Justice Thomas’s Concurrence in Town of Greece

One last expository post on Town of Greece v. Galloway, this one on Justice Thomas’s concurrence, which was joined by Justice Scalia as to Part II alone. There has already been a fair quantity of commentary on the case, but little of it has focused on Justice Thomas’s concurrence.

The Thomas concurrence is divided into two sections. The first part restates and develops Justice Thomas’s view, first expressed in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, that the Establishment Clause should not be incorporated against the states because the Establishment Clause represents a protection for the states against interference by the federal government in matters of religion. Like the Tenth Amendment, the Establishment Clause is not a protection for individual rights. The clause’s incorporation was simply assumed, wrongly and without argument, in the Everson case.

Some discomfited attention is being paid to Justice Thomas’s statement that “[a]s an initial matter, the Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion.” How could he only say “probably”? But there is an explanation. The citation for this statement is the excellent book, Church, State, and Original Intent, by religious historian (and Center for Law and Religion board member and former Forum guest) Donald Drakeman. Here is Don at 260 of the book:

The strongest evidence from the constitutional ratifying conventions, the amendment proposals, the records of the congressional debates, and the ratification of the Bill of Rights points consistently in one direction: that Congress should be prohibited from establishing a “national religion.” The First Amendment thus succeeded in turning the hotly contested subject of church-state relations–which had already caused legislative battles in the states and would continue to do so virtually in perpetuity–into a “milk and water” amendment by focusing on the one thing no one wanted and everyone could unite against: a “Church of the United States.” There was no need for the various participants to agree on what that meant, and, indeed, interpretive disagreements arose as early as the first few decades, but, for this review of the understanding of the clause at the time it was adopted, there is no body of evidence that supports any more detailed sense of what the language meant to the people who voted for it or to the American public who received it.

There is therefore enormous uncertainty as to what the clause meant as an original matter (this is one reason that original expected applications originalism is so useful as to the Establishment Clause)–uncertainty that is reflected in the very spare historical record that reveals next to nothing about the clause’s historical meaning. Church-state arrangements in the early republic were, as they are now, deeply unsettled and contested, and the Establishment Clause was not intended to settle them. If the clause is read as Justice Thomas reads it–as a federalism provision–then one must make the inference (and it is an inference) that a national church was prohibited, since a national church would present a major obstacle to the freedom of states to decide on their own church-state arrangements. 

Part II of the concurrence assumes that the clause had been incorporated and then argues that what the clause proscribes is “coercion of religious orthodoxy and of financial support by force of law and threat of penalty.” Note that here there is a kind of unity with Justice Scalia’s view of the scope of protection afforded by the Free Exercise Clause. This “actual legal coercion” test–which the Justices distinguish from a “subtle coercive pressures” test (see Lee v. Weisman) involves the exercise of government power “in order to exact financial support of the church, compel religious observance, or control religious doctrine.” It is therefore unsurprising that Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia did not join Part II(B) of Justice Kennedy’s opinion dealing with the type of coercion required to make out an Establishment Clause challenge (assuming its incorporation against the states).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: