At SCOTUS, a Compromise on Religious Liberty

At the First Things site this week, I have an essay on last term’s Religion Clause cases at the Supreme Court. I argue that the cases reflect the Court’s attempt to reach a modus vivendi in the culture wars between progressives and the traditionally religious on issues of sexuality, gender, and equality. Taken together, the cases suggest the Court is prepared to acquiesce to the dominant progressive consensus while allowing religious institutions some space to dissent. 

Here’s an excerpt:

Bostock suggests the Justices, including conservatives like Gorsuch and Roberts, are prepared to accede to the progressive view of sexuality and gender. But the Court’s hints about lingering free exercise issues imply it will afford religious institutions space to dissent. Other decisions from last Term confirm this reading. Take Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case. The Court held, 5-4, that the Montana Constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits state funding for private religious schools, violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. A state may not exclude schools from a funding program simply because of the schools’ religious “status” or “character,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “A State need not subsidize private education,” he explained. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Espinoza is a case about equality, but also has implications for debates surrounding sexuality and gender. It’s no secret that many, if not most, private religious schools hold to traditional understandings of sexuality and gender. In fact, parents often choose to send their children to religious schools precisely to avoid the progressivism that pervades public education. Allowing religious schools to receive public assistance on an equal basis with secular schools could make it easier for the traditionally religious to pass on their values to the next generation. 

The Court’s holding that in principle the state must afford benefits to private religious schools on an equal basis with private secular schools is thus important for the traditionally religious. Still, the Court’s focus on a school’s religious “status” raises some questions. Even if discrimination on the basis of a school’s religious affiliation is illegal, it remains unclear, under the Court’s decision, whether a state may restrict funding because the school’s program is at odds with progressive understandings of equality. The Espinoza Court left that question open, though it hinted that discrimination based on a school’s religious “use” of state funds also could be constitutionally problematic.  

You can read the full essay here.

On Religion in the Legal Academy

At the Liberty Fund site this morning, I have an essay on the scarcity of religious belief among American law professors. I explore the reasons for the scarcity and the effect the scarcity has on American legal education. And I reflect a bit on my own career choices. Here’s an excerpt:

This leads to the third question: what, if anything, should be done? Law schools could do more to seek out and promote candidates who bring religious perspectives to their work and teaching—something that would be entirely consistent with the laudable goal of increasing the representation of ethnic and racial minorities on law school faculties. I doubt such an effort will be forthcoming, though. For the reasons I’ve explained, most law professors see religious perspectives as irrelevant to their work and don’t perceive their absence as a serious problem. This is true even at law schools with religious affiliations—again, with some notable exceptions. Besides, increasing ideological diversity and inclusiveness is not a priority for most law faculties.

This is a pity, because religious perspectives on law would offer much to our students. It is not simply a matter of knowing the historical foundations of our laws or appreciating the critiques of the past. Religious perspectives would offer students insights into current legal controversies. For example, in America today, we are debating whether the state may constitutionally order churches to close during an epidemic. In legal terms, the cases often turn on a balancing test, in which courts weigh the government’s interest in curtailing an epidemic against the burden that closure imposes on the practice of religion. To understand the cases, students need to hear, not only the secular perspectives of most law professors, but the perspectives of people inside faith communities, who can explain why believers find orders to close such an imposition. The comparative absence of religious law professors makes it less likely students will hear both sides.

You can read the whole essay here.

Deferring to Local Authorities in a Public Health Crisis

At the First Things site today, I have an essay on the current round of church closures cases. To understand these cases, one has to cut through doctrinal details and focus on the factor that most drives the judges’ decisions: the need to defer to public health authorities during a crisis. That’s usually sensible. Judges are not epidemiologists, and they are not accountable if they get things wrong. But local authorities have begun acting in ways that betray that trust:

In the last couple of weeks, local authorities have squandered much of their credibility. For months, public health authorities have told Americans that gatherings of more than a few people, even outdoors and with social distancing, should not take place because of the grave risk of contagion. Families could not even have funerals for loved ones. Now, however, many of those same public health authorities say (while others remain silent) that mass protests can and should go forward, given the issues involved. Combatting racism and police brutality is profoundly important. But that’s a separate question from whether the gatherings pose a public health risk. As Ross Douthat wrote, the virus doesn’t care why someone is protesting. 

Moreover, in making these arguments, some local officials have expressly disparaged religion. Here in New York, Mayor de Blasio used dismissive terms to explain why the city has permitted protests but forbidden Hasidic funerals: Religion, the mayor said, was simply not as important. The mayor is entitled to his opinion; probably most New Yorkers agree with him. But his statements—and those of other elected officials—should make courts skeptical about deferring to the judgment of local authorities.

You can read the essay here.

Some subversive thoughts on free exercise doctrine…

Occasioned by the Court’s decision last weekend in the South Bay United Pentecostal Church case, over at the Volokh Conspiracy. I note that neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Kavanaugh bothers to cite Employment Division v. Smith, the central case in the area, and wonder how much doctrine drives decisions:

For both the Chief and Justice Kanavaugh, then, the case came down to judgments about which activities are “comparable” and about how much deference to give elected officials during a public-health emergency. For what it’s worth, I think the Chief had the better of the argument. But the point I’d like to focus on is this: both the Chief and Justice Kavanaugh made these judgments quickly on the basis of broad principles and common-sense assumptions. I have already noted how neither of them even referred to Smith, the controlling case in this area. No doubt, the need to decide this interlocutory application speedily precluded a more thorough legal analysis. But these opinions make one wonder whether the doctrinal superstructure of free exercise clause jurisprudence, which students, professors, and lawyers pore over with great care, has all that much importance, in the end. Perhaps free exercise cases always come down to quick, intuitive judgments—however judges explain their decisions after the fact.

You can read the whole post here.

Movsesian Teaches Class at Moscow State University

I had a wonderful time this morning, teaching a (virtual!) class at Lomonosov Moscow State University on the COVID epidemic and religious exemptions under the US Constitution. Thanks to Professor Gayane Davidyan for inviting me and to her students for their wonderful, thoughtful questions. Lomonsov will post the class on YouTube soon, and I’ll link it when it appears.

Church Closings during COVID: The State of Play

At the Law and Liberty site this morning, I have an essay on current litigation regarding church closings during the coronavirus epidemic. I explain why courts have reached different results, and ask why some churches, rather than others, are bringing the lawsuits. Here’s an excerpt:

So far, the lawsuits have achieved mixed results. Federal district courts in California and New Mexico, for example, have rejected challenges and ruled that the bans in those states are constitutional. Federal district courts in Kansas and Kentucky, by contrast, have ruled that the bans in those states do violate the First Amendment. This past weekend, the Sixth Circuit agreed, holding that Kentucky’s ban on church services violates the Free Exercise Clause.

These cases are very fact-specific and turn on the specific language of the bans in question. But there is another, more important reason for the courts’ division. The law with respect to religious exemptions is quite indeterminate. Under the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), no right to an exemption exists where a law is neutral and generally applicable, that is, where the law does not target religion for disfavored treatment. If a ban on public gatherings qualifies as a neutral and generally applicable law, a church cannot prevail.

If a law targets religion for disfavored treatment, by contrast, a church may have a right to a religious exemption—but not where the state can show that it has a compelling reason for enforcing the law against the church and has chosen the least restrictive means of doing so. As many have noted, this form of “strict scrutiny” essentially operates as a balancing test that requires judges to weigh the seriousness of the burden on religious exercise against the significance of the goal the state is trying to reach. If the goal is sufficiently important, the law will stand, regardless of the burden on religious exercise.

Both these questions—whether a law is generally applicable and whether the burdens of a ban outweigh its benefits—leave much to the discretion of individual judges….

You can read the whole essay here.

Announcing the Fifth Biennial Colloquium in Law & Religion (Fall 2020)

The Center for Law and Religion is delighted to announce the lineup for the fifth biennial Colloquium in Law and Religion, scheduled for Fall 2020. The Colloquium brings outside scholars and jurists to St. John’s to teach a seminar for selected students. Speakers present drafts on law and religion; students are graded on the basis of response papers and class participation. The Fall 2020 Colloquium will coincide with the Center’s tenth anniversary. A celebration is planned for October.

This year’s Colloquium speakers are Judges Steven Menashi and Michael Park of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Professors Jed Atkins (Duke University); Stephanie Barclay (Brigham Young University); Paul Horwitz (University of Alabama); Amy Sepinwall (University of Pennsylvania); and Carter Snead (University of Notre Dame).

For more information about the Colloquium, please contact Center Co-Directors Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami.

The Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of Church-State Cases

At The Volokh Conspiracy today, I have a post on the latest Contraception Mandate case to reach the Court: the Little Sisters case, which was the subject of our most recent Legal Spirits podcast with Kevin Walsh. I write that litigation about the Mandate, which has been going on for about a decade, is like that famous lawsuit in Bleak House, which dragged on year after year.

Why has the Mandate litigation lasted so long? I argue it’s a matter of principle, for both sides:

Why does the Mandate litigation go on and on? As I said, it’s not a question of money. Lawyers are not getting rich on these cases. The litigation continues because people care deeply, as a matter of principle, about the result, and because each side views the other as an existential threat. For proponents of the Mandate, it’s about women’s health and equality, and about beating back the obscurantist forces that threaten both. For opponents, it’s about affirming their deepest faith commitments, notwithstanding pressure from the state and progressive opinion that seeks to crush them. Even when a practical solution seems available—as the Court noted in Zubik—the parties find it difficult to compromise. The symbolic stakes are too high.

In short, the Contraception Mandate litigation, like so many other disputes over law and religion, reflects the deep polarization in our society. As long as that polarization continues, cases like Hobby LobbyZubik, and Little Sisters will continue to arise—as well as cases like Masterpiece CakeshopFulton v. City of Philadelphia, and many others.

Readers can find the whole post here.

Movsesian on Espinoza

Over at Public Discourse today, I have an essay that attempts to predict the outcome in Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case currently under review at SCOTUS. (Marc and I will have a new podcast about the case up shortly). Here’s a summary of the essay:

The US Supreme Court seems likely to rule in a way school-choice advocates will welcome. The Court will likely overrule the Montana court and hold a ban on scholarships for students at religiously affiliated schools unconstitutional—an important ruling, to be sure. But a sweeping opinion seems unlikely. Rather, Espinoza is shaping up to be one of those closely divided, narrow decisions that have become familiar in the Court’s Religion Clause jurisprudence.

Predicting the outcome of a case on the basis of oral argument is tricky, but I’m foolhardy enough to try. Let’s see how I do.

Some Thoughts on the Espinoza Argument

Here’s a brief comment about Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case that the Court has under consideration. The Court heard oral argument in the case last week. It’s always tricky predicting the outcome of a case based on oral argument. But it seems pretty clear, at least to me, the the Court will ultimately rule in favor of the petitioners.

Followers of this blog know the facts of the case. (You do subscribe to Legal Spirits, right?) Briefly, the case concerns the constitutionality of a Montana school-choice program that allows parents to direct state-funded scholarships to religiously affiliated schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program violated the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits the appropriation of public money for “sectarian” institutions, including private, religiously affiliated schools, and canceled the scholarship program in its entirety. Petitioners argue that excluding them from otherwise available scholarship funds, simply because they planned to use the funds at a religiously affiliated school, violates the federal Free Exercise Clause.

Based on the Justices’ interventions, the Court seems likely to rule that, in these circumstances, barring parents from using public funds to pay tuition at religiously affiliated schools is unconstitutional. The Court’s cases point to that outcome. Zelman holds that the Establishment Clause isn’t violated when public money reaches religiously affiliated schools “wholly as a result” of parents’ “genuine and independent choice.” Trinity Lutheran Church holds that a state cannot deny a school access to public financial assistance simply because the school has a religious character. When you put these two cases together, it seems to me, the petitioners prevail.

That’s not to say their victory will be sweeping. For one thing, the Court seems likely to limit its holding to the facts of this case and avoid a ruling on the constitutionality of Blaine Amendments more generally. Moreover, the four progressive Justices signaled their strong disagreement with the petitioners’ Free Exercise argument.

Interestingly, two of the progressive Justices, Kagan and Breyer, who joined the Court in Trinity Lutheran Church, indicated that they see this case as quite different. Trinity Lutheran Church involved state funds specifically for playground refurbishment–a use unrelated to the religious character of the school in question. Espinoza, by contrast, involves unrestricted funds, which a school presumably could direct towards religious education. There is a case that suggests a state may refuse to allow its tax money to be spent for those purposes. But that case, Locke v. Davey, involved tax money for clergy training, not for general education at an accredited, religiously affiliated school–a distinction that will probably persuade the Court’s conservatives that Locke doesn’t apply here.

In short, oral argument suggests another of those familiar, narrow, 5 to 4, Religion Clause decisions. If that’s the case, Espinoza will be an important victory for school choice advocates–though not as sweeping as they might have hoped. Stay tuned.

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