Tag Archives: First Amendment

Some Conflicts Never Die…

Back in 2000, I wrote a couple of newspaper columns and an academic article about litigation involving the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home. The Children’s Home had fired a youth counselor solely because she was a lesbian; they admitted that she was an excellent counselor, but justified the firing by explaining that “the gay lifestyle” (discovered because her picture appeared in media snapped at a Pride parade) was inconsistent with their theological beliefs.

Ordinarily, this firing would not have given rise to a lawsuit-even in those few states that had then extended civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, religious organizations were (and are) exempt from civil rights laws. But the Home was essentially funded by the state of Kentucky. Some $12 million of its $15 million dollar annual budget came from state tax dollars paying for the children placed in the facility by the state. The lawsuit challenged the propriety of using tax dollars to discriminate.

The case ran into some technical issues not germane to the principle being litigated, and I lost track of its subsequent path. (A very similar case from Georgia was settled when that state agreed to abide by the Constitution.) Evidently, the Kentucky Home did not lose its state support–nor its insistence on disadvantaging members of the LGBTQ community–because AP has reported on the emergence of a similar conflict between the Home–now renamed Sunrise Children’s Services–and the state.

A cultural clash pitting religious beliefs against gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.

It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings. An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing a refusal by Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.

The original case–twenty-one years ago–involved the home’s refusal to employ LGBTQ staff members, no matter how professionally competent. I was unable to determine whether that situation has changed, but this time, the argument is about the agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex foster or adoptive parents.

Sunrise wants its religious beliefs to exempt it from a law that applies to other agencies doing business with the state, a requirement imposed by what lawyers call a law of general application. It wants to continue benefitting from tax dollars paid by all Kentucky residents, gay and straight, while picking and choosing which rules it will follow.

That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

“If Sunrise doesn’t want to abide by that, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in the state’s care,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights advocacy group.

Hartman said he worries LGBTQ children in Sunrise’s care are “deeply closeted,” hiding their sexual orientation out of fear of “indoctrination and proselytization.”

Whether that fear is justifiable or not is beside the point. It was actually Justice Scalia–no champion of secularism–who wrote the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, confirming that religious belief does not exempt citizens from compliance with laws of general application.

Sunrise is perfectly free to follow its theological principles. It isn’t free to demand continued public funding at the same time it is refusing to follow the rules that govern distribution of that funding.

I sometimes wonder whether America has turned into a version of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some folks (“good Christians”) think they’re entitled to be more equal than others.

 

While We’re Talking About Hypocrisy…

Over the years, opponents of equal civil rights for LGBTQ citizens manufactured all manner of secular justifications for their bigotry. They claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder, that gay men were all promiscuous, that children require a “traditional” marriage between a male and female in order to thrive, and more.

There was no credible evidence for any of these assertions, and as a result, gay folks won important legal victories, including the right to legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Opponents of that progress are left with what has always been the actual justification for their animus: religious doctrine.

Thanks to the First Amendment’s religion clauses, doctrinal homophobia is a protected belief. Pastors can inveigh against homosexuality from the pulpit without fear of official sanction, and people who accept those beliefs are free to avoid socializing with gay folks.

What religious beliefs cannot be used to justify, however, is legal discrimination. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, some “Christians” opposed it because they claimed their religion required separation of the races and submission of women. The First Amendment doesn’t include a right to make those beliefs the law of the land.

The First Amendment protects religious belief. Civil rights laws protect members of marginalized groups from discrimination. What happens when those two rights collide?

In Indianapolis, we’ve seen recent examples of that collision. Two Catholic high schools have fired employees–guidance counselors and teachers of secular subjects–for the sin of same-sex marriage. 

Joshua Payne-Elliott, the teacher fired from Cathedral High School because of his same-sex marriage, is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Until now, Payne-Elliott had not been identified publicly. His husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, is a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. They married in 2017. The couple have been at the center of a fight between their schools and the Catholic Church, which directed the schools to fire both men.

Brebeuf refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, so the archdiocese stripped the school of its Catholic status. Cathedral fired Joshua Payne-Elliott to avoid the same fate.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Marion County alleges that the archdiocese illegally interfered with Joshua Payne-Elliott’s contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing Cathedral to terminate him.

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliott said in a news release

The Archdiocese is arguing that they are within their rights under the current jurisprudence of religious liberty, and that “religious organizations may define what conduct is not acceptable and contrary to the teachings of its religion, for its school leaders, guidance counselors, teachers and other ministers of the faith.”

Payne-Elliott taught world languages and social studies, and Cathedral confirmed that his termination had nothing to do with his performance. The principal acknowledged that he was a very good teacher. Evidently, Cathedral would have preferred not to fire him, but gave in to the demands of the Archdiocese.

Brebeuf, the Jesuit school that employs Payne-Elliott’s spouse, did not, and it deserves credit for its refusal to terminate him.

Given the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is likely that the law will continue to favor assertions of religious doctrine over the civil and contractual rights of gays and lesbians. But  the court of public opinion is a different matter. After all, Catholic dogma isn’t confined to disapproval of same-sex marriage. Church doctrine opposes divorce, sex out of wedlock, adultery, even–as I understand it– refusal to attend mass, among other sins. To the best of my knowledge, Catholic schools haven’t been terminating teachers who transgress those rules.

Why this very selective enforcement of doctrine?

And why does the State of Indiana allow public voucher  funds to be used at schools like Cathedral and Roncalli that openly discriminate against a subset of Indiana citizens? Inquiring minds want to know–or really, we can guess.

 

The Hate Eruption

Asian women have been mowed down in Georgia. Unarmed Black men continue to be killed or maimed by police and self-appointed “good guys with guns.” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have proliferated. A new report links these eruptions to a surge in White Supremacy propaganda.

Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic could prevent white supremacist groups from deluging American cities with extremist propaganda in 2020. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses. Stickers were slapped onto street signs. Fliers were dropped onto the windshields of parked cars.

An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study published Wednesday recorded 5,125 incidents of white supremacist physical propaganda last year, marking the highest level of cases reported since the non-profit began tracking such data five years ago. The findings average to about 14 incidents per day—and are nearly double the 2,724 cases reported in 2019.

The data highlights the stunning growth of new splinter movements that did not exist when President Donald Trump took office. At least 30 white supremacist groups disseminated propaganda in the U.S. in 2020, but three of them—Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club—were responsible for 92% of the activity, according to the ADL. All of them were founded within the past three years.

This research gives us a lot to unpack.

First and foremost, these findings support the accumulating evidence that the Republican Party, now for all intents and purposes the Trump Party, has become little more than a White Supremacy Party. The politicization of hate–the partisan retreat into full-scale culture war–is incredibly worrisome. Equally troubling, the language of hate is amplified daily by media outlets that can only be considered GOP PR appendages rather than genuine journalistic endeavors.

Those of us who insist that language matters–that “mere words” may not be the sticks and stones that break your bones but nevertheless can incentivize actions inflicting bodily harm–find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Giving government the right to suppress any idea (even, in Justice Holmes’ memorable phrase, the “idea we hate”) would be incredibly dangerous and even counterproductive. The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment was based upon recognition that giving government that power would be more dangerous than even the expression of truly horrible ideas, and efforts at suppression more often than not simply give oxygen to such materials.

That leaves those of us who are horrified by the surge in hateful incitement with only the tool of social opprobrium, often derided as “political correctness” or even “cancel culture.” Although in the age of social media, criticism of language deemed bigoted or stereotyping can certainly go too far (in the jargon of the day, be too “woke”), expressing disapproval is arguably less damaging to the social fabric than ignoring the dissemination of hateful and hurtful characterizations.

Perhaps, in a weird way, the increasingly overt expressions of animus and bigotry may force us to confront some unpalatable realities. Surface niceties allowed many of us to assume that we’d made much more progress than we had. Just as the Trump presidency reminded Americans that the absence of honest, competent governance really hurts us all, the explosion of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other hatreds reminds the rest of us that we humans have to live together on a small and endangered planet, and that we need to find ways to cooperate and co-exist.

You can’t lance an invisible boil, and you can’t solve a problem until you recognize how extensive it is.

 

 

Information Silos And The First Amendment

The First Amendment contemplates and protects a “marketplace of ideas.” We have no precedent for an information environment in which there is no marketplace–no “agora” where different ideas and perspectives contend with each other for acceptance.

What we have instead are information “silos”–a column in the New York Times recently quoted Robert Post, a Yale professor, for the observation that people have always been crazy, but the internet has allowed them to find each other.

In those silos, they talk only to each other.

Social media has enabled the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain, and we are seeing the results. The question is: what should we do?

One set of scholars has concluded that the damage being done by misinformation and propaganda outweighs the damage of censorship. Rick Hasen, perhaps the most pre-eminent scholar of election law, falls into that category:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

I don’t know what Hasen considers “necessary reform,” but I’m skeptical.

I have always been a First Amendment purist, and I still agree with the balance struck by the Founders, who understood that–as pernicious and damaging as bad ideas can be–allowing government to determine which ideas get voiced is likely to be much more dangerous. (As a former ACLU colleague memorably put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”)

That said, social media platforms aren’t government. Like brick-and-mortar private businesses, they can insist on certain behaviors by their customers. And like other private businesses, they can and should be regulated in the public interest. (At the very least, they should be required to apply their own rules consistently. People expressing concern/outrage over Twitter’s ban of Trump should be reminded that he would have encountered that ban much earlier had he been an ordinary user. Trump had flouted Twitter and Facebook rules for years.)

The Times column suggests we might learn from European approaches to issues of speech, including falsehoods and hate speech. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. Europeans have decided that hate speech isn’t valuable public discourse– that racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.

The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly — so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal. Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it — so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.

The First Amendment was crafted for a political speech environment that was markedly different than today’s, as Tim Wu has argued.  Government censorship was then the greatest threat to free speech. Today, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics” that humiliate, harass, discourage, and even destroy targeted speakers.”

Wu argues that Americans can no longer assume that the First Amendment is an adequate guarantee against malicious speech control and censorship. He points out that the marketplace of ideas has become corrupted by technologies “that facilitate the transmission of false information.”

American courts have long held that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition that characterizes a marketplace. They haven’t addressed what happens when there is no longer a functioning market–when citizens  confine their communicative interactions to sites that depend for their profitability on confirming the biases of carefully targeted populations.

I certainly don’t think the answer is to dispense with–or water down– the First Amendment. But that Amendment was an effort to keep those with power from controlling information. In today’s information environment, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. are as powerful and influential as government. Our challenge is to somehow rein in intentional propaganda and misinformation without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Any ideas how we do that?

 

 

Constitutional Rights At The Schoolhouse Door

As regular readers of this blog and my former students know, I  approach my course on “Law and Public Affairs” through a constitutional lens. There are some obvious reasons for that focus: many of my students will work for government agencies, and will be  legally obliged to adhere to what I have sometimes called “the Constitutional Ethic.” Due to the apparent lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools, a troubling number of  graduate students come to class with very hazy understandings of the country’s legal foundations.

Freedom of speech seems particularly susceptible to misunderstanding.

The first problem is that a significant number of Americans don’t “get” that  the Bill of Rights only restrains government. Walmart or the Arts and Entertainment Channel or (as one angry caller insisted when I was at the ACLU) White Castle cannot be sued for denying you your First Amendment Right to express yourself.

The most difficult concept for my students, however, has been the principle of content neutrality. Government can–within reasonable limits– regulate the time, place and manner of citizens’ communication, but it cannot favor some messages over others. (I used to illustrate that rule by explaining that city ordinances could prohibit sound trucks from operating in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, but could not allow trucks advocating for candidate Smith while banning those for candidate Jones. I had to discontinue that example when I realized that none of today’s students had the slightest idea what a sound truck was…)

One example I did continue to use was public school efforts to control T-shirts with messages on them. Private schools can do what they wish–they aren’t government–but public schools cannot constitutionally favor some messages over others. This is evidently a lesson that many Indiana schools have yet to learn. A brief article from the Indianapolis Star reports that the ACLU is suing a school in Manchester, Indiana, after a student was forced by administrators to go home for wearing a T-shirt with the text “I hope I don’t get killed for being Black today.”

According to the Complaint, students at the school are allowed to wear T-shirts with Confederate flags and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans. It describes the plaintiff, who is identified only by his initials, as one of the few Black students at the school.

“Schools cannot selectively choose which social issues students can support through messages on their clothing,” Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, said in a prepared statement on Monday. “Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors. The refusal of the school to allow D.E. to wear his t-shirt is a violation of his right to free speech.”

The school would be within its rights to ban all “message” T-shirts (although I can hear the grumbling now). Favoring certain messages over others, however, is a violation of the principle of content-neutrality –a core precept of the Free Speech Clause that prohibits government from favoring some messages over others.

The courts give school administrators a good deal more leeway than other government actors, on the theory that providing an educational environment requires a larger measure of control than would be appropriate for adults. But there are limits; as Ken Falk noted, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DeMoinesstudents do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

Far too many school administrators are more focused on exerting control than on modeling or transmitting basic constitutional values. Too many public schools are operated as totalitarian regimes–environments that stress compliance and group-think, rather than teaching critical thinking, acquainting young people with the values of a democratic society, and encouraging civic debate and engagement.

When school officials themselves routinely break the rules, is it any wonder so many young people graduate still unaware of them?