D.C.’s Black Lives Matter street mural. Source: CNN.

Late last month, a federal district court in Washington, D.C. dismissed First Amendment and other constitutional claims filed against the District by a non-Black Christian group pertaining to the now-famous “Black Lives Matter” mural painted on 16th Street.

Following widespread protests in U.S. cities in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis—and shortly after federal law enforcement officials cleared protesters in Lafayette Park with tear gas to allow for a photo opportunity for President Trump—D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser directed the D.C. Department of Public Works to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” in large yellow letters on 16th Street.  The mural, which is in close proximity to the White House, was widely acknowledged as expressing support for protesters and the Black community and in protest of actions taken by the President.
Continue Reading Court Dismisses Claims Against D.C. Over “Black Lives Matter” Street Mural

This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer associate Laura Salter.  Laura is a rising third-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School.

In late May, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a Church’s application for injunctive relief from California’s temporary restrictions on religious gatherings in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. Governor Newsom’s executive order, which parallels mandates issued in several states since March, limited both religious and secular public gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.  The executive order also allowed certain businesses to remain open–for example, grocery stores and hardware stores.

The order temporarily capped worship service attendance at 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The applicants in South Bay filed suit under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, contending that secular activities impacted by the order, such as retail shopping or on-site office work, were afforded more generous occupancy caps than places of worship, and that the discrepancy amounted to unjustified and unconstitutional religious discrimination.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously denied the church’s application for an injunction pending appeal, after the district court in the case denied the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order.  The church sought a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court, which would have the effect of staying the executive order while the case was being litigated.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Church’s Application for Injunctive Relief in First Amendment Challenge to COVID-19 Restrictions

Legacy Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Source: Legacy Church.

Last week, in one of the first judicial decisions addressing a First Amendment challenge to state-level social distancing requirements, a federal judge in New Mexico has denied preliminary injunctive relief to a church.  This outcome differs from another recently-decided case in Kentucky, where a district court enjoined enforcement of a city restriction that applied exclusively to drive-in church services.

Like most other states, New Mexico has taken significant steps to combat the coronavirus.  These actions began on March 11 with the declaration of a state of emergency, and urging from public officials to avoid gatherings and non-essential travel, and to engage in social distancing.  On March 24, the state ordered non-essential businesses to close, and prohibited indoor gatherings of more than five people, with a special exemption for houses of worship.  That was followed on March 27 by an order for recent travelers to self-quarantine.  On April 6, the state issued another order, this time prohibiting outdoor gatherings, but again exempting religious worship.  With Passover, Ramadan, and Easter approaching, the governor and health department encouraged religious organizations to use online methods of outreach.  On April 11, the day prior to Easter, the state issued a modified no-gathering order, this time including religious organizations in its sweep.

Legacy Church, which has nearly 20,000 members and locations in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, and Edgewood, livestreamed its Easter services, but did not prohibit members from attending services in person.  The church has indicated that it plans to continue to hold in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The church filed its lawsuit against the state and its Secretary of Health, on the evening of April 11, and on April 14, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order allowing Legacy to conduct in-person services.
Continue Reading Federal Court in New Mexico Denies Temporary Restraining Order in First Amendment Challenge to COVID-19 Restrictions

Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s summary judgment order in order favor of a non-theist group that sought to place a nonreligious display in the rotunda of the Texas state capitol during the holiday season.  The lower court found that the state, in denying the group’s display, had engaged in viewpoint discrimination.  However, the court found that the order granting retrospective relief was improper, but directed the lower to court to consider the group’s claim for prospective relief and reinstated its claim that the state’s regulations constituted an impermissible prior restraint.

We reported on this case in 2017.  The facts of the case can be found on our earlier post.  Since our last report on the case, the district court entered a declaratory summary judgment in favor of Freedom From Religion Foundation, finding that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s and Texas State Preservation Board Executive Director Rod Welsh’s interference in the matter constituted viewpoint discrimination.  However, the district court denied summary judgment on the group’s Establishment Clause claim and a claim against Abbott in his individual capacity.
Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Remands in Texas Capitol Rotunda Display Case

Large religious gatherings, such as Catholic masses, may result in virus transmission, but may be difficult for U.S. governments to prohibit. Source: Catholic Sun.

Since the rest of the world seems to be taking a break from regular activities amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ll take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to offer our view of the pandemic through the lens of our favorite topic:  First Amendment rights.

China’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan is well-documented.  Mandatory quarantines, citywide shutdowns, prohibitions on gatherings, and other such actions were implemented swiftly.  We in the United States have not yet seen such a response, and there’s no telling whether such a response will be needed.  But because we enjoy more individual liberties than do Chinese citizens, what might be the legal consequences of some of these actions?  We offer some thoughts below for state and local regulators:
Continue Reading COVID-19 and the First Amendment: Thoughts for State and Local Regulators

The Bladensburg cross. Source: The Humanist.

In a widely-anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last month that a large concrete cross located on public property at a major intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, could remain in place.  The nearly 90-year-old cross, which was placed to honor victims of World War I, had been challenged by an atheist organization as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion.

In a fractured decision, seven of the Justices agreed that the cross could stay.  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Alito argued that, although the Latin cross has a religious meaning, its longtime placement at a major intersection as a war memorial meant that it had taken on a secular meaning as well.  In light of this longstanding history, he concluded that the cross was not a violation of religious liberty.  In rendering his opinion, Justice Alito eschewed use of the widely-criticized Lemon test, developed by the Supreme Court in 1971, which looks at the government’s purpose and the effect of a regulation to determine whether an unconstitutional establishment of religion is created.  Justices Breyer and Kagan concurred in the opinion, noting that each Establishment Clause case must be reviewed individually and observing that no particular judicial test works in every situation.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Rules That Cross Monument Can Remain, Despite Religious Meaning

A photo of the cross in Bayview Park. Source: Fox News.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a 75-year old cross displayed in Pensacola, Florida’s Bayview Park was a violation of certain individuals’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion.  But the court’s decision was based entirely on its “prior panel precedent” rule—meaning that the court was bound by a 35-year old decision on nearly identical facts—and the panel openly questioned the correctness of its decision.

Three individuals, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought the case in federal district court in Florida.  They alleged that they felt offended by the presence of the cross in the park.  Pensacola moved to dismiss on standing grounds, arguing that the plaintiffs’ injuries were sufficient ethereal so as not to pass muster under current-day standing doctrine.  The parties also filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question of whether the cross violated the Establishment Clause.
Continue Reading Appeals Court Finds That Concrete Cross Violates Establishment Clause, But Is Reversal In Sight?

Last December, we reported on a federal district court’s denial of a motion for preliminary injunction relating to the Archdiocese of Washington’s unsuccessful efforts to post Christmas-season advertising on transit vehicles owned and operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.  Unfortunately for the Archdiocese, Christmas did not come in July either.  Last week, the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the denial of preliminary injunctive relief.

The facts of the case are available on our post regarding the district court’s decision.

On appeal, the appellate court (which included as a panelist Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh) agreed with the district court.  First, the court agreed that the advertising space on WMATA transit vehicles constitutes a non-public forum, where the government can exercise greater control over content yet must adhere to requirements of viewpoint neutrality and reasonableness.  In so ruling, the D.C. Circuit joins a majority of federal appeals courts that have now ruled that transit advertising spaces are non-public fora.
Continue Reading No Christmas in July for Archdiocese of Washington; Appeals Court Affirms Denial of Preliminary Injunction

A copy of one of the advertisements that the Archdiocese of Washington intended to place on WMATA buses. Source: Archdiocese of Washington.

The Catholic Church’s efforts to “Keep Christ in Christmas” have been stymied by a District of Columbia judge this holiday season.  Earlier this month, the federal district court in Washington rejected a request by the Archdiocese of Washington to enjoin the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s enforcement of its transit advertising policy.  The Archdiocese wished to display, during the holiday season, an advertisement on WMATA transit vehicles that contained the language “Find the Perfect Gift” and a religious image.  The advertisement was intended to encourage readers to remember the religious underpinnings of Christmas.  WMATA rejected the advertisement because it violated the authority’s rule prohibiting advertising that advocates or opposes religion.
Continue Reading Reason for the Season? D.C. Court Upholds Transit Authority’s Rejection of Religious Holiday Advertising

This post was originally authored by Evan J. Seeman of Robinson & Cole LLP on the RLUIPA Defense blog.  We have re-posted it here with permission.  The original post can be found here.  Any views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, P.C.

Last year, we reported about a case in which the city of St. Michael, Minnesota utilized RLUIPA’s “safe harbor” provision to avoid liability under the act’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions.  While the federal court found for the city as to Riverside Church’s RLUIPA claims at the summary judgment stage, the court concluded that there were genuine issues of fact regarding Riverside’s free speech claim that could only be resolved at trial.  Following a several-week-long trial, the court late last month issued its decision and found that the city’s zoning ordinance violated Riverside’s right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and awarded Riverside $1,354,595 in damages.

Riverside identified property in the city’s B-1 district as an ideal satellite location to accommodate its growing congregation.  Riverside would use the new location much like a movie theater, where it would broadcast religious worship services being held at its primary church in Big Lake, Minnesota.  The property was already suited for Riverside’s intended use, since it had previously been operated as a 15-screen movie theatre, with nearly 2,800 seats, a maximum capacity of over 3,600 people, and having more than 91,000 square feet.  Although Riverside sought to use the property in much the same way as a movie theatre – an allowed use under the zoning code for this B-1 district – the city concluded that the proposed use was not allowed since “collective religious worship” was not among the uses permitted in this district.
Continue Reading RLUIPA Defense: Church Wins Free Speech Claim Over Zoning Ordinance and $1,354,595 in Damages