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A few posts over at The Volokh Conspiracy at the end of last week raised some good questions about the basis for, and going-forward import of, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of DOMA in United States v. Windsor. In two posts (so far), Neomi Rao has probed the Windsor majority opinion’s use of “dignity,” while Dale Carpenter has provided a different take on the basis for Windsor. And Will Baude has written a post analyzing Friday’s New Jersey trial court ruling that New Jersey must extend the designation of “marriage” to its civil unions (which in New Jersey provide the same legal benefits under New Jersey law as marriage). These posts highlight the confusion that Windsor has spawned by its lack of a clear legal basis. (But see Ernest A. Young, United States v. Windsor and the Role of State Law in Defining Rights Claims, 99 Va. L. Rev. Online 39, 40 (2013) (“[T]he trouble with Windsor is not that the opinion is muddled or vague; the rationale is actually quite  evident on the face of Justice Kennedy’s opinion.”).)

Some of this confusion stems, in my view, from Justice Kennedy’s description of state marriage law as conferring “dignity and status of immense import” upon those authorized to marry by state law. This understanding locates in the State much greater power than it possesses in a limited government. Properly understood, the State can undermine or promote human dignity through its laws (and in many other ways as well), but the State does not “confer” dignity. Once one assigns to the State a power that it is neither authorized nor suited to exercise, the boundaries that one then seeks to place around exercises of that power risk being arbitrary. (A similar dynamic comes into play when one assigns an attribute to the State that it does not, properly speaking, possess. Perhaps for this reason, the confusion surrounding Windsor resembles something of the confusion surrounding the Supreme Court’s use of “dignity” in its sovereign immunity jurisprudence.)

Whatever the sources of the confusion in Windsor, it is becoming increasingly clear that Windsor itself is a significant source of confusion for courts trying to figure out its legal import. This is apparent in last Friday’s ruling from New Jersey, Garden State Equality v. Dow. The court in Dow ruled that the equal protection guarantee of the New Jersey Constitution requires New Jersey to extend the designation of “marriage” to same-sex couples that previously were eligible for civil unions in the state. The court’s ruling rests on an interpretation and extension of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Lewis v. HarrisIn that case, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the same state-law rights and benefits provided to married couples in New Jersey must also be provided to same-sex couples eligible for domestic partnerships. The problem with the domestic partnership scheme at issue in that case was that domestic partners received fewer state-law rights and benefits than married couples in New Jersey. The court in Lewis held that there was no fundamental right to marry, but that the state constitution’s equal protection guarantee protected against discrimination in the form of fewer benefits for same-sex couples.

Following Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey legislature enacted civil union legislation that provided same-sex couples in civil unions with identical state-law rights and benefits as enjoyed by married couples. This appears to have remedied the state-constitutional equal protection violation found in Lewis v. Harris. And that is where matters stood until Windsor.

After Windsor held the federal DOMA unconstitutional, various agencies of the federal government determined that same-sex couples who were married under state law would receive federal benefits as married couples under federal law. But these agencies did not treat state civil unions like marriages. Accordingly, same-sex couples in civil unions in New Jersey were not entitled to the same federal benefits as same-sex couples in marriages in other states that recognized same-sex marriage.

Friday’s ruling in Garden State Equality v. Dow holds that, in the wake of Windsor, New Jersey must allow same-sex couples to marry under New Jersey law in order to be entitled to the same federal-law rights and benefits as married couples, as required by the equal protection guarantee of the New Jersey Constitution as construed in Lewis v. Harris. Here is how the Dow court summarizes its reasoning:

Under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Lewis v. Harris, 188 N.J. 415 (2006), same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex couples. The Lewis Court held that the New Jersey Constitution required the State to either grant same-sex couples the right to marry or create a parallel statutory structure that allows those couples to obtain all the same rights and benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples. The New Jersey legislature chose the latter option when it adopted the Civil Union Act. Since the United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, __ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, several federal agencies have acted to extend marital benefits to same-sex married couples. However, the majority of those agencies have not extended eligibility for those benefits to civil union couples. As a result, New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions are no longer entitled to all of the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex married couples. Whereas before Windsor same-sex couples in New Jersey would have been denied federal benefits regardless of what their relationship was called, these couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the State.

The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts: civil union partners who are federal employees living in New Jersey are ineligible for marital rights with regard to the federal pension system, all civil union partners who are employees working for businesses to which the Family and Medical Leave Act applies may not rely on its statutory protections for spouses, and civil union couples may not access the federal tax benefits that married couples enjoy. And if the trend of federal agencies deeming civil union partners ineligible for benefits continues, plaintiffs will suffer even more, while their opposite-sex New Jersey counterparts continue to receive federal marital benefits for no reason other than the label placed upon their relationships by the State. This unequal treatment requires that New Jersey extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution as interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Lewis. Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution.

The court’s reasoning is confusing. If the Civil Union Act remedied the violation of New Jersey’s equal protection guarantee by ensuring identical state-law rights and benefits, then how does the new availability of federal-law rights and benefits to those who are married under federal law because married under state law affect the requirements of the equal protection guarantee of the New Jersey Constitution for couples who do not have a state-constitutional-right to marry? The court’s reasoning seems to conclude that the New Jersey Constitution requires access to the federal law benefits enjoyed by married same-sex couples in other states. But if the only reason that those couples are entitled to those federal-law benefits is because the state in which those couples were married has chosen to confer the dignity and status of marriage on those couples, then why should a different state’s constitutional equal protection guarantee require entitlement to federal-law benefits when that state has not chosen to confer the dignity and status of marriage on those couples?

Further, consider the following:

- “Under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Lewis v. Harris, 188 N.J. 415 (2006), same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex couples.” But what “same rights and benefits”? Under state law? Federal law? Both? It is hard to believe that Lewis v. Harris required the New Jersey legislature to provide same-sex couples with the same benefits under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.

- “The Lewis Court held that the New Jersey Constitution required the State to either grant same-sex couples the right to marry or create a parallel statutory structure that allows those couples to obtain all the same rights and benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples.” All the same rights and benefits under state law? Under federal law? Both? Again, it is difficult to imagine that Lewis v. Harris required the New Jersey legislature to provide same-sex couples with the same benefits under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.

- “The New Jersey legislature chose the latter option when it adopted the Civil Union Act.” Since the Civil Union Act did not do anything to provide same-sex couples with the benefits of marriage under federal law, the New Jersey legislature chose a system in which same-sex couples could obtain all the same rights and benefits under state law that are available to opposite-sex married couples. So when the court says that Lewis required a choice between same-sex marriage and “a parallel structure that allows those couples to obtain all the same rights and benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples,” that parallel structure was measured by reference to state-law rights.

- “Since the United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, __ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, several federal agencies have acted to extend marital benefits to same-sex married couples. However, the majority of those agencies have not extended eligibility for those benefits to civil union couples. As a result, New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions are no longer entitled to all of the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex married couples.” But same-sex couples in civil unions in New Jersey were not previously entitled to all of the same rights and benefits under federal law as opposite-sex married couples in New Jersey. And that did not violate the New Jersey Constitution. Same-sex couples in civil unions in New Jersey were entitled to the same rights and benefits under state law before Windsor, and they remain entitled to the same rights and benefits under state law after Windsor.

- “Whereas before Windsor same-sex couples in New Jersey would have been denied federal benefits regardless of what their relationship was called, these couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the State.” WIndsor held unconstitutional the refusal of federal-law marriage benefits to those upon whom the state conferred the dignity and status of marriage. Same-sex couples in New Jersey are not couples upon whom the state has conferred the dignity and status of marriage. Wasn’t that the basic function of the Lewis court’s distinction between interpreting the New Jersey Constitution to require “marriage” on the one hand, versus interpreting the New Jersey Constitution to allow civil unions with identical rights and benefits as marriage under a different label, on the other?

[Cross-Posted at Mirror of Justice]

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Each Catholic religious order has its own special charism that can be seen in institutions founded by and run by members of the order. In and through their various institutions, I have personally experienced the distinctive charism of Dominican sisters, Salesian priests, brothers, and sisters, Capuchin Franciscan priests, Holy Cross priests and brothers, Jesuit seminarians and priests, and Augustinian priests and brothers, among others. It was not until earlier this year, however, that I encountered the distinctive charism of the Little Sisters of the Poor in their own distinctive institutions: homes for the elderly poor. The Little Sisters’ charism is one of hospitality, in which the Sisters strive to “be little in order to be close to the most humble, and [to] be close to make them happy.”

Like many Catholics, I was familiar with the Little Sisters from their trips to our parish to beg for funds for their ministry. I knew that they knew how to ask in a way that touched the hearts of the congregation. But it was not until I met some of the sisters at St. Joseph’s Home in Richmond (including two Sisters from St. Martin’s Home in Baltimore), and again at Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C., that I understood on a deeper personal level the real difference that their presence makes in the lives of their homes’ residents and in the life of the Church. It’s the difference that comes from knowing that one is loved and has dignity and will not die alone, and the difference that comes from vowed women religious spreading that love, cultivating that dignity, and accompanying the dying on their final journey.

Unfortunately, however, the occasions for my visits to their homes were meetings to discuss legal matters. Like many religious organizations, the Little Sisters have needed to figure out how to deal with the federal government’s refusal to treat them as a religious employer exempt from the legal requirement to offer health benefit plans that violate their religious beliefs. The fruit of some of those earlier consultations was a set of comments in response to the federal government’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In those comments, the Little Sisters respectfully requested the government “to reach a just resolution that respects the religious freedom and conscience rights of all.” And the comments expressed the hope “that it is unnecessary for us to join the scores of employers that have already resorted to the federal courts for protection.”

That hope has now met necessity, and the Sisters are now in federal court. Through two of their homes (in Denver and in Baltimore), the Little Sisters have filed a lawsuit, together with Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust (which cooperate with religious organizations in the provision of benefits). The lawsuit seeks relief from enforcement of the requirement to arrange their health benefit plans so that beneficiaries receive no-cost access to female sterilization and all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices (including some with abortifacient properties).

Although aware of the Little Sisters’ religion-based objections to this requirement, the federal government has refused to treat the Little Sisters’ homes as “religious employers” that receive an exemption. Having witnessed the Sisters’ ministry in these homes and having worshipped with the Little Sisters in the St. Joseph’s Home’s chapel, this refusal boggles even the lawyerly part of my mind. These Little Sisters of the Poor homes are—in the words of Cardinal George—“icons of mercy where Christ is welcomed and served in the elderly poor with the utmost respect for their dignity.” In any ordinary time, these homes would easily be recognized as “religious employers.” But perhaps this is no ordinary time. If the federal government continues to refuse to recognize these homes as “religious employers” under the federal contraceptives mandate, then words have lost their meaning for them.

The lead lawyers on the case are from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Locke Lord LLP. I am continuing to assist the Little Sisters as part of their legal team and will therefore be more circumspect than I might otherwise be in discussing various aspects of the case. But the complaint speaks for itself. And the Becket Fund has created a case page with more background, including a press release and a web video, which I encourage all to check out.

(cross-posted at Mirror of Justice)

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That is the headline of this Boston Globe article from last week few days ago about the appointment and the rescinding of appointment of Bishop James Tengatenga of the Angligan Diocese of Southern Malawi as dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College. I find it surprising that one often-astute observer of Dartmouth College affairs praises the college’s new president, Philip Hanlon, for not flinching in pulling the appointment. It sure seems to me like he flinched. At least that’s what I take away from the comments of the chair of the search committe, Professor Irene Kancades. According to The D’s story today:

Calling the decision “bizarre,” Kacandes said reversing a provost and president-approved decision after a seven-month search might deter faculty from volunteering to sit on future search committees.

“The way that the accusations unfolded is something that we should be very alarmed about,” Kacandes said. “This man was tried in a court of partial public opinion, and it was not clear that people who wanted to weigh in could do so.”

Kacandes said she felt the strong reaction was perpetrated by a small group of students, blog posts and in emails between some faculty members.

Maybe there’s more to the story, which I am viewing from a distance (though not as much a distance as students in Hanover, NH might view the statements of a Bishop in Malawi). But the way this unfolded is troubling. As an alumnus of Dartmouth and AQ, I appreciate now in a way that I did not appreciate as a student the benefits of the institutional independence of Aquinas House, the Catholic student center at Dartmouth, from the governance of the Tucker Foundation.

For more background: The college’s statement on Bishop Tengatenga’s initial appointment is here, a statement by Bishop Tengatenga on his views on gay rights is here, and a statement by Dartmouth’s new President on rescinding the appointment is here. (See also this story from Episcopal News Service and this story from the Valley News.) Earlier news coverage about the controversy is available from the Valley News and Dartblog.

A perspective piece from Patheos, titled “Scapegoating Bishop James Tengatenga,” concludes with a quotation from the Globe’s coverage and the observations of an unnamed faculty member:

The fears voiced in the Globe article by Zambian exile the Rev. Kapya John Kaoma:

“This is a big blow, because it leaves African activists on the ground wondering if they can work with Westerners,” Kaoma said. “All human rights defenders in Africa are working under very, very hard conditions, and the violence against them is always there. What they have done is exposed Bishop Tengatenga and then dumped him back into Malawi.”

Were echoed by a member of the Dartmouth faculty, who told me:

The idea of the left taking care of their own calls to mind the Republican friendly fire of the Spanish Civil War.  In this case, the left refused even to recognize him as one of their own.  He unwittingly and in circumstances scarcely imaginable here violated their language code; their own moral pride compelled them to relegate him to the status of outcast, unfit to exercise moral leadership in our community.  I don’t think my perception is entirely distorted when I notice a Leninist streak in the American liberal arts left.

[Cross-posted at Mirror of Justice]

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A recent post at Mirror of Justice brought me to Perry Dane’s insightful seven-page essay, Doctrine and Deep Structure in the Contraception Mandate Debate, which is well worth reading. So too is Douglas Laycock’s recently posted article, Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars

Dane’s and Laycock’s reflections align in a way with aspects of Joel Friedlander’s incisive 1992 Comment, Constitution and Kulturkampf: A Reading of the Shadow Theology of Justice Brennan, 140 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1049 (1992). In this Comment (written as a student but of a quality that far surpasses most faculty-produced scholarship), Friedlander seeks to explain Justice Brennan’s jurisprudence as it developed over the course of his judicial career. His thesis is that “a kulturkampf, warring cultures and warring theories of culture, best explains the shift in Justice Brennan’s decisions and his place in the continuing war over the meaning of the Constitution.”

Friedlander analyzes Brennan’s jurisprudence through analytical frameworks supplied by social theorists Otto Gierke, Ernst Troeltsch, and Philip Rieff. His description of Rieff’s thought suggests the ongoing relevance of Rieffian analysis, and Friedlander’s Rieffian analysis of Justice Brennan’s obscenity decisions points toward a different kind of “culturally conservative” jurisprudence:

Rieff, a contemporary of Justice Brennan, is a sociologist of culture and cultural change. In Rieffian theory, modernity denies and negates the sacred order that all cultures, Catholic and otherwise, address. Included in his theory of cultural warfare, or kulkturkampf, are theories of legal personality and the relative authority of religious and racial motifs. * * *

To Rieff, the first sociological fact worth knowing about cultures is that their continued life depends upon them disarming their competitors. Only as a last resort is military force utilized; the first weapon is words. Of concern in this Comment is the ultimate weapon of the law, which implies both command and compulsion. * * *

* * *

The dimensions of this cultural warfare are not contained by, and may dwarf, the longstanding jurisprudential debates between originalism and non-originalism or between natural law and positivism. At stake in this culture struggle is the survival or abandonment of the moral authority in the Constitution that is derived from Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion. Though there are those who fear the implementation of a “new right” jurisprudence, the cultural conservatives on the opposing side are largely constrained by their positivism, if not by their originalism. To avoid these artificial constraints, this Comment concludes, a culturally conservative jurisprudence should look to Justice Brennan’s theories and their expressing in the reasoning of Roth.

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Today is the deadline to file comments on the HHS Mandate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Among the many groups commenting today are the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their comments filed today are available here, and their prior statements on the HHS Mandate are available here and here.

As this 2005 Wall Street Journal article explains, the Little Sisters of the Poor have “an odd business plan” for their homes for the elderly poor: “Beg for help, lavish it on residents.” But more confounding than the Little Sisters’ business plan is the idea that the federal government would force them to arrange their health coverage for their homes’ employees to ensure coverage of female sterilization and the free flow of all FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs and devices.

President Obama is a college sports fan, but he should know better than to think that the Little Sisters of the Poor are simply “a euphemism in college sports to describe a weak opponent.” The Little Sisters are real; the HHS Mandate burdens their religious exercise; and the Obama Administration has the power to lift that burden. Lifting that burden is also the President’s duty under federal law.

Some excerpts from the comments:
(more…)

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Like everyone else, I was surprised by the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. But apparently unlike many, this announcement did not strike me as extraordinary. Rather, I was surprised to learn how unusual papal resignation has been throughout history.

It is more difficult for me to understand why fewer have resigned than it is to understand why Pope Benedict XVI would do so. The Pope has life tenure in office. But the purpose of life tenure–to guarantee independence–is compatible with voluntary resignation of office. The Petrine office is demanding in many ways. When its current holder freely arrives at the conclusion that he can no longer carry out all the demands of office, it is entirely appropriate for him to resign.

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An argument against recognizing RFRA coverage of for-profit corporations that seems to be popping up with some regularity goes like this: Once courts recognize the right of evangelical employers to buy insurance coverage that excludes abortion-causing drugs and devices, or the right of Catholic employers to buy insurance coverage that excludes contraceptives, there is nothing to stop Jehovah’s Witness employers from buying insurance coverage that excludes coverage for blood transfusions. See, e.g., Matthew Boudway at dotCommonweal (“Should an overzealous Jehovah’s Witness be able to get a group plan that excludes coverage for emergency blood transfusions, even if none of his employees are coreligionists?”); Americans United for Separation of Church and State (“The logic of Plaintiffs’ argument would transcend the provision of coverage for contraception. A Jehovah’s Witness could choose to exclude blood transfusions from his company’s health-insurance coverage.”).

This argument obviously appeals to some, or they would not bother making it. But there are several reasons that the argument is weak. And the fact that some advance this argument seriously in reasoned public debate may work against improving mutual understanding of religious liberty. Consider:

(1) Has any Jehovah’s Witness employer ever made such a claim? I’m not aware of any. Yet all of the legal tools available to make such a claim have been available for years. It is hard to see how the roll down the slippery slope to this location would get started by rulings about the contraceptives mandate if it has not yet started in some other way.

(2) RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion. The religiously objecting employer under RFRA seeks protection from a government mandate. I’m not aware of any blood transfusion coverage mandate by the government–probably because there is no problem out there of employers limiting coverage in this particular way. If Jehovah’s Witness employers have not sought to limit coverage even when there is no mandate preventing them from doing so, figuring out the scope of their religious freedom in this regard seems like an idle exercise.

(3) The people putting this argument forward may not even understand what Jehovah’s Witnesses actually believe. While the religion teaches its adherents to avoid blood transfusions, it is not at all clear (at least to me, anyway) that the religion teaches this as a matter of the moral law binding on all, rather than a form of divine positive law that is not binding on those outside the community of religious adherents. (For an articulation of this distinction, see this discussion by Mark Shea.)

(4) RFRA is not a free pass for a religious exemption, but its application does trigger the requirement for the government to satisfy strict scrutiny, and the government can sometimes satisfy that test. The application of strict scrutiny should stop the roll down the slippery slope from reaching the point where the government cannot use certain regulatory tools to achieve a compelling government interest. Even assuming that a substantial burden analysis comes out the same, the compelling interest is easier to identify in with respect to emergency blood transfusions. The need for an emergency blood transfusion is unpredictable. And in comparison with emergency contraception, which is available over the counter at most pharmacies (for around $40 for a generic or $50 for a brand name), emergency blood transfusions are much more expensive.

(5) The casual deployment of this Jehovah’s Witness example is sometimes coupled with related arguments that reveal a misunderstanding of the religious beliefs of other groups. For example, the same amicus curiae brief in which Americans United for Separation of Church and State advanced the Jehovah’s Witness argument also argued that “Catholic owners could deprive their companies’ employees of coverage for end-of-life hospice care and for medically necessary hysterectomies.” With statements like this, it is difficult to believe that this brief was reviewed before filing by someone familiar with Catholic moral teaching. Catholics object neither to end-of-life hospice care nor to medically necessary hysterectomies.

(6) A casual approach to religiously based moral beliefs that differ in some ways from majority-held moral beliefs can easily lead to harm through a failure to appreciate and offer reasonable accommodations. While my research into this issue did not uncover an example of a Jehovah’s Witness employer denying insurance coverage for a blood transfusion, it did reveal a case in which a state denied to a Jehovah’s Witness on public aid coverage for a bloodless liver transplant that was available out-of-state at lower cost than an in-state transplant requiring a transfusion. Mary Stinemetz eventually prevailed on her Free Exercise challenge to this denial, but by the time the case was over, her condition had apparently deteriorated too far for her to any longer be eligible for a transplant.

(7) Most of the people who are advancing this particular slippery-slope argument probably have no idea of the contributions that Jehovah’s Witnesses have made to the law of religious liberty in the United States. See, e.g.,Thomas v. Review Bd.; West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette.

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