Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Against their better judgment

Religious Liberty | U.S. Circuit judges call for a full court reversal of their own decision
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 9/18/18, 05:10 pm

A Florida city this week called on the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a 75-year-old cross monument to stand. The appeal came after a federal appeals court earlier this month reluctantly ruled against Pensacola, Fla. In a 3-0 decision in Kondrat’Yev v. Pensacola, a panel of judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said their hands were tied by precedent in upholding a decision that the cross on city property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judges called on the city to appeal the ruling to the full court and the Supreme Court, and Pensacola on Monday asked the high court to join their plea to that of another cross memorial targeted for removal in Maryland.

The same atheist group filed suits against the Florida and Maryland city governments, alleging the existence of the crosses on public land and maintenance by government entities violates the Constitution and offends non-Christians. But the defenders of the monuments are demanding the high court remedy convoluted Establishment Clause jurisprudence and a lax standard of accepting lawsuits by complainants disturbed by the presence of crosses on public property.

The Sept. 7 ruling by the 11th Circuit in the Florida case demonstrates the legal morass.

A Latin cross in Pensacola’s Bayview Park overlooking Bayou Texar has been the gathering site for the community’s Easter sunrise services since 1941. The Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1969 replaced the original wooden display with a 34-foot white concrete cross.

Until 2016, the city had received only one complaint about the religious symbol according to the ruling. But in May 2016, four atheists, represented by the American Humanist Association, sued the city alleging the cross violated their psyches and the Constitution.

A federal district judge agreed with the atheist activist group, and, bound by their own circuit’s holding, the 11th Circuit on Sept. 7 could only concur.

But two of the three judges filed concurring opinions urging the entire circuit court to “correct the errors” the precedent perpetuates.

Circuit courts rarely grant en banc hearings, much less call them. But only the full 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court can reverse the precedent.

But a strikingly similar decision occurred in 1983 in American Civil Liberties Union v. Rabun County Chamber of Commerce.

In that case, the ACLU sued the State of Georgia in 1979, claiming an 85-foot, illuminated cross displayed at Black Rock State Park and maintained by the county caused “psychological, metaphysical, and spiritual” harm and violated the Establishment Clause. In 1983, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit ruled the atheist represented by the ACLU had been harmed by the cross’s presence on public land and said the First Amendment prohibited the display. But that finding ignored a 1982 Supreme Court decision that declared as insufficient mere “psychological consequences” as grounds for bringing a lawsuit. Complainants must prove concrete, “injuries in fact” resulting from government action in order to have standing. This winnowing process clears dockets of matters best resolved by local politicians.

In their concurring opinions in the Pensacola case, 11th Circuit Judges Kevin Newsom and Charles Royal argued the standing precedent set by ACLU v. Rabun lowered the concrete injuries to mere offenses and disregarded the actual state-sponsored religious oppression the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent. They took 72 of the decision’s 82 pages to lay out their frustrations.

Royal juxtaposed the comply-or-die consequences of centuries of oppressive government-established religions with the comparatively inconsequential slights currently accepted for standing. Newsom noted one plaintiff was less offended by the cross because he used it to express his own free exercise of religion—a satanic ritual.

“This opinion is a cry for help,” said Luke Goodrich, an attorney with Becket who is representing the city of Pensacola. “They want somebody to fix the mess that is modern Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

Goodrich told me that since 1983, the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause opinions have increasingly deferred to the historical context of religious symbols or practices intertwined with government entities. The high court has not reversed—only weakened—precedents that courts once relied upon in determining Establishment Clause violations.

Royal said this has left the courts “with the sense that you are walking on unsettled earth” in a “bog of concurring and dissenting opinions.” Newsom, who was one of the judges on President Donald Trump’s short list of potential Supreme Court nominees, simply called the high court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence “a hot mess.”

A reversal of ACLU v. Rabun could affect countless lawsuits brought against government entities for displaying or maintaining religious symbols.

The Supreme Court could also provide clarity for lower courts if it takes up the case of American Humanist Association v. Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which involves a World War I cross memorial in the town of Bladensburg, Md.

Self-correcting rulings from the full 11th Circuit and the Supreme Court that keep the historical Bladensburg and Pensacola crosses standing would allow a community’s past to speak to the present, even if it is a message those present do not want to hear, or see.

Downtown Hope Center Downtown Hope Center A bed in the Downtown Hope Center shelter in Anchorage, Alaska

Safety and gender identity in homeless shelters

After the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission (AERC) filed a discrimination complaint against the Downtown Hope Center for turning away a transgender individual, the Christian women’s shelter in Anchorage, Alaska, filed a religious freedom lawsuit to fight back.

The Hope Center, defended by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), issued a constitutional challenge to Anchorage’s nondiscrimination law, adopted in 2015, that expanded its protected classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

On Jan. 26, the Hope Center refused to admit Timothy Coyle—who goes by Samantha Coyle—at the overnight center after another shelter banned Coyle from the premises for drunkenness and starting a fight. The Hope Center offers support services for the city’s homeless men and women, including lunch and shower facilities. Coyle has used those services without incident in the past. But, at night, the shelter becomes a sanctuary for women only, with some of its clients seeking refuge from the sex trade and abusive relationships. On Feb. 1, Coyle filed a discrimination complaint with the AERC, saying, “I am female and transgender, thus I belong to a protected class.”

Lawyer Kevin Clarkson with the firm Brena, Bell, and Clarkson, who initially defended the Hope Center, argued the center turned Coyle away because of the individual’s intoxication, not because of gender identity. The AERC sued Clarkson and his law firm, alleging discrimination after he commented to a reporter on the case. Clarkson is being defended by First Liberty Institute, and the Hope Center had to find new representation with ADF.

ADF said in the complaint that Anchorage is “harassing the Hope Center in bad faith. … These investigations prove that Anchorage is using its law—a law which contains an express exemption for homeless shelters—and will continue to use this law in the future to force the Hope Center to change its faith-based policies.”

ADF’s lawsuit also claims the Hope Center should be able to prohibit transgender individuals having access to the shelter overnight. “It would not only be dangerous and against common sense, but would violate the Hope Center’s sincerely held religious beliefs to admit biological men into its shelter and allow them to sleep side by side and disrobe next to women, some of whom have been assaulted by men and fear for their safety,” ADF said in the complaint.

The federal lawsuit asks the AERC to end the investigation. —Harvest Prude

Facebook/MO Electric Co-ops Facebook/MO Electric Co-ops The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives legislative conference in February 2016 in Jefferson City, Mo.

Money as speech

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Missouri cannot ban donations between political action committees, saying the ban constituted a violation of free speech.

In a November 2016 ballot initiative, 70 percent of Missouri voters supported an initiative that capped political contributions to candidates at $2,600 per election cycle, and political party contributions at $25,000. The ban also prevented PAC-to-PAC donations. Supporters with the Missouri Ethics Commission claimed contributors wielding big donations exerted undue influence on the state’s politics, and that donors could bypass contribution limits by giving to PACs. They also said PACs could obscure the source of their money—“political money laundering”—by donating to each other.

The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and Legends Bank filed suit, arguing the law stopped them from making their voice heard by donating to campaigns, and was a violation of free speech rights.

In 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie Smith ruled in their favor and blocked the ban.

This week, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision: “Like individuals, PACs enjoy the right to freedom of speech and association,” the ruling read. “The district court concluded that the prohibition unconstitutionally infringed on a political action committee’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.” The court argued that trying to avoid the appearance of corruption was no excuse for violating constitutionally granted rights. —H.P.

Washington florist in court, again

Attorneys for Barronelle Stutzman, the Richland, Wash., florist sued by the state and a homosexual couple for declining to service their wedding, have until Oct. 10 to file a new appeal to the Supreme Court of Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded her case back to the state’s high court with orders to reconsider the issue in light of its Masterpiece decision.

In a Sept. 6 en banc hearing, the state court denied Stutzman’s request to remand the case to a lower court. After Stutzman files a new appeal, all parties have until Jan. 7, 2019, to file briefs. The state supreme court did not list oral arguments in the order. After receiving the documents, the court will determine how to proceed, Lorrie Thompson, Washington courts senior communications officer, told me. —B.P

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Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 09/19/2018 11:05 am

    Perhaps I my thinking is too simply.  But if a cross monument has stood for 75 years, and no one has challenged it based on the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause for all of those 75 years, how is it possible that it now suddenly violates that law?  Exactly what belief has been newly “Established” by this cross that has stood for 75 years?  How are the atheist being forced into a religious belief by the existence of this cross?

    Posted: Fri, 09/21/2018 04:06 pm

    What I don't understand is why a cross would bother an atheist. To them it should be nothing but a statue, a work of art.