Tag Archives: Religious Displays

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.

Devil’s Cross

I was rereading the Supreme Court’s opinion in Salazar v. Buono, the case concerning a cross erected in the Mojave Desert in 1934 by a group of veterans in order to commemorate American soldiers who died in World War I. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens took his usual rigid view in any case dealing with display of symbols: the cross “necessarily” conveys an “inescapably sectarian message….Making a plain, unadorned cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian.” Justice Stevens also cited approvingly the district court judge’s view that the cross is “exclusively a Christian symbol.”

The more I read these lines, the more implausible I find them and the view of symbols that they represent. Perhaps another way to put my skepticism is that any observer who believed this about a symbol like the cross would be unreasonable–the sort of person who could not effectively administer a “reasonable observer” standard in Establishment Clause cases of this kind. The implausibility of the view is conceptual but it also is empirical. Though I recognize that anecdotes are not data, still, personal experience is worth something. The “holiday” of Halloween was for children when I was a child, but it seems to have become a kind of modern-day equivalent of Venetian Carnevale circa 1760. No matter; this year, I am grateful to Halloween for offering a useful challenge to claims about what the symbol of the cross must mean, in all times and places, for all people.

My neighborhood is child-saturated, and as a result Halloween is widely and noisily celebrated. Part of the celebration involves the display of putatively spooky lawn decorations of motley sorts, among the most popular of which is the “creepy gravesite” ensemble. It used to be that round headstones were the convention. But now one increasingly sees in such arrangements the presence of a cross. Here’s a fairly typical setup:

Devil's CrossProbably my surreptitiously taken picture does not do justice to the mise en scène. But what it displays is a simple black Latin cross with the words RIP at the base. You can see that the cross is surrounded by other Halloween acoutrements–a skeleton in the ground, gravestones, spiderwebs. All around these sit related objects–werewolves and other hairy and unsavory creatures, a plastic witch, ghosts dangling from trees with flashing red eyes, and so on. This sort of decorative landscape is extremely common. The presence of a cross in it is less so, but just in my own neighborhood, I counted 4 displays that contained a cross of some sort.

Suppose that a municipality chose to display something like this on town hall grounds at Halloween. What would it be communicating? What does a cross mean in a display like this? Its meaning is complicated because it is situated in several contexts. It sits first within a mock cemetery but the point of the display is not remotely either commemorative (as in a memorial for the dead) or Christian. The point of the display is to celebrate, in a lighthearted, cute, and possibly mischievous way, all that Halloween has come to represent as an occasion for kids: the occult, mild wickedness, spookiness, and so on. It would make a dour schoolmarm of Christianity to say that displays like this are anti-Christian. Of course they are not. But it would verge on sheer absurdity to claim that a cross in this sort of context conveyed “an inescapably sectarian message,” or that what would otherwise be a tribute to spooky kid fun just must be transformed into a celebration of Christ by the inclusion of a cross.

It is true that even in this context, the meaning of the cross is to some extent connected to the original Christian meaning. It is so connected in this weak way: had there been no prior Christian meaning, there could have been no subsequent tradition in which crosses have come to convey a commemorative message, and therefore no cultural context within which a cross could come to find its way into a Halloween cemetery display. But noting that atavic genealogical connection is very different than assigning this particular cross–or others like it–an indelibly Christian meaning today.

It might be argued that the meaning associated with the Halloween cross only arose because people are ignorant of the Christian, soteriological meaning. That seems uncharitable to me, but also mistaken. What is more probable is that meanings intertwine, and that it becomes difficult over time to disaggregate the religious meaning from other fair, culturally specific interpretations. As I write in The Tragedy of Religious Freedom about the Mojave Desert Cross:

Just as it is impossible to distinguish precisely where the religious ends and the artistic begins in a Bach oratorio, a Giotto fresco, or a Dantean canto, so, too, is it fruitless to attempt to tweeze away the Buono cross’s civic submeanings from an antecedent religious meaning. But the fact that it is unprofitable to perform this exercise in segregation, and in quantifying the importance of this or that meaning, does not mean that permitting these various submeanings to exist is equivalent to condoning state sponsorship of religious belief. Religious and cultural meanings may and do interpenetrate across time. And meanings that emerge from that interpenetration are not ipso facto constitutionally impermissible, but invitations to historically and contextually graduated judgment.

Colossal Armenian Jesus Towers Over Syria

Here’s a curious little story about a gigantic statue of Jesus (standing a Armenian Jesusgargantuan 128 feet tall, and weighing in at several tons) cast in Armenia that has been installed on top of a mountain near the Monastery of the Cherubim in the Syrian city of Saidnaya (which is itself apparently already 2,100 meters above sea level). This story reports that the project was supported by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. The statue is reportedly visible from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.

Movsesian Essay Appears in New Anthology on Public Religion

This month, Ashgate releases Volume III of Religion in the Public Space, part of its Library of Essays on Law and Religion series. The volume is edited by Silvio Ferrari (Milan) and Rinaldo Cristofori (Milan), and contains essays by, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Mary Ann Glendon, and, I blush to say, yours truly–my essay, Crosses and Culture, on religious displays in the US and Europe. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Religion in the public sphere is one of the most debated issues in the field of law and religion. This volume brings together articles which address some of the more prominent recent cases relating to religion and education, religion and the workplace, family law and religious symbols. The essays discuss the meaning of secularism today and the difficult issue of religion in the public sphere and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints. This volume maps the key elements of this multi-faceted problem, offers essential material and provides an important starting point for an understanding of the issues in this century old debate.

Worth A Thousand Words

In my last post, I discussed the question of attribution of messages. Today, I want to turn to the perception of messages, in particular, the visual perception of religious symbols. We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Does it make sense, then, for courts to distinguish between the textual and the visual, and to consider the latter less troublesome than the former?

Let me start with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber decision in the Italian classroom crucifix case, Lautsi v. Italy. The Italian government argued “[w]hatever the evocative power of an ‘image’ might be . . . it was a ‘passive symbol’, whose impact on individuals was not comparable with the impact of ‘active conduct’.” Referencing an earlier decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the applicants conversely argued “[a]s to the assertion that it was merely a ‘passive symbol’, this ignored the fact that like all symbols—and more than all others—it gave material form to a cognitive, intuitive and emotional reality which went beyond the immediately perceptible.”

The Grand Chamber explicitly addressed the active/passive distinction, stating that “a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality. It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.” Several concurring opinions also addressed the designation of the crucifix as a “passive” symbol. The concurring opinion of Judge Power agrees with the majority’s assessment of the crucifix as a passive symbol “insofar as the symbol’s passivity is not in any way coercive,” but her assessment is more nuanced. She “concede[s] that, in principle, symbols (whether religious, cultural or otherwise) are carriers of meaning. They may be silent but they may, nevertheless, speak volumes without, however, doing so in a coercive or in an indoctrinating manner.” In her framing, the question is not whether symbols can communicate like textual language—she asserts they can—but whether the message communicated is one that violates the negative religious freedom of the observer under the Convention.

The ECtHR is not alone in asserting that visual religious symbols are “passive”: In Lynch v. Donnelly, Chief Justice Burger said the crèche was “passive”; in Allegheny County, Justice Kennedy used the “passive” label to describe the holiday displays; Chief Justice Rehnquist said the Ten Commandments monuments (featuring text) in Van Orden v. Perry were “passive”; in his dissent in McCreary County, Justice Scalia said the Ten Commandments display was “passive”; and the lower courts use the “passive” symbols language as well.

The “passive” label is used in two ways (alternatively or cumulatively). It can be an empirical claim about the way in which visual images communicate. Passivity used in this way suggests less ability to communicate effectively than textual speech. Or “passive” is a label for a bundle of factors—including brief exposure to the symbol, a vague notion of minimal offensiveness, or other characteristics of the symbol that result in its presumed noncoerciveness. But these notions, unlike the empirical claim, go to the context and cultural meaning of the symbol. The empirical claim is false; the neuroscience of visual perception just does not work that way. The context-and-cultural-meaning claim is complex and the “passive” designation is at best an ambiguous and misleading label. Either way, courts here and abroad should stop using the “passive” label to describe religious symbols.

Thanks, Mark and Marc, for having me over!

State Religious Neutrality and the Point of Departure

A quick followup on Claudia’s very interesting post on state religious neutrality. As Claudia suggests, pretty much every Western democracy nowadays accepts the notion that the state must be “neutral” with respect to religion. But, as Claudia points out, the fact that everyone uses the same word obscures underlying disagreements. In the US, for example, neutrality means that the state may not display sectarian symbols, at least in a manner that seems to endorse the sectarian message. Not so in Europe. There, the ECtHR has made plain, a state may display sectarian symbols as long as the state does not engage in active proselytizing. Thus, according to the recent Lautsi decision, European states may display crucifixes in public school classrooms, conduct that would be unthinkable in the US under current Supreme Court jurisprudence.

In trying to understand the different meanings the same word has in different systems, it’s useful to consider what Tocqueville referred to as a nation’s “point of departure.” Every legal system is embedded in a particular culture with a particular history. In Europe, where links between church and state are traditionally very strong, certain state actions, like placing sectarian symbols in the public space, are simply part of the background, something most people take for granted. In the US, however, a society with a much stronger separationist tradition, such actions are not seen as neutral and innocuous. I explain this all in more depth in a recent article on the Italian crucifix case, “Crosses and Culture: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe,” in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion. Interested readers can find the article on the journal’s website, here.

Is Yoga Constitutional?

Last month, I  wrote about a controversy surrounding the White House’s inclusion of a yoga garden in its annual Easter Egg Roll. The problem is this: yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice. Arguably, therefore, state-sponsored yoga is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause under existing Supreme Court case law.

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (New York Times)

It turns out that very issue is being litigated this week in a California  court. The Encinitas Union School District has introduced yoga as part of the phys ed program in elementary schools. Some parents object that the program highlights yoga’s spiritual elements and amounts to religious indoctrination. The school argues that it has eliminated religious references and that what remains is nothing more than an enriched gym class. An Indiana University religious studies professor who testified at trial demurs. She says that that it would be odd, from a Hindu perspective, to separate yoga’s physical and spiritual elements.

Under Supreme Court precedent, government can separate “cultural” from “religious” messages and promote the former. That’s why official Christmas displays with reindeer and elves survive constitutional scrutiny, but not solo nativity scenes. The logic is that the secular decorations swamp the religious message and ensure that passersby don’t think the government is endorsing Christianity, as opposed to Christianity’s cultural accretions.

This logic has saved some Christmas displays, but offended some Christians. To them, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests an unfortunate hostility to their religion: Christmas is acceptable in the public square only if its spiritual associations are diluted. To be sure, the Supreme Court  has said only that official displays must avoid religious associations, but people rarely compartmentalize things so logically. Culture often follows law.

So here’s a question: if official yoga programs are allowed on the theory that they have been scrubbed of religious associations, will pious Hindus object?Will people start demanding to keep the yoga  in yoga?

Astoria on The Endorsement Test and Equal Status

Ross Astoria (U. of Wisconsin, Parkside) has posted The Endorsement Test and Equal Status. The abstract follows.

Since its inception, jurists and legal scholars have hotly contested the utility and fairness of the endorsement test. For its detractors, the endorsement test is unanchored in the constitutional text, devoid of limitations on the exercise of judicial power, and accordingly produces misguided outcomes. In contrast, its remaining adherents think the endorsement test expresses the basic democratic value of equality, and therefore find it worthy of preservation.

This paper is an attempt to reinvigorate the endorsement test
by more concisely articulating the relationship between endorsing and equality. As the endorsement test is presently conceived and employed, however, this relationship is oblique at best. In order to foreground equality, then, the endorsement test requires significant modification, which I propose in Section III. The primary purpose of these modifications is to assign to the norm of equal status the central role in Establishment Clause jurisprudence, particularly in those cases conventionally dubbed “display cases.” As far as I can tell, this is a new approach to religion clause jurisprudence. To test the modified endorsement test, I tease out its implications by applying it to several cases and scenarios.

In what follows, I first introduce the norm of equal status by
comparing it with other norms which religion clause theorists often take as salient (Sec. II). I then introduce the modification to the endorsement test, showing in the process how the endorsement test, as presently conceived, fails to foreground the norm of equal status (Sec. III). Finally, I apply the modified endorsement test to several common display case scenarios (Sec. IV). In the conclusion, I say a few things about the superiority of the modified endorsement test (Sec. V).

A Bunny is a Bunny

I guess it was bound to happen. A public elementary school in Alabama has renamed its annual Easter Egg Hunt to avoid giving offense to non-Christian children and parents. According to the school’s principal, Lydia Davenport, the hunt will still take place; it will just no longer have the word “Easter” attached to it. The seasonal rabbit will likewise go nameless:

“Kids love the bunny,” smiles Davenport, “and we just make sure we don’t say ‘the Easter bunny’ so that we don’t infringe on the rights of others because people relate the Easter bunny to religion; a bunny is a bunny and a rabbit is a rabbit,” Davenport concluded.

Well, you can’t argue with that. Most disputes about public holiday displays in America involve Christmas, of course. This is so, I think, because Easter, although far more important as a religious holiday, is relatively minor as a public holiday. Perhaps that’s because it falls on a Sunday. Compared to Christmas, Easter passes by almost without notice in America. But there’s no reason we can’t fight over it as well. Let the Easter Wars begin.

Sixth Circuit Dismisses Anti-Religion Sign Suit

In a very interesting opinion, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Warren, the Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that the City of Warren, Michigan, could retain its yearly holiday display (which includes “a range of secular and religious symbols–a lighted tree, reindeer, snowmen, a ‘Winter Welcome’ sign and a nativity scene), located in the atrium of its civic center between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, without also being compelled to display the following:

At this season of
THE WINTER SOLSTICE
may reason prevail.
There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
No heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world,
Religion is but
Myth and superstition
That hardens hearts
And enslaves minds.

Placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation
On Behalf of its State Members
ffrf.org

State/Church
KEEP THEM SEPARATE
Freedom From Religion Foundation
ffrf.org

In his opinion for a unanimous panel, Judge Sutton held that (1) the display does not violate the Establishment Clause because the nativity scene is accompanied by other secular and seasonal symbols; and (2) the display is “government speech” and therefore does not violate the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s free speech rights by refusing to add its anti-religion sign.

Judge Sutton carefully grounded the court’s Establishment Clause holding in the Supreme Court’s holiday display cases–Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. ACLU: “If the multi-purpose, multi-symbol Pawtucket and Allegheny County displays did not offend the Establishment Clause, then neither does the Warren display. The Warren exhibit parallels the Pawtucket one and is less faith-centered than the permitted Allegheny County exhibit.”  He rejected FFRF’s claim that the city’s refusal to display the anti-religion sign demonstrated  a “lack of neutrality between the secular and the religious.” He argued that all of the symbols in the display but one were secular, offering the following interesting discussion:

Some of these symbols allegedly are rooted in pagan traditions . . . . Some are connected to the winter season.  And some embody the most commercial features of the holiday season.  But none of these secular symbols has roots in any one faith or in faith in general.  Look through the Old and New Testaments, even we suspect in their original languages, and you will not find any references to these symbols. It may be true that many of these symbols have become connected to European and American celebrations of Christmas over time, some through the happenstance of the time of year at which the holiday falls (at least in the western part of the Northern Hemisphere) and some through stories written and read over the years. But that did not suffice to invalidate the equivalent display in Lynch; it does not suffice here.

The composition of displays used to commemorate holidays and seasons, moreover, is not static. The breadth of symbols included in the Warren exhibit reflects not just the demands of the Establishment Clause but also the demands of democracy in an increasingly pluralistic country. That presumably is why some cities no longer have such displays, why others have made a point of featuring symbols connected to other faiths (Warren had a Ramadan sign one year) and why a city like Warren would include words conspicuously ungrounded in any faith (“Winter Welcome”). Even the most faith-inspired phrases have taken on secular connotations over time. When one neighbor greets another in mid-December with “Happy Holidays,” it is the rare person who hears “Happy Holy Days.” See Webster’s New International Dictionary 1188 (2d ed. 1950).  What was once the most religious of invocations has become one of the most faith neutral, even secular. One indeed can fairly wonder who has co-opted whom over time with these displays and words. But that is a matter for another day. The key lesson of Lynch and Allegheny County is that a city does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause by including a creche in a holiday display that contains secular and religious symbols.  Warren readily meets that test.

Judge Sutton also rejected FFRF’s claim that certain isolated remarks in a letter written by the Mayor of Warren was proof of the City’s non-neutrality.  And then he said this about a strict separationist approach to the Establishment Clause:

A strict separationist perspective might suggest that the Mayor got carried away when he said that “our country was founded upon basic religious beliefs” and added a few other like-minded sentiments. Id. But the Establishment Clause does not demand strict separation between church and state in governmental words and deeds, even if that were somehow possible. The Mayor indeed could have been more forceful on the point and quoted the Supreme Court in the process: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). If the Court may say this about American government and if Congress may enact a law devoted to spiritual matters and called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, all without violating the Establishment Clause, see Wilkinson v. Cutter, 544 U.S. 709, 712–14 (2005), surely the Clause does not stand in the way of the City’s winter solstice-free display and the Mayor’s explanation for it.

It may be true that the Mayor misapprehended the Religion Clauses when he implied that atheists receive no protection from them by saying that the Foundation’s “non-religion” was “not a recognized religion.” In this respect, the Mayor, apparently untrained as a lawyer, may not have missed his calling. The Religion Clauses, it turns out, do protect the religious and nonreligious. Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 52–54 (1985). But this defense of his actions, premised on a misreading of precedent, does not transform his actions or the City’s display into an establishment.