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Indiana Courts Care about Standing; Indiana Family Institute Inc. v. City of Carmel

The recent news has discussed whether various parties have standing to challenge the 2020 presidential election in various federal courts. But federal courts are not alone in caring about standing, as this case shows.

Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015. Among other things, RFRA included various antidiscrimination safeguards (including discrimination based on sexual orientation). In addition, some cities around Indiana had local ordinances which barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Christian advocacy organizations in Indiana believed that RFRA and these ordinances infringed on their right to freely exercise their religion because they precluded the Companies from excluding same-sex couples. The Companies thought that they did not fall within the exemptions and exclusions in RFRA and the ordinances because they are not organized exclusively for religious purposes. So while the Companies had not faced and were not facing a credible threat of prosecution, they filed a complaint seeking declarative and injunctive relief.

The Companies moved for summary judgment, claiming that these laws chilled their rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment as a matter of law. The Cities argued that the Companies lacked standing. The trial court agreed with the Cities, and the Companies appealed.

The Court began its analysis by calling standing “a significant restraint on the ability of Indiana courts to act” because it ensures “’the resolution of real issues through vigorous litigation’ rather than ‘academic debate or mere abstract speculation.’”

To establish standing, a party must show: (1) an “injury in fact,” i.e., an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete, particularized, actual and imminent; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) the likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. If a party lacks standing, a court has no
authority to act.

The Court distinguished standing from ripeness, which deals with the timing of when a lawsuit should be filed.

A claim is not ripe for adjudication if it rests upon contingent future events “that may not occur as anticipated, or . . . may not occur at all.” A claim must be ripe for consideration or we will not review it.

Standing proved problematic for the Companies because they did not have policies of excluding same-sex couples from events and had not actually excluded anyone. Moreover, there was no indication that the Cities’ ordinances would be enforced against the Companies.

In short, the Companies remain free, without interference, to express their religious views on marriage and human sexuality as they always have. Just like the plaintiff in Hulse, the Companies have failed to show how the ordinances subjected them to an imminent threat of harm or that they faced a credible threat of prosecution.

The fact that the Companies might hold events in the future for which they might be prosecuted was not sufficient to show that they had an “actual fear” that chilled their First Amendment rights.

The Companies had a fallback position—public standing. The doctrine of public standing applies “when a case involves enforcement of a public rather than a private right.” The Court noted this right has been found when the issue (1) involved whether a public contract was authorized, (2) dealt with whether a property tax statute was constitutional, (3) addressed the apportionment of senators and representatives throughout the state, and (4) required that a public official correctly discharge the duties of his office.

Circumstances like the above are not present here. More specifically, RFRA operates to vindicate a private right to religious exercise. See Ind. Code § 34-13-9-8(b). And the injury requirement does not effectively foreclose a challenge to RFRA “by anyone.” Instead, a party would have standing to challenge RFRA or its antidiscrimination safeguards if it was notified that it had, or was imminently likely to, violate a state statute or city ordinance and the legislation “substantially burdened” their religious exercise.

Since the companies failed to show that either they or the public were harmed by the Cities’ ordinances, they did not have standing to challenge those ordinances and the trial court properly entered summary judgment for the Cities.

Lessons:
1. In order to bring a lawsuit in Indiana state courts, a party must have standing.
2. A party has standing if they have (1) an injury in fact that (2) is causally connected to the conduct complained of and (3) a judicial decision could offer a remedy.
3. A party has standing to challenge the constitutionality of a statute if they can prove actual fear of enforcement to chill their rights.
4. If a plaintiff has not shown any history of unconstitutional enforcement, then it cannot show standing.
5. A plaintiff can have public standing, even if they do not have personal standing, but they would need to show a violation of a public right.
6. A plaintiff who alleges that a local ordinance discriminates against their First Amendment rights does not have public standing.