Legal Spirits Episode 016: The New Wedding Vendor Cases

In this episode, we discuss recent court rulings in favor of wedding vendors who decline, from religious conviction, to provide services for same-sex weddings. After years of losing such cases, vendors like Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski of Phoenix’s Brush & Nib Studio (above) have won notable victories in the lower courts. We ask whether these victories reflect the changing membership of the judiciary–especially given the new Trump appointees to the federal appeals courts–and how the Supreme Court is likely to respond to them. Listen in!

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On “Social Crusading”

On Thursday, I’m delighted to be participating with Professor Bob Nagel, on a panel, moderated by Prof. Matt Franck, on Professor Keith Whittington’s new book, Repugnant Laws: Judicial Review of Acts of Congress From the Founding to the Present (2019). The event gives me a chance to return to see my old friends at the James Madison Program at Princeton University, where I spent a delightful and productive spring as a visiting fellow.

The book provides detailed empirical support for the proposition that the Supreme Court, far more often than not (at a rate of about 3:1), upholds congressional statutes than it strikes them down. Whittington extends, but also modifies and enriches, the thesis proposed by Robert Dahl, Mark Graber, and Barry Friedman, among others, that the Court is fundamentally a political institution that very often operates in accord with the other political branches. The counter-majoritarian difficulty famously discussed by Alexander Bickel, in Whittington’s hands (and as one of my exceptional students, Joe Brandt, put it in our Constitutional Theory seminar this fall), becomes a majoritarian difficulty.

I’ll have more to say about the book later, but for the moment I want to call a little attention to a small, but interesting, line in the book discussing Reynolds v. United States (1878), where the Supreme Court upheld the federal Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act against a constitutional challenge by the LDS community on the ground that the Act violated its religious freedom. Polygamy was church practice at the time. Whittington counts this as an example right in line with his general thesis, and I think he is right about that.

But he describes the case in these terms:

“As Congress embarked on new social crusades, the Court stood aside. The Republican Party denounced the polygamy practiced by the Mormons in the West as equally barbaric as the slavery practiced by the slavocracy in the South. When the postbellum Congress turned its attention to bringing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to heel, the Court gave it a free hand.” (170)

It may be a small point, but to describe the Congress as “embark[ing] on new social crusades” by enacting this legislation seems to me not quite right. If anyone was embarking on new social crusades, it was the religious organization, not Congress. I mean that entirely descriptively. Laws against bigamy and polygamy were nothing new in the late 19th century. Indeed, I should think that they would have been regarded as perfectly ordinary and unremarkable, and that is exactly how the Supreme Court regarded them in Reynolds: “At common law, the second marriage was always void (2 Kent, Com. 79), and from the earliest history of England, polygamy has been treated as an offence against society.” Enforcing long-standing social understandings by law against novel social arrangements is not social crusading. Quite the opposite.

But perhaps this difference of perspective illustrates a broader point about these sorts of descriptions. What we characterize as “social” or “moral” “crusading” (somehow, crusading has taken on unequivocally negative connotations…tant pis) will depend upon a baseline of what we value in existing social conditions and what we deem ordinary legislation to protect those conditions. “Moral” or “social crusading,” then, doesn’t seem to have much meaning beyond something like, “pursuing moral or social objectives I think illegitimate.” If that’s what it means, maybe we should just argue about those first-order disagreements directly (“which morality is best?”), rather than present those disagreements in second-order dismissals (“stop imposing your morality on me!”).

Laicite in Quebec

Je Me Souviens?

When profoundly Catholic societies go off religion, they really go off religion. Religion doesn’t become simply a matter of indifference; people seem to feel they must uproot religion entirely from public life, in order to compensate for and distance themselves from the benighted ways of the past.

Societies need some common identity to bind them, though, and when shared religion is no longer an option, they substitute other things. In a First Things essay this week (“Canada Divided Against Itself”), David Koyzis observes this dynamic at work in Quebec. Once a famously Catholic place, he says, since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has become an overwhelmingly secular society. (Strangely, they have kept a very Catholic-looking flag (above)). The province’s motto may be “Je me souviens,” but the Quebecois are trying to forget all about their religious tradition. What unites the province today, he says, is not Catholicism, but Quebecois national identity:

Ironically, despite the secularizing impact of the Quiet Revolution, Québec has not abandoned religious faith; it has simply redirected that faith toward a state-centered nationalism, around which the province’s main parties are largely united. What was once a French Canadian nationalism bent on defending a Catholic society whose traditions harked back to pre-revolutionary France has become Québec nationalism, which looks to the state to protect the province’s linguistic majority in a sea of English-speaking jurisdictions. If protecting this majority comes at the expense of minority interests within the province, then so be it.

As evidence, Koyzis adduces a new law that prohibits public employees from wearing religious symbols–crucifixes, kippas, hijabs–while on the job. The idea, he says, is to encourage the Quebecois to think of themselves, not as members of distinct religious communities, but simply as Quebecois. This is the same reasoning behind the ban on burkas in public places, and the ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools, in France.

Koyzis says that the forceful laicite of Quebec is in tension with the multiculturalism that animates Canadian public life outside the province. I don’t know enough about Canada to evaluate that argument. But his point about nationalism as a substitute for religion seems sound. You can read the whole piece here.

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Is American Christianity in Decline?

In his column in last week’s Times, the always interesting Ross Douthat sifts through recent data on the decline of Christianity in the United States. It’s true, he writes, that the percentage of people declaring themselves Christian is declining, and that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion” is increasing. But that doesn’t indicate an across-the board decline in Christian belief and practice. Seriously committed Christians remain so. It’s the nominal, weakly committed Christians who are leaving the churches:

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

Douthat is right about this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the real story in American religion is its increasing polarization. The middle is dropping out in favor of extremes on either end: the Nones and the Traditionally Religious. Whether the departure of the Laodecians from America’s churches will be on the whole a good thing, for the churches and the society at large, remains to be seen.

The Standing Argument in the New Abortion Case

In our latest Legal Spirits podcast, Mark and I discuss June Medical Services v. Gee, the latest case about abortion picked up by the Supreme Court. This is a 5th Circuit case reviewing a Louisiana law requiring doctors to obtain admitting privileges at area hospitals in order to continue performing abortions at clinics. The 5th Circuit upheld the law, distinguishing a facially similar law in Texas that the Supreme Court struck down three years ago by a vote of 5-3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In the podcast, Mark and chat about the lower court opinion, the petition, and the cross-petition.

I want to say just a little more in this post about the cross-petition, which advances an argument about standing–the constitutional requirement that a claimant allege a concrete and particularized injury that was caused by the defendant and can be redressed by the Court. One widely recognized rule of standing–a “prudential” rule rather than a constitutionally compelled rule (meaning that Congress could, if it wished, legislate around the prudential doctrine)–is that one cannot assert claims on behalf of other parties; that is, so-called “third party standing” or jus tertii is generally impermissible. There are exceptions to the rule. For example, a parent may assert a claim on behalf of a child. But in the main, third party standing has been rejected by the Court as adequate.

One of the exceptions to the third party standing prohibition was carved out by the Court in 1976, after Roe v. Wade, in a case called Singleton v. Wulff. In Wulff, the Court held that two Missouri physicians had standing to challenge a law excluding abortions that were not “medically indicated” for purposes of Medicaid coverage. A majority of the Court found adequate standing for the doctors themselves because of the financial consequences they might face in the absence of Medicaid coverage. But a plurality of the Court went further: in an opinion by Justice Blackmun, it held that physicians have the right to assert third party standing on behalf of women whose rights may be affected by a particular law because it thought that the interests of physicians and their patients in the abortion context are “inextricably bound up” and thus there exists a “close relationship” between them, that doctors are “effective advocates” for their patients, and that women may not be effective advocates of their own rights in this area.

The Gee cross-petition takes aim at this plurality holding in Wulff. Citing Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Whole Woman’s Health (which only he signed), it argues that the Court should revisit the third party standing rule of Wulff and that the interests of women and physicians are actually adverse in this case (it claims that many of the doctors simply do not want to obtain admitting privileges, which would enhance patient safety). It also argues that because the issue of prudential third party standing was not explicitly raised below, the physicians have waived that standing, while the physicians say that it is the state that has waived its right to object to third party standing.

As we discuss in the podcast, there is also an amicus brief in the case submitted by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a former clerk of Chief Justice John Roberts. It argues that the effect of this third party standing rule is to give physicians a heightened standard of review that they would not ordinarily get if they were asserting their own injuries. On their own, the law would be reviewed for a rational basis, but through third party standing, it is now reviewed under the higher undue burden standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And it also argues that even if the physicians are granted third party standing, they cannot satisfy the undue burden standard as fleshed out by Casey and WWH because they cannot show that the statute affects a “large fraction of women,” which is the language used in the cases.

The Court could certainly use this case as a chance either to rethink or to rein in the Wulff rule. Option A: it could revisit the rule altogether and reject the plurality portion of the Wulff rule. Option B: it could narrow the Wulff rule to situations in which there is evidence that a “large fraction of women” might be affected by the legislation in question, and that there is insufficient evidence in Gee. Note that rejecting the third party standing rule altogether would abrogate that part of Whole Woman’s Health concerning standing (doctors brought the challenge there too), while the remainder of the “law” of WWH would remain in effect. Probably there are other possibilities. But resolving the case on the basis of third party standing doctrine might give the Court a way to chip away at existing abortion law without going directly after the likes of Casey. “They’ve narrowed Singleton v. Wulff!!” just doesn’t have the same sky-is-falling quality for abortion rights supporters that a more direct attack might. Going in this direction would also track some of the skepticism with which some members of the Court view its broader standing doctrines (see, for example, Justice Gorsuch’s views on standing in the Bladensburg Cross opinion).

It will be interesting to see just what the Court does with the standing claim. Stay tuned. And for more on the case generally (including some speculation about the standing claim), have a listen to our podcast!

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