Saturday, May 21, 2016

Religious Liberty vs. Abortion Coverage Mandate (Part 2)

As discussed in Part 1, the Catholic Diocese of Albany, together with other religious organizations, has filed suit challenging a New York State regulation that mandates abortion coverage in employee health insurance policies. These organizations object to the mandate because it requires them to violate one of the most fundamental tenets of their religion or moral conscience. They argue that applying the mandate to them violates their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
As also discussed, any 1st Amendment protection for religious freedom is minimal under current Supreme Court case law. In Oregon v. Smith (1990), the controlling federal precedent [which happened to involve a Native American religion], the Court shocked religious liberty scholars by holding that “any otherwise valid law” defeats free exercise of religion. Then, when Congress enacted RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to overrule the Smith decision and to restore the heightened protection for religious liberty that earlier landmarks had required, the Supreme Court in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) held that RFRA could not be applied to state laws.
With that as a backdrop, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, dismissed religious objections to the state’s contraceptive mandate for employee health policies. In Catholic Charities v. Serio (2006), the Court denied the request for an exemption sought by organizations with religious and moral objections to contraception. But the Court did not do so on the ground that the state had some very important reason that actually necessitated applying the mandate to the religious objectors. No. Instead, the Court explicitly rejected the so-called “compelling interest”/”strict scrutiny” test, just like the Supreme Court had done in Smith.
What the New York court did do was to adopt an extremely low level of protection for religious freedom. The Court held that, as a matter of the state’s constitutional law, the guarantee of free exercise of religion protects objectors whose religious freedom is being infringed only when they, the religious objectors, can prove that the "interference with religious practice is unreasonable, and therefore requires an exemption.”
Since the Catholic Charities decision is the controlling precedent in New York, and thus will govern the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation (unless, of course, it is overruled or “distinguished”), let’s take a closer look.
To begin with, the rule applied in Catholic Charities—regardless of one’s favorable or unfavorable view of it--is a drastic reversal of traditional constitutional principles. The reversal is as drastic as the rule the Supreme Court adopted in Smith. It is the opposite of what the rules are for other fundamental constitutional rights.
Whether free speech, free press, racial equal protection, parental rights, or some other fundamental right is being infringed, basic constitutional law places the burden on the government to prove that the infringement is justified. More than that, basic constitutional law demands that the justification for the infringement be “compelling.” (The terms “paramount” and “overriding” are used as well.) But under the rule applied by the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities, the justification for interfering with religious freedom need only be reasonable. And the religious objector bears the burden of proving that it isn’t.
Consequently, when the Supreme Court’s and the Court of Appeals’ decisions are combined, the result is precious little protection for free exercise of religion under either federal or state constitutional law. Assuming the Supreme Court does not overrule its Smith decision any time soon, [although there does seem to be support among some of the Justices to return to the earlier more protective 1st Amendment landmarks,] religious objectors in New York courts, such as those who have brought the Catholic Diocese litigation, must confront the state constitutional rule set forth by the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities.
On its face, that Catholic Charities rule subordinates free exercise of religion to any law that interferes with it—unless that interference is proven to be “unreasonable.” Not surprisingly, when the Court of Appeals applied that [abysmally low and rather amorphous] standard for "protecting" religious liberty in that case, it had little difficulty rejecting the religious objectors’ challenge to the state’s contraceptive coverage mandate.
Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about a law generally requiring contraceptive coverage in health insurance. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about applying that requirement to all employers. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about the state government insuring contraceptive coverage in an expeditious manner. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about state government wishing to avoid the administrative inefficiencies and complications of determining qualification for exemptions.
On the other hand, a perfectly workable accommodation for religious objectors might have been available in the Catholic Charities case. Protecting religious freedom and yet still insuring the availability of contraceptive coverage for employees who want it might well have been entirely feasible. [The Supreme Court concluded exactly that in its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, requiring an exemption for religious objectors to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Of course, as previously noted, that Supreme Court ruling was based on the federal RFRA statute which does not apply to state laws.]
But the feasibility of accommodating religious objectors seemed irrelevant to the Court of Appeals' decision in Catholic Charities. The focus was on the legitimate legislative policy behind contraceptive coverage generally. The Court actually made light of the religious objections to paying for contraceptive coverage and, thus, gave little consideration to available accommodations.
So, in applying the Catholic Charities rule to the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation, the religious liberty question is whether the abortion coverage mandate, as applied to those who view abortion as gravely violative of their most fundamental religious beliefs and moral conscience, is an "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable.” And the burden is on the religious objectors to prove that it is.
But here’s the question, about that question: what exactly did the Court of Appeals mean by “unreasonable" interference? That was not made clear in the slightest in the Catholic Charities decision. Was the Court referring to the law that creates the interference, or to the interference itself? And if that's not clear--which it isn't--then what about the factors that are relevant in determining “unreasonable" interference? Who knows?
Is the centrality or criticality of the religious tenet in question a factor? So, for example, does it make a difference that abortion is involved in the Catholic Diocese litigation rather than contraception? That what is involved is the objectors' most fundamental religious belief in the sanctity of human life and that abortion is the equivalent or akin to killing a human being?
Along similar lines, is the relative importance of the competing interests at stake a factor? So, for example, religious liberty versus the universal (or near universal) availability of abortion coverage? And more specifically, religious objection to subsidizing abortion, which is believed to be the same as or akin to killing a human being, versus the societal benefit of widespread affordable access to abortion through insurance coverage?
What about the actual need to interfere with religious freedom, or the lack thereof--a factor? So, for example, does it make a difference if religious objectors to the abortion mandate can readily be accommodated? That is, if some alternative to providing abortion coverage for the employees of religious objectors can be readily devised?
Is the degree or directness of the interference with religious free exercise a factor? So, for example, requiring religious objectors to pay for abortion coverage would constitute a greater intrusion than requiring them simply to notify employees that there are alternate means for obtaining it. On the other hand, requiring religious objectors to pay for health insurance that happens to include abortion coverage would constitute a lesser intrusion than actually requiring them to perform or assist or accommodate abortion.

And so forth and so on. A list of possible factors would be very long. But the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities gave little guidance other than repeating the terms “unreasonable" and "interference.” And that standard is capable of morphing into just about anything the Court might choose in future cases.
Indeed, the Court in Catholic Charities did seem to understand exactly that. It seemed fully aware--or at least some members of the Court seemed concerned--that the standard as stated was somewhat amorphous and entirely susceptible of variously conflicting interpretations. In fact, the Court injected into its opinion a list of certain intrusions on free exercise of religion that, in its view, would amount to “unreasonable" interference. Here’s what the Court said:
“‘[A] requirement that all witnesses must testify to facts within their knowledge bearing on a criminal prosecution . . . if applied without exception, could abrogate the confidentiality of the confessional. Similarly, a general prohibition of alcohol consumption could make the Christian sacrament of communion illegal, uniform regulation of meat preparation could put kosher slaughterhouses out of business, and prohibitions of discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status could end the male celibate priesthood.’ We find these hypothetical laws to be well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability.” [Quoting Michael V. McConnell, “The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion,” Harvard Law Review (1990).]
But the Court gave no explanation as to why those laws would amount to “unreasonable" interference. In fact, most of the laws identified are themselves perfectly reasonable. Requiring witnesses to testify? Health and animal cruelty regulations on slaughtering? Restricting alcoholic beverage service to regulated establishments?

Each of those laws serves legitimate government interests. None of them targets a religion. Any interference with a religion would be purely incidental to the general health, safety, and welfare purposes of those laws. Nevertheless, the Court insisted that applying such laws to religious objectors would be unconstitutional. And yet, no explanation was given.

The "unreasonable" interference standard is even less clear than that. Recall that the complete standard speaks of  "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable." Did the Court mean to say that the protection for religious liberty--whatever the "unreasonable" standard might mean--applies only to religiously required conduct, but not religious beliefs?

Did the Court use the term "practice" deliberately to mean that religious ceremonies, rituals, and other exercises could be protected, but not religious convictions, tenets, or conscience? So, e.g., the Catholic Mass, Jewish bris, and Jehovah Witness door-to-door proselytizing might receive protection from generally applicable laws; but belief that abortion is murder, that work should not be done on the Sabbath, or that the Bible is the word of God are not entitled to any accommodation. Is that what the Court meant to signify by its reference to "practice?"

In short, there seems to be quite a bit unsettled in the "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable" standard. That would seem to allow considerable wiggle room and discretion in its application. [That’s just a nicer way of saying that the Catholic Charities rule is cryptic and amorphous.] Future cases will give lower courts, and ultimately the Court of Appeals, the opportunity to refine its meaning. 
Perhaps the Catholic Diocese litigation, with the religious objectors seeking an exemption from New York's abortion coverage mandate, will prove to be just the right opportunity. And hopefully, any refinement will take religious objections more seriously, and will breathe some renewed life into the protection for the fundamental constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

[Disclosure: Again, I am pro-choice. But I am also pro-religious liberty, which I view as a bedrock of a free society. I have provided some assistance in the preparation of the complaint in the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation, and I provided some assistance as well on the side of the religious objectors in the Catholic Charities case. Any services I’ve provided have been entirely pro-bono.]