Legal Spirits Episode 040: Raising the Christian Flag at City Hall

Boston City Hall (Brutalist architecture)

In this episode, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian explore another law and religion case recently argued at the Supreme Court, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, concerning whether a municipality can decline a private group’s request to fly a religious flag on a city hall flagpole pursuant to a policy where it flies flags at the request of other private constituencies. The case involves issues of free speech and religious freedom, as well as raising some questions about broader themes or patterns in the religion cases the Supreme Court seems to be taking–particularly as respects the Establishment Clause. Listen in!

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.

The Center’s 10th Anniversary Video

Mark and I hope you enjoy this new video, which we put together for the Center’s 10th anniversary (plus one!). It describes the people, activities, projects, and opportunities that make the Center what it is. Here’s to another 10 (plus more)!

Webinar on Religious Liberty in France and the US

I’m looking forward to participating this afternoon in a panel on religious liberty issues in the U.S., part of a webinar on Secularism in France and the United States organized by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Our very first Center event eleven years ago was a conference on laicite at our Paris campus and I’m looking forward to revisiting these issues. Details at the link: https://snfagora.jhu.edu/event/secularism-and-its-discontents/.

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.

Law, Religion, and the Covid Crisis

I have a new draft on SSRN, “Law, Religion, and the Covid Crisis,” comparing how courts across the globe have approached restrictions on public worship and exploring what the cases reveal about social divisions, especially in the United States. Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores judicial responses to legal restrictions on worship during the COVID pandemic and draws two lessons, one comparative and one relating specifically to US law. As a comparative matter, courts across the globe have approached the problem in essentially the same way, through intuition and balancing. This has been the case regardless of what formal test applies, the proportionality test outside the US, which expressly calls for judges to weigh the relative costs and benefits of a restriction, or the Employment Division v. Smith test inside the US, which rejects judicial line-drawing and balancing in favor of predictable results. Judges have reached different conclusions about the legality of restrictions, of course, but doctrinal nuances have made little apparent difference. With respect to the US, specifically, the pandemic has revealed deep divisions about religion and religious freedom, among other things—divisions that have inevitably influenced judicial attitudes toward restrictions on worship. The COVID crisis has revealed a cultural and political rift that makes consensual resolution of conflicts over religious freedom problematic, and perhaps impossible, even during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

The essay will appear in the forthcoming volume of the Journal of Law and Religion. Comments welcome!

Legal Fictions and Our Constitutional Republic

At the Law & Liberty site today, I have an essay on Steve Smith’s fine new book, Fictions, Lies, and the Authority of Law. I use the essay to address one of Steve’s central claims–our constitutional order is based on a fictional consent that has served us well over time. Can this fiction continue to bind together our increasingly fractured society? Here’s an excerpt from my essay:

Can these two conditions, “plausibility and payoff,” continue to hold? In a prologue, Smith notes that he largely finished this book in the fall of 2019 and could not consider all that has transpired in our country since then. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem very hopeful, and it’s easy to see why. The events of the past two years suggest that America is coming apart in ways that make the beneficial fiction he describes increasingly hard to maintain. Increasing numbers of Americans no longer identify instinctively with the “We the People” in whose name the Constitution and laws bind us. Indeed, the National Archives now includes a trigger warning on its website for people accessing the Constitution, alerting readers to the “potentially harmful language” they will encounter in the document. As Smith writes, people who see themselves “as systematically oppressed or discriminated against  . . . have little incentive to overlook the fictional quality of the ‘consent’ on which government’s assertion of authority depends.” And our officials seem increasingly dysfunctional—petty, gridlocked, and feckless, unable to end their squabbling long enough to handle a nationwide public-health emergency or withdraw from a military campaign in an ordered, dignified way.

You can read the whole essay here.

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.

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.

Movsesian Named Co-Editor of the Journal of Law and Religion

We are delighted to announce that the Journal of Law and Religion (Cambridge University Press) has named Center Co-Director Mark Movsesian to its board of editors. Professor Movsesian will assist the interdisciplinary, peer-review journal in selecting and developing articles for publication.

“I am grateful for the invitation and am delighted to join the Journal‘s editorial board,” Professor Movsesian said. “I look forward to helping the journal continue to explore issues at the intersection of law and religion, both domestically, in the United States, and across the globe.”

More information about the Journal and its editorial board is here.