Tag Archives: Religious Symbols

Barras, “Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey”

9780415821780This month, Routledge publishes Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf Ban by Amelie Barras (University of Montreal). The publisher’s description follows.

Over the past few years, secularism has become an intrinsic component of discussions on religious freedom and religious governance. The question of whether states should restrict the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols has been particularly critical in guiding this thought process.

Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey documents how, in both countries, devout women have contested bans on headscarves, pointing to how these are inconsistent with the ‘real’ spirit of secularism. These activists argue that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and religious; to believe in the values conveyed by secularism, while still remaining devoted to their faith. Through this examination, the book highlights how activists locate their claims within the frame of secularism, while at the same time revisiting it to craft a space for their religiosity.

Addressing the lacuna in literature on the discourse of devout Muslims affected by these restrictions, this book offers a topical analysis on an understudied dimension of secularism and is a valuable resource for students and researchers with an interest in Religion, Gender Studies, Human Rights and Political Science.

Chagall and the Meaning of a Crucifixion

Readers in NYC should make sure to visit a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” before it closes on February 2. Besides being a lovely show, the exhibition illustrates well a point my colleague Marc DeGirolami and others have made in the context of public religious displays: religious images can have multiple meanings.

The exhibition focuses on Chagall’s work in the 1940s, which he spent, in exile, in the United States. Several canvases suggest the tender love he had for his wife, Bella. These paintings are quite touching, particularly the dreamlike portrayals of their wedding day. Chagall seems to have been genuinely broken up when Bella died suddenly in 1944, though he did shortly find a new love. He was a famous artist, after all.

The most interesting paintings at the exhibition, however, and the ones that have drawn most attention, are the religious images. Chagall famously used Jewish themes throughout his work. Although he wasn’t observant, he drew inspiration from his upbringing in a Hasidic family in Russia. Here, however, Chagall uses Christian imagery. As the notes to the exhibition explain:

The most prevalent image Chagall used during World War II was of Jesus and the Crucifixion. For Chagall, the Crucifixion was a symbol for all the victims of persecution, a metaphor for the horrors of war, and an appeal to conscience that equated the martyrdom of Jesus with the suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. While other Jewish artists depicted the crucified Jesus, for Chagall it became a frequent theme.

Chagall didn’t paint the Crucifixion, in other words, to convey a Christian message about the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and no one seeing the paintings would draw that message. Rather, he used images of the Crucifixion for a political purpose. The Crucifixion “means” unjust suffering; we Jews in Europe are suffering now, at your hands, Chagall was saying. He was making an appeal for solidarity to the wider Christian world, especially artists in the wider Christian world.

The results disappointed him: “After two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent… I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.” But that doesn’t suggest the meaning of his paintings was incomprehensible. Whether or not they acted on Chagall’s appeal, most people who saw his paintings in the 1940s surely would have understood the message. So will most who see the paintings today.

Symposium on State-Sponsored Religious Displays Now in Print

Just in time for the Christmas Wars, the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies has published papers from a symposium on state-sponsored religious displays that the Center co-sponsored with our our sister school, the Libera Universita Maria SS Assunta (LUMSA), in Rome last year. The papers compare the treatment of such displays in the United States and Europe. Contributors include Silvio Ferrari  of the University of Milan (“State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols In The Public Space”); Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas (“Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?”); Monica Lugato of LUMSA (“The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation And Subsidiarity”); and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals (“Religious Symbols and the Law”). There’s also an introduction by me. You can download the articles here

1000 Mots

On the Insulting Claim that Religious Displays are Insulting

Hurt feelings are unreliable bases for constitutional law. People are insulted by all Charles_I_Insulted_by_Cromwell's_Soldierssorts of things, their feelings of insult can change at breathtaking speed, and it is difficult to explain what ought to count as a constitutionally cognizable insult, and what ought not to, and why. And there is no area of constitutional law that is more dependent on judicial investigation and perception of insult or hurt feelings than the Establishment Clause–particularly the standard used to evaluate the constitutionality of religious displays by the government. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the endorsement test, which demands that judges inquire after the degree to which a display might make someone feel like an outsider, or not fully part of the political community. That is a standard that depends on both judicial perception of insult and comparative valuations of insult (not all insults count).

My aim in this post is not to talk about that category of hurt feeling or insult, but about a related but less prominent argument about insults that one sometimes hears in connection with state-sponsored religious displays. It is the argument that for a religious person, when the government displays a religious symbol, it thereby robs or despoils the symbol of its sacredness. And when government then describes the nature and value of the symbol in non-religious terms (in cultural terms, for example, or in historical terms, or in secular terms), that constitutes an insult to religious people. So, for example, the constitutional category of “ceremonial deism” that is used to describe the phrase “In God We Trust” on money, or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is said to be deeply offensive to religious believers. Similarly, the description of the crucifix by Italian judges in the Lautsi v. Italy litigation as a symbol of national historical importance is said to cause hurt feelings among Catholics. By describing (or perhaps defining) a symbol in cultural or historical terms, the government thereby appropriates and degrades the symbol in the eyes of religious believers–and it’s “their” symbol, after all–draining it of religious content. One can see strong traces of the claim and the sense of indignation and insult in Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry: “Telling either nonbelievers or believers that the words ‘under God’ have no meaning contradicts what they know to be true. Moreover, repetition does not deprive religious words or symbols of their traditional meaning. Words like ‘God’ are not vulgarities for which the shock value diminishes with each successive utterance.” This argument from insult certainly is understandable and it resonates with many people, including some of my friends.

But not with me, I’m afraid. If anything, I find the argument itself insulting. The argument assumes that religious people are so thick-headed, or so culturally illiterate, or so confused about the nature of their faith and its symbols’ meanings, or so hyper-attentive to the government’s activities, or so insular, parochial, and unsophisticated, that they cannot understand the difference among (a) a cross that is displayed in a church; (b) a cross that is displayed at a cemetery; and (c) a cross that is displayed as a Halloween joke. Who doesn’t understand those differences, and the differences in meaning that they convey? Who is confused? And is not the imputation of confusion, hurt feelings, and cultural simple-mindedness itself offensive? Those poor hayseed religious believers, bearing the psychological cross of their egg-shell sensitivities about their symbols! To argue that any act of the state–least of all its display of a cross at a war memorial or some statement about God on money or in a secular national pledge–could adulterate what a religious symbol like the cross means to Christians is to make a very unflattering claim about the strength with which those Christians believe, about the quality of their intellectual awareness and cultural acumen, and about just how little it takes to shake them up and distress them.

The argument also assumes that a government’s decisions about a symbol really command, and ought to command, the attention of the religious. But what difference should it make that government “degrades” a symbol like the cross? Does the government have the power to degrade the Christian meaning of the cross? Do we look to the government to define the Christian meaning of the cross? That meaning is not the government’s to define! To fret about state-sponsored religious degradation is implicitly to acknowledge the state’s authority in an area where it has none. That the government (or anyone else, for that matter) may use a symbol for secular purposes of its own should do nothing to trivialize the Christian meaning, or to destabilize religious commitment or religious understanding, unless the suggestion is that the religious commitment runs no deeper than attachment to the symbol’s secular meanings. Brand dilution may work for trademark law, where all symbols operate and compete at the level of the profane market, but it has little place here.

But as I say, it is difficult to tell someone not to feel hurt or insulted. I can certainly understand the sense of insult at a perceived usurpation of a religious symbol, but it is not a feeling I share at all when the Supreme Court trots out such  coarse euphemisms as “ceremonial deism” to justify and explain the sorts of secular uses of religious symbols and religious language that date back at least to the late Roman empire. For myself, I am more offended by what the arguments from insult imply about religious believers’ savvy and understanding of the world, as well as of their own beliefs.

All of that, I suppose, is to return to the beginning, and to repeat my view that feelings of insult and offense are unsound grounds for constitutional law.

[Image: Delaroche's "Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers"]

Haupt on Active Symbols

Our friend and former Center for Law and Religion Forum guest Claudia Haupt (Columbia) has posted her paper, “Active Symbols,” forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review. The abstract follows.

Visual representations of religious symbols continue to puzzle judges. Lacking empirical data on how images communicate, courts routinely dismiss visual religious symbols as “passive”. This Article challenges the notion that symbols are passive, introducing insights from cognitive neuroscience research to Establishment Clause theory and doctrine. It argues that visual symbolic messages can be at least as active as textual messages. Therefore, religious messages should be assessed in a medium-neutral manner in terms of their communicative impact, that is, irrespective of their textual or visual form.

Providing a new conceptual framework for assessing religious symbolic messages, this Article reconceptualizes coercion and endorsement—the dominant competing approaches to symbolic messages in Establishment Clause theory—as matters of degree on a spectrum of communicative impact. This focus on communicative impact reconciles the approaches to symbolic speech in the Free Speech and Establishment Clause contexts and allows Establishment Clause theory to more accurately account for underlying normative concerns.

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.

Adhar on Secularism

Rex Adhar (University of Otago, New Zealand) has published an article, “Is Secularism Neutral?”, in this month’s edition of Ratio Juris (subscription required). The abstract follows:

This article argues that secularism is not neutral. Secularization is a process, the secular state is a structure, whereas secularism is a political philosophy. Secularism takes two main forms: first, a “benevolent” secularism that endeavours to treat all religious and nonreligious belief systems even-handedly, and, second, a “hostile” kind that privileges unbelief and excludes religion from the public sphere. I analyze the European Court of Human Rights decision in Lautsi v Italy, which illustrates these types. The article concludes that secularism as a political philosophy cannot be neutral, and the secular state is not neutral in its effects, standpoint, governing assumptions or treatment of religious truth claims.

The Abercrombie Look

Staff at Abercrombie & Fitch Store, London (BBC)

Here’s an interesting case that reveals much about the way American mass marketers view religion and “diversity.” This week, a federal district court in California ruled in favor of Umme-Hani Khan, a Muslim teenager who sued her employer, the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. A&F fired Khan, whose job required her to restock clothes on the sales floor of an A&F store in San Mateo, because she insisted on wearing a Muslim headscarf, or hijab, on the job. The headscarf, A&F told her, was inconsistent with the firm’s “Look Policy,” a set of grooming and clothing requirements for employees.

The Look Policy is meant to project a consistent A&F identity to consumers who favor the brand–mostly kids between 18-22. You can see an illustration in the photo above, from A&F’s London store. Head coverings are out; shirts, apparently, are optional. A&F occasionally grants exemptions from the policy to employees who wish to wear religious garb or symbols, but only if the garb or symbols are not visible to others. Just judging by the outfits in the photo, that can’t be the case very often.

But back to Ms. Khan. A&F obviously fired Khan because of her attempt to exercise her religion. Under federal and state employment laws, though, a firm can fire an employee if accommodating the employee’s religious practice would create an undue burden for the firm. Here, A&F argued, allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would create such a burden. Allowing departures from the Look Policy would confuse customers and detract from their in-store experience. And consumer confusion would injure A&F’s brand identity and detract from sales. Simply put, allowing Khan to wear the headscarf would cost A&F money.

The problem was that A&F didn’t show that it had lost any sales because of Khan’s hijab. A&F speculated that consumers would be confused or irritated by the sight of Khan in a headscarf, but could point to no actual incidents. Nor did A&F offer convincing evidence about the negative effect employee headscarves had on sales at other clothing firms. On the record presented, the court ruled, there was no reason to believe that allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would pose an undue hardship for A&F . So Khan prevailed on her claim.

All this is straightforward employment discrimination law. What makes the case interesting is what it reveals about the mindset of mass-market retailers like A&F. Like many such retailers, A&F makes a big deal about its commitment to “diversity,” including religious diversity. According to its website, A&F recognizes the “25 different dimensions of diversity that make up who we are” (only 25?), such as “race, gender, family, sexual orientation, work experience, physical ability, and religion.” So it’s a little strange that A&F would fire a teenage stocking clerk who did nothing more offensive than wear a headscarf to work for religious reasons, and compound the PR mistake by litigating the case in federal court. What gives?

I can think of three possibilities. First, the people at A&F are clueless. Other recent PR disasters for A&F–like the suggestion that the firm doesn’t want heavy women wearing its clothes–render this explanation somewhat plausible, but I doubt it. You don’t become a successful retailer by being clueless. Second, the people at A&F are hypocrites. They talk a good game about tolerance and diversity, but are secretly bigots. This explanation is more plausible than the first, but still unsatisfying. I expect the people at A&F, especially the marketers steeped in our media culture, have internalized the diversity imperative. They really do wish to be “inclusive” and would be shocked to find out they’re not.

So here’s a third explanation. In our mass-market culture, “diversity” means something very specific: the right to purchase and wear (but principally purchase) the same products as everybody else. Wherever you come from, whoever your parents are, whichever God you pray to–whatever the precise mixture of those “25 different dimensions of diversity” that make you who you are–you have a right to the Abercrombie Look. To hold that diversity means something more than that, that it might require people to tolerate religious garb and symbols in the workplace, could be divisive and bad for business. And who knows where it would lead? Someone might actually try to wear a visible cross to work.  

The case is Khan v. Abercrombie & Fitch, 2013 WL 4726137 (N.D.Cal. 2013)).

Salomone on Proposals to Ban Religious Dress in French Universities

My St. John’s colleague, Rosemary Salomone, has written an essay on proposals to ban religious dress in French universities, “Should the Veil Be Banned in Higher Education?” Here’s a synopsis:

The piece discusses competing approaches to the uniquely French concept of “laicite,” a form of secularism, and the current debate in France over a proposal from the High Council for Integration to ban ostensible religious signs or clothing from French public universities. Though the proposal does not mention Islam, Professor Salomone argues that the target clearly is the wearing of the Islamic “hijab” or headscarf. Professor Salomone questions the reasons offered for the ban, based on alleged incidents of religious conflicts in universities, which the Minister of Higher Education and Research and the president of the Conference of University Presidents refute. She warns that banning the veil would unjustly deny some Muslim young women their only option for higher education and further isolate them culturally and religiously.  She further suggests that the debate ignores the forces of globalization, transnationalism, and European integration, the consequent rise of “world citizens” among the younger French population, and the gradual integration of Muslims into French society that inevitably will loosen the French approach to “laicite,” and perhaps sooner than the current debate would lead us to believe.