Saturday, March 02, 2024

Title VI Claims Against Universities Proliferate Since Israel-Gaza Conflict

As previously reported, in November 2023 the Department of Education issued a "Dear Colleague" letter in response to rising levels of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at schools and colleges since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli response. The letter clarifies that even though Title VI does not specifically cover religious discrimination, many types of antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks fall under other types of discrimination covered by Title VI. The Forward yesterday reported that it has tracked 48 Title VI investigations by DOE's Office of Civil Rights filed since November charging higher education institutions with antisemitism, Islamophobia or similar discrimination, as well as ten lawsuits filed by private parties making similar contentions filed since then. It has published a detailed listing of all the investigations and cases it has tracked. The Forward explains:

When Ken Marcus took over the department’s civil rights office during the George W. Bush administration, he started looking for test cases for a new category of “shared ancestry” that would allow officials to investigate cases that touched on religion. He found one when a Sikh child in New Jersey was beaten by classmates who saw his turban and taunted him as “Osama,” a reference to the infamous Muslim terrorist.

Marcus believed that the discrimination wasn’t strictly religious in nature because the bullies weren’t intending to go after the boy’s Sikh identity. And it wasn’t obviously racial, either, since it was the turban that had drawn the bullies’ attention.

He authorized the department to investigate these types of cases under its authority to prohibit discrimination based on race or national origin, creating a new category called “shared ancestry.” Every subsequent administration has agreed that these cases fall under the department’s purview.

More controversial is the question of what, exactly, constitutes discrimination against Jews based on their shared ancestry. Marcus and many Jewish advocacy groups have taken the position that anti-Zionism — opposition to a Jewish state in Israel — is often antisemitic because many Jews identify with Israel as part of their shared ancestry.

Friday, March 01, 2024

LGBTQ+ Support Group Fights Texas AG's Demand for Information

Suit was filed this week in a Texas state trial court by PFLAG, a national support group for LGBTQ+ individuals and their families, seeking to set aside civil investigative demands from the Texas Attorney General's Office. PFLAG contends that the demands from the AG's Office indicate that the Attorney General is seeking to identify Texas families that are seeking gender-affirming care for their transgender adolescents. The investigative demands were issued under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  The petition (full text) in PFLAG, Inc. v. Office of the Attorney General of the State of Texas, (TX Dist. Ct., filed 2/28/2024), alleges in part:

The goal of the OAG in serving these Demands is neither to enforce Texas law, nor to protect Texas consumers under the DTPA. These Demands are a clear and unmistakable overreach by the OAG in retaliation for PFLAG successfully standing up for its members, who include Texas transgender youth and their families, against the OAG’s, the Attorney General’s, and the State of Texas’s relentless campaign to persecute Texas trans youth and their loving parents. While that retaliation is itself a reason to set aside the Demands, PFLAG is entitled to a temporary restraining order and temporary and permanent injunctive relief because the Demands violate PFLAG and its members’ rights to freedom of petition, speech and assembly and to be free from unjustified searches and seizures, are contrary to the OAG’s authority under the DTPA, and impermissibly seek to evade the protections afforded to PFLAG as a civil litigant. 

In 2022, PFLAG successfully obtained temporary injunctive relief shielding its member families from the Texas Department of Family Protective Services’ (“DFPS”) operationalization of Governor Greg Abbott’s directive to investigate families of transgender youth who receive gender-affirming medical care for the treatment of gender dysphoria—a directive based on the Attorney General’s non-binding opinion claiming that necessary, evidence-based gender affirming medical treatment for transgender youth is per se “child abuse” under Texas law....  And in 2023, PFLAG successfully obtained a temporary injunction at the district court enjoining enforcement of Senate Bill 14 ... which seeks to prohibit the provision and state funding of gender-affirming medical care for the treatment of gender dysphoria of transgender adolescents.....

Through the OAG’s own actions, discovery has been stayed in both [cases].... But through these Demands, the OAG seeks to circumvent the normal discovery process along with its attendant protections, and in so doing, seeks to chill the ability of PFLAG and its members to exercise their free speech and associational rights and avail themselves of the courts when their constitutional rights are threatened.

ACLU issued a press release announcing the filing of the lawsuit. AP reports on the lawsuit.

Jewish Students Sue Columbia University Charging Pervasive Antisemitism

Suit was filed last week in a New York federal district court by Jewish and Israeli students at Columbia University charging the University with widespread antisemitism.  The complaint (full text) in Students Against Antisemitism, Inc. v. Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, (SDNY, filed 2/21/2024) alleges violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, of New York state and city Human Rights and Civil Rights Laws, breach of contract and deceptive business practices. The 114-page complaint reads in part:

Columbia ... has for decades been one of the worst centers of academic antisemitism in the United States.  Since October 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel ...antisemitism at Columbia has been particularly severe and pervasive.... 

Columbia’s antisemitism manifests itself in a double standard invidious to Jews and Israelis.  Columbia selectively enforces its policies to avoid protecting Jewish and Israeli students from harassment, hires professors who support anti-Jewish violence and spread antisemitic propaganda, and ignores Jewish and Israeli students’ pleas for protection.  Those professors teach and advocate through a binary oppressor-oppressed lens, through which Jews, one of history’s most persecuted peoples, are typically designated “oppressor,” and therefore unworthy of support or sympathy.  Columbia permits students and faculty to advocate, without consequence, for the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel, the only Jewish country in the world....

... Columbia has permitted endemic antisemitism to exclude Jewish and Israeli students from full and equal participation in, and to deprive them of the full and equal benefits of, their educational experience at Columbia, and has invidiously discriminated against them by, among other things, failing to protect them in the same way Columbia has protected other groups.... [I]t has responded to antisemitism with at best deliberate indifference....
Columbia Spectator reports on the lawsuit.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

7th Circuit Reinstates Indiana Ban on Gender Affirming Care For Minors

In K.C. v. Individual Members of the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana, (7th Cir., Feb. 27, 2024), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a preliminary injunction against Indiana's ban on non-surgical gender transition procedures for minors. The preliminary injunction was granted by an Indiana federal district court in June 2023 (full text of district court opinion). The 7th Circuit issued its Order lifting the injunction, saying that an opinion will follow. In a press release, the ACLU called the 7th Circuit's action "a heartbreaking development for thousands of transgender youth, their doctors, and their families." Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, in a post on X (formerly Twitter) said in part: "We are proud to win this fight against the radicals who continue pushing this horrific practice on our children for ideological and financial reasons." Indy Star reports on the case.

Election of Student School Board Member by Public School Students Did Not Violate Free Exercise Clause

 In Kim v. Board of Education of Howard County, (4th Cir., Feb. 28, 2024), the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of equal protection and free exercise challenges to the procedure that Howard County, Maryland uses to select a high school student to be one member of its 8-member school board. The student member is chosen by a vote of public-school students in grades 6 through 11. One of the plaintiffs contended that this process violates the Free Exercise clause because it excludes plaintiff's son who attends a Catholic school from participating in the selection process. The court concluded that the selection process is neutral and generally applicable and therefore subject only to rational basis review. The court said in part: 

Maryland’s law does not consider religious motivation but depends on public school enrollment. To the extent the law has an effect of excluding religious students, it does so “in spite of” and not “because of” those students’ religious reasons for forgoing public education.... The law is neutral. 

It is also generally applicable.,,,  Maryland’s law makes no distinction between religious and secular. It bars non-public-school students, religious and nonreligious alike, from choosing or serving as the student member.....

Howard County does not let any private schools, religious or nonreligious, participate in selecting the board of education student member.... Strict scrutiny plays no role in judging this textbook neutral and generally applicable selection criterion.....

Without the benefit of heightened judicial scrutiny, the parents have failed to state a viable claim under either the Equal Protection Clause or the Free Exercise Clause under rational basis review.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Court Upholds Maine's Law Barring LGBTQ Discrimination by Christian School Receiving State Funds

In Crosspoint Church v. Maikin, (D ME, Feb. 27, 2024), a Maine federal district court refused to enjoin application of the state's educational antidiscrimination laws against a private Christian school. In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Maine's exclusion of sectarian schools from its tuition payment program to out-of-district schools when districts do not operate their own public high schools. (See prior posting.) While that litigation was in progress, Maine's legislature amended its civil right laws to now bar schools that receive public funds from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In rejecting the school's challenges, the court said in part:

The Court concludes that Crosspoint is not entitled to a preliminary injunction.  With this said, the Court acknowledges that Crosspoint is raising important legal questions.  Despite the plaintiffs’ hard-fought and significant victory at the United States Supreme Court in Carson, the Maine Legislature and the Maine Attorney General have largely deprived Crosspoint and similar religious schools of the fruit of their victory.  Crosspoint essentially argues that the Maine Legislature’s enactment of statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is a form of state-enforced, secular religion.  Yet, the Maine Legislature has the authority to define protected classes under its antidiscrimination laws.  The rub comes when the Maine Legislature’s view of the categories of people meriting protected status conflicts with sincerely held beliefs of members of religious communities.  This is a tension as old as the nation itself.  Although it has done its best to set out, analyze, and decide these difficult constitutional issues, the Court also recognizes that this case poses novel constitutional questions and has attempted to frame its opinion as a prelude to a challenge to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for a more authoritative ruling....

UN Says Belarus Legislation on Religion and Belief Violates International Human Rights Law

In a Feb.20 press release (full text), the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that its experts believe recent legislation on freedom of conscience and activities of religious organizations adopted by Belarus violates international human rights law.  The press release, in part quoting the experts' report, says in part:

“The provisions on compulsory registration unduly restrict the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,”...

“The law establishes broad yet imprecise legal grounds for the State to suspend and dissolve religious organisations, such as conducting an activity directed against the main direction of domestic and foreign policy of the Republic of Belarus, discrediting the Republic of Belarus, humiliating the national honour, engaging in political activities or other undefined extremist activities,” ...

The experts warned that the law imposes extensive State control over religious education and literature, stipulating that religious education, religious literature or any other material with religious content must not contradict “the generally recognised traditional values of the Belarusian people and the ideology of the Belarusian State”....

The law stipulates that religious organisations can only be led by Belarusian citizens with permanent residence in the country, which appears to discriminate against certain religions....

“The law appears to be aimed at further strengthening the overarching control of the State over all aspects of the existence of religious communities....

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

White House Announces 2024 Easter Egg Roll

In a Release (full text) yesterday, the White House announced information on the 2024 White House Easter Egg Roll. The traditional event, which is geared toward children 12 years of age and under, will be held on the White House South Lawn on Monday, April 1. Between now and March 4, the public may enter the free lottery for tickets. Applications to volunteer to assist at the event may also be submitted online. The White House Easter Egg Roll has been held annually (with a few exceptions) since 1878.

Cert. Filed In Religious Broadcasters' Appeal of Mandatory Royalty Rates

 A petition for certiorari (full text) was filed last week with the U.S. Supreme Court in National Religious Broadcasters Noncommercial Music License Committee v. Copyright Royalty Board, (Sup. Ct., cert. filed 2/23/2024).  In the case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in a July 28, 2023, opinion (full text) upheld the royalty rates set by the Royalty Board for calendar years 2021 through 2025 that must be paid by various classes of webcasters that stream copyrighted songs over the Internet. In its certiorari petition, the Religious Broadcasters set out the following as one of the Questions Presented for review:

Recently, the Board adopted rates requiring noncommercial religious webcasters to pay over 18 times the secular NPR-webcaster rate to communicate religious messages to listeners above a modest 218-average listener threshold. The D.C. Circuit upheld that disparate burden based on the Board treating some secular webcasters as poorly as religious webcasters. The result is suppression of online religious speech....

Its decision presents ... important legal questions: 

1. Whether approving noncommercial rates that favor NPR’s secular speech over religious speech violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or the First Amendment....

ADF issued a press release announcing the filing of the cert. petition.

Tennessee Legislature Passes Healthcare Sharing Ministries Exemption

Yesterday the Tennessee legislature took the final procedural steps needed to send HB 1163, Healthcare Sharing Ministries Freedom to Share Act (full text) to the Governor for his signature. It exempts from state insurance regulation tax-exempt plans under which members who share a common religious or ethical belief provide for the medical or financial needs of other members through their financial contributions.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Civil Conspiracy Claims Against Religious Organization Survive 1st Amendment Defenses

In re Gothard, (TX App., Feb. 22, 2024), is a mandamus action that is essentially an appeal of a trial court's refusal to dismiss civil conspiracy claims against Institute in Basic Life Principles and its founder, William Gothard. Plaintiffs claimed that ILBP is a cult that "teachers distorted and heretical Christian doctrines" that led to their sexual abuse by their father and brother. The Texas state appellate court rejected Relators', i.e. defendants', First Amendment defenses, saying in part:

Gothard maintains that religious teachings and the publication thereof are constitutionally protected.  IBLP contends the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine bars RPIs’ cause of action. It argues that the “alleged religiously motivated conduct of IBLP is the advocacy and publication of religious beliefs.”  According to Relators, if RPIs’ claim is considered valid, any religious leader who speaks on religious topics and publishes his beliefs could be subject to a civil cause of action if a listener or reader improperly applies those beliefs in sexually abusing another person or committing some other unlawful act. ...

But the First Amendment does not bar all claims against religious bodies.,,,  A court may exercise jurisdiction over a controversy if it can apply neutral principles of law that will not require inquiry into religious doctrine, interference with the free-exercise rights of believers, or meddling in church government....

The relevant question is whether it appears certain that resolution of [plaintiffs']’ claims will require the trial court to address purely ecclesiastical questions.... IBLP represents that its teachings and materials are based on scriptures from the Bible, none of which “advocate sexual abuse or any other form of sexual immorality.”  Accordingly, by its own admission, IBLP’s teachings and materials do not advocate sexual abuse and consequently, the intentional tort of sexual assault that underlies the civil conspiracy claim is not rooted in religious belief.  ....

Because sexual assault is not part of Relators’ belief system, we cannot definitively say, based on the record before us, that this is a situation in which religious beliefs are so intertwined with a tort claim so as to unconstitutionally burden Relators’ rights and embroil the court in an assessment of those religious beliefs.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Pakistan Supreme Court Defends Free Exercise Rights of Ahmadis; Protests Follow

Earlier this month, a 2-judge panel of the Pakistani Supreme Court in Mubarak Ahmad Sani v. The State, (Pakistan Sup. Ct., Feb. 6, 2024) (full text in Urdu), ordered the release on personal bond of a member of the Ahmadi sect who had already been held for 13 months pending trial on charges of disseminating a banned religious text.

 As explained in the Feb. 25 issue of Dawn:

Petitioner Sami had sought deletion of certain charges in an FIR [First Information Report] registered against him on Dec 6, 2022 at the Chenab Nagar police station in Chiniot district.

The petitioner was accused of distributing/disseminating a proscribed book, Tafseer-i-Sagheer, which, according to the prosecution, was an offence under the Punjab Holy Quran (Printing and Recording) (Amendment) Act enforced in 2021, whereas the FIR alleged that the petitioner had done this in 2019 when the distribution/dissemination of the proscribed book was not an offence....

The petitioner was arrested on Jan 7, 2023 and remained incarcerated for 13 months — more than double the permissible punishment under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1932....

The verdict observed that the principle of there being no compulsion in religion mentioned in the Holy Quran is enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right. Clause (a) of Article 20 of the Constitution stipulates that “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion”, while clause (b) of Article 20 states that “every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions”.

Article 22 of the Constitution requires and prescribes that “no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any educational institution maintained wholly by that community or denomination”.

“These fundamental rights cannot be derogated from, circumvented or diluted.... ” the judgement observed.

The court regretted that bail was declined to the petitioner by the additional sessions judge on June 10 last year, without considering that the petitioner had already served out the maximum prescribed imprisonment for these offence.

According to a Feb. 23 AFP report, the Supreme Court's decision led to demonstrations in Peshawar by some 3000 Pakistani Muslims who consider the Ahmadi text blasphemous. As reported by the Times of India, the Supreme Court on Thursday issued a statement defending the decision.

UPDATE: According to a Feb. 24 report in The News, the Punjab government has petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a revision of its decision, asking it to clarify that Article 20 of the Constitution qualifies its protection of the profession, propagation and practice of religion by making it subject to "public order and morality". At a hearing on accepting the petition, the Chief Justice's comments suggested that the Court would agree to that modification. The Court adjourned the hearing until Feb. 26.