Third Session of the CLR Reading Society: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

We are pleased to announce the third session of the CLR Reading Society, an opportunity open to all St. John’s Law students to discuss works of fiction and non-fiction raising law and religion themes.

Canaletto, “Bucentaur’s Return to the Pier by the Palazzo Ducale”

Our choice for our gathering this time is William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, one of his two “Venetian plays” (together with Othello) in which Shakespeare explores powerful and tragic themes of religious identity and difference within the civic life of a prosperous republic. In discussing the play, we will also consider Allan Bloom’s essay, “On Christian and Jew: The Merchant of Venice.”

St. John’s Law students interested in the CLR Reading Society should contact Professor DeGirolami, marc.degirolami@stjohns.edu, or Professor Movsesian, movsesim@stjohns.edu. Books are provided for free to students and all are welcome. We will meet online on the evening of Thursday, October 28, 2021, to discuss The Merchant of Venice, so students who would like to join us and require a book should write to us as soon as possible.

“Establishment’s Political Priority to Free Exercise”

I have a new paper, Establishment’s Political Priority to Free Exercise, forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review. Here is the abstract:

American law is beset by disagreement about the First Amendment. Progressive scholars are attacking the venerable liberal view that First Amendment rights must not be constricted to secure communal, political benefits. To prioritize rights, they say, reflects an unjust inflation of individual interest over our common political commitments. These disagreements afflict the Religion Clauses as well. Critics claim that religious exemption has become more important than the values of disestablishment that define the polity. Free exercise exemption, they argue, has subordinated establishment.

This Article contests these views. The fundamental rules and norms constituting the political regime—what the Article calls “the establishment”—has now, and has always had, political priority to rights of exemption from it. This basic claim may be narrowed to the issue of church and state, but it is simply a more focused version of the same thing: the establishment’s civil religion—the set of transcendent, church-state propositions that supports the political regime’s legitimacy and authority—has political priority to rights of exemption from it. Narrowed further, the basic claim also reflects the dynamics of Religion Clause doctrine: religious exemption’s contemporary ascendance is an epiphenomenal consequence of the civil religion dismantling effected by the Supreme Court’s Religion Clause doctrine in the twentieth century and consolidated by the Court in the twenty first. Though today’s most divisive law and religion controversies often take surface-level legal shape as conflicts about free exercise exemption, their deeper source is a long-gestating transformation in the nature of the American political regime’s civil religion establishment. Today’s free exercise cases are the latest skirmishes in yesterday’s disestablishment wars. They reflect disagreements over how best to characterize the work of the dismantlers, as well as efforts toward consolidation of that work to achieve a new civil religion regime. And what they show is that in twenty-first century America, just as ever, establishment still takes political priority to free exercise.

Raul J. Muniz, “Protests in Cuba and the Detention of Religious Leaders”

[Editors: The following is a post from St. John’s 3L law student, Raul J. Muniz.]

On July 11, thousands of Cubans in more than 40 cities across the country took to the streets to protest the Cuban government. The island has not seen public demonstrations on this scale in over 62 years since Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took power in 1959. The Cuban people have lived under a single-party authoritarian regime where political dissent is punished and repressed. The protests demanding liberty were exacerbated by increasing COVID-19 cases and a failing economy.

Protestors were quickly met with large-scale arrests by security forces and a complete shutdown of internet access to limit communication and prevent videos of the protests from circulating across social media. According to the Foundation for Pan American Democracy (FDP) Center for Incident Reports, at least 750 Cubans have disappeared or have been detained.

The arrests and detentions have included some prominent religious figures. Among those detained were Pastor Yeremi Blanco and Pastor Yarian Sierra of the Berean Baptist Mission, Reverend Yusniel Pérez Montejo of the Eastern Baptist Convention, and Father Jose Alvarez Devesa of the Roman Catholic Church. Cuban authorities also detained Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, an opposition movement founded by wives and relatives of jailed dissidents who silently walk through the streets dressed in white after attending Sunday Mass.

Religion and Religious Freedom in Cuba

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion on the island, with 60% of Cubans identifying as members of the Roman Catholic Church.

Professor Alejandro Anreus explains, in Catholic Cuba, that by the late 1950s, Catholic leaders were openly challenging President Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro’s predecessor, to return to an elected and constitutional democracy. When Castro’s revolutionary forces successfully overthrew Batista’s military dictatorship, Catholic leaders and laity sensed new possibilities in Castro’s promises of an ethically managed government, agrarian reform and land redistribution, literacy campaigns, and other social-justice improvements.

However, after Castro came to power, the Cuban government banned public religious events, expelled Roman Catholic priests, and nationalized Catholic schools. Notably, the Auxiliary Bishop of Havana, Boza Masvidal, was jailed and deported after condemning Castro’s self-declared Marxist-Leninist government. Father Miguel A. Loredo, a Franciscan friar and an outspoken critic of the revolution’s denial of religious freedom, would spend ten years in prison and was forced to leave Cuba. By 1962, 70 percent of priests and 90 percent of nuns had left Cuba.

Tensions between the Church and Cuban government have eased somewhat in more recent years. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis all have visited the island, and the first Catholic Church since the 1959 revolution was inaugurated in 2019. However, religious expression is limited by state surveillance and control; religious leaders that speak out against the government are subject to government discrimination and harassment.

Role of the Roman Catholic Church

In recent years, the Catholic Church has served as a mediator in negotiating the release of political prisoners and brokering the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Critics of the Cuban government have asserted that the Church has not done enough to confront the government on human rights abuses.

After the protests on July 11, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Religious set up a hotline to advise the families of detainees about pursuing claims of habeas corpus, locating detainees, and providing spiritual and psychological guidance. Cuban bishops issued a statement on July 12 acknowledging “that the people have the right to express their needs, desires and hopes and, in turn, to express publicly how some of the measures that have been taken are seriously affecting them,” and encouraged citizens and the government to seek dialogue. Pope Francis, in his first Angelus Address after being hospitalized for two weeks, extended his support for the Cuban people and prayed for a “society that is more just and more fraternal through peace, dialogue and solidarity.”

Although the protests on July 11 perhaps suggest that Catholic leaders in Cuba are willing to take a stronger stance against the government, it remains unclear what role the Catholic Church will play as Cubans on the island, and Cuban exiles in the United States, demand further and more far-reaching changes.

Second Session of the CLR Reading Society: City of God

Mark and I were very pleased last night to host the second session of our Reading Society, an occasion for students and alumni to gather in the evening to discuss a classic work. Our choice for this session was a selection of books from Augustine’s City of God, together with associated materials drawn from the Letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere. As with our first session on Antigone, this one was a huge success. Our discussion centered around two main issues: Augustine’s two-cities theme; and the idea of a people having common “loves.” Our students were thoughtful and brought fresh insights to the material. They clearly had prepared for the discussion!

We will try to organize at least one new session next fall and are already thinking of possibilities.

Presentation at the U. Arizona Rehnquist Center’s Annual Conference of Constitutional Law Scholars

I was delighted to present a new paper at the University of Arizona Rehnquist Center’s National Conference of Constitutional Law Scholars today. I was on the religion and speech panel, with interesting presentations from Professors Luke Boso; Stephanie Barclay and Justin Collings; and Shaakirrah Sanders.

My paper (not yet in public circulation) is called “Establishment’s Political Priority to Free Exercise,” and it examines which set of principles and commitments underlying each Clause has political priority conceptually, temporally, and as a matter of general significance.

Professor Melissa Murray commented acutely and very helpfully on the draft and the presentation. More soon on this paper.

On Mill’s Influence on Constitutional Law

I have this review at the Liberty Fund Law and Liberty site of Professor John Lawrence Hill’s book, The Prophet of Modern Constitutional Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the Supreme Court (2020). A bit from the end:

“What may be most puzzling in harm principle arguments is the assertion that they are not moral arguments. Hill repeats this claim in describing Mill’s view that the harm principle eschews “legal moralism.” True, Mill’s moralism is of a peculiar sort—one that steadfastly denies its moralism even as it imposes it. And this, too, is part of Mill’s legacy in American law. “Don’t impose your morality on me!” Such is the complaint, in the high and mighty places of American legal culture, of those most willing to do just that through the harm gambit.

Might it not be better simply to dispense with the harm principle? The advantages are plain. Rather than disguising what are contested moral assertions in the discursive cloak of harm—or its currently fashionable obverse, “health”—we could call deep moral disagreement by its rightful name. The losers would at least lose honestly, and what they lose could be recognized as a loss. They would not suffer the further indignity of explanations that their views are just a category mistake.

Yet regrettably, we seem destined to bear Mill’s burden. Harm-creep and harm-shrink in constitutional law track developments in other cultural arenas, where the concept of harm has enjoyed “semantic inflation” and deflation. And the efficacy of harm claims tends to correspond with who’s up and who’s down anyway. Those who wield cultural influence and can translate what they take to be grievances into legally cognizable harms will feel justified in dismissing the losers’ further losses simply as “not harms.”

A balancing of losses and gains is not enough for the victors, because only a moralized victory that treats them as fully virtuous (or “privileged” but absolved after some modest public abasement) and deserving of their wins will do. Hurts to the wrong sort of people become not matters of regret, but moral imperatives. Those hurts are “non-harm.” All the while, collateral wounds of various sorts accrue and are rendered invisible. It would not be fair to blame Mill for all of this, in legal discourse or elsewhere. Perhaps moral argument in law inevitably has something of this quality—that when the strong do what they can, it is the moral fault of the weak that they suffer as they must.”

Second Gathering of the CLR Reading Society: Augustine’s City of God

City of Men

Mark and I are delighted to announce the second session of the CLR Reading Society, an opportunity open to all St. John’s Law students to discuss works of fiction and non-fiction raising law and religion themes.

Our choice this time is Augustine’s masterwork, The City of God, a philosophical and theological meditation on the nature of God, evil, and human existence in this world and the next. Be assured, students, that we will not read the entire thing! For those who would like to participate, Professor Movsesian and I have made some selections that will not overwhelm you while giving you a sense of the work.

St. John’s Law students interested in the CLR Reading Society should contact Professor DeGirolami, marc.degirolami@stjohns.edu, or Professor Movsesian, movsesim@stjohns.edu. Books are provided for free to students and all are welcome. We will meet on the evening of March 31, 2021, to discuss The City of God, so students who would like to join us and require a book should write to us as soon as possible.

The Past as Origin: A Reflection from James Hankins

I thought this fragment from Professor James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019), was very interesting and well put (64-65), quite apart from the “Cambridge School” applications it may have:

“A conceptual framework motivated by present concerns may distort the past, but questions about origins and foundations are surely not “temptations” but the lifeblood of historical inquiry. A methodology that cripples the ability to ask such questions needs rethinking. Historical questions and metahistorical questions are indeed different and should be kept separate, but this fact need not be taken as a source of epistemological despair. Rather it is, or it should be, a call to exercise our imaginative understanding of human phenomena in relation to the entirety of past cultures, their Lebenswelt, the long-faded structures of practical constraints and inherited values that shaped those cultures and still renders them legible, with disciplined research, to the attentive mind. In practical terms this means exercising ceaseless vigilance against anachronism: something easier said than done. To see the past in its own terms goes against our naïve or interested desire to make use of the past for our own purposes. It also requires hard work, imagination, and (dare one say it) a certain kind of love. We want to root our own identities as individuals or groups in a glorious past, or (more often these days) we want to preen ourselves on our superiority to a benighted past, and this desire sometimes blinds us to difference, to anachronism, to moral universes other than our own. But sometimes we have to transcend our own needs in order to do justice to the reality of other persons and times. And sometimes it is the truth we cannot see that is precisely the one we need.”

Religion and Law at Regis High School Today

I was delighted to participate in a Religion and Law class at Regis High School, taught by AJ DeBonis. We chatted a little bit about fundamental questions of interpretive method, and then some of the primary interpretive theories the Court has used for the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause over the years. I was very impressed with the students’ insights and fund of knowledge. Well done!

Remarks on the Connection of Substantive Morality to the Rule of Law and Stare Decisis

I enjoyed speaking about the relationship of substantive and procedural ideas of justice to the rule of law and stare decisis on this panel, part of The International Forum on the Future of Constitutionalism’s “Global Summit” organized by Professor Richard Albert. In my remarks, I argued against a thin, purely proceduralist view of the rule of law and stare decisis, and also against a morally thick, substantive view of the rule of law and stare decisis. I urged an intermediate possibility. As the rule of law seems to be in the air, so to speak, I thought I would reproduce my remarks. They are below.

“I want to reflect on the relationship of substantive political morality to the rule of law and stare decisis. On some accounts, the virtues of both the rule of law and stare decisis are purely procedural. On other accounts, the rule of law incorporates thick, substantive conceptions of political morality. For example, a set of substantive human rights as defined by an international body or other community. Or some thick, substantive ideal of equality or justice. Interestingly, people do not take this second view about stare decisis, the obligation of courts as a general matter to stand by a prior precedent even when they disagree with it. So far as I know, nobody thinks stare decisis contains an ideal of human rights, for example.

So, which account is right? There are a few possibilities. One possibility is that the rule of law *and* stare decisis both embody purely procedural ideals, and that those arguing for a substantive political morality within the rule of law are wrong. A second possibility is that the rule of law embodies substantive political morality while stare decisis does not. That is, the rule of law and stare decisis are relevantly different on this score. And a third possibility is that both the rule of law and stare decisis incorporate procedural and moral values. Now, even though as I indicated, nobody takes this view as to stare decisis (though some do as to the rule of law), I actually think this is the correct position.

But the type of substantive political morality incorporated within the rule of law and stare decisis is not the sort of thick view of the second possibility—equality or human rights or liberty or antidiscrimination, for example. It is instead a kind of political morality related to the procedural virtues of both.

Let me briefly describe the first two views. I’ll then take on the third view, sketching Lon Fuller’s position and extending it in ways that thicken it somewhat, but not all the way, so to speak. Not to oatmeal or gruel thickness, but more like to lobster bisque or vichyssoise thickness.


First, the purely procedural view. This is the view that the rule of law and stare decisis incorporate nothing of substantive political morality. Rather, the rule of law is about the law’s generality, its equal application, its predictability, consistency, and prospectivity. In societies governed by the rule of law, the rules are supposed to rule, not the people making and implementing those rules. Stare decisis’ procedural virtues are similarly generally conceived as including legal stability, consistency, and predictability. Notice the overlap of procedural virtues here. In fact, we might say that stare decisis incorporates many, though not all, the procedural virtues of the rule of law, but it does so in a particular context—judicial decisionmaking. That’s the first view.

The second view is that in addition to these procedural virtues, the rule of law incorporates thick substantive ideals of political morality like human rights, sexual equality, whatever. This position has become more popular of late, perhaps in part because of the felt need to anchor contested substantive political ideals in a comparatively uncontested procedural ideal like the rule of law.

Still, I think this second view is wrong. To believe in the law’s predictability and stability has nothing necessarily to do with believing in human rights or equality or nondiscrimination. Let me give three reasons, which should be familiar.

First, legal regimes with unjust or repressive laws can be committed to the rule of law. Now you might say—well, even in morally unjust regimes, consistency in legal application is a virtue and a kind of justice. And that’s true, but then we’ve reduced the idea of justice to equality of legal application. That is at least a very thin understanding of justice.

Second, someone might say, well, we have to affirm the procedural virtues of the rule of law because we can only achieve thick, substantive political and moral ideals like human rights and human dignity if we affirm the rule of law. We have to affirm the rule of law for instrumental reasons. But I think that’s wrong too. Procedural rule of law virtues actually may be *in tension* with achieving some of these thick political-moral ideals. A person committed to, say, a particular conception of sexual equality might think it important, or even required, to reject some procedural rule of law virtue that is perceived to obstruct that substantive vision of the good.

Third, as for the rule of law as a rule of rules, rather than people, here again, various thick, substantive political or moral ideals might just as easily clash with the rule of law as be promoted by it. As Lon Fuller, to whom I will return in a moment, puts it: “From the standpoint of the inner morality of law, it is desirable that laws remain stable through time. But it is obvious that changes in circumstances, or changes in men’s consciences, may demand changes in the substantive aims of law, and sometimes disturbingly frequent ones.” 44 So much for what I’ve described as the second view—that the rule of law incorporates or somehow necessarily subserves a thick version, an oatmeal or pea soup version, of substantive political morality—liberalism, human rights, distributive justice, and so on.

Does this mean that the first view—the purely procedural view of the rule of law (and, for that matter, of stare decisis)—is the correct one? I do not think so. I think there is an intermediate conceptual possibility between the purely procedural and the thickest political-moral conception of the rule of law. It’s a conception of the morality of the rule of law that also applies, I think, to the morality of stare decisis. What is that conception?

Here I think it’s helpful to return to Fuller’s book, The Morality of Law. Fuller described what he called the “internal morality of law” and its “neutrality” toward substantive aims. The internal morality of law, Fuller claimed in Chapter 2, consists of several virtues of a legal system that sound proceduralist: (1) generality—the requirement that there actually be rules rather than patternless commands; (2) promulgation—to ensure to some degree that those subject to the law know what it is; (3) prospectivity—to be ruled by law is to be ruled by existing law, not non-existing law; (4) clarity; (5) avoiding contradictory laws; (6) avoiding laws that require the impossible; (7) constancy or stability of the law through time; and (8) congruence between law and official action enforcing it.

And in chapter 4, Fuller is explicit that law’s internal morality comprised of these 8 virtues is “indifferent toward the substantive aims of law and ready to serve a variety of such aims with equal efficiency.” The example Fuller uses is contraception—which can be legally protected or prohibited without affecting the law’s internal integrity at all.

Nevertheless, Fuller maintains that the inner morality of law, while neutral over a wide range of moral issues, “is not neutral in its view of man himself.” Adhering to the inner morality of law, Fuller claimed, is committing oneself to the view that people can be “responsible agents, capable of understanding and following rules, and answerable for their defaults.” So for Fuller, commitment to certain concepts of moral agency and responsibility follows from commitment to the procedural values of law—to law’s inner morality.

I want to suggest some other moral commitments that follow from commitment to the inner morality of law, but that Fuller did not raise. Moral commitments that are not of the thickest sort—not a particular conception of human rights, for example, or a contested view of equality. Rather, these are thinner moral commitments that are still thicker than the proceduralist’s virtues. Vichyssoise rather oatmeal.

Take what Fuller says about Clarity as part of the inner morality of law: “Sometimes the best way to achieve clarity is to take advantage of, and to incorporate into law, common sense standards of judgment that have grown up in the ordinary life lived outside legislative halls.” Good faith, due care, due process, cruel and unusual punishment, and so on. Or take instead his view that Constancy/stability of the law through time is part of the inner morality of law. Can we say something more in reflecting on clarity, and constancy or stability, about the connection between the rule of law and political morality. Or between stare decisis and political morality?

I think we can. Clarity and constancy depend upon the longevity and endurance of law. For the law to be clear, it must often depend upon shared assumptions, shared cultural ways of thinking and knowing that have developed over time, sometimes a very long time, and extend well before the simple text of the law itself. There are very few, if any, self-evident truths in law and politics. The truths that we have are largely truths because they have been cultivated and transmitted over time.

For the law to be constant and stable, it has to have endured. It has to have lasted. The longer the better, the older the more stable and the more constant. So that to favor law’s constancy and stability as a part of the rule of law is to make a necessary claim about law’s traditionalism. The importance of its age and its endurance. Endurance implies durability—the capacity to withstand sudden or rapid changes in the law that are deeply unsettling to the law’s internal morality.

What about stare decisis? Well, stare decisis is a concept derived from the common law. What made the law “common” was that it reflected the substantive and long-enduring habits, practices, and traditions of the people. Legal stability of the sort promoted by stare decisis allows people to coordinate their lives and their common projects now and intergenerationally. So it’s not just the satisfaction of reliance interests that is at stake. The stability promoted by both stare decisis and the rule of law enables the law to connect and align a people’s past, present, and future. It creates roots—rooting present law to “precedent” law and subsequent law.

The value of the rule of law and stare decisis, therefore, must incorporate an orientation toward preserving law’s traditionalism, its age, durability, and intergenerational transmission. Law’s traditionalism as a feature of the rule of law and stare decisis, I think, is a thicker sort of political morality than the strictly procedural view. But it is a thinner sort of political morality than the thickly substantive view.

One more thought. This intermediate possibility I am describing is not only different from the thicker substantive possibility. The two views of the rule of law are in tension. The rule of law and stare decisis conceived as incorporating this intermediate thickness political morality—this traditionalism connected to law’s clarity and its stability—may well conflict with rule of law conceptions that incorporate substantive positions on distributive justice, human rights, equality.

That conflict will occur, I think, when the thicker conceptions of political morality simply are not part of law’s traditionalism but instead run counter to it. In those circumstances, to favor the rule of law and stare decisis may well be to favor moral visions of law at odds with those thicker understandings that blend procedure and substantive morality.”