Establishment Clause Creep and Antitrust Creep

This will be the end of the line for the back-and-forth between Barak and me, so let me thank Barak for his very thoughtful and cordial correspondence on these interesting questions.  This is not a moment to say “see you in court,” but to hope that our dialogue has furthered our respective understanding of the issues.

In earlier posts, I hinted that application of the antitrust laws to rabbinical or pastoral hiring practices would run afoul of the Establishment Clause, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, which recognized a “ministerial exception” to the application of antidiscrimination law to the hiring of religious ministers.  In my view, a fair reading of Hosanna-Tabor would prevent an antitrust suit involving rabbinical hiring.  However, for purposes of this post, I would like to respond more generally to Barak’s claim that “entanglement” concerns lead to “Establishment Clause creep,” insulating from legal review the harmful decisions of religious organizations.

Barak’s concerns over “creep” fall into two categories.  One concerns the externalization of costs from religious organizations to others–his example of people cutting across the neighbor’s lawn to get to church.  This is an easy case for me, because religious organizations should not be allowed to justify externalizing costs onto others in the name of religious independence.   Of course,  one could argue that all purely private activities end up externalizing costs or benefits onto others (i.e., functional families make for happy neighborhoods, dysfunctional ones for unhappy neighborhoods), but I’m confident that sensible lines can be drawn between what is mostly internal and what is significantly external.

What about cases where the harms, if any, are all or mostly internalized within the religious organization or by its members?   Consider two examples:  ritualistic human sacrifice of willing victims and regulations applied to require churches to install wheelchair ramps.  In neither of these cases is the Establishment Clause or free exercise defense plausible.   In the human sacrifice case, the act is  morally abhorrent and the legal prohibition clear.  Any ostensible free exercise interest is outweighed by the state’s legitimate interest in preserving human life and there is no danger of entanglement.  In the wheelchair ramp case, the legal requirement concerns a physical structure far enough removed from the purposes and values of the religious organization that there is little risk that enforcing the building code would require civil authorities to inquire into the existential purposes of the church and their relationship to the civil law.

Not so for antitrust law (and perhaps other business torts as well).  Antitrust is not justified on the grounds that collaboration among rivals is inherently immoral or  injurious.  Rather, it is justified on instrumental grounds–that competition among business firms tends to increase output and decrease prices to the benefit of consumers.  As I said in earlier posts, it’s awkward to apply this assumption wholesale to religious organizations, since many such organizations would resist the idea that they are ordinary economic actors or exist in order to achieve a better deployment of society’s scarce social resources.  And most religious groups would strongly deny that they would function better if they fostered internal economic rivalry.

For example, for mendicant orders like the Franciscans, the “employees” are bound to an oath of poverty.   They are expressly prohibited from being Chicago School “rational profit-maximizers.”  If the Franciscan order put in place rules to prevent local parishes from trying to attract Franciscan monks through promises of higher compensation, that would run counter to the Sherman Act’s assumption that economic rivalry results in an optimal allocation of resources.  But I’m doubtful that the Sherman Act’s assumption generally holds in the religious organization context.  And, even if it sometimes might hold, it would be  troubling to ask courts to sift through the evidence on different religious organizations to determine when it does hold and when it doesn’t–when the existential purposes of a particular sect would be furthered by greater economic rivalry and when they would not.  That, in my view, would raise serious entanglement problems.  Do we want courts deciding what degree of poverty is appropriate for Franciscan monks?

[I’m amending my post from last night to add a further anecdote from the Christian tradition that illustrates the problem.  In the gospel accounts, when Jesus enters the temple he finds merchants engaging in commerce and drives them out with a whip, saying that God’s house should be one of prayer, not of thievery.  Many churches today are reluctant even to sell sermon tapes or Christian books in the church foyer because of this and similar admonitions.  That this is a concern in the Christian tradition does not make it universally a concern, but it does suggest an entanglement problem if courts were to undertake an inquiry into when commercial transactions are permissible, and when not, within a particular religious tradition.]

In short, I’m less concerned about Establishment Clause creep than about antitrust creep.  Economic rivalry is good sometimes, but not always.  Unlike Barak, I wouldn’t start with the assumption that antitrust law should apply universally to all human endeavor unless a special exception is warranted.  I would start with the assumption that antitrust should apply to business and commerce and only extend it to other endeavors if the case for extension were clear and unencumbered by competing religious, social, or moral values.  As to rabbinical collusion, I’m not persuaded that case has been made.

Mehdi, Menski & Nielsen (eds.), “Interpreting Divorce Laws in Islam”

This November, Djof Publishing will publish Interpreting Divorce Laws in Islam edited by Rubya Mehdi (University of Copenhagen), Werner Menski (University of London) & Jorgen S. Nielsen (University of Copenhagen).  The publisher’s description follows.

The focus of this anthology is on exploring how equality in the right to divorce of Muslim men and women is interpreted within different judical and theoretical frameworks. Analyzing the difference between legislation and judical processes is also a subject. The legislation on this matter varies between several Muslim countries. The book represents these variations with a broad selection of contributors. Furthermore, the book highlights the dilemmas for Muslim women when facing Muslim divorce law in western countries, where the legislation typically is mixed with other systems of law.

Esbeck on Religion During the American Revolution

Carl H. Esbeck (University of Missouri School of Law) has posted Religion During the American Revolution and the Early Republic.  The abstract follows.

This paper is part of an anthology and will appear in volume one under the heading Historical Introduction to Law and Religion in the West. The editor requested an extended essay concerning religion and religious liberty in the American War of Independence and its aftermath. The paper is juxtaposed with another on the French Revolution, providing a comparison for the role religion played in these events that continue to shape the world. In addition to the War itself, which unfolded over 1775-1783, changes within American Protestantism had a leveling effect on society and, by the early years of the republic, the political and religious culture exalted liberty, individualism, and the voluntary church.

The Quebec Act of 1774 illustrates the degree to which American patriots reacted against Roman Catholicism. This act of Parliament preserved the established role of the Catholic Church in French Canada, including public funding and full sanction by the British government. British tolerance of the Catholic establishment drew harsh protests from Congress, even mention as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence. American sensitivity was to Old World political uses of religion. The patriots believed that a fully-empowered Catholic hierarchy to the north and west of them would bring Old World intrigues involving the Roman Church. To be an American was to be in sympathy with Protestantism, to be Protestant was to be republican, and to be republican was to oppose Catholic absolutism. Moreover, the British were departing from their constitutional commitment to representative government when they unilaterally imposed taxes and other oppressive acts on colonial subjects. This was seen as an offense to republicanism and each American’s inalienable rights. The breach of the Lockean social contract legitimated armed rebellion. Read more

Organizational Values, Neutral Principles, and Economic Power

Dan Crane, again with great eloquence, concludes his insightful and personal post by asking, “So where does it leave us if bargaining over money is an unavoidable aspect of much religious hiring but that rivalry over finances is contrary to the principles and self-understanding of many religious organizations?”  This is indeed a foundational problem in nations (like ours) that do not rely on state support for religious activity, but I respectfully submit that this is not a new problem.  Indeed, as I wrote in my earlier posts, the suggestion that religious and nonprofit organizations pursue non-pecuniary objectives — as they clearly do — has often been invoked to shield them from antitrust and regulatory scrutiny, which has led to both economic harm and legal confusion.

It has also led to a mistaken expansion of First Amendment defenses.  Some commentators have spread the mistaken fear that applying neutral principles of law to religious organizations requires, as Dan suggests, an inquiry into “the values of each organization.” Michael Helfand, a rising star in the field, has called this fear “Establishment Clause creep” and has contributed to a growing immunity for religious organizations from general laws.  The Supreme Court’s endorsement of the Ministerial Exception this past year codified this immunity from employment and other discrimination laws, which is a decision I support (disclosure: I authored an amicus brief for Hosanna Tabor that articulated a position that did not contradict with either the petitioner or the respondent in the case).  But if Dan means to extend this immunity to protection from the antitrust laws, would he also extend it to other economic torts?  Or contract actions?

Without doubt, religious organizations and committed religious individuals do an enormous amount of social good.  Dan’s parents are paradigmatic cases in point.  But there needs to be a realistic appreciation that the road to good intentions often strays from the beneficent path, and the law is designed to protect the parties injured from actions motivated by these otherwise well-intended actions.  If a pastor who signed an employment contract that included a severance package is dismissed (perhaps the pastor’s and the congregation’s ideologies parted ways), the church is obligated to pay severance.  If they refuse and the pastor sues, there is no need for a court to inquire into the values underlying the religious motivations or values of either the congregation or the pastor.  Applying neutral principles, the court should enforce the contract.  If a church becomes so popular that its members, to gain entrance to the church, pass over a neighbor’s yard and cause damage, the church would be subject to a tort and should pay compensation. Again, no need to inquire into the church’s mission.  These situations extend, especially, to intra-denominational disputes between large and small parties.  What if the neighbor to the large church is a small church?  The smaller congregation relies on neutral law for protection, otherwise an expansive First Amendment could allow an “entanglement” defense to preclude a court’s intervention into the trespass dispute.

The same logic applies to the antitrust laws.  Neutral principles can and should take a court a long way to resolving a dispute over what essentially is an economic tort.  It is true that the Rabbinical Assembly’s control over the labor market infringes upon a congregation’s Free Exercise rights, but a court need not inquire into either those rights nor the  Free Exercise interests of the Rabbinical Assembly as it implements its cartel.  Neutral principles works very well here, and a court that proceeds along this path would succeed in not interfering with religious organizational values much better than a court that refuses to intervene.  Refusing to intervene would allow the economically powerful to infringe on the mission of the weak.

Although my primary area of expertise is antitrust, I know enough about the First Amendment and the Religion Clauses to appreciate how central they are to American life and American law.  But if the First Amendment prevents courts from enforcing secular law according to neutral principles, then it can defeat its own mission (see Saving the First Amendment from Itself).  The law should not and cannot be dogmatic in its refusal to adjudicate disputes between religious organizations because that would remove protections from organizations that need and rely on the law. And it would — again, contrary to the best of intentions — enshrine the powerful and undermine the religious values of those without power.