious liberty, and the New York court in Catholic Charities did likewise as a matter of its own state constitutional law. (See Part 2.) Scalia's majority opinion in Smith disowned the "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test for free exercise of religion under the nation's Constitution, and the New York Court of Appeals rejected that test as well under the state's own law.

The Scalia majority in Smith ruled that all "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" laws defeat the 1st Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. In its Catholic Charities decision sixteen years later, New York's high court, though claiming it was rejecting Smith as "inflexible," nevertheless quickly stated that Smith "should be the usual" rule. Beyond that, New York's court relieved the state government of having to justify its interference with religious liberty. Instead, the court required those whose fundamental right was being abridged to prove that the admittedly "serious" interference was unreasonable.

Hence, in New York, as the state's high court put it in Catholic Charities:
The burden of showing that an interference with religious practice is unreasonable, and therefore requires an exemption from the statute, must be on the person claiming the exemption.
Yes, as promised in the last installment in this series, there is a "But!"

There are a few lines, immediately following those just quoted, that don't quite fit the tenor of the rest of the Catholic Charities decision. Indeed, they seem to contradict or at least confuse the very rule just adopted.

"The burden [of showing that an interference with religious liberty is unreasonable], however, should not be impossible to overcome," the court added, seemingly softening the rule it had just announced. It then asserted that some "hypothetical laws," even though "facially neutral," would be "well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability." Among such laws that, apparently, would be clearly unconstitutional under New York's protection of religious liberty, the court listed:
  • "a requirement that all witnesses must testify to facts within their knowledge bearing on a criminal prosecution [which] if applied without exception, could abrogate the confidentiality of the confessional"
  • "a general prohibition of alcohol consumption [that] could make the Christian sacrament of communion illegal"
  • "uniform regulation of meat preparation [that] could put kosher slaughterhouses out of business"
(The court was quoting from Michael W. McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, Harvard Law Review [1990].)

Curiously though, laws of the sort the court had listed would not be particularly unreasonable. In fact, some would seem entirely reasonable. Moreover, applying such laws uniformly--i.e., generally applicable, without the granting of exemptions--would not be particularly unreasonable either. To be sure, they would be religiously objectionable to some. But "unreasonable?" A "requirement that all witnesses must testify [in] a criminal prosecution"--unreasonable? A "general prohibition of alcohol consumption," e.g., in any establishment not licensed to serve to the public--unreasonable?"[U]niform regulation of meat preparation" for health or ethical reasons--unreasonable?

And yet, the court in Catholic Charities insisted that such laws without religious exemptions would be "well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability [my emphasis]." So not merely unacceptable, but "well beyond" being acceptable? Would religious objectors, then, not have to show that such laws imposed an "unreasonable" interference? Would the interference from such laws be considered per se "unreasonable?" And why those such laws?

Was the court's point that such laws, applied without exemptions, would be too drastic from the perspective of the religions affected? So Catholics would view the intrusion upon confessional confidentiality as too drastic? Christians would view the denial of wine for Sunday services as similarly too drastic? And Jews would view the prohibition of kosher slaughtering as too drastic as well? Or, after Catholic Charities, will a majority of New York's high court now decide which particular interferences with which particular religions the court views as too drastic? Or in the court's language, "unreasonable?"

So, let's be clear. It's apparently not too drastic--or "unreasonable"--to force Catholics, and others with similar beliefs, to violate their religion by paying for contraceptive insurance coverage. Apparently, according to New York's high court in Catholic Charities, denying a religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate is not particularly drastic or "unreasonable." But, apparently, it would be too drastic or "unreasonable" to deny an exemption from a criminal witness law, or an alcoholic consumption law, or an animal butchering law.

Why? Because a contraceptive mandate is more important than a criminal witness law, or an alcoholic consumption law, or an animal butchering law? Or because exemptions from a contraceptive mandate are deemed less important to the religious objectors than exemptions from those other laws would be? Is the point that some laws are more critical than others? Or that some religious exemptions are more critical? Or that these considerations are to be balanced? Or what?

And to focus on the specific matter at hand, what about an abortion coverage mandate? Is that like a criminal witness law, or an alcoholic consumption law, or an animal butchering law--all of which would require religious exemptions? Or more like the contraceptive mandate that didn't?

Is it too drastic or "unreasonable" to require Catholics, and others who believe that abortion is akin to murder or otherwise gravely immoral, to pay for abortion insurance? Would it be too drastic or "unreasonable" to deny religious exemptions--just as it would be for those other laws that the court identified in Catholic Charities? Are religious exemptions to the abortion mandate critical? Or is the abortion mandate to be treated the same as the contraceptive mandate? That is, the mandate itself to be treated as critical, while the requested exemptions for the religious objectors to be treated as less so?

Well, those are the constitutional questions presented in Roman Catholic Diocese v. Vullo.

At the trial level, the judge saw absolutely no difference between the contraceptive and abortion coverage mandates. Hence, the judge rejected the constitutional religious liberty claims for exemptions:
The Court finds the constitutional claims challenged in this case to be the same as those raised in Catholic Charities. Given the Court of Appeals addressed and rejected the same arguments, Catholic Charities is binding precedent requiring dismissal of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims in this matter. (Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v. Vullo [January 10, 2019, Albany County])
The intermediate appeals court, the Appellate Division, saw absolutely no difference as well. The Court of Appeals decision in Catholic Charities--regarding the state's contraceptive mandate--was to be applied jot for jot to the abortion coverage mandate:
[S]tare decisis...when applied to the precise issues presented by this appeal, proves decisive here in determining the constitutional claims advanced by plaintiffs that were addressed and rejected by the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities....The factual differences in these cases are immaterial to the relevant legal analyses that are identical in both cases. (Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v Vullo [Appellate Division, Third Department, July 2, 2020])
That intermediate court apparently saw no distinction between contraception and abortion. No distinction between religious objectors being forced to pay for what they believe to be morally wrong as opposed to paying for what they believe to be akin to murder or similarly grave.

So the intermediate court engaged in absolutely no analysis of the importance to the state of the abortion coverage mandate or the importance to the religious objectors of an exemption. More specifically, that court never considered the importance to the state of denying exemptions to the abortion mandate versus the importance to the religious objectors of being exempted.

The intermediate court never considered whether the abortion mandate without religious exemptions is like the laws that the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities insisted would be "well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability." Whether the abortion mandate is like a criminal witness law, or an alcoholic consumption law, or an animal butchering law which would constitutionally require religious exemptions. Whether more like that sort of law that would be too drastic or "unreasonable" without religious exemptions, or like the contraceptive mandate for which exemptions were denied.

Indeed, the intermediate court never even acknowledged what New York's high court in Catholic Charities had emphasized. I.e., that its rule was not absolute. That some "generally applicable" and "facially neutral" laws would be unconstitutional without religious exemptions. That such laws would be "well beyond the bounds." That religious exemptions to some laws, even if those laws are  "generally applicable" and "facially neutral," are constitutionally imperative.

No, not even a whiff of that in the Appellate Division's decision.

So now, when/if New York's highest court hears the appeal, will it merely apply the bottom-line black-letter rule from Catholic Charities mechanically and superficially, like the intermediate court did? Will it merely apply the Supreme Court's "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" standard from Scalia's Smith opinion as "usual rule"--as the New York court labelled it in Catholic Charities? Will it merely hold, with little analysis or explanation, that "[t]he burden of showing that an interference with religious practice is unreasonable" was not satisfied by the religious objectors to the abortion mandate, anymore than it was to the contraceptive mandate in Catholic Charities?

Will New York's highest court actually explain why some laws, if applied without religious exemptions--like a criminal witness law, or an alcoholic consumption law, or an animal butchering law--are "well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability." And why the abortion coverage mandate is or is not like one of those laws?

Will New York's highest court explain what religious objectors must do to show that the "interference" of a certain law is "unreasonable" and therefore that a religious exemption is constitutionally required? Stated otherwise, will the Court of Appeals explain when it is that the "usual rule" applies, and when the "well beyond the bounds" rule applies?

More specifically, whether the "usual rule" applies to the abortion mandate, or whether the "well beyond the bounds" rule applies is precisely the state constitutional law question presented in Roman Catholic Diocese v. Vullo. Neither the trial judge nor the intermediate court addressed that. We'll see if New York's highest court does.