Supreme Court End of Term Podcast

In this podcast, Mark and I discuss three law and religion cases either decided by the Supreme Court this term or to be decided next term: Trinity Lutheran, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and IRAP v. Trump.

Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Passion for Equality

At the First Things site today, I have an essay on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which the Supreme Court granted cert at the end of its term a couple of weeks ago. In the case, a cake shop owner argues that the First Amendment grants him the right to decline to design and bake a cake for a same-sex marriage. I use Masterpiece Cakeshop, and a hypothetical question I posed to my class in law and religion, to explore Tocqueville’s observation that the concept of equality inevitably expands in democratic societies, and to explain how a case in which same-sex marriage is so central may, in fact, have little to do with sexuality:

Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.

Tocqueville saw this coming long ago. Democracies, he wrote, prize equality above all other values. Their “passion for equality,” he observed, is “ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible.” It is not simply a matter of assuring every person equal rights under law. Tocqueville believed, in Patrick Deneen’s words, that democracies inevitably seek to do away with “any apparent differences” among people—“material, social, or personal.” No distinctions are to be tolerated. In fact, Tocqueville wrote that democratic societies have an inevitable tendency toward pantheism, since, in the end, even a distinction between Creator and created becomes intolerable.

If I’m right that, in the long run, social intuitions drive the law, and if I’m also right that my students’ reaction reflects something about social intuitions in America today, then litigants like the shop owner in Masterpiece Cakeshop will have an increasingly hard time prevailing in American courts. As the concept of equality inevitably extends further and further, distinctions like the one he is trying to maintain will appear more and more rebarbative. People will fail to empathize at a basic level.

You can read the whole essay here.

Happy Independence Day

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In honor of the Fourth of July, the Forum is taking off today. Happy Independence Day and see you tomorrow!

“Blaine Amendment” Case Decided, Without Reference to Blaine Amendments or Animus Inquiry

Trinity Lutheran Church has just come down, and Tom Berg has a nice summary and set of good comments on it at Mirror of Justice. I agree with much of what he says, though I have a different sense of the considerable staying power of separationism than he does. More on that in the coming months.

For now, here’s one thought: this case concerned Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, which is quoted in full by the Court. Many states have similar amendments, enacted frequently sometime after the failure of James G. Blaine’s proposed federal constitutional amendment. The Blaine Amendments are the subject of great controversy in legal scholarship because of the anti-Catholicism that has been shown to have motivated them–the “animus” in the conventional argot. Some scholars believe that this motivational evidence is overblown. Others believe that even if the evidence exists, these provisions can be justified today on “neutral” grounds, or grounds of public reason liberalism, or some such grounds. Discussion about the Blaine Amendments’ tainted genesis–their anti-Catholic animus–has been on the law and religion scholarly agenda for years. And in Locke v. Davey, the opinion of CJ Rehnquist for the Court focused very much on animus issues (Justice Scalia, in his dissent, disputed that animus was relevant, insisting instead that what the law did was relevant). In Mitchell v. Helms, another funding case that was challenged on Establishment Clause grounds, Justice Thomas devoted a chunk of his plurality opinion to disavowing the claim that aid to “sectarian” schools is justified on Establishment Clause grounds as tainted by wicked animus:

Finally, hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow….Although the dissent professes concern for “the implied exclusion of the less favored,” the exclusion of pervasively sectarian schools from government-aid programs is just that, particularly given the history of such exclusion. Opposition to aid to “sectarian” schools acquired prominence in the 1870’s with Congress’ consideration (and near passage) of the Blaine Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to bar any aid to sectarian institutions. Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.”

Mitchell did not involve a state Blaine Amendment. Trinity Lutheran did. And yet you will search in vain for any reference to Blaine Amendments, the constitutional history of the period, “animus” analysis (or even the word “animus”), the motivation of those who excluded Trinity Lutheran from the funds at issue, or indeed any inquiry as to motivation. The focus is squarely on what the law did here, in this case, seemingly for this day only. In classic Roberts style, it is exquisitely minimalist. Just like Hosanna-Tabor, it goes in for hyper-particularism. This is why I very much agree with Tom’s point # 3 below. Indeed, the Chief’s opinion is taken to task by Justice Gorsuch for being insufficiently “principled.” Justice Gorsuch would have preferred a decision more maximal in nature.

But quite apart from the scope of the decision, nobody, but nobody, went in for deep dives into motivational inquiry in this case. It will be interesting to see just how that methodological preference works itself out in future disputes.

On the Religious Liberty Order

At the First Things site, I have a post on last week’s executive order on religious liberty. I argue that the order doesn’t do very much about religious accommodation, but that doing little may be a strategic choice by the Trump administration. I also argue that weakening the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax exempt religious organizations from electioneering, would be a bad thing, and inconsistent with American tradition.

Here’s a sample:

[A]voiding partisan political contests is a longstanding tradition for American churches, and a very beneficial one. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville observed that Christianity had a powerful influence in American politics; religion was, he famously said, “the first” of our “political institutions.” But Christianity’s influence on politics was an indirect one, and powerful precisely because it was indirect. Churches shaped Americans’ attitudes and morals, and Americans’ attitudes and morals shaped our politics. But churches studiously avoided party contests as such, and clergy “maintained a sort of professional pride in remaining outside of” them. As a result, Tocqueville observed, churches were never mixed up in the public mind with the vicissitudes of electoral campaigns, and maintained people’s confidence and respect.

This practice has served us very well. This is not to say that churches should avoid commenting on public questions, only that churches should refrain from endorsing or opposing particular candidates and parties, and avoid electioneering as such. In fact, I’ve never known a member of the clergy, liberal or conservative, who said he wanted to endorse or oppose a particular candidate from the pulpit. I suspect that, deep down, they all understood that mixing to that extent in partisan contests would interfere with their mission of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. If last week’s order signals a change in our longstanding American tradition, it’s not a change conservatives should celebrate.

You can read the post here.

Fake Law

Though that could well describe President Trump’s “Executive Order on Religious Liberty” issued yesterday, I have something different in mind in this article. A bit:

Welcome to the rise of fake law. Just as fake news spreads ideologically motivated misinformation with a newsy veneer, fake law brings us judicial posturing, virtue signaling, and opinionating masquerading as jurisprudence. And just as fake news augurs the end of authoritative reporting, fake law portends the diminution of law’s legitimacy and the warping of judges’ self-understanding of their constitutional role.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf Hypothesis (Further Thoughts in Response to Rob)

A couple of further thought in response to Rob Vischer, with whom I am greatly enjoying an exchange concerning perceptions of discrimination against Christians.

First, Rob writes that Christians are “lead[ing] the charge” against Muslims in some communities, citing conservative Christian support for so-called anti-Sharia laws and for the denial of zoning permits for the construction of mosques. I wonder if this is true. No doubt some conservative Christians do support these policies. But some say that those leading the charge today against immigrants, and those most hostile toward Muslims (and African Americans, and others, too), from the right tend to be non-Christians, not Christians. Rob suggests that the failure of some conservative Christians to advocate against, e.g., anti-Sharia laws might “smooth the way for the demonization of conservative Christians.” Perhaps that is true, but the point assumes that politics rewards a kind of principled, rational consistency (I have disagreed with Tom Berg in a similar way before, regarding his view that politics rewards reciprocality and consistency). Conservative Christians, the argument seems to say, are likelier to be rewarded with non-demonization if they support the non-demonization of another group. But it seems to me that the real reasons for Christian demonization are located in very different places than these, and that the question of whether Christians will or will not be demonized as a political and/or cultural matter depends on much more powerful political and cultural forces. To name two: the cultural desires and aspirations of the secular left and of religiously disengaged conservatism.

Second, Rob says that Christians should be “specific and restrained” in pointing out discrimination against Christians. The reason is that “our too-easy embrace of that narrative [of discrimination and/or persecution]…can limit its power when we need it most.” I don’t think I agree with this point, but whether I could agree with it or not would depend upon facts I don’t presently possess. The point being pressed by Rob could be called “the boy who cried wolf” hypothesis–the more frequently Christians point out episodes of discrimination and/or persecution against themselves, the more likely they are to be labeled “whiners” or some similarly dismissive appellation by their cultural and political opponents, and the less likely they will be to succeed when they invoke the charge of discrimination and/or persecution when it “really” happens. But why should one think that invoking discrimination is like this? To the contrary, why should one not think that the more one invokes the discrimination/persecution charge, the more powerful it becomes. And the less frequently one invokes it, the less plausible it seems (as, indeed, it seemed very implausible to the Washington State Supreme Court in the example Rob cites, notwithstanding what are to me the entirely persuasive arguments that Rob himself makes). You could call it the muscle hypothesis–the more you exercise, the stronger you get. There are many other examples of the power that the charge of discrimination can generate on behalf of a cause as a legal and political matter. Indeed, constitutional law (among other areas) is absolutely stuffed to the gills with them. If the objective is legal or political success, I’m not sure that I would accept the boy who cried wolf hypothesis as just self-evidently true, at least not without further evidence that this is, in fact, the likely outcome of “too many” claims of discrimination/persecution. In this instance, less may not be more. More may be more.

Dean Rob Vischer and I on Discrimination Against Christians

Dean Rob Vischer (U. St. Thomas) has a comment over at the Mirror of Justice site concerning discrimination against Christians, in which he concludes by arguing that:

religious liberty is only as strong as the degree to which it protects the most vulnerable among us.  If millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground.  This is an argument that some conservative Christians are championing — Robby George and Russell Moore are two leading examples — but it faces an uphill climb, in part because Christians have been hearing about our own persecution for a very long time.

Christian leaders and scholars need to cultivate a new commitment to discernment: distinguishing between the discomfort of holding increasingly unpopular beliefs and the real persecution that — thus far, at least — been far more prevalent in our lyrics than in our legal system.

I responded to Rob as follows:

I see things a little differently than Rob does in his latest post concerning discrimination against Christians. I hasten to add that I am neither an Evangelical conservative Christian nor have I ever listened to Christian rock. I also have not read the original piece to which Rob links. The disagreements run to a number of issues, and as to some I am not sure they are disagreements at all. But for purposes of this post, let me point out three:

Objection from demandingness: Rob says that “[i]f millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground.” I am not sure this argument is correct. A person could perceive certain threats to religious liberty and not others, and still make contributions to the protection of religious liberty. He or she could defend certain principles in certain contexts and not in others, and still help toward the defense of those principles. That person need not have to perceive all threats, as well as the relative strength of those threats, and make all possible defenses. But Rob seems to say that if one does not do this, then one is contributing to the weakening of religious liberty. That imposes a very high standard on people to perceive accurately the quality of all threats and defend religious liberty accordingly. Otherwise they are weakening religious freedom.

Global context: Rob may not have been saying this, but I also do not agree that Americans should recognize that discrimination and persecution of Christians is, at least as a global phenomenon, of lesser importance or significance or urgency than discrimination against other religious groups. In fact, if anything it is secular Americans, not Evangelical Christians, who fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats to religious freedom are aimed. Those threats are aimed at Christians in the Mideast. The American political regime that preceded this one consistently, almost willfully, misperceived that threat to religious freedom. Many American Christians seem not to perceive the atrocities that have been and are occurring to their co-religionists, and that my colleague, Mark Movsesian (among others), has documented. But I am not sure that I blame them for this. Here again, I revert to the first point of disagreement. It will be very difficult to protect religious freedom if every person has to accurately assess the relative strength of various threats to religious freedom and protect them in corresponding proportion. Whose metrics will be used? What happens when we disagree about the relative power of the threats? Is it not better to allow for different constituencies to emphasize and advocate for different problem issues? Is it not a more realistic approach that might result in the collective strengthening of religious freedom?

Just Wait Until It’s Worse!: Finally, I disagree with an implication of Rob’s post: that until Christians in this country have it as bad as other constituencies, they need to recognize their own relatively insignificant lot and wait for things to get worse before they can really start to complain. Rob almost certainly did not mean to say this, but the argument he makes reminds me very much of the ‘now that’s real persecution‘ style of argument. It is of course true that people ought to be concerned with severe violations of religious freedom. But I do not think it is true that people ought to measure or evaluate the state of their own religious freedom only by comparison with its worst violations. There is inevitably a kind of recursion to the lowest common denominator in these kinds of arguments, a suggestion that until American Christians endure the same sorts of threats as others, they are just “whining.” I must say that this argument (as I’ve written before) has always been mysterious and borderline perverse to me. Assuming the threats to religious liberty (as in point 1) to be of differential urgency, why is it necessary for those threats to become much, much worse before we will acknowledge their legitimacy?

Rob has responded to me, in part agreeing, in part disagreeing. I’ll try to put up another post on two specific questions raised in his responsive post: (1) Does it in fact follow that advocating for religious freedom in one context but not in another makes it more likely that religious freedom in the first context is threatened?; and (2) Is the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon described by Rob in fact an accurate description of the way in which claims for religious freedom succeed or fail. That is, is Rob right that Christians ought to save their complaints for really bad sorts of discrimination, lest they be ignored when those really bad sorts of discrimination arise? Suffice it to say for now that I am skeptical on both counts, but particularly the second.

Blasphemy in Denmark

At the First Things site today, I have a post on the current blasphemy controversy in Denmark, which Marc discussed here last week. Prosecutors have brought a blasphemy charge against a man who posted a video of himself burning a copy of the Quran. I don’t favor Quran burning, of course. But I ask why a secular, progressive country like Denmark would bring a blasphemy prosecution in 2017:

The ironies abound. Blasphemy prosecutions are not so unusual in Muslim-majority countries, where they often serve as pretexts for the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. In fact, this month marks the sixth anniversary of the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Pakistani politician who had criticized that country’s blasphemy laws; his murderers called Bhatti “a known blasphemer.” But blasphemy prosecutions are vanishingly rare in the West. In America, the Supreme Court ruled blasphemy laws unconstitutional in 1952. Most European countries have abolished their blasphemy laws; where such laws continue to exist, they are dead letters.

Moreover, Western countries have made opposing blasphemy laws a major international human rights cause. At the U.N. Human Rights Council, America and its European allies have objected strenuously to so-called “Defamation of Religion” resolutions introduced in recent years by Muslim-majority countries, on the ground that such resolutions encourage local blasphemy laws and stifle free expression. Since 2011, American and European diplomats have convinced proponents to accept a compromise resolution, one that condemns discrimination and the incitement of violence against persons on the basis of religion—a resolution protecting believers, rather than beliefs as such.

For a European government to bring a blasphemy prosecution in 2017, therefore, is incongruous, to say the least. And Denmark is one of the least religious places on the planet. True, it has a state church, to which the large majority of Danes belong. But that is mostly a formal thing. Religious belief and observance are quite low. Fewer than a third of Danes say they believe in God; only about 2 percent go to church each Sunday. And Danish authorities have turned a blind eye to blasphemy in the past. In 1997, for example, someone burned a copy of the Bible on a news broadcast on state television. The government did not file charges.

Why is it legal in Denmark to burn the Bible but not the Quran? You can read the whole post here.

Danish Blasphemy Prosecution for Koran Burning

Here’s a fascinating story in the New York Times about a prosecution in Denmark for blasphemy, against a man who burned a Koran and posted his burning to Facebook. It seems that blasphemy laws remain on the Danish books, notwithstanding that the country is, by all accounts, very secular. Though the decision to charge was made at the local level, it has been ratified by Denmark’s attorney general.

No one has been convicted under the Danish blasphemy laws since 1946, when the law was used to prosecute a man who dressed up as a priest and mock “baptized” a doll.

A few thoughts:

1. Apparently the defendant had been charged initially with a “hate speech” crime, but the charge was subsequently changed to blasphemy. Perhaps hate speech is a lesser included offense? The linear continuity of hate speech with blasphemy is itself worthy of a separate article. Indeed, as I have argued at length, but as Tocqueville said more pithily, freedom never governs without faith. The only real question for a society that enjoys some speech protections is for what ends speech will be restricted, not whether it will restrict it at all. Of course, it will. And it seems altogether natural that the proscription on hate speech would in the end find its fullest and most complete expression in the zealotry (I use the term neutrally) of an anti-blasphemy law. (Parenthetically, the man also stated that he hated children. That seems rather sweeping, and perhaps worthy of its own hate speech prosecution. Perhaps if he had said, “I hate some children,” one might be more sympathetic.)

2. Denmark of course has a recent history of conflict with Islam, as in the infamous Mohammed cartoon incident about 10 years ago that resulted in no charges, and, as the story says, “deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark.” Perhaps, for these and other reasons, Denmark has come to a different conclusion today. Still, it’s clear from the story that the burning of a Bible is legal, since in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on television and nobody batted an eye. Perhaps what Denmark really needs is to refine its blasphemy laws–to give more detailed guidance about which religious texts may be defiled with impunity and which must be let alone. One thing that Denmark should not do: abandon blasphemy laws. It will only send such laws underground, and similar policies will be enforced through other means without the honesty of calling them what they are (vide, e.g., hate speech).

3.  The defendant’s lawyer seems to be making the utterly bizarre claim that the man acted in “self-defense” in burning the Koran, because the Koran contains language about how Mohammed’s followers “must kill the infidel.” I don’t know the Danish law of self-defense, but this strikes me as a highly unusual principle of proportionality. But I suppose we need to know about the physical assaults committed by the Koran on this poor man in order properly to judge the self-defense claim.

4. Don’t miss the wonderful comments of Professor Per Mouritsen, who with one side of his mouth tells us that “blasphemy law is a thing of the past” and with the other tells the Times that in Denmark, “the very idea that religion is taken seriously is the antithesis of being a good citizen.” Perhaps Denmark should adopt laws authorizing the state-enforced (but nondiscriminatory, of course) burning of all holy books. It could be done on a state holiday. Call it “Conflagration Sunday.”

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