New Supreme Court Ruling Gives a Boost to Civil Rights Litigation
Written by Andrew S. Willis
Through the excellent work of the attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, the Supreme Court has issued a decision that will help litigants nationwide to defend their civil rights and take away a popular tactic that the governments use to avoid liability.
The case of Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski involves a young student evangelist named Chike Uzuegbunam who attended a Georgia public college. Chike would speak with interested students about his faith and hand out Gospel literature on campus grounds. A campus police officer stopped the young man and informed him of a campus policy prohibiting the distribution of written religious materials outside of two designated speech areas on campus—also known as “free speech” zones. Chike obtained the requisite permit and resumed his speech activities in one of the free speech zones. A campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that other students had complained about his speech. Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Chike with disciplinary action if he continued.
Through the Alliance Defending Freedom, Chike sued the college officials, arguing that the college’s speech policies violated his First Amendment rights. The college quickly changed its policy and argued that the case should be dismissed since there was no longer any unconstitutional policy. This is a common tactic used by municipalities to escape liability.
If a government is found to violate a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, the government oftentimes has to pay for the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees. However, once an unconstitutional law is no longer in existence and if no substantive monetary damages exist, the Court may dismiss the case since there are no issues left to be decided. In legal terms, the case is “moot.” For example, in 2020, several Chicago-area churches sued Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker arguing that certain COVID-19 restrictions on religious institutions violated the First Amendment. The case was about to be heard by the Supreme Court but the day that the Governor’s brief was due, the regulations were changed and the case was dismissed.
However, in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the Supreme Court decided that a plaintiff can sue for “nominal damages” (which can be as little as one dollar) and have its case continue despite the unconstitutional government action no longer being in effect. This is an enormously important decision for civil rights litigation nationwide, including many cases being litigated by Mauck & Baker, LLC. Here are some examples:
Swart v. City of Chicago
In September 2019, Mauck & Baker filed suit against the City of Chicago on behalf of Wheaton College students that were preaching and distributing religious literature to tourists in Millennium Park. The students were stopped by a public employee and were forced to stop preaching due to Park rules that prohibited making speeches and distributing literature in all but one part of the Park. In February 2020, Federal Judge John Robert Blakey held that the Park rules violated the First Amendment. However, in August 2020 the City of Chicago modified its Park Rules, still prohibiting the distribution of literature in many parts of the Park. Thus, the Students are again pursuing their First Amendment rights in Court.
The Word Seed Church v. Hazel Crest and The Word Seed Church v. The Village of Homewood
The Word Seed Church has filed two lawsuits. One against the Village of Hazel Crest and the other against the Village of Homewood for religious discrimination in their zoning codes. In the process of searching for property for its services, the Church learned that its ability to obtain property in these two Villages were substantially restricted on account of the zoning ordinances that do not provide any place for the Church to meet freely as of right. Instead, the Villages only allow churches and other religious assemblies in residential districts, and then only as a “special use.” In order to establish a church in a residential district, the zoning ordinances subject churches and other religious assemblies to an onerous, expensive, time consuming, and overly discretionary process in order to obtain a “Special Use Permit.” Such treatment violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as well as provisions of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Separation of Hinduism From Our Schools v. Chicago Public Schools
As recent as last year, the Chicago Public Schools system (“CPS”), with help from the David Lynch Foundation and the University of Chicago, incorporated Transcendental Meditation as an official part of the curriculum in at least seven Chicago public schools. Transcendental Meditation is a practice with roots in Hinduism which involves praying to Hindu deities in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Under the guise of “Quiet Time,” CPS children were unknowingly coerced into calling out to Hindu deities by repeating the mantras while meditating twice a day at school. To make matters worse, meditation instructors warned CPS students not to discuss their “Quiet Time” experiences with others, including their parents, and that failing to uphold their oaths of secrecy would render the practice of Transcendental Meditation ineffective. Although when faced with a lawsuit CPS ended the program, Mauck & Baker is currently representing a group of concerned parents and students in Federal Court to ensure that no such program is taught in the Chicago Public Schools again.
We will see in the coming months how exactly the Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski ruling affects Mauck & Baker cases. Stay tuned!