Around the Web

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

  • In Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Abbott, the Fifth Circuit held the FFRF’s lawsuit challenging the exclusion of one of its displays at the state capitol was moot, as the Texas State Preservation Board had repealed the law allowing private displays. The court stated that “the Foundation’s injury is premised on exclusion from expressing its message in a public forum, and because the public forum no longer exists, the permanent injunctive relief ordered by the district court cannot remain.”
  • In Alive Church of the Nazarene, Inc. v. Prince William County, Virginia, the Fourth Circuit rejected a church’s challenges to zoning restrictions that prevented the church from using its property for religious services. The Fourth Circuit rejected the church’s RLUIPA claims, as well as its Equal Protection, Free Exercise, and Peaceable Assembly challenges to the zoning restrictions.
  • In a Mississippi federal district court case, the parties in L.B. v. Simpson County School District have reached a settlement. As part of the settlement, the Simpson County School District has agreed to change its policy that prohibited a 3rd-grade student from wearing a face mask with the phrase “Jesus Loves Me” on it. Additionally, the school district will pay $45,000 and allow the student to wear her mask. 
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services has proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act that would eliminate the current exemption for employers and schools that have moral, as opposed to religious, objections to covering contraceptive services.
  • The chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities sent a letter to House and Senate sponsors of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act” (H.R.7 and S.62) in support of the legislation. The act would make long-standing prohibitions on federal funding of elective abortion permanent and government-wide, rather than depending on various appropriations.
  • The Australian Law Reform Commission, an independent Australian government agency, has released a Consultation Paper on Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws. The Consultation Paper suggested proposals that would “make discrimination against students on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy in schools and other religious educational institutions unlawful” while also allowing “religious schools to maintain their religious character by permitting them to . . . give preference to prospective staff on religious grounds where the teaching, observance, or practice of religion is a part of their role.” 
  • At the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, spoke regarding the “two contemporary genocides” of Muslims worldwide. Van Shaack voiced her support for the international community’s drafting of a crimes against humanity statute that would enable these crimes to be prosecuted in the International Crimes Court.  

The Disintegrating Conscience

Perhaps this notice comes slightly early, but I had the pleasure of reading Professor Steven Smith’s new book, The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press), in its pre-publication draft, and I was delighted to offer this book blurb about it: “Steven Smith is the greatest law and religion scholar of his generation. Every book he writes is illuminating, and this one is no exception. The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity is far and away the most insightful, balanced, and convincing account of the religion clauses to appear in the last five years at least.” Here is the description:

Steven D. Smith’s books are always anticipated with great interest by scholars, jurists, and citizens who see his work on foundational questions surrounding law and religion as shaping the debate in profound ways. Now, in The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity, Smith takes as his starting point Jacques Barzun’s provocative assertion that “the modern era” is coming to an end. Smith considers the question of decline by focusing on a single theme—conscience—that has been central to much of what has happened in Western politics, law, and religion over the past half-millennium. Rather than attempting to follow that theme step-by-step through five hundred years, the book adopts an episodic and dramatic approach by focusing on three main figures and particularly portentous episodes: first, Thomas More’s execution for his conscientious refusal to take an oath mandated by Henry VIII; second, James Madison’s contribution to Virginia law in removing the proposed requirement of religious toleration in favor of freedom of conscience; and, third, William Brennan’s pledge to separate his religious faith from his performance as a Supreme Court justice. These three episodes, Smith suggests, reflect in microcosm decisive turning points at which Western civilization changed from what it had been in premodern times to what it is today. A commitment to conscience, Smith argues, has been a central and in some ways defining feature of modern Western civilization, and yet in a crucial sense conscience in the time of Brennan and today has come to mean almost the opposite of what it meant to Thomas More. By scrutinizing these men and episodes, the book seeks to illuminate subtle but transformative changes in the commitment to conscience—changes that helped to bring Thomas More’s world to an end and that may also be contributing to the disintegration of (per Barzun) “the modern era.”