Tag Archives: Establishment Clause

International Law and Religion Moot Court: Venice 2016

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The Fondazione Marcianum in Venice

The Fondazione Marcianum, a research center in Venice, will hold its second annual international law-and-religion moot court competition this coming March. The competition, which gathers law students from universities around the world, is the only one of its kind: a truly international competition in which students argue a case before panels simulating both the US Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Full disclosure: I took part as a judge in last year’s competition and found it extremely worthwhile. This year, I’ve helped craft the problem and will deliver one of the keynote addresses.

This year’s problem relates to the establishment of religion — to school prayer, specifically. You can download the problem here. I greatly encourage law students to consider competing. It’s a truly unique educational experience. Any questions, please contact the Fondazione here.

Krauthammer on Rescuing Syrian Christians

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Syriac Orthodox Christians in Damascus (Russia Today)

A nice piece by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, on the efforts of Lord George Weidenfeld, a British Jew, to save some Syrian Christians. Weidenfeld was himself rescued by Christians in 1938. A British Protestant group brought him to London from Vienna, thus saving him from the Holocaust. Now, he says, he wishes to repay the favor. It’s a small effort, only 2000 families, but it’s something.

Notably, the US Government has declined to participate in Weidenfeld’s efforts, as they target Christians, as opposed to other religious minorities suffering in Syria. No doubt, this reticence comes from the by now well-known American policy of avoiding the appearance of sectarianism in the Mideast. Maybe some people in the Administration even think there would be some sort of Establishment Clause problem with helping Weidenfeld.

Both these concerns are silly. If the US Government were assisting only Christians in the Mideast, that could be a PR problem–for the US and for the local Christians. But the US is helping many religious minorities. Just last summer, it evacuated besieged Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar. So helping Weidenfeld’s group couldn’t be considered favoritism. Anyway, no matter what the US does, it will be seen in the region as a “Christian” power, however ironic that might seem to us here.

As for the Establishment Clause, I don’t know where to begin. Even if the Clause were to apply to such matters, the fact that the US Government distributes foreign assistance to all sorts of religious minorities in the Mideast, not just Christians, would surely satisfy any reasonable neutrality requirement, even the so-called endorsement test. The endorsement test asks whether government action makes non-adherents feel like political outsiders, second-class citizens. Would non-Christians in America really feel like outsiders because some small portion of US aid goes to help a charity rescuing a couple thousand Christian families from war-torn Syria?

Gribble, “Navy Priest”

The figure of the military chaplain is perhaps not as celebrated today as it once Navy Priestwas; like many traditions, it, too, is challenged by the imperatives of change. Here is an interesting study of a successful chaplain who served both his country and his faith honorably: Catholic University Press’s recently released Navy Priest: The Life of Captain Jake Laboon, SJ, by Richard Gribble, CSC. The publisher’s description follows.

Navy Priest is a compelling biography of the Jesuit priest and Navy chaplain John Francis (Jake) Laboon. Father Jake made a significant contribution to the United States Navy, both as a World War II submarine officer and, most prominently, during a 22-year career as a chaplain. Laboon served as the first chaplain for the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Program, but also served as chaplain at his alma mater the United States Naval Academy, undertook a tour of duty with the US Marines in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Legion of Merit, and later served as Fleet Chaplain of the United States Atlantic Fleet.

Father Jake Laboon was born on April 11, 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The third of nine children, he was raised in a faith-filled family. He attended Catholic schools until his matriculation to the United States Naval Academy in June 1940. A tight end for the USNA football team and an All American in lacrosse, Laboon graduated with his classmates in June 1943. He served with distinction in the Pacific submarine force, winning the Silver Star for gallantry aboard USS Peto (SS 265).

Laboon left the Navy in 1946 and immediately entered formation for the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He was ordained a priest in 1956. Two years later he reentered the Navy as a chaplain, where he stayed until 1980. He then joined the pastoral staff serving at Manresa Retreat Center, in Annapolis, and was for four years the pastor of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Parish in Woodstock, Maryland. In 1995 the destroyer USS Laboon was commissioned in his honor. Loved by all with whom he had contact, Father Jake was a model of Christian fidelity, faith and complete dedication to God and country.

Call for Papers: The Legitimate Scope of Religious Establishment (March 7-9, 2016)

The Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum in Venice has issued a call for papers for a conference, “The Legitimate Scope of Religious Establishment, to take place on March 7-9, 2016:

 How best to deal with the relationship between law and religion is one of the fundamental questions that every liberal democratic country must encounter. Comparative constitutionalism worldwide sees a large spectrum of state and religion models. The American model of separation, for instance, is an exception in liberal-democratic countries, where one can find a variety of ways in which religions get support from the state. In some democracies there is even explicit acknowledgement of one religion as the official religion of the state.

While it is clear that most democracies reject the idea that religion should be privatized, one is still hard pressed to ask: What are the essential features of establishment regimes? Should any limits be set to the establishment of religion? Are there any means of support that should necessarily be ruled out? May a decent state grant preferential treatment to one religion over other religions (or some of them)? If so, on what legitimate basis could this be done, and in what ways?

This workshop will be devoted to a discussion of these questions and other related topics. We are especially focused on papers that address normative questions about establishment of religion from a particular point of view, but comparative papers are welcome too. The keynote speaker will be Prof. Joseph Weiler.

Scholars are invited to submit a 2-3 page abstract (double-spaced) by April 15th, 2015. Abstracts will be evaluated by the organizing committee and decisions made in May 2015. Please direct all abstracts and queries to: gideon.sapir@biu.ac.il or andrea.pin@unipd.it.

Who Speaks on Your License Plate?

The Supreme Court recently granted cert in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. The issues presented in that case are whether specialty license plates are a form of government speech, and whether Texas engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it rejected the SCV’s plate design featuring the Confederate battle flag. In a 2011 article in the Tulane Law Review, I wrote about license plate speech more extensively from a perspective slightly different than that presented in the Walker v. SCV case. My focus was on the question of Establishment Clause responsibility for religious messages on license plates. But the issues raised overlap significantly.

Imagine a state decides to display religious symbols or text on a license plate. South Carolina, for instance, created a specialty plate featuring a stained glass window with a superimposed cross and the words “I Believe.” Efforts to create a plate with a similar design failed in Florida. A federal court ultimately permanently enjoined South Carolina from issuing the plates.

Does a state’s specialty license plate program create a public forum for speech? If religious messages are displayed on the license plates, is the message purely private religious speech, or is it attributable to the state for Establishment Clause purposes?

Continue reading

Subway Ads and Mental Maps

Many thanks to Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami for letting me return with a couple of guest posts.

I’ve been intrigued by some recent posts on this blog and how they confirm my long-held view that the normative decisions we make with respect to the law’s treatment of religion are deeply intermeshed with cognitive choices we make — how we “see” and understand religion.  Religious phenomena don’t fit easily or self-evidently into the mental maps by which we divide the pieces of the secular world.  All we can do is approximate, and those approximations matter.

subway1Let’s begin with Mark’s fascinating and wonderfully observant recent post about an ad for the Marble Collegiate Church that he recently saw in a New York City subway.  The ad itself was unremarkable, touting Marble Collegiate as “Church the way you always hoped it could be.”  (Marble Collegiate itself is more remarkable, founded in 1628 as a Dutch Reformed congregation and serving in the 20th century as Norman Vincent Peale’s pulpit for some 50 years.)  But the ad included a prominent disclaimer form the MTA (the local transit agency) taking up the bottom third of its precious space: “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by Marble Collegiate Church.  The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”  What gives? Continue reading

Disapproving Religion in the NYC Subway

Here’s a post about two advertisements I happened to see while riding the New York City subway this past weekend. The ads reveal much about the subtle disparagement churches and other religious organizations sometimes experience from government agencies in the Big Apple.

subwayTake a look at the photo on the left. It shows an ad for Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. As far as I can tell from its website, Marble is a mainline, Protestant congregation, committed to progressive causes like diversity and same-sex marriage. Marble, the ad proclaims, is “church the way you always hoped it would be.”

Pay particular attention to the bottom of the ad, which contains a disclaimer added by the MTA, the government agency that runs the subway. The disclaimer is in bold type and takes up about 25% of the ad space. It is unsightly, in a different font and format from the rest of the ad, and definitely distracts the reader. It says: “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by Marble Collegiate Church. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”

This is very odd. True, the Supreme Court’s “endorsement test” provides that government may not take actions a reasonable observer could understand, in the circumstances, as an endorsement of religion. (This explains why local governments are so careful about Christmas decorations on public property). The MTA presumably insisted on the disclaimer to make clear to subway riders that, by posting Marble’s ad, it did not endorse the church’s underlying religious message.

But the endorsement test does not require a disclaimer here. No reasonable observer could think the MTA had endorsed Marble’s message by posting its ad. There are ads in subway cars for a variety of businesses and nonprofit organizations. Nobody thinks the MTA vouches for the truth of those ads, or even the good faith of the sponsors. Will cosmetic surgery “change your life?” Will Foursquare “lead you to places you’ll love?” Who knows? But the MTA doesn’t think it necessary to attach disclaimers. No one would expect it to do so.

For example, here’s an ad my brother pointed out to me, for a company boozecalled delivery.com. The ad says the company will deliver beer, wine and liquor on demand, thereby allowing customers to “Booze Wisely.” There’s no MTA disclaimer in this ad. But why not? If reasonable people could think the MTA had endorsed Christianity by posting Marble’s ad, why couldn’t they think the MTA had endorsed drinking by posting delivery.com’s? If anything, the danger of misunderstanding is higher. The delivery.com ad offers a 30% discount to people who include the word “SUBWAY” with their orders. Marble didn’t trade on the name “subway” or offer special treatment for straphangers.

Now, supporters of the MTA’s disclaimer policy might argue there’s no real harm here. The disclaimer merely reminds people of an important constitutional principle, namely, that civil government does not take positions on the truth of religious propositions–like whether Marble really is, as its ad claims, what people would hope from a church. At worst, the disclaimer is a bit unnecessary. What’s the cause for complaint?

It’s this: Requiring church ads–and only church ads–to include disclaimers is a kind of disparagement that places churches at an unfair disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas. The inescapable implication is that there is something uniquely impolite and dangerous about religion–more than doubtful cosmetic treatments, consumer fantasies, and boozing it up at home–and that government must keep its distance. The MTA’s policy doesn’t suggest state neutrality respecting religion, but disapproval. For the record, the endorsement test prohibits that as well.

UPDATE: Perry Dane points me to the MTA policy, which actually extends to ads with “political” and “moral” content as well as “religious.” I’m surprised, because I’ve seen plenty of ads with political and moral messages that don’t carry disclaimers, but maybe the MTA just hasn’t gotten around to labeling everything. Still, the differential impact on religious messages has implications under the endorsement test.

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.

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.