Thoughts on Conference on “Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom”

I am just back from a conference at Yale Law School organized jointly by Professors Robin Wilson and Bill Eskridge on “Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom,” and I offer here some general thoughts about the presentations and the nature of the conference. While the conference’s rules do not permit me to get into specifics about who said what, my overall impression is that it was a gathering of academics, politicians, religious leaders, and practitioners drawn from a comparatively broad spectrum of political, religious, and cultural opinion. Robin and Bill are to be commended, in my view, for that balance–always difficult to achieve to everyone’s satisfaction.

One of the conference’s launch points was the fairly recent report by the US Commission on Civil Rights entitled, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles With Civil Liberties,” but which did not contain, in my view, very much sound advice for achieving peaceful coexistence or reconciliation. All of the panels concerned the topic of achieving modus vivendi arrangements for the proper legal accommodation of rights of religious liberty and rights of sexual freedom and equality. This has been a large and important part of Robin’s own policy work over the last few years, and the so-called Utah Compromise was studied and considered in this respect.

Two things stood out for me in particular.

First, one of the more interesting debates among the group, and, it seems to me, going forward, is about the baseline question of what constitutes the sort of discrimination that the law ought to proscribe in the first place. Once a particular judgment is found to be proscribable discrimination (I suppose the term is “invidious”), the result is all but foreordained. Some argued that the motivation for a particular discrimination is irrelevant; so long as the effect is adverse action against a person within a designated protected category, that ought to be sufficient. Others returned that this was in effect stacking the deck. The first question must be whether somebody has engaged in invidious discrimination at all, and that this is not a question about motivation but about how we properly describe the discrimination that the person has made. Barronelle Stutzman’s case is one example of this sort of debate, and this brief authored by Professor Steve Smith addresses the question. But the larger issue of the baseline affects many sorts of discriminations that people make in other contexts. Suppose, for example, that a hospital refuses to perform a surgery to remove the healthy uterus of a woman who identifies as transgender and desires to become a man. Is that the sort of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that the law should condemn? Or is it nothing of the kind–is it simply a judgment that hospitals do not remove healthy uteruses–and certainly nothing like a hospital’s refusal to perform heart bypass surgery on a woman who identifies as transgender?

Second, one of the pervasive themes of the conference was the conflict between perfectionist and anti-perfectionist accounts of liberalism, and whether perfectionist liberalism is in its ascendancy at the moment. As is well-known, Robin, in her work with others like Professor Douglas Laycock and some of our own MOJ colleagues, has worked tirelessly to hammer out compromises that reflect a judicious anti-perfectionist liberalism. But my sense, in some ways confirmed by this conference, is that perfectionist accounts of liberalism (indeed, perfectionist accounts of politics in general) cannot really ever be sidelined. My own inclinations have always been rather pessimistic when it comes to true pluralism in a liberal democratic nation, even as I deeply appreciate the work of Robin and others. I believe strongly that the expressive and symbolic power of the law is an extremely important feature of it–what the law says about its people, what its people are proud of it to say, always lurks as a sort of subtext beneath the surface of whatever modus vivendi arrangements we might achieve. It is a mistake to ignore that subtext, as it will otherwise only come frothing and bubbling up at unexpected moments.

My own presentation involved what is seemingly a somewhat esoteric topic–Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli–which begins with the statement that “[T]he government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” Part of my talk involved the history of Article XI (which is fascinating) but part suggested that the fight over American identity that the phrase (and many phrases like it) has come to represent–and the symbolic and expressive force of the law–is both a substantial impediment to anti-perfectionist liberal democratic governance and an inevitable and important feature of any government worth the name. More on this soon, I hope.

Michael McConnell, “Tradition and the Constitution”

Here is a story with some details of the Center’s Tradition Project conference last week-end, which also links to pictures of the event and various recent reflections by conference participants.

And here is Professor Michael McConnell’s lecture, “Tradition and the Constitution”:

Center Receives Major Grant from The Achelis and Bodman Foundation

Tradition ProjectWe’re delighted to announce that the Center has received a major grant from the Achelis and Bodman Foundation for its ongoing Tradition Project, a new research initiative exploring the value of tradition for contemporary citizens and the relationship of tradition and change in today’s world.

Conceived and co-directed by Professors Marc O. DeGirolami and Mark L. Movsesian, the Tradition Project seeks to develop a broad and rich understanding of what tradition—the received wisdom of the past—might continue to offer in cultivating virtuous, responsible, self-governing citizens.

The first component of the Project, which gets underway in New York next week and is supported by a generous grant from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, examines tradition in American law and politics.

The new grant from the Achelis and Bodman Foundation will help support the second component of the Project, which focuses on tradition and culture. Slated for 2017 in New York, this component will explore tradition’s role in sustaining a common culture, defined as a people’s habits, beliefs, attitudes, education, and everyday morality—its way of life.

The Tradition Project brings together leading public figures, scholars, judges, and journalists for lectures, workshops, and sponsored research. Work related to the project will include book manuscripts, journal articles, and curricular development.

The Achelis and Bodman Foundation was established in 2015 from the merger of the Achelis Foundation and the Bodman Foundation, each of which dates to the 1940s. The Foundation sponsors grants in six major areas, including education, arts and culture, and public policy. It focuses its giving mainly in New York City.

DeGirolami, “Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization”

I have posted a new paper, Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization (UPDATE: link fixed). Though my subject is not the same as Professor Muñoz’s, the two are related in several ways, and I’ll have a post or two about the connections soon. Here’s the abstract:

A religious accommodation is an exemption from compliance with the law for some but not for others. One might therefore suppose that before granting an accommodation, courts would inquire about whether a legal interference with religious belief or practice is truly significant, if only to evaluate whether the risk of political polarization that attends accommodation is worth hazarding. But that is not the case: any assessment of the significance of a religious belief or practice within a claimant’s belief system is strictly forbidden.

Two arguments are pressed in support of this view: (1) courts have institutional reasons for acquiescing on the burden question; and (2) courts have anti-establishment reasons for doing so. Courts, it is said, do not decide about the quality of religious burdens. Claimants do that. Courts defer so as to reduce the political polarization that might result if some should perceive that their religious beliefs and practices are comparatively powerless to obtain exemptions. Deference on the burden question preserves the religious neutrality of courts and mitigates the politically polarizing dangers of accommodation.

This essay contests that view. It argues that this approach to religious accommodation has generated considerable difficulties of its own that have aggravated the political polarization they were intended to reduce. Political polarization is now a pervasive feature of religious accommodation, but this essay focuses on only some explanations for this unfortunate state of affairs—those that relate to the antagonistic relationship between religious accommodation and established religious groups and traditions.

First, hyper-deference as to the burden on religion systematically undermines the view that religions are institutional phenomena with established, stable, and longstanding traditions. In doing so, it damages the argument that courts are institutionally incompetent to evaluate religious ideas. Claims about the institutional incompetence of the judiciary to inquire into religious burdens proceed on the assumption that there is something unique—and intelligibly unique—about religious beliefs and practices that make them different from, say, individual foibles, fraudulent schemes, flights of fancy, or private predilections. Arguments about the judiciary’s institutional incompetence as to religious questions contemplate the existence of other institutions that are competent as to those questions. Lacking such other institutions, the institutional competence of courts to evaluate religious claims is greatly strengthened. Courts are perfectly competent to evaluate fraud, idiosyncrasy, gibberish, and personal preference. Yet when courts are disabled from evaluating some varieties of idiosyncratic eccentricity (denominated “religious”) but not others (not so denominated), then “religion,” and therefore religious accommodation, is bound to be politically polarizing. The category of religion, having been stripped of its institutional character for legal purposes, designates nothing coherent at all. And people begin to suspect with some justice that decisions about accommodation are being made on the basis of other reasons altogether.

Second, the hyper-deferential approach to religious accommodation assumes and promotes a particular and decidedly non-neutral view of religion as irrational and utterly incomprehensible to anybody other than an individual believer. Accommodation is not for established religious groups or traditions—groups that are organized, enduring, and that might offer substantial resistance to prevailing political and cultural orthodoxies. Accommodation is for the exotic, the personal, the unthreatening, and the peculiar. That view is part of the heritage of the highly individualized, subjective approach to religion steadily constitutionalized by the Supreme Court since the mid-twentieth century, and that now seems to be the foundation of one powerful strain of the contemporary cultural understanding of religion in America. It is a view whose promotion in law has profoundly entangled the state with religion. The refusal of courts to make any serious inquiry into the nature of the asserted religious burden has encouraged increasingly aggressive, self-indulgent, and ephemeral assertions of religious freedom. It will—and indeed, it already has—promoted unserious religion. Small wonder that religion as a legal category is in such disreputable odor. Small wonder that religious accommodation is increasingly perceived in politically partisan terms.

Movsesian on Religious Liberty at the Present Time: An Interview with First Things Magazine

Earlier this month, I sat down for an interview with First Things Magazine’s Senior Editor Mark Bauerlein on the state of religious liberty in America today. Our wide-ranging discussion covered topics like religious accommodations, the Hobby Lobby case, church autonomy, and how America’s changing religious culture influences our law. Mark and I also discussed the Center for Law and Religion and its many programs, particularly our newest endeavor, the Tradition Project.

You can view the video on the First Things site, here.

 

 

Symposium: Religious Freedom Today (New York, September 16)

The Center for Law and Religion is pleased to co-sponsor a symposium on Professor Nelson Tebbe’s forthcoming book, Religious Freedom in an Egalitarian Age, here at St. John’s Law School next month. The symposium is also sponsored by the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development and the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights. In addition to the author, participants include Carlos Ball (Rutgers-Newark), Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis), Chad Flanders (St. Louis), Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern), and Patricia Marino (Waterloo). For more information, please click here.

 

My Visit to the Hertog Foundation

I spent a wonderful afternoon yesterday discussing religious freedom at the Hertog Foundation, as part of one of its excellent summer course series (which includes Classical Political Philosophy, Traditions of Freedom, American Political Thought, The Modern Conservative Movement, The Iranian Challenge, and others). Here is an interesting profile of Roger Hertog.

The course, Landmark Supreme Court Cases, was taught by Adam White and ran for a week, each day generally focusing on a different substantive area of constitutional law. My session focused on Employment Division v. Smith and the religion clauses. Previous sessions focused on other areas, with guests including Randy Barnett, Alan Gura, James Burnham, and Christopher Scalia.

The students, who were a mix of undergraduates and graduates, were engaged, smart, and prepared. The conversation developed in the direction of thinking about the legal definition of religion. Lots of fun, and no easy task. I enjoyed being there.

Last Night at First Things

me and Rusty

L-R: Movsesian, Reno

Thanks to Rusty Reno and First Things Magazine for hosting a dinner seminar last night on my new paper, Of Human Dignities. (That’s a picture of me and Rusty at the event, listening in rapt attention to one of the many insightful interventions). I greatly enjoyed the discussion and am grateful to all the participants for their careful readings of the paper. For those who would like to download a copy of the paper, which appears in the current edition of the Notre Dame Law Review, please click here.

2015-2016 Year-End Message Now Available

The Center for Law and Religion’s Year-End Message for 2015-2016 is now available on our website. Among the highlights:

  • A major grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to support the start of of the Tradition Project, a new research initiative that will explore the value of tradition for contemporary citizens and the relationship of tradition and change in today’s world
  • The third biennial Colloquium in Law and Religion, featuring Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, as well as Professors Robert George (Princeton), Brett Scharffs (BYU), Mark Tushnet (Harvard), and Robin Wilson (Illinois).
  • A new, annual  Conversation on current law and religion cases at the Supreme Court, timed to coincide with the start of the new Court term each October

There’s much more in the report, including faculty scholarship and presentations, and a new Global Law Fellows program for foreign PhD students. Please take a look and let us know what you think!

CLR and St. John’s Law School Host Justice Samuel Alito

Mark and I were delighted and honored to host Justice Samuel Alito at the Center for Law and Religion’s colloquium in law and religion yesterday. Justice Alito discussed the Court’s decisions, and his opinions, in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell; Town of Greece v. Galloway; Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC; CLS v. Martinez; Salazar v. Buono; and Summum v. Pleasant Grove, as well as his dissent from denial of certiorari in Ben-Levi v. Brown and two free exercise decisions he authored as a Third Circuit judge, Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark and Blackhawk v. Pennsylvania.

We had a lovely day today as well, as Justice Alito discussed several important free speech cases in which he dissented with my constitutional law class–US v. Stevens, Snyder v. Phelps, and US v. Alvarez. It was a true pleasure to have him. A few pictures below.

Alito 1Alito 5

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