Movsesian at The King’s College Next Month

Next month, I’ll give the annual Constitution Day Address at The King’s College in New York, on Masterpiece Cakeshop and the future of religious freedom in the United States. Details about the event, to take place on September 19, are here. Forum readers in New York, please stop by to say hello!

Movsesian on Wilken on Religious Freedom

In this week’s University Bookman, I have a review of Robert Louis Wilken’s new book on Christianity and religious freedom, Liberty in the Things of God. Here’s a sample:

Wilken writes lucidly and persuasively, and his basic point is correct. Religious freedom is not a concept foreign to Christian thought, and its place as a pillar of Western civilization owes much to Christian sources. Of course, one should not exaggerate. It’s fair to say that religious freedom, as it developed in the West, is one Christian approach to the question, but not the onlyChristian approach. As the examples of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin show, there are strains in the Christian tradition that would oppose religious freedom, at least as we understand the concept today. The dualist nature of Christian politics, which insists that Christians owe duties simultaneously to God and to the state, but that Christ is Lord of all, makes easy conclusions about the Christian approach to church-state relations impossible.

The full review is available here.

At the Hertog Foundation today

I’m delighted to be a guest today at the Hertog Foundation in Washington, DC, where I’m speaking at a class for college students and graduates taught by Adam White on “The Constitution, the Courts, and Conservatism.” Professor Randy Barnett, Judge Neomi Rao, and Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute are among the other speakers. I’ll be speaking about some of my work on traditionalism in constitutional interpretation.

Movsesian on Masterpiece Cakeshop

For those who are interested, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy has published my article, Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom, in the most recent issue. Here’s the abstract:

Last term, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of several recent cases in which religious believers have sought to avoid the application of public accommodations laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court’s decision was a narrow one that turned on unique facts and did relatively little to resolve the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. Yet Masterpiece Cakeshop is significant, because it reflects broad cultural and political trends that drive that conflict and shape its resolution: a deepening religious polarization between the Nones and the Traditionally Religious; an expanding conception of equality that treats social distinctions—especially religious distinctions—as illegitimate; and a growing administrative state that enforces that conception of equality in all aspects of our common life. This article explores those trends and offers three predictions for the future: conflicts like Masterpiece Cakeshop will grow more frequent and harder to resolve; the law of religious freedom will remain unsettled and deeply contested; and the judicial confirmation wars will grow even more bitter and partisan than they already have.

Readers can also download the article from the SSRN website, here.

2019 Annual Review

Here’s our annual review of Center activities for the past academic year, including Part III of the Tradition Project in Rome–with a keynote from Justice Samuel A. Alito; the fourth biennial Colloquium in Law and Religion, a new podcast series, and more. Check it out!

On the Cross

I have an essay about the Bladensburg Cross case at Public Discourse, where I isolate the holding (and wonder about whether there is actually a broader holding in the case), discuss the case’s implications for future religious displays, and speculate about the dynamics on the Supreme Court and elsewhere respecting these issues. A bit:

“The holding of American Legion lays out what could be called a jurisprudence of old religious monuments, symbols, and practices. When a religious monument, symbol, or practice, is old—whether it is a cross or a Ten Commandments monument or some other government practice of long standing—it is especially likely to be imbued with many purposes and messages that have changed and developed with time. Communities are entitled to maintain these religious monuments, symbols, and practices as part of their historical and cultural heritage, and the Court will no longer “roam[] the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away an reference to the divine.” “The passage of time,” the majority said, “gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality,” and the Cross in this case clearly enjoys that presumption. It is both a Christian symbol and a symbol of war and patriotism. It is these things together.

Already, this holding works a considerable change in Supreme Court doctrine. It surrounds “old” religious “monuments, symbols, and practices” with a protective shield against judicial mischief in the name of the Establishment Clause. New religious monuments, symbols, and practices whose purposes are manifestly discriminatory, it is true, are not covered by the holding (more on this below), and the terms “new” and “old” are not defined. But the Court’s existing approach to state-sponsored religious displays is quite different. The much-reviled test in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) focuses on “the” purpose—“religious” or “secular”—of a display, as well as its “primary effect,” which the Court has subsequently interpreted in this context to mean whether a “reasonable observer” would perceive that the government is “endorsing” religion by displaying a monument or symbol. While Justice Kagan believed that the cross also survived under this approach, none of the other justices in the majority accepted Lemon, and all justices in the majority held that “old” displays have neither single purposes nor single meanings. This is flatly incompatible with the assumptions of Lemon.

There is overwhelming support on the Court for what would have been a broader holding. In Part II(A) of Justice Alito’s opinion, a four-justice plurality rejected the Lemon test and its “endorsement” application for these types of religious displays. It was something of a surprise that Justice Breyer joined the plurality. But it was a real shock that this part of Alito’s opinion was not officially joined by Justice Thomas or Justice Gorsuch. Those two justices authored respective concurrences in the judgment, which technically means that while they agree with the outcome, they do not join the Alito opinion’s reasoning. But both of them would have gone further than the plurality and rejected the Lemon test in its entirety. That they did not join Part II(A) rejecting the Lemon test—at least with regard to “old” displays—is baffling. For those who were hoping that something clearer would emerge from this case, it’s also rather exasperating.

Justice Thomas, in fact, goes so far as to say this about the Lemon/endorsement test: “the plurality rightly rejects its relevance to claims, like this one, involving ‘religious references or imagery in public monuments, symbols, mottos, displays, and ceremonies.’ I agree with that aspect of the opinion” (emphasis added). With Thomas, the reasoning in Part II(A) therefore has the explicit support of five justices. But because Thomas did not formally join Part II(A), the statement seems to be dicta, material in an opinion unnecessary to the judgment. Admittedly, the line between dicta and holding is not crystal clear, and the statement could even be read as an alternative holding. Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence in the judgment also has highly critical comments about Lemon, but Justice Thomas’s statement is a clear and explicit affirmation of the plurality’s position.

At any rate, the lesson of American Legion seems to be that the Lemon/endorsement test is rejected—at least for “old” religious monuments, symbols, and practices.”

CLR in the HJLPP

I’m delighted to note the Center for Law and Religion edition of the latest issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Actually, it was entirely happenstance that one of Mark’s articles and one of my articles were published in the same issue.)

Mark’s piece is Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom.

Mine is The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment.

Movsesian at GMU This Week

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For our readers in the DC area, I’ll be speaking on Friday at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, at a conference on Religion and the Administrative State. The conference is hosted by the law school’s Center for the Study of the Administrative State, whose talented and indefatigable director, Adam White, has put together a great lineup of which I am proud to be a part. I’ll be speaking (via the Web) on the Court’s decision last term in Masterpiece Cakehop, specifically, what the decision suggests about cultural and political trends in the US. The conference details are available here.

“The Traditions of American Constitutional Law”

Here’s a new draft of an article I just posted to SSRN: The Traditions of American Constitutional Law (forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review). Of course, the piece has strong resonances with our Tradition Project here at the Center and is the product of thoughts that have been stimulated by the project over the last few years. But it’s a long time marinating. Comments most welcome on what is still very much a work in progress. Here is the abstract.

“This article identifies a new method of constitutional interpretation: the use of tradition to inform constitutional meaning. It studies what the Supreme Court means by invoking tradition and whether what it means remains constant across the document and over time. The task is worth pursuing inasmuch as traditional interpretation is pervasive, consistent, and recurrent across the Court’s constitutional doctrine. So, too, are criticisms of traditional interpretation. There are also more immediate reasons to study the role of tradition in constitutional interpretation. The Court’s two newest members, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have indicated that tradition informs their understanding of constitutional meaning. The study of traditional interpretation seems all the more pressing to understand certain possible jurisprudential moves in the Court’s future.

The article concludes that when the Court interprets traditionally, it signals the presumptive influence of political, legal, or cultural practices of substantial duration for informing constitutional meaning. Traditional interpretation is thus constituted of three elements: (1) a focus on practices, rather than principles, as informing constitutional meaning; (2) a practice’s duration, understood as a composite of its age and continuity; and (3) a practice’s presumptive, but defeasible, interpretive influence. Traditional interpretation’s emphasis on practices that are given tangible form in a people’s lived experience suggests that it is preferable to speak about politically, legally, and culturally specific traditions rather than an abstracted concept of tradition. Hence, “the traditions of American constitutional law.” 

The article identifies traditional interpretation as its own method; shows its prevalence and methodological consistency across the domains of constitutional interpretation; isolates and examines its constituent elements, comparing them against other prominent interpretive approaches; and infers and explains the justifications of traditional interpretation from the doctrinal deposit. While there may be some irony about a claim of novelty in an article about tradition, what this article identifies as new is not the invocation of tradition as such, but the isolation of a recurrent and consistent method—traditional interpretation—adopted by the Court across its interpretive work. It aims to bring to light an overlooked and yet frequently used interpretive practice, and to understand its structure, situation, and purpose within the Court’s constitutional doctrine.”

CNBC Story on the Bladensburg Cross Case

I am quoted in this CNBC story on the Bladensburg Cross case up for oral argument next week. The author, Tucker Higgins, put together a nice piece (one tiny quibble: Town of Greece v. Galloway was not decided on the basis of the coercion approach…that part of the opinion did not command a majority) and was good enough to reference and link to this article of mine on religion and the Roberts Court from a few years ago.

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