Tag Archives: Religious Accommodation

Religious Belief and Executive Power: A Thought on Zivotofsky v. Kerry

One prominent theme in Barack Obama’s presidency is that of the escalation of conflict between traditional religious belief and executive power–in particular the executive/administrative powers brought to bear against religious believers and institutions in a variety of contexts. One can agree with this description, of course, while seeing that escalation of conflict as either a favorable or regrettable development. A recent essay by Adam White in The Weekly Standard takes the latter view; more than a few other commenters and scholars take the former.

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry does not obviously concern this issue. It instead involved a separation of powers question: whether a congressional statute permitting a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem to request a designation of his place of birth as “Israel” on his passport unconstitutionally interfered with the Executive’s power to recognize sovereign nations (while Israel has been recognized, the national status of Jerusalem remains unresolved). Ultimately the Court held, inter alia, that the Executive’s power to receive ambassadors gives him the exclusive power of recognition, and that this statute interfered with that power. So in a tussle between Congress and the President, the President won.

And yet this was not simply an inter-branch heavyweight fight. Consider the question of Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s status is not only a matter of geopolitical disagreement, but of deep geo-religious contention. That contention stretches back through the past millennia to innumerable wars and religious controversies. The function of this particular statute is plain: to allow those U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem and who, for religious reasons (that is, reasons that may implicate religious convictions), believe that Jerusalem is properly described as an Israeli city, the right to note that association on their passports. As Justice Scalia notes in his dissent: Zivotofsky’s parents believed “as a matter of conscience” that it was important to note “their son’s birthplace as part of Israel” and that his “Israeli nativity ‘not be erased’ from his identity documents.” In defending Congress’s power to enact the statute (under the Naturalization Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause), Scalia continued: “[Congress may conclude] that regardless of international politics, a passport or birth report should respect its bearer’s conscientious belief that Jerusalem belongs to Israel.”

Whoever has the better of the argument as a matter of constitutional interpretation, one can see in this case another example of the conflict between Executive power and religious conscience: the Obama Administration refused to permit an individual citizen with a religious belief in the importance of listing Israel as the place of birth of his son to do so. It took an aggressive view of Executive power (both as to whether sovereign recognition powers are exclusive to the Executive and as to whether this particular designation of an individual citizen counts as sovereign recognition) in a context in which it was, once again, opposed to traditional religious conscientious belief. A notation by a private U.S. citizen on his passport, motivated by religious belief in the importance of the designation, is thus transformed into a usurpation of Executive power.

Justice Scalia cited Bowen v. Roy (1986), a religious liberty case where parents objected to government use of the Social Security number of their daughter, “Little Bird of Snow,” and to having to supply that number when they applied for benefits. According to the parents’ Native American beliefs, a person needs control over his life for spiritual reasons and use of the number would have “rob[bed] the spirit” of their daughter.” Ultimately the Court had no occasion to balance the government’s interest against a possible religious burden, because it held that the government can use the number for its own internal purposes without impairing anyone’s religious conscience. But a majority of five justices held that the parents should not be required to supply the number, because the government’s asserted interest in combating welfare fraud would not be much compromised if those with religious objections did not have to supply Social Security numbers.

Obviously Justice Scalia is not suggesting that the Zivotofsky parents have a religious freedom claim here. So why the citation to Bowen?

Perhaps for this reason. The argument is not about constitutional compulsion, but about religious (and other sorts of) accommodation. The government is not forced by the Constitution to make an exception for the Zivotofskys. But Congress did–here, and in other contexts (allowing those who wish to specify “Belfast,” rather than “United Kingdom,” to do so on their passports, for example). It grants these exceptions not because it is thereby recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem (as it is not thereby de-recognizing the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over Belfast), and not because the Constitution commands it, but because it understands that for some American citizens, religious and identity-based convictions about Jerusalem’s status are deeply important, and because people care about what the federal government says about them on official documents. The Obama Administration’s position, instead, was that this sort of conscience-based designation trenches on Executive authority. And in staking out that position (and now in vindicating it before the Supreme Court, in a ruling about which I have no comment) the Administration repeated the pattern of conflict with traditional religious belief that it has established in several other controversies and that have characterized its years in power.

Greve on “The Bob Jones Rule”

I was going to post on one particular exchange between Solicitor General Verrilli and Justice Alito in yesterday’s oral argument in the same-sex marriage case, but Professor Michael Greve’s post is a better read than what I can come up with. A bit:

Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

Solicitor General Verrilli: You know, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that.

That answer is about as straightforward and committal as you’ll see from an experienced lawyer. It’s curious because the Solicitor General had excellent reasons to deny the point and to deflect the question. His task was to assuage worries about what the Court is being asked to do here and to script the justices’ forthcoming press release (formally known as “the opinion for the Court”): that’s not what this means. And he had a million ways of making reassuring noises. It’s not some complicated legal case, for Pete’s sake: all Mr. Verrilli needed was to argle-bargle for the remaining five minutes of friendly colloquy about First Amendment values, competing dignities, the arc of history, and the meaning of life. In short, Verrilli made the concession not because he had to; he volunteered it. Why?

Because if the tax exemption jazz becomes “an issue,” it’s decided the minute gay marriage becomes the constitutional baseline. Because everyone knows that. Because the LBGT folks already have those complaints and briefs in their drawers, to be filed (almost “certainly”) on July 1.  And because DoJ and the IRS and OCR, in their last remaining eighteen months in office, are in a hurry to roll over to their constituencies and to hammer the hold-outs, in meticulous observance of the law. A hallmark of this administration. Or maybe they’ll hand out waivers.

I don’t deny that” says “dare me. It’s not going to hurt me in this case, and I’ll plant a flag for the next cases.” Mr. Verrilli could have coasted; instead, he waited for his opening to push further. A heck of a lawyer, at his considerable best.

The (Anticipated) Depth of Progressive Skepticism Toward Religious Freedom

Nate writes: “I think, however, it is also possible that once it becomes clear that priorities on gay marriage and antidiscrimination laws are not threatened that progressive hostility to religious freedom will wane. I don’t know if this is the case, but it seems possible that really there is nothing deeper going on here than gay marriage and antidiscrimination laws.”

I see things a bit differently. But at least part of the difference may be the result of definitional uncertainties. I’m not sure what Nate means to include within the compass of antidiscrimination laws. I’m more certain of the sorts of harms to personal dignity that antidiscrimination scholars do see at the heart of those laws. And I’m even more certain of what Nate rightly describes as the ambitions of Justice Kennedy, especially in the jurisprudence of dignity that has animated his opinions over the last 25 years or so (from substantive due process all the way to state sovereign immunity). As I put it in this essay (footnotes omitted):

The issue of symbolic or “dignitarian” harm is particularly problematic. If perceived affronts or injuries to one’s personal dignity constitute a “significant” or “material” harm to a third party, then it is difficult to see how many permissive religious accommodations could survive. Laws reflect morally and politically charged messages. Whether the subject is education, public health, drugs, sexuality, commerce, prisons, insurance, the environment, or the military, laws embody particular moral convictions and impose, even if tacitly, particular moral views on those subject to them. Religious accommodations are decisions by the government to permit limited dissent from these moral messages. In accommodating religious objectors, the state might be perceived not merely to authorize limited disagreement with the law, but to countenance disrespect for the moral views underlying it or even for the moral dignity of those who are its intended beneficiaries. But if the state comes to have powerful legal interests in remedying symbolic or dignitarian offenses, then that may well render many permissive religious accommodations illegal….

A leading antidiscrimination scholar has likewise noted that the prevention of harms to “dignity” and the stigmatization of discrimination are two of the three “canonical” functions of antidiscrimination laws generally. Religious accommodations, it is said, have the power to “stigmatize and demean” those who disagree with the religious claimant’s dissenting position on these matters, even when such objections are “not stated explicitly.” The feeling of being “judged” by those who raise religious objections to certain conduct, and the indignity of knowing that the state has countenanced that judgment by permitting a religious accommodation, may themselves be independent harms….

The government’s vindication of third-party dignitary harms has the potential to destroy religious accommodation. The core function of religious accommodations, again, is to authorize limited, but sometimes socially powerful and politically controversial, dissent from the law’s moral messages. There is an important difference between dissent from a law’s moral message and the denigration or vilification of the law’s intended beneficiaries. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” is the Christian aphorism sometimes used to express this distinction, but it has proved elusive and generally unpersuasive (or worse) to those whose dignity is felt to be injured by claims for religious accommodations. A government that assumes the power to confer dignity on individuals may also subject itself to legal claims by individuals whose dignity has been harmed as the deprivation of an entitlement. And there is reason to worry that the legal conferral of dignity is expanding, as the Supreme Court increasingly justifies its constitutional jurisprudence based on ever-thickening concepts of human dignity. Lurking just beneath these dignitarian clashes are bottomless mysteries concerning the foundations of human identity—religion or sex? higher duty or worldly satisfaction?—that, one may anxiously hope, neither the Supreme Court nor any other government institution will ever assume the power to resolve.

Perhaps in the end the issue is not so much “progressive skepticism” toward religious freedom as “progressive aspirations” for antidiscrimination law–not the winning back of progressives to the cause of religious liberty (or even to its toleration), but the damage to religious liberty that the ever-expanding scope of antidiscrimination law portends.

Thomas More, Villain

Anton Lesser Thomas More

Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall (BBC)

When it comes to up-market historical fiction, nobody delivers like the Tudors. There’s so much entertainment value in that Renaissance dynasty: royalty; costumes; cool accents; lust and murder; political and religious intrigue; the works—plus enough history to make you feel virtuous for watching. In the 1930s, studios turned out films like The Private Life of Henry VIII and Fire over England, which, for my money, still has the best portrayal of Elizabeth on film, by the great British actress Flora Robson. In the 1960s, there was Anne of the Thousand Days. Forty years ago, PBS broadcast Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. More recently, there was Showtime’s The Tudors. And now on PBS’s Masterpiece there is Wolf Hall, a BBC dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel.

All historical fiction involves anachronism, of course, and depictions of the Tudors often reveal more about contemporary issues than they do about the past. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people). Glenda Jackson’s 1971 portrayal made Elizabeth an icon for the rising feminist movement.

I was able to catch an episode of Wolf Hall on Sunday, and it seems to me the new series likewise reflects our current cultural moment. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about these things, but to me it is impossible to miss the allusions to current debates about rational government and religious belief. The message, for religious liberty, is not a congenial one.

Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.

Now, More was a more complicated figure than widely understood. Even saints have failings. He may have been, as Swift famously wrote, “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” but, as chancellor, he persecuted Protestants and approved burning heretics at the stake. Mantel’s portrayal goes beyond offering a helpful corrective to the conventional wisdom, though. Her More is not deeper or truer to the historical record. He is simply evil, a nasty piece of work—cold, fanatical, and sadistic.

Mantel’s Cromwell, by contrast, is warm, self-effacing, and pragmatic, even wistful—a family man, though with a ruthless edge. As between him and More, he is easily the more reasonable. Religious enthusiasm is not for him; he is far too insightful and levelheaded. He is also more compassionate. When More tells him that torture is for the victim’s own good—the real More forcefully denied that he ever tortured anyone—Cromwell is aghast. Cromwell is far too tender-hearted to believe something like that. He cannot bear to see someone burned at the stake for heresy. More, we gather, would be delighted.

I know nothing about Mantel’s politics. Perhaps her choices in Wolf Hall are purely aesthetic. Maybe she set herself the artistic challenge of portraying Cromwell, one of British history’s great villains, in a favorable light. But I’m guessing she has an agenda. Increasingly, secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy. Only fanatics could object to progressive goals like the Contraception Mandate and same-sex marriage, they believe, and it’s wrong to accommodate such people. Accommodation encourages backward and malevolent attitudes that cause innocent people grave harm.

In its biased portrayal of More, British history’s great example of religious resistance to state orthodoxy, Wolf Hall is sending its audience a message: Don’t think this man was at all admirable. He was a dangerous head case. And, by extension, be careful of his analogues today, who continue to oppose religious fanaticism to tolerance, reason, and progress. Cromwell, and pragmatic people like him who protect us from the forces of reaction, are the real heroes.

It’s a powerful message, and one with increasing influence. Perhaps this explains why PBS is advertising Wolf Hall as “a historical drama for a modern audience.” The fact that this hatchet job on Thomas More appears in an impeccably well-done BBC production—surely the gold standard in upper middle class entertainment—shows how fast our culture is changing, and how much work defenders of religious liberty have before them.

Shiffrin on Progressive Preference for Speech Over Religion

Professor Steve Shiffrin is an enormously thoughtful scholar of the First Amendment. He is a constant and welcome reminder to me that alignment in political views is in the end rather minor indeed in the greater scheme of scholarly affinity and insight. My own work has been very much influenced by Steve’s even as his politics and my own differ in various ways.

Steve has a smart post on the religious accommodation controversy. In it, he picks up a theme that has characterized some of his work on the Speech Clause–that is, its arguably indefensible modern scope. He writes:

Why do liberals value freedom of speech over freedom of religion? Why should the state tolerate hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation (not to mention race)? If permitting some religious individuals the ability to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the purchasing of products and services is a stigmatizing denial of equality, how much more stigmatizing is virulent hate speech? In addition, however difficult it might be for many liberals to muster any empathy for the evangelical Christian who feels a religious obligation not to serve gays or lesbians, the explicitly homophobic hate monger is surely worthy of substantially less respect which is to say – no respect.

Some liberals will say that the hate speech example involves speech, and discrimination is conduct. But speech is conduct, as is defamation, most forms of fraud, and perjury. Other liberals will say that in the area of free speech, we do not take the value of speech into account. This is true much of the time, but there are exceptions (obscenity, fighting words, commercial speech, near obscene speech, and private speech) and there should be more of them (depictions of animal cruelty targeted to sadists or masochists, gruesomely violent video games). Why shouldn’t this be one of the exceptions? Note these are the same liberals who believe that equality on the basis of sexual orientation should be a Constitutional right. In other words, they believe that homophobia like racism should be renounced in our Constitution. Of course, everyone should have a right to question the wisdom of our constitutional rights, even the equal protection clause, but that should not implicate a right to stigmatize and libel citizens on the basis of sexual orientation (or race).

It’s an interesting set of questions. For more on the reasons for the decrease in broad American social investment in religious freedom by comparison with free speech, see Part IV of this paper (and in particular my friendly wager with Professor John Inazu about whether it is, or is not, only a matter of time before the Speech Clause suffers a similar fate).

On the State RFRA Contretemps: Doug Laycock (and Me)

Two little items to report. First, Professor Doug Laycock has a very good piece at the Religion and Politics Blog.

Second, I participated in a Bloomberg Law podcast with Professor Robert Katz on these issues. I thought we had a useful exchange. At the end of the interview, however, Rob was asked a question about the relevance of Hobby Lobby to these matters, to which he responded essentially that the two were disconnected. I didn’t get a chance to jump in (had to leave to teach class!) but I have a different view and thought this quote from Doug’s piece was apt:

For the first time in American history, government had made it unlawful, at least if you were an employer, to practice a well-known teaching of the largest religions in the country. The same-sex marriage debate has the same feature. This attempt to suppress practices of the largest faiths is a new thing in the American experience. And this huge escalation in the level of government regulation of religious practices is of course producing a reaction from religious conservatives, and is part of the reason for the current polarization.

Ironies in Indiana

Some readers have asked me what I think about the Indiana RFRA controversy, as an academic who studies law and religion. To my mind, opponents of the law have succeeded in creating a false sense of crisis about the evil this allegedly unprecedented law would unleash in America. In this, they have been greatly assisted by the media’s framing of the issue and and by the support of corporate titans like Apple and Walmart, which have decided to intervene in the dispute–incidentally proving, as Justice Alito argued in Hobby Lobby, that for-profit corporations sometimes do express goals other than merely making money.

In addition, it seems to me that the controversy contains three very significant ironies, two for the law’s opponents and one for its supporters.

First, notwithstanding opponents’ efforts to portray the Indiana statute as an innovation, the balancing test it establishes is nothing new. The test, which holds that government cannot impose substantial burdens on citizens’ religious exercise without showing a compelling need to do so, and without choosing the least-restrictive means for doing so, was American constitutional law for decades, until the Supreme Court jettisoned it for most purposes in 1990. It is the test embodied in the federal version of RFRA, enacted without opposition more than 20 years ago; in the many state versions of RFRA; and in the constitutional law of many other states. Indeed, according to scholars Cole Durham and Brett Scharffs, the compelling-interest test is the majority rule in the United States today. It’s true that there are a couple of differences in the Indiana law, but those differences are pretty minor, and anyway the debate has not focused on them.

Even more: something like the compelling-interest test is the rule in liberal societies around the world. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, provides that a member state can interfere with citizens’ exercise of religion only where the state shows that the interference is “necessary” to achieve an important interest. Many countries have similar balancing tests, including Canada, Israel, and South Africa. From a global perspective, there is nothing unusual about the Indiana statute.

Second, the Indiana statute leaves ultimate determinations to the courts. It does not, as some of its opponents  misleadingly claim, legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the unlikely event that an Indiana business refused, in violation of any applicable anti-discrimination laws, to serve gay people, and claimed a religious justification for doing so (how many such businesses are there, anyway?), the case would proceed to litigation, in which a court would determine (1) whether requiring a business to serve gay customers is, genuinely,  a substantial burden on its religious exercise; (2) if so, whether the state’s interest in preventing discrimination against gays is compelling; and (3) whether there is some way other than requiring the business to serve gay customers that could advance that interest equally as well. I wouldn’t bet on the business’s chances in such a lawsuit. Given the great success supporters of gay rights have had in American courts in recent years, it is ironic that they would lose faith in the courts now.

And this leads to the third irony, one for the statute’s supporters. Some supporters evidently are confident the Indiana statute would allow a business to refuse, on religious grounds, to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies—caterers and photographers, for example.  (This is not the same thing as refusing generally to serve gays and lesbians, incidentally, and it is not helpful to conflate the two situations). That’s why they are fighting so hard for the law. But it is not at all clear they are correct. Whatever one thinks about the merits of a religious exemption in these circumstances, it is uncertain that a court would actually rule in favor of the business. Maybe the business would prevail in a RFRA lawsuit, maybe not.

On the basis of distortions, mistakes, and uncertain predictions, we seem ready to abandon a foundational principle that exists, not only in American law, but in legal systems across the world. The New York Times refers, without irony, to “so-called religious freedom laws.” On Morning Joe this week, Mika Brzezinski suggested that stopping the Indiana statute would not be enough; it’s time, she hinted, to revisit the federal RFRA itself.  We seem ready, in other words, to take courts out of the business of protecting religious minorities. Does that seem a good idea?

Free Exercise by Moonlight

I have a new article in draft called Free Exercise by Moonlight. It is about the current condition of permissive religious accommodation. It is pervasively lugubrious. Here is the abstract:

How is the current condition of religious free exercise, and religious accommodation in specific, best understood? What is the relationship of the two most important free exercise cases of the past half-century, Employment Division v. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC? This essay explores four possible answers to these questions.

  1. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor are the twin suns of religious accommodation under the Constitution. They are distinctively powerful approaches.
  2. Hosanna-Tabor’s approach to constitutional free exercise is now more powerful than Smith’s. Smith has been eclipsed.
  3. Hosanna-Tabor has shown itself to be feeble. It has been eclipsed by Smith.
  4. Smith augured the waning of religious accommodation, which proceeds apace. Hosanna-Tabor does little to change that.

In describing these possibilities, the essay considers the cases themselves, various doctrinal developments (focusing on subsequent Supreme Court cases as well as lower court decisions interpreting Hosanna-Tabor), and the broader political and social context in which claims for religious accommodation are now received. It concludes that though each possibility has persuasive points (perhaps with the exception of the second), the last is most accurate.

Smith’s approach to free exercise continues to control for constitutional purposes and is, for more general political purposes, more entrenched than ever. Its admonition about fabulously remote threats of anarchy in a world where each “conscience is a law unto itself” has ironically become more apt as a warning against the multiplying number of secular interests argued to be legally cognizable than against religious accommodation run amok. There is no clearer manifestation of these developments than the recent emergence of theories maintaining that new dignitary and other third party harms resulting from religious accommodation ought to defeat religious freedom claims. These theories reflect the swollen ambit of state authority and defend surprising understandings of the limits of religious accommodation—understandings that pose grave threats to the American political tradition of providing generous religious exemptions from general laws. The ministerial exception simply represents the refracted glow of constitutional protection in the gathering gloom. It is free exercise by moonlight.

DeGirolami at University of San Diego Law School Conference on Free Exercise

I’m here in lovely and warm San Diego (Mark went east and I went west) attending this conference organized by Larry Alexander and Steve Smith’s impressive Institute for Law and Religion at the University of San Diego Law School. Here is the conference description:

Hosanna-Tabor and/or Employment Division v. Smith?

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School v. EEOC raised crucial questions. Was the decision reconcilable with the doctrine articulated in Employment Division v. Smith? If so, how? Did Hosanna-Tabor represent a passing anomaly or a major new direction in the constitutional jurisprudence of religious freedom? Such questions are still very much with us, and they can be addressed both normatively and descriptively and from a variety of standpoints: conventional legal analysis, history, political science, or political theory. This conference will consider such questions and their significance for the future of religious freedom in this country.

And here’s the abstract for my paper, Free Exercise by Moonlight (more on it by and by):

How is the current condition of religious free exercise, and religious accommodation in specific, best understood? What is the relationship of the two most important free exercise cases of the past half-century, Employment Division v. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC? This essay explores four possible answers to these questions.

1. Smith and Hosanna-Tabor are the twin suns of religious accommodation under the Constitution. They are distinctively powerful approaches.
2. Hosanna-Tabor’s approach to constitutional free exercise is now more powerful than Smith’s. Smith has been eclipsed.
3. Hosanna-Tabor has shown itself to be feeble. It has been eclipsed by Smith.
4. Smith augured the waning of religious accommodation, which proceeds apace. Hosanna-Tabor does little to change that.

In describing these possibilities, the essay considers the cases themselves, various doctrinal developments (focusing on subsequent Supreme Court cases as well as lower court decisions interpreting Hosanna-Tabor), and the broader political and social context in which claims for religious accommodation are now received. It concludes that though each possibility has persuasive points (perhaps with the exception of the second), the last is most accurate. Smith’s approach to free exercise continues to control for constitutional purposes and is, for more general political purposes, more entrenched than ever. Its rhetorical hostility to religious accommodation—its admonitions about fabulously remote threats of anarchy in a world where each “conscience is a law unto itself”—has ironically become more apt as a description of the multiplying number of secular interests deemed legally cognizable than of religious accommodation run amok. There is no clearer manifestation of these developments than the recent emergence of theories that expound on the legally cognizable harms—dignitary and otherwise—to third parties that result from religious accommodation. These theories both reflect the enlarged ambit of state authority and defend novel understandings of the limits of religious accommodation. The ministerial exception simply represents the refracted glow of constitutional protection in the gathering gloom. It is free exercise by moonlight.

CLR Participates in International Moot Court in Venice

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Posing a Question in Venice

As regular readers know, I’ve spent this week at a terrific new program at the Fondazione Marcianum in Venice, an international moot court competition on law and religion. The Marcianum gathered law student teams from the US and Europe to argue a hypothetical case before two courts, the European Court of Human Rights and the US Supreme Court. Along with Notre Dame’s Bill Kelley and Judge (and CLR Board member) Richard Sullivan of the SDNY, I served as a judge on the American court. That’s us, in action, above. Mark Hill of Cardiff University, Renata Uitz of Central European University, and Louis-Leon Christians of Catholic University of Louvain made up the European side. Both courts were ably assisted by PhD students from the Marcianum, who served as our shadow clerks, helping us with research and the development of our ideas.

The case was a very topical one. A private, family owned firm had dismissed an employee for making a negative comment about creationism, in violation of the business’s code of conduct, which prohibited anti-religious statements. In the European version, the domestic courts ruled in favor of the firm, and the employee brought a claim under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the American version, the employee sued for employment discrimination, arguing that he had been dismissed on account of his religious views; the employer maintained that, even if Title VII applied, RFRA allowed for an accommodation in these circumstances.

Lots of issues here, and the student teams did a remarkable job addressing them. Special credit goes to the two Italian teams, from the Universities of Milan and Macerata,who had to learn an entirely new legal system and argue in a foreign language. In the end, our panel gave the 500 euro award for best team to the entrants from Emory Law School. They did their school, and especially Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, proud. On the European side, the award went to the team from Inner Temple.

This was an absolutely wonderful event. It was a lot of work for the students and the judges (not that I’m complaining!), but extremely valuable and tremendous fun. I imagine the most valuable aspect, for the students, was learning how another legal system would handle these issues. The Americans were struck by the argument style in the European Court — 30 minutes of presentation followed by five minutes to answer questions from the bench — and the Europeans were surprised at the more assertive, freewheeling style of argument in an American court. But they adjusted very well.

I hope the Marcianum continues this event. Law and religion has gone global, and comparative law is an increasingly important component of a legal education on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ll write more when I return to NY, but, for now, a very warm thank you to the Marcianum for hosting this event, and especially to Professor Andrea Pin, who invited me and had a major role in the entire enterprise. And thanks to the readers of our blog who stopped by to say hello!