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Supreme Court justice slams MO court, says it shows ‘danger’ of same-sex marriage decision

A Missouri prison worker’s legal fight against on-the-job discrimination this week provided U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — one of the court’s most conservative members — an opportunity to denounce the landmark decision recognizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Jean Finney had worked as a corrections officer at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph since 2002, but after about eight years, the job started turning toxic.

A co-worker, the ex-husband of Finney’s romantic partner, undercut Finney on the job, sent disparaging texts about her status as a lesbian and, eventually, withheld information Finney needed to safely do her job. He spread rumors, a court later found, and lodged several complaints against her.

Finney sued the Missouri Department of Corrections alleging a hostile work environment, and at a 2021 civil trial in Buchanan County, the judge removed several potential jurors who said they believed homosexuality was sinful. The jury that was eventually seated sided with Finney and awarded her $275,000.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District later affirmed the decision, and the Missouri Supreme Court declined to review the case.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court also declined to hear the case — effectively upholding the trial decision for Finney. But the victory came with a five-page statement from Alito laying into Missouri courts and expressing concern about Obergefell, the 2015 opinion that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

“In this case, the court below reasoned that a person who still holds traditional religious views on questions of sexual morality is presumptively unfit to serve on a jury in a case involving a party who is a lesbian,” Alito wrote, referring to the Missouri appeals court.

“That holding 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.”

Since that 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has shifted much further to the right. Three moderate-to-liberal justices have been replaced by conservatives.

A Virginia-based attorney for Finney, Christina Nielsen, in a statement to The Star noted that Alito had also written that jurors who cannot decide cases based on law and evidence may be properly excused.

“The trial court excluded from service two potential jurors who expressed anti-homsexual beliefs. In doing so, the trial court focused on the potential jurors’ beliefs, not their religion, and afforded both parties a fair trial,” Nielsen said.

A phone call to a number listed online for Finney wasn’t returned on Wednesday.

As is typical, no vote total was given for the decision not to take up Finney’s case. Alito voted against taking it, citing procedural complications, but warned that the Missouri appeals court’s decision “may be a foretaste of things to come.”

Alito’s statement reflects a continuing desire within elements of the conservative legal community to reopen Obergefell or, at the very least, bolster the rights of religious Americans. Alliance Defending Freedom, which pursues lawsuits on behalf of social conservative causes, and 13 conservative-leaning states all urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take the Finney case.

“The Constitution does not tolerate excluding jurors on the basis of race or sex. It ought not to tolerate exclusion on the basis of religion, the very first freedom protected by the Bill of Rights,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey wrote in court documents urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take it up.

Bailey, a Republican facing a competitive primary election, had argued that jurors can be excluded if their religious views in fact make them biased, but that religious stereotypes shouldn’t be enough to exclude a juror.

A spokesperson for Bailey didn’t respond to a request for comment.

During jury selection, Finney’s counsel had asked potential jurors whether they had grown up attending a religious organization that said people who are homosexual shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone else and that homosexuality was sinful. Several people raised their hands, and in follow-up questioning, some said they could not set those views aside. Others indicated they could.

One potential juror said that while homosexuality is a sin, “you still have to love those people” and “you don’t have a right to judge them. Therefore, I think I could be a fair juror.”

At the request of Finney’s lawyer, 5th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Kate Schaefer struck a handful of potential jurors. When the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District affirmed Schaefer’s decision, it found the lawyer’s questions appropriately focused on potential jurors with strong feelings on homosexuality.

In a memo outlining its decision, the appeals court wrote that homosexuality was a central issue in the case. The potential jurors were struck because of strongly held views about the predominant issue of the case, the appeals court found. It noted that several jurors who said they were Christians but didn’t express strong views on homosexuality weren’t removed.

“The belief-based exclusion was necessary because the plaintiff’s homosexuality was a central issue in the case,” Nielsen, Finney’s attorney, said.