The New Thoreaus

I’ve just posted a new draft essay, “The New Thoreaus,” to SSRN. The essay, which will appear in a forthcoming symposium in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, discusses the Rise of the Nones and argues that community is crucial to defining religion for legal purposes. Abstract below. Comments welcome!

Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously indicated that “religion” denotes a communal rather than a purely individual phenomenon. An organized group like the Amish would qualify as religious, the Court wrote, but a solitary seeker like the 19th Century Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, would not. At the time, the question was mostly peripheral; hardly any Americans claimed to have their own, personal religions that would make it difficult for them to comply with civil law. In the intervening decades, though, American religion has changed. One-fifth of us—roughly 66 million people—now claim, like Thoreau, to follow our own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths. The New Thoreaus already have begun to appear in the cases, including recent vaccine mandate challenges, and courts will increasingly face the question whether purely idiosyncratic beliefs and practices qualify as religious for legal purposes. In this essay, I argue that Yoder’s insight was basically correct: the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion. Religion cannot mean an exclusively communal phenomenon; a categorical rule would slight a long American tradition of respecting individual religious conscience and create difficult line-drawing problems. Nonetheless, the farther one gets from a religious community, the more idiosyncratic one’s spiritual path, the less plausible it is to claim that one’s beliefs and practices are religious, for legal purposes.

A Writeup on This Month’s Conference in Rome

Here’s a writeup (with photos!) on our conference this month in Rome, co-hosted with LUMSA University, on liberalism, religious exemptions, and hate speech regulations. We’ll post papers from the conference in due course. Meanwhile, thanks to the participants: keynoters Cesare Mirabile and Chantal Delsol, and Professors Stephanie Barclay (Notre Dame); Paolo Cavana (LUMSA); Gayane Davidyan (Lomonosov); Richard Ekins (Oxford); Monica Lugato (LUMSA); Adelaide Madera (Messina); Javier Martínez-Torrón (Complutense); Marco Olivetti (LUMSA); Andrea Pin (Padua); Jeffrey Pojanowski (Notre Dame); Angelo Rinella (LUMSA); Steven Smith (San Diego); and Kevin Walsh (Catholic University of America).

Interview on Radio Vaticana on “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech”

Our conference, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech,” which we co-sponsored with LUMSA last week in Rome, was a great success. We will publish some of the conference proceedings after giving the participants time to revise their contributions. In the meanwhile, here is an interesting interview conducted by Radio Vaticana with Professors Cesare Mirabelli (President Emeritus of Italy’s Constitutional Court and one of our keynote speakers) and our colleague, friend, and conference co-organizer, Professor Monica Lugato, about the conference and our broader projects.

The interview is in Italian, but I’m taking the liberty of translating loosely a portion of what Professor Lugato said to give our English-speaking readers a sense of the proceedings: “This conference was in a line of academic projects undertaken jointly by our universities dating from 2014 [and as early as 2012] with the idea of discussing some central and complex themes concerning the problem of living together–of how to live together in societies marked today by substantial pluralism. The objects of this general theme have been conferences concerning aspects of religious freedom as well as the legal and political implications of the concept of tradition. Within this general line of inquiry, it was natural to confront the problems of the limits of liberalism, and in particular liberalism’s tendency to render absolute certain individual liberties. Some of the questions asked at the conference might be grouped into two categories: on the one hand, questions about whether liberalism, at least in its classical sense, has exhausted itself; and on the other hand, questions about whether liberal political and legal systems demand certain limits on individual liberties just in order to survive as liberal systems, and what those limits might be.”

Movsesian on Religious Exemptions

For those who are interested, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU has posted a video of my presentation at the 2022 Religious Freedom Annual Review on the Smith case and the future of religious exemptions. I argue that the Court’s decision last term in Fulton greatly limits Smith and that claimants should have an easier time winning religious exemptions as a result. Thanks again to the kind folks at BYU Law for hosting me!

Next Month in Rome: “Liberalism’s Limits”

Next month in Rome, we’ll celebrate 10 years of cooperation with our colleagues at Universita LUMSA with the latest in our conference series on comparative law and religion: “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemption and Hate Speech.” (Hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 10 years)! The conference description is below and details are here: If you’re in Rome, please stop by and say hello!

Liberal democracies historically have prized autonomy and freedom as fundamental political commitments. In doing so, they also have emphasized the individual’s freedom of religion and freedom of speech as sitting at the core of their political systems. Yet in religious exemption — the right of individuals to receive an accommodation from complying with generally applicable law on the basis of religious scruple — and in what some in these polities call “hate speech” – speech conveying deeply insulting, vilifying, discriminatory views against a target group – liberal regimes face serious challenges to their own core principles. This conference will examine the problems posed by these issues for the continuing viability of liberalism in Western democracies.

Movsesian on Legal Docket on Dobbs

For those interested, I sat down today (virtually!) with journalist Mary Reichard at the Legal Docket podcast (a feature of “The World and Everything In It”) to discuss the Dobbs leak and why it so damages the Supreme Court as an institution. Here’s an excerpt:

MOVSESIAN: I know that people will look at this and say the important thing is abortion, why do we care that the justices are embarrassed? And I think that’s because, you know, people who think that way may not appreciate just how much is being undone, when members of the court think they cannot deliberate in confidence, when members of the court think that they can’t engage in a good faith discussion of the issues with their colleagues on the court, I think that really does threaten to destroy the institution in a way that will have very bad consequences for our law.

You can listen to the whole episode here.

Movsesian at BYU Next Month

I’m looking forward to participating and catching up with friends next month at the 2022 Religious Freedom Annual Review, sponsored by the international Center for law and religion studies at BYU law. I’ll be speaking about the future of religious exemptions after Fulton. Details are available here: https://religiousfreedom.byu.edu/presenters. CLR friends, stop by and say hello!

“The New Disestablishments”

A new draft paper, building on some work I’ve done on the nature of “establishment” today, its relationship to free exercise and exemption from general law, and particularly the idea of establishment as “regime” in classical political theory. One of the more controversial claims in the paper is that inquiries about “religion” as a legal category are no longer worthwhile from a scholarly perspective (though they continue of course to be highly necessary from a practical, lawyerly perspective), except as a way to conceive the shifting dynamics of power within the regime. Here’s the abstract:

“The individual has complete autonomy of choice respecting matters of sex, gender, and procreation. The findings of science as established by the knowledge class, together with the preferences of that class in this domain, should be imposed on everyone. These views reflect two central creeds of the new establishment. They, or statements like them, are the basis for policies across the nation touching many walks of life, from business to education, media, advertising, health care and medicine, and more.

Whether these propositions and others like them constitute a “religious” establishment is irrelevant. To be sure, there are arguments that it is religious. But the hypertrophy of the concept of religion in American law has made the legal category “religion” so malleable as to render it useless as an analytical tool. And, at any rate, religious belief responds to the world in which it is situated. When that world tells dissenting citizens that their beliefs are irrational, anti-scientific, and benighted—and, indeed, that their objections to new establishment creeds are discreditable because they are religious—dissenters may be forgiven for taking the world at its word. If these dissenting views are religious, it is the new establishment that has made them so and, in consequence, entangled itself in religious controversy.

Free exercise exemption has been thought a way to resist the new establishment. Yet the dynamics of resistance are ambiguous. Individual exemption—unless connected to a larger strategy—can validate and strengthen the new establishment, entrenching the supplicant position of the exempted. Many advocates of exemption do not object to this state of affairs. They insist that they have no interest in disrupting the new establishment. They are committed to it, too. Yet partisans of the new establishment are not wrong to sense possible danger from expanding rights of free exercise. These rights, if synthesized and organized, could become broader pockets and sub-communities of disestablishment. There is a continuum between free exercise and disestablishment. Dissenting positions on the family, education, religion, sex and gender, and others might be stitched together from the disaggregated set of free exercise exemption micro-victories to constitute challenges to the new establishment. To do that, however, would demand concerted action involving some mechanism other than exemption, and it is not plain that advocates of religious exemption are interested in that project. But the project may be coming whether they like it or not. Unlike the new establishmentarians, some free exercise advocates have not adequately appreciated (or do not wish to see) that the real fight is not about an individual exemption here or there, but about the future shape of the American establishment.”

Thanks to the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal

Just a note to thank the organizers of last week’s conference on religious liberty at the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal for hosting me. The event brought together a diverse group of scholars with truly differing points of view–something for which the organizers deserve a lot of praise. I presented a paper on the 50th anniversary this year of Wisconsin v. Yoder and received some very helpful comments. I look forward to seeing my essay in print in a forthcoming symposium edition of the Law Journal, and to reading the other participants’ papers!

Last Week’s Reading Society Meeting with Mark Lanier

Here’s a nice write-up of last week’s Reading Society session on C.S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time,” led by lawyer and scholar Mark Lanier of the Lanier Theological Library. Thanks to Mark for traveling to New York to lead the session and to and all who attended. The Reading Society will be back next semester. See you then!