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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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This weekend (May 6th-9th, 2017) brings us to the American Planning American’s National Conference in New York City.  Along with colleagues from around the country, we’ll be talking about everything land use and the First Amendment, from signs to adult businesses, religious land uses, and the public forum doctrine.  If you’re planning to be at

This post is authored as a joint post of the RLUIPA Defense (www.rluipa-defense.com) and Rocky Mountain Sign Law (www.rockymountainsignlaw.com) blogs.  Evan Seeman of Robinson & Cole and Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti contributed to this post.

Late last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that