Tag Archives: Establishment Clause

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.

Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Oral Argument: On the Establishment Clause Claim

It is of course always difficult to predict how the Court will rule on any issue, and this is certainly true in the Hobby Lobby case. From my read of the transcript of the oral argument, the least restrictive means analysis stole the show. There sure was a lot of discussion about the accommodation to religious nonprofits as a less restrictive means than what the administrative agency had decided on for for-profits. Justice Kennedy asked repeatedly about the issue of regulatory, as opposed to legislative, exemptions as a Free Exercise Clause and RFRA problem. See, e.g. 56 (“Now what–what kind of constitutional structure do we have if the Congress can give an agency the power to grant or not grant a religious exemption based on what the agency determined?”).

On another matter, though, there was greater clarity in the argument. The government rejected the specific claim that an exemption in this case would violate the Establishment Clause. Here is the colloquy:

Justice Alito: Well is it your argument that providing the accommodation that’s requested here would violate the Establishment Clause

General Verrilli: It’s not our argument that it would violate the Establishment Clause. But it is our argument that you–in any RFRA case, including this one, you have to consider the impact on third parties, because otherwise, you will be skating on thin constitutional ice.

43. I am not quite sure what this means. But what it seems to mean is that, first, the government takes the position that this exemption, if granted, would not violate the Establishment Clause. And second, it seems to mean that RFRA itself, properly interpreted and applied, incorporates within itself Establishment Clause limits that relate to third party interests. That’s the claim I have made here. It is also the claim that this amicus brief makes. It also reflects the language in Cutter v. Wilkinson. It is a claim about the interpretation of a statute. It is not a claim that the statute violates the Establishment Clause if it violates a particular externally imposed threshold that is not spelled out in the statute itself. Solicitor General Verrilli went on to say that whatever third party interests are contemplated by RFRA are subsumed within the compelling government interest analysis right within RFRA: “[C]ertainly compelling interest analysis certainly does require consideration of the interests of third parties.” 44

Of course, that the government disavows a claim does not mean that the Court can’t go retrieve it on its own. But it was really only Justice Ginsburg who said anything at all about the Establishment Clause, and what she said seems also to be consistent with the point that RFRA (like RLUIPA) incorporates certain Establishment Clause limits. Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Clement how he “would suggest that we think about the position and the rights of the–of the employees[.]” Justice Kennedy then remarked that “the employees are in a position where the government, through its healthcare plans is…allowing the employer to put the employee in a disadvantageous position. The employee may not agree with these religious–religious beliefs of the employer. Does the religious beliefs just trump?” 33

After a response from Mr. Clement, here’s what Justice Ginsburg said:

But, Mr. Clement, you made the analogy to RLUIPA. And the one thing that has not been mentioned up till now is the Establishment Clause. The Court was very clear when it came to RLUIPA, which you said is similar to RFRA, that the accommodation must be measured so it doesn’t override other significant interests. And that was true of Sherbert and that was true of Yoder. The–and the Cutter case, and this Court made it very clear, that the accommodation has to be balanced and you have to take into account other significant interests.

34. Later in the discussion, Justice Kagan referred specifically to the “tangible harm[]” that women will suffer who don’t get the benefit of the statute. But neither Justice Kagan nor Justice Kennedy specifically talked about the Establishment Clause. And the discussion of tangible harms on third parties then turned toward the issue of alternative means of accommodating those interests without burdening the religious objector.

New Paper on the Distance Between Constitutional Theory and Constitutional Judging

Former Forum guest Kevin Walsh and I have a new paper that examines the relationship of and the separation between constitutional theory and constitutional adjudication. The article is called, Judge Posner, Judge Wilkinson, and Judicial Critique of Constitutional Theory. There is a law and religion connection as well, as part of our discussion concerns cases decided by these judges involving perceived official favoritism of Christianity. Comments are most welcome, and I’ll try to have a bit more about the paper in the coming days and weeks. Here’s the abstract.

Judge Richard Posner’s well-known view is that constitutional theory is useless. And Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has lambasted constitutional theory for the way in which its “cosmic” aspirations threaten democratic self-governance. Many other judges hold similar views. And yet both Posner and Wilkinson — in the popular press, in law review articles, and in books — have advocated what appear to be their own theories of how to judge in constitutional cases. Judicial pragmatism for Posner and judicial restraint for Wilkinson seem to be substitutes for originalism, living constitutionalism, political process theory, and so on. But both Posner and Wilkinson also deny that they are offering a theory at all. This is puzzling. How do these judges simultaneously reject constitutional theory yet seemingly replace it with theories of their own?

This Article answers that question — a question that must be answered in order to understand the present-day relationship between constitutional theory and constitutional adjudication. The perspectives of Judge Posner and Judge Wilkinson are particularly valuable because they have not only decided hundreds of constitutional cases but have also written extensively about constitutional theory. Drawing on a close reading of revealing slices of both their extrajudicial writing and their judicial opinions in constitutional cases, this Article makes three contributions. First, it brings to light agreements between Posner and Wilkinson that run far deeper than the heralded differences between them and that stem from their situated understanding of their judicial role. Second, it exposes the limited influence of judicial pragmatism and judicial restraint on these judges’ own constitutional jurisprudence even in those cases where one might expect constitutional theory to exert maximal influence. Third, it explains how judicial pragmatism and judicial restraint are best understood not as constitutional theories but as descriptions of judicial dispositions — character traits that pertain to judicial excellence — that can and should be criticized on their own terms.

Reinsch on RFRA and the Establishment Clause

Richard Reinsch has a post at the Liberty Fund’s Liberty Law blog discussing the claim (made here by a number of church-state scholars) that RFRA exemptions that impose significant burdens on an identifiable class of third parties violate the Establishment Clause. Richard agrees with me that the argument is not persuasive. A bit from his post involving the baseline from which one argues about what constitutes an entitlement, and therefore an establishment:

So if a religious liberty exemption requires cost-shifting in the manner of employees having to purchase—let’s be clear for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the objection is to emergency contraceptives like Plan B, Ella, and also IUDs, and not the pill—their own emergency contraceptives, then we have an impermissible establishment of religion. As Eugene Volokh has argued, were the exemption to be granted the employees of Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood would return to the status quo before the mandate came down and one that many employees of companies exempt from Obamacare for various reasons will stay in. That is, if they want emergency contraceptives, well, then, they’ll pay for them with their salaries.

Constitutional Scholars’ Brief in Hobby Lobby

I was pleased to join this amicus brief filed by several constitutional law scholars in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood litigation (thanks to Nathan Chapman for taking up the pen). The brief argues against the view that the Establishment Clause prohibits an accommodation of the religious claimants. My own views on the matter, reflected in various portions of the brief, are also contained here and here. A post by Kevin Walsh raising an important problem is here. Opposing views may be found here, here, and here. Here is the Introduction and the Summary of the Argument of the amicus brief:

This brief argues that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq. (RFRA), properly applied, complies with the Establishment Clause. The brief responds to the recent proposal by several scholars that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from accommodating “substantial burdens” on religious exercise, as RFRA does, when the accommodation imposes “significant burdens on third parties who do not believe or participate in the accommodated practice.”2 This brief does not address the issues directly before the Court, i.e., whether RFRA protects for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, and whether either of those parties has a valid RFRA claim.3

The scholars’ proposed doctrine is contradicted by precedent, would needlessly require courts to analyze three speculative Religion Clause questions in most religious accommodation cases, and would threaten thousands of statutes that protect religious minorities.

First, precedent strongly supports the constitutionality of statutory religious accommodations, like RFRA, that allow courts to weigh the government’s “compelling” interests against claimant’s interests in religious exercise.

Continue reading

A Column on Legislative Prayer

I have a short column up at Commonweal on Town of Greece v. Galloway (which the Supreme Court is now considering) and the general question of the constitutionality of legislative prayer.

Joint Colloquium on Law and Religion

This semester, the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s and Villanova Law School are teaming up to host the Joint Colloquium in Law and Religion. The course invites leading law and religion scholars to make presentations to an audience of selected students and faculty. The schools will be connected in real time by video link so that students and faculty at both schools can participate in a virtual classroom experience. At St. John’s, the colloquium will be hosted by Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami, the Director and Associate Director of the Center. Vice Dean and Professor Michael Moreland will host at Villanova.

The following speakers have confirmed:

January 27, 2014 (at St. John’s)
Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study
The Ethics of Warfare in the Jewish Tradition

February 10, 2014 (at Villanova)
Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania Law School
The African Supplement: Religion, Race, and Corporate Law in the Early Republic

February 24, 2014 (at St. John’s)
Kent Greenawalt, Columbia Law School
Original Understanding: What is Relevant and How Much Does It Matter?

March 17, 2014 (at St. John’s)
Donald L. Drakeman, Cambridge University
Which Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause is the Right One?

March 31, 2014 (at St. John’s)
Kristine Kalanges, Notre Dame Law School
Transcendence and the Just Order

April 14, 2014 (at Villanova)
Steven D. Smith, University of San Diego Law School
Topic TBD

For more information, or if you would like to attend any of the sessions, please email one of the colloquium’s organizers:

Marc DeGirolami | degirolm@stjohns.edu
Mark Movsesian | movsesim@stjohns.edu
Michael Moreland | moreland@law.villanova.edu

Until My Dying Day, Sir

John McGinnis passes along this delightful old recording of an 18th Century ballad about a pliable priest, The Vicar of Bray. Some of you, particularly readers in the UK, may already know the song. It concerns an Anglican clergyman who manages to survive the shifting religious commitments of the Stuart and Hanoverian dynasties by remaining loyal to one, overarching principle: keeping his job.

Under James II, for example, the vicar is a committed Catholic:

When royal James possessed the Crown, and popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration.
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit, but for the Revolution.

He switches allegiance after the Glorious Revolution, though, to become a Protestant; then an arch, High Church Tory under Queen Anne; then he switches again under George I:

When George in pudding time came o’er, and moderate men looked big, sir 
My principles I changed once more, and I became a Whig, sir
And thus preferment I procured from our new Faith’s Defender,
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender.

 And there he plans to stay—for now:

The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession.
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter.

 No matter what, the refrain declares,

And this is law, that I’ll maintain,
Until my dying day, Sir,
That whatsoever king may reign,
Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.

The vicar of the song was apparently a real person. In a lovely essay, A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, George Orwell wrote of seeing a yew tree he had planted in a Berkshire churchyard–more of this in a bit. Down the centuries, the vicar has been a byword for opportunism and lack of scruple, especially religious scruple. Perhaps the American Framers knew his song, which illustrates well the corruption of established churches. Not that lack of scruple is unique to clergy in established churches. I’ve heard that even professors can act like careerists on occasion.

Now that time has passed, I wonder if we shouldn’t lighten up on the vicar. Aren’t his tergiversations somewhat forgivable? Sure, you can see him as a hypocrite. But on another view, he’s a charming rogue, a man who uses his wits to navigate what he recognizes to be silly, but quite dangerous, quarrels. After all, who today takes seriously the controversies of the Stuarts? Only historians still get most of the song’s references. Wasn’t the vicar wise to avoid strong positions on matters that ultimately counted for little? One might even see him as an ecumenist, someone willing to compromise on doubtful points to maintain harmony in the church.

It’s a stretch to see the vicar as a sympathetic figure, I know. But, as Orwell pointed out, the vicar did inspire a comic song that still entertains after centuries, and he did plant that tree in the Berkshire churchyard, which gave rest to generations of tired souls. Surely those things count for something. Indeed, Orwell reflected,

It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.

It’s winter here in New York just now. Come spring, I’m going to start planting trees.

Berger on Kemalism Here and Abroad

Peter Berger has an interesting column this week, well worth reading in full, about the display of religious symbols by the government and the culture war features of legal disagreement. The legal cases he discusses are not new–the Utah public highway cross case (Davenport v. American Atheists) which the Supreme Court declined to hear and the Lautsi case. Professor Berger might have noted that in declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court left intact the Tenth Circuit’s ruling striking the crosses down as an Establishment Clause violation.

But that’s largely irrelevant, for the insights of the column lie in his comparative cultural analysis:

Why the recent flurry of church/state issues? In America it is part of the politics surrounding the so-called “culture wars”:  The rising influence of conservative Protestants in the Republican party has mobilized liberals against any political role of organized religion—especially since conservative Catholics have been allied with conservative Protestants on most of the issues “south of the navel” (issues, that is, that liberals are personally anxious about). The politics in Europe is different: Conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) is not very significant politically, but the perceived threat of militant Islam has made secularism (such as French laicite) appear as a defense of European values against theocracy.

I think there is also the factor of lawyers looking for business, and then the professional deformation of this group comes into play. Lawyers live, literally and emotionally, on the making of fine distinctions. Thus the distinctions made in American courts, on where a particular instance violates or does not violate the First Amendment, are veritably scholastic (or, if you will, Talmudic). These considerations tend to be sovereignly free of common sense. . . . Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. But I do so for a reason: I am applying the old casuistic method of reductio ad absurdum. 

Let me “reduce” some more: The Kemalist assault on religion in public space is related to an old progressive notion, the abolition of history. It goes back to the Enlightenment and particularly to its political expression in the French Revolution. It was not for nothing that the latter abolished the old calendar and substituted a new one (with months like brumaire and thermidor). That particular exercise did not last long, but the underlying progressive idea persisted: By the very notion of progress, the present is further on the march toward the glorious future than anything in the past. It affected America too: see the motto about the “new order of the ages” emblazoned on the Grand Seal of the United States (and on the dollar bills in your wallet). But in this country these utopian fantasies have often been modified by common sense and by Protestant suspicions about human nature. Be this as it may, the abolition of history continues to be a dream that haunts the progressive imagination . . . .

As I write this, we are on the eve of the Christmas season (the ADL guide would surely prefer just plain “holiday season”). There is the usual orgy of shopping, the favored season for shopkeepers to be merry. Christmas carols blare through the PA systems, jolly Santa Clauses (fully evolved from their saintly ancestor, St. Nicholas) listen to the wishes of small children perched on their knees, everyone smiles with good will. This synthesis of religion and secularity is regularly criticized from opposite sides. The secularists don’t like the religious part. They can’t do much about the shopping malls, but they can surely agitate and litigate against any trace of Christianity in the holiday season insofar as it is acknowledged on government property—maybe crèches can be allowed, but without baby Jesus or any other New Testament characters. If any values are to be celebrated, they are family ties, the happiness of children and general good will. And on the other side are those who want to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, doing away with all the supposedly fake jolliness and commercial exploitation, instead restore the original religious character of this holy-day. I think that both criticisms are misguided. There is nothing fake about the secular cheer of the season, nor about the expressions of general amiability – and there is nothing wrong about the fact that some people are making money out of it. Those who want to focus on the birth of Christ the savior, are free to do so. Let me admit it: I do celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. I also like the secular cheer that is also celebrated. I even like the commercialism—it is a source of happiness for many people, especially children.