I am just back from a conference at Yale Law School organized jointly by Professors Robin Wilson and Bill Eskridge on “Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom,” and I offer here some general thoughts about the presentations and the nature of the conference. While the conference’s rules do not permit me to get into specifics about who said what, my overall impression is that it was a gathering of academics, politicians, religious leaders, and practitioners drawn from a comparatively broad spectrum of political, religious, and cultural opinion. Robin and Bill are to be commended, in my view, for that balance–always difficult to achieve to everyone’s satisfaction.
One of the conference’s launch points was the fairly recent report by the US Commission on Civil Rights entitled, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles With Civil Liberties,” but which did not contain, in my view, very much sound advice for achieving peaceful coexistence or reconciliation. All of the panels concerned the topic of achieving modus vivendi arrangements for the proper legal accommodation of rights of religious liberty and rights of sexual freedom and equality. This has been a large and important part of Robin’s own policy work over the last few years, and the so-called Utah Compromise was studied and considered in this respect.
Two things stood out for me in particular.
First, one of the more interesting debates among the group, and, it seems to me, going forward, is about the baseline question of what constitutes the sort of discrimination that the law ought to proscribe in the first place. Once a particular judgment is found to be proscribable discrimination (I suppose the term is “invidious”), the result is all but foreordained. Some argued that the motivation for a particular discrimination is irrelevant; so long as the effect is adverse action against a person within a designated protected category, that ought to be sufficient. Others returned that this was in effect stacking the deck. The first question must be whether somebody has engaged in invidious discrimination at all, and that this is not a question about motivation but about how we properly describe the discrimination that the person has made. Barronelle Stutzman’s case is one example of this sort of debate, and this brief authored by Professor Steve Smith addresses the question. But the larger issue of the baseline affects many sorts of discriminations that people make in other contexts. Suppose, for example, that a hospital refuses to perform a surgery to remove the healthy uterus of a woman who identifies as transgender and desires to become a man. Is that the sort of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that the law should condemn? Or is it nothing of the kind–is it simply a judgment that hospitals do not remove healthy uteruses–and certainly nothing like a hospital’s refusal to perform heart bypass surgery on a woman who identifies as transgender?
Second, one of the pervasive themes of the conference was the conflict between perfectionist and anti-perfectionist accounts of liberalism, and whether perfectionist liberalism is in its ascendancy at the moment. As is well-known, Robin, in her work with others like Professor Douglas Laycock and some of our own MOJ colleagues, has worked tirelessly to hammer out compromises that reflect a judicious anti-perfectionist liberalism. But my sense, in some ways confirmed by this conference, is that perfectionist accounts of liberalism (indeed, perfectionist accounts of politics in general) cannot really ever be sidelined. My own inclinations have always been rather pessimistic when it comes to true pluralism in a liberal democratic nation, even as I deeply appreciate the work of Robin and others. I believe strongly that the expressive and symbolic power of the law is an extremely important feature of it–what the law says about its people, what its people are proud of it to say, always lurks as a sort of subtext beneath the surface of whatever modus vivendi arrangements we might achieve. It is a mistake to ignore that subtext, as it will otherwise only come frothing and bubbling up at unexpected moments.
My own presentation involved what is seemingly a somewhat esoteric topic–Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli–which begins with the statement that “[T]he government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” Part of my talk involved the history of Article XI (which is fascinating) but part suggested that the fight over American identity that the phrase (and many phrases like it) has come to represent–and the symbolic and expressive force of the law–is both a substantial impediment to anti-perfectionist liberal democratic governance and an inevitable and important feature of any government worth the name. More on this soon, I hope.