Defendant May Have Right to Religious Exemption from the Requirement of Rising in Court

As I noted last October, “Amina Farah Ali, on trial in federal court for ‘allegedly funneling money to a terrorist group in Somalia’ (AP), [was] found in contempt of court for refusing to stand for the judge and jury.” Ali claimed that she had a right to a religious exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the judge rejected that argument, partly because of his view that Ali was being inconsistent: “Evidently, the Defendant’s professed religious beliefs did not prevent her from standing when she was introduced to the prospective jurors.”

Today, the Eighth Circuit reversed the contempt citations (except one as to which the defendant hadn’t properly objected before the district court), and sent the case back to the judge to determine whether denying an exemption from the rising requirement was indeed “the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling government interest, as required by RFRA,” including the interest in “maintaining order in the courtroom.” Among other things, the Eighth Circuit reasoned as follows (I believe correctly):

The district court denied Ali’s objection to its order on the basis that Ali had no right under the First Amendment to disobey the court’s rules of decorum. However, RFRA, enacted in 1993, amended all federal laws, including criminal laws, to include a statutory exemption from any requirement that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion unless that requirement is the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling government interest….

RFRA extends free exercise rights even to religious practices that are not compelled by or central to a particular belief system…. Thus, in a RFRA analysis, a rule imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion if it prohibits a practice that is both “sincerely held” by and “rooted in [the] religious belief[s]” of the party asserting the claim or defense….

After concluding that the pretrial order was neutral and generally applicable, the district court evaluated whether the order substantially burdened Ali’s religious practices, although this would not be required in a standard First Amendment analysis. The court noted that Ali’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine was inconsistent with the interpretations of her co-defendant, the Muslim spectators in the courtroom, and the Muslim clerics who came to speak with her…. [S]uch considerations are irrelevant in the RFRA context so long as Ali’s objection to the pretrial order was rooted in her own sincerely held religious beliefs.

Furthermore, focusing on Ali’s “inconsistent” application of her belief in refusing to rise to honor the court but standing so that prospective jurors could see her is not appropriate in the RFRA context. See Love, 216 F.3d at 688 (“Love himself admits that his understanding of the tenets of his belief system are evolving. However, ‘[c]ourts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs because the believer admits that he is struggling with his position or because his beliefs are not articulated with clarity and precision that a more sophisticated person might employ.'” (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd. of the Ind. Emp’t Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 715 (1981))). Ali also stood at other times when doing so facilitated non-ceremonial functions, such as moving to the podium to address the court when it inquired as to why she would not stand. Thus, in the RFRA context, the court erred by evaluating the orthodoxy and sophistication of Ali’s belief, instead of simply evaluating whether her practice was rooted in her sincerely held religious beliefs.

Here, the parties do not dispute that Ali’s refusal to stand was rooted in her sincerely held religious beliefs. Furthermore, an order requiring someone either to act affirmatively in violation of a sincerely held religious belief or face criminal penalties substantially burdens the free exercise of religion. Thus, once Ali raised an objection rooted in her sincerely held religious belief, the government could enforce the order “only if it demonstrate[d] that application of the burden to [Ali] … is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.”

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer. For more on the controversy, including the link to a centuries-old landmark dispute involving not Muslims but Quakers, see here.