Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—January 16

2002—It turns out that there are limits to the courts’ overreaching interpretations of the religious guarantees of the Establishment Clause—at least when the rights of religious conservatives are at stake.  When various religious groups sponsored an advertising campaign offering “healing for homosexuals”, the San Francisco board of supervisors sprang into action.  It sent a letter to the groups “denounc[ing] your hateful rhetoric” and alleging a “direct correlation” between that rhetoric and the “horrible crimes committed against gays and lesbians,” including the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard.  It also adopted two formal resolutions.  One called for the “Religious Right to take accountability for the impact of their long-standing rhetoric, which leads to a climate of mistrust and discrimination that can open the door to horrible crimes such as” a recent murder.  The second resolution stated that the groups’ ad campaign encouraged maltreatment of homosexuals and urged local television stations not to broadcast the groups’ ads. 

In American Family Association v. City and County of San Francisco, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit rules that the city government’s actions did not violate modern Establishment Clause doctrine.  But as Judge John T. Noonan observes in dissent:  “To assert that a group’s religious message and religious categorization of conduct are responsible for murder is to attack the group’s religion.…  [H]ere the city had a plausible, indeed laudable purpose, to decrease vicious violence on account of sexual orientation.  [But it] used a means that officially stigmatized a religious belief as productive of murderous consequences.”

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