When Death is Better than the Alternative?

My friend, Tom Berg, has this response to my post about Free Exercise Clause atrophy. He and I don’t see things too differently, though he is as usual more optimistic than I am. I think he undersells what can be read from the Stormans cert. denial. And the denial of cert. in Ben-Levi v. Brown (again with a J. Alito dissent). And the denial of cert. in Big Sky Colony, where I was also pleased to join another excellent amicus brief spearheaded by Tom himself urging review of the Free Exercise Clause issues. The Court just doesn’t want any part of these issues right now.

But Tom’s post makes me think that perhaps atrophy may actually be the best option on offer. Tom writes that “moderate-ish” liberals might be able to combine with the likes of Justice Alito to hear a case involving “state/local government action against Muslims, or against some other group that everyone agrees is a religious minority.” That is because “liberal opinion” has accepted the various third-party-harms theories being floated about, and because of the expansion of the idea of harm “that modern welfare-state liberalism regards as ‘public.'”

I think I agree with most of Tom’s description here. Tom is probably right that, e.g., Christians with certain specific beliefs about sexuality are not and will never be, in the “liberal opinion” he refers to, the sort of viable “minorities” thought to deserve FEC protection. That “liberal opinion” is powerful now, growing, and likely to influence the ideological profile of the Supreme Court directly and indirectly for years to come. If that is true, then perhaps we should root for atrophy, if not death. Better the Smith rule, which at least has the advantage of being clear and reasonably predictable, than the rule of “liberal opinion” masquerading as constitutional law. Indeed, perhaps religious accommodation has always been infected by something of this quality. We accommodate when we don’t really care–for prison beards, oddballs, and tiny, exotic sects to which nobody really pays attention. When we do care, we find ways not to accommodate (harm! third parties! dignity!). And as the ambit of the “public” increases, it becomes easier and easier to make claims about third party harms, particularly when those harms cut to the quick of “liberal opinion.”

A participant in our colloquium in law at St. John’s this spring, and a noted critic of religious accommodation (someone, as it happens, whose views in general don’t often match up with my own), suggested that if given a choice between non-discriminatory religious persecution and religious discrimination, he’d opt for religious persecution. I can’t say I agree. But this exchange makes me understand that view much more clearly.

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