Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Note On This Week's Publication Schedule

Religion Clause will be on a publication break on Monday and Tuesday.  Look for the next new postings on Tuesday night.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:

Forfeited Iranian Charity's Building Will Be Sold; Iran Claims Religious Freedom Violation

On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York announced that the federal district court has approved a U.S. government settlement agreement (full text of stipulation) with holders of terrorism-related judgments against the Government of Iran.  The agreement among other things provides for the sale of a forfeited building in Manhattan. The building belonged to the Alavi Foundation and Bank Melli, which the court found acted as fronts for the government of Iran.  The court last year ordered forfeiture because of violations of the Iranian Transactions Regulations promulgated under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the federal money laundering statutes. In response, yesterday Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement claiming that "the New York branch of Alavi Fund is an independent charity fund in the United States which has no relation with Iran." It added that the court's verdict violates "the US commitments to respect and safeguard the religious freedom of its own citizens."

Christian School's RLUIPA, Constitutional Challenges To Zoning Denials Are Rejected

In Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington, (SD OH, April 18, 2014), an Ohio federal district court dismissed a Christian school's challenge to an Ohio city's refusal to issue a conditional use permit or to rezone for use as a school an existing office building in an area zoned for offices and research facilities. In dismissing the school's claim that the refusal violates RLUIPA's "equal terms" provision, the court held that "the proper comparator for a religious school is a non-religious or secular school." The court also rejected the school's 1st and 14th Amendment challenges to the zoning decision.

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Robledo v. Livingston, (5th Cir., April 14, 2014), the 5th Circuit allowed an inmate to proceed in forma pauperis and vacated the district court’s conclusion that his claims under RLUIPA and the Texas RFRA statute were frivolous. The court held plaintiff's claim that for months he was not allowed to participate in weekly Christian worship services "is not based upon an indisputably meritless legal theory, and his factual contentions are not clearly baseless."

In Layman v. Chacon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50804 (ND TX, April 11, 2014), a Texas federal district court dismissed an inmate's complaint that some of his religious materials were confiscated when they were improperly stored.

In Miles v. Guice, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51507 (ED NC, April 10, 2014), a North Carolina federal district court allowed an inmate to move ahead, but denied a temporary restraining order, in plaintiff's suit seeking recognition of Nations of Gods and Earth as a religion and accommodation of his religious diet and other practices.

In Rossi v. Fischer, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52068 (SD NY, April 15, 2014), a New York federal district court adopted a magistrate's recommendations (2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52146, March 31, 2014) and refused to grant a Rastafarian inmate a preliminary injunction to allow a group Rastafarian celebration on April 21 after prison authorities agreed to excuse plaintiff from work that day and serve him a vegetarian meal.

In Johnson v. Hicks, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54239 (ED CA, April 17, 2014), a California federal magistrate judge held that an inmate's complaint that his religious materials were confiscated should be dismissed, with leave to amend, since he had not alleged any facts indicating that this substantially burdened his religious exercise.

In Villalobos v. Bosenko, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54280 (ED CA, April 16, 2014), a California federal magistrate judge dismissed, but with leave to file an amended complaint, a Buddhist inmate's claim that he was denied a vegetarian diet.

Article Traces Evolution of Obama's Position On Same-Sex Marriage

Today's New York Times Magazine carries a lengthy article titled How the President Got to ‘I Do’ on Same-Sex Marriage. It traces the evolution of President Obama's public position on the issue.

President Obama Sends Easter and Passover Greetings

President Obama used his White House address yesterday (full text) (video) to convey Easter and Passover greetings, saying in part:
These holy days have their roots in miracles that took place long ago.  And yet, they still inspire us, guide us, and strengthen us today.  They remind us of our responsibilities to God and, as God’s children, our responsibilities to one another.
For me, and for countless other Christians, Holy Week and Easter are times for reflection and renewal.  We remember the grace of an awesome God, who loves us so deeply that He gave us his only Son, so that we might live through Him.... 
The common thread of humanity that connects us all – not just Christians and Jews, but Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs – is our shared commitment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  To remember, I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.  Whatever your faith, believer or nonbeliever, there’s no better time to rededicate ourselves to that universal mission.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Anti--SLAPP Motion Granted To Dismiss Suit Growing Out of Ground-Zero Mosque Controversy

Forras v. Rauf, (D DC, April 18, 2014), is a remnant from the widely publicized battle over attempts in 2010 to construct a mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.  New York City first responder Vincent Forras sued to prevent building of the mosque, claiming that it would be a nuisance, would inflict emotional distress and amounted to an assault.  In response to the complaint in that suit, Imam Feisal Rauf and the other defendants moved to dismiss, filing a memorandum of law that, among other things, said that Forras equates Islam with terrorism and has become "America's Spokesman of Bigotry." The suit was ultimately dismissed.

Meanwhile, however, Forras filed this lawsuit against Rauf and the other defendants alleging defamation, false light, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress from the statements they made in their memorandum of law seeking dismissal of the original lawsuit. Forras moves to dismiss under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act which provides for rapid dismissal of a lawsuit that is filed to chill speech about public issues.  The court granted the motion, finding that Forras had not shown a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of his claims.  The judicial proceedings privilege would defeat the defamation and false light claims.  Plaintiffs also failed to show that they are likely to succeed on their other claims, including their claim that the statements in the original court proceedings "put a de facto Fatwah on Plaintiffs."

Kentucky Supreme Court Fleshes Out The Ministerial Exception Doctrine

In two cases decided earlier this week, the Kentucky Supreme Court clarified the ministerial exception doctrine.  In Kirby v. Lexington Theological Seminary, (KY Sup. Ct., April 17, 2014), Jimmy Kirby, a tenured professor teaching Christian social ethics at Lexington Theological Seminary had his employment terminated as part of the seminary's response to a financial crisis it was facing. Kirby sued claiming race discrimination and breach of contract. The court held that the race discrimination claim was barred by the ministerial exception doctrine, saying:
we explicitly adopt the ministerial exception as applicable to employment claims—especially discrimination claims—asserted against a religious institutional employer by an employee who is directly involved in promulgating and espousing the tenets of the employer's faith.....
From a broad perspective, the ministerial exception does not strip a court of its jurisdiction but, instead, simply disallows the forward progress of the particular suit. The ministerial exception's very name inherently suggests it does not operate as a jurisdictional bar. It is an exception, not an exemption.  Most likely, a great deal of the current disagreement over the ministerial exception's proper operation stems from the conflation of the ministerial exception with the broader principle of ecclesiastical abstention. Secular courts do not have jurisdiction to hear disputes over church doctrine. But courts do have jurisdiction to hear and resolve employment disputes, contract claims, tort claims, or similar. And that authority is not lost as a result of the ministerial exception.
However the court permitted Kirby to proceed with his claim that his dismissal violated his contractual rights as a tenured professor:
Although state contract law does involve the governmental enforcement of restrictions on a religious institution's right or ability to select its ministers, those restrictions are not governmental restrictions. Simply put, the restrictions do not arise out of government involvement but, rather, from the parties to the contract, namely, the religious institution and its employee. 
Contractual transactions, and the resulting obligations, are assumed voluntarily. Underneath everything, churches are organizations. And, like any other organization, a "church is always free to burden its activities voluntarily through contracts, and such contracts are fully enforceable in civil court."  Surely, a "church can contract with its own pastors just as it can with outside parties."  "Enforcement of a promise, willingly made and supported by consideration, in no way constitutes a state-imposed limit upon a church's free exercise rights."
In a companion case, Kant v. Lexington Theological Seminary, (KY Sup. Ct., April 17, 2014),  Laurence Kant, another tenured professor who was terminated at the same time, also sued for breach of contract.  The Court held that Kant, a Professor of History of Religion who was Jewish, was not a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception doctrine:
we find it important to emphasize the connection between the religious institution's employee and the doctrine or tenets of the religious institution. A minister, in the commonly understood sense, has a very close relationship with doctrine of the religious institution the minister represents. The members of the congregation or faith community view a minister as one who is, among other things, the face of the religious institution, permitted to speak for the religious institution, the embodiment of the religious institution's tenets, and leader of the religious institution's ritual.  Kant did none of these things....
[T]he simple fact that an employee professes a different religious belief system than his religious institutional employer does not eliminate the employee as a ministerial employee under the law. The primary focus under the law is on the nature of the particular employee's work for the religious institution. Here, Kant's work was chiefly secular.

Dobson's Family Talk Wins Preliminary Injunction Against ACA Contraceptive Coverage Rules

In Dobson v. Sebelius, (D CO, April 17, 2014), a Colorado federal district court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate against James Dobson's religious non-profit Family Talk.  The court concluded that the ACA regulations which allow religious non-profits to opt out, and call for contraceptive coverage to then be furnished directly by insurers or third party administrators, do not eliminate the free exercise burden:
Here, any myopic focus on the brevity of the Exemption Form and its ease of completion misses the mark. It is the de facto forced facilitation of the objectionable coverage that is religiously repugnant to the plaintiffs. The resultant moral abhorrence is not effectively extenuated by a transfer of responsibility via an Exemption Form from the plaintiffs to the TPA. For the plaintiffs, such legal legerdemain does not expiate the morally unacceptable means or end. The transformation of moral culpability from plaintiffs as principals to aiders and abettors does not absolve the plaintiffs from their immutable moral responsibility. Such a compelled concession – even by an ostensibly innocuous legal prophylactic – does not ameliorate the moral ignominy and obliquity created by the pressured participation in the process.
Further, it is of no moment that ultimately the decision by an employee to elect the objectionable coverage is optional. To the plaintiffs, it is the offer per se that is morally offensive regardless of the extent of its acceptance.
Thus, I conclude ultimately that there is a substantial likelihood that the plaintiffs can show that the pressure to execute the Exemption Form imposed on them by the ACA and the concomitant regulations constitutes impermissible pressure to act in violation of their religious beliefs.
Christian Post reports on the decision. (See prior related posting.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

University's Diversity Officer, Demoted For Anti-Gay Marriage Views, Loses Discrimination Lawsuit

In McCaskill v. Galludet University, (D DC, April 14, 2014), the District of Columbia federal district court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Angela McCaskill, Gallaudet University's former Chief Diversity Officer. The University placed McCaskill on administrative leave and eventually demoted her after it become known that at her church she had signed a petition to get a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the Maryland ballot. The University justified its action on the ground that McCaskill's ability to advocate for her constituents, particularly the university's gay community, had been compromised.  McCaskill brought the suit alleging discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and political affiliation in violation of D.C.'s Human Rights Act; infliction of emotional distress; and defamation. In rejecting McCaskill's religious discrimination  claim, the court said in part:
Even if Gallaudet knew of her religious convictions or was aware that those convictions motivated her to sign the petition – a fact that remains hazy on the face of the Complaint – there is no factual allegation that her religion somehow prompted her suspension or demotion. ... [A]lthough it may be true that McCaskill signed the petition because she is a Christian ... the university cannot be guilty of discrimination on that basis.
Washington Business Journal reports on the decision.

Seventh Day Adventist Sues Over Hostility To His Not Working On Saturdays

The New York Post reports on an employment discrimination lawsuit filed in a New York federal district court last Monday by a Seventh Day Adventist who formerly was employed by CVS pharmacy.  Plaintiff Nowran Busgith, who worked as a loss-prevention specialist, claims that he had no problems getting Saturdays off work until his supervisor Abdul Salui, a Muslim, learned that the reason for the request was Busgith's observance of his Sabbath. From then on Salui became hostile toward him, repeatedly asked him why he was in a "white boy religion," and refused his requests not to work on Saturdays. The suit seeks an unspecified amount of damages against CVS and Salui.

Australian Court Says Christian Camp Illegally Discriminated On Basis of Sexual Orientation

In Christian Youth Camps Ltd. v. Cobaw Community Health Service Ltd., (Vict. App., April 16, 2014), the Court of Appeal of the Australian state of Victoria, in a 2-1 decision, held that a Christian youth camp unlawfully discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation when it refused to rent out its camp for a weekend to an organization whose goals were to prevent suicide among "same-sex attracted young people."  The majority held that neither of the two religious freedom exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 apply. The exemption in Sec. 75(2) does not apply because the camp is not "a body established for religious purposes." The exemption in Section 77 (prior to its amendment in 2010) for conduct "necessary ... to comply with the person's genuine religious beliefs or principles" should be read as covering only individuals, and not corporations.

Justice Redlich dissented, arguing that the exemption in Section 77 is available to corporations, and that in addition corporations may claim the exemption when it is validly claimed by an agent of the corporation who acted for it. Christian Today reports on the decision.

10th Circuit Hears Oral Arguments In Oklahoma Same-Sex Marriage Case

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday heard oral arguments in  Bishop v. Smith.  An audio recording of the full oral arguments is available from the court's website. In the case, an Oklahoma federal district court held that the provision in the Oklahoma constitution barring same-sex marriage in the state violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  The same 10th Circuit panel heard arguments last week in a case challenging Utah's same-sex marriage ban. (See prior posting.)

New York City Churches Still Holding Out Hope For Continued Use of Public School Space

The battle by New York City churches to continue to use public school buildings on weekends for religious services is not over despite the Second Circuit's recent decision upholding the school board's rule change barring such use. On Tuesday, appellants in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York filed a petition (full text) for an en banc rehearing by the full Second Circuit.  According to an ADF press release, "The filing automatically puts the panel’s ruling on hold, which means that congregations will be able to continue meeting through Easter and the remainder of Passover while the 2nd Circuit decides what to do with the petition." Meanwhile, as reported by World, there continues to be speculation that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will move to reverse the policy the school board adopted under his predecessor's administration and allow churches to continue to use school space.

Atheist Sues New Jersey Over Refusal of Vanity License Plate

A New Jersey woman yesterday filed suit in federal district court against the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission over its refusal to issue her a vanity license plate reading "8THEIST".  The complaint (full text) in Morgan v. Martinez, (D NJ, filed 4/17/2014), contends that in rejecting the plate because it "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency" the state violated plaintiff's rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  The state was willing to issue a vanity plate reading "BAPTIST".  Americans United issued a press release announcing the filing of the lawsuit.

New Hampshire Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Education Tax Credit Challenge

On Wednesday, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. State of New Hampshire. A video recording of the full arguments is available from the Supreme Court's website. [File will download.]  In the case, a New Hampshire trial court held that the state's Education Tax Credit program violates the state constitution's ban on compelling any person to support sectarian schools and its "No Aid" clause, insofar as the state allows funds generated by the program to be used at religious schools. (See prior posting.) The Concord Monitor reports on the oral arguments.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

British Trial Court Rejects Claim That Wealthy Family's Property Was Held Under Hindu/ Sikh Law

Singh v. Singh, (EWHC, April 8, 2014) is a property dispute between members of an extremely wealthy Sikh family living in Britain. In the case, the eldest son in the family, Jasminder Singh, claims ownership of Tetworth Hall, described as "a spacious house standing in its own grounds on the edge of Ascot race course." He also claims ownership of 5.28% of the shares of Edwardian Group, Ltd., a very profitable company that operates hotels in central London and elsewhere. Both the house and the company shares are registered in Jasminder's name.

According to the court, Jasminder's father, however, claims that:
these and other items of property are joint family assets which are held in accordance with the principles of what is known as the Mitakshara. This is the legal code ... by which a Hindu family living and eating together as a composite household may hold its property. The code which is of very ancient origin applies as much to Sikhs as to Hindus. This is relevant because, as their name implies, the Singh family are Sikhs. The beneficial interest in property of a joint Hindu (or Sikh) family, if held subject to the Mitakshara, belongs jointly to the male members of that family down to the third generation from a common male ancestor.
Jasminder responds that: "until this dispute first arose he had never even heard of the Mitakshara, let alone had any understanding of how it operates."

The court prefaced a lengthy review of the family's history with this observation:
If nothing else this litigation has highlighted the extraordinary enterprise that has enabled the Singh family, in the space of just two generations, to rise from obscurity and very modest circumstances in what was then rural British India, overcome all manner of difficulties, come eventually to this country and make a fortune for itself. I dare say it is not untypical of many such families but there can be few whose rise has been quite so meteoric. The family's story as it unfolded in the course of this trial has a heroic quality to it. It has made it all the more painful to have to listen to the tragic differences that now divide its members.
In a 248 paragraph opinion, th High Court judge concluded:
At the end of the day the question is whether Father has demonstrated that as between himself and Jasminder there existed an understanding that any property which they or either of them acquired would be held as joint family property.... I am unable to find that there was such an understanding.
[Thanks to Law & Religion UK for the lead.] 

Suit Over Sale of Former Public School To Yeshivas Is Settled

Lower Hudson Journal News reports on the settlement of a lawsuit between the East Ramapo, New York school district and two Orthodox Jewish schools (yeshivas) that are leasing and seeking to purchase an elementary school building that was closed as a public school in 2009. Congregation Bais Malka of Monsey and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, a religious school for children with special needs, have been renting the former Colton school since 2011. They sued last summer seeking credits for rent paid to reduce the purchase price of the building.  Opponents claim a conflict of interest in the entire transaction since a majority of the school board members are Orthodox Jews whose families use Orthodox Jewish yeshivas. In the settlement agreement, East Ramapo will give the yeshivas over $1 million in rent credits, will waive late fees for rent that was never paid, and give additional credits for repairs that the tenants made. A New York trial court judge finally approved the settlement on Monday, but insisted that it include language that the court does not endorse the findings of fact in the settlement. (See prior related posting.)

3 USCIRF Commissioners Are Reappointed

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom announced last week that three of its commissioners have been reappointed. On March 28, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his reappointment of Mary Ann Glendon and Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. On April 9, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his reappointment of Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett. Commissioners are appointed for 2-year terms, some by Congressional leaders and some by the President, as specified in Section 201 of the International Religious Freedom Act.

U.S. Embassy Is One Sponsor Of School Program In Czech Republic To Fight Prejudice Against Muslims

AINA reported this week that the U.S. Embassy in Prague is one of a half dozen sponsors of a program titled "Muslims in the Eyes of Czech School Children."  The project, authorized by the Czech Republic's Ministry of Education, is designed to fight stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims by teaching school children about Islamic beliefs and practices. The first phase of the project is aimed at analyzing the accuracy of information about Islam in Czech school textbooks. Later phases involve examination of issues such as veiling of women and media coverage of Islam, artistic projects and thematic lectures. Critics of the program are concerned that it will involve proselytizing.

Religion Clause Is 9 Years Old Today

Religion Clause is 9 years old today! Thanks to all of you who have made the blog successful as the "go to" resource for coverage of religious liberty and church-state developments.  I appreciate your readership and hope you will continue to recommend the blog to others.  I remain committed to religiously and ideologically neutral reporting, with extensive links particularly to primary source material. As always, I welcome your e-mails on leads for blog posts, or on factual corrections. You can reach me at religionclause@gmail.com. Also feel free to send along any suggestions for change through Comments to this post.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

NYPD Ends Muslim Neighborhood Surveillance Unit

The New York Times yesterday reported that the New York Police Department is dropping its controversial Demographics Unit that has sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to secretly monitor individuals. The reassignment of detectives that has inactivated the Unit appears to be part of new Police Commissioner William Bratton's attempt to build better relations with minority communities.

New Approval, But Also Law Suit, Are Latest Steps In Creating New Canadian Christian Law School

In Canada last week, the Law Society of British Columbia announced that it has voted to approve the proposed law school at Trinity Western University, making TWU graduates eligible to enter the Law Society's admissions program. The full text of the documents underlying the vote are available online. This follows similar approval last December by Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk, and by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. (See prior posting.)  A TWU press release says that BC Society's decision now allows it to move forward with creating the law school.  The opening of a law school at the evangelical Christian university has been controversial because of the university's Biblical-based "community covenant" which requires staff, faculty and students to refrain from homosexual relationships (as well as gossip, lying, smoking and consuming alcohol). (See prior posting.)

Meanwhile, according to the Victoria (BC) Times Colonist, on Monday an openly gay member of the Vancouver Park Board filed suit in B.C. Supreme Court challenging the approval of the school by the government's Advanced Education Minister. The suit contends that the approval fosters a discriminatory policy that violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ohio's Ban On Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages From Elsewhere Invalidated, But Most of Order Stayed Pending Appeal

In Henry v. Himes, (SD OH, April 14, 2014), an Ohio federal district court held that Ohio's bans on recognizing same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions are "facially unconstitutional and unenforceable under any circumstances." Legal Times reports on the decision. Judge Black had announced earlier this month that this ruling was coming. In a follow-up opinion today (full text) the court stayed its broad ruling on facial unconstitutionality  while the case is appealed  However the court refused to stay the order as to the "as applied" claims of the four same-sex couples who brought the lawsuit. Judge Black ordered the state to issue birth certificates for these Plaintiffs’ children which list both lawfully married same-sex spouses as parents.

Monday, April 14, 2014

President Sends Passover Greetings

The White House issued a statement from the President (full text) today sending greetings from himself and Michelle to all those celebrating Passover. Passover begins this evening.  Mr. Obama announced that, as in past years of his Presidency, on Tuesday he will be joining friends and loved ones at a Seder. His statement spoke both of the meaning of Passover and, in light of yesterday's shootings in Kansas, of the need to combat ignorance and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, that can lead to violence.

President Hosts Easter Prayer Breakfast

This morning, President Obama hosted religious leaders at the White House for his 5th annual Easter Prayer Breakfast marking the beginning of Holy Week. (Press release and video of remarks).  He began his remarks (full text) by speaking of the shootings in Kansas City yesterday. He then went on:
So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.  We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.  And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us -- the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection -- all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life. 
He went on to speak about his recent meeting with Pope Francis, and to thank religious leaders in the audience for their good works, including participation in the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

U.S. Delegation To Canonization Mass Named

Last Friday the White House announced the makeup of the Presidential Delegation to the Holy See which will attend the Canonization Mass of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2014.  The delegation will be led by Presidential Counselor John Podesta. Other members of the delegation are Rep. Xavier Becerra, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; and Katie Beirne Fallon, Assistant to the President and Director of Legislative Affairs.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:
From SmartCILP:

Italian Court Orders Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage Performed In New York

In Italy for the first time last Thursday, a court ordered the recognition of a same-sex marriage.  UPI reports that a judge in Grosetto ordered the local registry to record the marriage of two men who were married in a civil ceremony in New York in 2012. The court said that the Italian civil code "contains no reference to sex in relation to the requisites" for marriage. The Italian Bishops' Conference issued a statement saying that the ruling raises serious questions.

Maryland County Will Obey Injunction on Christian Prayer

Last Tuesday, a week after a contempt of court motion was filed against members of the Carroll County, Maryland Board of Commissioners for violating a court order barring them from using specific Christian references in Council invocations, the Board by a vote of 3-2 adopted a resolution to obey the court's order, at least while the case is in litigation.  Christian Post reports that unedr the resolution, only Board President Dave Roush will present the invocation. He may still refer to "God," "Heavenly Father," "God of Abraham," or similar phrases, but will not use the name "Jesus."  One of the two commissioners voting against the motion, Richard Rothschild, complained: "[T]his resolution asked me to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God. In my judgment, this resolution asked me to, in effect, disown him.... Censorship is not freedom."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Battle Over Estate Raises Issues of Religious Marriage and Interfaith Relations

Estate of Chaim Weisberg, (NY Surr. Ct., April 8, 2014), is a suit over competing claims to administer an estate.  Its underlying narrative offers a fascinating glimpse into religious relationships in the United States.  Chaim Weisberg, who came from an Orthodox Jewish family and apparently continued to practice Judaism, died without a will on Aug. 29, 2012.  His mother (through her daughter as her designee) asserts that Weisberg was unmarried, while Jannah Geaney claims to be Weisberg's wife. Each claims to be the sole distributee of Weisberg's estate and filed competing petitions for administration.

In 2008, Weisberg apparently become romantically interested in Geaney and sought out an acquaintance who had been a tenant of his family for help in arranging an Islamic marriage to Geaney. This led to Wesiberg's converting to Islam at New York's second largest mosque (Madina Masjid), and his marriage to Geaney in a religious ceremony performed by Imam Yousuf Abdul Majid on June 21, 2008.  Apparently the parties did not take out a civil marriage license. Weisberg did not inform his family of the marriage ceremony until January 2012 when he told his sister.  By then the couple's relationship had become troubled. In February Weisberg's attorney drafted, but did not file, a divorce petition.  Instead both parties filed in Family Court for orders of protection against each other. By March 2012, though, the couple said they wanted to reconcile and withdrew the petitions. Less than six months later Weisberg was hospitalized and died.

Weisberg's mother (through her daughter) claimed in court that Weisberg's marriage ceremony was invalid as a matter of Isamic law.  The court ruled, however, that this is a matter of religious doctrine that may not be determined by a civil court.  However the court also refused to grant summary judgment to Geaney, saying:
A religious marriage in New York is valid if conducted in accord with the requirements of New York's Domestic Relations Law. In relevant part, this requires that the couple participate in a religious marriage ceremony, before a member of the clergy authorized to perform such a ceremony and at least one other witness, in which they solemnly declare that they take each other as husband and wife (DRL §§ 11, 12) .
Movant's proof is deficient in two respects. First, she produces no evidence as to the qualifications of Imam Majid to officiate at a marriage. The person officiating must be a "clergyman or minister" of a bona fide religion (DRL § 11[1]).... In this case, however, the record is completely silent as to the source of the imam's religious authority.
Second, the record does not contain a description of the ceremony sufficient to establish that the parties solemnized the marriage. DRL § 12 is explicit that while "[n]o particular form or ceremony is required ... the parties must solemnly declare in the presence of a clergyman and the attending witness or witnesses that they take each other as husband and wife."
The case now proceeds with discovery and trial.

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Blaine v. California Health Care Facility, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33686 (ED CA, March 12, 2014), a California federal magistrate judge dismissed, with leave to amend, an inmate's claim that he has not been allowed to attend church.

In Williams v. Champagne, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47753 (ED LA, April 6, 2014), a Louisiana federal district court permitted a Rastafarian inmate who was placed in lock down for refusing to cut his dreadlocks to proceed with his RLUIPA challenge to the prison's hair policy.

In Harris v. Ellis, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48604 (ED CA, April 8, 2014), a Muslim inmate challenged a prison's policy to serve him only a symbolic portion of lamb for his Eid-ul-Adah meal. A California federal district court dismissed the claim because the request for injunctive relief is moot and damages are not recoverable under RLUIPA.

In Potts v. Holt, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49176 (MD PA, April 8, 2014), a Pennsylvania federal district court dismissed on qualified immunity grounds a Muslim inmate's complaint that the religious diet program was discontinued for 2 weeks during a prison lock down necessitated by the outbreak of food poisoning among inmates who ate in the regular meal program. Plaintiff did not eat the food served him during the lock down for fear he would be removed from the religious diet program for doing so.

In Khadzhimurad v. Sacramento County Sheriff Department, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49876 (ED CA, April 9, 2014), a Muslim inmate complained that halal meals had been replaced by vegetarian meals.  A California federal magistrate judge held that while plaintiff may have a 1st Amendment or RLUIPA claim, his pleadings presently do not set out one. The court dismissed the complaint but provided that an amended complaint may be filed.

European Court Chamber Decision Says Hungary's Church Law Violates Human Rights Convention

In Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary, (ECHR, April 8, 2014), the European Court of Human Rights, in a 5-2 chamber judgment, held that Hungary's 2011 Church Act violates the European Convention on Human Rights.  This excerpt from a press release by the Court  summarizes the majority decision:
As a result of the new Church Act, the applicant communities had lost their status as churches eligible for privileges, subsidies and donations. While the Hungarian Government argued that the Constitutional Court’s decision on the Act had remedied their grievances, the applicant communities found that they could not regain their former status unimpaired. In the Court’s view, it was important that the applicant communities had been recognised as churches at the time when Hungary adhered to the European Convention on Human Rights, and they had remained so until 2011. The Court recognised the Hungarian Government’s legitimate concern as to problems related to a large number of churches formerly registered in the country, some of which abused State subsidies without conducting any genuine religious activities. However, the Government had not demonstrated that the problem it perceived could not be tackled with less drastic solutions, such as judicial control or the dissolution of churches proven to be of abusive character.
Concerning the possibility open to the applicant communities of re-registration as fully incorporated churches, the Court noted that the decision whether or not to grant recognition lay with Parliament, an eminently political body. The Court considered that a situation in which religious communities were reduced to courting political parties for their favourable votes was irreconcilable with the State’s duty of neutrality in this field.... 
The withdrawal of benefits following the new Church Act in Hungary had only concerned certain denominations, including the applicant communities, as they did not fulfill certain criteria put in place by the legislator, notably as to the minimum membership and the duration of their existence. Referring to a report by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (“Venice Commission”) on the Church Act, the Court agreed with the report’s finding that it was an excessive requirement for a religious entity to have existed as an association internationally for at least 100 years or in Hungary for at least 20 years.... 
The Court concluded ...  that the measure imposed by the Church Act had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. There had accordingly been a violation of Article 11 [freedom of assembly and association] read in the light of Article 9 [freedom of thought, conscience and religion].
The decision is not final since the parties may still request review by the Grand Chamber of the Court. [Thanks to Alliance Alert for the lead.]