“Preserve” Your Constitutional Rights, But Not Against A Private Employer

The world is seemingly going back to pre-Covid normalcy.  Masks, while still present some places, no longer litter the trashcans outside grocery stores and restaurants.  People are taking a big breath of fresh air, and not just six feet from someone. Nevertheless, litigation concerning Covid and company policies regarding the vaccine linger in courts around the U.S.  One such case has seemingly come to an end and the company is out of a “jam.”

That case, Ciraci v. J.M. Smucker Co., 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 6007 (6th Cir. 2023), involved four employees who were denied religious exemptions from the company’s Covid vaccine mandate.  In response to the Covid pandemic and the guidance from the President, Smuckers informed their employees they were “expected” to be fully vaccinated, an expectation that later transformed into a company mandate. The four employees requested religious exemptions afforded by the company for “sincerely held religious beliefs.”  After those were denied, the employees brought suit, arguing that Smuckers failed to reasonably accommodate their religion under Title VII, which claim the plaintiffs ultimately abandoned, but pursued that the company’s denial of their religious exemptions were in violation of the Free Exercise clause under the First Amendment.  The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied the claim and the employees appealed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court.

The crux of the employees’ argument was that Smuckers was a state actor because it was acting in accord with a federal law and was a federal contractor, bringing the company within the purview of the First Amendment. The Court held otherwise.

The Court stated that the Bill of Rights in general protects citizens from the government, and hardly do they regulate private conduct. The Court compared constraints on the government conduct versus private conduct, stating the Free Speech clause prohibits “viewpoint-based limitations on speech, but private publications like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal may favor certain viewpoints or speaker,” or the Free Exercise clause prohibits religious discrimination, “but the Catholic Church need not pick rabbis or imams to run its seminaries.”

The Court noted that, when dealing with the “constitutional line between constraining government and constraining private entities,” Courts must ask whether the conduct the plaintiff takes issue with is fairly attributable to the government, invoking two sets of principles. The first involves three questions: (1) Does the service involve a traditionally governmental function? (2) Have the actions of the government and private entity become so entwined as to amount to a form of state action? (3) Has the government compelled the company’s action? The second principle is a “safe harbor,” that so long as a private company’s actions turn on compliance with a state or federal law, that does not by itself make the company a state actor.  The Court held the claimant’s case did not satisfy any of the inquiries above.

Smuckers was not constrained by the First Amendment Free Exercise clause.  This case reaffirms infringement of constitutional rights under certain laws do not constrain a private entity as it would a public sector employer.  

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