Around the Web

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

  • In Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit vacated its August 2022 decision which had found for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and ordered that the case be reheard en banc. In this case, the school had revoked the status of a Christian student group because the school objected to a policy that allegedly discriminated against LGBTQ students.
  • In Firewalker-Fields v. Lee, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a Muslim inmate’s First Amendment Free Exercise claim. The court wrote that the jail’s policy of not allowing the plaintiff access to Friday Islamic prayers was reasonably related to security and resource allocation.
  • Thirteen Christian and Jewish leaders filed for a permanent injunction in the Missouri Circuit Court in Blackmon v. State of Missouri. The complaint seeks to bar the State of Missouri from enforcing its abortion ban, claiming that the ban violates the Missouri Constitution by failing to protect the free exercise of religion.
  • In Ference v Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, a federal magistrate judge in the Western District of Pennsylvania recommended denying a motion to dismiss filed by the Catholic Diocese in response to a Title VII sex-discrimination lawsuit. The lawsuit was made by a Lutheran sixth-grade teacher in a Catholic school who was fired shortly after being hired when the school discovered that he was in a same-sex marriage.
  • A nurse practitioner filed suit in a Texas federal district court after being fired for refusing to prescribe contraceptives. The complaint in Strader v. CVS Health Corp alleges that CVS’s firing amounted to religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.
  • On January 11, 2023, the US House of Representatives passed the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. This bill states that any infant born alive after an attempted abortion is a “legal person for all purposes under the laws of the United States.” Doctors would be required to care for those infants as they would any other child who was born alive.
  • Dr. Erika Lopez Prater, an art professor at Hamline University, is suing the University for religious discrimination and defamation after she was fired for showing an image of Muhammad to her Islamic art class.

Unire l’utile al dilettevole

In the academy today, there are powerful forces that aim to dismantle and discard traditional sources of knowledge, and that reject the merit of gaining that knowledge, replacing it with other objectives. The motives are many, but it is possible to discern a reason that many of the disparate motives share: knowledge (and its acquisition and dissemination) is not, or not necessarily, an essential human good. It is not necessarily a human good, for example, if and when it conflicts with what are felt to be other, more important, ends.

Even among those who believe that the acquisition and production of traditional knowledge is good, there are further disagreements. Is such knowledge good because it is useful for some further purpose or end? For the exercise of power over others, for example, or for bending other people to one’s will, or even simply for the provision of material necessities? Or is it good because it is, as some contemporary defenders of the traditional liberal arts put it, “useless”–an end in itself, a good in itself that needs no, and, indeed, can have no further justification? Or some combination of these?

Disagreements about the good of knowledge–whether it is good at all, and what it is good for, if anything, beyond itself–are not uniquely modern (though the motives driving some of the trending policies in academia today do seem, to me at any rate, to be distinctive). The old Italian phrase, “unire l’utile al dilettevole,” which means to unite what is useful with what delights, reflects one interesting position. Namely, that the good of knowledge is comprehensively manifested in the coming together of utility and pleasure or delight.

Here is a book–admittedly in one of the more distant galaxies of the law-and-religion universe–that offers what looks like a wonderful perspective on the good-of-knowledge question reflecting, in certain ways, the point of view in the Italian adage: Why Does Math Work If It’s Not Real? (Cambridge University Press) by Dragan Radulović. The thesis of the book concerns the distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics, and it seems to be (if one can surmise from the description) that what in one generation or century seems entirely “pure,” or useless, or delightful for its own sake, can become, in the distant future and entirely unexpectedly, “useful.” So that the union of the useful and the delightful really should be evaluated across extended periods of time–perhaps centuries or even millennia–because it is unfathomable when confronting the good of knowledge at any given moment or point in time, especially the point in time in which the knowledge is acquired or comes to be known.

According to G. H. Hardy, the ‘real’ mathematics of the greats like Fermat and Euler is ‘useless,’ and thus the work of mathematicians should not be judged on its applicability to real-world problems. Yet, mysteriously, much of mathematics used in modern science and technology was derived from this ‘useless’ mathematics. Mobile phone technology is based on trig functions, which were invented centuries ago. Newton observed that the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, a curve discovered by ancient Greeks in their futile attempt to double the cube. It is like some magic hand had guided the ancient mathematicians so their formulas were perfectly fitted for the sophisticated technology of today. Using anecdotes and witty storytelling, this book explores that mystery. Through a series of fascinating stories of mathematical effectiveness, including Planck’s discovery of quanta, mathematically curious readers will get a sense of how mathematicians develop their concepts.