Sarah Bauer, MJLST Staffer
In the Summer of 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court released a bevy of decisions favoring religious freedom. Among these was Mast v. City of Fillmore, a case about, well, septic systems and the First Amendment. But Mast is about so much more than that: it showcases the Court’s commitment to free exercise in a variety of contexts and Justice Gorsuch as a champion of Western sensibilities. It also demonstrates that moving forward, the government is going to need work harder to support that its compelling interest in land use regulation trumps an individual’s free exercise rights.
The Facts of Mast
To understand how septic systems and the First Amendment can even exist in the same sentence, it’s important to know the facts of Mast. In the state of Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is responsible for maintaining water quality. It promulgates regulations accordingly, then local governments adopt those regulations into ordinances. Among those are prescriptive regulations about wastewater treatment. At issue is one such ordinance adopted by Fillmore County, Minnesota, that requires most homes to have a modern septic system for the disposal of gray water.
The plaintiffs in the case are Swartzentruber Amish. They sought a religious exemption from the ordinance, saying that their religion forbade the use of that technology. The MPCA instead demanded the installation of the modern system under threat of criminal penalty, civil fines, and eviction from their farms. When the MPCA rejected a low-tech alternative offered by the plaintiffs, a mulch basin system not uncommon in other states, the Amish sought relief on grounds that the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After losing the battle in state courts, the Mast plaintiffs took it to the Supreme Court, where the case was decided in their favor last summer.
The First Amendment and Strict Scrutiny
Mast’s issue is a land use remix of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, another free exercise case from the same docket. Fulton, the more controversial and well-known of the two, involved the City of Philadelphia’s decision to discontinue contracts with Catholic Social Services (CSS) for placement of children in foster homes. The City said that CSS’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in both the contract and the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The Supreme Court didn’t buy it, holding instead that the City’s policy impermissibly burdened CSS’s free exercise of religion.
The Fulton decision was important for refining the legal analysis and standards when a law burdens free exercise of religion. First, if a law incidentally burdens religion but is both 1) neutral and 2) generally applicable, then courts will not ordinarily apply a strict scrutiny standard on review. If one of those elements is not met, courts will apply strict scrutiny, and the government will need to show that the law 1) advances a compelling interest and 2) is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. The trick to strict scrutiny is this: the government’s compelling interest in denying an exception needs to apply specifically to those requesting the religious exception. A law examined under strict scrutiny will not survive if the State only asserts that it has a compelling interest in enforcing its laws generally.
Strict Scrutiny, RLUIPA, and Mast
The Mast Plaintiffs sought relief under RLUIPA. RLUIPA isn’t just a contender for Congress’s “Most Difficult to Pronounce Acronym” Award. It’s a choice legal weapon for those claiming that a land use regulation restricts free exercise of religion. The strict scrutiny standard is built into RLUIPA, meaning that courts skip straight to the question of whether 1) the government had a compelling government interest, and 2) whether the rule was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. And now, post-Fulton, that first inquiry involves looking at whether the government had a compelling interest in denying an exception specifically as it applies to plaintiffs.
So that is how we end up with septic systems and the First Amendment in the same case. The Amish sued under RLUIPA, the Court applied strict scrutiny, and the government failed to show that it had a compelling interest in denying the Amish an exception to the rule that they needed to install a septic system for their gray water. Particularly convincing at least from Coloradan Justice Gorsuch’s perspective, were the facts that 1) Minnesota law allowed exemptions to campers and outdoorsman, 2) other jurisdictions allowed for gray water disposal in the same alternative manner suggested by the plaintiffs, and 3) the government couldn’t show that the alternative method wouldn’t effectively filter the water.
So what does this ultimately mean for land use regulation? It means that in the niche area of RLUIPA litigation, religious groups have a stronger strict scrutiny standard to lean on, forcing governments to present more evidence justifying a refusal to extend religious exemptions. And government can’t bypass the standard by making regulations more “generally applicable,” for example by removing exemptions for campers. Strict scrutiny still applies under RLUIPA, and governments are stuck with it, resulting in a possible windfall of exceptions for the religious.