The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday handed down two decisions strengthening religious liberty and expanding freedom of religion.
In the first case, the Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying that the Catholic nuns do not have to pay for medical procedures that they object to including abortion.
The decision was written by pro-life Justice Clarence Thomas. The 7 to 2 decision majority opinion is the biggest pro-life decision of the Trump presidency. This overturns a lower court ruling saying employees are entitled to abortion and birth control services.
The Montgomery-based Foundation for Moral Law praised the Supreme Court’s decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania. The Foundation had filed an amicus brief with the Court arguing in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor’s case.
This case arose from Obamacare’s contraception mandate. The Little Sisters objected to complying with the Obamacare mandate of contraception and abortion services based on their religious convictions. The Trump administration issued new rules that exempted employers with religious and moral objections to complying with the mandate. The States of Pennsylvania and New Jersey sued, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against the Trump administration and the Little Sisters.
The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Third Circuit. The Court held that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 allowed the Trump administration to craft these regulations and that the Trump administration had complied with the Administrative Procedures Act in enacting the rules.
Consequently, it did not reach the religious freedom claim, but it held that it was proper for the Trump administration to consider the effect of federal religious freedom law when it passed the rules.
“GREAT win at the Supreme Court today on the Obamacare abortion drug mandate,” said Republican Senate candidate Jeff Sessions. “For the first time in nearly a DECADE, the Little Sisters of the Poor & other religious groups can do their good work without fear of being forced to violate their beliefs.”
“As Attorney General, I reversed the Obama administration’s position in the Little Sisters of the Poor litigation, and said NO MORE to government persecution of religion,” Sessions said. “I have a lifelong record of fighting to protect religious freedom. This is one of many issues on which President Donald J. Trump and I worked on together to take a strong stand for religious liberty. I also started the Religious Liberty Task Force at the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom across the entire government.”
Sessions is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary on July 14. His opponent is former Auburn head football Coach Tommy Tuberville.
“Although the majority opinion focused more on administrative law than on religious liberty, the Court’s decision was a win for religious freedom because it upheld important rules that protect Americans with religious and moral objections to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate,” said Matt Clark, the attorney who wrote the Foundation’s amicus brief in this case.
“Justice Alito’s concurring opinion importantly emphasized that the courts must defer to a person’s interpretation of his religious obligations when he raises a religious objection,” Clark continued. “As James Madison wrote in 1785, ‘The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.’”
Kayla Moore is the President of the Foundation for Moral Law.
“The main opinion said that Congress considers religious liberty to be an ‘unalienable right,’” Moore said. “We commend Congress and the Court for recognizing it as such, and we hope that the Court will take that principle to its logical conclusion in every religious freedom case that it considers.”
Bible scholar and cultural commentator Dr. Michael Brown said, “This is a tremendous victory for freedom of religion and conscience in America. Under Obamacare, employers were forced to provide birth control coverage as part of their health plans, which for many Catholics in particular would be in violation of their faith. The court has overwhelmingly ruled for religious freedom, honoring moral objections of employers who now may opt out of providing abortion or birth control services.”
The Supreme Court also released a ruling Wednesday saying religious institutions have the right to pick their own employees and are exempt from secular anti-discrimination laws.
“Trump and moral conservatives won two big ones,” Brown said.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru the Court ruled that the First Amendment prevents courts from intervening in employment disputes between religious schools and the teachers at those schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”
Brown is the author of the new book, “Evangelicals at the Crossroads: Will We Pass the Trump Test?” He has written 35 books and hosts a nationally syndicated daily talk radio show The Line of Fire, as well as the host of shows on GOD TV, NRBTV, and METV.
Barbara Ann Luttrell is the Vice President of External Affairs for Planned Parenthood Southeast.
Planned Parenthood SE was upset with both rulings.
“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld two Trump administration rules that allow employers and universities to push their religious or moral beliefs on employees and students by denying them access to insurance that covers birth control,” Luttrelll said in a statement. “Bosses and universities will be able to decide — based on their own objections — if their health insurance plans cover birth control.”
Staci Fox is the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast.
“Today’s ruling deals yet another devastating blow to health care access in this country,” Fox said. “As is so often the case, it will hit people of color and low-income people hardest, and in the middle of a global pandemic that is already ravaging those communities. It is more proof that reproductive rights are under attack at all levels – not just abortion access.”
Both decisions were victories for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. The State of Alabama, under Marshall’s leadership, had previously joined multistate amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in both cases, supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor and Our Lady of Guadalupe School: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania; and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.
“The First Amendment rightly recognizes that one of the unalienable rights all men and women possess is the right to exercise their faith,” Marshall wrote in a statement. “And today the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that fundamental truth in two important decisions. Thankfully, the Court recognized that the federal government need not force nuns to violate their sincerely held beliefs by providing contraceptive coverage to employees who help them care for the sick. And the Court likewise reaffirmed that the government has no authority to tell religious schools who they must hire or retain to teach their faith.”
Judge dismisses lawsuit against statewide face mask order
A Montgomery judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit alleging Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order was illegally adopted.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Greg Griffin dismissed the lawsuit, filed by Debbie Mathis, a real estate agent, retired sheriff’s Deputies Larry Lewis and Barry Munza, which alleged that the Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955 does not give the governor the ability to order Alabamians to wear face masks.
Ivey’s order, which went into effect July 16, requires the wearing of face masks when within 6 feet of those outside of their own household when indoors or outside when in gatherings of 10 or more people, with exceptions. The lawsuit was filed against Ivey, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and the Alabama State Board of Health.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in the defendants’ motion to dismiss wrote that the plaintiffs lacked standing to file the lawsuit and the defendants are immune to such lawsuits as accorded by the Alabama Constitution of 1901.
In a court filing supporting the motion to dismiss, Marshall wrote that “COVID-19 has threatened to overwhelm the State’s healthcare system with a large number of patients in need of Intensive Care Unit (“ICU”) capacity.”
“On July 15, 2020, with the State’s ICU bed capacity at 87%, Governor Ivey issued an emergency proclamation to implement State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris’s recommendation that masks or facial coverings be worn under certain circumstances,” Marshall wrote.
Despite the plaintiff’s allegations that the order was illegal, Marshall wrote in the filing that Ivey and Dr. Harris had the authority to issue such an order.
The judge agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiffs’ attorney said after the ruling that he planned to appeal the judge’s decision, according to Al.com.
Plaintiffs ask for panel of judges to reconsider ruling on Alabama voter ID law
Plaintiffs suing Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill alleging the state’s voter ID law discriminates against minorities on Monday asked a panel of judges to reconsider an appeals court decision that affirmed the law.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on Monday filed a petition Monday asking that all of the judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reconsider the July 21 decision by a panel of three judges that fell 2-1 in favor of the state’s voter ID law.
The 2011 law requires voters in Alabama to show a valid, government-issued photo ID to vote. The NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and several minority voters sued, arguing that lawmakers knowingly crafted the law to prevent Black people and other minorities, who are less likely to have such photo IDs, from voting.
The three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in its July 21 opinion found that the burden of Alabama’s voter ID law is minimal, and does not“violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution, nor does it violate the Voting Rights Act.”
Merrill has argued that the state’s voter ID law is meant to deter in-person voting fraud and that the state makes available mobile photo ID units able to provide voters with the necessary IDs.
District Judge Darrin Gayles in his dissenting opinion wrote that voter fraud in Alabama is rare, and that “while there have been some limited cases of absentee voter fraud, in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent.”
Gayles wrote that Merrill presented evidence of just two instances of in-person voter fraud in Alabama’s history.
“Despite the lack of in-person voter fraud, Secretary Merrill claims Alabama enacted the Photo ID Law to combat voter fraud and to restore confidence in elections — a dubious position in light of the facts,” Gayles wrote.
Gayles noted that former State Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, before his retirement in 2010, sponsored similar voter ID bills.
“During this time, Senator Dixon made repeated comments linking photo identification legislation to race, including ‘the fact you don’t have to show an ID is very beneficial to the Black power structure and the rest of the Democrats’ and that voting without photo identification ‘benefits Black elected leaders, and that’s why they’re opposed to it,'” Gayles wrote in his dissenting opinion.
“It is clear from the statements of the legislators who enacted Alabama’s photo ID law that they passed it for the unconstitutional purpose of discriminating against voters of color,” said LDF senior counsel Natasha Merle in a statement Monday. “As long as this law is intact, Black and Latinx Alabamians will continue to be disproportionately excluded from the state’s electoral process.”
Attorneys in the filing Monday told the court that “roughly 118,000 Alabamians lack qualifying photo ID, and Black and Latinx voters are twice as likely to lack qualifying ID as compared to white voters. Given this evidence, a trial was required to determine whether HB19 violates the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.”
DA defends imprisonment of disabled vet for marijuana charges
West Alabama District Attorney Andy Hamlin defended the court decision to revoke Sean Worsley’s probation, sending the Black disabled veteran to state prison for 60 months on felony marijuana charges. Hamlin spoke to APR in a phone interview about the case.
Sean Worsley is a Black disabled veteran who was arrested on felony marijuana charges in Gordo in Pickens County in August 2016.
Advocates for marijuana legalization, sentencing reform and for veterans have denounced Worsley’s treatment by the Alabama court system. On April 28 a circuit judge in Alabama revoked the Arizona man’s Alabama probation, so he faces spending 60 months of his life as a guest of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Hamlin is the district attorney for Alabama’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette, Lamar and Pickens counties.
“One thing that is being lost in this is that he was noncompliant,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin said that Worsley was dismissed from the VA drug treatment program because he was noncompliant with the conditions of the program. That Worsley receive drug treatment for his marijuana addiction was a condition of his probation agreement.
“He would not conform. That is my understanding,” Hamlin said.
Under Alabama law, possession of more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana is trafficking, a felony. Hamlin had considerably less than that. In non-trafficking cases there are several options that a person can be charged with. A key designation is whether the marijuana is “for personal use” or “for other than personal use.” In Worsley’s case, the arresting officer in Gordo made the determination that Worsley’s marijuana was for “other than personal use.”
Hamlin said that the arresting officer made the correct determination based on the evidence. In addition to the marijuana, Worsley had scales for measuring the marijuana and paper for rolling his own joints. The marijuana had also been removed from the prescription bottle it came in and been repackaged.
Hamlin said that the marijuana was for other than personal use was “a finding of fact. The charge was substantiated not only by the evidence; but it was spoken by the defendant in open court.” Hamlin is referring to Worsley’s admission of guilt when he pleaded guilty.
Worsley and his wife Eboni maintain that the marijuana was bought legally in Arizona, where Worsley had a valid medical marijuana card.
APR asked if Alabama should be locking people up for five years for something that is legal in 33 states.
“We don’t make the law, we enforce it,” Hamlin said of his job as district attorney. “If you want to change the law, then run for the Legislature.”
APR asked why Worsley was charged with a Class C felony rather than another possible charge. Hamlin said that because it was a finding of fact that the marijuana was for other than personal use, it did not qualify to be treated as a Class D felony (which would have avoided imprisonment) or a Class A misdemeanor which could have brought a sentence of six months in the Pickens County jail. Hamlin maintained that under the sentencing guidelines, the Class C felony is the appropriate charge and is the charge it would have brought before the state passed sentencing reform in 2016.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ward sponsored the sentencing reform legislation in 2016. He disagrees with the sentence and called it “egregious.”
Ward said that wording giving law enforcement the power to determine whether the marijuana was “for personal use” or was for “other than personal use” was already in Alabama law. The sentencing reform did not add that — but did not change that.
Hamlin said that Worsley was indicted by a Pickens County Grand Jury. APR asked how many Black people were on the grand jury. Hamlin said that he could not remember and it would be a violation of the secrecy of the grand jury process to share that.
Leah Nelson with Alabama Appleseed wrote a lengthy recap of the Worsley case. In it, Eboni Worsley argues that she has had to assume the role of Sean Worsley’s guardian following his being wounded in the Iraq War and his post-traumatic stress disorder.
APR asked Hamlin if he had a professional evaluate Worsley’s competency to stand trial and to enter into that plea agreement.
“No, because it was never alleged that he was not competent to stand trial,” Hamlin said. “He was very cognizant and coherent. If I thought he was entering a plea involuntarily I would not have gone through with it.”
“An assessment has never been done,” Hamlin said, because the defense never asked for it. It is up to the defense to request that.
APR asked if Worsley had competent legal counsel.
Hamlin said that Worsley was represented not only by a court appointed attorney, but his family hired an attorney out of Birmingham to represent him.
APR asked: this all began in 2016 when Chris McCool was the DA. He is now on the Criminal Court of Appeals. Did you inherit this case from the previous DA?
Hamlin said that he was the assistant DA under McCool and actually handled this case then. While DA, like judge, is an elected position in Alabama, Hamlin was appointed DA to fill the vacancy by Gov. Kay Ivey.
“He went to prison out of a probation revocation,” Hamlin said. “If he had gotten into some kind of treatment we absolutely would not be here.”
“This was the last resort with his probation revocation,” Hamlin said. “Talk to his Arizona probation officer. The reason we are here is because of his actions.”
“I am sympathetic with the situation,” Hamlin insisted.
APR said that we talked with a PTSD counselor on Monday who said that many of his clients with PTSD use marijuana to self-medicate their symptoms.
“I have great respect for him and his service, but the rule of law has to be maintained,” Hamlin told APR.
APR asked: some have suggested that Worsley received worse treatment from the court system than a white person would.
“That is an absolute pile of crap,” Hamlin said. “That is ridiculous and insulting that they would even say that.”
APR asked if Hamlin has sent anybody else to state prison on felony marijuana charges.
“Yes, I have,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin shared the court order revoking Worsley’s probation:
“The Defendant admitted violating the terms of his/her probation as alleged by the State. The Court further notes that this was the Defendant’s 4th felony conviction. The Defendant was previously allowed to participate in a drug rehabilitation program but refused to comply with program requirements and had failed to report to probation for over two years. Upon consideration of the evidence presented by the State at the Defendant’s probation revocation hearing, the Court finds the above-named Defendant to be in violation of the above listed probation condition(s) and the Court is reasonably satisfied from the evidence that a violation of the conditions or regulations of probation occurred as specified in the Order of Probation, of which the Defendant has received a written copy. Accordingly, the Defendant’s probation is hereby REVOKED. The Defendant shall receive credit for all time served on this charge. DONE this 28th day of April, 2020.”
Chey Garrigan is the chief executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association. Garrigan said that Worsley should not spend years of his life in Alabama’s dangerous and overcrowded prison system.
“The events that led to the imprisonment of Sean Worley, is NOT the FOCUS!” Garrigan said. “The focus is Alabama needs a medical cannabis program to include: the immediate release of non-violent offenders with any type of marijuana charges.”
“Sean Worsley matters,” Garrigan said. “A medical cannabis program in Alabama will boost the economy and create high paying jobs. If Alabama had a medical cannabis program, he would most likely not be imprisoned today.”
Garrigan is urging the court to commute the remainder of Worsley’s sentence and release him on time served.
Ward estimates that out of the 23,000 inmates in the Alabama Department of Corrections, 60 or 70 are there for marijuana charges only. Most of those are for trafficking.
Michael Fritz is the general counsel for the ALCIA.
“The ALCIA is fighting to allow those already suffering to have access to proper medication without the fear of becoming a felon,” Fritz said. “Sean Worsley is a prime example of why we are fighting. Medical Marijuana can help our veterans that suffer from PTSD, anxiety as well as pain from physically disabilities.”
Hamlin said that Worsley now has six felony convictions in multiple states.
Law grads concerned over in-person Alabama bar exams amid COVID-19 surge
Test-takers in Alabama are required to sign a waiver noting that they’re taking the test at their own risk.
Recent law school graduates in Alabama say they’re concerned they have to take the state’s bar exam in person later this month, or during an alternate exam session set for September, even as the state endures surging COVID-19 cases and a pandemic that appears to be nowhere near under control.
For now, the state’s two-day bar exam is set for July 18 and 19 at the BJCC convention center in Birmingham, and, as of last week, the Alabama Supreme Court approved an optional alternative session of Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
The Alabama State Bar is taking some safety precautions for test days, including temperature checks, staggered entry times, social distancing and a requirement to wear masks while entering and exiting the building, but with the uncertainty of whether the virus will still be surging across the state in September, and the danger of contracting coronavirus during the lengthy two-day exam, some recent graduates for weeks have been calling for the state bar and the state Supreme Court to offer other options.
Test-takers in Alabama are also required to sign a waiver noting that they’re taking the test at their own risk. By signing the waiver, they forgo the ability to sue the Alabama State Bar or the Alabama Board of Bar Examiners in the event that they contract coronavirus.
“I acknowledge the contagious nature of COVID-19 and voluntarily assume the risk that I may be exposed to or infected by COVID-19 by attending the July 2020 Alabama Bar examination or the September 2020 Alabama Bar examination,” the waiver reads. “And that such exposure or infection may result in personal injury, illness, personal disability, and death.”
And it isn’t just the recent graduates who are concerned. In a tweet on July 11, Dr. Michael Saag, renowned UAB infectious disease expert and HIV-Aids researcher, expressed concern over an in-person bar exam in Alabama.
“I don’t see how this can be done safely with the degree of SARS-CoV-2 transmission going on in our community right now,” Saag said in the tweet.
Alabama is one of 20 states that are still moving forward with in-person bar exams, according to The Washington Post.
A white paper published on March 22 by the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law noted that COVID-19 had disrupted public life and that “jurisdictions will not be able to administer the July 2020 bar exam in the usual manner.”
“Even if some of the most rigorous restrictions have been lifted by July 28, prohibitions on large gatherings are likely to remain. Attempting to administer the bar exam to hundreds of test takers in a single room would endanger the test takers, staff administering the exam, and the public health,” researchers wrote in the study.
The study offered six options for state bars to make changes to ensure the safety of test-takers and staff, which include postponing exams, administering them online, giving exams in small groups, issuing emergency diploma privilege (which allows graduates of law schools to practice without taking a bar exam), adopting an emergency diploma privilege-plus (whereby state bars can add additional educational requirements to practice without taking the exam) and creating a supervisory practice program, where recent graduates practice under a licensed attorney.
“A lot of nervous people getting ready to take the bar exam,” said Birmingham lawyer and executive director of the Alabama State Bar, Phillip McCallum, speaking to APR on July 10.
McCallum said the Alabama Supreme Court is the ruling authority over the state bar, and that “it’s their decision, and their decision has been made for many, many months, and that is the bar exam is proceeding as expected.”
McCallum said that during the week prior, several states began delaying state bar exams amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which set off questions among recent law school graduates about what might happen in Alabama, he said.
“Anything can happen,” McCallum said. “The pandemic can continue to escalate and we can somehow get canceled. I mean anything, anything can happen.”
But the decision would be the Supreme Court’s to make, he said.
McCallum told APR on July 10 that the state bar had discussed with the Supreme Court a potential alternative testing date, and that he expected an order from the court on that in the coming days.
The state Supreme Court issued that order on July 12, which directed the July 28-29 testing session to remain, but gave the alternate date of Sept. 30-Oct. 1.
Among the safety precautions established by the state bar are that masks be worn entering and exiting the BJCC, but that examinees can take their masks off during the timed portion of the exam, although “the Alabama State Bar strongly encourages the wearing of a mask/face covering at all times.”
Jefferson County’s health order stipulates masks be worn at all times in public places, but exempts private meetings, which the state bar exam falls into.
“I do know I graduated with a few people who have very serious health conditions, and there’s a real chance that they could end up on a ventilator,” a recent law school graduate in Alabama told APR last week.
He and several other recent law school graduates who contacted APR in recent days asked not to be named, as there’s a fear that voicing complaints over the matter could lead to a bad outcome in the character and fitness requirements graduates must pass for admission to the bar.
The recent graduate in Alabama said many are asking for online bar exams, and understand that although areas in the state do not have broadband internet access, it’s the best option to take the exam safely and get to work quickly. Alabama isn’t likely to allow for diploma privilege, he said, but he described it as the second-best option.
“I think the online version would be the best of both worlds, because the Board of Law Examiners has a duty to protect the public from people who are not qualified to be attorneys,” he said.
The worst option, he said, would be to delay the tests for many months. Law school graduates pay anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500 to take seven-week preparatory classes in the leadup to a bar exam, he said, and he and many others were already doing so.
Postponing the test would mean restarting those classes from the beginning, he said.
“Way back in the spring, the State Bar and the court were at least aware of different options, because states around us have started changing their plans to sort of accommodate,” he said. “And it seems like every step of the way the state bar, the Board of Law Examiners, the court, hasn’t really done anything to improve the situation.”
Plans call for temperatures to be checked upon entry to the BJCC, but the graduates noted that many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and can still spread the virus.
Three months before Alabama’s Supreme Court did so, the Georgia Supreme Court on April 17 delayed the state’s bar exam, pushing it back from July 28-29 to Sept. 9-10, and the Supreme Court of Florida on July 1 agreed to move the state’s bar exams online after weeks of pleas from law students, according to the Miami Herald.
“By pushing forward with an in-person exam this July, the State Bar and Supreme Court have shown a concerning lack of interest in the wellbeing of those of us who are trying to enter the profession,” the recent graduate wrote to APR in a message following the state’s Supreme Court’s July 12 ruling. “The optional September 30-October 1 exam is thinly reasoned as all modeling indicates COVID-19 will be just as bad, if not worse, at that time. The State Bar and the Court are hurting us examinees, but they’re also hurting themselves by threatening the public’s health and by engendering resentment among their newest members.”
Many recent law school graduates come from more affluent homes, the recent grad said, but many are also single parents with little income who have surmounted great obstacles to put themselves through law school while working jobs and raising children.
While students are told over and over that they’ll pass the bar, and that it’s a test on minimum competency, he said, “I feel like this year it can’t test minimum competency, because I feel like this is testing access to resources.”
“Who has access to money to last them a few extra weeks? Who has access to childcare?” he said.
Alabama on Wednesday saw the largest increase to the state’s COVID-19 death toll in a single day, with 47 deaths reported — and just a day after the increasing death toll set its previous one-day record Tuesday.
Nearly 20 percent of the state’s total COVID-19 death toll of 1,183 has been reported in the last two weeks.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris in a press conference Wednesday said more than 2,000 people across the state were currently hospitalized for confirmed or suspected coronavirus — and about 30 hospitals statewide had very limited intensive care bed availability.
The state on Wednesday saw 1,784 new coronavirus cases, which was the third highest single-day increase of cases since the start of the pandemic. The other two record-high single days were set within the last week.