Bullies, babies and beards: Three pivotal cases facing the Supreme Court this term

Politics, News

UPDATE: Prison beard ban violates Muslim inmate’s religious rights, Supreme Court rules

With the Hobby Lobby-ing of the 2013 term safely in our past, the time has come for the U.S. Supreme Court to gear up for its October 2014 term – which promises no shortage of historical decisions spanning nearly every area of the law. From the Court’s first-ever False Claims Act case, to criminal procedure issues ripe for review, the 2014 – 2015 judicial season will likely keep even the most hardcore high court fan guessing. The following are three cases up for consideration, each with its own unique set of facts and legal inquiries:

Elonis v. United States

First up is a First Amendment freedom of speech case emerging out of the Third Circuit, involving the legal distinction between unkind words – which are protected by the First Amendment – and a “true threat,” which is a legal term referring to the type of language not protected by free speech and therefore punishable both criminally and civilly.

The plaintiff in Elonis maintained a vibrant, attention-seeking Facebook account wherein he constantly updated his posts with everything from rap lyrics to, believe it or not, his rantings on the First Amendment and its application to his life. While going through a difficult divorce and loss of custody, the plaintiff posted a Halloween-themed picture of himself and another individual allegedly enacting a decapitation scene of his ex-wife. The posting promptly got him fired from his job at a children’s amusement park.

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff commented on a picture posted by his ex-sister-in-law of his children shopping for Halloween costumes, stating his son should “dress as matricide” for Halloween, asking him to don his ex-wife’s “head on a stick.” The ex-wife immediately obtained a Protection From Abuse order, and the plaintiff was slapped with several criminal charges based on dozens of similar postings, including “[f]old up your [protective order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”

Legally speaking, the First Amendment does not protect from prosecution for a “true threat.” The problem lies in distinguishing a “true threat” from jest, hyperbole or unintentional language. In Elonis, the court is set to consider whether the government, in prosecuting the plaintiff for his threatening language, must prove that he “subjectively intended to communicate a true threat” or, alternatively, that any reasonably-minded person would have taken the comment as a true threat. The former requires evidence to show the plaintiff’s subjective intent, whereas the latter requires evidence that the language would be considered threatening to most people, regardless of what the plaintiff was thinking at the time.

Young v. United Parcel Service

The next case pits a pregnant UPS employee versus her employer, one of the largest logistics companies in the world. The issue is in determining a pregnant worker’s rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when faced with physically impossible work responsibilities.

The facts of Young are relatively straightforward: Young – a pregnant employee – was unable to continue heavy-duty tasks required for her job. UPS offers light-duty tasks for workers in one of three categories:

  • Employees injured on the job;
  • Employees deemed disabled under the definitions set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and;
  • Employees facing a loss of certification from their jurisdiction’s Department of Transportation.

The company does not offer light-duty tasks to pregnant employees, unless that employee also fits into one of the three categories listed above.

Plaintiff contends that this employment practice violates her rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and points to the section of the statute requiring employers to treat pregnant employees the same “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability, or inability, to work.” In other words, if a pregnancy renders an employee unable to lift a 50-pound box, that employee must be treated the same as any other employee unable to lift a 50-pound box for medical reasons.

UPS focuses its argument on the language of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, defining discrimination as refusing accommodation “because of” a pregnancy – and asserts it did not discriminate against Young “because of” her pregnancy. Rather, it opted not to offer her an accommodation because she failed to fit into one of the three categories listed above as prerequisites for light-duty tasks.

Holt v. Hobbs

In the first pivotal post-Hobby Lobby petition involving the free exercise of religion, Holt takes aim at the little-known Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as applied to an Arkansas prison warden’s decision to ban bearded inmates. Under the RLUIPA, the government (i.e., the warden) cannot restrict a prisoner’s free exercise of religion unless there is a compelling reason to do so. And, even if a compelling reason is identified, the government still must use the least restrictive means necessary to accomplish the goal.

In this case, Arkansas inmate Holt is required by his religion to maintain a beard. The warden, on the other hand, has implemented a strict no-beard policy, citing concerns over concealed weapons or other contraband. While similar to the Hobby Lobby analysis, which was decided under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Holt case differs in that RLUIPA imposes the requirement that the Court give great deference to prison wardens, who are in the best position to make decisions over security issues within the prison. In rending a decision on Holt, the Court will not only need to determine the extent of this deference, but must reconcile its holding with the fact that prisons in 40 other states maintain similar beard bans.

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