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Appellate courts address religious rites, rights

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Religious issues often play a major role in public debate. They play out in day-to-day discourse, political campaigns, legislative chambers and occasionally in litigation, as well.

A pair of recent rulings of the federal and state courts in Minnesota, decided within a 48-hour time span late this summer, addressed religious issues in two very different contexts.

While the cases were quite different — one arising in a school setting and the other concerning unemployment compensation benefits — the cases shared one common feature: In both, the religious claimants prevailed.

School situation

A group of students were entitled to participate in after-school programs at a public elementary school in Minneapolis in Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota v. Minneapolis Special School District No. 1, 690 F.3d 996 (8th Cir. Aug., 29, 2012). Reversing a decision of U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, of Minnesota, who denied injunctive relief to the organization, the 8th Circuit held that the school district violated the group’s First Amendment rights by precluding its use of the school facilities for after-school activities.

The programs, which are free and open to all elementary students, include religious-oriented Christian programming, which was initially allowed but then revoked by the district. The lead chapter of an international organization claimed it established the four-part test for injunctive relief, consisting of the likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm, the balance of harm and the public interest.

The key issue, success on the merits, predicated on the school district engaging in “viewpoint discrimination” when it removed the group from the after-school program because of its religious views while allowing secular youth development programs such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to remain among the after-school programs. Because the school district “targets a particular viewpoint … the First Amendment is violated.”

The after-hours programs are considered to be non-school activities and not sponsored by the school district. Although financial resources are provided for the programming, well-established case law by the Supreme Court as well as the 8th Circuit has “consistently held that this speech is private speech and not school-sponsored.” In the absence of any “compelling interest” in avoiding an Establishment Clause or violation, the school district has no legitimate basis to justify its “viewpoint discrimination.”

Therefore, a denial of injunction was reversed and the case remanded to allow the organization to participate in the after-school program of the Minneapolis public school system.

Rare reversal

In a rare reversal of a determination by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which oversees unemployment compensation benefits in the state of Minnesota, the state Court of Appeals granted benefits to an employee who was terminated because the employer violated her religious rights in Nyabogad v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 2012 WL 3641017 (Minn. App. Aug. 27, 2012) (unpublished).

The claimant, a Seventh Day Adventist, initially worked on alternating weekends. After a few years, she asked not to be scheduled to work on Saturdays because that was her Sabbath day. When the employer failed to remove her from the schedule for those days, she unsuccessfully tried to trade work days with colleagues. But she accumulated a substantial number of absences, which prompted her termination for absenteeism. An unemployment law judge with DEED ruled that she was not eligible for benefits because her absenteeism on Saturdays constituted statutory “misconduct.”

But the appellate court reversed, noting that it is “impermissible to deny unemployment benefits to an applicant who was forced to choose between religious beliefs and employment.” The employer’s argument that the employee accumulated numerous instances of tardiness in a single year was not persuasive in justifying her termination. Despite her “history of tardiness,” it was her “absence for religious reasons from work that triggered her termination.”

Being compelled to work Saturday shifts contrary to her religious beliefs placed the claimant “in a position of choosing between her religion and employment,” which is prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The employee, therefore, was entitled to unemployment benefits because the denial of benefits by DEED constituted a “free exercise violation.”

Religious issues often arise in different settings. These two cases show the diversity of situations in which diverse religious viewpoints can arise.

Perspective Pointers:

Three-part standard for religious issues

• Secular purpose

• No advancement or hindrance of religious beliefs

• No excessive government entanglements

Originally published in the November 5, 2012 edition of Minnesota Lawyer.