Fulton: A Victory for Religious Freedom?

For interested readers, I have an essay at First Things today on the Supreme Court’s decision last week in the Catholic adoption services case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. I argue that the decision represents a victory for religious freedom–though how much of a victory depends on how the Court interprets the case in the future. Here’s an excerpt:

Fulton is surely a victory for religious freedom. In fact, if the Court means what it says, the case is a major victory. True, the chief justice’s opinion avoids a definitive resolution of the conflict between LGBT rights and religious freedom—which probably explains how the chief captured the votes of the Court’s progressives, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. And true, Smith remains on the books, a result that Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, lamented in a separate concurrence. 

But if it is true, as Fulton suggests, that even a theoretical possibility of an exception triggers strict scrutiny, Smith does not pose much of a limitation. Moreover, if the Court is serious about strict scrutiny—that the mere possibility of an exception means that the state lacks a compelling interest in applying its rule to any particular litigant—it is hard to envision a religious claimant ever losing one of these cases in future. 

Nonetheless, it would be wise for religiously affiliated adoption agencies and other potential claimants to wait and see what develops before celebrating. The Court’s religion clause jurisprudence is notoriously unpredictable, and the justices may not stick to Fulton’s reasoning in the future. Moreover, the fact-specific nature of the ruling means that the Court can easily distinguish Fulton in subsequent litigation if it wishes to do so. 

You can read the whole essay here.

On Corporate Activism and American Polarization

In First Things today, I write about recent corporate activism and what it reveals about our deep cultural polarization. More and more, employees and customers expect that firms will take stands on contested political issues. This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to liberal theory, the market is supposed to diminish conflicts over religion and big questions. What’s going on?

All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace. And in a society as evenly divided and politically saturated as ours, it’s only natural that many people will want the firms for which they work or with which they do business to reflect their side in public debates. “Employees today…want to know what you stand for,” one CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. That goes for customers, too. In fact, firms may no longer have the option of staying silent on public controversies, since customers increasingly expect corporations to have political and social commitments. “[I]n these fraught times,” a corporate lawyer recently explained at Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, customers often construe silence on a political controversy as itself “a statement.” 

Liberalism depends for its success on habits of mind that liberalism itself cannot create. The doux commerce thesis works fine where people mostly agree on public controversies, or where people believe they can safely remain indifferent to them. In a society like ours, though, where views are polarized and politics is everywhere, it is naïve to think the market will be an exception, or that commerce will somehow cause people to forget about their deep disagreements. Until America reaches a new social equilibrium, our market is likely to be as contentious as everything else.

You can read the essay here.

Movsesian on Biden and Genocide Recognition

I had a good talk yesterday with Al Kresta of Ave Maria Radio on President Biden’s statement on the Armenian Genocide and what it means for Armenia today. Here’s the link.

On Mill’s Influence on Constitutional Law

I have this review at the Liberty Fund Law and Liberty site of Professor John Lawrence Hill’s book, The Prophet of Modern Constitutional Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the Supreme Court (2020). A bit from the end:

“What may be most puzzling in harm principle arguments is the assertion that they are not moral arguments. Hill repeats this claim in describing Mill’s view that the harm principle eschews “legal moralism.” True, Mill’s moralism is of a peculiar sort—one that steadfastly denies its moralism even as it imposes it. And this, too, is part of Mill’s legacy in American law. “Don’t impose your morality on me!” Such is the complaint, in the high and mighty places of American legal culture, of those most willing to do just that through the harm gambit.

Might it not be better simply to dispense with the harm principle? The advantages are plain. Rather than disguising what are contested moral assertions in the discursive cloak of harm—or its currently fashionable obverse, “health”—we could call deep moral disagreement by its rightful name. The losers would at least lose honestly, and what they lose could be recognized as a loss. They would not suffer the further indignity of explanations that their views are just a category mistake.

Yet regrettably, we seem destined to bear Mill’s burden. Harm-creep and harm-shrink in constitutional law track developments in other cultural arenas, where the concept of harm has enjoyed “semantic inflation” and deflation. And the efficacy of harm claims tends to correspond with who’s up and who’s down anyway. Those who wield cultural influence and can translate what they take to be grievances into legally cognizable harms will feel justified in dismissing the losers’ further losses simply as “not harms.”

A balancing of losses and gains is not enough for the victors, because only a moralized victory that treats them as fully virtuous (or “privileged” but absolved after some modest public abasement) and deserving of their wins will do. Hurts to the wrong sort of people become not matters of regret, but moral imperatives. Those hurts are “non-harm.” All the while, collateral wounds of various sorts accrue and are rendered invisible. It would not be fair to blame Mill for all of this, in legal discourse or elsewhere. Perhaps moral argument in law inevitably has something of this quality—that when the strong do what they can, it is the moral fault of the weak that they suffer as they must.”

The Past as Origin: A Reflection from James Hankins

I thought this fragment from Professor James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019), was very interesting and well put (64-65), quite apart from the “Cambridge School” applications it may have:

“A conceptual framework motivated by present concerns may distort the past, but questions about origins and foundations are surely not “temptations” but the lifeblood of historical inquiry. A methodology that cripples the ability to ask such questions needs rethinking. Historical questions and metahistorical questions are indeed different and should be kept separate, but this fact need not be taken as a source of epistemological despair. Rather it is, or it should be, a call to exercise our imaginative understanding of human phenomena in relation to the entirety of past cultures, their Lebenswelt, the long-faded structures of practical constraints and inherited values that shaped those cultures and still renders them legible, with disciplined research, to the attentive mind. In practical terms this means exercising ceaseless vigilance against anachronism: something easier said than done. To see the past in its own terms goes against our naïve or interested desire to make use of the past for our own purposes. It also requires hard work, imagination, and (dare one say it) a certain kind of love. We want to root our own identities as individuals or groups in a glorious past, or (more often these days) we want to preen ourselves on our superiority to a benighted past, and this desire sometimes blinds us to difference, to anachronism, to moral universes other than our own. But sometimes we have to transcend our own needs in order to do justice to the reality of other persons and times. And sometimes it is the truth we cannot see that is precisely the one we need.”

Drakeman, “An Establishment Clause Miracle Story”

Don Drakeman, Distinguished Research Professor at Notre Dame and a member of our Board of Advisors here at the Center for Law and Religion, wrote us recently to pass along this wonderful story about an obscure Christmas carol and our current, perhaps even more obscure, Establishment Clause jurisprudence. We take great pleasure in posting Don’s essay below, and in wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas, a peaceful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

* * *

The holidays are a time for inspiring stories, and where better for Law and Religion Forum readers to turn than the Establishment Clause?

            During some family caroling, my daughter Cindy and her husband Richard introduced me to Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, a breathtakingly beautiful choral work.  This isn’t the famous version by Schubert you hear this time of year.  It’s the one by an obscure 20th century German composer, who spent most of WWII as a POW in Michigan.  The composition is completely different from the Schubert piece, and you’ll only recognize it if you get your music via NPR.

            Herr Biebl’s Ave Maria has become our inspirational story thanks to the 9th Circuit’s 2009 decision in Nurre v. Whitehead.  The seniors in the Jackson High School band were asked to choose what they wanted to play at graduation, and they picked an instrumental version of Biebl’s piece because they thought it would “showcase their talent.”  But the Biebl was nixed by the school administrators on the grounds that “the title and meaning…had religious connotations and would be easily identified as such by attendees.”  The 9th circuit backed them up, saying that the school’s action was an appropriate way to avoid an Establishment Clause problem. 

As far as I can see, the court’s decision required a series of miracles, each involving a degree of faith in the education of America’s youth that, as the KJV might say, “passeth all understanding.”

            The First Miracle:   That anyone was listening.  As a veteran high school band member, I can testify that the one thing the senior class is not doing when the band is playing is paying attention to the music.  The chance that any of them would think, “Wow, what a great piece!  I’ll check the program to see what it’s called” rounds to zero.  But, in this season of miracles, let’s say they did, and learned that it was named Ave Maria.

            The Second Miracle:  That the seniors had any idea what “Ave Maria” means.  I would like to share the judges’ faith that the seniors were well versed in Latin.  Yet, even if they were, Biebl’s effect would more likely be something like this:

            Football Captain:  Are you waving at the band?

Head Cheerleader:  Yes, they are playing that for me.  It’s called, “Hey, Mary.”  Didn’t you pay attention in AP Latin?

            Football Captain:  You have to stop skipping Latin Club meetings.  The Romans didn’t say “Hey,” they said, “Hail.”   This song is in honor of my “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in the championships.

High School football may inspire religious-like devotion, but at least so far, not enough to violate the Establishment Clause.

            The Third Miracle:  That there could possibly be a “primary effect” of advancing religion under the 9th Circuit’s use of the Lemon Test.  In other words, someone had to pay attention to the band, consult the program to learn the title, understand its meaning and religious significance, and then have a sufficiently religious experience that the instrumental rendition of the piece during graduation had a primary effect of advancing religion.  But, if you think about it, we don’t see people falling to their knees in prayer when they hear Josh Groban’s Ave Maria at the mall, and his version actually has words.  Besides, the students most likely to manifest this third miracle involving a traditional Catholic prayer are the Catholic ones, and they were more likely to be graduating from the large Catholic high school just five minutes away.

            Justice Alito called this decision “troubling” in his cert. denial dissent, but I prefer to see it as an inspiring story of faith in our educational system, where classically educated seniors listen to the wind ensemble with rapt attention, and find their religious beliefs profoundly deepened by the simple trigger words, Ave Maria.

            On that inspirational note, if you are seeking to brighten your Christmas season, look no further than Chanticleer’s rendition of Biebl’s Ave Maria on YouTube.  We have it on good authority that it will be a religious experience.

——

Don would like to thank Cindy Drakeman and Richard Wanerman, who not only introduced him to Biebl, but who also appear on this year’s Grammy-nominated recording of the world premier of Kastalsky’s Requiem.  Since the Requiem includes the hymn Rock of Ages, he hopes the Grammys do not get any federal funding because the awards are being given in the 9th Circuit.

Armenia’s Future

In First Things today, I have an essay on the Second Karabakh War: what happened, why it happened, and Armenia’s path for the future. Here’s an excerpt:

Notwithstanding the loss of territory and the terrible loss of life, Armenians should resist despair. Armenia’s history is very long, and things have looked bleak at many points—for example, when the Persians defeated Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr in the fifth century, when Arabs invaded in the seventh, when Turks invaded in the eleventh, and when Mongols invaded in the fourteenth. More recently, there was the 20th-century genocide after which, improbably, Armenians succeeded in reestablishing a state for the first time in several hundred years. 

In the wake of the Second Karabakh War, Armenians need to evaluate their mistakes—especially their misguided optimism about support from Western governments and human rights organizations—accept certain realities, and work to rebuild. Notwithstanding a calamitous history filled with injustice, Armenians have preserved a distinct and continuous Christian witness in the Caucasus for millennia. With God’s help, they will survive this most recent defeat as well. 

You can read the whole essay here.

Christianity and Conservatism’s Multiethnic Future

At the First Things site today, I have an essay on how a broad, ecumenical Christianity will feature in a new, multiethnic conservative movement. Here’s a sample:

The factors Salam identifies no doubt figure in minorities’ increasing affinity for conservative politics. But I think his explanation misses another important factor: conservative Christianity. The media typically presents conservative Christians as monolithically white, but that is not the case. For example, about one-quarter of evangelicals are members of racial and ethnic minorities, and Republicans apparently did very well among them. According to Gaston Espinoza, a researcher at Claremont McKenna College who conducted a survey of Latino voters, it was “Latino evangelicals” who “helped Trump to do better than anyone expected in Texas … and in Florida.”

I don’t know of studies that analyze minority voters in terms of church attendance, but in the general population, religious observance correlates with voting for the GOP, and that pattern presumably holds for many minorities as well. According to the AP Vote Cast Survey, people who attend church regularly—up to a few times a month—broke solidly for Trump, 54 percent to 45 percent. People who attend church once a week or more voted 61 percent for Trump. By contrast, people who never attend church went strongly for Biden, 63 percent to 32 percent. (This last figure is consistent with surveys that reveal that more than two-thirds of Democrats “never attend religious services.”) To be sure, differences exist among minority communities; black Christians, for example, continue to vote Democrat in very large numbers. Still, it is reasonable to think that, with respect to minorities, as with respect to the American public generally, the religiously observant tend to vote Republican.

If Republicans are to become a multiethnic, middle-class movement, a popular, ecumenical Christianity of the sort I observed at the Museum of the Bible will likely have an important place in it. In fact, the religious identity of the movement need not be exclusively Christian. Americans are famously non-sectarian when it comes to public religion, and it’s possible to imagine a political coalition of the traditionally religious from all faith communities. Although good studies are difficult to find, some suggest that Orthodox Jews increasingly vote Republican. And President Trump drew one-third of Muslim voters in 2020, a large increase over 2016.

You can read the whole essay here.

Movsesian on the Karabakh Crisis

For those who are interested, at the Law & Liberty site today, I have an essay on the Karabakh War, now one month old. I argue that the war represents a civilizational clash between democracy and dictatorship and suggest what American can do to ease the crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

America should consider a range of options to help ease the Karabakh crisis, none of which would involve America as a participant in the conflict. First, it can send humanitarian assistance to the region, indirectly if necessary. Second, it can suspend the direct or third-party sale or transfer of military equipment and technology to Azerbaijan. America provided $100 million of military aid to Azerbaijan just in 2018 and 2019, much more than to any other country in the region, ostensibly to help Azerbaijan defend itself against Iran. With Azerbaijan openly purchasing weapons from Iran, that strategy seems counterproductive. America can also suspend military sales and transfers to Turkey while Turkey continues its belligerent policy in Karabakh and elsewhere. If this doesn’t work, America could impose sanctions on both countries.

Finally, America can continue to push Azerbaijan to cease hostilities, return to negotiations, and reach a diplomatic settlement of Karabakh’s status. (After agreeing to one US-brokered ceasefire last weekend, Azerbaijan immediately broke it.) A comprehensive settlement has been in sight for decades: Armenia returns most captured territories to Azerbaijan and allows refugees to return in exchange for some sort of independence for Karabakh. Michael Rubin argues in The National Interest that America should support this idea, which has a precedent in Kosovo: “remedial secession” to protect an endangered minority. After weeks of cluster bombing, not to mention the history of pogroms and other crimes, Karabakh Armenians can never be safe under Azeri rule.

You can read the whole essay here.

Movsesian on the Barrett Nomination

In First Things today, I have an essay on the Barrett nomination. I argue that Republicans and Democrats both play politics, but that Barrett deserves to be confirmed. Here’s an excerpt:

Another objection is that Judge Barrett will be an activist. Here the argument seems to be that, as a faithful Catholic and member of an ecumenical charismatic group, she will inevitably decide cases on the basis of her religious convictions rather than the law—“the dogma lives loudly within you” and so on. But no evidence of this sort of thing exists in her record as an appeals judge, though that record is, admittedly, brief. In her one essay that raises the subject, Judge Barrett suggests that in cases of conflict she would recuse herself rather than impose her Catholic convictions in place of the law, a position that arguably should concern Catholics more than non-Catholics. And, as my colleague Marc DeGirolami has explained, her writings about stare decisis—the idea that judges should stick to decided cases and not overrule them, even if judges think those cases are wrong—are well within the American legal tradition.

Moreover, as Judge Barrett pointed out in a speech at Hillsdale College last year, keeping one’s ideology out of judging is not a problem limited to Catholics, or believers generally. When “you think about the debate about whether someone’s religion has any bearing on their fitness for office,” she told the students, “it seems to me that the premise of the question is that people of faith would have a uniquely difficult time separating out their moral commitments from their obligation to apply the law.” But that isn’t true. “People who have no faith, people who are not religious” also “have deeply held moral convictions,” she said. “And it’s just as important for those people to be sure . . . to set aside . . . personal moral convictions . . . and follow the law.”

The extent to which judges can and should keep personal moral convictions out of the law is of course a matter of debate. Some constitutional doctrines invite judges to import their convictions into the law, or at least make it difficult for judges to avoid doing so. One example is the “compelling interest test” in free-exercise law, which asks judges to evaluate whether the state has a compelling interest that justifies a burden on religious freedom. But there is no reason to think Judge Barrett would have a harder time setting aside her personal convictions than a secular justice would have setting aside his or hers. Besides, progressives have been arguing for decades that the bench should reflect diverse life experiences, which help judges apply the law in empathetic ways. It’s a little late in the day to argue such a thing is unthinkable.

You can read the whole essay here.