Culture

Religious Freedom Bolstered by Recent Federal Court Decisions

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

There’s a lot of good news coming out of the federal court system in recent days for those concerned about protecting and preserving the First Amendment’s guarantee of America’s “first freedom,” the freedom to worship, or not worship, as each individual chooses.

Much of the credit for this good news goes to a group of public interest law firms that specialize in defending religious freedom, including most notably the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) , Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty (BFRL), the First Liberty Institute (FLI), Liberty Counsel (LC), and the Thomas More Society (More).

Two recent decisions in federal courts demonstrate the positive difference these law firms can make in protecting the rights of individuals, churches, church-schools, and other faith-based institutions.

In Bethel Christian Academy v Karen Salmon, et. al., the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled that state education officials violated the school’s First Amendment rights by barring it from participating in a voucher program for low-income and disadvantaged students.

Salmon is the Maryland Superintendent of Schools and she was named in the suit along with the seven members of the state government’s “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today” (BOOST) program. The school was represented in the suit by ADF attorneys.

Interestingly, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher, in a Dec. 10 decision, prefaces her opinion by noting that “discovery is closed, and both parties have filed motions for summary judgment … Those motions are now fully briefed … The Court has reviewed the motions, both oppositions, and both replies, along with the accompanying exhibits. No hearing is necessary.”

Gallagher then opined that:

“For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Defendants’ application of the nondiscrimination provision to exclude Bethel from the BOOST program for the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years violated Bethel’s First Amendment rights. Accordingly, Bethel’s motion will be granted as to Count II, and Defendants’ motion will be denied as to Count II. Defendants will, therefore, be enjoined from clawing back the $102,600 Bethel received in BOOST funding.”

In a wonderfully concise couple of sentences, Gallagher cut through the many layers of education fogspeak and bureaucratese by observing:

“While the Court does not question Defendants’ desire to prevent BOOST-participating schools from engaging in discriminatory conduct, they only attempted to accomplish that goal by regulating speech. For example, Bethel was not excluded from the BOOST program because it rejected any applicant on the basis of sexual orientation; or because it disciplined or expelled any student on that basis; or because it engaged in any other discriminatory conduct or behaved any differently than any other BOOST participating school.

“Instead, Bethel was expelled from the program because it refused to change the admissions policy section of its handbook to reflect the views that the government wanted it to express. Put simply, Defendants did not demand that Bethel act differently to remain BOOST eligible, they demanded that Bethel speak differently.”

Concerning Gallagher’s decision, ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said in a statement:

“The government may not discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs. This Christian grade school offers an academically rigorous and caring education in a diverse environment, but Maryland has refused to play by its own rules, expelled the school from a government program without just cause, and demanded the repayment of over $102,000—money that empowered the education of low-income students. Maryland’s families deserve better. The court was on firm ground to stop the state from targeting and denying children scholarships simply based on the beliefs and policies set out in their school’s parent-student handbook.”

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In the second decision, also delivered on Dec.10, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska denied an injunction sought by the Downtown Hope Center homeless shelter in Anchorage against the Anchorage Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the municipality.

But the denial was a good result — at least for now — and a warning to local officials that they better not go back on their word. It’s a complicated case, but hang with me here.

Hope Center operates an overnight homeless shelter exclusively for women who have been sexually abused or trafficked. The center operates on the basis of orthodox Christian beliefs and provides multiple services to men and women during the day. The facility has space for 50 women to spend the night, but it’s closely packed, with only about three feet separating each individual.

So in 2018, after the city approved a non-discrimination provision, a trans-gendering male complained after being denied overnight admission. The shelter, also aided by ADF attorneys, including Tucker, had to go to federal court to protect its right to base overnight admissions in part on religious views. There were also practical considerations, including the fact many of the women had been raped or trafficked by men.

The case boiled down to whether the shelter qualified under the Anchorage non-discrimination provision as a “public accommodation.” The city agreed to back off and to reimburse the shelter for more than $100,000 in legal expenses.

But then the non-discrimination provision was rewritten, and shelter officials again headed to federal court because they could see the writing on the wall, even though the AHRC executive director publicly stated there were no plans to go after the facility again.

District Judge Sharon Gleason delivered her decision December 10, saying:

“The Court is persuaded that the executive director’s administrative closure power mitigates Hope Center’s concerns about a ‘universe of potential complainants.’ If a member of the public were to file a complaint against Hope Center … the executive director could dismiss that complaint before the investigation process commences.”

Gleason also ruled that the shelter had grounds for seeking damages the months between publication of the revised code and the district court decision.

Tucker told this reporter Wednesday that shelter officials have not yet discussed another damages settlement with the city, but for now their hope is there will be no third federal court action needed.

One might even say city officials have been put on notice that the First Amendment means what it says.