Justice Alito raises concerns about religious discrimination in case involving Christian jurors dismissed due to religious beliefs

 February 21, 2024

In 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, there were warnings issued at the time that the decision could perversely lead to state-sanctioned discrimination against individuals with sincere religious beliefs in opposition to homosexuality.

Those warnings appeared to be prescient, as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out in a statement Tuesday about a case involving two prospective jury members who were dismissed from the pool due to their Christian beliefs from a legal dispute involving a lesbian plaintiff, the Washington Examiner reported.

The high court did not take up a challenge involving the two Christian jurors dismissed from service because of their faith, but Alito nonetheless used the opportunity to reiterate his concerns about the real-world repercussions of the court's prior decision nine years earlier.

Jurors dismissed from case due to Christian beliefs

The case in question is Missouri Department of Corrections v. Finney, which sprung from a lawsuit involving plaintiff Jean Finney, a lesbian, who alleged that her former employer, the Missouri Department of Corrections, had wrongfully discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

During the jury selection process in district court for that lawsuit, Finney's attorney questioned the prospective jurors on whether they were Christian and held the belief that homosexuality was a sin, then moved for the judge to dismiss from the jury pool three members who replied affirmatively about their sincere religious beliefs in terms of homosexuality.

The state appealed on the grounds that the prospective jurors had been discriminated against because of their religious faith, but an appeals court upheld the dismissals on the parsed explanation that they were rejected for their beliefs about homosexuality -- and the assumption that, as such, they couldn't be impartial and unbiased toward the lesbian plaintiff, even as the jurors insisted otherwise -- and not because of their Christian faith more generally.

The "holding exemplifies the danger that I anticipated" in 2015 ruling

On Tuesday, as part of a lengthy orders list issued following a Supreme Court conference, Justice Alito included a five-page statement near the end that raised his concerns about what had occurred with the dismissal of the Christian jurors.

"I agree that we should not grant certiorari in this case, which is complicated by a state-law procedural issue," Alito wrote. "But I write because I am concerned that the lower court’s reasoning may spread and may be a foretaste of things to come."

"In this case, the court below reasoned that a person who still holds traditional religious views on questions of sexual morality is presumptively unfit to serve on a jury in a case involving a party who is a lesbian," he continued. "That holding exemplifies the danger that I anticipated in Obergefell v. Hodges, namely, that Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be “labeled as bigots and treated as such” by the government."

"The opinion of the Court in that case made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way, but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society," the conservative jurist added.

"Fundamental rights" must be respected, especially by the judiciary

Justice Alito went on to address the relevant background information and specially called out the "tricky" question about religious beliefs from Finney's attorney that "conflated two separate issues: whether the prospective jurors believed that homosexual conduct is sinful and whether they believed that
gays and lesbians should not enjoy the legal rights possessed by others."

"Before us, the Department of Corrections argues that these for-cause dismissals were unconstitutional, and I agree that the Court of Appeals’ reasoning raises a very serious and important question that we should address in an appropriate case," he continued. "The judiciary, no less than the other branches of State and Federal Government, must respect people’s fundamental rights, and among these are the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to the equal protection of the laws."

"When a court, a quintessential state actor, finds that a person is ineligible to serve on a jury because of his or her religious beliefs, that decision implicates fundamental rights," the conservative jurist asserted.

"I would vote to grant review in this case were it not for the fact that the Court of Appeals concluded that the Department of Corrections did not properly preserve an objection to dismissal of the two potential jurors and, thus, that their dismissal was reviewable under state law only for plain error," Alito concluded. "Because this state-law question would complicate our review, I reluctantly concur in the denial of certiorari."

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