Public Law and Private Law

One of my summer projects–still hatching–concerns the idea of “drift” in what is regarded as prototypically “public” and “private” law. That is, the tendency of what was regarded as public law to be privatized, and the tendency of private law to become a matter of public concern. For example, law and religion is traditionally understood as public law in its constitutional dimensions–the law that concerns the state’s relationship to the citizenry respecting religious questions. But there are also features of law and religion that may be considered private law: contractual arrangements based on religious law, for example, and others. Of course, the categories of public and private have been famously attacked by legal realists and their descendants as empty formalisms. In more recent years, however, scholars coming from a variety of perspectives have revived and defended the distinction. In tort law, for example, John Goldberg and Benjamin Zipursky have done so in their book (and prior work), Recognizing Wrongs, and others as well in what is called the “new private law” perspective.

From his own distinctive, Kantian perspective, so has the eminent private law theorist Ernest J. Weinrib. Here is an important new book on themes he has been developing for many years, and which go very much to the private/public division: Reciprocal Freedom: Private Law and Public Right (OUP).

Reciprocal Freedom elucidates the relationship between private law and the state, presenting reciprocal freedom as the normative idea underlying a legal order in which private law occupies a distinctive place. Weinrib develops a set of interconnected conceptions of private law, corrective justice, rights, ownership, the role of legal institutions, distributive justice, the relationship of constitutional rights to private law, and the rule of law.

The book is explicitly Kantian in inspiration; it presents a non-instrumental account of law that is geared to the juridical character of the modern liberal state. Combining legal and philosophical analysis, it offers a sequenced and legally informed argument for understanding law as necessary to our co-existence as free beings.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • A petition for certiorari has been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy. In the case, the Third Circuit held that accommodating a Sunday sabbath observer by allowing him not to report for work on Sunday would cause an “undue hardship” to the U.S. Postal Service. Therefore, the court held that failure to grant the requested accommodation did not violate Title VII. 
  • In In the Interest of C.C., the Georgia Supreme Court gave guidance to a juvenile court on how to determine whether parents’ objections to vaccinating their children are based on a sincerely held religious belief. The court said in part: “Ultimately, the juvenile court must determine whether the Chandlers’ religious objection to the vaccination of their children is ‘truly held.’ The court should ‘sh[y] away from attempting to gauge how central a sincerely held belief is to the believer’s religion.’ And it must bear in mind that ‘a belief can be both secular and religious. The categories are not mutually exclusive.’ “
  • In Toor v. Berger, the D.C. federal district court refused to grant a preliminary injunction to three Sikh Marine recruits who wanted to prevent enforcement of the Marine’s uniform and grooming policies during recruit training while their case continues to be litigated. Plaintiffs argue that denying accommodation of their religious practices violates RFRA, the Free Exercise Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. The court held that even if plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable injury, the balance of equities and the overall public interest favors the military at this preliminary stage of proceedings. 
  • In Bey v. Sirius-El, a New York federal district court dismissed a suit seeking damages, injunctive relief, and criminal prosecution of defendants for barring plaintiff from attending the Brooklyn Moorish Science Temple in person. Plaintiff was barred because of the potential for a conflict between her and a “competing love interest” who has also been attending services. The court dismissed plaintiff’s free exercise claims because she did not allege that any state action was involved. 
  • In Chabad of Prospect, Inc. v. Louisville Metro Board of Zoning Adjustment, a Kentucky federal district court dismissed a suit brought against zoning officials by a synagogue that was denied a conditional use permit to use a home it purchased for religious services. When the property was put up for sale, zoning rules allowed its use for religious purposes. However, before plaintiff purchased the property, the city removed that provision and required a conditional use permit. The court held that plaintiff’s § 1983 claim alleging First Amendment violations was barred by the statute of limitations. Additionally, the court held that plaintiff failed to state a claim under RLUIPA. 
  • In Miller v. Austin, a Wyoming federal district court dismissed on standing and ripeness grounds a suit by two Air Force sergeants who face discharge because of their refusal on religious grounds to receive the COVID vaccine.