Around the Web

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

Around the Web

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

Offensive Speech in NYC

Living in New York City, one develops a taste for irony. This past week, residents were treated to an unusually good display. In remarks at the UN on Tuesday, President Barack Obama gave an eloquent defense of American free speech principles, which prohibit government from restricting religiously offensive speech as long as there is no threat of imminent violence. Government may state its own views, however, and President Obama roundly condemned, on behalf of the US Government, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that “crude and disgusting video” that has “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” In a widely quoted passage, the President declared,

The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.  But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.

Now, as it happens, at a swanky gallery near where President Obama was speaking, an exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, was under way. Neither President Obama nor anyone else in his administration, as far as I know, thought that credibility required them to condemn this particular example of religiously offensive speech. Why not? Because, of course, nobody was complaining about it, much less rioting. (That’s not quite  Continue reading

Clergy Libel Suits and the Limits of Hosanna-Tabor

At my panel at the Federal Bar Council retreat this past weekend, someone from the audience asked the following question. After Hosanna-Tabor, last term’s Supreme Court decision endorsing the ministerial exception to the employment discrimination laws, what happens to tort claims by clergy against their churches? For example, what if a priest sues his church for defamation? Would Hosanna-Tabor bar such an action?

It turns out this is a real, live case. The New York Times reports that a defrocked Catholic priest, Charles Kavanaugh, has sued the Archdiocese of New York for defamation. Kavanaugh alleges that the archdiocese libeled him when it stated in a recent press release that a church tribunal had found him guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse. Kavanaugh says this statement is untrue. The details aren’t really important here. The question is whether Hosanna-Tabor bars Kavanaugh’s suit.

The short answer appears to be no. The Hosanna-Tabor Court expressly declined to decide whether the ministerial exception barred “actions by employees alleging . . . tortious conduct by their religious employers.” So the question remains open. Would the logic of the ministerial exception bar a claim like Kavanaugh’s? It wouldn’t seem so. Kavanaugh does not seek to be returned to the ministry or even damages for wrongful dismissal. If he wins, a victory would have absolutely no effect on what Hosanna-Tabor says is the principal concern underlying the ministerial exception: a church’s ability to select those who will lead it and express its message.  Of course, if Kavanaugh’s claim turns on some matter of religious doctrine, for example, whether he was espousing authentic Catholic teaching, that would be different. Civil courts are not going to get entangled in that sort of dispute. But courts should be able to decide a straight-up defamation claim on neutral principles of law. I don’t think Hosanna-Tabor poses a problem here.

Blitt on the United Nations’ Resolutions on Combating Religious Intolerance

Robert C. Blitt (University of Tennessee College of Law) has posted Defamation of Religion: Rumors of its Death are Greatly Exaggerated. The abstract follows.

This Article explores the recent decisions by the United Nations (“UN”) Human Rights Council and General Assembly to adopt consensus resolutions aimed at “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.” These resolutions represent an effort to move past a decade’s worth of contentious roll call votes in favor of prohibiting defamation of religion within the international human rights framework. Although labeled “historic” resolutions, this Article argues that the UN’s new compromise approach endorsed in 2011 — motivated in part by the desire to end years of acrimonious debate over the acceptability of shielding religious beliefs from insult and criticism — is problematic because it risks being exploited to sanction the continued prohibition on defamation of religion and perpetuation of human rights violations on the ground.

After briefly considering the history of defamation of religion at the UN and the strategies employed by its proponents, this Article turns to an assessment of the UN Human Rights Council’s 2011 consensus Resolution 16/18. In light of the resolution’s objectives, this Article explores the viability of the international consensus around “combating intolerance” and tests to what extent, if any, the concept of defamation of religion may be waning in practice. To this end, this Article weighs, among other things, statements and resolutions of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (“OIC”) pertaining to defamation — particularly those issued following the adoption of Resolution 16/18 — as well as its activities in other UN bodies. Continue reading

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