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Three Factors That Make Indiana’s Religion Law Different From Other States’

By Erwin Chemerinsky, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Indiana statute is the culmination of a long, murky legal history that reaches back to the 1990 Supreme Court case Employment Division v. Smith, which significantly changed the standard interpretation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. At issue was whether a Native American group could use peyote in religious rituals in violation of an Oregon law. The court ruled that it could not — because the state law was “neutral,” in that it was not motivated by a desire to curtail religious rights, and because it applied to everyone in the state.

Legal precedent prior to 1990 dictated that the government could substantially burden a person’s practice of his or her religion only if its action was necessary to achieve a compelling government purpose. But in Smith, the court established that the free exercise clause could not be used to challenge a neutral law of general applicability no matter how much the law burdened religion.

So, before Smith, a priest in a dry county who wanted to use wine in communion surely would have prevailed in court. After Smith, he would have lost because the law prohibiting consumption of alcohol was a neutral law of general applicability.

In 1993, Congress, with strong bipartisan support, passed and President Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Its stated goal was to restore religious freedom by statute to what it previously had been under the Constitution. The law provides that whenever the government substantially burdens religion, even with a neutral law of general applicability, its action is illegal unless proven to be necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.

The next development came in 1997, when the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments because it exceeded the scope of Congress’ power. But the law remained constitutional as applied to the federal government, and was the basis for the court’s decision last June in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In that case, the court held, 5 to 4, that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to require a closely held corporation to provide contraceptive coverage if that contradicted its owners’ religious beliefs.

The new Indiana law has the same title and contains the same language as the federal statute. Like the federal law, the Indiana version provides: “A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

But the Indiana and federal statutes are not wholly identical. The Indiana law, unlike the federal RFRA, builds on Hobby Lobby by expressly providing protection to corporations and other business entities. That’s one reason to worry that the purpose of the Indiana law is to allow discrimination against same-sex couples based on business owners’ religious beliefs.

Another reason for concern is timing. Why is Indiana adopting the law now, 25 years after Employment Division v. Smith and 22 years after the enactment of the federal statute? There is a widespread consensus across the political spectrum that the Supreme Court is about to recognize a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians and hold that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violate the Constitution. This law appears to be a reaction to that development.

The rhetoric surrounding the Indiana law is also troubling. In fact, over and over in his interviews, Pence has refused to deny that the law would permit discrimination. He also was emphatic that there would be no expansion of rights for gays and lesbians on his “watch.”

This is why there are loud protests against the Indiana law and calls for boycotts of the state. But Indiana could easily solve this controversy by amending the law to provide that no one can discriminate against others based on sexual orientation, sex or race under the statute or on the grounds of religious beliefs.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Adam Fagen via Flickr

Judging The Supreme Court

Originally posted at The Washington Spectator

After 227 years of history, how should we judge the United States Supreme Court? All of my years of studying, teaching, and practicing Constitutional law have convinced me that the Supreme Court has rarely lived up to lofty expectations and far more often has upheld discrimination and even egregious violations of basic liberties.

My disappointment in the Court is historical and contemporary. Its preeminent task is to enforce the Constitution in the face of majorities that would violate it. The Court is thus especially important in protecting minorities and in safeguarding rights in times of crisis when passions cause society to lose sight of its long-term values.

For the first 78 years of American history until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the Court enforced the institution of slavery. For 58 years, from 1896 until 1954, the Court embraced the noxious doctrine of separate but equal and approved Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. Nor are egregious mistakes by the Supreme Court on race a thing of the past. The Roberts Court has furthered racial inequality by striking down efforts of school boards to desegregate schools and by declaring unconstitutional crucial provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Court also has continually failed to stand up to majoritarian pressures in times of crisis. During World War I, individuals were imprisoned for speech that criticized the draft and the war without the slightest evidence that the expression had any adverse effect on military recruitment or the war effort. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lifelong homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “concentration camps.”

During the McCarthy era, people were imprisoned simply for teaching works by Marx and Engels, and Lenin. In all of these instances, the Court failed to enforce the Constitution. Most recently, the Roberts Court held that individuals could be criminally punished for advising foreign organizations, designated by the United States government as terrorist organizations, as to how to use the United Nations for peaceful resolution of their disputes or how to receive humanitarian assistance.

For almost 40 years, from the 1890s until 1937, the Court declared unconstitutional more than 200 federal, state, and local laws that were designed to protect workers and consumers. The Court even declared unconstitutional the first federal law designed to prevent child labor by prohibiting the shipment in interstate commerce of goods made by child labor. Minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws were frequently invalidated.

Even the areas of the Supreme Court’s triumphs, like Brown v. Board of Education and Gideon v. Wainwright, accomplished less than it might seem. American public schools remain racially separate and terribly unequal. Criminal defendants in so many parts of the country, including in death-penalty cases, have grossly inadequate lawyers.

The Court’s decisions from the last few years — preventing employment discrimination suits and class actions against large corporations, keeping those injured by misconduct of generic drug makers from having any recovery, denying remedies to those unjustly convicted and detained — illustrate what has historically been true: The Court is far more likely to rule in favor of corporations than workers or consumers; it is far more likely to uphold abuses of government power than to stop them.

What should we do about it?

Some scholars urge the abandonment of judicial review, but I reject that conclusion. The limits of the Constitution are meaningful only if there are courts to enforce them. For those I have represented over my career — prisoners, criminal defendants, homeless individuals, a Guantánamo detainee — it is the courts or nothing.

But I believe that there are many reforms that can make the Court better and, taken together, make it less likely that it will so badly fail in the future. I propose a host of changes, including instituting merit selection of court justices, creating a more meaningful confirmation process, establishing term limits for court justices, changing the Court’s communications (that is, televising its proceedings), and applying ethics rules to the court justices.

The Supreme Court’s decisions affect each of us, often in the most important and intimate aspects of our lives. I think that we need to focus on the Court’s long-term and historical performance. If we do, it is a disturbing picture and there is only one possible verdict: The Court is guilty of failing to adequately enforce the Constitution.

But it can and must get better in the years and decades ahead.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons