Tag Archives: Constitutional Law

Event at Hunter College: “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction”

The CUNY Institute for Educational Policy is hosting a discussion entitled “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction,” on December 4th at Hunter College. The discussants include Philip Hamburger (Columbia), Ashley Berner (CUNY), and Matthew Yellin (Hillside Arts and Letters Academy):

Most Americans know the term “separation of church and state,” but few understand it. Howhas the phrase influenced education policy and practice? How has the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment evolved? Are tax credits and vouchers that enable funding for religious schools Constitutional? Are public school teachers allowed to talk about religion in the classroom? If so, how can they do so without violating the Establishment clause of the Constitution?

These are timely questions for New Yorkers: Albany is considering a tax credit bill that would provide support for Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim, and other non-public schools; international leaders are calling for better religious literacy in K-12 classrooms, so that young citizens are prepared to negotiate our diverse and increasingly interconnected world. For many Americans, however, public funding for religious schools, and open discussions about religious beliefs in public school classrooms, raise important concerns.

On December 4, the nation’s leading scholar of First Amendment jurisprudence will set out the history and current interpretation of separation, and a master teacher will discuss some challenges and solutions to navigating religious literacy in New York’s public school system.

Get details and register here.

Cross, “Constitutions and Religious Freedom”

In January, Cambridge University Press will release “Constitutions and Religious Freedom” by Frank B. Cross (University of Texas, Austin). The publisher’s description follows:

Many of us take for granted the idea that the right to religious freedom should be protected in a free, democratic polity. However, this book challenges whether the protection and privilege of religious belief and identity should be prioritized over any other right. By studying the effects of constitutional promises of religious freedom and establishment clauses, Frank B. Cross sets the stage for a set of empirical questions that examines the consequences of such protections. Although the case for broader protection is often made as a theoretical matter, constitutions generally protect freedom of religion. Allowing people full choice in holding religious beliefs or freedom of conscience is central to their autonomy. Freedom of religion is thus potentially a very valuable aspect of society, at least so long as it respects the freedom of individuals to be irreligious. This book tests these associations and finds that constitutions provide national religious protection, especially when the legal system is more sophisticated.

The Roberts Court Has Contracted, Not Expanded, Religious Rights

Linda Greenhouse has a column purporting to reflect on the Roberts Court’s first nine years that doubles as an occasion to offer the hope that Chief Justice Roberts will “moderate” in the next decade–a hope then despaired of at the end of the column.

She also says this:

It has been an eventful nine terms for the court and its chief. Samuel A. Alito Jr., Justice O’Connor’s eventual replacement, is well to her right and has provided Chief Justice Roberts with a reliable if narrow majority for the court’s steady regression on race and its deregulatory hijacking of the First Amendment. Along with ever-expanding accommodation of religious interests, these are the areas in which the Roberts court has made its increasingly predictable mark.

But on the issue of religious interests, Greenhouse is, I believe, mistaken, at least insofar as constitutional law is concerned. As I show in this article, the defining mark of the Roberts Court in the area of religious rights has been contraction, not expansion. One of the very cases cited by Greenhouse herself involving the religion clauses–Town of Greece v. Galloway–is much more plausibly conceived as a contraction of the Establishment Clause, not an expansion. The Court’s exercise of judicial review, the range of views among the Justices about religious rights, and the substance of the Clauses themselves–all of these, contra Greenhouse, have contracted over the last decade.

“Religion in the Public Square” (Uitz, ed.)

This September, Eleven International Publishing releases “Religion in the Public Square: Perspectives on Secularism” edited by Renáta Uitz (Central European University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 11.04.05 AMWhat is the place of religion and religious convictions in government, politics and in public life – taking into consideration the need to respect the free exercise of religion? In the separation or neutrality paradigm, religious organizations (churches) are expected to stay away from public affairs. But other models of state neutrality and secularity – rooted in historical struggles and influenced by experiences and mistakes – result in differing forms of cooperation between religious organizations and the state.

Meadors, “American Public Religion in Frankfurter and Scalia Opinions”

This November, LFB Scholarly Publishing will release “American Public Religion in Frankfurter and Scalia Opinions” by David C. Meadors (Pastor at Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Charlottesville, VA).  The publisher’s description follows:

Meadors demonstrates weaknesses in the originalist methodology for interpreting the religion clauses of the First Amendment. He concludes that even though courts have an important role to play in protecting religious liberty via the First Amendment this protection needs supplementation by robust advocacy among citizens and mediating institutions in the democratic process. His thesis is that Felix Frankfurter and Antonin Scalia found different forms of American public religion constitutional in their religion clause jurisprudences. Both applied originalist methodology in their religion clause opinions, but came to different conclusions. More specifically, Frankfurter focused primarily on the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison whereas Antonin Scalia has looked more broadly to the views and practices of John Adams, George Washington, and John Marshall in addition to Jefferson and Madison.

Cook, “First Amendment Religious Liberties: Supreme Court Decisions and Public Opinion, 1947-2013″

This month, LFB Scholarly Publishing releases “First Amendment Religious Liberties: Supreme Court Decisions and Public Opinion, 1947-2013” by Tracy L. Cook (Central Texas College). The publisher’s description follows:

Cook analyzes the relationship between Supreme Court decisions and public opinion concerning First Amendment religious liberties. Overall, the Court has issued opinions consistent with public opinion in a majority of its decisions dealing with the First Amendment’s religion clauses, with a level of congruence of almost seventy percent when a clear public opinion expression is present. She also provides a new perspective for understanding the long and contentious debate about prayer in public school by identifying an area of agreement between the Court and public opinion that has not received much attention.

“Constitutional Contraction: Religion and the Roberts Court”

I’ve posted a new paper, Constitutional Contraction: Religion and the Roberts Court. Here’s the abstract:

This essay argues that the most salient feature to emerge in the first decade of the Roberts Court’s law and religion jurisprudence is the contraction of the constitutional law of religious freedom. It illustrates that contraction in three ways. 

First, contraction of judicial review. Only once has the Roberts Court exercised the power of judicial review to strike down federal, state, or local legislation, policies, or practices on the ground that they violate the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses. In this constitutional context the Court has been nearly uniformly deferential to government laws and policies. That distinguishes it from its two predecessors—the Rehnquist and Burger Courts—both of which exercised judicial review more regularly. 

Second, contraction in the range of voting patterns. The votes of the Justices in law and religion cases overwhelmingly are either unanimous or split 5-4, with relatively few separate dissents or concurrences expressing distinctive approaches, and with the split correlating with partisan political or ideological divisions. The “liberal” and “conservative” wings vote in bloc, and frequently reason in bloc as well. This again contrasts with the voting patterns of prior Courts in religious freedom cases.

Third, contraction in coverage. As a substantive matter, the Court is narrowing the religion clauses. Every member of the Court seems now to accept that Employment Division v. Smith properly interpreted the Free Exercise Clause. Matters are more complicated for the Establishment Clause, where there is far greater division among the Justices. Nevertheless, the essay claims that the Court is moving in a variety of ways toward a narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause as well.

Whether the Roberts Court’s contraction of the religion clauses, and its general preference for narrow readings of both, are positive developments will depend on one’s views about fundamental questions of constitutional interpretation. Yet there is a conceptual unity to the Court’s approach—logical and complementary, even if not inevitable: just as the Rehnquist Court narrowed the scope of constitutional protection for free exercise, so, too, is the Roberts Court narrowing the scope of constitutional prohibition under the Establishment Clause. In this corner of constitutional law, the Court is gradually withdrawing from the scene.

Comments are welcome!

Weisberg, “In Praise of Intransigence”

This past June, Oxford University Press released “In Praise of Intransigence: The Perils of Flexibility” by Richard Weisberg (Cardozo School of Law).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Praise of IntransigenceFlexibility is usually seen as a virtue in today’s world. Even the dictionary seems to dislike those who stick too hard to their own positions. The thesaurus links “intransigence” to a whole host of words signifying a distaste for loyalty to fixed positions: intractable, stubborn, Pharisaic, close-minded, and stiff-necked, to name a few.

In this short and provocative book, constitutional law professor Richard H. Weisberg asks us to reexamine our collective cultural bias toward flexibility, open-mindedness, and compromise. He argues that flexibility has not fared well over the course of history. Indeed, emergencies both real and imagined have led people to betray their soundest traditions.

Weisberg explores the rise of flexibility, which he traces not only to the Enlightenment but further back to early Christian reinterpretation of Jewish sacred texts. He illustrates his argument with historical examples from Vichy France and the occupation of the British Channel Islands during World War II as well as post-9/11 betrayals of sound American traditions against torture, eavesdropping, unlimited detention, and drone killings.

Despite the damage wrought by Western society’s incautious embrace of flexibility over the past two millennia, Weisberg does not make the case for unthinking rigidity. Rather, he argues that a willingness to embrace intransigence allows us to recognize that we have beliefs worth holding on to — without compromise.

Second Circuit Holds that National Motto, “In God We Trust,” on the Currency is Constitutional

In a decision last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined four other circuits (the D.C. Circuit, the Tenth Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit) in upholding the constitutionality of two federal statutes that require that the national motto, “In God We Trust,” be placed on all coinage and paper currency. The court affirmed the dismissal of the complaint by the district court (Baer, J.).

The panel noted that there was some dispute and confusion about the proper Establishment Clause standard to apply in the case. It settled on the Lemon test, which is the “prevailing test in this circuit.” How odd that there is a “prevailing test” in a circuit that may well have been rejected by a current majority of the Supreme Court. And yet while the Second Circuit applied a test whose viability is in question, it also deferred to repeated Supreme Court dicta on the issue, indicating that the motto and its inclusion on the currency is a reference to our religious heritage and therefore satisfies the “secular purpose” and “primary secular effect” prongs of Lemon. The court then saw fit to rely on statements in several dissenting Supreme Court opinions. Even Justice Stevens in his Van Orden v. Perry dissent believed that “In God We Trust” was ok as “an appendage to a common article of commerce” (not quite sure what that means). And Justice Brennan once stated in dissent that “In God We Trust” did not violate the Constitution because the words have lost “any significant religious content” through “rote repetition.” That, too, was claimed by the panel to be persuasive.

The plaintiffs also brought free exercise and RFRA claims. These were rejected as well.

Bloomberg Law Interview About Town of Greece and Elmbrook School District

I was interviewed today on Bloomberg Law about the petition in the Elmbrook School District decision out of the Seventh Circuit and the possible effect of the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece. You can download the podcast here. My segment starts at about the 7.30 minute mark.