Religious School Students’ Suit Challenging Vermont Program Gains Justice Department Support

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in a case pending in the
U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont in support of parents and parochial high school
students who claim that Vermont has discriminated against them in violation of the Free Exercise
Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs in the case, A.M. v. French, assert that their Free Exercise rights have been
violated because the state does not permit them to participate in a state program that pays tuition
for high school students to take up to two college courses. 

Continue reading “Religious School Students’ Suit Challenging Vermont Program Gains Justice Department Support”

Federal Government Releases Final ‘Conscience Rule’

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has issued its final “conscience rule.”

In a statement, the HHS said that the 440 page final rule “protects individuals and health care entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs.” The HHS added that the final rule implements “full and robust enforcement of approximately 25 provisions passed by Congress protecting longstanding conscience rights in healthcare.”

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7th Circuit Upholds ‘Parsonage Allowance’ Against First Amendment Challenge

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, reversing a district court’s decision, has ruled that the Internal Revenue Code provision excluding housing allowances from ministers’ taxable income does not violate the First Amendment and is not unconstitutional.

The Parsonage Allowance

After the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913, authorizing Congress to levy an income tax, Congress enacted the federal income tax. Thereafter, the Treasury Department adopted the “convenience-of-the-employer” doctrine in connection with the definition of taxable “income.” Under that doctrine, housing provided to employees for the convenience of their employer is exempt from the employees’ taxable income.

Continue reading “7th Circuit Upholds ‘Parsonage Allowance’ Against First Amendment Challenge”

This Time, US Supreme Court Stops an Execution Where State Refuses Minister’s Presence

Just about one month after the U.S. Supreme Court permitted Domineque Ray, a Muslim prisoner, to be executed without his minister being present, the Court stopped another execution where a prisoner was denied the presence of his spiritual advisor.

In Murphy v. Collier, 587 U. S. ____ (2019), the Court stayed the execution of Patrick Murphy by the state of Texas, declaring that the state “may not carry out Murphy’s execution” unless the state “permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the [s]tate’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.”

Continue reading “This Time, US Supreme Court Stops an Execution Where State Refuses Minister’s Presence”

Nelson Madden Black Obtains Court Order Invalidating Mortgage on Church Property

In an important victory for a Nelson Madden Black client, the New York State Supreme Court has invalidated a mortgage on church property that did not comply with the requirements of the New York Religious Corporations Law.

This appears to be the first time that a court has struck down a “hard money” mortgage – that is, a mortgage securing a short term loan at high rates, with a balloon payment due at the end of the term – after finding that it was not fair to a church when it was made and that it was not in the church’s best interest to enforce it now.

The court battle over the mortgage began in April 2010, when the lender sought to foreclose on the mortgage. By 2018, when Nelson Madden Black began to represent the church, the lender had been awarded summary judgment and was seeking to foreclose on its mortgage. Nelson Madden Black overcame judgment in favor of the lender and, now, has obtained summary judgment in favor of the church.

Nelson Madden Black demonstrated that the mortgage was invalid from the beginning because it did not comply with the Religious Corporations Law, and persuaded the court not to retroactively approve it.

The decision has been published by the New York Law Journal and is available at: https://www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/almID/1553231389NY1088510/

Nelson Madden Black LLP – Church Client Escapes Foreclosure

A recent decision of the Kings County New York Supreme Court invalidated a 12-year old mortgage in foreclosure proceedings. When the Grace Christian Church hired Nelson Madden Black, the court had already granted summary judgment against it, enforcing a second mortgage given to a “hard money” lender. But with hard work and persistence, firm lawyers, led by partner Jonathan Nelson, persuaded the court to vacate the initial ruling, and grant summary judgment to the church invalidating the mortgage. Having initially neglected to obtain judicial approval of the mortgage, as the law required, the lender had asked the court to approve it nunc pro tunc. The court questioned whether the mortgage was fair at the time of its making, noting that the church’s congregation had never approved the borrowing, which had increased at the closing beyond the amount approved by the church trustees, and observing that the loan may have been “doomed to failure” if the church could not repay it when the balloon payment came due. Looking to the present day, the court concluded that it would not be in the best interest of the church to lose its house of worship from the foreclosure of the mortgage, and granted summary judgment dismissing the lender’s complaint. The case sends a cautionary message to lenders not to overreach when lending money to religious institutions, and to make doubly sure that the loan’s terms are fair, reasonable and in the borrower’s long-term best interests.

Department of Education Lifts Limit on Religious Organizations Providing ‘Equitable Services’ to Private Schools

The U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) will no longer enforce a restriction in federal law that bars religious organizations solely because of their religious affiliation from contracting to provide equitable services – such as special education and tutoring – to private schools.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the change in policy at a meeting of the Council for American Private Education (“CAPE”) and in a letter to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives

Sections 1117(d)(2)(B) and 8501(d)(2)(B) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) require that, under specific ESEA programs, state and local educational agencies (“SEAs” and “LEAs”) provide services or other benefits to certain private school students, teachers, and families that are equitably comparable to those services provided in public schools. An SEA or LEA must provide equitable services either directly using its own employees or through a contract with an individual, association, agency, or organization. In providing such services, the employee or third-party provider must be “independent of the private school and of any religious organization,” according to the ESEA.

The secretary said that the DOE consulted with the U.S. Department of Justice and determined that the requirement that providers of equitable services to private schools must “be independent of . . . any religious organization” was unconstitutional because it categorically excluded religious organizations based solely on their religious identity.

The secretary said that the restriction ran counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, which held that, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, otherwise eligible recipients could not be disqualified from a public benefit solely because of their religious character.

Given the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran decision, the secretary said, the DOE would no longer enforce these two ESEA sections, which have restricted school districts from contracting with religious organizations to provide equitable services on the same basis as any other organization.

“The Trinity Lutheran decision reaffirmed the long-understood intent of the First Amendment to not restrict the free exercise of religion,” the secretary said in a prepared statement. “Those seeking to provide high quality educational services to students and teachers should not be discriminated against simply based on the religious character of their organization.”

In her letter to Speaker Pelosi, the secretary explained that, “Permitting religious organizations and secular organizations alike to provide secular services to schools does not violate the Establishment Clause,” and that, absent specific language to the contrary such as contained in Sections 1117(d)(2)(B) and 8501(d)(2)(B), the DOE “generally considers faith-based organizations to be eligible to contract with grantees and subgrantees” and to apply for and receive DOE grants “on the same basis as any other private organization.”

The secretary concluded that the DOE would continue to enforce all other applicable provisions of federal law. In particular, she pointed out, under ESEA Sections 1117(a)(2) and 8501(a)(2), school districts must continue to ensure that any contractor is independent of the private school for which it is providing services and that the educational services and other benefits being provided by a contractor are “secular, neutral and non-ideological.”

NMB Partner Authored an Article for NYLJ on Eruv

Partner  Barry Black authored an article for the New York Law Journal featured in their March 1st edition. 

The article touched on the centuries-old practice of Orthodox Jews preventing them from pushing or carrying objects outside their homes on the Sabbath and on Yom Kippur, yet those prohibitions are lifted within an eruv, a ritual demarcation of an area.

Barry discusses recent and historical decisions on the practice and offers insight into how both sides of the community should approach the practice. 

Click Here to read the full article.

Bladensburg ‘Peace Cross’ Seems Likely to Remain Standing

The U.S. Supreme Court has held oral argument in a case involving a 40-foot tall Latin cross displayed and maintained on public property in Bladensburg, Maryland. Although it can be difficult to predict how the Court ultimately will rule, it appears that a majority of the justices will vote to allow the so-called “Peace Cross” to remain as it is and where it is.

The Case
Over a century ago, in 1918, a number of individuals from Prince George’s County, Maryland, started raising money to construct a giant cross, in addition to a previously established plaque, to honor 49 World War I soldiers from the county. The private organizers required each donor to sign a pledge sheet recognizing the existence of one god. It stated:

WE, THE CITIZENS OF MARYLAND, TRUSTING IN GOD, THE SUPREME
RULER OF THE UNIVERSE, PLEDGE FAITH IN OUR BROTHERS WHO GAVE
THEIR ALL IN THE WORLD WAR TO MAKE THE WORLD SAFE FOR
DEMOCRACY. THEIR MORTAL BODIES HAVE TURNED TO DUST, BUT THEIR
SPIRIT LIVES TO GUIDE US THROUGH LIFE IN THE WAY OF GODLINESS,
JUSTICE, AND LIBERTY.

WITH OUR MOTTO, “ONE GOD, ONE COUNTRY AND ONE FLAG,” WE
CONTRIBUTE TO THIS MEMORIAL CROSS COMMEMORATING THE MEMORY
OF THOSE WHO HAVE NOT DIED IN VAIN.

The private organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony on September 28, 1919, at which
time the city of Bladensburg owned the land.

In 1922, the private organizers ran out of money and could not finish the project. The
Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion assumed responsibility and ultimately completed
the monument in 1925.

Upon completion, the monument stood four stories tall in the shape of a Latin cross (the
“Peace Cross”) located in the median of a three-way highway intersection in Bladensburg,
Maryland.

On March 1, 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a
state entity, obtained title to the cross and the land on which it is located. The commission has
said that it assumed responsibility to “maintain[ ], repair[ ], and otherwise car[e] for” the Peace
Cross. It has spent approximately $117,000 to maintain and repair it and, in 2008, it set aside an
additional $100,000 for renovations.

Today, the Peace Cross is situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of an acre at the
intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg. The American Legion’s
symbol – a small star inscribed with “U.S.” – is affixed near the top of the Peace Cross, and an
American flag flies in the vicinity of the Peace Cross. The Peace Cross sits on a rectangular base,
one side of which contains a two-foot tall, nine-foot wide plaque listing the names of the 49
soldiers from Prince George’s County memorialized by the Peace Cross, followed by a quote by
President Woodrow Wilson, stating, “The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for
the things we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives.”
Three non-Christian residents of Prince George’s County and the American Humanist
Association (“AHA”), a nonprofit organization that advocates to uphold the founding principle

of separation of church and state, sued the commission under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that its
display and maintenance of the Peace Cross violated the First Amendment’s Establishment
Clause.

The District Court’s Decision
A federal district court in Maryland ruled in favor of the defendants, analyzing the plaintiffs’ claims under the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971) (and, alternatively, under Van Orden v. Perry, 545
U.S. 677, 125 S.Ct. 2854, 162 L.Ed.2d 607 (2005)). The district court held that the commission owned the Peace Cross and land for a legitimate secular reason, that is, to maintain the highway median. The district court also identified a second secular purpose, which was to commemorate
the 49 World War I soldiers from Prince George’s County. 

The district court next determined that the Peace Cross neither advanced nor inhibited religion because (1) the Peace Cross has been primarily used for veterans’ events; (2) crosses generally were regarded as commemorative symbols for World War I, at least overseas; (3)
secular war memorials surrounded the Peace Cross; and (4) the Peace Cross had secular attributes, such as the Legion symbol on the face of the Peace Cross.

Finally, the district court concluded that the commission’s display and maintenance of the Peace Cross did not amount to excessive entanglement with religion because the Peace Cross was not a governmental endorsement of religion. At bottom, the district court viewed the
commission’s maintenance of the Peace Cross as relating to traffic safety and veteran commemoration rather than religion.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s Decision
The Fourth Circuit reversed.
In its decision, the circuit court reasoned that the Peace Cross had the “primary effect of endorsing religion” and that it “excessively entangle[d] the government in religion.”The circuit court pointed out that the Latin cross was the “core symbol of Christianity”and that here it was “40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds.”

Citing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 16, 67 S.Ct. 504, 91 L.Ed. 711 (1947), the Fourth Circuit held that the “purported war memorial” breached the “wall of separation between Church and State.”

The dispute reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where it attracted a great deal of attention.

Amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs were filed by organizations ranging from the American Center for Law & Justice, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and The Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute to the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the Foundation for Moral Law, The Rutherford Institute, and Veterans in Defense of Liberty.

Oral Argument in the Supreme Court
Oral argument was held in the Supreme Court on February 27. Neal K. Katyal, Michael A. Carvin, Jeffrey B. Wall, and Monica L. Miller argued the case before the Supreme Court. (A transcript of the oral argument is available on the U.S. Supreme Court’s website, at
https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1717_7l48.pdf).
Mr. Katyal began, contending that there were “four important facts about the memorial at issue, the Peace Cross, that explain why it should not be dismembered or destroyed.

“First, families and the Legion built it 93 years ago to commemorate 49 brave souls who gave their lives in World War I, and it has stood for – since that time without challenge. “Second, it’s no ordinary cross. At its center, in its heart, is the American Legion symbol.
It’s gigantic. And at the base in four capital – huge capital letters are words: Valor, Endurance, Courage, Devotion.

“Third, not a single word of religious content appears anywhere; rather, the base has a nine-foot plaque listing the 49 names with an inscription to them. “And, fourth, the monument is situated in Veterans Memorial Park alongside other war
memorials.”

At that point, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg began to pepper Mr. Katyal with questions. Various justices continued to ask questions of Mr. Katyal and the other lawyers arguing their case.

When the attorney for the plaintiffs, Ms. Miller, had her turn, she began by stating, “I think we can all agree that the Establishment Clause at the very least prohibits the government from preferring one religion over another religion.

“And the commission is arguing essentially that its cross does not violate the central command of the Establishment Clause because it’s essentially a non-religious, non-Christian symbol that honors everyone, irrespective of their religion.

“Yet, I don’t think anyone here would deny that it would be unconstitutional and inappropriate to go into Arlington and place a Latin cross over the grave of every person there, every fallen soldier, irrespective of their religion.” Interestingly, neither Mr. Katyal nor Ms. Miller suggested that the Supreme Court should reject its Lemon test, although Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch seemed willing to do
so.

The bottom line from oral argument in this case is that there seemed to be a majority of the Court willing to allow the Peace Cross to remain, with commentators in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal and SCOTUSblog all suggesting the same thing.

Stay tuned.

Learn more:

“Supreme Court seems to seek narrow way to uphold cross that memorializes war dead,”
available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-balances-history-and-religion-in-deciding-monuments-fate/2019/02/26/24688222-3a0e-11e9-a2cd-307b06d0257b_story.html?utm_term=.8813f43f6684

“High Court Hears Case of Memorial Cross at Traffic Circle,” available at
https://www.wsj.com/articles/high-court-hears-case-of-memorial-cross-at-traffic-circle-11551310646mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

“Argument analysis: Peace cross appears safe, if not stable,” available at

Argument analysis: Peace cross appears safe, if not stable

Here’s Why Domineque Ray, a Muslim Prisoner, Was Executed Without His Minister

The state of Alabama has executed Domineque Ray, a Muslim prisoner, without
granting his request to have an imam present with him at his death.

Ray’s execution followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court vacating a stay of
Ray’s execution that was entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on
February 6.

The Supreme Court, in a two-paragraph opinion, explained that, on November 6,
2018, Alabama scheduled Ray’s execution date for February 7, 2019. It then reasoned that
because Ray waited until January 28, 2019 – or what the Court referred to as the “last[]
minute” – to seek relief, it would vacate the stay put in place by the Eleventh Circuit.
Not all justices agreed with the Court’s decision.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote an opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined, dissenting from the
majority’s decision to vacate the stay granted by the Eleventh Circuit.

The dissent explained that the Holman Correctional Facility, the Alabama prison
where Ray was held and scheduled to be executed, regularly allowed a Christian chaplain
to be present in the execution chamber. However, the dissent continued, Ray was Muslim
and the prison refused his request to have an imam attend to him in the last moments of his
life.

The dissent pointed out that the Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was a
substantial likelihood that the prison’s policy violated the First Amendment’s
Establishment Clause, and stayed Ray’s execution so it could consider his claim on the
merits – but that the majority of the Supreme Court reversed that decision and permitted
Ray’s execution to go forward.

The decision by the majority of the Supreme Court to vacate the stay was, in the
dissent’s view, “profoundly wrong.”

The dissent explained that the “clearest command” of the Establishment Clause was
that “one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” In the
dissent’s view, Alabama’s policy did just that because a Christian prisoner could have a
minister of the prisoner’s own faith accompany the prisoner into the execution chamber to
say last rites, but if an inmate practiced “a different religion – whether Islam, Judaism, or
any other – [the prisoner] may not die with a minister of [the prisoner’s] own faith by [the
prisoner’s] side.”

According to the dissent, that treatment “goes against the Establishment Clause’s
core principle of denominational neutrality.”

To justify what the dissent characterized as “religious discrimination,” the dissent
said that Alabama had to show that its policy was “narrowly tailored to a compelling
interest.” The dissent conceded that prison security was an interest of that kind, but it
pointed out that Alabama had offered no evidence to show that its “wholesale prohibition
on outside spiritual advisers” was necessary to achieve that goal. The dissent said:
Why couldn’t Ray’s imam receive whatever training in execution protocol the
Christian chaplain received? The State has no answer. Why wouldn’t it be
sufficient for the imam to pledge, under penalty of contempt, that he will not
interfere with the State’s ability to perform the execution? The State doesn’t say.

The dissent pointed out that the only evidence Alabama had offered was “a
conclusory affidavit” declaring that its policy was “the least restrictive means of
furthering” its interest in safety and security. In the opinion of the dissenting justices, that
was “not enough to support a denominational preference.”
The dissent said that Ray put forward a “powerful claim that his religious rights”
would be violated when Alabama put him to death. The dissent asserted that the Supreme
Court should have permitted the Eleventh Circuit to hear that claim in full, but that it
refused to allow that so Alabama could “meet its preferred execution date.”

Nelson Madden Black Comment
This issue is unlikely to simply disappear. Numerous commentators have declared
that Alabama’s practice of permitting Christian ministers but not Muslim ministers in these
circumstances violates the Establishment Clause. Future litigation undoubtedly will seek to
challenge the state’s practice, though there have been reports concerning a possible change
in the state’s policy, removing clergy of all faiths from the death chamber.