Berger on Kemalism Here and Abroad

Peter Berger has an interesting column this week, well worth reading in full, about the display of religious symbols by the government and the culture war features of legal disagreement. The legal cases he discusses are not new–the Utah public highway cross case (Davenport v. American Atheists) which the Supreme Court declined to hear and the Lautsi case. Professor Berger might have noted that in declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court left intact the Tenth Circuit’s ruling striking the crosses down as an Establishment Clause violation.

But that’s largely irrelevant, for the insights of the column lie in his comparative cultural analysis:

Why the recent flurry of church/state issues? In America it is part of the politics surrounding the so-called “culture wars”:  The rising influence of conservative Protestants in the Republican party has mobilized liberals against any political role of organized religion—especially since conservative Catholics have been allied with conservative Protestants on most of the issues “south of the navel” (issues, that is, that liberals are personally anxious about). The politics in Europe is different: Conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) is not very significant politically, but the perceived threat of militant Islam has made secularism (such as French laicite) appear as a defense of European values against theocracy.

I think there is also the factor of lawyers looking for business, and then the professional deformation of this group comes into play. Lawyers live, literally and emotionally, on the making of fine distinctions. Thus the distinctions made in American courts, on where a particular instance violates or does not violate the First Amendment, are veritably scholastic (or, if you will, Talmudic). These considerations tend to be sovereignly free of common sense. . . . Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. But I do so for a reason: I am applying the old casuistic method of reductio ad absurdum. 

Let me “reduce” some more: The Kemalist assault on religion in public space is related to an old progressive notion, the abolition of history. It goes back to the Enlightenment and particularly to its political expression in the French Revolution. It was not for nothing that the latter abolished the old calendar and substituted a new one (with months like brumaire and thermidor). That particular exercise did not last long, but the underlying progressive idea persisted: By the very notion of progress, the present is further on the march toward the glorious future than anything in the past. It affected America too: see the motto about the “new order of the ages” emblazoned on the Grand Seal of the United States (and on the dollar bills in your wallet). But in this country these utopian fantasies have often been modified by common sense and by Protestant suspicions about human nature. Be this as it may, the abolition of history continues to be a dream that haunts the progressive imagination . . . .

As I write this, we are on the eve of the Christmas season (the ADL guide would surely prefer just plain “holiday season”). There is the usual orgy of shopping, the favored season for shopkeepers to be merry. Christmas carols blare through the PA systems, jolly Santa Clauses (fully evolved from their saintly ancestor, St. Nicholas) listen to the wishes of small children perched on their knees, everyone smiles with good will. This synthesis of religion and secularity is regularly criticized from opposite sides. The secularists don’t like the religious part. They can’t do much about the shopping malls, but they can surely agitate and litigate against any trace of Christianity in the holiday season insofar as it is acknowledged on government property—maybe crèches can be allowed, but without baby Jesus or any other New Testament characters. If any values are to be celebrated, they are family ties, the happiness of children and general good will. And on the other side are those who want to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, doing away with all the supposedly fake jolliness and commercial exploitation, instead restore the original religious character of this holy-day. I think that both criticisms are misguided. There is nothing fake about the secular cheer of the season, nor about the expressions of general amiability – and there is nothing wrong about the fact that some people are making money out of it. Those who want to focus on the birth of Christ the savior, are free to do so. Let me admit it: I do celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. I also like the secular cheer that is also celebrated. I even like the commercialism—it is a source of happiness for many people, especially children.

Adhar on Secularism

Rex Adhar (University of Otago, New Zealand) has published an article, “Is Secularism Neutral?”, in this month’s edition of Ratio Juris (subscription required). The abstract follows:

This article argues that secularism is not neutral. Secularization is a process, the secular state is a structure, whereas secularism is a political philosophy. Secularism takes two main forms: first, a “benevolent” secularism that endeavours to treat all religious and nonreligious belief systems even-handedly, and, second, a “hostile” kind that privileges unbelief and excludes religion from the public sphere. I analyze the European Court of Human Rights decision in Lautsi v Italy, which illustrates these types. The article concludes that secularism as a political philosophy cannot be neutral, and the secular state is not neutral in its effects, standpoint, governing assumptions or treatment of religious truth claims.

Conversations: Marc DeGirolami

This summer, Harvard University Press published The Tragedy of Religious Freedomby our very own Marc DeGirolami (left), CLR’s Associate Director. In the book, Marc argues for a “tragic” understanding of religious freedom, one “that avoids the twin dangers of reliance on reductive and systematic justifications, on the one hand, and thoroughgoing skepticism about the possibility of theorizing, on the other.” This week, Marc answers some questions about his book. Among other things, he discusses the differences between “tragic” and “comic” legal theories; the value of history and tradition in judicial decision-making; and the inevitability of judicial discretion. He also explains why the Court got religious freedom wrong in Employment Division v. Smith and right in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. 

CLR Forum: Marc, explain what you mean by “comic” and “tragic” approaches to law generally. Why do you think religious freedom, in particular, should be addressed from a tragic perspective?

DeGirolami: The terms comic and tragic are ancient and have been used in classical, literary, and philosophical settings. I draw on some of these meanings in the book, but I use comic in the legal context to mean two things: (1) a preference for systematic ordering of the law by reducing legal values either to one or to a small set, in the belief that human society is progressively improved by that reduction; and (2) the marginalization of the loss of other values in the process of accomplishing (1). Tragic approaches to the law resist both of these points. A tragic approach to law says that the reasons we value a practice like religious freedom are plural and cannot be reduced. Each value struggles to avoid absorption and subordination by the others. The clash of values results both from the limits of human reasoning and from the conflict of human interests and aspirations. So in the face of conflict in law, a tragic approach affirms that the comic impulse to reduce legal values, and systematically to marginalize those that are subordinated, will exacerbate conflict and end up deforming, and perhaps eventually destroying, important social practices and institutions.

CLR Forum: You single out Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia’s famous opinion in the peyote case, as an example of the misguided “comic” approach and argue that it should be gradually dismantled. What’s so wrong with Smith? And why not just overrule it? 

DeGirolami: Yes, I am critical of Smith and believe it to be an example of a comic approach. Smith reduced all possible values of free exercise under the Constitution to a single value: formal neutrality. A neutral rule that is applied generally no longer can violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution after Smith, no matter how severely the rule burdens the religious free exercise of an individual or a group and no matter how insubstantial the government’s interest in enforcing the rule on a religious claimant. The Smith decision attempted to accomplish both of the comic points I listed above. It wanted to bring system Continue reading

Worth A Thousand Words

In my last post, I discussed the question of attribution of messages. Today, I want to turn to the perception of messages, in particular, the visual perception of religious symbols. We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Does it make sense, then, for courts to distinguish between the textual and the visual, and to consider the latter less troublesome than the former?

Let me start with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber decision in the Italian classroom crucifix case, Lautsi v. Italy. The Italian government argued “[w]hatever the evocative power of an ‘image’ might be . . . it was a ‘passive symbol’, whose impact on individuals was not comparable with the impact of ‘active conduct’.” Referencing an earlier decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the applicants conversely argued “[a]s to the assertion that it was merely a ‘passive symbol’, this ignored the fact that like all symbols—and more than all others—it gave material form to a cognitive, intuitive and emotional reality which went beyond the immediately perceptible.”

The Grand Chamber explicitly addressed the active/passive distinction, stating that “a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality. It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.” Several concurring opinions also addressed the designation of the crucifix as a “passive” symbol. The concurring opinion of Judge Power agrees with the majority’s assessment of the crucifix as a passive symbol “insofar as the symbol’s passivity is not in any way coercive,” but her assessment is more nuanced. She “concede[s] that, in principle, symbols (whether religious, cultural or otherwise) are carriers of meaning. They may be silent but they may, nevertheless, speak volumes without, however, doing so in a coercive or in an indoctrinating manner.” In her framing, the question is not whether symbols can communicate like textual language—she asserts they can—but whether the message communicated is one that violates the negative religious freedom of the observer under the Convention.

The ECtHR is not alone in asserting that visual religious symbols are “passive”: In Lynch v. Donnelly, Chief Justice Burger said the crèche was “passive”; in Allegheny County, Justice Kennedy used the “passive” label to describe the holiday displays; Chief Justice Rehnquist said the Ten Commandments monuments (featuring text) in Van Orden v. Perry were “passive”; in his dissent in McCreary County, Justice Scalia said the Ten Commandments display was “passive”; and the lower courts use the “passive” symbols language as well.

The “passive” label is used in two ways (alternatively or cumulatively). It can be an empirical claim about the way in which visual images communicate. Passivity used in this way suggests less ability to communicate effectively than textual speech. Or “passive” is a label for a bundle of factors—including brief exposure to the symbol, a vague notion of minimal offensiveness, or other characteristics of the symbol that result in its presumed noncoerciveness. But these notions, unlike the empirical claim, go to the context and cultural meaning of the symbol. The empirical claim is false; the neuroscience of visual perception just does not work that way. The context-and-cultural-meaning claim is complex and the “passive” designation is at best an ambiguous and misleading label. Either way, courts here and abroad should stop using the “passive” label to describe religious symbols.

Thanks, Mark and Marc, for having me over!

Ten Napel on An Alternative Approach to Limiting Government Religious Displays in the Public Workplace

Hans-Martien Ten Napel (Leiden Law School) has posted Beyond Lautsi: An Alternative Approach to Limiting the Government’s Ability to Display Religious Symbols in the Public Workplace. The abstract follows.

One of the central ideas underlying the chapter is that the questions regarding the limits of the government’s ability to display religious symbols in the public sphere, and how judges should deal with the manifestation by citizens of religious symbols in public institutions, are closely interrelated.

First, the Chamber and Grand Chamber judgments in the Lautsi case and several related cases in the Italian context will be discussed. Next, two prototypical reactions will be described: one (Mancini’s) agreeing with the Chamber judgment; the other (Weiler’s) agreeing with the Grand Chamber judgment. Finally, after a brief comparison with U.S. case law, an alternative approach inspired by the concept of positive secularism is sketched as a possible way out of this deadlock. This concept has recently been defended in the report of The Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (CCPARDC), which was responsible for analyzing the challenges posed by a new migratory situation in Québec, Canada, among others. The chapter ends with a conclusion.

Moon on Christianity, Multiculturalism, and National Identity

Richard Moon (University of Windsor Law) has posted Christianity, Multiculturalism, and National Identity: A Canadian Comment on Lautsi v. Italy. The abstract follows.

The Lautsi decision reflects the deep ambivalence in Western liberal democracies about religion and its relationship to politics. Like the Canadian courts, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) seems to recognize that religion and politics should be separated but that this separation can never be total. While the ECtHR and the Supreme Court of Canada rely at least formally on a similar test for determining a breach of religious freedom (a test that emphasizes the state’s obligation to remain neutral in spiritual matters) their application of the test is guided by different understandings of the public/political significance of religion and more particularly the relationship between religion, civic values, and national identity. The Court in Lautsi seems to accept, or at least acquiesce in, two claims made by the Italian government about the meaning of the crucifix: that it symbolizes the Italian national identity, which is tied to its history as a Christian or Roman Catholic nation, and that it symbolizes the Christian foundation of the civic/secular values of the Italian political community – the values of democracy and tolerance. Behind the claim that the crucifix is not simply a religious symbol but also a symbol of the Italian identity and political culture, is the draw of a thicker or richer form of national identity than that offered by civic nationalism. The assumption is that Italians are held together in a political community not simply by their shared commitment to liberal values or democratic institutions but by a common culture rooted in a religious tradition. Religion and politics are joined at the core of national identity and the root of political obligation. This link between religion and politics, though, rests on the problematic claim that the values of democracy and tolerance emerged directly from Christianity (and are the logical, even necessary, outcome of Christian doctrine) and the disturbing claim that Christianity is uniquely tied to these values. While religion does sometimes intersect with politics in Canada, it no longer plays a role in the definition of the country’s national identity. Canada, sometime ago, embraced multiculturalism as the defining feature of its national identity and liberal-democratic values as its political bond. There is no doubt that Canada’s moral/social culture has been shaped in different ways by the Christian faith of earlier generations, nevertheless any attempt to formally link Canadian national identity to a particular religious tradition would run against the country’s self-conception as a multicultural (multi-faith) society.

Temperman (ed.), “The Lautsi Papers: Multidisciplinary Reflections on Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom”

This November, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers will publish The Lautsi Papers: Multidisciplinary Reflections on Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom edited by Jeroen Temperman (Erasmus University Rotterdam). The publisher’s description follows.

Increasingly, debates about religious symbols in the public space are reformulated as human rights questions and put before national and international judges. Particularly in the area of education, legitimate interests are manifold and often collide. Children’s educational and religious rights, parental liberties vis-à-vis their children, religious traditions, state obligations in the area of public school education, the state neutrality principle, and the professional rights and duties of teachers are all principles that may warrant priority attention. Each from their own discipline and perspective––ranging from legal (human rights) scholars, (legal) philosophers, political scientists, comparative law scholars, and country-specific legal experts––these experts contribute to the question of whether in the present-day pluralist state there is room for state symbolism (e.g. crucifixes in classroom) or personal religious signs (e.g. cross necklaces or kirpans) or attire (e.g. kippahs or headscarves) in the public school classroom.

Videos of Rome Conference Now Available

On June 22 in Rome, CLR co-hosted a conference, State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europewith the Department of Law at Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta (LUMSA).  Videos of the panels are now available below. Papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Conference Introduction

  • Silvio Ferrari (Università di Milano – Facoltà di Giurisprudenza)

Session 1: Cultural or Religious? Understanding Symbols in Public Places

  • Thomas C. Berg (U. of St. Thomas School of Law)
  • Carlo Cardia (Università di Roma Tre – Facoltà di Giurisprudenza)
  • Eduardo Gianfrancesco (LUMSA – Dipartimento di Giurisprudenza)
  • Francesco Margiotta Broglio (Università di Firenze – Facoltà di Scienze Politiche)

Session 2: The Lautsi Case and the Margin of Appreciation

  • Monica Lugato (LUMSA – Dipartimento di Giurisprudenza)
  • Marc O. DeGirolami (St. John’s U. School of Law)
  • W. Cole Durham, Jr. (Brigham Young U. Law School)

Session 3: State‐sponsored Religious Displays in Comparative Perspective

  • Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit)
  • Paolo Cavana (LUMSA – Dipartimento di Giurisprudenza)
  • Mark L. Movsesian (St. John’s U. School of Law)
  • Sophie C. van Bijsterveld (Tilburg U. School of Humanities)

Blogging the Rome Conference: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe

Last week, CLR hosted a conference in Rome on state-sponsored religious displays, along with our colleagues at the Department of Law at LUMSA. The conference, held at LUMSA’s main campus in the Borgo, drew about 100 people and included panels on the cultural and religious meanings of symbols, the Lautsi case and the margin of appreciation, and a comparison of American and European jurisprudence. I moderated one panel and spoke on another, so I couldn’t take notes on everything. Here are some notes on a few of the day’s very fine presentations, though. Selected papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Silvio Ferrari (University of Milan) opened the conference by offering a framework for understanding state-sponsored religious displays. After describing the three models European nations have adopted with respect to such displays, Ferrari noted the central problem: “religious” symbols often have a variety of meanings, both religious and cultural, that one cannot easily disentangle. He suggested relying on Jurgen Habermas’s distinction between an “informal” public space, like a town square, and an “institutional” public space, like a courtroom. In the former, Ferrari argued, religious symbols might be permissible; in the latter, they should be prohibited. He concluded by stressing the benefits of the debate on state-sponsored religious symbols. The debate itself is important, he argued, because it forces people to take religious symbols seriously as a public question.

In the day’s second panel, Monica Lugato (LUMSA) gave a paper on the conceptual roots of the margin of appreciation doctrine, which played a central role in the Grand Chamber’s judgment in Lautsi. She explained how the doctrine, which grants national governments discretion in applying the rights guaranteed by the European Convention, follows from basic rules of treaty interpretation and coheres with the principle of subsidiarity. My CLR colleague Marc DeGirolami followed with a paper on the shift from an abstract, single-value jurisprudence to one that considers the many possible meanings of religious symbols. For example, he argued, the Latin cross has many possible references; he praised the new recognition of the multiple meanings of religious symbols in American and European jurisprudence. Cole Durham (BYU) ended the panel with a call for an authentic “pluralistic secularity,” a midway point between “confessionalism” and “fundamentalist secularism,” that would allow national majorities to celebrate their culture but not impose religion on minorities. Durham argued that the Grand Chamber’s judgment in Lautsi struck an appropriate balance in this regard.

Temperman on Religious Symbols in the Classroom

Jeroen Temperman (Erasmus University Rotterdam) has posted Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom. The abstract follows.

This paper flags a couple of preliminary legal questions that are remarkably often ignored or trivialized by (international) courts. Underscoring the importance of identifying primary rights holders, genuine conflicting interests, and the obligations of duty bearers in symbol cases, this contribution illustrates that much depends on who can be identified as ‘symbol-displayer’ and who as ‘symbol-viewer’ and within which particular (public) setting. Focusing on public school education, the paper addresses such questions as under what circumstances may State neutrality be considered a legitimate ground for limiting fundamental rights. And who is actually supposed ‘to be neutral’ according to human rights law –– States, buildings, the ‘public square’, civil servants, teachers, students, and/or pupils? When does a symbol truly ‘interfere’ with the rights and freedoms of others or with public order? And who is to prove that? Also, what are the exact standards of proof in symbols cases?

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