Top Ten Victories in Becket Fund History

Since its founding in 1994, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has championed the cause of religious freedom in some of the most challenging and significant such cases in our country and abroad.  Below is a list of the Becket Fund’s top ten victories.

Supreme Court Victories

Little Sisters of the Poor in Zubik v. Burwell (2016)

Unanimous Supreme Court erases lower court rulings and forbids IRS fines against Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious ministries

The Becket Fund, along with former Solicitor General Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC, won a significant victory on behalf of religious ministries with objections to the Affordable Care Act’s HHS mandate, which would have required them to provide health care services in violation of their religious beliefs. After oral argument, the Justices ordered supplemental briefing on the question whether there was an alternative resolution wherein the religious objectors could purchase a health insurance plan without contraceptives and the government could provide these services on its own. In its supplemental brief, the government conceded that it could deliver these services using an alternative delivery mechanism. Based on the supplement briefs, a unanimous Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion that vacated all of the Courts of Appeals’ rulings against the religious ministries, forbade the IRS from levying millions of dollars in fines against them, and told the lower courts to provide the government an opportunity “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates the petitioners’ religious beliefs.”

Holt v. Hobbs (2015)
Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court upholds prisoners’ religious exercise rights

The Becket Fund and Professor Doug Laycock of UVA Law School won an important victory when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that an inmate has the right to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons.

In Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.’s unanimous opinion, the Court emphasized the vast protection provided for religious freedom by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—and its sister statute RFRA—calling this protection “very broad,” “expansive,” “capacious[],” and “substantial.”

Applying RLUIPA’s rigorous standard, the Court held that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise; that the Department had not proven that its policy interests in preventing the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification were furthered by the prohibition against beards; and that the Department failed to show that its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests, especially when over 40 other state and federal prison systems permit similar beards.​

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014)
U.S. Supreme Court protects faithful family businesses

The Becket Fund, along with former Solicitor General Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC, won a significant victory undermining the Affordable Care Act’s HHS mandate that would have required religious objectors to pay for drugs and devices against their religious beliefs.

The Court decided two important questions in a decision authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. On the first question, by a vote of 5-2, the Court left no doubt that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects private, closely held, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby.

On the second question, the Court decided, by a vote of 5-4, that the HHS Mandate as it pertains to closely held for-profit businesses violates RFRA’s terms. Specifically, the Mandate’s hundreds of millions of dollars in threatened fines “surely” creates a substantial burden on the exercise of religion here: “If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.” And the Court made quick work of the Government’s defense that the Mandate is the only way to achieve its purported interests. The Court straightforwardly stated that the Government could pay for its own mandate and not force religious objectors to do so.

Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC (2012)
Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court preserves religious hiring rights

The Becket Fund, along with Professor Douglas Laycock of UVA Law School, secured the most significant religious liberty decision in the past half-century when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with their position and upheld the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers.

The Court (in Chief Justice Robert’s unanimous opinion) declared that both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment provide “special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations” and “bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”  The Court also held that the protection extends not just to ordained clergy, but to any leader or teacher who “personifies” the beliefs of the religious community.

In a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration’s position, all nine justices rejected its arguments as “extreme,” “remarkable” and “untenable.”  The Court concluded its decision by saying: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important.  But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.  When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us.  The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”

Appellate and Trial Court Victories

Center for Inquiry v. Jones (2016)

Florida court upholds religious half-way house’s partnership with state agency

After nine years of litigation, the Becket Fund successfully defended Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries, two organizations that help ex-convicts transition back into society. Under a state contract, the groups provide housing, food, clothes, transportation, and job training. At no cost to the state, the groups also provide substance abuse treatment and optional spiritual counseling. The program slashes recidivism rates by two-thirds, and at a fraction of the cost of similar state services.

That didn’t stop the Center for Inquiry, an atheist group affiliated with Richard Dawkins, from filing a lawsuit claiming that Florida’s program violates the state’s Blaine Amendment, an anti-Catholic constitutional provision passed in the 19th century and used today to keep public funds out of the hands of any religious group.

The Florida court sided with the Becket Fund, finding that religious ministries may partner with the state to provide social services that promote the general welfare. It rejected the atheists’ “discriminatory” argument that ministries “must be banned solely because of their religious identity,” saying such a ruling “would raise significant federal constitutional problems.”

Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Weber (2015)
9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejects removal of religious symbol from public land

When the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued to remove a privately owned and maintained statue of Jesus from Forest Service land on a Montana mountaintop, the Becket Fund succeeded in convincing the federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to let the statue stand.

To honor their fallen World War II comrades, veterans from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division teamed up with the Knights of Columbus to erect the statue in 1954. The Knights of Columbus have voluntarily maintained it ever since. Representing the Knights, the Becket Fund argued that religious symbols should be treated like any other commercial, historical, or cultural symbol found on public land. The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding there was no violation of the federal Establishment Clause because no reasonable person could perceive a government endorsement of religion from the statue.

Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission (2011)
9th Circuit Court of Appeals safeguards Christian homeless shelter’s religious practices

When a taxpayer-funded housing rights advocacy group came after a privately-funded Christian homeless shelter, the Becket Fund fought back to protect the shelter’s right to minister to the homeless in an atmosphere of religious values.

The Boise Rescue Mission serves hundreds of thousands of homeless individuals by providing a Christian environment for lodging, addiction recovery programs, and other social and vocational services.  The Intermountain Fair Housing Council claimed that the Mission’s Christian focus resulted in “religious discrimination” against homeless individuals who were not Christian, thereby violating the federal Fair Housing Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that, under a religious exemption in the Fair Housing Act, the Mission has the right to offer its services to members of its own faith.  This victory ensures that this Christian shelter will continue to protect the homeless in an environment based on its Christian principles.

Newdow v. Carey (2010)
9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses atheist’s attempt to scrub “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance

In what the L.A. Times called one of its “most controversial opinions,” the federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided in 2002 that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional.  Fast forward several years, and in 2010, the Becket Fund succeeded in convincing the largest federal court of appeals in the country to reverse itself.

Representing schoolchildren, their parents, and the Knights of Columbus, the Becket Fund fought to ensure that school children would continue to recite the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and that future generations would understand from what source their rights derive—not the State, but a Source beyond the State’s discretion.

What is most gratifying about the 9th Circuit’s favorable 2010 decision is that it adopted the Becket Fund’s reasoning.  Specifically, the court agreed with the Becket Fund that the phrase “under God” affirms the Founding Father’s political philosophy and the foundational premise in the American tradition of law and rights, namely that “God granted certain inalienable rights to the people which the government cannot take away.”   A win for the right reason is the best kind of victory.

Merced v. Euless (2009)
5th Circuit Court of Appeals protects right to worship in one’s own home

Protecting the right to freely worship at home, the Becket Fund represented a Santeria priest in Texas who—because of discriminatory state action—was unable to perform certain religious rituals in his own home.

In an important ruling under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the Becket Fund and found in favor of the Santeria priest.  The court held that the city ordinances forbidding the slaughter of certain animals prevented the Santeria priest from performing ceremonies essential to his faith, causing a substantial burden on his religious exercise.

Although the government argued two compelling interests (public health and animal treatment) justified that burden, the court disagreed, finding that the Santeria priest had conducted these rituals for 16 years without incident.  Even if the interests were compelling, the court reasoned that the regulatory method the government chose was not the least restrictive means.  With this win, the right to worship freely in one’s own home has been affirmed.

Fraternal Order of Police v. Newark (1999)
3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sets legal standard for 1st Amendment religious exemptions

In an opinion frequently cited in First Amendment casebooks, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit followed the Becket Fund’s lead, setting a remarkable precedent in favor of religious freedom.  The unanimous panel held that when government grants accommodations for non-religious purposes, it must provide similar accommodations for religious ones too.

Two Sunni Muslim police officers—whose religion required them to wear beards—sought an exemption from their government employer’s “no-beard” policy.  The policy permitted some exemptions for secular reasons (for example, a medical condition) but none for religious reasons.

The Becket Fund represented a group of amici—including the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League.  We argued before the three-judge panel that the City had not proven a compelling governmental interest in preventing officers from wearing beards.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Becket Fund’s position.  Then-Judge Samuel Alito authored the opinion, holding that the policy created a categorical exemption for a secular objection but not for a religious one and was thus susceptible to the compelling governmental interest standard, which the city failed to satisfy.  Victorious, the officers were able to continue to serve the public without violating their faith.

Rigdon v. Perry (1997)
Court defends military chaplains’ right of conscience

Muzzled military chaplains enlisted the Becket Fund for an assault on Pentagon censorship.  Representing a group of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains and service members, the Becket Fund championed the rights of military chaplains to preach freely without government interference.

A Pentagon gag order had barred military chaplains from preaching about legislation during sermons.  Although two chaplains—a Catholic priest and an Orthodox Jewish rabbi—wanted to support the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1997, the gag order forbade them from doing so in their sermons.

The Becket Fund filed suit arguing that the gag order violated the chaplains’ First Amendment rights and federal statutory rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the Becket Fund that the gag order was an unconstitutional restriction of their free speech and free exercise rights.  Thanks to the Becket Fund, the military chaplains could preach according to their conscience.