An Orthodox Christian nun in Canada is suing her former convent for wrongful constructive dismissal. The ex-nun alleges that she worked for the convent for 14 years, providing services that included sewing, caring for elderly sisters, and hosting guests, until she quit, allegedly because of mistreatment by the other nuns. She now seeks back pay and damages. The convent argues that nuns are not “employees” in the civil-law sense, but volunteers who vow to live with other nuns in poverty, chastity, and obedience. “Monastic work is for God and not for people,” the convent argues. “It is not a career.” An article from a Toronto newspaper about the lawsuit is here.
This week, the Times‘s “Room for Debate” series addresses the question, “Is Americans’ Religious Freedom Under Threat?” Most contributors seem to think the answer is “yes.” An interesting lineup, including law professors Helen Alvaré, Noah Feldman, Michael McConnell, and Winnifred Sullivan. The discussion was organized by Thomas Farr and Timothy Shah of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Check it out.
Justice Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833) (available for free!) is a lively, opinionated, and rangy discussion of the original understanding of the Constitution. Story was a Supreme Court justice from 1811-1845, and for much of that period he was also a professor at Harvard Law School (one could do both in those days). Professor Michael Paulsen once aptly called Story’s 3-volume tour de force “comprehensive and brilliant, but often tendentious” and listed it as among the top five books of all-time about the Constitution. Chief Justice William Rehnquist once used some of Story’s discussion of the Establishment Clause in his dissenting opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree (the moment of silence case). Here is a good chunk of Story — sections 1865-1871 of his treatise — to give you a sense of his views and style:
§ 1865. And first, the prohibition of any establishment of religion, and the freedom of religious opinion and worship. How far any government has a right to interfere in matters touching religion, has been a subject much discussed by writers upon public and political law. The right and the duty of the interference of government, in matters of religion, have been maintained by many distinguished authors, as well those, who were the warmest advocates of free governments, as those, who were attached to governments of a more arbitrary character. Indeed, the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion, the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues; — these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them. And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity, as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects. This is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience.
An interesting piece by Reuters’s religion editor Tom Heneghan explains why Western support for Egypt’s Coptic Christians may cause more harm than good. Although well-meaning, Western support tends to associate Copts with foreigners and make Egyptian Muslims suspicious. For example, when Pope Benedict expressed outrage at a suicide bombing that killed 23 Copts in a church in Alexandria earlier this year, the rector of the most important Islamic seminary in Egypt, Al-Alzhar, suspended interfaith dialogue with the Vatican in protest. The Copts are Egyptians, the rector complained, and not the Vatican’s concern. The idea that Christians are disloyal foreigners surfaces periodically in the history of the Muslim Middle East and has led to retaliation against them. To give just one instance, suspicion that Christian communities were collaborating with the Empire’s European rivals contributed to widespread massacres in Ottoman Turkey in the nineteenth century. Heneghan’s piece makes clear how bad things are for Copts today: even expressions of sympathy can place them in serious danger.