June 21, 2023

Religious Institutions: Update June 2023

Lex Est Sanctio Sancta
Holland & Knight Update
Nathan A. Adams IV

Key Cases

Ministerial Exception

Software Developer States Claim for Sexual Discrimination Against Ministry

In Ratliff v. Wycliffe Assoc., Inc., No. 6:22-cv-1185-PGB-RMN, 2023 WL 3688082 (M.D. Fla. May 26, 2023), the plaintiff, a software developer, sued the defendant, a Bible translation ministry, for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he was dismissed shortly after inquiring about health insurance for his new husband. The defendant admitted that it had made the decision, at least in part "in light of" the plaintiff's sexual orientation. The defendant moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiff qualifies as a minister under the ministerial exception doctrine and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The court denied the motion. The court ruled that the ministerial exception doctrine does not apply because the plaintiff lacks a ministerial title, has a technological instead of ministerial role, had no religious training or commissioning, never held himself out as a minister, and did not perform a job that "reflected a role in conveying the [religious organization's] message and carrying out its mission." The court was not impressed by contractual requirements that he "sense a call from God to ministry" or "meet [Defendant's] 'high standards for spirituality and the Christian faith.'" According to the court, this "can be interpreted a litany of ways—as can Christianity and as can spirituality." Last, the court determined that RFRA is not applicable to private lawsuits in which the government is not a party.

Ministerial Exception Doctrine Bars Cantor's Breach of Contract Claim

In Sklar v. Temple Israel, Westport Inc., No. X08-FST-CV-21-6053761-S, 2023 WL 3071355 (Ct. Super. Ct. April 21, 2023), the court ruled that the ministerial exception doctrine barred an ordained rabbi and cantor's claim for breach of contract against the defendant, Temple Israel. The court found that the manner in which the temple discharged or disciplined the plaintiff would constitute government interference with an internal decision that affects the faith and mission of the synagogue, thereby violating the Free Exercise Clause. The court added that it would also violate the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in ecclesiastical decisions because it concerns internal management decisions of the synagogue as to its employment relationship with its clergy. The court also dismissed the plaintiff's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim as legally insufficient.

Church Autonomy

Fraudulent Inducement to Tithe Claims Fail

In Gaddy v. Corp. of the Pres. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, No. 2:19-cv-00554-RJS-DBP, 2023 WL 2665894 (D. Utah March 28, 2023), former church members filed a putative class action lawsuit against the defendants, asserting violations of the Utah Charitable Solicitations Act (UCSA), Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), fraudulent nondisclosure and constructive fraud in connection with the allegation that the church intentionally misrepresented its founding to induce the faith and donations of its members. The court ruled that the First Amendment church autonomy doctrine barred adjudication of the fraud-based claims directed toward the church's alleged misrepresentations and omissions concerning the First Vision, church history, translations of the Books of Mormon and Abraham, and locations of events in the Book of Mormon because they would require the court to investigate and determine the veracity of facts surrounding the church's religious teachings. In addition, the court decided 1) there is no private cause of action under UCSA; 2) the church members' allegations that they agreed to pay 10 percent of their income as tithing in reliance upon church leaders' false representations regarding the effect and use of tithing funds were insufficiently specific to state a claim for fraud in the inducement to enter an oral contract against the defendants; 3) there is no legally cognizable general fiduciary duty between a church and its members; therefore, the plaintiffs failed to state a claim for fraudulent nondisclosure; 4) there is no claim for constructive fraud based on a breach of promises of future performance; and 5) the plaintiffs failed to allege a pattern of predicate acts with the necessary specificity to support a RICO claim relating to their allegation that the church concealed the fact that tithing funds were being used for commercial purposes. The court determined that a third amendment of the plaintiffs' complaint would be futile and dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice.

Religious Accommodation

Challenge to Mandatory Abortion Health Insurance Coverage Survives

In Cedar Park Assembly of God of Kirkland, Wash. v. Kreidler, No. C19-5181 BHS, 2023 WL 3479628 (W.D. Wash. May 16, 2023), the plaintiff sued over a 2018 Washington state law requiring all health insurance plans that provide maternity coverage to provide substantially equivalent abortion coverage. The plaintiff argued that facilitating abortion is against its religious beliefs. The defendants argued that the plaintiff falls within an exemption to the law and that they are therefore able to bargain with insurance companies for plans that exclude abortion coverage. The court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuit and both parties' motion for sanctions. The court ruled that the only plan that would have restricted abortion in a manner consistent with the plaintiff's religious beliefs was self-insurance, which the court determined was not a viable option financially for the plaintiff.

Free Exercise

Former Licensee States Claim Against Military for Denying Use of DOD Trademark, But Is Denied an Injunction

In Shields of Strength v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, No. 6:21-cv-00484, 2023 WL 3293279 (E.D. Tex. May 5, 2023), a former trademark licensee filed suit against the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), secretary of defense, and various military branch trademark-licensing offices after its request for renewal of its license to use DOD's trademarks for its "dog tag" pendants displaying Christian symbols was denied. The court ruled that the plaintiff plausibly alleged that DOD created a forum for private speech that supported the licensee's claim, alleging that DOD engaged in viewpoint-based denial of access to that limited public forum for private speech. In addition, the court ruled that the plaintiff plausibly alleged that DOD lacked a compelling interest to issue an instruction prohibiting military trademark offices from licensing DOD's trademarks for use in a manner that would reflect negatively on DOD, and that instruction substantially burdened the plaintiff's religious practice of ministering to others by denying it a trademark license for its "dog tag" pendants displaying military words and insignia alongside Christian phrases. The court also permitted the plaintiffs' claims directing cancellation of certain military trademarks as generic, ruled that the plaintiffs' allegation that DOD's instruction to limit licensee use of trademarks was arbitrary and capricious, and agreed that violations of the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA would justify relief under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) against the military's trademark-licensing policy. The court dismissed the plaintiff's Establishment Clause claim and damages claims against the individual-capacity defendants due to qualified immunity, and it denied injunctive relief to the plaintiff on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to show that the military has made its marks generally available to all as necessary to prove a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.

Yeshivas Fail to State Claim Against Substantial Equivalency Education Laws

In Parents for Education and Religious Liberty in Schs. v. Young, No. 907655-22, 2023 WL 2671052 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. March 23, 2023), Orthodox Jewish day schools, known as yeshivas, and others sought a declaratory judgment that regulations governing substantial equivalency determinations for nonpublic schools under the Compulsory Education Law violated certain constitutional rights such as the Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses and were promulgated in violation of the State Administrative Procedure Act (SAPA). Beginning in 1895, New York required that instruction provided "elsewhere than a public school shall be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to children of like age at the public school of the city or district in which such child resides." In its modern form, the Compulsory Education Law establishes compulsory educational standards for both public and nonpublic schools, including minimum hours of instruction, the amount and character of required attendance and mandated courses of study. In furtherance of her statutory duty to enforce and execute the laws, the commissioner for the Department of Education adopted regulations. The plaintiffs challenged only the regulations. The burden to ensure that a student is in compliance is on the parent, in addition to the city or school district that willfully fails to enforce the requirements. The court ruled that the regulations are neutral and not unconstitutional on their face or as applied to yeshivas, complied with SAPA and did not impose more onerous standards on yeshivas than other schools. But the court ruled that the regulation that automatically required parents to unenroll their children from nonpublic schools found not to provide substantially equivalent instruction was invalid as unsupported by statute. "Rather, the parents should be given a reasonable opportunity to prove that the substantial equivalency requirements for their children's education are satisfied by instruction provided through a combination of sources."

Court Enjoins Law Disciplining Medical Professionals for Providing "Abortion Pill Reversal"

In Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser, No. 1:23-cv-00939-DDD-SKC, 2023 WL 2978108 (D. Colo. April 15, 2023), the court granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) in favor of a faith-based medical clinic and medical professionals who challenged a Colorado law subjecting licensees to discipline for providing "abortion pill reversal" in violation of their free exercise, free speech, equal protection and due process rights. Before passage of the law, the plaintiffs lawfully began providing progesterone to a new patient who wished to continue her pregnancy after taking mifepristone. The new law put the plaintiffs in the position of either denying follow-up care and violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or continuing to provide care at the risk of losing their licenses. The court determined that the threatened injury to the plaintiffs outweighed the potential harm to the state and public under the TRO. According to the court, "though the efficacy of progesterone treatment in maintaining a patient's pregnancy after taking mifepristone appears debatable, this treatment does not appear to pose severe health risks to patients who receive it, as evidenced by the fact that the treatment currently remains legal in every state but Colorado."

Pastor Accused of Marriage Fraud States RFRA and Free Exercise Claim Against CBP

In Dousa v. U.S. Dep't of Homeland Security, No. 19-cv-1255 TWR (KSC), 2023 WL 2586301 (S.D. Cal. March 21, 2023), a pastor and United States citizen who performed ministry work with migrants in Mexico sued the government for violations of her First Amendment rights and RFRA stemming from the government's investigation of her for alleged marriage fraud in Mexico and the government's email to the Mexican government requesting that the pastor be denied entry to, or detained and returned to the U.S. if found in Mexico. The court determined that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency had no proper basis for writing or sending the email, which threatened to coerce the pastor, via potential forced repatriation, into abandoning her ministry work and thus substantially burdened the pastor's rights under the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA. There was no evidence that CBP had ever before sent such a communication to a foreign government. Furthermore, the sender acknowledged that the email was "[l]iterally, creative writing … [w]ithout any basis." The government failed to demonstrate that the email furthered a substantial state interest or was narrowly tailored to achieve border security. But the court also determined that the government's investigation in the pastor's alleged marriage fraud was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest in border security consistent with law. The plaintiff established no more than that the investigation had a subjective chilling effect on her ability to officiate marriages for non-U.S. citizens and failed to show that it impeded her from providing essential pastoral care to her congregants.


Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Violated Free Exercise Clause

In Lowe v. Mills, 68 F. 4th 706 (1st Cir. 2023), healthcare workers alleged that the Maine statute mandating that they be vaccinated against COVID-19 violated the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses and that their employers' denial of their requests for religious exemptions violated Title VII. The court ruled that the healthcare workers plausibly pled that the statute violated the Free Exercise Clause, but that the employers' failure to provide religious exemptions did not violate Title VII, as it would have caused undue hardship to them by putting their state licensures in jeopardy. The religious workers alleged that they object to receiving the vaccine on religious grounds because of the connection between the vaccines and the cell lines of aborted fetuses in the vaccines' origination, production, development, testing or other inputs. They argued, and the court agreed, that they stated a claim that the vaccine requirement is not generally applicable because some individuals may continue working in healthcare facilities based on medical exemptions, whereas the state eliminated all religious exemptions. Maine claimed its goal was to reverse the trajectory of falling vaccination rates, but the availability of the medical exemption, like a religious exemption, could reduce vaccination rates. The court allowed that the state might be able to show that the two exemptions are not comparable – for example, if medical exemptions are rarer, more time limited or more geographically diffuse than religious exemptions – but this would require factual development.

Parents Enjoin Mandatory Student Vaccination Requirement Under Free Exercise Clause

In Bosarge v. Edney, No. 1:22cv233-HSO-BWR, 2023 WL 2998484 (S.D. Miss. April 18, 2023), parents, individually, and on behalf of elementary school students, sued Mississippi's state health officer and attorney general, school principals and the city prosecutor, seeking declaratory relief and a preliminary injunction preventing the defendants from enforcing Mississippi's compulsory vaccination law requiring students to be vaccinated in order to attend public and private schools in Mississippi. The court ruled that the parents demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their facial and as-applied challenge to the law under the Free Exercise Clause and satisfied the other requirements for injunctive relief. The attorney general admitted in her briefs that not permitting an option to request a religious exemption to the vaccination statute is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, but asserted that the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act (MRFRA) should be read to imply such a requirement in the vaccination statute. The plaintiffs responded that the attorney general's argument actually supports a finding that the compulsory vaccination law violates their free exercise rights on its face, and the court agreed. The court also agreed that, inasmuch as the defendant school officials concluded that no religious exemption is authorized in Mississippi, the plaintiffs also established an as-applied violation of their free exercise rights.

Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem, and it should not be substituted for legal advice, which relies on a specific factual analysis. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult the authors of this publication, your Holland & Knight representative or other competent legal counsel.

Related Insights