SCOTUS Sides with the Amish in Case Supported by Free Exercise Clinic

Amish hat on fencepost

The Yale Law School Free Exercise Clinic co-authored an amici curiae brief in support of Amish plaintiffs’ challenge of a law compelling them to use modern septic systems for certain wastewater disposal in violation of their religious beliefs forgoing technology. On July 2, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and sent the case back to a lower court.

In Mast v. County of Fillmore, the Court vacated the decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and instructed the lower court to reconsider that decision, with multiple separate concurrences. The Free Exercise Clinic, in partnership with Sidley Austin LLP, authored the only amicus brief in support of the petition. The Clinic represented the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty (JCRL) and the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom in supporting a remand in the case. Counsel for the plaintiffs emphasized the importance of the clinic’s brief in the outcome.

“I was incredibly pleased to learn the Yale Free Exercise Clinic was going to be filing an amicus brief on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom,” said Brian Lipford, who represented the Mast plaintiffs through Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, a legal aid team for low-income individuals. Lipford noted that his legal aid office had never before filed a religious liberty case.

“I believe the Yale clinic’s amicus brief played a vital role in highlighting the lower court’s flawed analysis and ultimately my clients’ getting relief at the U.S. Supreme Court level,” Lipford said. “My clients, as well as the many others from the Swartzentruber Amish community, have told me how grateful they are that the Yale clinic decided to become involved in this case.”

Mast concerned the Swartzentruber Amish, who follow a simple religious way of life considered among the strictest of the American Amish communities. The Swartzentruber disavow such modern conveniences as conventional running water and home electricity. The dispute arose from the county ordering the Amish to either adopt modern septic systems for the disposal of gray water — non-sewage household wastewater, such as from laundry and bathing — or face heavy penalties. The Swartzentruber community has for generations hand-carried and disposed of gray water through soil. The county and the lower court did not accept the community’s proposed alternative of using mulch basins, saying that the plaintiffs had not shown this alternative would work in Minnesota.

The clinic’s amicus brief explained that the civil rights law invoked by plaintiffs — the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) — requires the government to clear a high bar when placing direct burdens on religious land-use practices. The brief emphasized that the decisions of the lower court failed to hold the government to its twin duties: showing a compelling interest in the law’s application to these specific plaintiffs and rebutting obvious and existing alternative regulations. The brief concluded by asking the Court to send the case back for reconsideration applying these principles.

The Court took that path, with separate statements from Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch echoing the clinic’s brief. Alito wrote that the lower court’s legal reasoning, which the clinic’s brief critiqued, “plainly misinterpreted and misapplied” the land-use act in question. Gorsuch emphasized that the lower courts erred in “treating the County’s general interest in sanitation” as sufficient without considering the interest in “the specific application of those rules to this community,” and that it was the government’s burden to explain why common accommodations were unworkable. “In this country, neither the Amish nor anyone else should have to choose between their farms and their faith,” he concluded.

The student team behind the brief was Eshan Dabak ’23, Fr. Pat Reidy ’21, and Joseph Simmons ’22.

“The amicus brief for Mast was the first ‘real’ legal brief I ever worked on, and the experience put into perspective for me the high stakes behind otherwise academic legal arguments,” Dabak said. “Had the Supreme Court not taken any action, then the petitioners, an Amish community in Minnesota, would have literally been forced to leave the state or violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Other clinic members — Rishabh Bhandari ’21, Spurthi Jonnalagadda ’22, Ezra Husney ’21, Jacqui Oesterblad ’22, Alex Burt ’21, Robert Capodilupo ’23, Claire Hungar ’23, and Koloa Wolfgramm ’22 — also contributed to recent amicus briefs. The clinic students were under the supervision of attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP, led by partner Gordon Todd, as well as their Yale Law School faculty team, led by Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law Chris Pagliarella ’16. 

Besides Mast, the clinic wrote briefs in cases concerning several groups this semester: 

  • The Muslim Public Affairs Council, in a case concerning the rights of a Muslim prisoner to access sacred prayer oils
  • The Sikh Coalition and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in a case concerning the scope of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protections for a Nigerian-originating church’s religious land use
  • Agudath Israel of America, also joined by JCRL, in a case concerning the prerequisites for an immigrant community church to raise an RLUIPA land-use challenge
  • the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, concerning the protection granted by the Free Exercise Clause to Native American religious practice on public land.

In addition to briefing work, new clinic students participated in a doctrinal seminar team-taught by Professor Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law; Visiting Professor Michael Helfand ’07; and Pagliarella. Returning clinic students participated in an inter-law school workshop on important Free Exercise scholarship with students from the Harvard, Stanford, and Texas religious liberty clinics. Yale Law School was represented among the workshop speakers by Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law Reva Siegel and Anne Urowsky Professor of Law Douglas NeJaime.

Students in the Free Exercise Clinic work under the supervision of experienced litigators representing 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 clinic was founded by Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale Law School.