Judge Gorsuch and Free Exercise

Sean R. Janda *


This Essay examines how Judge Gorsuch, if confirmed, would approach religious freedom cases. It first looks at two free exercise cases Judge Gorsuch has participated in. Then it extracts principles from those cases and from his other writings that help explain how a Justice Gorsuch might contextualize religious freedom claims. Finally, it applies those principles to predict how he would resolve two disputes he may encounter if he is confirmed: one over the exclusion of churches from a Missouri playground-refurbishment grant program and one over a Colorado antidiscrimination law that does not include religious accommodations.

I. Two Religious Exercise Cases

This Part examines two free exercise cases in which Judge Gorsuch has been involved while sitting on the Tenth Circuit.

First, in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, two companies challenged Affordable Care Act regulations requiring them “to provide certain contraceptive services as a part of their employer-sponsored health care plan.” 1 723 F.3d 1114, 1120 (10th Cir. 2013) (en banc), aff’d sub nom. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014); see also Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub. L. No. 111-148, 124 Stat. 119 (2010) (codified as amended in scattered sections of the U.S. Code). They claimed that because the contraceptive services included “drugs and devices that [they] believe[d] to be abortifacients” and the use of abortifacients “is contrary to their faith,” the regulations substantially burdened their religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Free Exercise Clause. 2 Hobby Lobby, 723 F.3d at 1120-21; see also U.S. Const. amend. I; Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb to 2000bb-4 (2015)). Sitting en banc, a majority of the Tenth Circuit (including Judge Gorsuch) held that Hobby Lobby had “demonstrated a likelihood of success on [its] RFRA claim.” 3 Hobby Lobby, 723 F.3d at 1121.

Judge Gorsuch also concurred separately, explaining why the Greens (Hobby Lobby’s owners 4 Id. at 1122. ), “as individuals,” were also entitled to relief. 5 Id. at 1152 (Gorsuch, J., concurring). In his view, the “key to understanding th[e] case” was “the problem of complicity.” 6 Id. The dissenting judges who believed that the Greens had no claim because the regulations did not require them to “become a party to” or “encourage” any employee’s “decision to use” an abortifacient, 7 Id. at 1178 (Briscoe, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). he argued, simply “mist[ook] or “rewr[ote]” their claim. 8 Id. at 1153 (Gorsuch, J., concurring). Instead, their claim was that the Greens’ “personal involvement in facilitating access” to abortifacients violated their sincerely held religious beliefs. 9 Id. And the very question “[w]hether an act of complicity is or isn’t ‘too attenuated’ from the underlying wrong is sometimes itself a matter of faith [courts] must respect” because “it is not for secular courts to rewrite the religious complaint.” 10 Id. at 1153-54. Thus, Judge Gorsuch argued, RFRA gave the Greens an individual claim. 11 Id. at 1152.

Then, in Yellowbear v. Lampert, 12 741 F.3d 48 (10th Cir. 2014). Judge Gorsuch addressed a prisoner’s claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act 13 Pub. L. No. 106-274, 114 Stat. 803 (2000) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5 (2015)). (RLUIPA) that the prison improperly refused to allow him access to its sweat lodge. His opinion turned first to a “story [that] starts with Smith.” 14 Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 52 (citing Emp’t Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)).

In Smith, Judge Gorsuch explained, the Supreme Court placed “neutral laws of general applicability” outside the reach of free exercise, “abandon[ing]” decades of doctrine and requiring individuals to “obey the law even if doing so violates every article of their faith.” 15 Id. Previous Free Exercise cases “had suggested that no law, not even a neutral law of general applicability, may ‘substantially burden’ the exercise of religion unless that burden amounts to the ‘least restrictive means’ of achieving a ‘compelling governmental interest.’” Id. (first quoting Smith, 494 U.S. at 883; and then quoting Smith, 494 U.S. at 899 (O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment)); see also Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963). After Smith, however, “Congress set about the business of ‘restoring’” the old Sherbert test, “at least as a matter of statute.” 16 Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 52. Thus, Congress passed RFRA and RLUIPA to “(re)impose Sherbert’s” test, at least in certain contexts. 17 Id.

Judge Gorsuch’s opinion then moved to a discussion of what constitutes “religious exercise” and a “substantial burden.” On the first question, Judge Gorsuch concluded that religious exercise includes any “performance of (or abstention from) physical acts” that a sincere claimant connects to his religion. 18 Id. at 54. Under this conception, there is no room for courts to determine whether the exercise at issue is “illogical” or otherwise not “‘central’ or ‘fundamental’ to or ‘compelled’ by [the claimant’s] faith”; as long as the claimant is sincere, he has the right to “draw[] a line ruling in or out a particular” exercise. 19 Id. at 54-55. Courts do have a role in determining sincerity. That task, however, is a “modest one, limited to asking whether the claimant is (in essence) seeking to perpetrate a fraud on the court.” Id. at 54; see also United States v. Quaintance, 608 F.3d 717, 718-23 (10th Cir. 2010) (Gorsuch, J.) (holding that the defendants’ purported religious beliefs as “founding members of the Church of Cognizance” that “marijuana is a deity and sacrament” were not sincerely held). Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 55-56. On the second question, Judge Gorsuch concluded that laws or practices that (1) “require action or inaction in violation of a sincerely held religious belief” or (2) “force[] the religious claimant to choose between following the dictates of his faith and winning an important benefit or forgoing a considerable penalty” present a “substantial burden.” 20 Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 55-56. Thus, Judge Gorsuch concluded, because Yellowbear had a sincerely held belief that “access to a sweat lodge is a form of religious exercise,”, the prison’s refusing him access constituted a substantial burden. 21 Id. at 56.

II. Justice Gorsuch and Free Exercise Claims

Building on Part I’s explanation of two free exercise decisions, this Part draws out three lessons from them. It then discusses how a Justice Gorsuch might approach future free exercise controversies.

A. Lessons from Judge Gorsuch’s Opinions

There are three main lessons that may be drawn from Judge Gorsuch’s involvement in these cases: first, he is deferential to free exercise claims; second, he may be in favor of overruling Smith; and third, he may believe that the Free Exercise Clause provides a positive—not just a negative—right to religious organizations.

First, Judge Gorsuch gives broad latitude to religious claimants to define the scope of their religious beliefs and determine what acts (or omissions) infringe those beliefs. In both Hobby Lobby and Yellowbear, Judge Gorsuch stated that it is not the province of courts to inquire into whether a claimaint’s religion actually requires a particular action or to ask whether the claimant’s underlying religious justification is too attenuated from the required or prohibited action. As long as the claimant’s religious belief is sincerely held, it is unimpeachable.

Second, Judge Gorsuch’s opinions suggest that he is open to overruling Smith and returning to Sherbert-era doctrine. This conclusion is necessarily tentative for two reasons. First, on the Tenth Circuit, Judge Gorsuch could not overrule Smith. Second, the free exercise cases discussed above were all brought under RFRA or RLUIPA, both of which dictate (as a matter of statute) that courts use the Sherbert test. Reading between the lines, however, Judge Gorsuch’s recounting of Smith evinces a clear discomfort with the move from Sherbert to Smith; writing that the Smith Court “abandon[ed]” decades of free exercise doctrine and required the devout to “obey the law even if doing so violates every article of their faith” does not suggest agreement with the Smith test. 22 Id. at 52.

Finally, Judge Gorsuch may believe that the Free Exercise Clause amounts to more than a negative freedom from government interference in matters of religion. 23 This view is not universally shared by scholars and members of the Court. See, e.g., Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693, 700 (1986) (“[T]he Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can extract from the government.” (alteration in original) (quoting Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 412 (1963) (Douglas, J., concurring))); Ian Carter, Positive and Negative Liberty, Stan. Encyclopedia Phil. (Aug. 2, 2016), (“The negative concept of freedom, on the other hand, is most commonly assumed in liberal defences of the constitutional liberties typical of liberal-democratic societies, such as freedom of movement [and] freedom of religion . . . .”). This interpretation of the First Amendment disclaims the liberal ideal of government neutrality: that, as Judge Gorsuch has described it, “for human autonomy to flourish, the state must remain neutral among all competing conceptions of a good life.” 24 Neil M. Gorsuch, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia 167 (2006).

In a book based on his dissertation, Judge Gorsuch rejects both the moral argument that the state should be neutral among different goods and the legal argument that the Constitution does prescribe neutrality. He argues that there are “categorical rights and wrongs” and that while the state may not so restrict choice as to “leave us in a world with insufficient options for individual self-creation,” it has no obligation to be neutral. 25 Id. at 158, 167. Moreover, Judge Gorsuch argues that this nonneutrality is enshrined in our Founding documents: “Indeed, our entire political system is premised on the notion and acceptance of such basic, fundamental rights (and wrongs), as reasoned from human experience.” 26 Id. at 158.

Furthermore, Judge Gorsuch has suggested that respect for religion—as more than just a negative constraint on government—is one of the fundamental values enshrined in our political system. In Yellowbear, for example, Judge Gorsuch noted that RLUIPA only protects “religious exercise” and offers no protection to “every act born of personal conscience or philosophical conviction.” 27 Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 53. This distinction, he writes, is “in recognition, no doubt, of the unique role religion, its free exercise, and its tolerance have played in the nation’s history.” 28 Id. Judge Gorsuch has also advocated judicial deference in the context of religious beliefs, arguing that the law leaves no room for judges to question the connection between the action in question and the relevant religious belief or the centrality of the action (or prohibition) to the religion. 29 See supra note 19 and accompanying text. And finally, he has written that the “burden” contemplated by the substantial burden test need not be a particularly “coercive” burden at all; instead, “[c]reating a situation that forces the religious claimant to choose between following the dictates of his faith and winning an important benefit . . . is coercion enough.” 30 Yellowbear, 741 F.3d at 56.

Thus, Judge Gorsuch’s writings indicate that he will take an expansive view of the Free Exercise Clause—deferring to a wide range of sincerely held religious beliefs, perhaps advocating to overturn Smith and return to the days of Sherbert, and finding that the Clause repudiates liberal neutrality and enshrines religion as a favored good in the United States.

B. Application to Cases a Justice Gorsuch Might See

This Subpart takes two cases—Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley 31 136 S. Ct. 891 (2016) (No. 15-577) (granting certiorari). and Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission 32 Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, No. 16-111 (U.S. July 22, 2016), 2016 WL 3971309. Although certiorari has not yet been granted in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the central question in the case—whether applying a state antidiscrimination law in a way that a claimant contends forces him to violate his religious beliefs violates the Free Exercise Clause—seems likely to find its way to the Supreme Court at some point. —and examines how a Justice Gorsuch might approach them.

First, in Trinity Lutheran, the petitioner church argues that Missouri violated its free exercise rights by denying its application to participate in a program that distributed playground-resurfacing grants. 33 Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 788 F.3d 779, 782 (8th Cir. 2015). The state rejected the application because it believed the Missouri Constitution’s prohibition on giving public money to churches restricted it from giving a grant to Trinity. 34 See id.

The Eighth Circuit rejected Trinity’s free exercise argument, reading Supreme Court precedent to establish that the First Amendment allows the state to exclude religious organizations from state-funded programs. 35 See id. at 784-85 (citing Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004)). But, the court noted, Justices Scalia and Thomas had dissented in Locke v. Davey, arguing that when “the State makes a public benefit generally available, that benefit becomes part of the baseline against which burdens on religion are measured; and when the State withholds that benefit from some individuals solely on the basis of religion, it violates the Free Exercise Clause.” 36 Id. at 785 (quoting Locke, 540 U.S. at 726-27 (Scalia, J., dissenting)). This view, the court said, “may be a logical constitutional leap in the direction the Court recently seems to be going,” but “only the Supreme Court can make that leap.” 37 Id.

It seems likely that a Justice Gorsuch would lead the Supreme Court in that direction. As he wrote in Yellowbear, “[c]reating a situation that forces the religious claimant to choose between following the dictates of his faith and winning an important benefit . . . is coercion enough” to create a substantial burden on religion. 38 Yellowbear v. Lampert, 741 F.3d 48, 56 (10th Cir. 2014). Applying this framework to Trinity’s claim, Justice Gorsuch would likely believe “forc[ing] Trinity to choose between following the dictates of [the Lutheran] faith and winning a [playground-refurbishment grant] is coercion enough” to violate the Free Exercise Clause.

If Judge Gorsuch believes the First Amendment enshrines religion’s special claim on the government, he may find it hard to accept any justification the government proffers for Trinity’s exclusion. The main state interest Missouri advances is in avoiding the establishment concerns that would come with allowing religious institutions to receive money from the public fisc. 39 See Brief of Respondent at 15-16, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, No. 15-577 (U.S. June 28, 2016), 2016 WL 3548944. If, however, Judge Gorsuch believes that churches have a special place in the American political structure, the dangers of allowing them to access state programs may appear substantially less significant. Thus, when it comes to determining the state interest in the case, a Justice Gorsuch may be unwilling to accept Missouri’s arguments.

Second, the Court will soon consider whether to decide Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. 40 Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, supra note 32. In that case, Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips, refused Charlie Craig and David Mullins’s request that the shop design and bake a cake for their wedding. 41 Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., 370 P.3d 272, 276 (Colo. App. 2015), petition for cert. filed, No. 16-111 (U.S. July 22, 2016). Craig and Mullins filed suit, arguing that Masterpiece and Phillips illegally discriminated against them on the basis of their sexual orientation; Masterpiece and Phillips argued that forcing them to bake the cake would violate free exercise. 42 See id. at 277. Applying Smith, the Colorado courts found that the state antidiscrimination law in question was neutral and generally applicable; thus, because it also passed rational basis review, it was constitutional. 43 Id. at 289-94. Masterpiece and Phillips petitioned for certiorari. 44 Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, supra note 32.

As an initial matter, in the absence of Smith (that is, under the review prescribed by RFRA or Sherbert), this case looks similar to Hobby Lobby: the government is requiring an individual and his business to do something he believes violates his religion; absent special circumstances, the government would lose. Thus, if it is true that a Justice Gorsuch would advocate overturning Smith and returning to the Sherbert framework, he would likely side with Masterpiece.

The harder question is how Justice Gorsuch would approach Masterpiece Cakeshop within the strictures of Smith. Two paths seem possible. First, he might attack the concept of “neutrality” in the “neutral, generally applicable law” formulation. As that test seems rooted in a value-pluralist conception of liberal neutrality, a Justice Gorsuch may not agree with applying it. Perhaps he would argue that the inquiry whether a law is “neutral” entirely misses the point, as “our entire political system is premised on the notion and acceptance of . . . basic, fundamental rights (and wrongs)” and so the more appropriate question is whether a particular law aligns with that conception (in a way that gives religion its properly protected place). 45 Gorsuch, supra note 24, at 158. Second, Justice Gorsuch might argue that the law fails rational basis review: because religious freedom is enshrined in an elevated place, laws infringing religious freedom deserve more exacting—if still “rational basis”—review. 46 Cf. Russell K. Robinson, Unequal Protection, 68 Stan. L. Rev. 151, 164-65 (2016) (citing cases where there was a particularly acute interest at stake and the Court struck down the challenged law while purporting to apply rational basis review and noting that scholars have sometimes “group[ed] these cases together” under “the framework of ‘rational basis with bite’”). Under this framework, perhaps the law would not be related enough to the government interest at stake unless it (for example) included exemptions for situations where there were other substantially equivalent providers of the good or service willing to serve the plaintiff.

Thus, when evaluating how a Justice Gorsuch might rule on upcoming religious liberty disputes, one thing seems clear: given the interlocking set of pro-religious exercise principles advanced in his prior writings, he would likely vote in favor of the religious claimant in the cases on the horizon.

* J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School, 2017.