In the last few decades, legal scholars and those interested in religious liberty have questioned whether the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution is on its way to extinction. The question stems from the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in the case of Employment Division v. Smith, in which it held that a neutral law of general applicability does not violate the Free Exercise Clause, even if it imposes a burden on a person’s religious beliefs or practices.
At this point, the Supreme Court has give a pretty clear answer to this question. For all intents and purposes, the Free Exercise Clause is a dead letter, with as much life to it as the Third Amendment’s ban on the quartering of troops in private houses.
Although the Smith rule appears to leave open the possibility of challenging laws, in reality it has rendered the Free Exercise Clause virtually useless in defending religious liberty. In fact, in the recent cases that have reached the Supreme Court on religious freedom during Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure (since 2005), virtually all have completely ignored the Free Exercise Clause. Instead, the very few religion cases that have been taken by the Court were decided on other grounds, such as the Free Speech Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or Title VII. The lone possible exception was an ambiguous decision regarding the ability of churches to have discretion over religious employment decisions; it isn’t clear whether it rested on the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause. In any event, it’s as if the Court doesn’t want to hear about the Free Exercise Clause.
If that weren’t clear already, the Court made it perfectly plain this term. A very significant religious freedom case was presented to the Court, involving a serious infringement upon religious freedom. But the Court didn’t think the case was even worth considering.
The case involved a small family-owned pharmacy in the State of Washington. The owners of the pharmacy, the Stormans family, are Christians, and they have religious objections to dispensing so-called “emergency contraception”, because it can cause an early abortion. Other nearby pharmacies are willing to dispense those drugs, so they are easily available to anyone who wants them.
That wasn’t good enough for the pro-abortion zealots in the Washington government. They adopted regulations that their Human Rights Commission interpreted to specifically rule out moral and religious objections to the dispensing of drugs, even though they permitted (either explicitly or by practice) a host of non-religious reasons that a pharmacy can decline to dispense a particular drug. This was the result of a concerted campaign by abortion advocates to rule out any conscience-based objections to “emergency contraception”. In fact, the Governor of Washington invited Planned Parenthood to collaborate in the drafting of the regulations. The Governor even threatened the members of the Human Rights Commission being fired, and with violations of anti-discrimination laws if they allowed conscience objections. Once the rules were adopted, Planned Parenthood targeted this pharmacy for complaints.
It would be hard to imagine a clearer case of the government using its power to punish people of faith for exercising their religious beliefs in the way they conduct their business. There is no doubt that the government of Washington was trying to enforce a pro-abortion orthodoxy, and was willing to put people out of business if they dared to dissent.
The Stormans family challenged these regulations, and were initially victorious. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — a notoriously liberal bench — overturned the lower-court decision. The Stormans then appealed to the Supreme Court. They were represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the great defenders of religous liberty and human life. Thirty-three state pharmacy associations urged the Court to take the case. Many others — including the US Bishops Conference and forty-three members of Congress — filed briefs in support of the Stormans’ petition.
Even under the restrictive Smith rule, this should have been an easy case. There was clearly a substantial burden on religious beliefs — being forced to cooperate directly in a possible abortion. The law was far from neutral — it specifically targeted only those who had moral or religious objections, and nobody else. And it absolutely wasn’t generally applicable — all sorts of secular exceptions were permitted, and only moral or religious ones prohibited.
But on the very last day of the Court’s term, it refused to hear the Stormans’ case. Five Justices — Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagen and Sotomayor — didn’t think that the Stormans deserved their day in Court. (I have to add that Justice Sotomayor joining that group is a particular disgrace — she is a graduate of Cardinal Spellman High School, my alma mater, and she obviously didn’t learn the same things that I was taught about the importance of our Catholic faith.)
The three remaining Justices — Roberts, Alito, and Thomas — dissented from the denial of the appeal, and Justice Alito wrote a blistering opinion. His opening paragraphs are worth quoting at length:
This case is an ominous sign.
At issue are Washington State regulations that are likely to make a pharmacist unemployable if he or she objects on religious grounds to dispensing certain prescription medications. There are strong reasons to doubt whether the regulations were adopted for — or that they actually serve — any legitimate purpose. And there is much evidence that the impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the State. Yet the Ninth Circuit held that the regulations do not violate the First Amendment, and this Court does not deem the case worthy of our time. If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.
By refusing to hear this case, the Supreme Court said to the Stormans and to the Free Exercise Clause that they can just drop dead. That is bad news for religious liberty, for the equal administration of the law, and for the health of our society. An ominous sign, indeed.