When Death is Better than the Alternative?

My friend, Tom Berg, has this response to my post about Free Exercise Clause atrophy. He and I don’t see things too differently, though he is as usual more optimistic than I am. I think he undersells what can be read from the Stormans cert. denial. And the denial of cert. in Ben-Levi v. Brown (again with a J. Alito dissent). And the denial of cert. in Big Sky Colony, where I was also pleased to join another excellent amicus brief spearheaded by Tom himself urging review of the Free Exercise Clause issues. The Court just doesn’t want any part of these issues right now.

But Tom’s post makes me think that perhaps atrophy may actually be the best option on offer. Tom writes that “moderate-ish” liberals might be able to combine with the likes of Justice Alito to hear a case involving “state/local government action against Muslims, or against some other group that everyone agrees is a religious minority.” That is because “liberal opinion” has accepted the various third-party-harms theories being floated about, and because of the expansion of the idea of harm “that modern welfare-state liberalism regards as ‘public.'”

I think I agree with most of Tom’s description here. Tom is probably right that, e.g., Christians with certain specific beliefs about sexuality are not and will never be, in the “liberal opinion” he refers to, the sort of viable “minorities” thought to deserve FEC protection. That “liberal opinion” is powerful now, growing, and likely to influence the ideological profile of the Supreme Court directly and indirectly for years to come. If that is true, then perhaps we should root for atrophy, if not death. Better the Smith rule, which at least has the advantage of being clear and reasonably predictable, than the rule of “liberal opinion” masquerading as constitutional law. Indeed, perhaps religious accommodation has always been infected by something of this quality. We accommodate when we don’t really care–for prison beards, oddballs, and tiny, exotic sects to which nobody really pays attention. When we do care, we find ways not to accommodate (harm! third parties! dignity!). And as the ambit of the “public” increases, it becomes easier and easier to make claims about third party harms, particularly when those harms cut to the quick of “liberal opinion.”

A participant in our colloquium in law at St. John’s this spring, and a noted critic of religious accommodation (someone, as it happens, whose views in general don’t often match up with my own), suggested that if given a choice between non-discriminatory religious persecution and religious discrimination, he’d opt for religious persecution. I can’t say I agree. But this exchange makes me understand that view much more clearly.

The Atrophic Free Exercise Clause

The Supreme Court has had essentially nothing of substance to say about it over the last 23 years. The contraction of whatever rights are protected by it proceeds apace. In this article a couple of years ago, I noted that religious accommodation–

one of the most vital issues of religious free exercise that at one time implicated the Free Exercise Clause directly—has by now largely become entirely statutory. The Roberts Court has decided or issued substantive orders in 4 cases involving either RFRA or RLUIPA [excluding the nonprofit contraception mandate litigation]. In the same period it has decided only one case (perhaps) partially about the Free Exercise Clause, a case in any event that is arguably not about religious accommodation at all and that represents a carve-out from general free exercise principles. The single case that brought both statutory and free exercise claims was resolved solely on the basis of the statutory claim without any decision as to free exercise.

It is tempting to attribute the reason for this transition from the Free Exercise Clause to statute law entirely to the holding of Employment Division v. Smith, which ostensibly precluded judicial review as to laws that are neutral and of general application. To be sure, the rule announced in Smith has contracted the number of Free Exercise Clause challenges. And yet there are features of Smith—most notably the issue of the meaning of “general applicability” and the scope of what I have elsewhere described as the “individual-assessment exception” to Smith—that have suggested to several lower courts that accommodations are constitutionally required far more often than may appear under Smith. To date, however, the Supreme Court has declined to hear any cases raising a direct challenge to Smith.

The enfeeblement of the Free Exercise Clause continues. Last week, the Court denied cert. in Stormans v. Wiesman (with Justice Alito dissenting from the denial, in an opinion joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas), a case about Washington State’s regulations requiring the stocking of drugs in pharmacies that provided exemptions for various secular reasons (business reasons, for example) but not for religious reasons. The case presented a golden opportunity for the Court to clarify what exactly “generally applicable” means under the test given to us a full generation ago by Employment Division v. Smith. Both Mark and I joined an excellent amicus brief urging the Court to do so.

No dice. Disappointing, but not surprising. Justice Kennedy, after all, was in the Smith majority, and while he authored the majority opinion in Lukumi-Babalu, his opinion offered a rather confused and confusing reading of general applicability (Justice Scalia’s concurrence was much better on this point). He joined four other Justices in denying cert.

But the larger point is that the Free Exercise Clause, at least as a possible source of accommodation, is increasingly a dead letter. Unless one has evidence of explicit discriminatory motivation in the making of exceptions (and it’s got to be really explicit), one should expect the Clause to offer nothing. The Court has little interest in saying anything else about the Free Exercise Clause, other than raising it as a kind of weak, pseudo-justification for carve-outs like the ministerial exception.

There are all sorts of political and cultural reasons for the atrophying of the Free Exercise Clause, of course. Some of those reasons are, I plan to argue in a new paper tentatively titled Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization, pretty good reasons. But whatever the reasons–good or bad–they are not going away. In a generation or less, the Free Exercise Clause may well find itself in the company of the Privileges or Immunities Clause and the Third Amendment.

Witte & Nichols, “Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment” (4th ed)

In April, Oxford University Press released the fourth edition of Religion and the American 9780190459420Constitutional Experiment, by John Witte, Jr. (Emory) and Joel Nichols (St. Thomas-Minnesota). The publisher’s description follows:

This accessible introduction tells the American story of religious liberty from its colonial beginnings to the latest Supreme Court cases. The authors provide extensive analysis of the formation of the First Amendment religion clauses and the plausible original intent or understanding of the founders. They describe the enduring principles of American religious freedom–liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious equality, religious pluralism, separation of church and state, and no establishment of religion–as those principles were developed by the founders and applied by the Supreme Court. Successive chapters analyze the two hundred plus Supreme Court Continue reading

Justice Scalia and Conservatism

TP Banner

This posting was originally a short speech given to students at the University of St. Thomas Law School on February 29.

We will all miss the unique and iconic personality of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Few if any Supreme Court Justices have been gifted with such charm, humor, charisma and pizzazz. He was a man of great faith; a brilliant and memorable writer; a witty raconteur; a powerful and bracing intellect. He argued law, as he lived life, with passion and gusto. In his impact on the American public, he was in a class of his own: among the Justices of the past, perhaps only Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall can be compared to him. One might even say, with all due deference to Senator Cruz, that Justice Scalia was the living epitome of New York values.

But we are here to discuss his influence on the law, especially on constitutional law. And for all his great and varied gifts, his long tenure on the supreme bench, and the vigor and clarity of his opinions, his influence on constitutional law, at least judged from our current perspective, was very limited.

The two doctrines one associates most closely with Scalia’s jurisprudence are, of course, originalism and textualism. Others on this panel will no doubt discuss them, and I will say something about them a bit later. But what I want to consider briefly here is another important but neglected strand in his jurisprudence: his use of custom or tradition in constitutional adjudication. This aspect of his jurisprudence is, in my view, the most distinctively conservative element of it. There is no inherent connection between textualism or originalism and conservatism, but there is such a connection between custom and conservatism.

Nineteenth century legal conservatives such as James Coolidge Carter went so far as to identify law with custom. Or more accurately, they identified the common law with custom. One could say, in that spirit, that the common law identifies, articulates, stabilizes, and occasionally revises and improves, custom. And much of American Continue reading

RLUIPA and compelling government interests

Well this is good news. An Anglican church in Jacksonville Beach has received permission to build a new church, over two rejections from the local planning board. A court found that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) the community had the right to build their church.

Controversy over building churches occurs much more often than one would think, at least to me. Many communities do not want them, and provide for zoning plans to exclude them (and, it is true, many other types of non-residential buildings) from residential zones. Although there is a healthy debate about whether this kind of zoning makes sense as a matter of planning, RLUIPA is directed at the particular issue of preventing discrimination against religious buildings and treating them differently from other kinds of structures.

The Church of Our Savior purchased plots of land on which to build their church. Although the town planning department approved the application, the planning commission rejected it, citing concerns unspecified in the opinion about the traffic and the “character” of the neighborhood. A further refinement of the proposed plan, including turning part of the plot into a public park, failed to satisfy the commission. The town promptly changed its zoning code to try to neutralize the church’s claim it was being treated unequally.

The court wrote a thorough opinion addressing the RLUIPA claims. Simply denying a church a permit to build, or to require changes to a building plan, do not “substantially burden” a religious group’s rights under RLUIPA. Land is finite and, as is taught in law school, each parcel is unique. Market conditions, and not government action, are often the cause of a religious group not getting the property it wishes. Accordingly, the Court rejected most of the church’s claims of RLUIPA violation as a general principle.

However, the Court upheld a RLUIPA claim, as applied to the church, finding that the planning commission had treated it unequally. The commission had recently approved a very similar application for a school, and could not, to the Court’s satisfaction, articulate a “compelling government interest” that justified a full rejection of the Church’s plan. The commission asserted an interest in “preserving the character and safety of its residential neighborhoods through enforcement of its zoning regulations …. Even assuming that this constitutes a compelling government interest under RLUIPA, the Court finds that a blanket denial of the Church’s application was not narrowly tailored to further that interest.”

This seems like the right result.  Since the church location was near a large street and an amusement park, it is difficult to see how their parking spaces and 200-person church would affect the “character” of the neighborhood. What seems to have (rightly) bothered the court is the sudden change in the zoning code and its obvious unequal treatment of the church.  This kind of last-minute objection and inarticulate “character” assertions are exactly the kind of arguments RLUIPA holds up to scrutiny, but one can’t help but wonder how many times they prevail.

On the State RFRA Contretemps: Doug Laycock (and Me)

Two little items to report. First, Professor Doug Laycock has a very good piece at the Religion and Politics Blog.

Second, I participated in a Bloomberg Law podcast with Professor Robert Katz on these issues. I thought we had a useful exchange. At the end of the interview, however, Rob was asked a question about the relevance of Hobby Lobby to these matters, to which he responded essentially that the two were disconnected. I didn’t get a chance to jump in (had to leave to teach class!) but I have a different view and thought this quote from Doug’s piece was apt:

For the first time in American history, government had made it unlawful, at least if you were an employer, to practice a well-known teaching of the largest religions in the country. The same-sex marriage debate has the same feature. This attempt to suppress practices of the largest faiths is a new thing in the American experience. And this huge escalation in the level of government regulation of religious practices is of course producing a reaction from religious conservatives, and is part of the reason for the current polarization.

Ironies in Indiana

Some readers have asked me what I think about the Indiana RFRA controversy, as an academic who studies law and religion. To my mind, opponents of the law have succeeded in creating a false sense of crisis about the evil this allegedly unprecedented law would unleash in America. In this, they have been greatly assisted by the media’s framing of the issue and and by the support of corporate titans like Apple and Walmart, which have decided to intervene in the dispute–incidentally proving, as Justice Alito argued in Hobby Lobby, that for-profit corporations sometimes do express goals other than merely making money.

In addition, it seems to me that the controversy contains three very significant ironies, two for the law’s opponents and one for its supporters.

First, notwithstanding opponents’ efforts to portray the Indiana statute as an innovation, the balancing test it establishes is nothing new. The test, which holds that government cannot impose substantial burdens on citizens’ religious exercise without showing a compelling need to do so, and without choosing the least-restrictive means for doing so, was American constitutional law for decades, until the Supreme Court jettisoned it for most purposes in 1990. It is the test embodied in the federal version of RFRA, enacted without opposition more than 20 years ago; in the many state versions of RFRA; and in the constitutional law of many other states. Indeed, according to scholars Cole Durham and Brett Scharffs, the compelling-interest test is the majority rule in the United States today. It’s true that there are a couple of differences in the Indiana law, but those differences are pretty minor, and anyway the debate has not focused on them.

Even more: something like the compelling-interest test is the rule in liberal societies around the world. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, provides that a member state can interfere with citizens’ exercise of religion only where the state shows that the interference is “necessary” to achieve an important interest. Many countries have similar balancing tests, including Canada, Israel, and South Africa. From a global perspective, there is nothing unusual about the Indiana statute.

Second, the Indiana statute leaves ultimate determinations to the courts. It does not, as some of its opponents  misleadingly claim, legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the unlikely event that an Indiana business refused, in violation of any applicable anti-discrimination laws, to serve gay people, and claimed a religious justification for doing so (how many such businesses are there, anyway?), the case would proceed to litigation, in which a court would determine (1) whether requiring a business to serve gay customers is, genuinely,  a substantial burden on its religious exercise; (2) if so, whether the state’s interest in preventing discrimination against gays is compelling; and (3) whether there is some way other than requiring the business to serve gay customers that could advance that interest equally as well. I wouldn’t bet on the business’s chances in such a lawsuit. Given the great success supporters of gay rights have had in American courts in recent years, it is ironic that they would lose faith in the courts now.

And this leads to the third irony, one for the statute’s supporters. Some supporters evidently are confident the Indiana statute would allow a business to refuse, on religious grounds, to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies—caterers and photographers, for example.  (This is not the same thing as refusing generally to serve gays and lesbians, incidentally, and it is not helpful to conflate the two situations). That’s why they are fighting so hard for the law. But it is not at all clear they are correct. Whatever one thinks about the merits of a religious exemption in these circumstances, it is uncertain that a court would actually rule in favor of the business. Maybe the business would prevail in a RFRA lawsuit, maybe not.

On the basis of distortions, mistakes, and uncertain predictions, we seem ready to abandon a foundational principle that exists, not only in American law, but in legal systems across the world. The New York Times refers, without irony, to “so-called religious freedom laws.” On Morning Joe this week, Mika Brzezinski suggested that stopping the Indiana statute would not be enough; it’s time, she hinted, to revisit the federal RFRA itself.  We seem ready, in other words, to take courts out of the business of protecting religious minorities. Does that seem a good idea?

Free Exercise by Moonlight

I have a new article in draft called Free Exercise by Moonlight. It is about the current condition of permissive religious accommodation. It is pervasively lugubrious. Here is the abstract:

How is the current condition of religious free exercise, and religious accommodation in specific, best understood? What is the relationship of the two most important free exercise cases of the past half-century, Employment Division v. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC? This essay explores four possible answers to these questions.

  1. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor are the twin suns of religious accommodation under the Constitution. They are distinctively powerful approaches.
  2. Hosanna-Tabor’s approach to constitutional free exercise is now more powerful than Smith’s. Smith has been eclipsed.
  3. Hosanna-Tabor has shown itself to be feeble. It has been eclipsed by Smith.
  4. Smith augured the waning of religious accommodation, which proceeds apace. Hosanna-Tabor does little to change that.

In describing these possibilities, the essay considers the cases themselves, various doctrinal developments (focusing on subsequent Supreme Court cases as well as lower court decisions interpreting Hosanna-Tabor), and the broader political and social context in which claims for religious accommodation are now received. It concludes that though each possibility has persuasive points (perhaps with the exception of the second), the last is most accurate.

Smith’s approach to free exercise continues to control for constitutional purposes and is, for more general political purposes, more entrenched than ever. Its admonition about fabulously remote threats of anarchy in a world where each “conscience is a law unto itself” has ironically become more apt as a warning against the multiplying number of secular interests argued to be legally cognizable than against religious accommodation run amok. There is no clearer manifestation of these developments than the recent emergence of theories maintaining that new dignitary and other third party harms resulting from religious accommodation ought to defeat religious freedom claims. These theories reflect the swollen ambit of state authority and defend surprising understandings of the limits of religious accommodation—understandings that pose grave threats to the American political tradition of providing generous religious exemptions from general laws. The ministerial exception simply represents the refracted glow of constitutional protection in the gathering gloom. It is free exercise by moonlight.

DeGirolami at University of San Diego Law School Conference on Free Exercise

I’m here in lovely and warm San Diego (Mark went east and I went west) attending this conference organized by Larry Alexander and Steve Smith’s impressive Institute for Law and Religion at the University of San Diego Law School. Here is the conference description:

Hosanna-Tabor and/or Employment Division v. Smith?

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School v. EEOC raised crucial questions. Was the decision reconcilable with the doctrine articulated in Employment Division v. Smith? If so, how? Did Hosanna-Tabor represent a passing anomaly or a major new direction in the constitutional jurisprudence of religious freedom? Such questions are still very much with us, and they can be addressed both normatively and descriptively and from a variety of standpoints: conventional legal analysis, history, political science, or political theory. This conference will consider such questions and their significance for the future of religious freedom in this country.

And here’s the abstract for my paper, Free Exercise by Moonlight (more on it by and by):

How is the current condition of religious free exercise, and religious accommodation in specific, best understood? What is the relationship of the two most important free exercise cases of the past half-century, Employment Division v. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC? This essay explores four possible answers to these questions.

1. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor are the twin suns of religious accommodation under the Constitution. They are distinctively powerful approaches.
2. Hosanna-Tabor’s approach to constitutional free exercise is now more powerful than Smith’s. Smith has been eclipsed.
3. Hosanna-Tabor has shown itself to be feeble. It has been eclipsed by Smith.
4. Smith augured the waning of religious accommodation, which proceeds apace. Hosanna-Tabor does little to change that.

In describing these possibilities, the essay considers the cases themselves, various doctrinal developments (focusing on subsequent Supreme Court cases as well as lower court decisions interpreting Hosanna-Tabor), and the broader political and social context in which claims for religious accommodation are now received. It concludes that though each possibility has persuasive points (perhaps with the exception of the second), the last is most accurate. Smith’s approach to free exercise continues to control for constitutional purposes and is, for more general political purposes, more entrenched than ever. Its rhetorical hostility to religious accommodation—its admonitions about fabulously remote threats of anarchy in a world where each “conscience is a law unto itself”—has ironically become more apt as a description of the multiplying number of secular interests deemed legally cognizable than of religious accommodation run amok. There is no clearer manifestation of these developments than the recent emergence of theories that expound on the legally cognizable harms—dignitary and otherwise—to third parties that result from religious accommodation. These theories both reflect the enlarged ambit of state authority and defend novel understandings of the limits of religious accommodation. The ministerial exception simply represents the refracted glow of constitutional protection in the gathering gloom. It is free exercise by moonlight.

Conference at EUI (Florence) on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States

I am delighted to be participating this Wednesday in a conference at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States, organized by Center friends Olivier Roy and Pasquale Annicchino. Regretfully, my intervention will be virtual rather than in person. Here’s the description of the conference (in Italian) and the program:

Contesto 

John Glover Roberts Jr. è stato nominato Chief Justice della Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti il 22 settembre 2005, nomina confermata una settimana dopo dal Senato con 78 voti favorevoli e 22 contrari. In questi 9 anni si sono succedute numerose decisioni di assoluto rilievo del massimo organo giurisdizionale statunitense. Tra queste alcune hanno portato a definitivo compimento una nuova interpretazione ed una differente applicazione delle due clausole del primo emendamento costituzionale che si occupano di libertà religiosa: la Free Exercise Clause e la Establishment Clause. Dopo aver inquadrato nel contesto storico e politico la presidenza Roberts, questo workshop intende esaminare le principali pronunce della Corte Suprema sulla libertà religiosa.

Ogni relatore sarà chiamato a commentare una pronuncia e, mediante un approccio di “law in context” a darne una interpretazione nell’ambito del più ampio sviluppo della giurisprudenza della Corte.

L’obiettivo è quello di realizzare un volume collettivo (in italiano) che possa offrire agli studiosi nuovo materiale di riflessione e studio su un argomento che tocca gli interessi scientifici sia dei costituzionalisti che dei cultori delle materie ecclesiasticistiche.

Funded by European Research Council 7th Framework Programme

Programma 

12.00-12.05 Introduzione

12.05-13.00 La Corte Roberts e la tutela della libertà religiosa 

Fred Gedicks | BYU, USA

Marc De Girolami | St John’s University, USA (intervento via Skype)

13.00-14.00 Pranzo di lavoro 

14.00-15.30 Discussione casi – I sessione 

Valentina Fiorillo | Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Italia

Adelaide Madera | Università di Messina, Italia

Pasquale Annicchino | EUI, Italia

Discussione generale

15.30-15.45 Pausa caffé 

15.45-17.00 Discussione casi –II sessione 

Marco Ventura | KU Leuven, Belgio

Susanna Mancini | Università di Bologna, Italia

Diletta Tega | Università di Bologna e Corte costituzionale italiana, Italia

Discussione generale

17.00-18.15 Discussione finale

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,493 other followers

%d bloggers like this: