Justice Alito Criticizes Dismissal of Jurors for Beliefs About Same-Sex Marriage

He warned that such decisions ’may spread and may be a foretaste of things to come.’
Justice Alito Criticizes Dismissal of Jurors for Beliefs About Same-Sex Marriage
Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 7, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Naveen Athrappully

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito recently warned that the dismissal of jurors in a case due to their conservative views on marriage and relationships “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw when the court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

Justice Alito’s criticism came as part of a lawsuit over two prospective jurors who were dismissed from a civil trial in Missouri after admitting that they believe same-sex relations are a sin based on their religious faith.

The Missouri Department of Corrections had petitioned the Supreme Court for review of its complaint over the dismissal of the jurors in a case involving a lawsuit filed by a female employee who accused the department of employment discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

The employee, Jean Finney, is a lesbian.

A lower court had affirmed the dismissal of the two jurors, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case due to complicated issues of state law, Justice Alito wrote.

But the justice went on to explain that the lower court ruling concerned him because of the implications for the religious freedom of Americans who hold traditional or conservative views.

In his Feb. 20 statement on the Supreme Court’s denial of review, Justice Alito cited the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that same-sex couples had the right to marriage.

The dismissal of the jurors “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 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court “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.”

Origin of the Lawsuit

In her original lawsuit, Ms. Finney alleged that she suffered employment discrimination in the workplace and that she was “improperly stereotyped and discriminated against based on sex.”

According to the complaint, after she entered into a same-sex relationship with a co-worker’s former spouse, the co-worker “retaliated against Finney by spreading rumors.” The co-worker allegedly sent “demeaning messages about Finney to the coworker’s former spouse” and deprived Ms. Finney of “information she needed to complete her duties as an employee of the Missouri Department of Corrections.”

Ms. Finney sued the Missouri Department of Corrections, claiming that the agency was responsible for her co-worker’s actions under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

During jury selection for a trial in the case, Ms. Finney’s lawyer questioned the jurors about their views on same-sex relationships.

He asked whether any of them “went to a conservative Christian church” where “it was taught that people [who] are homosexual shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone else” because “what they did” was “a sin.”

One juror, a pastor’s wife, stated that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin,” while adding that “so is gossiping, so is lying. … I’m here because it’s an honor to sit in here and to perhaps be a part of, you know, a civic duty.”

A second juror stated he believed homosexuality is a sin because “it’s in the Bible.” However, his view on homosexuality “has really nothing to do with—in a negative way with whatever this case is going to be about,” he said.

Ms. Finney’s lawyer then sought to dismiss the two jurors, arguing that “there’s no way … somebody [who] looks at a gay person and says … you are a sinner” could fairly judge a case involving a lesbian plaintiff.

The trial judge in the case sided with Ms. Finney’s attorney, dismissing the jurors.

Violating Fundamental Religious Rights

After the trial judge’s decision, the issue went to the Missouri Court of Appeals, which affirmed the dismissal of the jurors.

The jurors’ belief that “Finney’s conduct was sinful” provided a sustainable ground to conclude that “they could not impartially and fairly decide her claim that she was unlawfully harassed due to her homosexuality,” the appeals court stated.

The court said the jurors were dismissed “not on the basis of their religious status, but on the basis of their religious beliefs.” This distinction “made all the difference because, in its view, while dismissals based on a juror’s ’status as Christians’ must comport with strict scrutiny, dismissals based on a juror’s ‘views’ need not.”

Justice Alito expressed concerns that “the lower court’s reasoning may spread and may be a foretaste of things to come.”

“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,” Justice Alito wrote.

“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.”

He pointed out that the standard for determining whether a juror should be excused from a case under Missouri law is whether the person’s views will “prevent or substantially impair” their performance as a juror.

“Jurors are duty-bound to decide cases based on the law and the evidence, and a juror who cannot carry out that duty may properly be excused. But otherwise, I see no basis for dismissing a juror for cause based on religious beliefs.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up the case because the Missouri Department of Corrections failed to “properly preserve an objection to dismissal of the two potential jurors.” Justice Alito said he had to “reluctantly concur” with the decision not to review.