Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Court narrows the scope of religious harassment statute

It took the Court of Appeals two years to resolve this case, which interprets the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it illegal to harass, injure, or interfere with someone who is exercising his religion "at a place of religious worship." The question here is what is a "place of religious worship"?

The case is Zhang Jungrong v. Chinese Anti-Cult Worldwide Alliance, Inc., issued on October 14. Plaintiffs are adherents of Falun Gong, a modern spiritual practice originating in China. They set up five tables on a sidewalk in Flushing, Queens, protesting the Chinese government's persecution of members of Falun Gong. They claim that defendants harassed them at the sidewalk tables. Defendants regard the plaintiffs as a cult and object to their views (some of which involve not taking medication for illness, and alien visits to Earth). The altercations at the heart of this case got pretty nasty: tables were knocked over, displays were torn down, people were threatened and assaulted, etc. Hence this lawsuit.

Are the table set-ups "places of religious worship"? The Second Circuit (Carney, Walker and Leval) says they are not. The statute does not answer this question directly, so the Court has to review dictionary definitions and legislative history. The dictionary definition could go either way, as "place of worship" "is susceptible to more than one plausible interpretation. The dictionary says this phrase  is defined as "a place where believers regularly meet for religious worship, esp. a building designed for or dedicated to this purpose." That does not help us, so the Court looks to the legislative history.

The legislative history shows that that Congress in enacting the law in 1994 contemplated that the statute prohibits harassment and threats at "a place recognized or dedicated as one primarily used for religious worship." That can include a fixed location, but other places as well. As applied to this case, the tables don't qualify for protection under the statute. They are not a place "whose primary purpose is religious worship." Rather, these tables are "a site for political protest activity against the Chinese Communist Party, even if some incidental religious practice took place at the tables."

If you are a Commerce Clause fan, Judge Walker's concurrence is for you. He believes that Congress has no authority to protect the tables as a place of religious worship because the Supreme Court has already held that the Commerce Clause does not reach "noneconomic, violent criminal conduct . . .  based solely on the aggregate effect on interstate commerce." The Court said that in United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison, in 1995 and 2000.

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