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Free Exercise Clinic

About the Clinic

The freedom to practice one’s religion has been a cherished and controverted right since the Founding. Indeed, religious beliefs matter enormously to their adherents, yet are often invisible or unintelligible to others. This duality is especially salient today, in our religiously diverse society. Although the U.S. Constitution and many other laws offer protection for individuals and groups of faith, majoritarian policymakers and government actors sometimes fail to consider — and occasionally target — religious minorities and their interests. The Free Exercise Clinic provides an opportunity for students to defend the free exercise of politically vulnerable religious minorities.

Clinic students work under the supervision of experienced litigators at Sidley Austin LLP. Alongside lawyers at Sidley, students represent clients under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as analogous state constitutional provisions and laws.

The Free Exercise Clinic was founded by Professor Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

Representative Matters

2024

Smith v. City of Atlantic City (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit)

In Smith, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the National Council of Young Israel, the Aleph Institute, the Sikh American Veterans Alliance, and Rabbi Jacob Goldstein arguing in favor of religious facial hair accommodations for firefighters.​ The clinic’s brief argues that failure to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs regarding facial hair threatens the free exercise rights of Americans of diverse faith backgrounds.​ It highlights the importance of facial hair to many religious groups, such as Orthodox Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and certain Christian sects. The brief also discusses the increasing discrimination against religious minorities, particularly growing antisemitism, and how protecting the ability of religious minorities to wear the indicia of their faith in public is crucial in combating discrimination. ​Additionally, the brief points out that many branches of the United States military have successfully accommodated religious beards despite also requiring members to wear protective respirators. The brief concludes by explaining that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Groff v. Dejoy significantly changed the legal standard for Title VII religious accommodation claims and now requires employers to prove that providing an accommodation would impose a truly undue hardship on their operations—something the fire department here failed to show.

Williams v. Washington (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Williams, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team and the American Hindu Coalition arguing that state-imposed administrative exhaustion requirements can harm civil rights plaintiffs—particularly religious minorities—who seek to vindicate their constitutional and statutory free exercise rights in state courts. The clinic’s brief highlights how state and local administrative processes can be weaponized against religious minorities, particularly in the context of land use and zoning decisions.​ The brief also explains why state courts have historically been an important forum for religious exercise cases and how federal abstention doctrines, such as Pullman abstention and Younger abstention, can push religious minority litigants into state courts. ​It also argues that an exhaustion requirement in state courts undermines congressional intent and incentivizes bad actors, inhibiting the protection of free exercise rights. ​

2023

Groff v. DeJoy (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Groff, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the National Council of Young Israel (a Jewish synagogue organization) and multiple Seventh-day Adventist conferences as amici explaining why the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Title VII’s religious accommodation provision is particularly harmful to religious minorities — and in particular to Saturday Sabbath observers. The brief began by providing historical perspective on the discrimination faced by Saturday Sabbath observers in the United States. The brief then explained that correcting the Supreme Court’s error would benefit religious minorities while also creating a more workable standard, as the experience in states like New York and California (which already adopted a standard akin to what was proposed in Groff) confirmed. The brief concluded by noting that in the narrow context of workplace religious speech, correcting the Title VII religious accommodation standard would be unlikely to change the outcome in the vast majority of religious speech cases. 

Chernetsky v. Nevada (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) 

In Chernetsky, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and the Sikh Coalition as amici in support of Mr. Chernetsky’s request to pray with natural prayer oils while incarcerated. The brief argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) requires Nevada to accommodate Mr. Chernetsky’s religious requests unless the State can show a compelling government interest advanced by means least restrictive of Mr. Chernetsky’s religious exercise. The brief also showed that the unlawful restriction of religious exercise in prisons is a recurrent problem, with lower courts frequently applying the wrong legal standard to these disputes — especially when resolving claims by religious minorities. Accordingly, the brief argued that it was particularly important for the Ninth Circuit here to reaffirm the exacting burden RLUIPA imposes on prisons to uphold the free exercise rights of religious minorities.

2022

Zhang Jingrong v. Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Zhang, the Free Exercise Clinic represented Professor John Inazu as amicus explaining how the constitutional right of assembly is necessary to protect religious pluralism. The brief highlighted the role that the Assembly Clause has historically played, and should continue to play, in protecting and defining the rights of religious groups. As the brief explained: “Without the ability to freely, publicly, and safely gather, the remaining First Amendment freedoms would ring hollow.” The brief then advanced the innovative argument that the FACE Act’s protections for religious worship supported an assembly-based understanding of the statutory term “place of religious worship.” It concluded by explaining that the Second Circuit’s approach to interpreting the Act wrongly assumed that courts could adequately define the concept of “religious worship” in a way that respected the free exercise rights of the over 230 different religious groups practicing in the United States today. 


Davis v. Wigen (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit)

In Davis, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) as amicus arguing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) are crucial to protecting the religious freedom of minority faith practitioners. As the brief explained, Islamophobia remains a pernicious problem in the United States today. And the risk of islamophobia is particularly acute in the prison context, where Muslim prisoners are seeking religious accommodations from prison administrators who might not be familiar with the requirements of their faith. The brief also pushed back on the district court’s narrow interpretation of RFRA and RLUIPA, explaining that the statutes protect all religious exercise — regardless of whether it is compelled by or central to one’s religious beliefs. 

2021

Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation v. Alamo Trust (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit)

In Tap Pilam, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, a state-recognized Native American tribe based in Texas, with its traditional territory spanning the southwestern United States. On behalf of the Lipan Apache, the Clinic argued that the district court’s application of the First Amendment constituted legal error. Even taking the facts as alleged by the Tap Pilam — that the Native American plaintiffs were barred from engaging in remembrance and forgiveness ceremonies while other religious communities were allowed to exercise their faith in the same location — the district court held the plaintiffs had not pled a Free Exercise violation. This, as the brief explained, was error. Under binding Supreme Court precedent, both an intentional religious gerrymander and a system of individualized discretion must satisfy the highest level of constitutional scrutiny, which defendants in this case could not satisfy.

Mast v. Fillmore (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Mast, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty as amici and explained that correctly interpreting the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is crucial for religious minorities and, in particular, for observant Jewish communities. The brief argued that current Supreme Court precedent places the burden on the government to demonstrate (not just claim or assert) why it cannot accommodate a plaintiff’s religious exercise when there is evidence that other similarly situated jurisdictions accommodate that same religious exercise. The brief — which was the only amicus curiae brief filed at the Supreme Court in this case —further suggested that vacating the decision below and remanding the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals would likely be appropriate in light of recent Supreme Court precedent. The Court adopted this recommendation, doing exactly that. Justice Gorsuch concurred in the Court’s decision and wrote separately picking up on many of the same themes and arguments raised in the Clinic’s brief. 

2020

Tanzin v. Tanvir (U.S. Supreme Court)

In 2017, Muhammed Tanvir and two other men, all practicing Muslims, were placed on a no-fly list and were subsequently turned away from the flights they booked. The men then sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), claiming that this was retaliation by certain FBI agents for the refusal to inform on their religious communities. Their no-fly status was lifted just days before they appeared in court, mooting their claims for forward-looking relief. However, Mr. Tanvir argued that the government should pay for the monetary harms he suffered, including the cost of the flights he had to miss. The government refused, claiming that RFRA does not allow for money damages.

The Free Exercise Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in support of Mr. Tanvir explaining that RFRA’s text, legislative history, and purpose all support the conclusion that money damages are a permissible remedy for violations of RFRA. The Supreme Court adopted the position supported by the Clinic, holding that RFRA permits money damages.

Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit)

In Spirit of Aloha Temple, the Free Exercise Clinic represented the Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty as amici and argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA’s) land use protections are crucial for religious minorities’ ability to establish places of worship. As the brief pointed out, religious land use decisions often disfavor religious minorities because their religious obligations regarding land use are often not immediately obvious or well-understood by government bodies and the public. What is more, on the facts of this case, the brief highlighted the vast discretion vested in the government planning commission by the county’s zoning guidelines and explained that this discretion could be used to allow “prejudice to hide behind legitimate public concerns.” For both of these reasons, the brief explained, upholding RLUIPA’s exacting scrutiny of land use regulations is critical to protecting the religious exercise of minority faiths.

Now it is time to pivot and ask, where are your extraordinary gifts needed? How do you make this legal world that you are entering a better world? One where no one is shut out; one where the weak and vulnerable are not exploited; one that produces fair results based on the merits of the issues before it.