Ethnic Cleaning Threatened in the South Caucasus

At First Things today, I have an essay on Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenian Christians in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh this Advent. Things look grim, but the Armenians of Karabakh vow to hold on, notwithstanding the real threat of ethnic cleansing.

Here’s an excerpt:

Christians around the world are marking Advent, the period in the church calendar that anticipates Christmas. People are decorating their homes and schoolkids are rehearsing their lines for annual Christmas pageants. It’s a happy, forward-looking time. 

In the South Caucasus this Advent, though, Christians face the threat of ethnic cleansing. Last week, the Azeri government blocked the road that links the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 120,000 Armenian Christians, to the outside world. No supplies have reached Karabakh for days. The local government has rationed food and essential goods and services. Schools have closed. Hospitals warn that they will soon run out of critical medication, but Azerbaijan has indicated that it will shoot down any aircraft that attempt to deliver humanitarian aid. For good measure, Azerbaijan also temporarily cut off the only natural gas pipeline that supplies the region—in the middle of winter, when temperatures are below freezing.

Azerbaijan, which is Turkish in culture and 97 percent Muslim, wishes to end the Armenian Christian presence in Karabakh and force Armenians to cede territory in Armenia proper for a land bridge to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan on the Turkish border. Karabakh, which is home to centuries-old monasteries and churches, is one of the few places in the Middle East where indigenous Christians still comprise a majority of the population. But that may not be the case much longer. The conflict has the potential to become a serious humanitarian crisis. 

You can read the whole essay here.

Movsesian on 303 Creative

At First Things today, I report on last week’s oral argument in 303 Creative, the latest wedding vendor case to reach the Supreme Court–this time involving a web designer who does not wish to provide services for same-sex weddings. 303 Creative, like most such cases, presents a conflict between free speech, including religiously-motivated speech, and equality in the marketplace. Based on last week’s argument, I argue, it looks like speech will prevail. Here’s an excerpt:

Resolving [the web designer’s] claim requires the Court to answer a basic, conceptual question under the Court’s precedents: As applied to Smith’s web design business, does CADA regulate speech or conduct? If the former, CADA would have to satisfy a test known as “strict scrutiny.” Colorado would have to show that prosecuting Smith was “necessary” to promote a “compelling” state interest. By contrast, if the law regulates conduct and only incidentally affects speech, Colorado would have to satisfy a more lenient test known as the O’Brien standard. Colorado would have to show only that CADA “furthered” an “important” or “substantial” state interest unrelated to the suppression of speech.

At last week’s argument, Colorado’s lawyer argued that CADA is directed principally at conduct. Were Colorado to prosecute Smith, he explained, it would be because Smith had discriminated against customers based on sexual orientation, not because she expressed an opinion on same-sex marriage. Smith could not be required to praise same-sex marriage expressly—but she would have to design websites for all comers. Appearing on behalf of the Biden Administration as amicus curiae, Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher agreed. Declining categorically to design websites for same-sex weddings, he told the justices, would be “a form of status-based discrimination properly within the scope of public accommodations laws.”

This argument appeared to persuade progressives like Justice Sonia Sotomayor—but not the Court’s conservatives. For example, Justice Neil Gorsuch stressed that Smith had said repeatedly that she would “serve everyone,” straight, gay, or transgender, and would decline to design websites for same-sex weddings no matter who requested them. She objected to expressing a message with which she disagreed, not to serving customers of different sexual identities. When it came to designing wedding websites, Gorsuch emphasized, “the question” for Smith wasn’t “who,” but “what.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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.

Have Americans Given Up on Free Speech?

At Law and Liberty today, I have a review essay on Jacob Mchangama’s new book, Free Speech. Mchangama argues that the United States, and the world generally, needs to recommit to free speech principles before it is too late. I argue that the real problem is not a failure to believe in free speech, but a lack of social trust. Here’s an excerpt:

It is a striking feature of American life in the first quarter of the 21st century that we have somehow created a culture in which everyone feels aggrieved. This is especially true when it comes to free speech. Both conservatives and progressives believe their opponents are out to silence them—not just beat them in debates and prevail against them in elections, but intimidate them, put them on mute permanently, eliminate any possibility of resistance. Many on each side see the other as not simply wrong, but ill-motivated and dangerous, an existential threat to be defeated before it is too late.

This state of affairs is more the norm in American history than we care to admit. Perhaps because we see ourselves in providential terms—“the last best hope of earth,” as Lincoln said—Americans always have been sensitive to threats our democracy faces and often have worried about enemies within spreading “disinformation.” Eras of Good Feeling occur relatively rarely. Even so, the level of recrimination just now seems quite high, and many Americans apparently believe we must silence our opponents before they succeed in silencing us.

In Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, Jacob Mchangama maintains that a renewed commitment to free expression can help us through these perfervid times. Mchangama, a lawyer and the founder of Justitia, a human-rights organization in Denmark, has written a programmatic history that “connect[s] past speech controversies with the most pressing contemporary ones.” Today’s debates about free expression recapitulate those of long ago, he believes, and just as our ancestors did, we must defend the right to speak against those who would take it away.

To write a comprehensive history like this one is an ambitious undertaking, and Free Speech is a mixed success. Mchangama writes engagingly and has done his research. The chapters on the Internet and social media are especially good. But even at 500 pages, a history that spans thousands of years and many civilizations is bound to be a bit superficial at times. Moreover, as he himself recognizes, tolerance for others’ speech depends as much on culture as it does on law—and in today’s polarized, distrustful America, we are less and less likely to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and let them have their say even if the law permits it.

You can read the whole essay here.

Collegium Institute Event on Catholics in America with Breidenbach, Bruenig, and Maier

Just a quick announcement for what looks like a very worthwhile Collegium Institute event at the Penn Club in New York: “How Catholics Became American,” discussing Professor Michael Breidenbach’s recent book, Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (HUP 2021). The event features Elizabeth Bruenig of the Atlantic, Francis Maier of the University of Notre Dame, and Prof. Breidenbach. The date is March 16 and further details are at the link.

On the Leak in Dobbs

In First Things today, I argue that the leak of the Dobbs draft opinion this week differs from past SCOTUS leaks and poses a real danger for the Court. Here’s an excerpt:

Past leaks from law clerks typically have come after the Court has issued a decision. They often seem explained by desires to set the record straight for history or, perhaps, to demonstrate the leaker’s own significance (which, as a former clerk, I can attest to be typically little). If they come before a decision, leaks are usually spare and vague, hints at a likely vote tally or outcome. Such leaks do little to change the day-to-day workings of the Court.

But the leak of an entire draft opinion in the middle of deliberations in a vitally important case suggests something very different, a desire either to bully or destroy the Court as an effective institution. After this episode, justices will feel less secure about the confidentiality of their deliberations and think twice about what they put in drafts. The work of the Court will inevitably suffer. That is what makes this leak so damaging, however one feels about the ultimate issue at stake.

You can read the full essay here.

Tradition and Strict Scrutiny

Over at the Volokh site, I have a post on last week’s decision in Ramirez v. Collier, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a death-row inmate who argued that prison officials violated RLUIPA by refusing to allow him to have a clergy present at his execution. RLUIPA requires prison restrictions to meet strict scrutiny: the state must justify restrictions on religion by showing that it has chosen the least restrictive means of satisfying a compelling interest.

Strict scrutiny, which applies in many areas of constitutional law, in practice operates as a balancing test. Critics (including me) have pointed out that the test is inherently indeterminate, depending largely on the intuitions of the particular judges hearing a case. In a separate concurrence in Ramirez, Justice Kavanaugh argues that tradition can help make the test less subjective:

In Ramirez, for example, prison officials had concluded that the marginal benefit of excluding pastors from the execution chamber outweighed the burden on inmates’ RLUIPA rights. Chief Justice Roberts and the majority evidently disagreed. But how were they to know? “It is difficult for a court applying” strict scrutiny, Kavanaugh wrote, “to know where to draw the line—that is, how much additional risk of great harm is too much for a court to order the State to bear.” If the justices’ intuitive judgments are all that make the difference, that hardly seems legitimate.

Here, according to Kavanaugh, is where tradition can help. For centuries in American practice, clergy have been present at executions. And that practice continues today. The presence of clergy, in other words, is a living tradition. “Although the compelling interest and least restrictive means standards are necessarily imprecise,” Kavanaugh wrote, “history and state practice can at least help structure the inquiry and focus the Court’s assessment of the State’s arguments.” Kavanaugh wrote separately to emphasize this aspect of the Court’s reasoning.

Here’s a link to my post.

On the Recent Vaccine Mandate Cases

In Public Discourse today, I have an essay that explains why the Court has declined to address claims that Covid vaccine mandates in places like Maine and New York violate the First Amendment. Here’s an excerpt:

The Court has not explained its reasons in these cases. But the justices’ caution is not surprising, for a few reasons. First, religious exemption claims generally pose hard questions, which are particularly troublesome in this context. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified divisions about the value of religion and religious freedom in our country, and the justices might wish to avoid doing something to provoke further conflict. Second, the Maine and New York lawsuits are currently at the preliminary injunction stage, and the factual records in the cases are still unclear. The Court might reasonably think that it should allow the lower courts an opportunity to consider the claims further before it issues any rulings. Finally, the Court might think that state and local governments will themselves see the prudence of offering religious exemptions, as many already have done, considering the difficulties vaccine mandates have created for healthcare and other services.

You can read the whole essay here.

More on The Merchant of Venice

At Law and Liberty today, I have an essay on law in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” in which I expand on some themes that Marc and I discussed in our recent Legal Spirits episode. Specifically, I explore the play’s lessons about the limits of law in a pluralist society:

For the people of Shakespeare’s day, Bloom writes, Venice represented the hope that society could transcend religious and cultural differences through commerce—or, rather, through commercial law. Classical liberal thinkers would call later it the doux commerce thesis: allow people to trade freely with each other and they would ignore religious and other differences, which get in the way of profit, and live together peaceably. The give-and-take of the market would train people to cooperate with one another and forego proselytizing. All that was necessary was that the state enforce people’s contracts on equal terms, neutrally and fairly, without giving one group or another the upper hand. Everything else would follow.

Venice was less serene and indifferent to religion than portrayed. But, as a symbol, the city was important. And by drawing the conflict as starkly as he does, Shakespeare means to ask whether the Venetian system can work where intercommunal divisions concern bedrock beliefs and ways of life. His answer is not hopeful. The dispute between Antonio and Shylock over charging interest reflects a deeper conflict about ultimate values that commerce and commercial law cannot resolve. “The law of Venice can force” the two men “to a temporary truce,” Bloom writes, “but in any crucial instance the conflict will re-emerge, and each will try to destroy the spirit of the law; for each has a different way of life which, if it were universalized within the city, would destroy that of the other. They have no common ground.”

Where such common ground does not exist, the law cannot create it. Law, even a neutral law of contracts, inevitably requires judgment: Which agreements should be enforced, and which should not? And judgment inevitably depends on the values people bring to the law from the wider culture. Where people share values, law does a tolerably good job resolving their disputes. One party wins and the other loses, but both can accept the legitimacy of the system. Where moral divisions run deep and the stakes are high, this is not possible. Law alone cannot persuade people to accept decisions that violate their most basic sense of right and wrong.

You can read the whole essay here.

Interviewed in the Deseret News

Religion journalist Kelsey Dallas, a past guest on Legal Spirits, interviews me in the Deseret News about my forthcoming essay in the Journal of Law and Religion on courts’ responses to Covid restrictions on public worship. Here’s a sample:

The COVID-19 pandemic has created all sorts of religious freedom conflict, as people of faith fight gathering restrictions, mask requirements and, more recently, vaccine mandates.

Your view on these legal battles likely depends on your professional, spiritual and political interests. Mark L. Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York, saw them as opportunities to study the limits of the United States’ approach to religious liberty protections. . . .

When there are no easy, obvious answers, judicial bias can creep in. That’s always problematic, but it’s especially so at a time when liberal and conservative judges often have very different views on the value of faith and what should win out when religious freedom is in conflict with other rights.

“As long as we don’t have a common baseline for how important religion is compared to other things, we’re going to have inconsistent opinions” from the legal system, Movsesian said. And with inconsistent opinions comes political and social strife.

You can read the whole interview here.