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.