Tag Archives: Constitutional Law

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.

Yesterday’s Decision in Town of Greece

Another Establishment Clause case, another 5-4 decision. Another fact-specific ruling in which Justice Kennedy provided the deciding vote. Another separate opinion by Justice Thomas arguing that it makes no sense to apply the Establishment Clause against the States in the first place. More high-blown rhetoric about What American Means and why the Court’s decision honors our traditions or betrays them. Just another day at the office for the Justices.

It’s possible to see yesterday’s decision in Town of Greece, the legislative prayer case, as just one more, muddy Establishment Clause case that doesn’t settle much of anything. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court doesn’t announce a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, he wrote, “it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that [a] specific practice is permitted.” Legislative prayer has a very long history in America, dating back at least to the Framing. The Town of Greece’s practice of having prayer before the start of  town board meetings fell within that tradition. The Justices adduced several facts to support this: the town had made reasonable efforts to be inclusive, selecting clergy at random from a community guide; prayers took place before the part of the meeting devoted to legislative business; people could come and go as they pleased; there was no indication that the town had deliberately discriminated against minority religions. In a helpful concurrence, Justice Alito pointed out that the difference between the Court’s opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent turned on disagreements about the proper interpretation of one or two facts.

All this is true. We may look back at Town of Greece as a narrow holding without great consequence. Yet something tells me this decision could turn out to be quite significant. Let me make two quick observations about what I see as important themes in the case: the rejection of nonsectarianism and the embrace of localism.

First, the Court stated very clearly that neutrality does not require that legislative prayer be nonsectarian. It is constitutionally permissible, the Court held, for a town to invite only Christian clergy–or just about–to offer prayers, as long as the town does not intentionally discriminate against minority religions and as long as the prayers do not create a pattern of proselytizing or disparagement of other religions.

This suggests an important shift. A major theme (among others) in the Court’s recent public religious display cases–cases involving creches and the like–is that government displays must be nonsectarian. Religious displays that suggest a preference for one religion over another are unconstitutional. In the context of legislative prayer, however, the Court now seems to be moving away from that principle. Of course, the Court may continue to insist on nonsectarianism outside the legislative prayer context; future cases will tell. But the Court’s willingness to allow sectarian religious expression in this case is a development worth watching.

Second, the Court’s opinion gives a great deal of deference to local governments. The town’s employees could have taken additional steps to make sure the clergy they invited were not so overwhelmingly Christian. Instead of relying on a community guide listing places of worship within the town–all of which were Christian–they could have expanded their search to the surrounding area. For example, many Jewish residents of Greece worshiped at synagogues across the town line in Rochester. If the employees had done a little more research, they would have known this, and they could easily have asked the rabbis from those synagogues to participate.

The Court was not willing to require any more from the town, however. In fact, in his concurrence, Justice Alito argued that it wouldn’t be fair to require more, since “the informal, imprecise way in which the town lined up guest chaplains is typical of the way in which things are done in small and medium-sized units of local government.” To require more could dissuade “local officials, puzzled by our often puzzling Establishment Clause jurisprudence and terrified of the legal fees that may result from a lawsuit claiming a constitutional violation,” from allowing legislative prayer at all.

The deference the Court showed the Town of Greece is significant, I believe. Steve Smith has written about the desirability of local solutions in Establishment Clause cases. The Court seems to be endorsing localism in this case. Towns are not required to have legislative prayer, of course. But those many towns that do wish to start their meetings with prayer–even exclusively Christian prayer–will now be able to do so, as long as they show that they made reasonable efforts to be inclusive. And if the only places of worship in town are Christian, then it’s reasonable for the town to have only Christian prayers. That’s the upshot of the Court’s decision.

In my law and religion seminar, I tell students that most of our fights about the Establishment Clause boil down to this: What can a religious minority reasonably require of the majority? Or, put differently, how far must the majority go to accommodate the sensibilities of the minority? Here, the Court seems to be saying, if a town is overwhelmingly Christian, non-Christians cannot legitimately expect that legislative prayers will be anything but overwhelmingly Christian. To insist on something else would be unreasonable. What about those few citizens who do object to the repeated recitation of Christian prayer at town meetings, who feel genuinely offended? What word does the Court have for them? Well, there are other towns.

Center Sponsors Successful Joint Colloquium with Villanova Law School

Here’s an article, from the St. John’s Law School website, on the inaugural session of the Joint Colloquium in Law and Religion, which the Center hosted with Villanova Law School this semester. The Joint Colloquium, which featured leading law and religion scholars, used innovative “virtual classroom” technology to allow students and faculty at both schools to participate simultaneously through a synchronous video link.

2014_joint_colloquium

Joint Colloquium with Michael Walzer

From the article:

Michael Walzer (Institute for Advanced Studies) discussed the ethics of war in classical and contemporary Jewish law. Legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon (University of Pennsylvania) explained how the availability of the corporate form empowered African-American congregations in the early national period. Kristine Kalanges (Notre Dame University School of Law) explored the relationship between Islamic law and contemporary ideas about constitutionalism and human rights. Kent Greenawalt (Columbia Law School) and Donald L. Drakeman (Cambridge University) both presented papers on Originalism. Greenawalt argued that factors other than the original understanding inevitably will and should play an important role in constitutional interpretation. Drakeman offered a methodological middle ground, one that takes account of both original intent and original meaning. Steven D. Smith (University of San Diego School of Law) critiqued the standard account of American religious freedom, and asked whether religious freedom in America today is suffering a decline.

The virtual classroom enriched the discussions by allowing for a fruitful exchange between participants at the two host schools. After the speakers presented their papers, students had the opportunity to ask questions and present their own insights and opinions on the issues.

This was our first experience with virtual classroom technology, and it was highly successful. You can read more about the joint colloquium, and view a photo gallery, here. Thanks to everyone who made it possible, and see you next time!