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.