Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ sincerely held religious practices and beliefs as long as the accommodation does not pose an “undue hardship” on the conduct of the employer’s business. But “undue hardship” is a vague term that has led to unclear, inconsistent, unfair, and even discriminatory precedent. This Note proffers a new framework for religious discrimination law through the incorporation of the “essential functions” provision of a similar law, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in order to strike a fairer balance between the competing rights and interests of employers and employees.
“There is a war against religion!” “Exemptions on religious groups undermine civil rights!” “Pluralism and tolerance are in jeopardy!” “Freedom for some ends up trumping freedom and equality for others!” Whether any of these individual statements is true, the rising claims of catastrophe by opposing groups across the United States prompted an intense and engaging conference, “Religious Accommodation in the Age of Civil Rights,” held at Harvard Law School on April 3–5, 2014, sponsored by Harvard Law School, the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the University of Southern California Center for Law, History and Culture. Engaging and intense discussions among forty panelists and over 120 participants generated the articles presented in this issue as well as others filling special issues of two other journals. The focus on accommodations for religion reflects both increasing challenges to traditional denials of rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and religious objections to contraception and abortion. Clashes increase with political and legal advances in legal treatment of marriage equality for same-sex couples and expanding recognition of legal claims of businesses for freedom of speech and religion. Ongoing disagreements over the scope of existing and potential federal, state, and local antidiscrimination laws, health insurance requirements, and other general rules trigger political and social debates but also produce legal questions requiring answers.
For the better part of a decade, a number of well-intentioned scholars of religious liberty have insisted that, as Douglas Laycock put it, “conflicts . . . between religious conservatives and the gay rights movement have live-and-let-live solutions in the tradition of American liberty.” More recently, some have tried to concretize this general claim in more-or-less specific proposals for accommodation of religious objectors in the context of state laws recognizing same-sex marriage. In no small part because of continuing religious conscientious objection to abortion and newly vigorous religious objection to contraception, including but not limited to demands for exemptions from the contraception mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) such as those recently considered by the Supreme Court in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, some of these scholars have now expanded the reach of their proposals for religious accommodation from the narrow issue of same-sex marriage to more broad “disagreements over sexual morality.” In this broader context, they renew their claims, first, that to arrive at a live-and-let-live solution is not only desirable but possible “if we have the will to do so,” and second, that to do otherwise than accommodate would be untrue to this nation’s tradition of religious liberty.
Americans recently marked and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During the past half-century, a wide variety of antidiscrimination laws, civil rights protections, and equal access rules have been enacted by the full range of authorities and jurisdictions, from small towns to the United Nations. These measures, in addition to a broad array of policies and programs having to do with education, voting rights, social welfare, and economic opportunity, have in many ways helped to make more real what might otherwise have remained only an ideal of “equal citizenship.” As President Barack Obama remarked on the anniversary of the Act, it “brought us closer to making real the declaration at the heart of our founding—that we are all created equal.” We continue to disagree, reasonably even if strongly, about the precise content of this ideal, the best ways to implement it, and its coherence. Even if the “idea of equality” is not entirely “empty,” it is certainly more easily and more often admired than understood. This is not surprising and does not detract from its being a shared ideal. In any event, and in the President’s words, the “journey continues.”
Increasingly, clashes between the demands of law and aspirations of religion center on the legal status and treatment of religious institutions. Much of the rising tensions revolving around religious institutions stem from conflicts between the religious objectives of those institutions and their impact on third parties who do not necessarily share those same objectives. Indeed, these persisting tensions have pressed two fundamental questions to the forefront of legal debate: what institutions count as religious institutions and to what extent should these institutions be excused from complying with otherwise valid laws?
In February 2014, the Kansas House of Representatives proposed a bill that would have permitted business owners with religious objections to deny some customers services and accommodations. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, Kansas legislators would have allowed citizens of Topeka to refuse restrooms, restaurants, and water fountains to other citizens.
Across the state of California today, conservative religious student groups are no longer welcome on public school campuses like Hastings College of the Law. And it’s not just the West Coast. Vanderbilt University, Bowdoin College, and a number of other schools have also kicked out conservative religious groups. These schools rely on “all-comers” policies that require student groups to accept any student who wants to join, irrespective of a student’s beliefs or actions. Conservative religious groups with creedal membership or leadership requirements are unable to comply.
A sizable contingent of Christians in America are profoundly anxious, not only because of a fear that Christianity is losing its grip on the culture, but also because of a perception that religious faith has become an acceptable target for scorn and ridicule. This anxiety, though ever present, inevitably intensifies whenever the religious right is dealt a political setback. Predictably, then, the rhetoric of religious victimhood began to escalate after Barack Obama won the presidency. America, it would seem, is now embattled in a full-fledged “war on Christianity.” These feelings stem in part from the rapidly changing religious landscape. The ranks of the religiously unaffiliated have been steadily swelling in recent years. In 2012 Pew found that one-fifth of Americans—and one-third of those under thirty—claim no religious affiliation, a marked increase from just five years earlier.
But the alarmist rhetoric nevertheless strikes many as unjustified and even a little silly. For one thing, President Obama has, of course, spoken about his personal Christian faith on more than one occasion. A man who publicly testifies that Jesus Christ has died for his sins makes for a curious leader in a crusade against Christianity. In addition, almost 75 percent of Americans still identify as Christians and the ranks of atheists and agnostics, though increasing, are still rather negligible. Unsurprisingly, then, many find it difficult to get behind the notion that religion in general or Christianity in particular is under legitimate attack. When voiced against a backdrop of two centuries of uninterrupted representation at the highest levels of government, the grievances of the supposedly victimized Christian majority are hard to take seriously. As a result, the gripes from religious conservatives often spur a self-fulfilling and even self-exacerbating cycle, as the complaints themselves become sources of ridicule and the feelings of victimization redouble. But while the popular discourse is dominated by a back and forth between hyperbolic bombast on one side and bewildered scoffing on the other, religious persecution is, of course, no laughing matter. Moreover, what “may seem [like] silly or wrong-headed” sensitivity to some is a deeply felt, “sincerely held . . . belief” to others.
In 2009, Marc and Claire Headley sued the Church of Scientology International and its affiliate, Religious Technology Center, for violating the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (“TVPA”) and for forcing Claire to undergo two abortions. The case was thrown out at the summary judgment phase because the Headleys were considered “ministers” of the Church of Scientology. Under the judicially created “ministerial exception”—an exemption never explicitly endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court—ministers are barred from suing their religious employer for disputes arising during the course of their employment. Because of the ministerial exception, the Headleys’ accusations have gone uninvestigated, potentially allowing the Church to continue to inflict horrific treatment on other “ministers” in its ranks. This Note begins by analyzing the current state of the exemption and its limits. Utilizing Headley as a case study, this Note concludes that the current limits on the ministerial exception are inadequate and proposes that courts consider the “harm principle” as a limiting doctrine on the exemption. This limiting principle would force the courts to consider physical and societal injuries caused by religious institutional behavior in the ministerial employment relationship in their constitutional inquiries. During the production of this Note, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument and decided a case concerning the ministerial exception. A brief epilogue addresses the decision and its implications on the limitation set forth in this Note.
Few areas of constitutional law remain more captive to the subjective whims of judicial preference than the First Amendment’s religion clauses. This condition results in part from the Court’s notorious inability to agree on a uniform standard of review under either the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses. This instability matters because, as Justice Scalia notes, “[w]hat distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle.” As concerns the religion clauses, a stabilizing principle may be found in political process theory, a set of ideas that, while generally familiar to constitutional theory, have yet to be comprehensively applied to either free exercise or establishment controversies.
Process theory embraces “[t]he notion that courts should exercise judicial review almost exclusively to protect democracy and guarantee the fairness of legal processes.” Conversely, process theory rejects the notion that courts should enforce “substantive” policy preferences that cannot be justified on these “process-oriented” grounds, as they are more properly left to the vicissitudes of the political branches. Borrowing heavily from the literature of civic republicanism, this Note argues that process theory should be broadened to account for the unique contributions of religion to the political process. This Note further argues that, using process theory, courts should interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses as process-oriented safeguards for the political contributions of religious faith and institutions. Finally, courts should reject a jurisprudence that employs the religion clauses as vehicles for the enforcement of substantive conceptions of free exercise and disestablishment.