Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Obama's Nominee To Supreme Court Has Said Little On Religious Freedom Issues

Today President Obama nominated Chief Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. (President's remarks announcing the nomination). (White House  media release with background information).  While Garland has served on the D.C. Circuit for 19 years (and served as Chief Judge since 2013) he has had little to say in judicial opinions about religious liberty or church-state separation.

The only opinion involving religious freedom claims actually authored by Judge Garland was Ciralsky v. CIA, 355 F.3d 661 (Jan. 30, 2004) which involved a claim by a former CIA lawyer that he had been fired solely because of his practice of the Jewish religion.  The opinion dealt solely with procedural issues growing out of the complaint being long, repetitive and argumentative.

Garland has served on 3-judge panels in a number of cases involving religious freedom or religious discrimination issues, joining an opinion written by one of the other judges on the panel.  Here is a brief summary of those cases:
  • Henderson v. Kennedy, 253 F.3d 12 (Feb. 13, 2001), rehearing denied 265 F.3d 1072 (Oct. 2, 2001): The court ruled against evangelical Christians who claimed a National Park Service regulation prohibiting the sale of t-shirts on the National Mall violated RFRA and the equal protection clause.
  • Levitan v. Ashcroft, 281 F.3d 1313 (March 8, 2002): in a Catholic inmate's challenge to a prison rule barring consumption small amounts of wine as part of Communion, the court held that a religious practice need not be a mandatory part of a religious creed to be protected by 1st Amendment.
  • Conservation Law Foundation v. FERC, 216 F.3d 41 (June 23, 2000). The court found that there was no violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in its re-licensing of a hydroelectric project.
  • In re England, 375 F.3d 1169 (July 27, 2004). Non-liturgical chaplains sued the Navy alleging discrimination.  The court refused to compel the Secretary of the Navy to release selection board members from their oath of confidentiality, to allow them to testify about selection board proceedings.
  • McKeithan v. Boarman, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 9024 (April 12, 2012). Summary dismissal of a suit charging discrimination based on sex and religion for failure to state a claim.
  • Village of Bensenville v. FAA, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 1166 (Jan. 17, 2006). The court refused to grant a stay pending appeal of a district court opinion allowing expansion of O'Hare Airport. At issue was a RFRA challenge to the relocation of remains from a cemetery.
Finally, Garland was a member of several en banc panels that ruled (either summarily or in opinions by others) on issues related to religious rights:
  • In Priests for Life v. United States HHS, 808 F.3d 1 (May 20, 2015), Judge Garland was part of the en banc panel that denied a rehearing in a case that rejected a religious non-profit's challenge to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate compromise.  Garland did not join either the concurring or dissenting opinions filed with the per curiam order.  The case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • In re Charges of Judicial Misconduct, 769 F.3d 762 (Aug. 12, 2014). Judge Garland was part of the en banc panel that accepted the recommendation of a special committee to dismiss misconduct charges against Judge Edith Jones. One of the charges involved Jones invoking her religious beliefs to justify the death penalty.
  • Newdow v. Roberts, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 27590 (June 29, 2010). Judge Garland was part of an en banc panel that denied a rehearing in case challenging religious elements in Presidential inaugurations.
If Garland is confirmed, he will bring the number of Jewish justices on the Supreme Court to 4.  The remaining 5 justices are Catholic. The New Yorker has an excellent background piece on other aspects of Chief Judge Garland's career.

UPDATE: Religion News Service has two interesting articles regarding Garland's religious beliefs: Merrick Garland is Jewish. Does it matter? and Obama plays the Jewish card, leaving GOP in a pickle.

UPDATE 2: Another opinion written by Judge Garland, Payne v. Salazar, 619 F.3d 56 (2010), should probably also be classified as a religious freedom case.  At issue were procedural questions on when a plaintiff can bring suit because of retaliation against her by her supervisor for filing a religious discrimination complaint.