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.
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.”
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
“Argument analysis: Peace cross appears safe, if not stable,” available at
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
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
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
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.
The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services (“HHS”) has concluded that faith-based foster care programs in South Carolina are
entitled under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) to an exception from the
religious nondiscrimination requirements of an HHS regulation.
The issue arose when South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, asked the HHS’s
acting assistant secretary for children and families, “on behalf of South Carolina and faith-based
organizations” operating under South Carolina’s Title IV-E Foster Care Program, for an
exception from the HHS regulation at 45 CFR § 75.300(c) that prohibits subgrantees from
selecting among prospective foster parents on the basis of religion. Governor McMaster sought
the exception for foster care programs to the extent that the prohibition in the regulation
conflicted with their religious exercise.
One such faith-based organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, exclusively recruits foster
parents of a particular religion and accounts for up to 15 percent of South Carolina’s total foster
The governor indicated to the HHS’s acting assistant secretary that he believed that other
participating faith-based organizations had similar religious exercise concerns.
According to the governor’s request, South Carolina has more than 4,000 children in
foster care, South Carolina needs more child placing agencies, and faith-based organizations “are
essential” to recruiting more families for child placement.
The governor asserted that without the participation of faith-based foster care
organizations, South Carolina would have difficulty continuing to place all children in need of
foster care. Moreover, the governor contended, if South Carolina’s foster care program was not
provided an exception from the regulation, certain faith-based organizations operating under
South Carolina grants would have to abandon their religious beliefs or forego licensure and
funding. The governor said that this would cause hardship to faith-based organizations and to the
state’s foster care program.
Governor McMaster asserted that certain requirements in 45 CFR § 75.300(c) exceeded
any nondiscrimination requirements or authority imposed by federal law, and that these
requirements limited the free exercise of religion of faith-based organizations in violation of
The federal regulation at 45 CFR § 75.300(c) provides:
(c) It is a public policy requirement of HHS that noperson otherwise eligible will be excluded from
participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination in the administration of HHS programs and services based on non-merit factors such as age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Recipients must comply with this public policy requirement in the administration of programs supported by HHS awards.
The OCR’s Decision
The OCR concluded that requirements in 45 CFR § 75.300(c) were “broader than the
nondiscrimination requirements” specified in the federal Foster Care Program law, which applies
to federal grants to states, including South Carolina, which states then distribute to subgrantees
such as Miracle Hill Ministries.
In particular, the OCR determined that subjecting Miracle Hill to the religious
nondiscrimination requirement in 45 CFR § 75.300(c) (by requiring South Carolina to require
Miracle Hill to comply with 45 CFR § 75.300(c) as a condition of receiving funding) were
“inconsistent with RFRA.”
The OCR found that Miracle Hill’s sincere religious exercise “would be substantially
burdened” by application of the religious nondiscrimination requirement of 45 CFR §
75.300(c) and that subjecting Miracle Hill to that requirement, by denying South Carolina’s
exception request, was not the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling government
interest on the part of HHS.
The OCR reasoned that the interest of allowing potential foster parents into South
Carolina’s foster care program “appear[ed] capable of being served by other providers in the
program” if Miracle Hill were unable to partner with certain potential foster parents because
of Miracle Hill’s religious beliefs.
Accordingly, the OCR concluded that Miracle Hill (and any other similarly situated
religious organization in South Carolina’s foster care program) was entitled under RFRA to
an exception from the religious nondiscrimination requirements of 45 CFR § 75.300.
The HHS’s assistant secretary for children and families, therefore, conditionally granted
the requested exception from the religious non-discrimination requirement of 45 CFR §
75.300(c) with respect to Miracle Hill and any other subgrantee in South Carolina’s foster care
program using similar religious criteria in selecting among prospective foster care parents.
The HHS said that the exception applied on the condition that Miracle Hill, or any other
subgrantee making use of the exception, would be required to refer potential foster parents that
do not adhere to its religious beliefs to other subgrantees in South Carolina’s foster care program,
or to refer them to program staff if program staff were equipped to refer those persons to other
willing subgrantees. The HHS concluded that this condition was added on the understanding that
Miracle Hill, and any other subgrantee making use of this exception, does not object on religious
grounds to making such referrals.
* * *
Faith-based foster care programs in other states that find the HHS’s response to Governor
McMaster of interest should contact counsel to discuss whether, and how, it might apply to them.
Four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court – Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and
Kavanaugh – have issued a statement that suggests that they are willing to reconsider a number
of past Supreme Court decisions with the goal of expanding the right of employees to exercise
The justices’ statement came in a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth
Circuit, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.
In this case, Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach at Bremerton High School, a
public high school in Kitsap County, Washington, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, asserted
that he lost his job for engaging in conduct that was protected by the Free Speech Clause of the
First Amendment. He sought a preliminary injunction restoring him to his job and requiring the
school to allow him to pray silently on the 50-yard line after each football game.
The district court denied Kennedy’s motion for a preliminary injunction. It reasoned that
Kennedy “was still in charge. He was still on the job. He was still responsible for the conduct of
his students, his team. And a reasonable observer, in my judgment, would have seen him as a
coach, participating, in fact leading an orchestrated session of faith. . . .”
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court in a decision in which it recounted
Kennedy’s prayer-related activities over the course of several years, including conduct in which he engaged as a private citizen, such as praying in the stands as a fan after he had be suspended from his duties. Kennedy sought to have the Supreme Court review the Ninth Circuit’s decision, but the
Court declined to do so.
The four justices agreed that the Supreme Court should not review this particular case.
Their statement, however, suggests a desire to have the full Court revisit various past decisions
regarding the ability of employees to exercise their religion.
First, the justices said that the Ninth Circuit’s decision applied the Supreme Court’s
opinion in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U. S. 410 (2006), to public school teachers and coaches “in
a highly tendentious way.” The justices observed that, according to the Ninth Circuit, public
school teachers and coaches could be fired if they engaged in any expression that the school did
not like while they were on duty, and that the Ninth Circuit appeared to regard teachers and
coaches as being on duty at all times from the moment they reported for work to the moment
they departed, provided that they were within the eyesight of students.
The justices said that the Court “certainly has never read Garcetti to go that far.” They
added that, under Garcetti, a public employer may regulate employee speech that was part of the
employee’s job duties, but that a public employer could “not convert private speech into public
speech” by creating “excessively broad job descriptions.”
The justices then impliedly criticized two other prior Supreme Court decisions for going
too far to limit the ability of employees to exercise their religion.
First, they referenced Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494
U. S. 872 (1990), where, they said, the Court “drastically cut back on the protection provided by the Free Exercise Clause.” The Court in that case ruled that application of a “neutral law of
general applicability” to religious conduct did not automatically violate the First Amendment.
The justices also cited Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63 (1977),
where the Court opined that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion did
not require an employer to make any accommodation that imposed “more than a de minimis
Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh concluded their statement by noting
that the Court had “not been asked to revisit those decisions.”
It may not be too long now before the Court is specifically asked to do just that.
Over a decade ago, a nun who resided at a convent in upstate New York complained to
her superiors about alleged sexual misconduct by one of the convent’s priests. The ruling bishops
directed the nun to vacate the convent property. When she refused to do so, an ecclesiastical
court disciplined her by making her ineligible to wear religious garb and to receive communion
for a two-year period.
After the nun continued to complain of alleged sexual harassment by the resident priest,
an ecclesiastical court permanently defrocked her and, on that basis, disallowed her continued
residency at the convent.
The convent then asked a state court in New York to evict the nun. It also brought
another action against the nun, seeking to recover damages for her use and occupancy of the
The actions were consolidated, and the New York court dismissed the consolidated action
against the nun.
The convent appealed, and the appellate court now has affirmed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
In its decision, the appellate court explained that the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution forbids civil courts from interfering in or determining religious disputes, “because
there is substantial danger that the state will become entangled in essentially religious
controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrines or beliefs.”
The appellate court added that a court may properly preside over a dispute involving a religious
body “only when the dispute may be resolved utilizing neutral principles of law.”
In this case, the appellate court reasoned, the proceedings brought by the convent were
“inextricably intertwined” with the determinations of the ecclesiastical court, particularly its
determination defrocking the nun and ordering her to vacate the convent.
Therefore, the appellate court reasoned, the consolidated action involved review of an
ecclesiastical determination “that may not be resolved by resort to neutral principles of law.”
Moreover, the appellate court continued, the action did not involve a “purely religious
determination” requiring it to accept the actions of the ecclesiastical court as final and binding. In
the appellate court’s opinion, the resolution of the consolidated action necessarily involved an
assessment of the propriety of the nun’s defrockment in light of her allegations of sexual
misconduct against a priest. Therefore, the appellate court concluded, the convent’s claims were
“nonjusticiable,” as any such resolution of them would involve what the appellate court said
would be “an impermissible inquiry into religious doctrine or practice.”
Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the convent’s
actions against the nun and denied the convent’s request for court intervention to effect its
ejectment of the nun from the convent.
Nelson Madden Black Comment
Nelson Madden Black LLP partners Barry Black and Jonathan Nelson recently explored
the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in greater depth in an article for the New York Law Journal.
See, “When Can State Courts Decide Religious Disputes?”
The Canadian senate has passed legislation to repeal the country’s blasphemy law, which
outlaws “blasphemous libel” and provides for a prison term of up two years for anyone convicted
of the crime.
According to reports, the last time a person was convicted under Canada’s blasphemy law
was nearly a century ago, in 1927, although private plaintiffs have sought to rely on the law in a
number of instances since that time.
Canada joins several countries, including Denmark and Malta, that recently removed
their blasphemy statutes. Ireland also is about to remove its blasphemy law, following a public
referendum held in October.
Still, similar laws exist – and are enforced – in numerous other countries around the
world. In Spain, for example, a judge recently permitted a case to go forward against activist
Willy Toledo, who allegedly breached the country’s statute with Facebook posts that insulted
God and the Virgin Mary.
In a statement following the action by the Canadian senate, the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom (“USCIRF”), an independent, bipartisan federal government
entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious
freedom abroad, applauded the passage of the Canadian legislation.
The chair of the USCIRF, Tenzin Dorjee, said, “Laws criminalizing blasphemy are
detrimental to religious freedom and other human rights, such as freedom of expression. These
laws make governments the arbiters of truth and conscience, and are ripe for abuse against
dissenting voices and members of religious minorities. USCIRF welcomes this step by the
Canadian government and urges all other nations to eliminate these pernicious laws.”
A report recently published by the USCIRF examined global blasphemy laws and
compared the text of blasphemy laws against such standards as freedom of expression, freedom
of religion or belief, vagueness of the law, severity of penalty, discrimination against groups, and
state religion protections. According to the USCIRF, most laws it studied failed to protect
freedom of expression, were vaguely worded, and carried unduly harsh penalties for violators.
The USCIRF concluded that, in all five of what it said were the “worst-scoring countries”
(Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Qatar), blasphemy laws aimed to protect the state religion
of Islam in a way that “impermissibly discriminates among different groups.”
In the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and other recent attacks on houses of
worship, the newly-released FBI hate crime statistics are of particular interest and concern. The
number of hate crime incidents reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) increased
about 17 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, according to the annual Hate Crime
Statistics report released by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (“UCR”) program.
Law enforcement reported 7,175 hate crimes to the UCR in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016.
According to the FBI, the most common bias categories in single-bias incidents were
race/ethnicity/ancestry (59.6) percent, religion (20.6 percent), and sexual orientation (15.8
percent). In addition to the 7,106 single-bias incidents reported last year, there were also 69
multiple-bias hate crimes reported.
About 5,000 of the hate crimes reported were categorized as crimes against persons, such
as intimidation or assault. About 3,000 were considered crimes against property, such as
vandalism, robbery, or burglary. (Some hate crime incidents were classified as both crimes
against persons and crimes against property.)
The FBI said in a statement that it is working with law enforcement partners across the
country to encourage reporting of hate crime statistics. Next year, FBI personnel will provide
training for law enforcement officers on how to identify bias-motivated incidents and report that
data to the FBI’s UCR program.
The Hate Crime Statistics Act
On April 23, 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act, 28 U.S.C. § 534,
which required the attorney general to collect data “about crimes that manifest evidence of
prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” The attorney general
delegated the responsibilities of developing the procedures for implementing, collecting, and
managing hate crime data to the director of the FBI, who, in turn, assigned the tasks to the UCR
Hate Crime Statistics Program.
For more than two decades, thousands of city, county, college and university, state, tribal,
and federal law enforcement agencies have voluntarily submitted data to the UCR on crimes
motivated by prejudice based on religion, race, gender and gender identity, disability, sexual
orientations, or ethnicity.
The FBI’s UCR program defines hate crime as a committed criminal offense that is
motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias or biases against a religion, race, disability,
sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.
For purposes of the FBI’s UCR program, even if the offender was mistaken in his or her
perception that the victim was a member of the group he or she was acting against, the offense is
still a bias crime because the offender was motivated by bias against the group.
The FBI UCR program’s hate crime data collection gathers data on the following religion
Anti-Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Other)
Anti-Multiple Religions, Group
A total of 16,149 agencies across the country report hate crime statistics to the FBI.
California (with a population of nearly 40 million) has 232 agencies that submit incident reports
– the most of any state. Florida (with a population of about 20 million) has 67 submitting
Among other states, there are 15 reporting agencies in New Jersey, 44 in Connecticut, 23
in Pennsylvania, and 74 in New York.
Agencies may specify the location of an offense within a hate crime incident as one of 46
location designations. Because not all reporting agencies have made the programming changes to
allow the relatively new location designations, the data collected to date are not yet
representative of all location designations, according to the FBI. The location designations of the
hate crime incidents reported in 2017 were:
27.5 percent of hate crime incidents occurred in or near residences/homes.
17.0 percent took place on highways/roads/alleys/streets/sidewalks.
10.5 percent happened at schools/colleges (based on three designations).
5.8 percent took place in parking/drop lots/garages.
4.1 percent occurred in churches/synagogues/temples/mosques.
2.7 percent took place in restaurants.
1.9 percent occurred in commercial office buildings.
1.8 percent occurred at parks/playgrounds.
1.6 percent happened in air/bus/train terminals.
1.6 percent took place in government/public buildings.
1.5 percent took place in convenience stores.
1.4 percent happened in bars/nightclubs.
1.3 percent happened in department/discount stores.
1.1 percent occurred in specialty stores (TV, fur, etc.).
1.0 percent took place in drug stores/doctors’ offices/hospitals.
1.0 percent took place in grocery/supermarkets.
6.7 percent of hate crimes occurred in the remaining specified location categories or in
11.5 percent took place in other/unknown locations.
Of the 1,564 reported hate crime incidents that occurred due to a religious bias:
23.0 percent happened in or near residences/homes.
15.0 percent occurred in churches/synagogues/temples/mosques.
12.7 percent transpired at schools/colleges (based on three designations).
8.9 percent took place on highways/roads/alleys/streets/sidewalks.
4.0 percent occurred in parking/drop lots/garages.
2.0 percent took place in commercial office buildings.
15.3 percent occurred in the remaining specified location categories or in multiple
19.1 percent took place in other/unknown locations.
The FBI has said that hate crimes are the highest investigative priority in its civil rights
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a new hate crimes webpage,
https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes, which has information for law enforcement on reporting