The Public Rights / Private Conscience Project engages in policy work on a wide range of religious exemption issues. You can find more information about our latest policy projects here.
On October 30, 2017 the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project filed a brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop, written with Muslim Advocates, on behalf of 15 religious minority groups and civil rights advocates. We argued that the broad interpretation urged by Masterpiece Cakeshop is bad for religious liberty itself - especially for religious minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs etc. Our position was that the Court’s early religious liberty cases were built on equality principles and that the two are mutually reinforcing values - thus the Court should interpret religious liberty in ways that are equality-enhacing, not equality-diminishing.
The brief is available here.
Read a full press release about the Amicus here.
Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) denounces the memorandum released today by the Department of Justice (DOJ) entitled the “Federal Memorandum for Religious Liberty Protections.” This document, and its implementation guidance misinterpret the meaning and scope of religious liberty under the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), demonstrating this administration’s continued commitment to elevating a particular set of religious beliefs over the safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.
Read the Full Statement here (.pdf)
Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) condemns the Trump administration for issuing sweeping new rules today that roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s birth control benefit, by broadening exemptions for employers who claim religious or moral objections to offering birth control to their workers. These regulations place the religious and moral views of employers above the health and wellbeing of their workers and gut the contraceptive coverage provision of the ACA by dramatically reducing access to affordable birth control. Rather than protecting religious freedom for all Americans, these regulations are part of the current administration’s ongoing effort to advance a limited set of conservative religious beliefs while limiting the liberty and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.
Read the Full Statement here (.pdf)
PRPCP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a joint statement on President Trump's recently-signed Executive Order on religion. It explores how the order could in fact harm rather than protect religious minorities through the adoption of overly-broad religious exemptions by federal agencies. Further, the order could serve to advance particular conservative religious beliefs and congregations at the expense of other marginalized communities.
Read the Joint Statement from the PRPCP and CAIR NY here (.pdf)
Read PRPCP's blog post with the full text of the statement here.
President Trump is set to sign a far-reaching and constitutionally problematic executive order today. Although a draft of the final order has not yet been released, it will likely mirror, at least in part, a similar draft that was leaked earlier this year. While more detailed analysis will be necessary once the final order has been released, the leaked order raises the following issues. This Press Advisory highlights the most harmful potential consequences of President Trump's "Religious Freedom" Executive Order, which is expected to be signed on May 4, at 11:00 am.
Read PRPCP's Press Advisory on the Potential Consequences here (.pdf).
Read PRPCP's Blog post on the Potential Consequences here.
President Trump is expected to sign an Executive Order (EO) on religion this week. The EO is likely to single out for special protection particular conservative religious beliefs regarding sex, marriage, and reproduction. In doing so, the EO will harm LGBTQ people, unmarried pregnant and parenting women, those seeking reproductive health care, unmarried cohabiting couples, and religious minorities. PRPCP outlined five key questions for journalists and advocates to ask when analyzing and reporting on the forthcoming EO.
Read PRPCP's Press Advisory here.
Read PRPCP's Blog post here.
Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of PRPCP testified before the New York City Council Committee on Women's Issues on a bill that would require several city agencies to undergo training on "implicit bias, discrimination, cultural competency and structural inequity, including with respect to gender, race and sexual orientation." The testimony outlines the merits of the bill, and encourages the council to expand its requirements to all city agencies, as well as to private city contracotrs, based on legal analysis by the PRPCP. The testimony also draws attention to the unique legal concerns and challenges that arise when faith-based organizations—which are exempted from certain provisions of New York City's human rights law—contract with the city to provide vital services.
Read the Press Release: Testimony to New York City Council on Gender and Racial Equity Training
Read the full testimony here.
PRPCP filed an amicus brief with the Sixth Circuit that argues that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) should not be interpreted to permit employers to violate antidiscrimination law. The case was brought on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a funeral home director who was fired after she came out to her employer as a transgender woman. In an unprecedented decision, the trial court held that the funeral home owner’s religious opposition to Stephens’ gender transition and identity entitled the employer to an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. PRPCP’s amicus brief explains that this application of RFRA would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which protects individuals from having to bear the significant costs of a religious belief they do not share. In addition, the accommodation would force the EEOC to participate in—rather than fight against—sex discrimination.
Press Release: Columbia Law School Think Tank submits amicus brief in Transgender Rights Case
Read the full brief here.
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project submitted a comment to the New York State Department of Financial Services on a proposed regulation requiring insurance plans to cover "medically necessary" abortions.The proposed regulation contains a broad religious exemption that is not required by state or federal law. Organizations and for-profit companies that serve the public at large should be expected to abide by otherwise neutral heath and labor protections. Our comment urges the Department not to place the religious views of employers over the liberty and equality rights of their employees, and to narrow its religious exemption to cover only those organizations that hire and serve co-religionists.
Press Release about the PRPCP analysis here.
Read the full analysis here.
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project submitted a comment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on its "Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment." We commend the Commission for striking an appropriate balance between accommodating religious speech in the workplace while prohibiting religiously-motivated harassment of employees. This careful balance is especially important as the administration considers broadly expanding the right to religious accommodations, including for federal workers and contractors. We also appreciate the EEOC's clarification that religious discrimination includes discrimination against non-believers and religiously-unaffiliated people.
Press Release about the PRPCP comment here.
Read the full comment here.
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project joins with thousands of lawyers, law professors, and legal organizations across the country in announcing that President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order writing a religious preference into U.S. policy is unconstitutional. The order suspends the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, declares that “entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and cuts off entry into the U.S. for nationals of certain majority-Muslim countries. Several provisions of the order are clearly intended to block immigration by Muslim refugees while providing a preference for some Christian refugees to escape violence and persecution by resettling in the U.S. The Executive Order amounts to both a form of state sponsored discrimination against persons of one particular faith and a religious preference for persons of another faith, in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Read the full analysis here.
The document outlines the numerous areas in which the Trump administration will seek to advance particular conservative Christian tenets, restrict the rights of religious minorities, and break down the barrier between church and state. Enactment of the administration’s policy priorities would call into question the careful balance that currently exists between the First Amendment and other fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
Read the full report here.
Note: The report will continue to be updated in the coming weeks as the administration takes further action.
This report shows how recent legislative efforts to expand religious liberty rights, such as the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), allow religious objectors to violate laws that protect against pregnancy, familial status, and marital status discrimination. These measures will disproportionately impact women of color who are more likely to become pregnant and raise families when unmarried.
Read the full report here.
In this memo, we provide an overview of the enormous variety of religious exemptions introduced and passed at the state and federal levels last year. We expect similar bills, which allow organizations and individuals to violate laws that conflict with their religious views about sex and marriage, to be introduced again this year.
Read the full memo here.
Following the Supreme Court's decision to vacate and remand the cases in Zubik v. Burwell, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a request for information on alternative ways to accommodate religious nonprofits from compliance with the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Our comment explains that the ACA's existing religious accommodation complies with federal law, and that expanding the accommodation in a way that harms employees and their families would risk violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Further, we highlight the effects an overly-broad accommodation of religion would have on communities of color.
Read the comments submitted here.
Professor Katherine Franke was invited to testify before the Pennsylvania Senate’s Labor and Industry Committee on the need to include greater protections for religious liberty in a bill that would add Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to Its Human Relations Law. She argued that current language contained in Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act, the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, provide robust protections for the religious liberty rights of faith-based employers, and as such no additional language is needed in SB 1306 to protect employers’ rights to the free exercise of religion. Indeed, some of the language contained in amendments to companion bills previously pending before the Pennsylvania legislature risks building into the Commonwealth’s Human Relations Act an overly-solicitous accommodation of religious preferences in a manner that could create a violation of the Establishment Clause. An additional accommodation of religious belief, such as that contained in A08770 offered to SB 1307 in the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, “A08770,” is therefore unnecessary and, moreover, risks unsettling a well-considered balance set by the Pennsylvania legislature and courts between religious liberty and other equally fundamental rights. By creating a religious accommodation that would meaningfully harm other Pennsylvanians, A08770 conflicts with established First Amendment doctrine.
Read the testimony here.
On Tuesday, July 12th, Professor Franke delivered testimony on behalf of twenty leading legal scholars providing an in depth analysis of the meaning and likely effects of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), were it to become law. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project was particularly compelled to provide testimony to the Committee because the first legislative finding set out in FADA declares that: “Leading legal scholars concur that conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real and should be addressed through legislation.” As leading legal scholars we must correct this statement: we do not concur that conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real, nor do we hold the view that any such conflict should be addressed through legislation. On the contrary, we maintain that religious liberty rights are already well protected in the U.S. Constitution and in existing federal and state legislation, rendering FADA both unnecessary and harmful.
FADA establishes vague and overly broad religious accommodations that would seriously harm other Americans’ legal rights and protections. Instead of protecting the First Amendment, the First Amendment Defense Act likely violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Act purports to protect free exercise of religion and prevent discrimination, yet in fact it risks unsettling a well-considered constitutional balance between religious liberty, the prohibition on government endorsement of or entanglement with religion, and other equally fundamental rights.
Read the testimony here.
This analysis of a 2007 memo by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel ("OLC memo") concludes that the memo misinterprets the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The OLC memo posits that under RFRA, religious recipients of federal grants have a right to use taxpayer funds to hire only coreligionists. The memo has increasingly been relied upon by religious grantees to request far broader religious exemptions. By allowing government funds to be used to further religious ends, the OLC memo oversteps the bounds of the Establishment Clause.
Read the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project's statement on the OLC memo here
Previously, we issued a lengthy legal analysis outlining a number of reasons Missouri Senate Joint Resolution 39 conflicts with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This statement summarizes our prior memo and addresses an additional harm SJR 39 would impose on Missourians: By forbidding the government from imposing a “penalty” on certain religious actors, SJR 39 will immunize these actors from prosecution if they commit criminal acts, including trespass, harassment, and even violent crimes, based on their religious beliefs about marriage equality.
Read the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project's statement on Constitutional Amendment SJR 39
This memo examines Missouri SJR 39, a proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution. It concludes that the amendment, which provides broad religious accommodations to public and private actors, is unconstitutional. SJR 39 would immunize many religious believers from suit if they violate municipal law or contractual obligations because of a “sincere religious belief concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.” It provides a safe haven for religious objectors to discriminate against same-sex couples and all supporters of marriage equality in numerous contexts, including employment, housing, public accommodations, and the provision of government services. By requiring private Missouri citizens to bear the cost of others’ religious beliefs, SJR 39 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Read the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project's full memorandum regarding SJR 39
This memo analyzes Mississippi HB 1523, which was signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant. It explains why many provisions of this broad religious exemption law conflict with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. HB 1532 grants religious accommodations to individuals, religious institutions, for-profit businesses, and state actors that will harm the rights of Mississippians who are LGBT or do not conform to religious sex and gender norms. It is part of a larger trend of state legislation that seeks to codify a right to discriminate in the name of religious freedom.
Read the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project's full memo regarding HB 1523 here
This memo explores the scope and meaning of Georgia House Bill 757. Specifically, it calls attention to language in the bill that may conflict with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In light of established First Amendment doctrine, HB 757 presents a conflict with the First Amendment by granting religious accommodations that would meaningfully harm the rights of others. While the bill will be vetoed in Georgia, states around the country have introduced, and will continue to introduce, legislation that mirrors much of HB 757’s overbroad, vague, and problematic language. This analysis clarifies and explains the bill’s legal weaknesses. The analysis contained in this memo applies with equal measure to bills with similar language pending in Mississippi and Missouri.
Read the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project's full memo regarding HB 757 here
If the plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell win, thousands of women of color who work at religious non-profits could be stripped of their right to no-cost insurance coverage for contraception. That’s what at stake in the latest Supreme Court case challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. This fact sheet explores what women of color have at stake in this newest round of litigation over the ACA.
Access the Fact Sheet here
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project assisted the Counsel for Church-State Scholars in the preparation of an amicus brief submitted in the Supreme Court of the United States case of David A. Zubik, et al., v. Sylvia Burwell, et al.
"For several years, Congress, the Administration,and the courts have struggled with how to accommodate religious objections to the requirement of contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act (the “Mandate”) while also ensuring that women retain the full access to contraceptive services the Act guarantees them. In all phases of the litigation, the courts have recognized that religious accommodation cannot come at the expense of women’s access to contraception, although the courts have not always been clear about why this is so. Amici submit that the parties and the courts haveoverlooked or underemphasized a critical reason for this limitation on religious accommodation: the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from shifting the costs of accommodating a religion from those who practice it to those who do not. Shifting burdens in this way improperly imposes one person’s faith on another, in violation of the government’s obligation to be evenhanded in the face of religious differences among citizens."
Read the full brief here
The Affordable Care Act includes a non-discrimination provision known as section 1557, which prohibits discrimination on the ground of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability under “any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance … or under any program or activity that is administered by an Executive agency or any entity established under [Title I of ACA]….” Section 1557 is the first Federal civil rights law to prohibit sex discrimination in health care.
On Sunday, November 8th, 2015, a group of law and religion scholars submitted comments as part of the notice-and-comment period for regulations under this provision. Professor Katherine Franke and Kara Loewentheil, Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, were among the signatories to the comments. The comments detail concerns that if the Department of Health and Human Services allows individuals or groups to deny care or health services based on exemptions available under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, such allowances could potentially undermine the goals of 1557 NPRM. In part, the letter states:
"We strongly urge the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to refrain from expanding exemptions beyond those already provided under federal law. The government should not fund discrimination by health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Additional religious exemptions would risk imposing significant burdens on women and sexual minorities in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Religious liberty doctrine does not require such exemptions, but rather warns against them.
We recommend that HHS make explicit the constitutional limits on the application of existing religious exemption laws. The Nondiscrimination Rule should specify that theReligious Freedom Restoration Act and other existing religious accommodations under federal law apply only insofar as identifiable third parties are not harmed."
Read the full letter here.
The Supreme Court's decision on June 26th constitutionalizing a right to civil marriage for same-sex couples in the Obergefell decision lifted a ban on same-sex couples access to civil marriage. The immediate response of some state attorneys general and other public officials is to claim that public officials responsible for officiating over civil marriages and/or issuing marriage licenses be granted an exemption from presiding over the marriages of same-sex couples if doing so would offend their conscience or sincerely held religious beliefs. Some of these proposals suggest that officials who have religious or conscience-based objections to issuing a marriage license could lawfully delegate responsibility for issuing that license to deputies or assistants who do not have the same objections. These advocates assert that these proposals lawfully balance the constitutional rights of same-sex couples to marry with the religious liberty rights of public officials. While there are a number of such proposals being put forward in jurisdictions across the country, we refer to them collectively as “marriage license exemption proposals.”
This legal memorandum analyzes the legality of these “marriage license exemption proposals” under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The memorandum does not examine their legality under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, as RFRA does not apply to state or local employees. ) The memorandum concludes that nothing in the Constitution or in Title VII requires such exemptions. Instead, adopting such exemptions by statute or policy would violate fundamental constitutional rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause and the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion.
The legal memorandum is available here.
State RFRA FAQ
State RFRAs continue to make news across the country, but what is a RFRA? How are state RFRAs different from the federal RFRA? What do these laws allow and why do they matter? Our FAQ answers all these questions and more.
The FAQ can be found here.
Letter to Indiana Legislature Concerning Pending "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" Bills
Upon the request of a member of the Indiana legislature we crafted an analysis of the proposed "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" bills pending before the Indiana legislature. The letter we wrote provided careful analysis of the bills in light of Indiana and federal religious liberty law, and gained thirty signatures, many who are law professors at Indiana University. The analysis stresses that:
- Religious freedom is a fundamental American value enshrined in the Indiana Constitution. But the proposed legislation could undermine those values and result in harmful consequences.
- The proposed Indiana RFRA would unsettle a well–reasoned harmony struck by Indian courts between rights to religious liberty and other fundamental rights – as such, this is not a modest proposal but instead could have radical consequences and will unleash a wave of litigation.
- Such harmful consequences could include employers, landlords, and corporations taking the law into their own hands and arguing that their religious beliefs allow them to avoid complying with laws that apply to everyone else. This will likely result in a flood of lawsuits.
- The right to religious liberty, like most fundamental rights, is not absolute. The law is very clear that religious liberty rights secured under state RFRAs or under the Indiana or U.S. Constitutions cannot be secured by shifting material costs to third party rights-holders. The proposed legislation should not be enacted because it does not limit the scope of religious liberty rights in cases where they undermine other important rights to public health, equality, or security.
- For instance, when a state police officer sought an exemption from working as a riverboat gaming agent because he had a religious objection to gambling, an Indiana court rejected this challenge, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that, “law enforcement agencies need the cooperation of all members…Firefighters must extinguish all fires, even those in places of worship that the firefighter regards as heretical.”
- In a Supreme Court case, an Amish employer challenged on religious grounds the requirement to pay Social Security taxes on behalf of his employees. The court rejected the exemption, noting the harm it would impose on others.
- Some supporters of the proposed RFRA have argued incorrectly that the language of the proposed Indiana RFRA is the same as the federal RFRA and as such the Indiana law should gain bipartisan support, just as the federal RFRA did in 1993.
- In fact, many original supporters of the federal RFRA, including members of Congress who voted for the law and advocates who supported it, have withdrawn their support for the federal RFRA because it has been interpreted and applied in ways they did not expect at the time they lent their endorsement to the law.
The letter is available here.
Letter to Georgia Legislature Concerning HB 29, "Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act"
Legislatures around the country are considering new "religious freedom" bills with dangerously broad language that would provide individuals and businesses in many states with an license to discriminate. This letter, which PRPCP helped prepare, explains the problems with a proposed "religious freedom" bill in Georgia, and illustrates the ways in which the Georgia bill, and others like it, should be amended to limit the potential discriminatory impact on women, LGBT individuals, and other groups vulnerable to discrimination in the name of "religion.
The letter is available here.
Affordable Care Act Contraceptive Coverage Accommodation
In August 2014, the Obama Administration responded to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby and its order in Wheaton College by issuing two new sets of regulations to govern the accommodation process for employers with religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement. One was an interim final regulation, promulgated by the Department of Labor, that responded to the Wheaton College order by allowing objecting non-profit organizations that believe notifying their insurance company or third-party administrator (TPA) of their objection is also a violation of their RFRA rights to simply notify the government directly, after which DOL and HHS will work together to notify the insurance company (or third-party administrator). The other was a proposed regulation that would define what kinds of for-profit entities could seek an accommodation under RFRA based on the Hobby Lobby ruling.
These regulations were open for public comment, and the Public Rights / Private Conscience Project drafted letters on both rules that were signed by over 60 prominent legal academics. Our comments can be viewed in full below:
- Comments to HHS signed by 40+ corporate law experts advising that accomodation be available only to limited set of for-profit entities that can demonstrate religious commitment and unanimous agreement to seek an accommodation, submitted October 21, 2014.
- Comments to HHS signed by 20+ law and religion scholars highlighting Establishment Clause problems with ACA contraceptive coverage requirement accommodation process for for-profit entities, submitted October 21, 2014.
- Comments to DOL signed by 20+ law and religion scholars highlighting Establishment Clause problems with ACA contraceptive coverage requirement accommodation process for non-profit organizations, submitted October 21, 2014.
LGBT Workplace Equality Executive Order
In the summer of 2014, as President Barack Obama prepared to sign a highly-anticipated executive order prohibiting federal contractors from engaging in workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, some religious groups and several law professors pressured the President to include exemptions for federal contractors that objected to employing LGBT people altogether on the basis of their religious faith. In response, the Public Rights / Private Conscience Project published an open letter to President Obama signed by 54 prominent legal scholars, urging the President to resist including religious exemptions language in the executive order. On July 21st, President Obama signed Executive Order 13672 without including any additional religious exemptions, with Center for Gender & Sexuality Law Director Katherine Franke in attendance. Our letter can be viewed in full below:
- Letter urging President Obama to refrain from including additional religious exemptions in LGBT exeutive order, published July 14, 2014.