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Payden-Travers v. Talkin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 31, 2017

JOHN M. PAYDEN-TRAVERS,, Plaintiffs
v.
PAMELA TALKIN, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY United States District Judge.

         The Plaintiffs in this case contend that 40 U.S.C. § 6135 and a related regulation promulgated by the United States Supreme Court unlawfully restrict their ability to exercise their religion on the Supreme Court Plaza, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). Section 6135 provides that “[i]t is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.” Similarly, Supreme Court Regulation 7 prohibits “demonstrations” on Supreme Court grounds, which Plaintiffs allege encompasses certain religiously-motivated vigils and other activities they seek to engage in.

         Before the Court is Defendants' [15] Motion to Dismiss. Defendants argue that the First Amended Complaint should be dismissed because Plaintiffs fail to plead that section 6135 or Regulation 7 substantially burden the exercise of their religion. In the alternative, Defendants contend that the complaint should be dismissed because section 6135 and Regulation 7 are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs' RFRA claim fails at the threshold because section 6135 and Regulation 7 do not substantially burden Plaintiffs' exercise of religion. The Court will accordingly GRANT Defendants' [15] Motion to Dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed their original complaint in this case on November 4, 2013. See Compl. for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, ECF No. 1. In that complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that Regulation 7 violated the First Amendment's freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition guarantees, was overbroad, unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and violated the RFRA. Id. at ¶¶ 67-76.

         On the same day, Plaintiffs filed a notice informing the Court that this case was related to a separate matter, Hodge v. Talkin, 12-cv-104 (BAH). See Notice of Related Case, ECF No. 2. On January 27, 2014, Defendants filed an unopposed motion to stay this case pending the final resolution of the Hodge matter, which was at that time before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”). See Defs.' Unopposed Mot. for Stay, ECF No. 10. Defendants represented that both cases presented First Amendment challenges to restrictions on demonstrations on the Supreme Court Plaza and, as such, that the D.C. Circuit's opinion in Hodge would likely inform the Court's analysis in this case. Id. The Court agreed and stayed this case pending the resolution of Hodge. See Order (January 28, 2014), ECF No. 11.

         The Court lifted the stay in this case after the D.C. Circuit issued its decision in Hodge and the Supreme Court denied a petition for writ of certiorari. See Min. Order (May 18, 2016). As predicted, the D.C. Circuit's opinion in Hodge had significant implications for Plaintiffs' claims in this case. In Hodge, the D.C. Circuit rejected the plaintiff's claim that section 6135 violated the First Amendment because it prevented him from engaging in certain expressive political activity on the Supreme Court Plaza. See Hodge v. Talkin, 799 F.3d 1145, 1150 (D.C. Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 2009 (2016). First, the court found that the Supreme Court Plaza was not a public forum, and that as such the government was free to impose reasonable restrictions on speech on the Plaza so long as it refrained from suppressing particular viewpoints. Id. Second, the court held that section 6135 did not violate the First Amendment because it did not target specific viewpoints, and its restrictions reasonably served the government's “long-recognized interests in preserving decorum in the area of a courthouse and in assuring the appearance (and actuality) of a judiciary uninfluenced by public opinion and pressure.” Id. The court also rejected plaintiff's overbreadth and vagueness challenges to the statute. Id. at 1170-73.

         On June 24, 2016, Plaintiffs filed the now-operative First Amended Complaint. See First Am. Compl. for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, ECF No. 13 (“Am. Compl.”). Presumably in light of the D.C. Circuit's opinion in Hodge, Plaintiffs have dropped their First and Fifth Amendment claims, and now only assert a single count under the RFRA.

         B. Factual Allegations in the First Amended Complaint

         The Supreme Court Plaza is a large, oval-shaped open space in front of the United States Supreme Court. Am. Compl. at ¶ 12. It is separated from the sidewalk on First Street, N.E. by a few small steps. Id. As outlined in Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint, numerous individuals over the years have attempted to use the Supreme Court Plaza as a place to pray or demonstrate, and these attempts have often been frustrated. Id. ¶¶ 13-21.

         On June 13, 2013, the United States Supreme Court promulgated Regulation 7, which reads:

This regulation is issued under the authority of 40 U.S.C. § 6102 to protect the Supreme Court building and grounds, and persons and property thereon, and to maintain suitable order and decorum within the Supreme Court building and grounds. Any person who fails to comply with this regulation may be subject to a fine and/or imprisonment pursuant to 40 U.S.C. § 6137. This regulation does not apply on the perimeter sidewalks on the Supreme Court grounds. The Supreme Court may also make exceptions to this regulation for activities related to its official functions.
No person shall engage in a demonstration within the Supreme Court building and grounds. The term “demonstration” includes demonstrations, picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding vigils or religious services and all other like forms of conduct that involve the communication or expression of views or grievances, engaged in by one or more persons, the conduct of which is reasonably likely to draw a crowd or onlookers. The term ...

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