Pantagruel Comes for the Establishment Clause

That is the title of an essay I have up at the Library of Law and Liberty. Here’s the beginning:

In the second book of the sixteenth century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.” When the lawyers and jurists propose to give Pantagruel the relevant texts, writs, historical records, learned treatises, and legal authorities, he orders all of this “scribble-scrabble foolscrap” immediately burned. These materials, he scoffs, are “pure subversions of equity,” for “the law grew up out of the field of natural and moral philosophy.” After a perfunctory hearing and by the light of “philosophical and evangelical justice,” Pantagruel rules with swift panache, and his judgment is hailed as wiser than Solomon’s.

Pantagruel is coming for the Establishment Clause. He comes today bearing the standard of equality, and the manifestations of equality that he would have courts superimpose on the Constitution. In several disputes ostensibly involving the constitutional prohibition on “laws respecting an establishment of religion,” courts are interpreting this provision of the First Amendment to require adherence to a kind of pure principle of equality, or its close cousin, neutrality. And just as Pantagruelic justice beguiled Rabelais’ fictional Parisian intelligentsia, so, too, is the egalitarian justice of today’s courts extolled by the legal professoriate. Yet though certain forms of unequal treatment by the state on the basis of religion surely do create questions of constitutional dimension, we now face something like the obverse situation: courts so rigorously adhere to notions of egalitarian justice that the Establishment Clause is bloated to the point of collapsing of its own weight.

Call for Papers: State Neutrality, Religion, and Private Enterprises

The Université Catholique de Louvain is soliciting papers for its upcoming conference “State Neutrality, Religion, and Private Enterprises.”  A description of the conference follows:

Debates on the social responsibility of businesses raise the question of the universalist or particularist nature of the ethics upheld by private legal institutions, ethics which may be legitimized or delegitimized by social practices, but also validated and invalidated by constitutional laws or anti-discriminatory legislations. Indeed, if secular States have separated themselves from Churches and cannot be directly involved in religious affairs, it is also because they are secular, and the necessity to protect fundamental rights imposes itself on them so that they become, in turn, involved with the religious sphere, of which they will appoint themselves as interpreters, and that, with respect to the values which are present, often in opposition, in a society. In this thematic session we will question how the sphere of the social responsibility of enterprises confront secular States and their institutions, in particular tribunals, to new ethical and religious resources, thus renewing the question of their interpretation. This reflection on the confrontation of tribunals to particularist ethics in the sphere of private enterprise management will be laid out on the basis of theoretical and empirical research so as to facilitate dialogue between legal constraints and the critical resources of the field of the sociology of religion and social ethics. A re-evaluation of the doctrinal and theological tenets of the evoked ethical referents will permit not only a critical assessment of the data submitted to tribunals in cases of litigation, but will also provide an opening to more efficient modes of interaction, within the boundaries of common law, and of more relevant approaches to mediation, with the contextual data.

Paper proposals should be submitted no later than December 15, 2014 and should be submitted via the online form provided here.  Any questions can be directed to Louis-Léon Christians (Université Catholique de Louvain) at or to David Koussens (Université de Sherbrooke) at

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.

State Religious Neutrality and the Point of Departure

A quick followup on Claudia’s very interesting post on state religious neutrality. As Claudia suggests, pretty much every Western democracy nowadays accepts the notion that the state must be “neutral” with respect to religion. But, as Claudia points out, the fact that everyone uses the same word obscures underlying disagreements. In the US, for example, neutrality means that the state may not display sectarian symbols, at least in a manner that seems to endorse the sectarian message. Not so in Europe. There, the ECtHR has made plain, a state may display sectarian symbols as long as the state does not engage in active proselytizing. Thus, according to the recent Lautsi decision, European states may display crucifixes in public school classrooms, conduct that would be unthinkable in the US under current Supreme Court jurisprudence.

In trying to understand the different meanings the same word has in different systems, it’s useful to consider what Tocqueville referred to as a nation’s “point of departure.” Every legal system is embedded in a particular culture with a particular history. In Europe, where links between church and state are traditionally very strong, certain state actions, like placing sectarian symbols in the public space, are simply part of the background, something most people take for granted. In the US, however, a society with a much stronger separationist tradition, such actions are not seen as neutral and innocuous. I explain this all in more depth in a recent article on the Italian crucifix case, “Crosses and Culture: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe,” in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion. Interested readers can find the article on the journal’s website, here.

Bradley, “Essays on Law, Religion, and Morality”

This month, St. Augustine’s Press will publish Essays on Law, Religion, and Morality by Gerard V. Bradley (University of Notre Dame Law School). The publisher’s description follows.

The most controversial foundational issue today in both legal philosophy and constitutional law is the relationship between objective moral norms and the positive law. Is it possible for the state to be morally “neutral” about such matters as marriage, the family, religion, religious liberty, and – as the Supreme Court once famously phrased it – “the meaning of life”? If such neutrality is possible, is it desirable? Read more

Ledewitz on Neutrality

Bruce Ledewitz (Duquesne University – School of Law) has posted Toward a Meaning – Full Establishment Clause Neutrality. The abstract follows.

Some form of government neutrality toward religion, in contrast to a more pro-religion stance or a turn toward nonjusticiability, is the only interpretation of the Establishment Clause that can potentially lead to a national consensus concerning the proper role of religion in American public life. But to achieve that goal, neutrality theory must acknowledge and engage the need for the expressions of deep meaning on public occasions and in the public square generally. Current neutrality doctrine promotes a silent and empty public square. This article proposes an interpretation of neutrality that would allow a symbol-rich, meaning-full public square without violating theEstablishment Clause. While such morally substantive symbolic government speech is more easily justified as neutral when religious imagery is avoided, even the utilization by government of traditional religious language and symbols may be understood as neutral toward religion as long as the overall content of the public square is not religious. This more vibrant form of government neutrality invites more, rather than less, expression into public life. The article utilizes the context of legislative and high school graduation prayer to illustrate the difference between current neutrality doctrine and meaning-full neutrality.

The Dis-integration of Neutrality

Neutrality has been the central theme in the modern jurisprudence and literature of religious freedom.  Government is supposed to be religiously neutral, neither favoring nor opposing (coercively, materially, or expressively) any particular religion or religion in general.

The ideal has also been subjected to severe criticism.  One criticism asserts that neutrality is impossible: governments will inevitably adopt some religious (or anti-religious) positions and reject others.  Indeed, since religious views differ as to the acceptability of governmental neutrality, the very endorsement of neutrality is already a departure from neutrality.

One response to this sort of criticism is to “spread out”– or to multiply versions of neutrality.  Like the sorcerer’s hapless apprentice, the critic applies the hatchet to what he takes to be the mischievous broom of neutrality only to find that, far from having dispatched the mischief, he is now faced with two– or several, or many– more vigorous instantiations.

Thus, in a recent illuminating article called “Crosses and Culture” (I would provide a link if I knew how), Mark Movsesian discerns in American jurisprudence three versions of neutrality, which he calls “neutrality as non-proselytism,” “neutrality as non- Read more

Movsesian on State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe

Mark’s new piece is up at the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, Crosses and Culture: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe.  Comparativists and students of religious liberty will enjoy and learn a lot from the piece.  The abstract follows.

This article compares the recent jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights on the question of state-sponsored religious displays. Both tribunals insist that states have a duty of religious ‘neutrality’, but each defines that term differently. For the Supreme Court, neutrality means that government may not proselytize, even indirectly, or appear to favour a particular church; neutrality may even mean that government must not endorse religion generally. For the ECtHR, in contrast, neutrality means only that government must avoid active religious indoctrination; the ECtHR allows government to give ‘preponderant visibility’ to the symbols of traditionally dominant churches. The different conceptions of neutrality reflect institutional and cultural realities. In particular, the differences reflect what sociologists of religion describe as the ‘American’ and ‘European’ religious models.

Because issues of methodology are of special interest to me, here are some of Mark’s reflections on that question — and in particular about the function of comparative scholarship — in the conclusion to the piece (I have omitted the footnotes, which you can chase down in the piece):

My purpose in this article has been comparative and critical: I have attempted to explain different legal regimes in terms of fundamental institutional and cultural commitments. Comparative work, particularly interdisciplinary comparative work, is still a bit new in law and religion scholarship. As Grace Davie recently has written, law and sociology ask different questions and rely on different methods; ‘conversations’ between lawyers and sociologists can therefore be ‘difficult’.  Nonetheless, such conversations are essential.  For law both reflects and influences underlying social conditions. In Mary Ann Glendon’s phrase, ‘law, in addition to all the other things it does, tells stories about the culture that helped to shape it and which it in turn helps to shape: stories about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going’.  The law on state-sponsored religious displays reveals very different understandings about the place of religion in American and European society. This article is an effort to illuminate those understandings and contribute to an emerging path in law and religion scholarship. 

Wright on Neutrality in Religion Clause Cases

R. George Wright (Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law) has posted Can We Make Sense of ‘Neutrality’ in the Religion Clause Cases?: Seven Rescue Attempts, and a Viable Alternative. The abstract follows.

This Article addresses the controversial question of ‘neutrality’ as a crucial test in a number of important Religion Clause cases. The idea of ‘neutrality’ in the Religion Clause context turns out to be popular, but unavoidably incoherent.

The Article then explores seven alternative approaches to explaining why Religion Clause neutrality tests persist, despite the evident incoherence of the concept of neutrality. None of these seven alternatives, however, holds much promise for a valuable re-interpretation or rescue of the idea of neutrality.

What is needed is not a re-interpretation of Religion Clause neutrality tests, but a replacement for such tests. The Conclusion offers coherent and useful guidance in addressing many Religion Clause cases, based on a surprising adaptation of elements from the apparently remote area of Takings Clause and police power regulation jurisprudence.

Garnett on Koppelman and Religious Neutrality

Richard Garnett just posted “Neutrality and the Good of Religious Freedom: An Appreciative Response to Professor Koppelman” on SSRN (check out his short post about the paper here as well).  The piece was prepared for the recent conference we held at Pepperdine Law School, titled “The Competing Claims of Law & Religion: Who Should Influence Whom” and will be published in the upcoming symposium volume of the Pepperdine Law Review dedicated to papers from the conference.  Here’s the abstract for Garnett’s paper:

This paper is a short response to an address, “And I Don’t Care What It Is: Religious Neutrality in American Law,” delivered by Prof. Andrew Koppelman at a conference, “The Competing Claims of Law and Religion: Who Should Influence Whom?”, which was held at Pepperdine University in February of 2012. In this response, it is suggested – among other things – that “American religious neutrality” is, as Koppelman argues, “coherent and attractive” because and to the extent that it is not neutral with respect to the goal and good of religious freedom.

Religious freedom, in the American tradition, is not what results from the operationalization in law of hostility toward religion. It is not (only) what results from a program of conflict-avoidance or division-dampening. It is not merely the product of those compromises that were necessary to secure the ratification of the original Constitution. It is, instead, a valuable and necessary feature of any attractive legal regime, because it reflects, promotes, and helps to constitute human flourishing. So, and again, the state should remain “neutral” with respect to most religious questions – primarily because the resolution of such questions is outside the jurisdiction, and not just the competence, of civil authorities – but it may and should affirm enthusiastically that religious freedom is a good thing that should be protected and nurtured in law and policy.