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

Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The flagpoles can be seen on the right in the photo. Source: Boston Globe.

The City of Boston has three flagpoles in the plaza in front of its city hall.  Typically, the city displays an American flag and POW/MIA flag on one pole and the flag of Massachusetts on the second pole.  The third pole is used for the City of Boston flag, or alternatively, the flag of a third party.  The third pole has been used for flags of foreign nations, civic organizations, the LGBT rainbow flag, and others.  Parties can submit applications to fly their flag on the third pole, and the city has guidelines that prohibits flags that involve illegal or dangerous activities or conflict with scheduled events.  The city reviews applications to determine whether a flag is consistent with the city’s message, policies, and practices, but does not have any guidelines as to the content of the flags.  When an applicant was denied the opportunity to place a “Christian flag” on the City Hall on the grounds that the city refrains from flying religious flags on the Plaza, he filed suit.

Late last month, on the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, a federal district court found for the city.  The court determined that the display of flags in front of City Hall constituted government speech.  Applying the factors established by the Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the court found that flags are a longstanding form of government speech, the flags in front of City Hall are likely understood to be government speech, and the city has effective control over the flags in front of City Hall.  Finding that the flags constitute government speech, that effectively ended the First Amendment inquiry.
Continue Reading Federal Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Boston Flag Case

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?

The advertisement that the Freethought Society wished to place on Lackawanna County buses. Source: ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In a decision last month, an atheist group lost its challenge to an advertising policy promulgated by the transit system for Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, COLTS, that prohibited, among other things, religious messages.  Following a trial, a federal district court found in favor of the transit agency, on the grounds that its advertising space was a limited public forum and the policy was viewpoint neutral.  The decision follows several recent decisions that have found transit advertising policies constitutional.

Beginning in 2012, the atheist group, the Freethought Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania, sought to place advertising on buses owned by COLTS.  The Society’s initial advertising attempt was blocked by COLTS on the ground that its advertisement was controversial, in violation of the agency’s advertising policy.  The transit agency rejected similar advertisements submitted in 2013 and 2014 as well, even after COLTS changed its advertising policy to more explicitly prohibit political or religious messages.
Continue Reading In Another Transit Advertising Case, Federal District Court Upholds “No Religion” Policy

Although this blog often focuses on the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause, we occasionally wander into the First Amendment cases involving religious exercise as well.  A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center v. City of Raleigh, emerged from Raleigh’s determination that Hand of Hope could not operate a religious pregnancy counseling center in a residential zone district, and therefore offers a bit of both.

Hand of Hope had previously operated a pregnancy resource center in Raleigh, where it offered clients both spiritual guidance and reproductive health information.  Its services also included pregnancy testing and
Continue Reading Religious Pregnancy Counseling Organization Barely Survives Summary Judgment on Religious Land Use Claim