Tenth Anniversary Celebration This Month

Here’s a short piece on the Center’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Metropolitan Club earlier this month, which included a judges panel on law-and-religion cases at the Supreme Court and a dinner at which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. offered remarks on the Center’s first decade. Thanks to our board members, alumni, friends and supporters!

Video of Webinar on Cultural Heritage in Law & Diplomacy

Last month, the Center co-sponsored a webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy, along with the Fletcher Initiative at Tufts and the Armenian Studies Program at California State University-Fresno. Among other things, the participants discussed the capacity of international law to offer protection for minority cultural property during armed conflicts, including the current conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. A video of the webinar is now available at the link below. Posts from the participants were made available earlier on this site. Thanks again to our colleagues at Tufts and Cal-State and all the participants!

Video of Webinar on Religious Exemptions

The SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University has posted a video of the webinar I participated in this week, on religious freedom in the US. The panel was moderated by The Atlantic’s Rachel Donadio; other participants included K. Healon Gaston (Harvard), Daniel Mach (ACLU) and Asma Uddin (Independent). I greatly enjoyed the panel and am grateful to the organizers for inviting me. Video below:

Webinar on Religious Liberty in France and the US

I’m looking forward to participating this afternoon in a panel on religious liberty issues in the U.S., part of a webinar on Secularism in France and the United States organized by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Our very first Center event eleven years ago was a conference on laicite at our Paris campus and I’m looking forward to revisiting these issues. Details at the link: https://snfagora.jhu.edu/event/secularism-and-its-discontents/.

Law and Religion in “The Merchant of Venice”

Marc and I had a great time leading the Center’s Reading Society last night in a discussion of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Along with the play, we discussed Allan Bloom’s great essay, “On Christian and Jew,” which reads the play as a reflection on the limits of law and commerce in holding together a community. We’ll be recording a Legal Spirits episode on all this soon, so stay tuned. Great comments from our students!

Interviewed in the Deseret News

Religion journalist Kelsey Dallas, a past guest on Legal Spirits, interviews me in the Deseret News about my forthcoming essay in the Journal of Law and Religion on courts’ responses to Covid restrictions on public worship. Here’s a sample:

The COVID-19 pandemic has created all sorts of religious freedom conflict, as people of faith fight gathering restrictions, mask requirements and, more recently, vaccine mandates.

Your view on these legal battles likely depends on your professional, spiritual and political interests. Mark L. Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York, saw them as opportunities to study the limits of the United States’ approach to religious liberty protections. . . .

When there are no easy, obvious answers, judicial bias can creep in. That’s always problematic, but it’s especially so at a time when liberal and conservative judges often have very different views on the value of faith and what should win out when religious freedom is in conflict with other rights.

“As long as we don’t have a common baseline for how important religion is compared to other things, we’re going to have inconsistent opinions” from the legal system, Movsesian said. And with inconsistent opinions comes political and social strife.

You can read the whole interview here.

Today’s Panel on Cultural Heritage

I enjoyed participating in today’s webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy, with fellow panelists Narine Ghazaryan (Nottingham), Leonard Hammer (Arizona), Evangelos Kyriakidis (Heritage Management), Sergio La Porta (Fresno State), Peter Petkoff (Oxford), Elizabeth Prodromou (Fletcher School) and Michalyn Steele (BYU). The Fletcher School at Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State co-sponsored the event, along with our own Center. Fletcher will eventually make the video available on its site.

Law, Religion, and the Covid Crisis

I have a new draft on SSRN, “Law, Religion, and the Covid Crisis,” comparing how courts across the globe have approached restrictions on public worship and exploring what the cases reveal about social divisions, especially in the United States. Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores judicial responses to legal restrictions on worship during the COVID pandemic and draws two lessons, one comparative and one relating specifically to US law. As a comparative matter, courts across the globe have approached the problem in essentially the same way, through intuition and balancing. This has been the case regardless of what formal test applies, the proportionality test outside the US, which expressly calls for judges to weigh the relative costs and benefits of a restriction, or the Employment Division v. Smith test inside the US, which rejects judicial line-drawing and balancing in favor of predictable results. Judges have reached different conclusions about the legality of restrictions, of course, but doctrinal nuances have made little apparent difference. With respect to the US, specifically, the pandemic has revealed deep divisions about religion and religious freedom, among other things—divisions that have inevitably influenced judicial attitudes toward restrictions on worship. The COVID crisis has revealed a cultural and political rift that makes consensual resolution of conflicts over religious freedom problematic, and perhaps impossible, even during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

The essay will appear in the forthcoming volume of the Journal of Law and Religion. Comments welcome!

Evangelos Kyriakidis, “The destruction of heritage as an extreme form of affront to humanity”

This Thursday, along with Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State Universities, our Center will co-sponsor a webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy. In advance of that event, we are publishing here short posts by the participants, which will serve as the basis for discussion at the webinar.

In this contribution, Evangelos Kyriakidis (Heritage Management Organization) explains why the destruction of cultural heritage is an extreme form of an affront to humanity.

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Heritage, be it in the form of monuments, customs, stories, songs, old photos or other, constitutes an important part of our identity, who we think we are, our language, the groups we associate ourselves with, whom we consider kin, friend or foe. Our sensation that we share views about heritage with others gives us the feeling that we have a shared identity, makes us feel we belong somewhere. It is for that reason that heritage is the cornerstone of who we are, how we feel about ourselves and our affiliations.

Heritage that is purportedly shared with others gains in importance and influence. If a society is a group of people that is conscious of having at least one thing in common, then a society that identifies itself as a group because of its shared heritage would consider that heritage as crucial for its existence. Historically, nations do that; they refer to a shared heritage, be it imagined or real, that defines them as a group. And that national heritage becomes a crucial reference point for all members of that nation. In the 19th century and many times since, heritage has been used to define, but also to exclude. So heritage, be it the exploits of Alexander, the Crescent and the Star, the city of Kiev, the 1389 battle of Kosovo, and so on has not only been used to define people and make them proud, it has also been used to exclude others, despite the fact that it did not have to.

Religion, like the nation, refers to a belief system that people are consciously sharing; they are therefore defined by it as individuals or as members of social groups. A religion and its key figures are figures that are greater than the self. They are therefore crucial risk adaptation mechanisms. God will always be there irrespective of the calamity that has befallen a society. Calamities indeed often are explained through religion, but, more important, the days that follow a calamity are often managed through religion. A religious site is a site that a particular religious belief system considers as important. It usually is a site that concentrates people, either because it is a site where regular religious rituals take place; because it is a pilgrimage site, a site where people are moving through or towards in order to fulfil a religious purpose; or because it is a site that is significant in the narrative of that religion (or all of the above). These sites are often vested with great importance, because they are significant in that belief system. And in case of a disaster, religious sites are sites of refuge, sites where people can find peace, where they can plan their next day, gather and continue the thread of society. There is a significant body of research, especially in the scholarship on aphasia, Alzheimer’s and storytelling, that shows how material objects, buildings or other, are great focusing points for storytelling.* In religious belief systems, religious sites are important nodes for storytelling, they are gathering sites that reconfirm social structures and norms, they are important places to connect with something that is greater than the individual, that also confirms the identity of that individual as a part of society (as that is defined here as a group of people that is conscious of having at least one thing in common).

The destruction of a site of national importance or of a site that has religious importance is not only an attack on humanity’s treasures. It is not only an affront to the international community, the treasures of human genius as some organizations would like to put it or, ultimately, our self-indulgence. It is an irreparable damage to the social groups that are defined by these sites. It is a destruction of the very foundations of their identity and therefore of their being. This often happens in times of war; climatic disasters can bring this about, too.

This is tantamount to what is called cultural genocide, attempting to eradicate from the face of this planet the testimony of a people, of a religious group. What I am arguing here, however, is that this is not about testimony. It is not about memory. It is about identity. Imagine for instance ourselves, in what we call the West, who have been raised as appreciating as a cornerstone of our existence our civil liberties. Imagine a world with no civil liberties. We have already been given elements of a taste of that. Now imagine these civil liberties to be taken away forever and our never having the opportunity to rebuild them. What sort of world would we give to our children? What would life be like? Now imagine groups of people whose religious sites have been taken away, have been demolished, or given to another religion irrevocably. Imagine people destroying your gods. Who will protect you in times of danger, how will you teach your children how things used to be, how will a new normal come about in times of crisis? This is not about social diversity, human genius, the education of our children: this destruction is a severe, irrevocable blow to the foundations of who people are, what they live for, how they want to raise their family. Destroying heritage does that.

Finally, given that heritage sites often live for thousands of years, the systematic destruction of heritage that some parties follow through the course of decades is something that must be on the one hand seen in its totality (like the effects of hundreds of years of natural erosion on a building is seen altogether) but also be recognized as a conscious, systematic attack against the principles at the foundations of humanity (of every regime). It is a crime that most instances of genocide pale against. It is not only wiping people from the face of the earth. It is making sure they never come back. It is making sure that not even shadows exist in the underworld. Unfortunately, this last most hideous of crimes goes unnoticed and, even worse, unpunished.

* Zeisel, J. I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care (2009)

Michalyn Steele on the Cultural Property of Indigenous Peoples

This Thursday, along with Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State Universities, our Center will co-sponsor a webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy. In advance of that event, we are publishing here short posts by the participants, which will serve as the basis for discussion at the webinar.

In this contribution, Michalyn Steele (Brigham Young University) addresses issues surrounding the cultural property of Indigenous peoples:

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In an increasingly mobile, global society, the significance of place as integral to cultural and spiritual identity can be elusive. While there are a wide variety of beliefs and practices among Indigenous peoples, many Indigenous peoples conceive of themselves as people of a particular place. Especially for the Indigenous peoples of North America, their origin stories and creation cosmologies tie their identity, their purpose, and their worship inextricably to those places of sacred origin and obligation. In this conception, land is not fungible and sacred practices are not transferrable to new locations when peoples are displaced. Depriving Indigenous people of meaningful access to these sites or despoiling the sacred character of these sites irreparably compromises their ability to practice their religion. The failure to appreciate the sacred character of Indigenous sacred sites or the callous calculation that reduces these sites to their economic exploitability does existential damage to the religious liberty of the Indigenous people.

Take, for just one example, the Lakota peoples and Paha Sapa, the area around the Black Hills that the Lakota hold most sacred as “the heart of everything that is” and the womb of Mother Earth. The discovery of gold by settlers despoiled the Lakota people of their legal interests in Paha Sapa in violation of their treaties with the federal government. They were cut off from their sacred sites and thereby deprived of access to crucial religious rituals. In 1980, the United States Supreme Court found that the Black Hills had been taken from the Lakota people by coercion and deception, and the tribes were awarded significant money damages. However, the Lakota people, among the poorest communities in the United States, have refused the money, maintaining that Paha Sapa was never for sale. They never wanted the money, they wanted access to their sacred sites.

As with the Lakota, the all-too-common shared histories of Indigenous peoples involve violence to Indigenous identity, cultural cohesion, and religious liberty. In the United States, the 574 federally-recognized tribes and many other tribes lost to the modern era or still seeking recognition, share variations on the theme of a history of cultural, political, geographic, and religious displacement. The driving forces of this historical assault were the twin animating principles behind Manifest Destiny: the inexhaustible appetite for the lands and resources of the tribes by would-be settlers with their certainty of a divinely-sanctioned superior right to those resources, and an abiding conviction in the supremacy of non-Indian religion and culture. These principles led the United States to embrace the coordinated policies of forced allotment and assimilation to clear title to Indigenous land holdings for settlement and to induce tribal peoples to abandon their lands, language, identities, and religion.

President Theodore Roosevelt said the allotment policy was to act as a “great pulverizing engine” to break up the tribal land mass.  Similarly, the United States implemented a policy to strip tribal children of their language and religion by placing them in boarding schools, where they were educated as domestic servants and forbidden from speaking their Indigenous languages or participating in their traditional religious rites. Their hair was cut and their clothing taken. Many children went years without seeing their parents and many experienced devastating isolation upon an attempt to return to their homes and territories.

As a result of this cultural-religious violence, many Indigenous communities now must rely on the permission of private landowners or governmental agencies to access sacred sites lost during this process. President Clinton’s 1996 Executive Order 13,007 directed governmental agencies to seek to accommodate religious use and access for tribes. But the effort has met with mixed success at best. Congress passed an unenforceable bill, a mere sense of the Congress resolution, that Indigenous sacred sites should be protected and preserved. The Supreme Court has wrestled with fitting the requirements of the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections to the site-specific requirements of Indigenous religious practice. Even the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed in part to compel the federal government to justify its substantial burdens on religious exercise, has been a mostly impotent tool in crafting protection and access to Indigenous sacred sites.

In sum, the legal protections and political will to provide meaningful access and protection to Indigenous sacred sites in the United States has been ineffectual. Until people of good faith and good will join together to seek accountability for prioritizing Indigenous access to sacred sites, the violence to Indigenous religion continues.