Drakeman, “An Establishment Clause Miracle Story”

Don Drakeman, Distinguished Research Professor at Notre Dame and a member of our Board of Advisors here at the Center for Law and Religion, wrote us recently to pass along this wonderful story about an obscure Christmas carol and our current, perhaps even more obscure, Establishment Clause jurisprudence. We take great pleasure in posting Don’s essay below, and in wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas, a peaceful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

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The holidays are a time for inspiring stories, and where better for Law and Religion Forum readers to turn than the Establishment Clause?

            During some family caroling, my daughter Cindy and her husband Richard introduced me to Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, a breathtakingly beautiful choral work.  This isn’t the famous version by Schubert you hear this time of year.  It’s the one by an obscure 20th century German composer, who spent most of WWII as a POW in Michigan.  The composition is completely different from the Schubert piece, and you’ll only recognize it if you get your music via NPR.

            Herr Biebl’s Ave Maria has become our inspirational story thanks to the 9th Circuit’s 2009 decision in Nurre v. Whitehead.  The seniors in the Jackson High School band were asked to choose what they wanted to play at graduation, and they picked an instrumental version of Biebl’s piece because they thought it would “showcase their talent.”  But the Biebl was nixed by the school administrators on the grounds that “the title and meaning…had religious connotations and would be easily identified as such by attendees.”  The 9th circuit backed them up, saying that the school’s action was an appropriate way to avoid an Establishment Clause problem. 

As far as I can see, the court’s decision required a series of miracles, each involving a degree of faith in the education of America’s youth that, as the KJV might say, “passeth all understanding.”

            The First Miracle:   That anyone was listening.  As a veteran high school band member, I can testify that the one thing the senior class is not doing when the band is playing is paying attention to the music.  The chance that any of them would think, “Wow, what a great piece!  I’ll check the program to see what it’s called” rounds to zero.  But, in this season of miracles, let’s say they did, and learned that it was named Ave Maria.

            The Second Miracle:  That the seniors had any idea what “Ave Maria” means.  I would like to share the judges’ faith that the seniors were well versed in Latin.  Yet, even if they were, Biebl’s effect would more likely be something like this:

            Football Captain:  Are you waving at the band?

Head Cheerleader:  Yes, they are playing that for me.  It’s called, “Hey, Mary.”  Didn’t you pay attention in AP Latin?

            Football Captain:  You have to stop skipping Latin Club meetings.  The Romans didn’t say “Hey,” they said, “Hail.”   This song is in honor of my “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in the championships.

High School football may inspire religious-like devotion, but at least so far, not enough to violate the Establishment Clause.

            The Third Miracle:  That there could possibly be a “primary effect” of advancing religion under the 9th Circuit’s use of the Lemon Test.  In other words, someone had to pay attention to the band, consult the program to learn the title, understand its meaning and religious significance, and then have a sufficiently religious experience that the instrumental rendition of the piece during graduation had a primary effect of advancing religion.  But, if you think about it, we don’t see people falling to their knees in prayer when they hear Josh Groban’s Ave Maria at the mall, and his version actually has words.  Besides, the students most likely to manifest this third miracle involving a traditional Catholic prayer are the Catholic ones, and they were more likely to be graduating from the large Catholic high school just five minutes away.

            Justice Alito called this decision “troubling” in his cert. denial dissent, but I prefer to see it as an inspiring story of faith in our educational system, where classically educated seniors listen to the wind ensemble with rapt attention, and find their religious beliefs profoundly deepened by the simple trigger words, Ave Maria.

            On that inspirational note, if you are seeking to brighten your Christmas season, look no further than Chanticleer’s rendition of Biebl’s Ave Maria on YouTube.  We have it on good authority that it will be a religious experience.

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Don would like to thank Cindy Drakeman and Richard Wanerman, who not only introduced him to Biebl, but who also appear on this year’s Grammy-nominated recording of the world premier of Kastalsky’s Requiem.  Since the Requiem includes the hymn Rock of Ages, he hopes the Grammys do not get any federal funding because the awards are being given in the 9th Circuit.

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Some Thoughts on the Espinoza Argument

Here’s a brief comment about Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Blaine Amendment case that the Court has under consideration. The Court heard oral argument in the case last week. It’s always tricky predicting the outcome of a case based on oral argument. But it seems pretty clear, at least to me, the the Court will ultimately rule in favor of the petitioners.

Followers of this blog know the facts of the case. (You do subscribe to Legal Spirits, right?) Briefly, the case concerns the constitutionality of a Montana school-choice program that allows parents to direct state-funded scholarships to religiously affiliated schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program violated the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits the appropriation of public money for “sectarian” institutions, including private, religiously affiliated schools, and canceled the scholarship program in its entirety. Petitioners argue that excluding them from otherwise available scholarship funds, simply because they planned to use the funds at a religiously affiliated school, violates the federal Free Exercise Clause.

Based on the Justices’ interventions, the Court seems likely to rule that, in these circumstances, barring parents from using public funds to pay tuition at religiously affiliated schools is unconstitutional. The Court’s cases point to that outcome. Zelman holds that the Establishment Clause isn’t violated when public money reaches religiously affiliated schools “wholly as a result” of parents’ “genuine and independent choice.” Trinity Lutheran Church holds that a state cannot deny a school access to public financial assistance simply because the school has a religious character. When you put these two cases together, it seems to me, the petitioners prevail.

That’s not to say their victory will be sweeping. For one thing, the Court seems likely to limit its holding to the facts of this case and avoid a ruling on the constitutionality of Blaine Amendments more generally. Moreover, the four progressive Justices signaled their strong disagreement with the petitioners’ Free Exercise argument.

Interestingly, two of the progressive Justices, Kagan and Breyer, who joined the Court in Trinity Lutheran Church, indicated that they see this case as quite different. Trinity Lutheran Church involved state funds specifically for playground refurbishment–a use unrelated to the religious character of the school in question. Espinoza, by contrast, involves unrestricted funds, which a school presumably could direct towards religious education. There is a case that suggests a state may refuse to allow its tax money to be spent for those purposes. But that case, Locke v. Davey, involved tax money for clergy training, not for general education at an accredited, religiously affiliated school–a distinction that will probably persuade the Court’s conservatives that Locke doesn’t apply here.

In short, oral argument suggests another of those familiar, narrow, 5 to 4, Religion Clause decisions. If that’s the case, Espinoza will be an important victory for school choice advocates–though not as sweeping as they might have hoped. Stay tuned.

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.

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