Tag Archives: Establishment Clause

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.

Removing Christmas (and Everything Else) from the School Calendar

Here’s a lesson in how to irritate everybody. Last week, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, voted to remove references to religious holidays from its public school calendar. Starting next year, students will have off for “Winter Break” rather than Christmas, “Spring Break” rather than Easter, and two unnamed holidays rather than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The decision came after a Muslim group requested that schools also close for a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha. Rather than declare Eid a holiday, the board decided to remove religious references altogether.

The board apparently believed that retaining the names of religious holidays is constitutionally problematic. That is not so. Naming school holidays after widely celebrated religious observances does not violate any of Supreme Court’s many Establishment Clause tests, even the so-called endorsement test. Consider Christmas, for example. Closing on December 25 does not endorse the religious meaning of the holiday. It simply acknowledges the fact that most students and staff would stay home. And as everybody, including the state and federal governments, refers to the holiday as Christmas, it’s natural for the school calendar to do the same. In fact, expunging the word “Christmas,” after it has been in the calendar for so long, suggests hostility to the religious meaning of the holiday. Such a suggestion itself creates problems under the endorsement test.

What about the fact that the schools recognize the holidays of some religions, but not others? Doesn’t that suggest hostility for religions the schools ignore? Obviously some Montgomery Country Muslims took it that way, and one must respect their feelings. But there’s a very good administrative reason why Montgomery County schools don’t close on Eid. Only about 1% of the county’s population is Muslim. There are simply not enough Muslim students and staff to justify closing the schools–just as there are not enough Hindus to justify closing schools on Hindu holidays, or Buddhists to justify closing schools on Buddhist holidays. That’s not a reflection of disrespect for those religions, but an acknowledgement of demographic reality. It’s worth noting that the Montgomery County schools excuse absences for Muslims who observe Eid.

I could explain why the other Establishment Clause tests also would allow schools to close for some religious holidays but not others, but there’s no point belaboring things. The Constitution does not require what the board did. But the board’s decision is worse than wrong; it’s pernicious. Striking the names of religious holidays has only served to create religious conflict. Many Christians and Jews have expressed dismay, as has the Muslim organization that requested the Eid holiday in the first place. That organization now worries, not implausibly, that angry parents and students will blame Muslims for the board’s decision. That would be unfair. The organization didn’t ask the board to rename these other holidays; that was entirely the board’s doing. But many people will ignore that fact.

In a pluralistic society like ours, respect is a crucial value. Respect for religious traditions other than one’s own promotes harmony and social peace. But recognizing a religious holiday that many students and staff observe doesn’t express disrespect for other religions, and the board’s decision to rename Christmas–as well as the other holidays–has done nothing to promote religious harmony. The board has created an entirely unnecessary, uncomfortable situation in which everyone feels aggrieved. One could hardly call that progress.

Common Law Constitutionalism: The Meaning of Establishment Circa 1800

In this post, I speculated about the possibility that the meaning of “establishment” might be illuminated by the English experience of the term before the Constitution’s drafting. The idea would be to understand “establishment” not by reference to a fixed meaning traceable to the founding, but instead by reference to a general, but not limitless, range of meanings in use as a matter of the common law experience antedating the Constitution. That range might have a core and a periphery, and while the periphery, it is true, might change over time, any changes would be very gradual and always intimately connected with the historical common law meanings of establishment.

Our Center board member, Don Drakeman, helpfully points me to a different kind of common law evidence–uses of the term establishment in state courts after ratification of the Constitution. He argues that a shift was occurring in the meaning of the term during this period: from a narrow meaning limited to what Thomas Curry has called a meaning “modeled on the Anglican establishment in England,” to a broader meaning covering the issue of general assessments for funding churches. The former meaning would suggest a “sect preference” approach to the issue of establishment, while the latter would not.

In his book, Church, State, and Original Intent (at pages 216-229), Don describes the different post-First Amendment views in Massachusetts and New Hampshire circa 1800 about the meaning of establishment as expressed in three court cases—Avery v. Tyringham (1807), Barnes v. Falmouth (1810), and Muzzy v. Wilkins (1803).

Tyringham concerned Article III of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the preamble of which at that time stated that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and [that] these cannot generally be diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.” Based on that rationale, the Massachusetts Constitution goes on to authorize towns “to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” But Article III also provided that “no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.” The opinion of Justice Theodore Sedgwick (who also served as a member of the First Congress that adopted the Establishment Clause) concluded that in these “strong and energetic” provisions “the religion of Protestant Christianity is established. Liberty of conscience is secured.” (emphasis in original) That interpretation suggests that the sort of explicit public support for Protestant Christianity contemplated by the Massachusetts Constitution does constitute an establishment, even though Massachusetts never had an expressly authorized or designated official church establishment.

In a later Massachusetts case, Barnes v. Falmouth (1810), Justice Theophilus Parsons considered whether the minister of an unincorporated church could share in taxes raised under Article III. Justice Parsons wrote that the case provided an occasion to “consider the motives which induced this people to introduce into the constitution a religious establishment, the nature of the establishment introduced, and the rights and privileges it secured to the people, and to their teachers.” Here is Don’s description of the opinion:

According to Chief Justice Parsons, the rationale for an establishment is based on the fact that “[c]ivil government…availing itself only of its own powers, is extremely defective”; accordingly, “the people of Massachusetts…adopted and patronized a religion, which by its benign and energetic influences, might cooperate with human institutions, to promote and secure the happiness of its citizens.” Fortunately, he writes, “the people were not exposed to the hazard of choosing a false and defective religious system. Christianity had long been promulgated, its pretensions and excellences well known, and its divine authority admitted.” In particular, “This religion, as understood by Protestants, tending, by its effects, to make every man…a better husband, parent, child, neighbor, citizen, and magistrate, was by the people established as a fundamental and essential part of their constitution.” Pointing out that there is “liberty of conscience” for all, “whether Protestant or Catholic, Jew, Mahometan or Pagan, the constitution then provides for the public teaching of the precepts and maxims of the religion of Protestant Christians to all the people.” It is, therefore, “the right and duty of all corporate religious societies, to elect and support a public Protestant teacher of piety, religion, and morality.” Unincorporated churches could not share in taxes raised under Article III, concluded Parsons; otherwise, which teacher to be supported depends “exclusively on the will of a majority of each society incorporated for these purposes.”

221-222. Don argues that Justice Parsons’s description of this arrangement as an “establishment” shows that some Massachusetts jurists believed that the town-by-town assessments for Protestant teachers were themselves believed to be establishments. It is an interesting question whether the assessments themselves, or instead the assessments only as part of the general, if unofficial, privileging of Protestant Christianity as the civic religion, is really what Justices Parsons and Sedgwick are describing as an “establishment.” The latter possibility might narrow the meaning of establishment somewhat: the privileging of Protestant Christianity by all of the means described by these Justices in the Massachusetts Constitution—including the assessment scheme—comes perhaps closer to the meaning of establishment as “official” privileging than does a meaning which considers assessments favoring religion alone as an establishment.

A third piece of evidence can be found right over the border among some Justices in New Hampshire, where, Don writes, “at about the same time, a distinguished jurist who was a member of the Second through the Fifth Federal Congresses made a point of saying that the Granite State’s town-based general assessment tax system for the support of Protestant ministers, which was quite similar to the Massachusetts approach, was clearly not an establishment of religion.” 223

The issue arose in the 1803 case of Muzzy v. Wilkins, where Chief Justice Jeremiah Smith “considered whether a Presbyterian was entitled to an exemption from the town taxes in support of the Congregational church under New Hampshire’s constitution, which empowered the legislature to authorize the towns of the state to make provision for public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.” According to Chief Justice Smith, the assessment system alone did not constitute an establishment: “No one sect is invested with any political power much less with a monopoly of civil privileges and civil offices. All denominations are equally under the protection of the law, are equally the objects of its favor and regard.”

Chief Justice Smith’s is that rare opinion where a judge actually provides a definition of an “establishment”: “A religious establishment is where the State prescribes a formulary of faith and worship for the rule and governance of all the subjects.”

This definition, it is true, is narrower than what can be discerned from the general approach in the two Massachusetts decisions. But New Hampshire’s state constitution at the time did not (so far as I know) contain the sort of language unofficially, but quite explicitly, privileging Protestant Christianity as was the case in Massachusetts. It might be that it was this general privileging (even if unofficial, and to include, in Massachusetts, state assessments) that was thought by both Massachusetts and New Hampshire jurists to constitute “establishment.”

At any rate, it would be worthwhile, as well as interesting, to explore the range of common law meanings of establishment before ratification of the First Amendment as well. As Don says in the book, it would probably be impossible to arrive at a single fixed meaning. But it might well be possible to reach consensus about a general range or spectrum of meanings, with core or uncontested meanings graduating outward toward peripheral or contested ones.

Fallon on Justice Breyer’s Van Orden Concurrence

The latest issue of the Harvard Law Review contains an extensive appreciation of a selection of Justice Breyer’s opinions. I thought to note one essay as particularly well done: Professor Richard Fallon’s discussion of Justice Breyer’s decisive concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry–one of two companion Ten Commandments decisions issued by the Court in 2005. In that concurrence, Justice Breyer decided for a variety of reasons that, he said, defied codification by test or iron rule, that the monument that had stood for many years on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. Here is Professor Fallon (footnotes omitted):

Justice Breyer’s third ground for distinguishing prior cases, and especially McCreary County, seems to me to cut to the heart of the dilemma that the Supreme Court confronted. Even if the Texas monument’s long history did not dilute its religious message, that history served as a reminder that the Establishment Clause — read against the background of history — cannot, as Justice Breyer put it, “compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious.” From the beginning, religion has been woven in various ways into American public life. Recognition of this heritage does not, of course, point directly to the correct ruling in Van Orden. It does, however, help to identify the tension that Van Orden required the Court to resolve, or at least manage. Although the Supreme Court has frequently articulated a demand that the government must be neutral in matters of religion, neither that demand, nor what Justice Breyer referred to as the “Court’s other tests,” can “readily explain the Establishment Clause’s tolerance, for example, of the prayers that open legislative meetings; certain references to, and invocations of, the Deity in the public words of public officials; the public references to God on coins, decrees, and buildings; or the attention paid to the religious objectives of certain holidays, including Thanksgiving.”

Without purporting to offer a comprehensive resolution to the tension that the Court’s cases exhibit, Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence suggests a narrow prescription that embodies pragmatic good sense. Although modern governments may not initiate novel forms of support for religious institutions and beliefs, the Establishment Clause should not be read to mandate the chiseling out — which in some cases might be quite literal — of all religious symbols and practices that have long formed part of the architecture of American public life, American public buildings, and American public monuments. To read the Clause so stringently would provoke anger at and resentment of the Supreme Court’s perceived hostility to religion far disproportionate to any good that this approach would achieve….

There is more, and it’s well-worth reading. I, too, admire Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence, but while my reasons are similar to Professor Fallon’s, they are not identical. Perhaps the primary point of divergence in our perspectives is that my defense of historical settlements and practices as a guide to interpreting the meaning of the religion clauses does not depend either on judges’ pragmatic calculations about the comparative social divisiveness of ruling this way or that, or on an overarching or master commitment to religious neutrality, but instead on the intrinsic worth of long-standing historical settlements and customs (doctrinal and social) as a method of conciliating the conflicts that attend these controversies:

The past lies in us and is constitutive of who we are, and though history may be epistemically uncertain, logical certitude is hardly the point of a theory of religious liberty. This point serves as the connection to social history. If the doctrinal negotiations of the past are worthy, though imperfect, counselors for the predicaments of the present–if they are that which we know, and their memory is that which we have–then the objects of those negotiations deserve our attention as well. Political communities are not a-temporal or static associations. They are trans-generational enterprises that depend on the transmission of political and social histories….

The past, in sum, is a beacon. It is a consolation, sometimes effective, other times not, against the ravages of conflict, incommensurability, sacrifice, and tragic loss.

The Tragedy of Religious Freedom 123, 144.

Winer & Crimm, “God, Schools, and Government Funding: First Amendment Conundrums”

In January, Ashgate Publishing will release “God, Schools, and Government Funding: First Amendment Conundrums” by Laurence H. Winer, (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University) and Nina J. Crimm (St. John’s University School of Law). The publisher’s description follows:

In recent years, a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, over vigorous dissents, has developed circumventions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that allow state legislatures unabashedly to use public tax dollars increasingly to aid private elementary and secondary education. This expansive and innovative legislation provides considerable governmental funds to support parochial schools and other religiously-affiliated education providers. That political response to the perceived declining quality of traditional public schools and the vigorous school choice movement for alternative educational opportunities provokes passionate constitutional controversy. Yet, the Court’s recent decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn inappropriately denies taxpayers recourse to challenge these proliferating tax funding schemes in federal courts. Professors Winer and Crimm clearly elucidate the complex and controversial policy, legal, and constitutional issues involved in using tax expenditures – mechanisms such as exclusions, deductions, and credits that economically function as government subsidies – to finance private, religious schooling. The authors argue that legislatures must take great care in structuring such programs and set forth various proposals to ameliorate the highly troubling dissention and divisiveness generated by state aid for religious education.

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.

Conference at EUI (Florence) on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States

I am delighted to be participating this Wednesday in a conference at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, on The Roberts Court and the Protection of Religious Freedom in the United States, organized by Center friends Olivier Roy and Pasquale Annicchino. Regretfully, my intervention will be virtual rather than in person. Here’s the description of the conference (in Italian) and the program:


John Glover Roberts Jr. è stato nominato Chief Justice della Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti il 22 settembre 2005, nomina confermata una settimana dopo dal Senato con 78 voti favorevoli e 22 contrari. In questi 9 anni si sono succedute numerose decisioni di assoluto rilievo del massimo organo giurisdizionale statunitense. Tra queste alcune hanno portato a definitivo compimento una nuova interpretazione ed una differente applicazione delle due clausole del primo emendamento costituzionale che si occupano di libertà religiosa: la Free Exercise Clause e la Establishment Clause. Dopo aver inquadrato nel contesto storico e politico la presidenza Roberts, questo workshop intende esaminare le principali pronunce della Corte Suprema sulla libertà religiosa.

Ogni relatore sarà chiamato a commentare una pronuncia e, mediante un approccio di “law in context” a darne una interpretazione nell’ambito del più ampio sviluppo della giurisprudenza della Corte.

L’obiettivo è quello di realizzare un volume collettivo (in italiano) che possa offrire agli studiosi nuovo materiale di riflessione e studio su un argomento che tocca gli interessi scientifici sia dei costituzionalisti che dei cultori delle materie ecclesiasticistiche.

Funded by European Research Council 7th Framework Programme


12.00-12.05 Introduzione

12.05-13.00 La Corte Roberts e la tutela della libertà religiosa 

Fred Gedicks | BYU, USA

Marc De Girolami | St John’s University, USA (intervento via Skype)

13.00-14.00 Pranzo di lavoro 

14.00-15.30 Discussione casi – I sessione 

Valentina Fiorillo | Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Italia

Adelaide Madera | Università di Messina, Italia

Pasquale Annicchino | EUI, Italia

Discussione generale

15.30-15.45 Pausa caffé 

15.45-17.00 Discussione casi –II sessione 

Marco Ventura | KU Leuven, Belgio

Susanna Mancini | Università di Bologna, Italia

Diletta Tega | Università di Bologna e Corte costituzionale italiana, Italia

Discussione generale

17.00-18.15 Discussione finale

More Questions on the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause Theory

In my last post on the subject, I wondered why there had not been more discussion on the part of advocates of the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause theory (abbreviated for convenience hereafter as SHTEC) regarding the application of that theory to the prison-beard case, Holt v. Hobbs. As Rick Garnett notes, the application of SHTEC theory to both Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs was recently addressed by Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman, and Richard Schragger. I will rapidly pass over the characterizations of the existing doctrine, as Rick discusses some of this and I’ve talked about it before, except to observe that whatever virtues SHTEC theory may have, its status as an “established principle of constitutional law” seems an improbable one. As I have explained before, SHTEC theory represents a major extension of current law. I also read the Hobby Lobby vote breakdown differently. If Justice Kennedy really accepted SHTEC theory, and believed that third-party rights in Hobby Lobby would have been violated by an accommodation for Hobby Lobby, then it is confusing to me that he would have joined the Court’s footnote 37. But he did join it (and of course he also said some very nice things about Justice Ginsburg).

On the application of SHTEC theory to Holt v. Hobbs, and to RLUIPA prison cases generally, I have some additional questions. My principal difficulties are terminological. I am having a hard time understanding what constitutes “significant” or “substantial” harm to “third party interests” and how that standard works in tandem with the RLUIPA standard.

First, the standard of significance seems elusive to me. With a slight tweak of the facts, maybe this becomes clearer. Suppose that the prison had a “No hair on the face or head longer than 1/4 inch” policy. And suppose it had evidence that exactly one person (or two, or five) had hidden a shank or a SIM card in their hair. What is the relationship for SHTEC purposes between frequency of harm and gravity of harm? Are one or two such instances enough to be “significant” because the gravity of the threatened harm is so great? Whatever one may think of the harm to third parties in Hobby Lobby, that harm is less grave than the third party harm I am positing (assuming one can agree that harm to life is graver than harm to access to employer-paid contraception), but of course the number of incidents of harm is greater in Hobby Lobby than in my modified Holt v. Hobbs hypo. SHTEC theory advocates can respond that Holt v. Hobbs didn’t deal with any of that. And so what is really going on is a failure of evidence. That’s fine, but that side-steps the issue. I’m less interested in the particular state of the evidence here than in understanding how SHTEC theory would apply in even a slightly more difficult prison case (surely these would fruitfully multiply after a favorable ruling for the prisoner in Holt v. Hobbs).

Second, I have difficulty with the distinction between third-party harms and government/state harms. Is there such a sharp difference? Or is it in the end all harm of various kinds to the state (that is to say, harms of multiple and varying kinds to the rest of us who are not being accommodated)? It may be some evidence in favor of the latter that there have been no separate SHTEC claims brought in the context of RFRA or RLUIPA actions. Everything has been analyzed pursuant to the statutory standard. Again, that’s because third party harm might be a kind of compelling interest that ultimately constitutes a state interest under RFRA or RLUIPA. Whether it rises to that level will depend on just how severely it burdens third parties (as Caldor put it, those accommodations which “take no account” of third parties are going to be in hot water). But notice what happens if one layers a SHTEC claim on top of the RFRA/RLUIPA compelling interest standard. Now it seems that third party harm claimants are on an equal footing with religious claimants. Religious claimants must allege a substantial burden; third party claimants can then allege a contravening “significant” burden; with the result that the government need not accommodate the religious claimant, and can circumvent its obligations to come forward with a compelling interest, by pointing to the SHTEC theory violation that would result from religious accommodation.

Third, in addition to administrative harms (which were not argued by the state in Holt v. Hobbs), there may be, as I’ve said before, symbolic harms of various kinds at issue (the state didn’t argue these either…but the state did a fabulously poor job of defending this case). Symbolic harms might affect the prison, the inmates, and the rest of us who support, in various ways, the system of criminal justice. As I indicated in my previous post, these are just as much harms to identifiable interests as are financial harms. They might include harms with respect to the equal treatment of prisoners and harms to the state’s interest (that is to say, to our interests, as well as the prisoners’ interests) in imposing discipline and uniformity on prisoners who very much need it. These are true harms. They are part of the purposes and functions of prisons in general. They even implicate certain important functions of punishment, including retributivism and rehabilitation, functions of punishment that Congress itself has recognized as important in the Sentencing Reform Act, among other places. Surely many state legislatures have done something similar in their own penological systems. To my mind, they may indeed be very significant. The egalitarian harms could be resolved in part by leveling up for non-believers, but that leveling up is extremely likely to produce other harms (resentments among those who cannot come up with a reason of “conscience” as well as rising administrative costs as more and more prisoners seek exemptions of various kinds).

Fourth, a final point of puzzlement: why is there no discussion in SHTEC theory of different standards of deference in a case like Holt as opposed to a case like Hobby Lobby. Under existing law, there is no deference at all in the latter (the standard is one of strict scrutiny), while there is great deference to the state in the former. Indeed, one of the primary points of uncertainty in the oral argument in Holt was how to reconcile strict scrutiny with this substantial deference to prison administrators (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger). But I have not seen this difference in the amount of deference accorded to the state discussed by SHTEC theorists (I may well have missed it). Does SHTEC theory incorporate a deferential posture with respect to prisons (and the military, and perhaps certain other institutions)? It certainly could, and it seems to me that such deference would take the form of giving a great deal more latitude to the state (or to third parties) on the issue of what is “substantial” or “significant” harm. Perhaps Arkansas still loses in Holt v. Hobbs. But it shouldn’t take much more at all for it to win.

Holt v. Hobbs and the Third-Party-Harms Establishment Clause Theory

Readers may recall that during the course of the Hobby Lobby litigation, some contraceptives mandate supporters argued that religious accommodations that impose “significant” harms or burdens on third parties constitute violations of the Establishment Clause. In this post, I argued that this view of the reach of the Establishment Clause was not convincing. It was based on a misreading (and substantial extension) of the relevant case law but also on a controversial conceptual view of the permissible scope of religious accommodation that, I claimed, should be rejected.

Virtually all accommodations impose harms or burdens of some kinds on others, though both the nature and the degree of the harms will vary. Some harms are financial, others are symbolic, and still others are to value systems more generally. Some harms are acute and others are mild. Yet it would reflect an impoverished conception indeed of what is valuable in life to claim that only financial costs are real or cognizable harms: it simply isn’t true that the only way in which a person can be harmed or burdened is through the pocketbook. Some financial burdens may be much less harmful than some symbolic harms, and vice versa, depending on factors too numerous to list. Whether money is involved or not, choices to accommodate or not to accommodate are often choices between ways of life that specify totally different virtues, or if they specify the same virtues, weigh them completely differently. In Goldman v. Weinberger, for example, a choice to accommodate Goldman would have been a choice against the set of values that the military was bringing to bear, and there were many of them. Ultimately I disagree with the outcome in Goldman. But the reason is not that the military would not have been harmed at all by accommodating him. In fact, it’s only by ignoring, flattening out, or misdescribing the military’s interests and concerns that we can say that the only issue in the case was accommodating Goldman, and the military was simply being obtuse. Perhaps there are rare situations in which the costs on third parties are so small as to be invisible (O Centro?). But in the main, it is in the nature of these kinds of conflicts that when one side loses, so does its way of life to some greater or lesser degree. The Hobby Lobby majority discussed the third-party-harm theory briefly at footnote 37, where it made the point that if all that was required to invalidate a religious accommodation was that a law conferred a benefit on a third party, and consequently that the deprivation of that benefit would be a burden, then the effect might (depending on what exactly “significant” means) be to destroy RFRA and render many religious accommodations unconstitutional.

Now that Holt v. Hobbs is in the offing (argument is scheduled for today, I believe), I am curious why nobody is making the third-party harm claim. Perhaps it is because the degree of deference ostensibly due to prison authorities in the Arkansas system is so great. Still, I would have thought that for somebody who subscribed to the third-party-harm theory of the Establishment Clause, Holt v. Hobbs would present a far clearer case than Hobby Lobby in which there might be serious, or significant, or at the very least cognizable, or tangible, harms to third parties–and a class of readily or easily identifiable third parties at that. I am writing this in haste (for a much more thorough treatment, see this excellent student note by Taylor Stout, The Cost of Religious Accommodation in Prisons), but I can think of three:

1. Increased risk of prison escape, harm to other inmates, and harm to those who must be in physical contact with the prisoner. This is a particularly vicious prisoner, who has shown himself capable of very violent behavior using a knife. He slashed at a woman’s throat with a knife. And while in prison, he held a knife to another prisoner’s throat as a result of a religious dispute. Though Arkansas prisons do not themselves have experience with prisoners hiding weapons and other contraband in their facial hair (naturally, since they don’t allow beards) other state prison systems do (see page 25 and following of this brief). Again, I recognize that it is perhaps the total deference to prison administrators which makes this particular prison policy specially objectionable. But I would have thought that these sorts of harms—harms to the personal security and safety of other people in physical proximity to the prisoner—are not obviously less “significant” than the harms to third parties in Hobby Lobby.

2. Administrative and financial harm to the prison system. The administration of religious accommodations in a prison system is burdensome. It requires more decision-making, more exercise of discretion, more manpower in the monitoring of the exceptions, and therefore more cost. One can dismiss these costs as de minimis, or unimportant, but that seems to me a cavalier view that can be bought rather cheaply at a great distance (which is where most of us are privileged to live) from the actual operations of prisons.

3. Symbolic harm, including harm to the idea of equality in the treatment of prisoners. A prison’s legitimacy depends in part on treating its prisoners equally and fairly, without privilege or favor. Dissimilarity of treatment can breed resentment on the part of the “disadvantaged” prisoners and on the part of the prison population more broadly. Moreover, prisons have important interests in uniformity of treatment that go not to equality concerns, but instead to interests in order and discipline. Prisons are dangerous places. They are populated with people who have been convicted of crimes. Sometimes, as in the case of this particular prisoner, those crimes are extremely violent. Prisons therefore need systems to regularize and impose discipline on such people. It is at least a symbolic harm—but quite possibly much more than that—to burden the efforts of prisons to cultivate uniformity in the service of prison discipline.

To be clear, I believe that the prisoner should win in this particular case. But the reason is certainly not that the prison is simply being obtuse inasmuch as accommodations of this kind are harmless or nothing at all to it. Yet the absence of the third-party-harms theory of the Establishment Clause in general public debate has puzzled me. Setting aside the issue of the remoteness of the potential harms, the nature of the potential harms relating to accommodation under RLUIPA in a case like this goes to deeply important interests in personal and institutional safety—interests that do not seem categorically less important than those of the third parties at stake in Hobby Lobby.

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.