Tag Archives: Constitutional Law

The Ten Commandments in the Courthouse

Recently, I visited the New York State Courthouse here in Jamaica, Queens. For readers who don’t know, Queens is one of New York City’s outer boroughs. It is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, perhaps the most ethnically diverse place in the entire world. About half its population of 2.3 million is foreign born. More than half speak a language other than English at home. About 40% of its residents are white; Asians and African-Americans each make up about a fifth of the population; Latinos a bit more. Statistics on religious affiliation are harder to come by, but apparently about half of the borough’s residents are Christians; of them, Catholics make up the largest percentage, about one-third of the total population. As to the other 50%, Queens has significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and people without formal religious affiliation—the Nones. In terms of religious and cultural variety, Queens has it all.

Given the ethnic and religious diversity of Queens, a work of art I saw in the Queens courthouse surprised me. Decorating the building’s central, ceremonial staircase are a pair of two large WPA-style murals, executed when the courthouse was built during the Great Depression. They make up a unified work. The one on the left, titled “Mosaic Law” (above) shows a crowd of Hebrews surrounding Moses as he descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew script. The one on the right, titled “Constitutional Law” (below) shows a crowd of historical figures—Washington, the Framers, and Chief Justices from John Jay to Charles Evans Hughes—gathered around a stone plaque with the words of the Preamble: “We the People.”

In one sense, of course, the murals should not have surprised me. Displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses is an American tradition. It has become an extremely controversial one, however. Litigants have brought numerous constitutional challenges in the last few decades. Courts have reached different conclusions, based largely on the facts of specific cases. About 10 years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in one Kentucky courthouse violated the Establishment Clause under the so-called “endorsement test.” A reasonable observer, the Court held, would perceive the display as an impermissible, official endorsement of religion. Such an endorsement would send a message of exclusion to non-adherents and make them feel like outsiders in their own community—like disfavored, second-class citizens.

I stood on the staircase for a while and watched people go up and down. Aside from me, no one seemed to notice the murals at all. And I wondered, how could it be, in a place as religiously diverse as Queens, that no one had objected? How could it be that no one had claimed that the murals made him feel like an outsider, a second-class citizen? With thousands of people from different religious backgrounds passing by these murals every day, surely someone would have taken offense and brought a lawsuit. Were people too polite or intimidated to complain? That hardly seems possible, not in Queens. And if someone did bring a constitutional challenge, wouldn’t it have a good chance to succeed? What explains the quietude—the dog that doesn’t bark?

It seems to me there are two explanations. First, it’s quite possible that people in Queens, even the many people from religious traditions other than Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all of which venerate the Ten Commandments—do not find the display at all offensive. They likely accept it as the tradition of the society in which they have chosen to live. Many of them have immigrated here at great personal cost and are not put off by American customs. Peter Berger and others have written about this phenomenon in the European context. Although European elites often argue that religious minorities find public Christian displays insulting, he explains, little evidence exists that the minorities themselves actually feel offended. Berger describes this misguided, or pretextual, solicitude for religious minorities as the “‘battering ram’ approach to policy making: secular elites make use of other faith communities in order to further their own—frequently secular—points of view.”

Of course, there are plenty of secular elites in New York City, and many of them are lawyers. So why has no one brought a lawsuit over the display at the Queens courthouse? Here we come to the second explanation: such a lawsuit would very likely fail. For one thing, notwithstanding its earlier decisions, it’s not clear that the Supreme Court would continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments. A couple of terms ago, in the Town of Greece case, the Court applied a different test to uphold the constitutionality of official, legislative prayer. Such prayer is constitutional, the Court said, because it is an important part of American tradition—and also because it does not coerce listeners to participate. Courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments are part of American tradition as well, and they also coerce no one. If the Town of Greece test applies, Ten Commandments displays would be constitutional as well.

The Court is notoriously unpredictable in Establishment Clause cases, though, and it could well continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays. Even so, it’s unlikely the Queens murals would be unconstitutional. True, an observer could perceive a religious message. Perhaps the implication is that our fundamental law is of a piece with its divine predecessor, and that we, like the ancient Hebrews, are united by our worship of God. But observers could draw a variety of other messages as well. One very plausible interpretation is this: our Constitution is part of the great tradition of Western law, in which the Ten Commandments play a vital role. Another would be, these are two parallel episodes of lawgiving: Just as the ancient Hebrews were a community bound by a received law, so are we Americans today—although our law comes, not from God, but from the people itself. Perhaps there is no special meaning at all. Perhaps the artist was simply trying to dignify the building in a way that people of the time would find familiar and appropriate.

In short, the mural is not clearly an endorsement of religion. Moreover, it has been there for about 70 years now. As Justice Breyer reasoned in one of the Ten Commandments cases, the fact that a display has gone unchallenged for decades suggests that people do not perceive it as an insult or a religious endorsement. To remove the mural now, on the ground that it impermissibly endorses religion, would suggest that government has an affirmative hostility to faith—a suggestion bound to insult believers and cause even greater social tension than allowing the mural to remain. Although the Court might not allow the mural to be installed in a courthouse today, the fact that it is already in the Queens courthouse gives it a kind of grandfathered status.

So, it seems likely the mural will remain. If you’re in the neighborhood, go take a look. You might also visit the nearby Rufus King Museum, the home of one of the Framers of the Constitution—though not, as far as I can tell, one of the Framers depicted in the mural—and the last Federalist candidate for President of the United States. What he would have thought of the murals’ constitutionality, I’m pretty sure I know.

Curtis, “The Production of American Religious Freedom”

In August, New York University Press will release The Production of AmerThe Production of American Religious Freedomican Religious Freedom, by Finbarr Curtis (Georgia Southern University). The publisher’s description follows:

Americans love religious freedom. Few agree, however, about what they mean by either “religion” or “freedom.” Rather than resolve these debates, Finbarr Curtis argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom. Lacking any consistent content, religious freedom is a shifting and malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes. While Americans often think of freedom as the right to be left alone, the free exercise of religion works to produce, challenge, distribute, and regulate different forms of social power.
The book traces shifts in the notion of religious freedom in America from The Second Great Awakening, to the fiction of Louisa May Alcott and the films of D.W. Griffith, through William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Trial, and up to debates over the Tea Party to illuminate how Protestants have imagined individual and national forms of identity. A chapter on Al Smith considers how the first Catholic presidential nominee of a major party challenged Protestant views about the separation of church and state. Moving later in the twentieth century, the book analyzes Malcolm X’s more sweeping rejection of Christian freedom in favor of radical forms of revolutionary change. The final chapters examine how contemporary controversies over intelligent design and the claims of corporations to exercise religion are at the forefront of efforts to shift regulatory power away from the state and toward private institutions like families, churches, and corporations. The volume argues that religious freedom is produced within competing visions of governance in a self-governing nation.

Witte & Nichols, “Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment” (4th ed)

In April, Oxford University Press released the fourth edition of Religion and the American 9780190459420Constitutional Experiment, by John Witte, Jr. (Emory) and Joel Nichols (St. Thomas-Minnesota). The publisher’s description follows:

This accessible introduction tells the American story of religious liberty from its colonial beginnings to the latest Supreme Court cases. The authors provide extensive analysis of the formation of the First Amendment religion clauses and the plausible original intent or understanding of the founders. They describe the enduring principles of American religious freedom–liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious equality, religious pluralism, separation of church and state, and no establishment of religion–as those principles were developed by the founders and applied by the Supreme Court. Successive chapters analyze the two hundred plus Supreme Court Continue reading

DeGirolami, “Virtue, Freedom, and the First Amendment”

I’ve recently posted this paper, Virtue, Freedom, and the First Amendment. Here is the abstract.

The modern First Amendment embodies the idea of freedom as a fundamental good of contemporary American society. The First Amendment protects and promotes everybody’s freedom of thought, belief, speech, and religious exercise as basic goods — as given ends of American political and moral life. It does not protect these freedoms for the sake of promoting any particular vision of the virtuous society. It is neutral on that score, setting limits only in those rare cases when the exercise of a First Amendment freedom exacts an intolerable social cost.

Something like this collection of views constitutes the conventional account of the First Amendment. This essay offers it two challenges. First, the development of the First Amendment over the past century suggests that freedom is not an American sociopolitical end. It is a means — a gateway out of one kind of political and legal culture and into another with its own distinctive virtues and vices. Freedom is not a social solution but instead gives rise to a social problem — the problem of how to allocate a resource in civically responsible ways, so as to limit freedom’s hurtful potential and to make citizens worthy of the freedoms they are granted. Only a somewhat virtuous society can sustain a regime of political liberty without collapsing, as a society, altogether. Thus the First Amendment of the conventional account has not maximized freedom for all people and groups. It has promoted a distinctive set of views about the virtuous legal and political society.

Second, the new legal culture promoted and entrenched by the conventional account is increasingly finding that account uncongenial. In fact, the conventional account is positively harmful to its continued flourishing. That is because the new legal culture’s core values are not the First Amendment freedoms themselves but the particular conceptions of political and social equality and individual dignity that the conventional account has facilitated and promoted. Proponents of the new legal culture in consequence now argue for aggressive limits on First Amendment freedoms.

One prominent group has invented a new legal category: “enumerated rights Lochnerism.” These scholars denigrate any First Amendment resistance to multiplying forms of expansive government regulation in the service of egalitarian aims as retrogressively libertarian. Another group argues for novel limits on the First Amendment in the form of balancing tests that would restrict speech that injures the dignity of listeners and religious exercise that results in vaguely defined and vaguely delimited harms to third parties. What unites these critics is the desire to swell features of the Court’s post-New Deal Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, and particularly the law concerning sex as a civil right, by protecting progressively expansive conceptions of equality and individual dignity. The critics see the conventional account of the First Amendment as an obstacle in the path of progress.

Part I of this essay presents the conventional account of the First Amendment in three theses. It then critiques the conventional account in Part II by offering three revised theses, developed through the somewhat unusual route of exploring the First Amendment thought of the late political theorist and constitutional scholar, Walter Berns. Freedom, for Berns, gave rise to a problem — the problem of making men sufficiently virtuous to merit their freedom. It was a problem that he thought had been ignored or even forgotten by defenders of the conventional account of the First Amendment.

But the problem of virtue and freedom has been remembered. Part III argues that contemporary defenders of the new legal culture have remembered the problem just as their own cultural and legal mores are ascendant. The new civic virtues — exemplified in multiplying anti-discrimination regulations for the protection of thickening conceptions of equality and individual dignity, particularly as those concepts relate to sexual autonomy — are those that were fostered by the conventional account of the First Amendment in tandem with significant components of the Supreme Court’s post-New Deal Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence. And those civic virtues are already informing new criticisms of the conventional account and arguments about new limitations on the scope of religious freedom and freedom of speech. Berns’s arguments about freedom and virtue, it turns out, are highly relevant today since progressive opinion is no longer committed to First Amendment “absolutism.”

The essay concludes with two speculations. First, it seems we are no longer arguing about whether to restrict freedom, but for what ends. If that is true, then those arguments should neither begin nor end with egalitarian and sexual libertarian fervor. Second, there is no account of the First Amendment that maximizes freedom for everyone — for all persons and groups. There is only the society that America was before the rise of the conventional account of the First Amendment and the society that it is becoming after it.

Event Tonight: Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court

Just a reminder that the Center will host a panel discussion in midtown Manhattan tonight on religious liberty at the US Supreme Court. The discussants will be myself and Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. Details and RSVP info are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Huleatt on Obergefell

John Huleatt, an alumnus of St. John’s Law School and General Counsel for the Bruderhof Community, a Christian group with roots in the Anabaptist tradition, has posted an interesting reflection on the Obergefell decision and the implications for religious liberty. Here’s a sample:

Accordingly, the state exceeds its legitimate authority when it lends its authoritarian power to either side in this debate. Protecting gays from discrimination in nonreligious matters is an appropriate concern for government and believers alike. But if the government requires believers to act in violation of their conscience in the name of so-called anti-discrimination, it is going too far. The United States, more than most other countries, has a long history of successfully accommodating competing rights. For this to continue, the state and proponents of gay marriage need to understand that no compromise for believers is possible where conscience is at stake. Thus free exercise of religion must be protected just as much as other civil rights. Religious dissent does not lose protection merely by being labeled discrimination. If the American public and the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government fail to recognize this, many people who are (in Justice Kennedy’s words) “reasonable and sincere” will have no choice but to resort to civil disobedience.

You can read Huleatt’s essay here.

Moore, “Founding Sins”

In September, the Oxford University Press will release “Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution,” by Joseph S. Moore (Gardner-Webb University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Covenanters, now mostly forgotten, were America’s first Christian nationalists. For two centuries they decried the fact that, in their view, the United States was not a Christian nation because slavery was in the Constitution but Jesus was not. Having once ruled Scotland as a part of a Presbyterian coalition, they longed to convert America to a holy Calvinist vision in which church and state united to form a godly body politic. Their unique story has largely been submerged beneath the histories of the events in which they participated and the famous figures with whom they interacted, making them the most important religious movement in American history that no one remembers.

Despite being one of North America’s smallest religious sects, the Covenanters found their way into every major revolt. They were God’s rebels–just as likely to be Patriots against Britain as they were to be Whiskey Rebels against the federal government. As the nation’s earliest and most avowed abolitionists, they had a significant influence on the fight for emancipation. In Founding Sins, Joseph S. Moore examines this forgotten history, and explores how Covenanters profoundly shaped American’s understandings of the separation of church and state.

While modern arguments about America’s Christian founding usually come from the right, the Covenanters have a more complicated legacy. They fought for an explicitly Christian America in the midst of what they saw as a secular state that failed the test of Christian nationhood. But they did so on behalf of a cause–abolition–that is traditionally associated with the left. Though their attempts to insert God into the Constitution ultimately failed, Covenanters set the acceptable limits for religion in politics for generations to come.

Bill Kristol Interview with Samuel Alito

This item is getting some deserved attention: Bill Kristol has posted a long-form, uninterrupted interview with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on his “Conversations with Bill Kristol” site. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the inner workings of the Court and the intellectual debates that have informed American law for the past generation. Justice Alito’s discussion of his dissent in Obergefell, which you can access here, will particularly interest readers of this site. Alito argues that the case represents a return to an unmoored jurisprudence of unenumerated rights, divorced both from constitutional text and national history and tradition. Worth watching.

The Same-Sex Marriage Case

For those who are interested, my quick reaction to yesterday’s ruling in Obergefell is in a symposium today at the First Things website. I discuss the Court’s reasoning and the implications for religious liberty. Here’s a snippet:

First, although some commentators predicted that the Court would issue a narrow, pro-gay marriage ruling, the reasoning of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion is actually quite sweeping, returning the Court to the heady days of substantive due process and unenumerated rights. Forget about textualism and originalism. As Chief Justice Roberts points out in his dissent, even the restraints of “history and tradition,” a limit Justice Harlan once suggested, are effectively shunted aside. A five-justice majority believes that same-sex marriage is a fundamental element of personal liberty, and that makes it a constitutional right.

For constitutional conservatives, this is very disheartening—whatever one’s views on the merits of same-sex marriage as a policy matter. After thirty years and more of trying assiduously to end, or at least limit, substantive due process, the doctrine still carries the day. As Justice Alito writes in his dissent, “Today’s decision shows that decades of attempts to restrain this Court’s abuse of discretion have failed. A lesson that some”—actually, anyone paying attention—“will take from today’s decision is that preaching about the proper method of interpreting the Constitution or the virtues of judicial self-restraint and humility cannot compete with the temptation to achieve what is viewed as a noble end by any practicable means.” Incidentally, today’s ruling demonstrates again how important the 1987 defeat of Robert Bork was, and how much Senate Democrats gained in putting up such a fight against him. It was the defeat of Bork that led to the nomination of Anthony Kennedy.

You can read my analysis, along with the other contributions to the symposium, here.

Munoz, “Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court: The Essential Cases and Documents, Updated Edition”

In March, Rowman & Littlefield released “Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court: The Essential Cases and Documents, Updated Edition” by Vincent Phillip Munoz (University of Notre Dame). The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout American history, legal battles concerning the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty have been among the most contentious issue of the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court: The Essential Cases and Documents represents the most authoritative and up-to-date overview of the landmark cases that have defined religious freedom in America. Noted religious liberty expert Vincent Philip Munoz (Notre Dame) provides carefully edited excerpts from over fifty of the most important Supreme Court religious liberty cases. In addition, Munoz’s substantive introduction offers an overview on the constitutional history of religious liberty in America. Introductory headnotes to each case provides the constitutional and historical context. Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court is an indispensable resource for anyone interested matters of religious freedom from the Republic’s earliest days to current debates.