Religious Exemptions to Anti-Discrimination Laws under RFRA

Now that the debate over Arizona’s SB 1062 bill is over, it is worthwhile to pause and think about some of the legal implications of carving out religious exemptions for generally applicable anti-discrimination law. Specifically, does the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which was virtually identical to the provision proposed in Arizona) offer a defense for a private claim of discrimination.

This question may become even more salient if ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) is enacted, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. This law, which does not seem to affect RFRA, would seem to run headlong into the question of whether a defendant could raise a RFRA defense. [Update: ENDA only applies to private discrimination claims, and not public accommodations, so the photographer hypo is not a good example, but the remainder of the post works–ENDA does not create a carveout for RFRA].

For example, a photographer refuses to photograph a same-sex wedding, and is sued for a violation of ENDA, could assert that the enforcement of ENDA as applied to them violates their religious liberties as protected by RFRA. These are the facts of the Elane Photography case, where the New Mexico Supreme Court held that New Mexico’s RFEA does not apply to exemption for private causes of action. This case is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

But that was New Mexico RFRA. Does the Federal RFRA  apply to private causes of action? This is an open question that has generated a circuit split.

The DOJ has taken the position that RFRA can be raised as a defense in lawsuits brought by private parties, as noted in this amicus brief by the Becket Fund in the Elane Photography case:

In response, the United States has formally taken the position that religious organizations can assert RFRA as a defense in lawsuits brought by private parties: “[I]f plaintiff were sued by a plan participant or beneficiary in the future, plaintiff, in its defense of such an action, would have an opportunity to raise its contention that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (―RFRA‖).” Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss at 3-4, Wheaton Coll. v. Sebelius, No. 12-01169 (D.D.C. Aug. 20, 2012).

However, as this note in the Virginia Law Review explains, there is a Circuit split about whether RFRA can be raised as a defense in a private cause of action.

The circuits are split as to whether RFRA can be claimed as a defense in citizen suits—suits solely between private citizens in which the government is not a party. This split is based on an ambiguity in the text: whether the phrase “and obtain appropriate relief against a government” is meant to limit the set of cases in which a “claim or defense” may be raised in a judicial proceeding, or whether the phrase simply signifies an additional right upon which a litigant may rely.

Some circuits (CA2, CA9, CA8, CADC) hold that RFRA can be raised as a defense:

Some circuits (hereinafter “defense circuits”) have allowed RFRA to provide a defense in citizen suits, finding the statute’s language and purpose sufficiently broad to create a defense regardless of the parties to the suit.7 Under this reading, an unambiguous version of the text would be modified to say, “A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and may obtain appropriate relief (including against a government).”8 This reading makes clear that relief against a government is merely an additional right—a subset of the more general- ly obtainable relief under RFRA. Thus, “claim or defense in a judicial proceeding” is freestanding and not limited by the “obtain relief” phrasing.

It is noteworthy that then-Judge Sotomayor dissented on this issue for the Second Circuit in Hankins v. Lyght (2nd Cir. 2006), holding that RFRA could not be raised as a defense. Sotomayor dissented, and wrote “the statute does not apply to disputes between private parties.”

RFRA by its terms does not apply to suits between private parties.

Two provisions of the statute implicitly limit its application to disputes in which the government is a party. Section 2000bb-1(c) states that “[a] person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against agovernment” (emphasis added). In the majority’s view, we should read this provision as “broadening, rather than narrowing, the rights of a party asserting the RFRA.” Maj. Op. at 103. This interpretation would be questionable even if Section 2000bb-1(c) were the only provision of the statute affecting the question of whether RFRA applies to private suits. When read in conjunction with the rest of the statute, however, it becomes clear that this section reflects Congress’s understanding that RFRA claims and defenses would be raised only against the government. For instance, section 2000bb-1(b) of RFRA provides that where a law imposes a substantial burden on religion, the “government” must “demonstrate[] . . . that application of the burden” is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest (emphasis added). The statute defines “demonstrate” as “meet[ing] the burdens of going forward with the evidence and of persuasion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-2(3). Where, as here, the government is not a party, it cannot “go[] forward” with any evidence.[8] In my 115*115view, this provision strongly suggests that Congress did not intend RFRA to apply in suits between private parties.[9]

All of the examples cited in the Senate and House Reports on RFRA involve actual or hypothetical lawsuits in which the government is a party. See S. Rep. No. 103-111 (1993); H.R. Rep. 103-88 (1993). The lack Of even a single example of a RFRA claim or defense in a suit between private parties in these Reports tends to confirm what is evident from the plain language of the statute: It was not intended to apply to suits between private parties.

This could prove interesting if this issue comes before the Court.

Other circuits (CA6, CA7) do not permit private defendants to raise RFRA as a defense in private suits.

Other circuits (hereinafter “nondefense circuits”) have held that the language in the judicial relief section and in the remainder of the statute suggest that RFRA meant to provide a defense only when obtaining ap- propriate relief against a government and therefore cannot apply to suits in which the government is not a party.9 A nondefense view of the text would be modified to say, “A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government and may obtain appropriate relief.”10 By moving the “ob- tain relief” phrase to the end of the sentence, this rewriting clarifies that “government” is meant to limit the types of cases in which a “claim or defense” can be asserted. This modification limits applicability of RFRA to only those suits in which a claim or defense is raised against a gov- ernment party, thus excluding a defense in citizen suits.

And wouldn’t you know it, Judge Posner wrote the leading 7th Circuit precedent holding RFRA can’t be raised as a defense. Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, 442 F.3d 1036, 1042 (7th Cir. 2006).

RFRA is applicable only to suits to which the government is a party. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb-1(b), (c); Worldwide Church of God v. Philadelphia Church of God, Inc., 227 F.3d 1110, 1120-21 (9th Cir.2000)Sutton v. Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, 192 F.3d 826, 834-35 (9th Cir.1999). “A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c).

It is hardly to be imagined, moreover, that in seeking to broaden the protection of religious rights, Congress, dropping nary a hint, wiped out a long-established doctrine that gives greater protection to religious autonomy than RFRA does. Indeed a serious constitutional issue would be presented if Congress by stripping away the ministerial exception required federal courts to decide religious questions.

Though Judge Sykes did not dissent on 7th Circuit panel. And Judge Sutton did not dissent on Judge Moore’s opinion for CA6.

I should stress–and this point was totally lost in the Arizona debate–that RFRA does not provide immunity. It only allows a defendant to raise a defense, which a finder of fact must consider, like any other defense that can be raised under Title VII or the ADA. RFRA is *not* a blank check to discriminate.

I see Hobby Lobby, Elane Photography, and other similar cases as addressing a key question about the scope of religious liberties, and how they interact with employment discrimination laws.

Cross-Posted at

Josh Blackman

Josh Blackman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the South Texas College of Law who specializes in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and the intersection of law and technology. He is the author of Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare and also blogs at

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  1. says

    I am Pr. Walter McGill who was sanctioned with jail time for not yielding my “sincerely held religious beliefs” in General Conference of SDA v McGill. My certiorari petition to the US Supreme Court was denied in April of 2011. The 6th Circuit determined that my RFRA claim was not valid because the government was not a party in the lawsuit (relying heavily on then-Judge Sotomayor’s dissent in Hankins), even though my sincerely held religious beliefs were substantially burdened by any compliance with the Federal court order to cease employing the name Creation Seventh Day Adventist as the name of my church/religion.

    My question is… Can Congress clarify the language of the Federal RFRA in order to resolve the circuit splits on RFRA application? If so, then would a citizen petition to Congress be in order to accomplish such purpose? Thank you in advance.


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