The New Thoreaus

I’ve just posted a new draft essay, “The New Thoreaus,” to SSRN. The essay, which will appear in a forthcoming symposium in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, discusses the Rise of the Nones and argues that community is crucial to defining religion for legal purposes. Abstract below. Comments welcome!

Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously indicated that “religion” denotes a communal rather than a purely individual phenomenon. An organized group like the Amish would qualify as religious, the Court wrote, but a solitary seeker like the 19th Century Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, would not. At the time, the question was mostly peripheral; hardly any Americans claimed to have their own, personal religions that would make it difficult for them to comply with civil law. In the intervening decades, though, American religion has changed. One-fifth of us—roughly 66 million people—now claim, like Thoreau, to follow our own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths. The New Thoreaus already have begun to appear in the cases, including recent vaccine mandate challenges, and courts will increasingly face the question whether purely idiosyncratic beliefs and practices qualify as religious for legal purposes. In this essay, I argue that Yoder’s insight was basically correct: the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion. Religion cannot mean an exclusively communal phenomenon; a categorical rule would slight a long American tradition of respecting individual religious conscience and create difficult line-drawing problems. Nonetheless, the farther one gets from a religious community, the more idiosyncratic one’s spiritual path, the less plausible it is to claim that one’s beliefs and practices are religious, for legal purposes.

Weinberger on Church Autonomy: A Matter of Jurisdiction?

Our friend Lael Weinberger, who has just finished an Olin-Searle-Smith Fellowship at Harvard Law School and begun a clerkship with Justice Neil Gorsuch, has posted a new draft, Is Church Autonomy Jurisdictional?, on SSRN. The draft, prepared for a symposium last spring at Loyola University Chicago Law School, carefully analyzes the use of the word “jurisdictional” in discussions of church autonomy and shows that the term conveys a number of different meanings, only some of which are apposite. Very much worth reading! Here’s the abstract:

The First Amendment’s religion clauses create what courts have called church autonomy doctrine, protecting the internal self-governance of religious institutions. But courts are divided as to whether this doctrine is simply an affirmative defense for religious institutions or a jurisdictional limitation on courts’ ability to adjudicate. Scholars meanwhile have long debated whether church autonomy is jurisdictional at a higher level of abstraction, speaking of jurisdiction as a concept of authority rather than a technical term for civil procedure. This paper engages this multilevel debate with an argument for unbundling. First, it urges unbundling conceptual jurisdiction from judicial jurisdiction. Jurisdiction in the conceptual sense can be a helpful a way of talking about institutional authority relevant to church autonomy. But church autonomy is not properly jurisdictional for purposes of civil procedure. Second, this paper proposes unbundling the array of procedural issues that could be resolved under the label of jurisdiction. This paper argues that it is a mistake to try to use the term jurisdiction to solve the interesting problems. It is better to disaggregate the issues that sometimes come under the label of jurisdiction and instead consider them one at a time. The paper concludes by looking to another quasi-jurisdictional body of law—sovereign immunity—for clues as to how to handle issues such as interlocutory appeals, waiver, and forfeiture in the church autonomy space.

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!

“Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages”

I’m pleased to announce that my new paper, Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages, will be published by the Journal of Tort Law next year. The paper is my first foray into tort law scholarship, though I have been teaching Torts for the last 3 years at St. John’s. Malice, in the common law of crime and tort, is a thorny subject with a complicated and ancient lineage. Indeed, there are interesting connections between law and religion, on the one hand, and notions of malice in the law, on the other. But malice’s legacy was questioned beginning in the 19th century with Holmes (and others including J.F. Stephen) and then repudiated more decisively in the work of 20th century tort law giants like William Prosser and criminal law giants like Herbert Wechsler.

This paper attempts to reconstruct a historically correct, conceptually coherent, and normatively compelling case for malice’s reintroduction into the law of punitive damages. It also speculates about the utility of this reconstructed account of malice in other fields, especially criminal law. Finally, though this paper does not approach this topic, it does suggest the possibility of reconstructivism as a broader theory of law and legal development, something about which I hope to write in the future. Here is the abstract.

Punitive damages present two related puzzles. One concerns their object. If they are punitive, their object is to punish tortfeasors. If they are damages, their object is to compensate tort victims. If they are both, as the Supreme Court has recently stated, the problem is to reconcile these different objects in applying them. A second puzzle involves their subject. Punitive damages are awarded for egregious wrongdoing. But the nature of that egregiousness is nebulous and contested, implicating many poorly understood terms. The two puzzles are connected, because the subject of punitive damages will inform their object. Once we know the type of wrongfulness that punitive damages deal with, we can understand better whether and how they are punishing, compensating, or both.

This Article reconstructs one of punitive damages’ central subjects: malice. In so doing, it clarifies one key object of punitive damages: to offer redress to a victim of cruelty. Malice is a ubiquitous textual element in the state law of punitive damages. But there has been little scholarly commentary about what malice means for punitive damages. Drawing from the common history of tort and criminal law, this Article identifies two core meanings of malice: a desire or motive to do wrong, and a disposition of callous indifference to the wrong inflicted. Though distinct, these meanings broadly coalesce in the concept of cruelty. The Article argues that this reconstructed account of the wrong of malice represents a powerful justification for awarding punitive damages. Malice as cruelty as a justification for punitive damages also fits within a broader view of tort law as redress for specific private wrongs. But malice as a subject of punitive damages clarifies and enriches this account of their object. A victim of a tort done with malice, and who is aware of it, has been wronged more gravely than a victim of a tort done without malice and is therefore entitled to greater redress.

Conference at Washington University on the Religion Clauses

I’m at Washington University in St. Louis today for a conference put together by Professor John Inazu on “The Religion Clauses.” I’ll be talking about my recent piece, First Amendment Traditionalism, which extends the arguments about traditionalism in constitutional interpretation that I first made in The Traditions of American Constitutional Law. If you happen to be in the area, please do come by and say hello, as the conference is free and open to the public.

Christianity and Liberalism before the Fall

Nathan Chapman (Georgia) has posted a very interesting new paper on SSRN, Forgotten Federal-Missionary Partnerships: New Light on the Establishment Clause. His paper relates to a specific, historical example of federal funding for religious schools, but has implications for much broader Establishment Clause issues as well.

Chapman explains that, for much of the 19th Century, the federal government gave significant financial support to Christian missionary schools that educated Native Americans. Even more: virtually no one saw the financial support of these schools as an Establishment Clause problem. Evidently, Americans at the time–or at least the elites whose opinions mattered–did not perceive public support for instruction in Christian morality as a constitutional issue. That is so, Chapman argues, because elites at the time did not perceive basic Christian morality as sectarian and threatening in the way their counterparts do today. Borrowing from sociologist Charles Taylor, Chapman writes that “elite white Americans shared a ‘social imaginary’—or social paradigm—of ‘civilization’ that merged education, republicanism, and at least a modicum of Christianity.”

This is an extremely important insight for understanding American culture, and, therefore, American law. Historically, Americans have seen Christianity, especially its Protestant iteration, as consistent with liberalism and progress. Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that in the Old World, everyone understood that Christianity and liberty were rivals; but Americans had so completely run the two together in their minds that it was impossible for them to conceive of the one without the other. The conflict between Christianity and liberty that informs today’s culture wars simply did not exist for most of our history. As a consequence, the issues that preoccupy us today had little salience.

Of course, things are very different now. Maybe something went wrong, or maybe, as Patrick Deneen argues, the conflict was always there, waiting to hatch out. Anyhow, American elites today, especially legal elites, do not see Christianity and liberty as natural allies. This makes “translating” (Chapman’s term) the nineteenth-century practice into contemporary constitutional law rather tricky–even assuming translation is appropriate. The Establishment Clause was fashioned in a very different culture from our own, one that assumed a harmonious relationship between revelation and reason and that little relied on law to mediate conflicts between them. That is no longer the case, and the implications for our law have yet to be worked out.

“First Amendment Traditionalism”

That’s this new paper, which I’ve just posted, and accompanies this earlier paper discussing the nature of traditionalist interpretation. Here’s the abstract of the newer piece (comments welcome):

“Traditionalist constitutional interpretation takes political and cultural practices of long age and duration as constituting the presumptive meaning of the text. This essay probes traditionalism’s conceptual and normative foundations. It focuses on the Supreme Court’s traditionalist interpretation of the First Amendment to understand the distinctive justifications for traditionalism and the relationship between traditionalism and originalism. The first part of the essay identifies and describes traditionalism in some of the Court’s Speech and Religion Clause jurisprudence, highlighting its salience in the Court’s recent Establishment Clause doctrine.

Part II develops two justifications for traditionalism: “interpretive” and “democratic-populist.” The interpretive justification is that enduring practices presumptively inform the meaning of the words that they instantiate. Generally speaking, we do what we mean, and we mean what we do. The democratic-populist justification is that in a democracy, people who engage in practices consistently and over many years in the belief that those practices are constitutional have endowed them practices with political legitimacy. Courts owe the people’s enduring practices substantial deference as presumptively constitutional. The populist element in this justification is that traditionalism is a defensive interpretive method against what abstract principle in the hands of elite actors has wrought: intolerance, the corrosion of lived experience, and the distortion of text to mirror a particular class of contemporary moral and political views.

In Part III, this essay compares traditionalism with originalism, reaching two conclusions. First, traditionalism’s reliance on practices as presumptively constitutive of constitutional meaning is most distant from originalist theories that rely on abstract principle as constituting the meaning of text and that reject practice-based evidence as the equivalent of irrelevant “expected applications.” It is closest to varieties of originalism that read text concretely. Yet traditionalist judges are not engaged in making guesses about “expected applications,” but in making decisions about retrospective applications—drawing on old and enduring practices either to include within, or exclude from, a tradition the specific practice under review. Second, the essay investigates the connection between so-called “original law” theories of originalism and traditionalism. Original law theorists argue that originalism is “our law” as a sociological and cultural fact. But traditionalism may be more “our law” than originalism in some areas within the First Amendment and outside it. If the positivist defense of originalism truly counts as a justification for any theory of constitutional interpretation (an issue on which this essay takes no position), then it may support traditionalism as much as originalism.”

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.

“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.”

Chapman on Government Funding of Christian Education for Native Americans (and the meaning of the Establishment Clause)

Pretty neat paper by Nathan Chapman on the history of federal funding of Christian education for Native Americans from the Revolution to Reconstruction, and its implications–if any–for the meaning of the Establishment Clause. Here’s the abstract:

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court stated two principles that continue to animate Establishment Clause doctrine. The first is that courts should look to founding-era history—especially the history of “religious assessments,” or taxes used to fund churches—to interpret the Establishment Clause. The second is that, based on this history, the government may provide limited secular goods to religious schools, but the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from directly funding religious education.

What Everson ignored, and what subsequent legal scholarship has likewise overlooked, is that the founding-era government did directly fund religious education: from the Revolution to Reconstruction, the federal government partnered with Christian missionaries to “civilize” American Indians. Initially ad hoc, this practice was formalized with the Civilization Funds Act of 1819, which authorized the government to distribute $10,000 per year to “persons of good moral character” to educate and “civilize” the tribes. For over fifty years, the government funded Christian missionaries who incorporated religious instruction and worship into their curricula. Curiously, no one ever raised a constitutional objection.

This Article is the first to provide a thorough analysis of the government-missionary partnerships and to explore why no one objected to their constitutionality. The evidence strongly suggests eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans supported them because of a shared view of social progress that merged Christianization, education, and civilization. They simply could not have imagined separating Christianity and education. This evidence reshapes the conventional narrative of the historical development of non-establishment norms in the United States, especially the centrality of the Jeffersonian “taxpayer conscience” objection to religious assessments.

This history also has important implications for Establishment Clause doctrine. The challenge is ascertaining a constitutional principle from a practice that itself went unquestioned. The history does, however, suggest that the government may directly fund general education, even when that education entails incidental voluntary religious instruction. This principle complements the theoretical norm of “substantive neutrality” and supports the Supreme Court’s current doctrinal trajectory of easing restrictions on government funding of religious education.