Exploring the Meaning of and Problems With the Supreme Court’s (Apparent) Adoption of a “Most Favored Nation” Approach to Protecting Religious Liberty Under the Free Exercise Clause: Part One in a Series

Posted in: Constitutional Law

About three weeks ago, in a per curiam (that is, unsigned) opinion in a case that was not fully briefed and argued at the Supreme Court, a majority of Justices (Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett) announced a potentially game-changing approach to processing claims brought under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Since 1990, and the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court has read that Clause not to require accommodation of religious activity via exemptions from religion-neutral and generally applicable laws and regulations, but it does mandate that government not target or discriminate against religion. The Court’s decision earlier this month in Tandon v. Newsom provides some powerful evidence about what constitutes impermissible discrimination against religion in the eyes of the new Court majority.

In Tandon, religious individuals challenged California’s COVID-inspired rule that limits all gatherings in homes to no more than three households. The challengers argued that since in other places, such as hair salons, retail stores, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants, more than three households were allowed to come together at a time, in-home religious gatherings were being treated in an inferior and discriminatory manner. Accordingly, they argued, California’s rule could survive only if the inferior treatment of in-home religious gatherings were narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest. In validating this challenge, a five-person majority ruled that “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise” (emphasis in original). For purposes of our analysis here, we call the Court’s major innovation in Tandon “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) reasoning, drawing from international trade lingo, in which some nations are entitled to be treated at least as well as any other nation is being treated, and borrowing from the work of other scholars who have suggested this language and advocated for an MFN approach in free exercise cases.

As Justice Kagan’s powerful dissent (for herself and Justices Breyer and Sotomayor—Chief Justice Roberts dissented without opinion) pointed out, an MFN-style analysis always requires deciding what the relevant “comparators” are—just like in traditional MFN arenas we always need to understand how other entities are being treated for trade purposes in particular, and whether those entities are indeed nations. For Justice Kagan, the case for upholding California’s rule was strong and clear: “California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households [but if] the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike. California need not, as the per curiam insists, treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons—and thus unlike at-home secular gatherings, the obvious comparator here.” Justice Kagan went on to point out (as the lower courts had) that commercial gatherings are qualitatively different from in-home gathering in several respects, including the length of time people sit or stand near each other talking, the size and ventilation of the buildings, and the ease of enforcing social-distancing and mask requirements. At a minimum, the problem Justice Kagan identifies about deciding whether another activity is a fair comparator for determining whether religion is less favored is challenging (something we take up at various points in this series of essays.)

Given the practical and doctrinal difficulty courts implementing an MFN approach will encounter, we first need ask from where in prior cases this MFN notion might have emerged and what is behind it.

One possible explanation is that MFN reasoning is a plausible extension and extrapolation of Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, the 1990 case we adverted to earlier, in which the Court first held that under the Free Exercise Clause, government is generally not required to grant religious accommodations to neutral laws of general applicability. But the notion that MFN reasoning is simply an explication of what Justice Scalia’s majority opinion had in mind as to the meaning of “neutral” and “generally applicable” is unpersuasive. The primary rationale the Smith majority offered to support its holding was that alternative approaches to free exercise were, as a practical and doctrinal matter, untenable. If courts applied strict scrutiny with full rigor to all laws that substantially burdened religious exercise and conferred accommodations whenever judges honestly concluded this rigorous test was not satisfied, society would devolve into anarchy as religious individuals could avoid complying with any law that allegedly interfered with their beliefs or practices. And if strict scrutiny was applied more leniently, judges would have to engage in a subjective, indeterminate balancing of interests; a task for which the judiciary is ill suited (and which lies outside its proper institutional role) and which, accordingly, is better assigned to the political branches of government.

But an MFN approach creates, indeed exacerbates, the very problems that Scalia and the four other Justices joining his opinion in Smith were trying to avoid. Interpreted and applied broadly, MFN reasoning requires rigorous strict scrutiny review of any law that includes at least one secular exemption. Under this analysis, the scope of rigorous review required by an MFN test is at least as broad as existed in the pre-Smith free exercise doctrine—the very problem the Court was trying to remedy in making the major doctrinal shift it did in Smith. And If an MFN approach is applied narrowly by aggressively limiting the scope of relevant secular comparators, courts will be engaged in the kind of subjective indeterminate quagmire Scalia wanted so much to avoid.

Whatever one thinks about merits of the Smith decision, and one of us has been harshly critical of its holding for 30 years, it is inconceivable that the majority in that case intended that the concept of general laws of neutral applicability be interpreted in a way that completely undercut the goals that the Court was trying to achieve.

Perhaps a more likely doctrinal predecessor of Tanden is not found within Supreme Court case law, but instead in a Third Circuit opinion Justice Alito authored when he sat on that court prior to being elevated. In Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark, about two decades ago, then-judge Alito wrote for a Third Circuit panel applying heightened scrutiny and requiring the Newark Police Department to grant an accommodation from its no-facial-hair grooming policy for police officers to an individual officer who wanted to maintain a beard for religious purposes. The fact that the Department granted exemptions to officers for whom facial hair was medically beneficial (i.e., for whom regular shaving created skin or other health problems) meant, to the Third Circuit, that religious requests for exemptions also had to be granted. Religious claims for exemption could not be treated less favorably than secular claims for exemption, when both claims interfered with the goals of the Department’s grooming standards — in this case uniformity of appearance — unless the Department could satisfy a heightened-scrutiny standard of review. More on this case a bit later.

Moving beyond case law foundations, what theoretical arguments are there to support an MFN approach? The substantive justification offered by some jurists and scholars supporting an MFN analysis is that the MFN principle is grounded on the notion that government cannot devalue religion by treating any secular interest, including public health and access to medical care, more favorably than an allegedly comparable religious belief or practice. This idea that for a right to be taken seriously its exercise can never be devalued in a relative sense—that is, can never be afforded less value than some other activity — is not generally recognized, partly for commonsense reasons. Applied to free exercise of religion in an energetic way, MFN analysis can often seem counterintuitive in the extreme. Assume a court upholds a city ordinance requiring private parades traveling through city streets to obey traffic rules and stop at stop signs and red traffic lights. Assume also that the court has recognized that ambulances driving patients to the hospital are not subject to these limitations. Certainly the Free Speech Clause would not require that a caravan of car protestors receive the same favored traffic-law treatment provided to ambulances. Yet under a MFN approach, if the caravan consisted of religious worshippers—say, on the way to a funeral—would we conclude that unless the hearse and other mourners were allowed to speed through red lights that their religious liberty would be constitutionally disrespected and impermissibly demeaned on account of the relatively superior treatment of emergency medical vehicles?

It’s easy to imagine one’s own parade (no pun intended) of horribles. But the problem with the MFN principle extends far beyond counterintuitive examples of its application. The MFN analysis in many ways fundamentally misunderstands and mischaracterizes the very nature of constitutional religious liberty. There are, to be sure, some fundamental rights that we protect because we value the social utility of the exercise of the right. Voting is an obvious example. But it is far less clear that the free exercise of religion fits securely within this category of protection on account of clear social utility. Instead, we protect the free exercise of religion because we do not want the state, and that includes judges, to interfere with religious choice and the voluntary association—the autonomy, if you will—of religious individuals. As a constitutional matter, we protect religious exercise because we do not trust the state to make judgments about religion. The reason that religious exercise receives constitutional recognition and protection is not because the Constitution assigns some heightened value to religious belief and practices over and above the wide range and majority of secular interests the state may deem worthy of protection.

This key distinction becomes particularly clear when we try to account for why religious majorities commit themselves to constitutional doctrine that protects minority beliefs the majority considers false and even dangerous. As one of us has explained this phenomenon in academic writings:

Religious individuals who support religious liberty for adherents of faiths they believe to be false do not do so because they believe that the faith communities receiving protection are moral or correct. The justification for protecting false faiths does not depend on the accuracy or value of what is believed. At its core, religious liberty recognizes the deeply felt need of individuals to determine religious truth for themselves and the right to live one’s life authentically in accordance with one’s religious identity.

The difference between protecting religion because of the value the state assigns to its exercise and protecting religious liberty to prevent the state from having any meaningful say in what religion requires or the importance of religiously grounded beliefs and practices is further demonstrated by the way courts define and identify religion for constitutional purposes. If we protect religion because of its relative and high value, one would think courts would carefully define what religion is so that they would be only protecting those interests that deserve special constitutional attention and protection. But that is not the case. There is no working operational definition of religion in free exercise jurisprudence. The lack of a definition reflects the courts’ concern that by attempting to identify and distinguish religion from non-religion, judges would get impermissibly caught up in involving themselves with the nature, value, and meaning of religion. That this is forbidden territory reinforces the idea that we protect religion by keeping it free from state involvement, not by assigning relative value to its exercise.

Even if one were to support the idea that we protect the free exercise of religion because the Constitution requires government to value religion at least as much it not more than secular interests the state deems worthy of protection, the lack of a working definition of religion, indeed the intrinsic fluidity of religious belief in a pluralistic society, makes the kind of comparison envisioned by MFN jurists and scholars particularly challenging. Exemptions from legal requirements may be extremely desirable because they free claimants from burdens they would find to be especially disturbing or because in obtaining the exemption the claimant receives something of secular material value. Consider, for example, that being exempted from the military draft might enable someone to avoid a crisis of religious conscience, but it also confers a material benefit—freedom from the risk of getting killed in a war zone—that many would desire. Or consider that the entitlement to be free from work on the Sabbath (either Saturday or Sunday) permits more than the freedom to go to religious services in the morning; it also allows someone the latitude to spend more time with their family and to engage in whatever non-vocational activities their faith permits. These secular-benefit externalities also figured prominently in the decision made by the Court in Smith, and they could easily bedevil courts seeking to undertake an MFN approach.

One reason for this has to do with how, as a matter of evidentiary sincerity, claims for religious accommodations are asserted. Claims for secular exemptions can often be grounded on objectively verifiable evidence. Medical issues experienced by people receiving vaccines or complying with facial shaving requirements or seeking 4F exemptions from conscription can be clinically evaluated. The evaluation of religious claims for exemption have no such basis for objective evaluation and depend on a subjective determination of the claimant’s sincerity. This means that there are risks of sham claims when religious claims of secular value are asserted, a concern that the state may not need to be as worried about when secular exemptions are granted.

It is not clear how the potential for sham claims should be taken into account in engaging in an MFN analysis. What should happen when the state explains that it grants a secular exemption but not a religious exemption because there is much less risk of false assertions for medical exemptions than for religious ones? The problem here is not simply the difficulty of drawing comparisons, a problem that confuses and undermines MFN analysis as a general matter. When constitutionally mandated religious exemptions result in secular benefits being made available to virtually all religious claimants, and only a few secular claimants are equally eligible for such benefits, the MFN framework can be challenged as unfairly privileging religion.

There is a deeper concern here that also must be addressed. When the courts require the granting of religious exemptions that also have secular value, they not only might be thought to improperly privilege religion, they create an incentive for individuals to affiliate with a faith and to use that as a basis for asserting the right to an exemption. The creation of such incentives is anathema to the constitutional mandate that religion should be a matter of voluntary choice without state action promoting individual beliefs and practices. Unless MFN analysis can respond to this concern, it raises problems that deserve serious attention.

We see no evidence that MFN is up to the task. In the Fraternal Order of Police case described earlier, for example, what would prevent a police officer who thought he was much better looking with facial hair to assert a sham religious liberty claim grounded on the exemption provided to officers who suffered medical consequences if they complied with the Police Department’s grooming standards?

We want to be clear here. The possibility of free exercise claimants asserting sham claims should not preclude the development of free exercise jurisprudence recognizing the legitimacy of free exercise exemptions in appropriate circumstances. But the risks of sham claims are not immaterial.  And if the MFN framework has legs in the eyes of a majority of Justices, this framework would need to innovate doctrinal tools for evaluating them.

One final example involving secular externalities and fluid religious commitments further illustrates the complexity involved here. If conscription was reinitiated, individuals who were otherwise eligible to be drafted might be granted a secular deferment because of medical limitations that interfered with their ability to participate effectively in combat, a status historically called 4F. Under accepted law, religious pacifists whose beliefs would interfere with their ability to participate effectively in combat would also be granted conscientious objector (CO) status. It has long been recognized, however, that the beneficiaries of CO status can be required to perform alternative service. This requirement operates as a check on sham claims for exemption and it places some civic obligation on claimants who avoid the serious burden of military service.

If we now add MFN analysis to the mix, does it become unconstitutional to impose alternative service on CO beneficiaries if we require no comparable civic obligation from individuals receiving medical deferments? Obviously, the CO beneficiaries (who are required to perform alternative service) are receiving exemptions of lesser value than individuals receiving medical deferments (who are not). Does that constitute the devaluing of religion? Or is it simply the state’s recognition that religious exemptions and medical exemptions are sufficiently different (in terms of proof of validity and necessity) for constitutional and public policy purposes that they do not need to be treated the same way—even if that seems inconsistent with MFN analysis.

In our next installment, we continue to try to locate an MFN approach in the larger constitutional context to permit careful analysis.

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