Legal Spirits Episode 038: Law & Religion in “The Merchant of Venice”

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, one of his “problem plays,” has long fascinated lawyers. Yet the legal arguments in the case are preposterous. In this episode, we discuss how Shakespeare uses an absurd legal dispute to illustrate deeper religious and political conflicts and speculate about the implications of the play for America today. Perhaps the reason Merchant so fascinates lawyers is that it demonstrates uncomfortable truths about the limits of law. Listen in!

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • The Supreme Court declined to grant injunctive relief in Does v. Mills, the Maine vaccine case. The vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers will remain in effect while a petition for review of the First Circuit’s decision is pending.
  • In Crow v. Jones, the Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution that was granted to two Oklahoma death row inmates. The inmates objected, on religious grounds, to a trial judge ordering that they choose among proposed alternative methods of execution, arguing that doing so would amount to suicide.
  • In Ratio Christi v. Khattor, a Christian student organization sued in Texas federal district court challenging a university’s non-discrimination policy after the student group was denied recognition because the group requires its officers to share the organization’s religious beliefs.
  • In Doe v. San Diego Unified School District, a 16-year-old high school student sued a school district, claiming religious discrimination over vaccine mandates.
  • Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, signed House Bill 2563 which allows high schools to offer classes on “how the Bible has influenced Western culture.” 
  • The EEOC updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance Document to include guidance on how employers should approach requests for religious exemptions.
  • Canada’s Federal Court upheld a provision that required organizations applying for funding to attest that they respected individual human rights, including reproductive rights. Challengers argued that this requirement infringed their freedom of expression and religion.

Law and Religion in “The Merchant of Venice”

Marc and I had a great time leading the Center’s Reading Society last night in a discussion of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Along with the play, we discussed Allan Bloom’s great essay, “On Christian and Jew,” which reads the play as a reflection on the limits of law and commerce in holding together a community. We’ll be recording a Legal Spirits episode on all this soon, so stay tuned. Great comments from our students!

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • Justice Breyer denied an injunction in a case challenging the lack of religious exemptions in Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.
  • In Easter v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suit was filed in the D.C. federal district court challenging the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s contracting with religiously sponsored agencies that prohibit the placement of unaccompanied minor refugees with individuals on the basis of the individuals’ sexual orientation.
  • In National Capital Presbytery v. Mayorkas, the D.C. federal district court held that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it refused to renew a R-1 nonimmigrant religious worker visa.
  • In United States v. Stafford County, the Justice Department filed a Notice of Dismissal after an ordinance that prevented the “All Muslim Association of America” from developing a religious cemetery for Muslims was revoked.
  • Abundant Life Baptist Church, a Missouri megachurch, was awarded a settlement of $146,750 following a dispute with the local government over COVID-19 restrictions.
  • In Gateway Bible Baptist Church v. Province of Manitoba, a Canadian trial court upheld the public health restrictions imposed by the province on gatherings at places of worship and at private homes. 

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.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In Pasadena Republican Club v. Western Justice Center, the Western Justice Center refused to rent space to a group to host a speech by the president of the National Organization of Marriage. The Republican Club brought a suit claiming both viewpoint discrimination and religious-belief discrimination, but the Ninth Circuit dismissed the suit and the Supreme Court denied review.
  • In Ackerman v. Washington, the Sixth Circuit held that the Michigan Department of Corrections’ universal religious meal plan was inadequate to meet the religious needs of Jewish prisoners.
  • In Zhang Jingrong v. Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance, the Second Circuit held that under the Freedom to Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, tables set up on the sidewalk occupied by protesters did not satisfy the “place of religious worship” requirement.
  • In Dr. A v. Hochul, a New York federal district court held that New York must continue to allow health care works to seek exemptions as a lawsuit challenging the mandate proceeds. The court concluded that the lack of a religious exemption conflicts with the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII and the Free Exercise Clause.
  • A Dallas Criminal District Court Judge recommended that Randy Halprin, a Jewish death row inmate, be granted a new trial because there is evidence that the Judge in his case, Vickers Cunningham, was prejudiced and may have discriminated against him because of his religion. The state’s highest criminal court will now have to decide whether a new trial should be granted.
  • In ASM v. State of Wyoming, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected a nun’s claim that the state violated her free exercise rights when, after inflicting self-injuries, she was involuntarily hospitalized. The nun asserted she was engaging in the Catholic ritual of mortification.
  • In Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, an Oregon federal district court issued an order allowing three Christian post-secondary schools to intervene against a lawsuit that seeks to strip all students at private religious colleges of federal financial aid unless their schools renounce their core religious beliefs.

Today’s Panel on Cultural Heritage

I enjoyed participating in today’s webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy, with fellow panelists Narine Ghazaryan (Nottingham), Leonard Hammer (Arizona), Evangelos Kyriakidis (Heritage Management), Sergio La Porta (Fresno State), Peter Petkoff (Oxford), Elizabeth Prodromou (Fletcher School) and Michalyn Steele (BYU). The Fletcher School at Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State co-sponsored the event, along with our own Center. Fletcher will eventually make the video available on its site.

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!

Webinar: “Churches: An Existence of their Own or Creatures of the Sovereign?”

Tomorrow, the James Wilson Institute and First Liberty Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy will host a webinar analyzing the practical applications of moral reasoning in our legal system.

The event will be moderated by Hadley Arkes, Founder and Director of the James Wilson Institute and Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College. The event will feature Adam MacLeod, Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and Research Fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy and Robert Miller, Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, Affiliated Scholar of the James Wilson Institute, and a Fellow and Program Affiliated Scholar at the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University Law School.

The webinar will take place on October 14, 2021, from 2:00-4:00 pm EST. To register visit this link.

Lecture for the Order of Malta: “Understanding the Right to Religious Freedom Under the U.S. Constitution”

I am delighted to give this presentation on the right to religious freedom for the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (or, less formally, the Order of Malta) this Sunday, October 17, at 2:00 pm. Further details are above. Please do come by!