Tag Archives: Endorsement Test

CLR Podcast on Town of Greece v. Galloway

Mark and I have recorded a podcast discussing Town of Greece v. Galloway, the legislative prayer case just argued at the Supreme Court, in the Center’s first in a planned series of podcasts on law and religion cases and issues.

We tried to be fairly complete in our discussion of the case, and I think this podcast is particularly useful for students and others interested in an introduction to the issue of legislative prayer and in some fairly detailed analysis of and commentary about the oral argument.

The Downward Spiral of Legal Insult

Here’s a story about the banning of Halloween festivities in some public school districts in Pennsylvania. Many of the reasons are unremarkable–worries about security and the secreting of weapons under costumes, concerns about taking away from regular classroom instruction.

But at least some of the reasons stem from conceivable First Amendment violations. And these reasons relate directly to the issue of Halloween’s putative offensiveness to Christians. “Right now,” said Professor Charles Haynes, “school officials should be sensitive that for many people witches, ghosts, and demons have religious connotations, however much they may be sanitized in culture.”

The argument appears to track the sort of constitutionalized insult claim that I discussed and criticized in this post. There, I asked the question of who, precisely, could possibly be offended, or confused, by the state’s lighthearted celebration of a silly occasion like Halloween for the sake of schoolchildren. It might seem from this story, and from Professor Haynes’s comments, that, in fact, there are many people who take deep offense at Halloween as a “religious” celebration that is insulting to Christians.

But a close reading of the story reveals that it is not confusion or insult at Halloween per se that is driving at least some such complaints. It’s rather the memory of the government’s perceived marginalization of Christmas on prior occasions–again, ostensibly to adhere to the Supreme Court’s heckler’s veto jurisprudence of offensiveness in this area–that has inflamed a sense of hurt and offense. As Haynes puts it: “If you can’t have Jesus in December, why can we have witches in October?” (emphasis mine) Haynes says that he “understands that claim.” I understand it too but that claim has nothing to do with Halloween itself. That assertion of hurt feelings suggests that it isn’t anything about Halloween or ghosts or dress-up or whatever that is confusing or hurtful for religious reasons. Celebrations of Halloween have been occurring in schools for decades now, and it would be odd to see a sudden “backlash” against Halloween on these grounds.

Rather, it is the perceived marginalization of Christmas by the school district–and the offense and hurt feeling that that has caused–which now bubbles up and finds expression in complaints about Halloween as a “religious” occasion. An occasion that previously was only slightly offensive, or not offensive at all, has become much more offensive in light of the culture of offense that itself is felt to have down-graded holidays like Christmas.

So goes the logic of insult–responsive as it is to tit-for-tat hurts and slights. It would be unfair and probably incorrect to say that the Supreme Court is primarily responsible for cementing a culture of insult in law. But by adopting a jurisprudence of offense in this area, it has set itself up for an untenable downward spiral of legal insult, as more and more occasions, activities, and educational traditions become the object of legal claims of unfairness, inequality, or offensiveness.

On the Insulting Claim that Religious Displays are Insulting

Hurt feelings are unreliable bases for constitutional law. People are insulted by all Charles_I_Insulted_by_Cromwell's_Soldierssorts of things, their feelings of insult can change at breathtaking speed, and it is difficult to explain what ought to count as a constitutionally cognizable insult, and what ought not to, and why. And there is no area of constitutional law that is more dependent on judicial investigation and perception of insult or hurt feelings than the Establishment Clause–particularly the standard used to evaluate the constitutionality of religious displays by the government. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the endorsement test, which demands that judges inquire after the degree to which a display might make someone feel like an outsider, or not fully part of the political community. That is a standard that depends on both judicial perception of insult and comparative valuations of insult (not all insults count).

My aim in this post is not to talk about that category of hurt feeling or insult, but about a related but less prominent argument about insults that one sometimes hears in connection with state-sponsored religious displays. It is the argument that for a religious person, when the government displays a religious symbol, it thereby robs or despoils the symbol of its sacredness. And when government then describes the nature and value of the symbol in non-religious terms (in cultural terms, for example, or in historical terms, or in secular terms), that constitutes an insult to religious people. So, for example, the constitutional category of “ceremonial deism” that is used to describe the phrase “In God We Trust” on money, or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is said to be deeply offensive to religious believers. Similarly, the description of the crucifix by Italian judges in the Lautsi v. Italy litigation as a symbol of national historical importance is said to cause hurt feelings among Catholics. By describing (or perhaps defining) a symbol in cultural or historical terms, the government thereby appropriates and degrades the symbol in the eyes of religious believers–and it’s “their” symbol, after all–draining it of religious content. One can see strong traces of the claim and the sense of indignation and insult in Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry: “Telling either nonbelievers or believers that the words ‘under God’ have no meaning contradicts what they know to be true. Moreover, repetition does not deprive religious words or symbols of their traditional meaning. Words like ‘God’ are not vulgarities for which the shock value diminishes with each successive utterance.” This argument from insult certainly is understandable and it resonates with many people, including some of my friends.

But not with me, I’m afraid. If anything, I find the argument itself insulting. The argument assumes that religious people are so thick-headed, or so culturally illiterate, or so confused about the nature of their faith and its symbols’ meanings, or so hyper-attentive to the government’s activities, or so insular, parochial, and unsophisticated, that they cannot understand the difference among (a) a cross that is displayed in a church; (b) a cross that is displayed at a cemetery; and (c) a cross that is displayed as a Halloween joke. Who doesn’t understand those differences, and the differences in meaning that they convey? Who is confused? And is not the imputation of confusion, hurt feelings, and cultural simple-mindedness itself offensive? Those poor hayseed religious believers, bearing the psychological cross of their egg-shell sensitivities about their symbols! To argue that any act of the state–least of all its display of a cross at a war memorial or some statement about God on money or in a secular national pledge–could adulterate what a religious symbol like the cross means to Christians is to make a very unflattering claim about the strength with which those Christians believe, about the quality of their intellectual awareness and cultural acumen, and about just how little it takes to shake them up and distress them.

The argument also assumes that a government’s decisions about a symbol really command, and ought to command, the attention of the religious. But what difference should it make that government “degrades” a symbol like the cross? Does the government have the power to degrade the Christian meaning of the cross? Do we look to the government to define the Christian meaning of the cross? That meaning is not the government’s to define! To fret about state-sponsored religious degradation is implicitly to acknowledge the state’s authority in an area where it has none. That the government (or anyone else, for that matter) may use a symbol for secular purposes of its own should do nothing to trivialize the Christian meaning, or to destabilize religious commitment or religious understanding, unless the suggestion is that the religious commitment runs no deeper than attachment to the symbol’s secular meanings. Brand dilution may work for trademark law, where all symbols operate and compete at the level of the profane market, but it has little place here.

But as I say, it is difficult to tell someone not to feel hurt or insulted. I can certainly understand the sense of insult at a perceived usurpation of a religious symbol, but it is not a feeling I share at all when the Supreme Court trots out such  coarse euphemisms as “ceremonial deism” to justify and explain the sorts of secular uses of religious symbols and religious language that date back at least to the late Roman empire. For myself, I am more offended by what the arguments from insult imply about religious believers’ savvy and understanding of the world, as well as of their own beliefs.

All of that, I suppose, is to return to the beginning, and to repeat my view that feelings of insult and offense are unsound grounds for constitutional law.

[Image: Delaroche's "Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers"]

Devil’s Cross

I was rereading the Supreme Court’s opinion in Salazar v. Buono, the case concerning a cross erected in the Mojave Desert in 1934 by a group of veterans in order to commemorate American soldiers who died in World War I. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens took his usual rigid view in any case dealing with display of symbols: the cross “necessarily” conveys an “inescapably sectarian message….Making a plain, unadorned cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian.” Justice Stevens also cited approvingly the district court judge’s view that the cross is “exclusively a Christian symbol.”

The more I read these lines, the more implausible I find them and the view of symbols that they represent. Perhaps another way to put my skepticism is that any observer who believed this about a symbol like the cross would be unreasonable–the sort of person who could not effectively administer a “reasonable observer” standard in Establishment Clause cases of this kind. The implausibility of the view is conceptual but it also is empirical. Though I recognize that anecdotes are not data, still, personal experience is worth something. The “holiday” of Halloween was for children when I was a child, but it seems to have become a kind of modern-day equivalent of Venetian Carnevale circa 1760. No matter; this year, I am grateful to Halloween for offering a useful challenge to claims about what the symbol of the cross must mean, in all times and places, for all people.

My neighborhood is child-saturated, and as a result Halloween is widely and noisily celebrated. Part of the celebration involves the display of putatively spooky lawn decorations of motley sorts, among the most popular of which is the “creepy gravesite” ensemble. It used to be that round headstones were the convention. But now one increasingly sees in such arrangements the presence of a cross. Here’s a fairly typical setup:

Devil's CrossProbably my surreptitiously taken picture does not do justice to the mise en scène. But what it displays is a simple black Latin cross with the words RIP at the base. You can see that the cross is surrounded by other Halloween acoutrements–a skeleton in the ground, gravestones, spiderwebs. All around these sit related objects–werewolves and other hairy and unsavory creatures, a plastic witch, ghosts dangling from trees with flashing red eyes, and so on. This sort of decorative landscape is extremely common. The presence of a cross in it is less so, but just in my own neighborhood, I counted 4 displays that contained a cross of some sort.

Suppose that a municipality chose to display something like this on town hall grounds at Halloween. What would it be communicating? What does a cross mean in a display like this? Its meaning is complicated because it is situated in several contexts. It sits first within a mock cemetery but the point of the display is not remotely either commemorative (as in a memorial for the dead) or Christian. The point of the display is to celebrate, in a lighthearted, cute, and possibly mischievous way, all that Halloween has come to represent as an occasion for kids: the occult, mild wickedness, spookiness, and so on. It would make a dour schoolmarm of Christianity to say that displays like this are anti-Christian. Of course they are not. But it would verge on sheer absurdity to claim that a cross in this sort of context conveyed “an inescapably sectarian message,” or that what would otherwise be a tribute to spooky kid fun just must be transformed into a celebration of Christ by the inclusion of a cross.

It is true that even in this context, the meaning of the cross is to some extent connected to the original Christian meaning. It is so connected in this weak way: had there been no prior Christian meaning, there could have been no subsequent tradition in which crosses have come to convey a commemorative message, and therefore no cultural context within which a cross could come to find its way into a Halloween cemetery display. But noting that atavic genealogical connection is very different than assigning this particular cross–or others like it–an indelibly Christian meaning today.

It might be argued that the meaning associated with the Halloween cross only arose because people are ignorant of the Christian, soteriological meaning. That seems uncharitable to me, but also mistaken. What is more probable is that meanings intertwine, and that it becomes difficult over time to disaggregate the religious meaning from other fair, culturally specific interpretations. As I write in The Tragedy of Religious Freedom about the Mojave Desert Cross:

Just as it is impossible to distinguish precisely where the religious ends and the artistic begins in a Bach oratorio, a Giotto fresco, or a Dantean canto, so, too, is it fruitless to attempt to tweeze away the Buono cross’s civic submeanings from an antecedent religious meaning. But the fact that it is unprofitable to perform this exercise in segregation, and in quantifying the importance of this or that meaning, does not mean that permitting these various submeanings to exist is equivalent to condoning state sponsorship of religious belief. Religious and cultural meanings may and do interpenetrate across time. And meanings that emerge from that interpenetration are not ipso facto constitutionally impermissible, but invitations to historically and contextually graduated judgment.

Haupt on Active Symbols

Our friend and former Center for Law and Religion Forum guest Claudia Haupt (Columbia) has posted her paper, “Active Symbols,” forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review. The abstract follows.

Visual representations of religious symbols continue to puzzle judges. Lacking empirical data on how images communicate, courts routinely dismiss visual religious symbols as “passive”. This Article challenges the notion that symbols are passive, introducing insights from cognitive neuroscience research to Establishment Clause theory and doctrine. It argues that visual symbolic messages can be at least as active as textual messages. Therefore, religious messages should be assessed in a medium-neutral manner in terms of their communicative impact, that is, irrespective of their textual or visual form.

Providing a new conceptual framework for assessing religious symbolic messages, this Article reconceptualizes coercion and endorsement—the dominant competing approaches to symbolic messages in Establishment Clause theory—as matters of degree on a spectrum of communicative impact. This focus on communicative impact reconciles the approaches to symbolic speech in the Free Speech and Establishment Clause contexts and allows Establishment Clause theory to more accurately account for underlying normative concerns.

Garnett on the Legislative Prayer Case

My friend Rick Garnett has an extremely sensible post about the legislative prayer case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which will be heard this term by the Supreme Court. A bit from Rick’s analysis:

[J]udges evaluate, and sometimes disallow, policies that majorities considered, argued about, and embraced.  Because, again, majority rule is the usual way we go about political decisionmaking, this evaluation and – especially! – disallowing is a big deal, and it’s important that the work of judicial review be done right.  Whether or not it is depends, I suggest, on (at least) three related variables:  First, identifying, as correctly as possible, the judicially enforceable meaning of the constitutional text in question; secondthe prudent design and development of workable doctrines that courts can use to decide real-world cases; and third, affording the appropriate deference, if any, to those actors whose decisions are being reviewed and who, presumably, decided that those decisions were constitutionally sound . . . .

[T]he Court can aspire to do well with respect to…doctrine and deference.  The court of appeals, its opinion states, saw “no test-related substitute for the exercise of legal judgment” and it characterized the case as a “fact-intensive” one “which def[ies] exact legal formulas[.]”  In the end, though, it couched its decision in “endorsement test” terms, and reported that “several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials,” supported the conclusion that “the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.”  But neither throwing aside doctrines and tests in favor of “legal judgment” nor engaging in unstructured speculation, however “contextual,” regarding imagined reactions, impressions, and beliefs that “can give only limited guidance to municipalities that wish to maintain a legislative prayer practice” is a sensible or appropriately deferential way for a reviewing court to play its role.  A relatively clear, historically rooted standard, the tool employed in the Marsh case, works better, and is the more consistent justification for judicial review.

Of course, not all permissible practices are best practices or even good ideas.  Even if the court of appeals reached the wrong conclusion, in an unsatisfying way, about what the Constitution allows, its suggestion to towns that they “pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer” is sound advice.  Although it is true that many of us – and, in many places, most of us – believe that it is both appropriate and right to seek God’s help with the important business of living together and well in political communities, it is also true that ours is a religiously pluralist society that is becoming more so.  In such a society, as the American Jesuit scholar, John Courtney Murray, wrote, “[men and women] of all religions and of no religions must live together in conditions of justice, peace, and civic friendship.”  The line that separates policies that build up this friendship from those that tear it down is important, even if judicial review is not always the best way to find it.

Rick’s post is part of an on-line symposium at SCOTUSblog discussing various features of the case; the other posts may be found here.

For what it’s worth, I think the most interesting thing about the case does not concern legislative prayer itself, but the fate of the endorsement test, though this is not an issue that the Court would need to reach if it finds itself in a minimalist mood.

More on Yoga in the Public Schools

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (NYT)

Last month, a California state court ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. The program was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the Jois Foundation, a private organization that promotes the form of yoga known as Ashtanga. The court ruled that the Encinitas Union School District had scrubbed religious references from the classes, so that what remained was simply a fitness and stress reduction program for kids. To use the language of the so-called “endorsement test,” the court concluded that a reasonable observer would not believe the school district had impermissibly endorsed a religion–in this case, Hinduism.

This week, the Oxford University Press blog published an interesting interview with Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case. Brown argues convincingly that Ashtanga yoga is in fact deeply religious. “Ashtanga,” she says, “emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will ‘automatically’ lead practitioners to …  ‘become one with God’… ‘whether they want it or not’”:

Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) [a prayer to the sun god] and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

It’s quite possible for people, especially kids, to be influenced by these religious messages, she says:

Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.

Perhaps Brown overstates the difficulty of separating religious and non-religious elements in yoga, I don’t know. After reading her interview, though, the question I have is this. How could anyone not think Ashtanga yoga is religious, and that by sponsoring this class–especially with funding from an organization that promotes Ashtanga’s religious message–the school district has endorsed religion in a manner that current law forbids?

Perhaps, with our deeply Protestant religious culture, Americans simply dismiss the notion that physical practices can be genuinely “religious.” Religion is a matter of mind and spirit, not body; stretching is purely physical, just a nice way to relax. Stretching isn’t prayer, after all. Brown’s point, however–and it is a very important one–is that these practices are a kind of prayer. Ashtanga yoga purports to instill religious feelings and lead one to God, whether one intends it or not. (In fact, Hindus might find the claim that yoga is just a stretching exercise rather insulting). And the school district has students participate in these prayers, not just learn about them from a book. The Supreme Court has said the Constitution forbids even displaying the Ten Commandments inside a public school classroom, lest students feel pressured to read and meditate on them. But this is OK?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Orthodox Christianity has a tradition known as hesychasm, in which hermits discipline themselves to meditate, shut out the world, and experience God inside them. It’s a very difficult mystical practice, not for everyone–though some people like to dabble. Apparently it gives great inner peace. The key element is repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Suppose some enterprising Orthodox Christian foundation adapted these practices, put the Jesus Prayer in an esoteric language, and proffered the package to a public school district as a stress-reduction program for kids. Would anyone think such a program constitutional under present law?

The plaintiffs in the case have indicated they plan to appeal. I hope they do, because this could turn out to be be a very significant case. As Eastern religious practices continue to seep into mainstream culture, situations like this are bound to recur. They may lead to a change in the way Americans understand religion.

California Court Rules School Yoga Program Does Not Violate Constitution

The Crisscross-Applesauce Position (New York Times)

An update on a case I wrote about in May: a California state court has ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, public schools may not endorse any particular religion (or, for that matter, religion generally). In yesterday’s ruling, the San Diego Superior Court reasoned that the Encinitas Union School District has scrubbed religious references from its yoga classes–the Lotus position has been renamed the “Crisscross-Applesauce” pose, for example–so that what remains is merely a fitness and stress-reduction program for kids. The court apparently did not find persuasive the testimony of an Indiana University religious studies professor, Candy Gunther Brown, who argued that yoga, a Hindu practice, is inherently religious. A lawyer for parents who brought the lawsuit against the school district says his clients will likely appeal.

District Court Rules in Favor of Big Mountain Jesus

Image from the Flathead Beacon

An update on a story we’ve been following: Yesterday, a federal district court ruled that the US Forest Service did not violate the Establishment Clause by renewing a permit for “Big Mountain Jesus” (left), a six-foot-tall statue on land the Service leases to a private ski resort in Big Mountain, Montana. The statue has been in place since 1954, when the Knights of Columbus donated it–though this part is a matter of some dispute–as a war memorial. In response to an objection from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the Service decided not to renew the statue’s permit in 2011. This decision led to public outcry–the service received 95,000 comments in less than two months–and the Service reversed itself, whereupon the FFRF sued.

Under current Supreme Court precedent, official display of a religious symbol violates the Establishment Clause if a reasonable observer would think that the government is endorsing a religious message. In yesterday’s opinion, the court ruled that a reasonable observer would not perceive an official endorsement of religion in the case of Big Mountain Jesus. The statue is on land the government leases to a private owner and is maintained by a private organization–facts an inscription on the statue’s base explains. Many observers would be unaware of any governmental involvement at all. Moreover, although a statue of Jesus is obviously a Christian symbol, the secular, even irreverent associations of this particular statue minimize any religious message. At least some people think of the statue as a war memorial. Some people value the statue’s historical significance. And most observers, the court suggested, see the statue as a kind of campy joke: “Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer.”

It’s unfortunate that current doctrine favors the trivialization of a religious symbol as evidence of its constitutionality, but that’s where we are. (Remember the candy canes and reindeer around the creche?) The court also noted that Big Mountain Jesus had been around for about 60 years before anyone had thought to object. This, too, is an important factor under Supreme Court precedent: “longevity demonstrates that ‘few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect.’”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Knights of Columbus and other parties, has a press release about the case here. The FFRF says it will likely appeal.

NYC Council Passes Equal Access Resolution for Churches to School Property

Via Walter Russell Mead, I learn that the New York City Council passed a resolution on Wednesday calling for the granting of equal access to churches and houses of worship to public school property (it calls for new legislation to amend the New York State Education Law in this respect). We have on various occasions discussed the “serpentine path” of litigation in the Bronx Household of Faith case, and it appears from Mead’s report that several Council members who opposed the resolution (as well as schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott) made a public statement citing the concerns of the Board of Education that by granting access, the school might be “appearing to endorse religion.” The Council’s resolution may have been spurred by the events in the Southern District of New York.

I have argued before that it is an intrinsic feature of the endorsement test that it leads to Establishment Clause bloat, in which endorsement is replaced by the “appearance” of endorsement in a kind of infinite regress of subjectivity which enables courts to bloat the Establishment Clause without going to the trouble of ruling that a particular activity actually does violate the Establishment Clause. Here, though, I only want to note that Mead’s view that “the Founders did not intend the First Amendment to deny churches the right to pay money to rent public school properties” is, in my view, correct. The best work on the subject that I know of indicates that as a historical matter, while state use of religious buildings was problematic on Establishment Clause grounds, religious use of public buildings was not. I discuss some of this work in chapter 10 of The Tragedy of Religious Freedom. Of course, depending on one’s views, that is not necessarily conclusive on the question whether the Constitution forbids such use today.