Tag Archives: Establishment Clause Bloat

“The Social Equality of Religion or Belief” (Alan Carling, ed.)

I’m pleased to announce that The Social Equality of Religion or Belief, edited by Professor Alan Carling, will be released in SEROBMarch by Palgrave Macmillan and is now available for pre-order. I have a chapter in the book titled, “The Bloating of the Constitution: Equality and the U.S. Establishment Clause,” which, it is probably fair to say, falls on the skeptical side of the book’s contributions. Here are the first few lines of my chapter:

The US Establishment Clause is in disorder. There are currently at least six different approaches to interpreting the ‘establishment’ component of the First Amendment injunction that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (US Constitution, Amendment 1). Tests of church-state separation, non-coercion, secularity, historical practice, non-endorsement and neutrality all have been used by the Supreme Court at one time or another across a broad panoply of cases. Sometimes two or more of these tests have been squeezed together within a single case, with implied reassurances that the result does not really depend upon the test anyway. At levels below the Supreme Court, this sort of doctrinal bricolage is often only prudent self-protective practice by judges compelled by the Court’s opacity to hedge their bets.

I have argued in other work that these doctrinal confusions are in part the result of the Court’s propensity to elevate a single value to master status in evaluating Establishment Clause controversies (DeGirolami 2013). Dependence on equality or neutrality or separationism as the preeminent constitutional touchstone in one case is felt by the Court to be inadequate or incomplete in a second or third; additional tests are thus cobbled together to accommodate what are perceived in subsequent cases to be distinctive circumstances. Single-value theories of the Establishment Clause misconstrue the conflicts at stake by leveling them – compressing them so as to be capable of processing through the filter of the selected value. Call this phenomenon constitutional flattening. One result of constitutional flattening is the multiplication of Establishment Clause theories to remedy the practical deficiencies in any one of them as they are applied case to case.

This Chapter explores a different side effect of monistic approaches to the Establishment Clause: constitutional bloating – the expansion of the scope of the Establishment Clause without the formality of an actual judicial ruling so expanding it. Courts that rely on an abstract value or interest in deciding constitutional controversies bloat the Establishment Clause by trading covertly on its political popularity, conceptual malleability and indeterminacy of meaning. Merely by recurring to or invoking the selected value – always one with vague but deep rhetorical appeal – courts swell the scope of the Establishment Clause without the need explicitly to acknowledge that expansion in their opinions. The problem is not merely that Establishment Clause bloat renders dubious any claims about the predictability of single-value approaches to constitutional adjudication. It is also that judges are thereby licensed to broaden the reach of the Clause by suggestion, allusion, or implication, without openly and clearly stating what they are doing.

The value of equality is by far the most potent and effective instrument of Establishment Clause bloat. This is so for two reasons: first, equality is the overriding legal value of our age – the defining constitutional issue of our time. The rhetorical power of equality is devastating, eliciting in its most ardent adherents something approaching militant zeal. As Steven Smith has put it, “equality is a juggernaut that overwhelms pundits, politicians, and professors, and threatens to flatten individuals or institutions that dare stand up against it” (Smith 2014). Simply to invoke the value of equality in favor of any given outcome is frequently perceived as a self-evident and irrefutable justification for it, one that it would be scandalous to question. Second, equality is multivalent, and equalities of different types may and often do conflict. Equality of opportunity is not equality of outcome; procedural equality of treatment is not the ambitious equality of ‘concern’ or ‘respect’ for every person’s substantive commitments; and though neutrality is a kind of equality, it is not the only kind. Moreover, there may be internal conflicts even within equalities of the same type. The fearsome cultural, legal and political might of equality, coupled with the multiplicity and ambiguity of egalitarian meanings, have united to create a singularly effective tool of Establishment Clause bloat.

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.

Mayor de Blasio Reverses NYC Dept of Education Policy of Exclusion

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has reversed the New York City Department of Education’s policy of exclusion of religious groups that engage in “worship” from the use, on equal terms with other groups, of public school classrooms–a policy that was upheld several times by the Second Circuit as vindicating “interests favored by the Establishment Clause.” The Mayor concluded that “[a] faith-based organization has a right like anyone else” to use the public school space.

More Establishment Clause Bloat from the Second Circuit

As Ms. Wright reports below, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has issued its latest decision in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York. For lots of background on the case, which involves equal access to a limited public forum–public school classrooms–after hours for a religious organization that engages in, among other things, “worship,” just type “Bronx” into the search tool at right, and see this post in particular. The court found for the City, with a dissent by Judge Walker.

Writing for the panel majority, Judge Leval framed the case in these terms:

This appeal raises the question whether the Board of Education of The City of New York (the “Board”), in making the City’s school facilities available outside of school hours for use by outside users and subsidizing such use, may, in furtherance of interests favored by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, refuse to permit the holding of religious worship services.

The trouble ought to be evident already. What exactly are “interests favored by the Establishment Clause”? Are they the same as interests the violation of which would be unconstitutional? Clearly not. If they were such interests, then it would be unconstitutional for the City to permit Bronx Household of Faith to use its facilities. But it isn’t unconstitutional for the City to do so. So what are these “interests”? How is the City acting consistently with “its constitutional duties” here? What “duties”? The City has no “constitutional duties” to exclude this organization.

After resurrecting the hoary distinction between “expression” and “conduct” (never mind that the Free Exercise Clause protects “exercise”), the court continues:

the Hialeah ordinances [in the Lukumi Babalu case] were motivated by the city council’s disapproval of the targeted religious practice. The Board has no such motivation. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Board disapproves of religion or any religion or religious practice, including religious worship services. Its sole reason for excluding religious worship services from its facilities is the concern that by hosting and subsidizing religious worship services, the Board would run a meaningful risk of violating the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse religion. This difference is of crucial importance in determining the reach of Lukumi’s reasoning that a burdensome regulation focused on a religious practice is constitutionally suspect and therefore subject to strict scrutiny. This reasoning makes perfect sense when the regulation’s focus on religion is gratuitous, and all the more so when it is motivated by disapproval of religion (or of a particular religion or religious practice). On the other hand, it makes no sense when the regulation’s focus on religion is motivated by the governmental entity’s reasonable interest in complying with the Establishment Clause….The Establishment Clause prohibits government from engaging in conduct that would constitute an establishment of religion, such as endorsing, or seeming to endorse, a religion. It is only to the extent that governmental conduct affects religion that the restrictive force of the Religion Clauses is operative. Accordingly, rules and policies designed to keep a governmental entity in conformity with its obligations under the Religion Clauses must of necessity focus on religious subject matter.  If the focus is not religious, the Religion Clauses have no application. Such focus on religion is neither an invidious discrimination nor constitutionally suspect. To the contrary, it is inevitable.

(12-13, emphasis added). I see. So a municipality can exclude religious people and organizations from access on equal terms to a limited public forum such as a public school classroom if including them would be not only “endorsing” religion but also “seeming to endorse” religion.

What does it mean to “seem to endorse religion”? I’m reminded of triple inchoate crimes in criminal law, like attempting to attempt to solicit somebody to commit a crime. What government exclusion of religion would be impermissible under a standard that protects an interest in appearing or seeming to favor religion? The court says that it would not be constitutionally impermissible for the government to issue the following rules: “This city shall not adopt any rule or practice that constitutes an improper burden on the free exercise of religion, or that constitutes an establishment of religion.” Or, “No school or teacher shall compel any student to participate in religious exercises, or seek to persuade any student to alter his or her religious beliefs.” I don’t understand the point of these examples. Of course those rules would be permissible. Those rules reflect what the Religion Clauses actually prohibit, not what they “appear” or “seem” to prohibit.

There are other debatable features of the majority opinion, including the extension of Locke v. Davey, which involved state subsidies, to this limited public forum case. More to the point, however, appearance of endorsement is not the standard under the Establishment Clause as misguidedly interpreted by the Supreme Court even since the Allegheny case. But as I have explained before, the endorsement test, with its emphasis on hurt feelings, offenses taken (and given), and the delicacy of personal sensibilities is at least partly to blame for what is an “inevitable” and deeply regrettable bloating of the Establishment Clause.

The Second Circuit’s Establishment Clause Jurisprudence of Desire

The Second Circuit has upheld the decision of a public school to forbid a student from closing a middle school speech with the following: “As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the Lord bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”  The student sued on free speech grounds, and the court concluded that though the restriction was content-based, because the standard in public schools is deferential to the school (“reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns”), and notwithstanding the school’s need to come up with an “overriding” state interest, the school had done so here.

What was that “overriding” state interest “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns”?  It was the school’s “desire to avoid violating the Establishment Clause.”  But this was a student’s own decision, uninfluenced by the school (indeed, opposed by the school).  That did not matter.  So long as the government “desires” to avoid an Establishment Clause violation — whether the “desire” corresponds with what the Establishment Clause actually proscribes or not — that is sufficient to overcome what might otherwise be an actual violation of a constitutional right (irrespective, I take it, of anybody’s desires).  But desires are tricky.  People desire all sorts of things; sometimes those desires are constitutional, sometimes not, but I can’t think of another context in which a constitutional dispute really depends so heavily on the desires of one of the parties, whether or not those desires correspond to actual realities.  But why not be more forthright?  This decision has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause.  It has to do with the school’s desire not to permit the religious language of the student’s speech.  So why is it necessary to bloat the Establishment Clause this way?  But the endorsement test put us on the path of Establishment Clause “desires” and “appearances” long ago.