More Aftermath of Scalia's Dreadful Oregon v. Smith Opinion
Prior to discussing the Supreme Court's three recent church-state decisions in the immediately preceding post (see Part 1a--addendum), we discussed the status of federal free exercise protections. Under the 1st Amendment--at least since Scalia's majority opinion in the 1990 Oregon v. Smith decision--religious liberty is protected only against those laws that target religion for disparate treatment or are illegal anyway. (I.e., "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" laws defeat religious objections.) Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), federal laws--not state ones--that burden free exercise of religion must pass the pre-Smith "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test. (I.e., the interference with religious liberty must be necessary to achieve an extremely important government purpose.) (See Part 1.)
Now, with that as background for the minimalist 1st Amendment constitutional protection and the rigorous federal RFRA protection, we can better understand New York's religious liberty decisions. The 1st Amendment constitutional protection against New York laws that interfere with religious liberty is Scalia's opinion in Smith. And the rigorous statutory RFRA protection does not apply at all.
So, in the 2006 Catholic Charities v. Serio case, involving New York's mandatory contraceptive insurance coverage, the state's highest court understood full well that the 1st Amendment (as defined by Scalia's majority opinion in Smith) provided precious little, if any, protection for religious objectors who were seeking an exemption. The contraceptive mandate of the law (the Women's Health and Wellness Act), concededly required the objectors to violate their religious beliefs. But that was fine under the Scalia-formulated "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" standard--i.e., the law did not target religion or any particular religion for special unfavorable treatment, and it did not appear to violate any other federal constitutional right or federal law. The New York high court also understood full well that federal RFRA did not apply to the state's law.
Consequently, the central issue in Catholic Charities v. Serio was whether New York State's own constitutional right of free exercise provided greater protection for the religious objectors than the Smith-downgraded 1st Amendment did. Indeed, in many areas of the law, the New York Court of Appeals has a tradition of independently protecting rights, as a matter of its own state constitutional law, more than the Supreme Court has required under the federal constitution. Free press, search and seizure, right to counsel, education, and assistance to the needy are prominent examples. The question, then, in Catholic Charities, was whether New York's highest court would do the same--or, actually, continue to do so--with regard to free exercise of religion.
Many other state courts, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Smith decision, had done just that. Those courts rejected Scalia's "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" standard. As a matter of independent state constitutional decision-making, those courts retained the much more protective pre-Smith "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test. In still other states, RFRA-like legislation was enacted to do the same thing as a matter statutory law.
In New York, neither of those has happened. Unlike many other state courts, New York's high court did not directly address the Supreme Court's Smith decision until the 2006 Catholic Charities case--16 years later. No, the Court of Appeals had neither embraced Scalia's "generally applicable" and "otherwise valid" standard, nor retained the "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test as a matter of independent state constitutional law, nor adopted any other specific standard for resolving religious liberty questions. Moreover, unlike many other state legislatures, New York's had not enacted any RFRA-like statute.
Therefore, if the religious objectors in the Catholic Charities case were to obtain relief --specifically, a religious exemption from the state's contraceptive insurance mandate--the Court of Appeals would need to do something similar to what other state courts had done. New York's high court would need to protect religious free exercise as a matter of independent state constitutional law. Not surprisingly, the New York Court of Appeals had done just that many years earlier in its storied history.
In its 1943 decision in People v. Barber, New York's high court refused to follow the Supreme Court's narrow view of religious liberty at the time. Just the year before, the Supreme Court had held that the federal constitution did not entitle Jehovah Witnesses to an exemption from a generally applicable, but religiously objectionable local law. (Jones v. Opelika .) The Court of Appeals, facing the same religious objection to the same sort of local law, reached the opposite result. In holding that the religious objectors were entitled to an exemption, the New York court made clear in no uncertain terms that it was not bound by the Supreme Court's ruling, but by a much more protective state standard.
In lines oft-quoted--and I've been doing so since I first began writing about New York's high court many years ago--Chief Judge Irving Lehman's unanimous opinion dismissed the government's Supreme Court-based argument:
Parenthetically we may point out that in determining the scope and effect of the guarantees of fundamental rights of the individual in the Constitution of the State of New York, this court is bound to exercise its independent judgment and is not bound by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States limiting the scope of similar guarantees in the Constitution of the United States. [My emphasis.]Notably, four short months thereafter, the Supreme Court cited the Barber decision and reversed its prior ruling. Following the Court of Appeals, it granted religious exemptions to similar laws. (Murdock v. Pennsylvania .)
To be sure, when New York's high court was considering Catholic Charities v. Serio, it was aware of its six-decade old Barber landmark. Rather astonishingly, however, the court's opinion in Catholic Charities never even mentions Barber. The court's failure to even cite the heralded Barber decision speaks volumes about the general thrust and underlying perspective of the Catholic Charities ruling.
Noting that the Supreme Court's decision in "Smith is an insuperable obstacle" for the religious objectors to obtain an exemption under the 1st amendment, the Court of Appeals readily dismissed the federal free exercise claim. The court then claimed that it was rejecting Smith's "inflexible rule" as a matter of state constitutional law. But the court later back-tracked and asserted that the "generally applicable" "principle" in Smith "should be the usual" rule. And following the Supreme Court's abandonment of the "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test in Scalia's Smith opinion, New York's high court explicitly rejected that test as well as a matter of its own independent state constitutional law.
Unlike other state high courts that have retained that protective test for religious liberty, the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities embraced the view that "[s]trict scrutiny is not the right approach to constitutionally-based claims for religious exemptions." The court said it would "not read the New York Free Exercise Clause to require the State to demonstrate a 'compelling' interest" in order to defeat religious liberty and deny a religious exemption.
Well why not? And if not, what exactly is New York's state constitutional rule for protecting religious liberty?
Here's the rule the Court of Appeals newly announced in Catholic Charities:
We now hold that substantial deference is due the Legislature, and that the party claiming an exemption bears the burden of showing that the challenged legislation, as applied to that party, is an unreasonable interference with religious freedom. [My emphasis.]Hmmm. So when a law interferes with free exercise of religion, deference must still be given to the legislature. There's a law that requires a violation of religious beliefs or prohibits a religious practice, and yet deference is still owed to the legislature, not the fundamental constitutional right. To be sure, legislation is normally presumed to be valid. But even for the application of that legislation where it interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right?
Isn't the government required to justify infringing on a fundamental right? Isn't the government required to show that the infringement is necessary? Isn't the government at least required to show that there's a particularly good reason that outweighs the fundamental right?
No! Not according to the Catholic Charities decision.
Rather, the person or group whose free exercise of religion is being infringed upon bears the entire burden--not the government that is infringing upon the fundamental constitutional right. And it's not enough for the person or group whose free exercise of religion is being infringed to prove that the infringement is unnecessary. Or to prove that the infringement doesn't even serve a particularly important government interest. No! The person or group whose free exercise of religion is being infringed upon is required to prove that the application of that challenged legislation--the denial of a religious exemption--isn't even reasonable.
Any first year law student knows that government interference with other fundamental constitutional rights is treated much differently. When government infringes upon free speech or free press or free assembly or another fundamental right, it is the government that bears the burden. Government must justify the infringement. Government must show that it has an extremely strong reason for doing so--i.e., a "compelling interest." Government must show that the infringement is necessary to achieve that interest--i.e., that there is no non-infringing means for doing so. In other words, Government must satisfy the "compelling interest/strict scrutiny" test.
But in New York--after Scalia's majority opinion in Smith and then the New York Court of Appeals' decision in Catholic Charities--the burden is now on those whose free exercise of religion is being infringed by the state's law. And, to protect their constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, they must show that the law's infringement is actually unreasonable.
One is left to wonder--again, as after Smith--isn't a fundamental constitutional right supposed to be superior to legislation? Aren't fundamental constitutional rights--unless they are mere aspirational words--entitled to a higher status than that? The answer for other fundamental constitutional rights is yes. But apparently not for free exercise of religion.
Not at all surprisingly, New York's highest court in Catholic Charities, applying the rule it had just announced, concluded that the religious objectors were not entitled to an exemption from the contraceptive mandate. After declaring that the "principle" of Smith "should be the usual" rule. After rejecting the "compelling interest/strict scrutiny test." After deferring to the legislature instead of the fundamental right. After placing the burden on those whose fundamental right was being infringed. After all that, the obstacles against the religious objectors' success were virtually "insuperable"--to use the court's own term when describing the standard in Smith.
Now, with Catholic Charities as the governing precedent, that's what has confronted the religious objectors to the state's abortion mandate. That's what the religious objectors have confronted in seeking an exemption from the insurance regulation requiring employers to provide abortion coverage. That's what seemed "insuperable" when the religious objectors presented their case in Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany v. Vullo and when the state's intermediate appellate court ruled against them earlier this month. And that's what might seem "insuperable" when [If?] New York's highest court hears the appeal.
Yes, a "But!" there is. A few lines right in the Catholic Charities decision.
Those lines don't quite fit the tenor of the rest of the Court of Appeals' opinion. But they are there. They are definitively stated. And they offer hope to religious objectors seeking exemptions. Even exemptions to "generally applicable" laws that "only" incidentally infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed free exercise.
In the next and final post in this series, we'll discuss those lines, as well as this month's Appellate Division decision in Roman Catholic Diocese which seemed to disregard those lines entirely.
[Disclosure: As I've previously made clear, I do believe strongly in a woman's right to choose, but at least as strongly in freedom of religion and conscience. Moreover, I have enthusiastically provided whatever little assistance I can to the plaintiffs in both the Catholic Charities and Roman Catholic Diocese cases.
I've also written about the abortion mandate issue before in New York Court Watcher:
Religious Liberty vs. Abortion Coverage Mandate (Part 2), 5/21/16; Religious Liberty vs. Abortion Coverage Mandate (Part 1), 5/17/16.]