Author archives: Travis Weber

Trampling on the UN’s Noble Heritage

by Travis Weber

June 9, 2014

On October 24, 1945, the nations of the world rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to come together in the United Nations, in part to ensure that individual human rights were protected across national borders in the face of tyrannical governments, and that such genocide as had been perpetrated by the Nazis would not happen again. Coming out of the Holocaust, the United Nations and its treaty and human rights framework naturally focused heavily on the freedom of the individual to their religion and political activity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, and later the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights all focused on the individual and the individual’s civil liberties — a focus which has served as the building block for Western Civilization’s rich cultural heritage and its prosperous economies.

The United States was a leader in many of these developments. Yet in 2014, the United States finds itself in the position of having nominated an individual to be its representative to the UN’s Committee Against Torture — Felice Gaer — who openly tramples on the very rights on which the United Nations was founded. Ms. Gaer recently told the Holy See’s UN representative reporting on Vatican compliance with the Torture Convention that the Holy See was coming dangerously close to committing torture merely through its positions on abortion. Much of this was apparently driven by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which sent a letter — itself misrepresenting basic principles of international law in furtherance of its own agenda — to the UN committee overseeing implementation of Torture Convention. The flawed reasoning of this letter was then propagated upon the international scene via the Committee Against Torture.

Ms. Gaer previously served as the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, in which capacity she said that “the right [to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion] includes the freedom of every person to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, and to manifest his or her religion or belief either individually or in community with others.” She appears to now be directly contradicting her own views in her statement to the Holy See. More likely, she is losing a sense of proportion and reality. Representatives to such UN committees are supposed to objectively monitor country compliance with the treaties signed by those countries, in accordance with the plain meaning of the treaty, while respecting countries’ declarations and reservations — and NOT take words with an obvious meaning, twist them into something nonsensical, and ramrod them down a signatory country’s throat, all while demonstrating a blatant disregard for a country’s reservations and express conditions for its submission to a treaty’s authority.

Thankfully, the Vatican has struck back, noting that contrary to the view that regulation of abortion could constitute “torture,” the practice of late-term abortion is a much more obvious example of torture. In addition, several UN committee members have clarified they hold a more reasoned position than Ms. Gaer. Nevertheless, it’s troubling that the U.S. representative’s extreme views are being moderated by non-U.S. representatives to the committee. The United States has historically held a very grounded position with regard to international human rights. Though it has already shown cracks and signs of change, Ms. Gaer should not be permitted to further smear that position on the world stage.

Humanist “Chaplain”? — Not all Worldviews are Religions

by Travis Weber

May 30, 2014

We were heartened to see today that the Navy decided to adopt the common sense position of refusing to commission a humanist “chaplain.” Besides the failure of the chaplain under review to meet the requirements of current Department of Defense regulations, the whole notion of filling a limited number of Navy billets for individuals to counsel service members on their relationship with God with individuals who instead explicitly deny the existence of a God should strike anyone with a head on their shoulders as downright silly. As Travis mentioned in an interview on the subject, the Navy charted the proper course here, and avoided implementing an oxymoronic policy of giving a self-professed non-religious officer a religious commission.

The Navy confirmed that the humanist chaplain candidate was not offered a commission but was not able to elaborate due to privacy concerns. However, we hope the Navy simply recognized that a humanist could not by definition meet the religious and ecclesiastical qualifications for service as a military chaplain as established in DOD regulations including DOD Instruction 1304.28. When attempts were made last year in the House of Representatives to change DOD policy to allow for the service of atheist chaplains, Members of Congress rejected such proposals by a wide, bi-partisan margin, recognizing that individuals who do not believe in a God cannot fulfill the core spiritual and pastoral role of a military chaplain. Both the House and the Senate this year included report language accompanying their respective versions of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act praising the role that the military chaplaincy has played since its creation under General Washington in providing spiritual comfort to our Armed Forces and counsel to commanders on how to provide for the free exercise of religion. The Navy’s decision today ensures that the core mission of the chaplaincy will not be undermined.

Lest the perennial grumblers start to complain again about preferring one religion over another, it should be pointed out that we are absolutely for freedom of religion for all, and fully support chaplains from diverse religions. But the key word in all of this is “religion.” Religion — defining man’s relationship to God — cannot be maintained by removing God from the equation. What remains is not a religion, but only a worldview. And no one here is seeking to suppress any worldview or prevent discussion about any and all philosophical outlooks within the military ranks. But not all worldviews are automatically entitled to be deemed to meet the requirements of a military position created with an explicitly religious focus.

FREEDOM TO PROGRESSION vs. Freedom of Religion

by Travis Weber

May 29, 2014

Recently, two UVA undergrads — Gregory Lewis and Stephanie Montenegro — sent a letter to one of the most esteemed UVA law professors telling him he doesn’t realize how his opinions on religion and marriage are impacting the real world (read: hurting their cause).They also submitted a FOIA request seeking “university-funded travel expenses and cellphone records for the past two-and-a-half years,” among other things. You see, they desperately needed “a full, transparent accounting of the resources used by Professor Laycock which may be going towards halting the progress of the LGBT community and to erode the reproductive rights of women across the country.”

Apparently, differences of opinion are fine when they don’t impact anything, but once opinions impact life, we can no longer have differences in opinion. Yet the students went too far, and their agenda is rather obvious. Their actions, reminiscent of Soviet-era government control, have drawn opposition from across political, legal, and cultural isles.

Brian Leiter, an influential law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, says:

[S]tudents requesting [Laycock’s] e-mails are engaged in harassment and intimidation that infringe upon his academic freedom. Cut it out, kids! No good will come of this kind of mischief. (You also won’t succeed in stifling Prof. Laycock, so you’re also wasting your time. Try talking to him! He’s not that scary.)”

Professor Stephen Bainbridge of the UCLA School of Law notes:

You don’t start a dialogue with FOIA requests. This is a blatant effort at deterring public participation by anyone who does not hew 100% to the most radical version of the gay rights movement.”

Walter Olson chimes in:

It’s simply a matter of trying to arm-twist a tenured, well-recognized scholar who takes a position that the Forces of Unanimity consider wrong.”

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate points out: “[W]e should be careful about throwing around disingenuous terms like “dialogue” and “transparency” and “conversation” when we are really attempting to lecture and embarrass and chill.”

What unites this opposition is a recognition the civil liberties are important. People are (and should be) upset with the UVA students for abusing a respected public university system in their attempt to move public life in the United States one step closer to a totalitarian system, in which dissent is not permitted and disagreement is not authorized.

In their letter, Lewis and Montenegro write: “As leaders on the UVA campus, we strongly believe in engaging in dialogue … .” Baloney. Professor Laycock said he would welcome such a dialogue. Yet there was no dialogue, only an “open letter” and a FOIA request. Who sends a “letter” instead of walking across campus to express one’s concerns to Professor Laycock? People without the fortitude to have their beliefs challenged, or people who know their ideas would lose on intellectual and constitutional merit, and would rather force others to adopt them through naming and shaming.

The students continue: “It is vitally important to balance the collective work of our academic community with the collective impact of that work in communities across the country.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t sound like anything much in support of individual civil liberties.

Contrast the students’ drivel with Professor Laycock’s view: “My position is civil liberties applies to both sides. It applies to all Americans.” Apparently not, according to his opponents.

The student’s “letter” barely tries to hide its political ends, which all but dispose of constitutional rights as legal protections for the civil liberties of all Americans. The students write: “Your recent legal theories around religious liberty have occasionally placed you on the same side as progressives in terms of free speech and public prayer. But your work has also been cited, by you and by others, in attempts to erode progress for LGBT Americans and to erode protections for women. These efforts to roll back progress and protections for LGBT folks and women has drastic, real-life consequences.” (emphasis added). So much for Professor Laycock’s “free speech” when it “occasionally place[s]” him “on the [other] side” of “progressives.”

Lewis comments: “The strategy of the FOIA request is to put everything on the table,” he said. “We don’t think he’s doing anything wrong; it’s just looking at whether he knows how it’s being used.” Yeah, I’m sure Professor Laycock needs to be reminded of who he’s called on his phone over the past two and a half years, and once such information is “on the table,” he’ll realize the error of his ways and completely repent. I’m less sure whether idiocy or arrogance is more prevalent in the students’ comments.

Now, on to the rather obvious point regarding FOIAs, which has already been pointed out: “The purpose of the [FOIA] requests is to allow citizens and taxpayers to keep track of what their public servants are doing, not to hassle public servants whose opinions you don’t like.”

As Professor Laycock says, “There’s a whole range of positions here, there is no anti-gay rights position in any of them.” What Laycock means is he is for religious liberty and for gay rights. This statement lies at the crux of the matter, for the gay rights advocates opposing Laycock here see his pro-religious liberty positions as “anti-gay rights.” Whether the country chooses to believe this falsehood, and adopt the view that required compliance with pro-gay rights policies trumps all free speech and free exercise, and all other rights protected by the Constitution, will ultimately affect the larger ordering of our society around civil liberties and tolerance and will determine nothing less than the fate of our civilization.

A Christian coalescence of dissent in the face of intolerance

by Travis Weber

May 15, 2014

In USA Today, Kirsten Powers has noted (accurately) that the censorship police of public thought are stepping up their surveillance activities once again, to the point that the “guidelines” for what is deemed “acceptable” are becoming incoherent. She states: “Don’t bother trying to make sense of what beliefs are permitted and which ones will get you strung up in the town square. Our ideological overlords have created a minefield of inconsistency. While criticizing Islam is intolerant, insulting Christianity is sport.”

Among a number of illuminating examples of this ridiculousness, Ms. Powers cites the Benham brothers having their HGTV show cancelled, and Brendan Eich being forced to resign from Mozilla, simply because they both politely, respectfully, took positions in support of what the Bible says about marriage, and refused to budge from those positions. The censors are infuriated that anyone would dare have such opinions (never mind they are politely and respectfully articulated).

It is heartening to see Ms. Powers bring attention to people being marginalized merely for holding such views. During the furor over HB 1062 which would have amended the Arizona RFRA to protect business owners of conscience from having such censorship rammed down their throats, Ms. Powers opposed the bill and claimed it was in essence a right to discriminate. As I stated then and as I hold now, HB 1062 was falsely characterized as such and this error was repeated through outlandish levels of media hype and venting without much considered thought. In truth, the bill merely extended constitutional free exercise protections explicitly to businesses, and to individuals facing the impact of nondiscrimination laws in lawsuits to which the government is not a party. The courts would always have decided (and still do decide) the merits of such claims. Such a bill was (and is) needed in the face of public opinion that is simply intolerant of anyone who stands up and says (respectfully or not): “I believe what the Bible says about marriage is true.” The wave of intolerance of such a view will not voluntarily cease upon achieving legal or political goals. It will stamp out all dissent, and laws are needed to protect dissenters (which now includes Christians holding to the view that marriage should be between a man and a woman).

Ms. Powers may disagree with my suggestion that her recent column reveals her support for the principles behind HB 1062. It could be that she views her recent column as arguing for individual rights and the right to object, while she opposed HB 1062 as a majority imposition (in her view) on individual rights. However, as I suggested above, the bill is not and never was a majoritarian imposition of any views. Perhaps Ms. Powers was proceeding (as many were) under the mass media’s snow job misrepresenting the Arizona bill, and really didn’t understand that it protects the very people she defends here. But I know she’s sharp, and could have investigated the bill’s application of constitutional strict scrutiny a bit more before expressing her views. It could also be that her views are genuinely changing, as she observes the culture and filters it through her moral compass to conclude how law should apply (if only all Americans would do this). Again, all this is speculation, as I have not had the opportunity to ask her about her views directly. But Ms. Powers’ recent recognition of the very troubling issues regarding tolerance in our democracy is heartening. More need to make the same recognition.

Recently, in the City Journal, Michael Totten describes the laparoscopic invasion of citizens’ private lives by Cuba’s communist government which he observed during a visit to that country. He finds his view of Havana consistent with that of Cuban dissident author Yoani Sánchez, who sarcastically notes: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

The United States has not reached that level of overt government intrusion. Indeed, its citizens would revolt. But our culture is reaching dangerous levels of “tolerance” for intolerance. As discussed in the Wall Street Journal, and as noted by Ms. Powers, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, recently withdrew as the Smith College commencement speaker after students started a petition objecting to her invitation. The offense? Ms. Lagarde’s “work directly contributes” to “imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

Christians holding to Biblical views have long been unwelcome in certain spheres. The intolerance is increasing, however. And as those who hold to Biblical truth find themselves ousted from more and more areas of society, they will naturally be forced to coalesce together in an opposition to the Orwellian views espoused by many today.

If the antics surrounding Ms. Lagarde and others accurately demonstrate the level to which “tolerance” has become intolerance, our America — what used to be a classical liberal democracy — is in need of serious help. It’s all hands on deck. Thankfully, Ms. Powers is on board.

How hard is it to flip on a light switch on a Saturday?

by Travis Weber

May 9, 2014

That was the essence of the rhetorical question posed by attorney Noel Francisco, counsel for the D.C. Archdiocese, to the 3-judge panel hearing oral arguments yesterday at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the consolidated cases of Priests for Life v. Sebelius and Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. v. Sebelius. The plaintiff organizations in these cases object on religious grounds to being forced by law to provide coverage to certain contraceptives — contraceptives that would otherwise be required under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and associated regulations. The organizations are challenging the government’s requirement that they “certify” they have objections to these contraceptives by signing a form, thus entitling them to an “accommodation” from the law’s scheme under which employers must ensure their insurers provide ACA-compliant coverage. The signed form then triggers government coverage of such contraceptives for the employees of the objecting organizations.

In the organizations’ view, however, this scheme forcing them to play a part in the provision of such contraceptives compels them by law to directly violate Catholic Church teaching by making them complicit in the moral wrong of abortion, and thus constitutes a “substantial burden” on their religious practice. This injury led them to bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, under which the government can only “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” when its regulation “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The substantial burden still exists even if all the organizations had to do was sign a form certifying they had such objections. It was not the act of picking up the pen and signing the paper that constituted a substantial burden, Mr. Francisco told the judges, but rather the crushing weight of conscience accompanying such an action which violated the very core of their being. It was not the relative ease or difficulty of a specific act which led to the burden, but rather the crushing moral and spiritual compulsion of knowing one is complicit in a moral wrong with the exercise of that one, small, physical act.

Enter Mr. Francisco’s question from my title here. Just like his clients, who feel compelled to violate beliefs going to the core of who they are even by the small act of signing a piece of paper, a Jewish business owner who believes his religion demands he rest on the Sabbath is compelled to violate his conscience when forced to work on Saturday by the small, bur significant, physical act of flipping on the light switch at his business. He is not substantially burdened merely by the physical act of flipping on the switch, but rather by the heavy weight of conscience telling him he is violating all he lives for once he accomplishes that one little flick of his finger.

Satire upon Satire upon Galloway

by Travis Weber

May 7, 2014

At the New Yorker, satirist Andy Borowitz provided his comments on the Town of Greece v. Galloway case. At first, I thought he was satirizing the dissent and its idea that the public square could be “religious free.” Then I caught myself and realized he was satirizing the majority opinion. Borowitz writes:

In what legal experts are calling a landmark decision, on Monday the United States Supreme Court struck down what many believe to be the main reason the country was started.

By a five-to-four vote, the Court eliminated what grade-school children have traditionally been taught was one of the key rationales for founding the United States in the first place.

The separation of church and state has been a cornerstone of American democracy for over two hundred years,” said Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority. “Getting rid of it was long overdue.”

Calling the decision “historic,” Justice Antonin Scalia was guarded in predicting what the Court might accomplish next.

Last year, we gutted the Voting Rights Act, and today we did the First Amendment,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what’s left.”

The reason for my initial (mistaken) impression in identifying the target of his satire, however, is that it SO eloquently describes Justice Kagan’s dissent in Galloway. Borowitz could have written (about the main dissent):

In what legal experts are calling a landmark decision, on Monday the United States Supreme Court struck down what many believe to be the main reason the country was started—[religious freedom].”

By a five-to-four vote, the Court eliminated what grade-school children have traditionally been taught was one of the key rationales for founding the United States in the first place—[freedom from government interference with their religious practices].”

The separation of church and state [Religious freedom] has been a cornerstone of American democracy for over two hundred years,” said Justice [Elena Kagan] Samuel Alito, writing for the majority. “Getting rid of it was long overdue.”

Calling the decision “historic,” Justice [Stephen Breyer] Antonin Scalia was guarded in predicting what the Court might accomplish next.

Last year, we gutted the [Defense of Marriage Act] Voting Rights Act, and today we did the First Amendment,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what’s left.”

[People have had the ability to pray according to their conscience for far too long,” Kagan continued. “It’s about time religious freedom is sidelined so the government can once again edit prayers for nonsectarian compliance, in accord with the proud Establishment traditions of the Old World].”

Borowitz might be disheartened (or perhaps heartened) to know his satire is actually (unwittingly) poking fun at the liberty-opposing dissent in Galloway. Nevertheless, it does. Indeed, it was Justice Kagan and her fellow dissenters who would have the government in the business of editing prayers for compliance with nonsectarian principles established by the government. Such government interference with religion was the very tyranny the Founders fled from. It was unconstitutional then, and is equally unconstitutional today.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

by Travis Weber

May 6, 2014

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Town of Greece in a challenge to its legislative prayer practice. This is a major win for religious liberty, and for the free expression of religion in public spaces.

So what happened?

The Town of Greece, New York, had for years maintained a practice of permitting local ministers from the area to offer a brief prayer before town board meetings. The town opened these meetings to all ministers who would respond, and never exercised control over, edited, or censored the content of prayers. Even though the town opened the opportunity to ministers of all faiths, the town was overwhelmingly Christian, so the responding ministers happened to be Christian. Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ____ (2014) (slip op., at 1-3). After Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, the town invited Jewish, Baha’i, and even a Wiccan priestess to give prayers. Id. at 3-4. Galloway and Linda Stephens still sued, claiming the town “preferred” Christianity — as a remedy, the plaintiffs asked the town to limit prayers to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers referencing a “generic God” not associating the government with one belief. Id. at 4.

What did the Supreme Court say?

The Court began its analysis by relying on Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), in which it held that there was no Establishment Clause violation when a state legislature opened session with a prayer by a chaplain paid by state funds. Galloway, slip op., at 6. None of the Establishment Clause “tests” apply in this context, the Court continued, for “history support[s] the conclusion that legislative invocations are compatible with the Establishment Clause.” Id. at 7. “[I]t is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted.” Id. at 8. Setting the groundwork for future cases, the Court continued: “Any test the Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.” Id. at 8. “A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled” — such as legislative prayer — “would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause seeks to prevent.” Id. at 8.

After these preliminary remarks, the Court restated the question before it: to determine “whether the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” Id. at 9. In doing so, it addressed the opponents’ two main arguments.

Opponents’ first argument: Any prayer must be nonsectarian, or not identifiable with any one religion (in this case the prayers “use[d] overtly Christian terms” or “invoke specifics of Christian theology”).

The Court’s response: The Court responded that “[a]n insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer” in the Court’s jurisprudence. The Court found the prayers in Marsh consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a generic theism but because our history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could ‘coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.’” Id. at 10. The Court noted that specific Christian references during legislative prayers have been made throughout the history of our country, and Congress has also permitted Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim prayers. Id. at 10-11. “[T]he contention that legislative prayer must be generic or nonsectarian” is “irreconcilable” with a proper reading of precedent, for “Marsh nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content.” Id. at 11-12. In Marsh, and in its present ruling, “the Court instructed that the ‘content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,’ provided ‘there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.’” Id. at 12.

The Court drilled in on the precise issue: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.” Id. at 12-13. Government-mandated prayer language would not be much different from legislatures requiring “chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere.” Id. at 13. “Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy” — this is a “contradiction that cannot be accepted.” Id. at 13 (quoting Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 590 (1992).

Indeed, it would be quite ironic for the government to “establish” its version of nonsectarian prayers in an effort to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. As the Court noted, such “‘untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality’ must not lead to ‘a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular.’” Id. at 13 (quoting School Dist. of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 306 (1963) (Goldberg, J., concurring)).

Ironically, while the opponents of the prayers in this case are upset that only “majority” religions will have their prayers recited, they violate their own principle of upholding minority religious interests in desiring to craft “non-sectarian” prayers acceptable to…..well, a majority of those present. The Court repudiated such thinking with the following reminder: “The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian,” so long as the prayer does not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion. Id. at 14-15. Indeed, the Court’s opinion upholding the “all comers” policy actually protects minority interest.

Finally, the Court noted, the town’s policy (which was open to prayers of all faiths) was not unconstitutional merely because nearly all the congregations in the town were Christian. As long as the town does not discriminate (which it did not), it is not required to search for some type of unattainable “religious balancing.” Id. at 17-18.

Opponents’ second argument: The opponents of the prayer also argued that the town’s prayer practice “coerces participation by nonadherents” because “the setting and conduct of the town board meetings created social pressures that force non adherents to remain in the room or even feign participation in order to avoid offending the representatives who sponsor the prayer and will vote on matters citizens bring before the board.” Id. at 18.

The Court’s response: The town of Greece, “through the act of offering a brief, solemn, and respectful prayer to open its monthly meetings,” did not “compel[] its citizens to engage in a religious observance.” Id. at 19. The Court acknowledged that “[t]he analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity,” yet “[n]o such thing occurred in the town of Greece.” Id. at 20. The opponents may have felt “offended,” but as the Court pointed out, “[o]ffense … does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.” Id. at 21. “[L]egislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.” Id. at 22.

It was heartening to see Justice Kennedy observe that “since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” and thus, the prayer policy of the Town of Greece “is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.” Id. at 23. The Court concluded: “The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” Id. at 24.

Concurring opinions:

Justice Alito was joined by Justice Scalia in his concurring opinion, where he responded to the dissent’s charges that the town should have required nonsectarian prayers and brought in representatives from different religions. Obviously, one of the concerns of adopting a policy of general nonsectarian prayers is facing the question of who screens such prayers and decides exactly what level of “nonsectarian” quality is required before permitting the prayer. Galloway, slip op., at 5 (Alito, J., concurring). Justice Alito also reiterated that requiring local governments to compile a list of potential prayer-givers in a certain way would only confuse already confusing Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Id. at 7.

Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion (joined by Justice Scalia) in which he argued the Establishment Clause was not meant to be incorporated as to the states, but even if it was, the prayer policy here does not violate it. Galloway, slip op., at 1-5 (Thomas, J., concurring). Justice Thomas argued that in accordance with the Founders’ positions on this issue, only legal coercion regarding a certain religious belief would violate the Establishment Clause. Id. at 7.

Dissenting opinions:

Justice Breyer dissented and ultimately concluded — albeit based on his “legal judgment” as opposed to any standard or legal test — that because the prayers were almost all Christian, the Town of Greece did “too little to reflect the religious diversity of its citi­zens.” Galloway, slip op., at 5-6 (Breyer, J., dissenting).

Justice Kagan also dissented for similar reasons, and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor in her dissent. She believed the Town of Greece violated the “norm of religious equality” conferred by the First Amendment, Galloway, slip op., at 1 (Kagan, J., dissenting), by not doing enough to ensure diverse prayers of various faiths were presented. According to Justice Kagan, the town could have also presented more nonsectarian prayers, which in her view, it did not. Justice Kagan argued that the Town of Greece, in permitting explicitly Christian prayers, caused citizens who came before the town to conduct business to feel compelled to participate in order to not interfere with their government business. Id. at 2-8. She believed the prayers here were “addressed directly to the Town’s citizenry,” as opposed to being addressed to the legislators like in Marsh, and “were more sectarian, and less inclusive, than anything this Court sustained in Marsh.” Id. at 9. In essence, like Justice Breyer, Justice Kagan believed the town did not do enough to promote religious diversity, and thus its prayer policy was unconstitutional.

What do I say?

The main dispute between the majority and the dissenters in this case was over whether the Town of Greece was required to take active steps to ensure more religious diversity in the prayers offered before meetings. None of the justices could dispute the prayer policy permitted all comers — it clearly permitted those of all faiths to come and offer prayers in accordance with their beliefs. For the majority such a policy was constitutional. Justice Kagan and her fellow dissenters, however, would have required the policy to be more highly publicized to representatives of all faiths to ensure they knew they could come and pray, and would have liked the town to take additional steps to ensure more faiths were represented. For the justices in the majority, a policy of nondiscrimination between religions was enough (thus permitting the town to remain passive and out of religious determinations), while the dissenters are promoting active government interference in religion by requiring the town to determine what efforts are sufficiently “inclusive.”

Here’s my problem with the dissenters’ view — it would have required the town to (1) either mandate a sufficiently nonsectarian prayer (thus requiring the town to be the active arbiter of what is sufficiently nonsectarian) or (2) take steps to ensure more diversity (thus actively involving the town in deciding how and what religious views are solicited). In either case, town is taking proactive steps as regards religion.

If a town is drafting a “nonsectarian” prayer, who decides what is sufficiently nonsectarian? Who decides what words are included, and what phrases are used? There is obvious opportunity for abuse and unnecessary interference with religion by the government in such a scenario, which, thankfully, the majority recognized when it stated, “[t]o hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures … to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree … .” Galloway, slip op., at 12-13. Moreover, the problem with nonsectarian prayers is in seeking to associate the government with all beliefs, you water them down, and associate the government with nothing but muzzled incoherency.

If mandating more religious inclusivity, who decides what steps are needed? What methods are used? Should a town conduct a search within a fifty mile radius for ministers of different faiths? Is a phone call notifying those ministers sufficient? Or must the ministers be incentivized to come and pray? How many different faiths are required — four or five? Ten or eleven? Should ministers be invited in accordance with the percentage of the local population adhering to that religion? As is obvious, such questions are not only ridiculous, but involve the government in religious decision making, and all the opportunity for abuse that entails. In addition, Justice Kagan’s requirement of more religious inclusivity is open-ended, and would leave local governments guessing at what is required of them. The dissent’s position would open the door for more lawsuits regarding exactly what proactive steps are required.

In either scenario, the dissenters promote active government involvement in religious decision making, and thus interference with religion, the very things they claim to be against. Justice Kagan’s position would not do away with the problem of the government “align[ing] itself with, and plac[ing] its imprimatur on, a particular religious creed,” Galloway, slip op., at 5 (Kagan, J., dissenting), but would merely shift the legal battleground into how much government promotion of religious diversity is required.

Free from moral authority?

by Travis Weber

April 25, 2014

In a recent blog post explaining his refusal to support a statement pertaining to free expression and political positions on marriage, Professor Ilya Somin claims there’s a limit to the rule that people should be free from stigmatization for holding certain views. His own view is that people should not be stigmatized for opposing same-sex marriage, but should be for supporting the KKK:

Indeed, there has never been a society, no matter how liberal, that did not regard at least some ideas as “beyond the pale.”

… .

In an ideal world where everyone carefully weighs opposing arguments strictly on the basis of logic and evidence, stigmatization would be both ineffective and unnecessary. In the real world, unfortunately, it can be a necessary evil, albeit only in extreme cases.”

In so holding, Professor Somin is making a moral judgment. But what is it based on? I’m not opposing his rule here, but only pointing out that it begs the question: to what moral code or ethical authority does he look in determining what views should and should not be stigmatized?

Schuette, Marriage, and Democratic Rights

by Travis Weber

April 25, 2014

What do all these things have to do with one another? On April 22, 2014, in Schuette v. BAMN, the Supreme Court ruled on a constitutional challenge to a Michigan ballot measure providing that its state government, along with universities and schools, “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin… .” Opponents claimed that such a measure violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that it prevented race-based preferences which were needed to achieve equality. Proponents claimed a measure mandating equal protection under the law regardless of race could not possibly violate the Equal Protection Clause. Without deciding the issue of whether race-based preferences themselves were constitutional, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court distinguished this case from others in which a law was enacted to address a specific history of discrimination, and sided with the proponents in holding that this law mandating equal treatment did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. But how did the Court really get there?

While the case carried with it much emotion, and dragged around a legal thicket of cases dealing with race-based preferences in education, Justice Kennedy’s decision was remarkable in weighing heavily in favor of permitting voters to decide how their states will handle difficult and sensitive public policy issues. It is true, as the Court reminded us, that constitutional rights must be respected and cannot be overridden by the voters. But “[t]here was recognition that our federal structure “‘permits innovation and experimentation’ and ‘enables greater citizen involvement in democratic processes.’”Scheutte v. BAMN, 572 U.S.___ (2014) (slip op., at 4-5) (quoting Bond v. United States, 564 U.S.__ (2011) (slip op., at 9)).

Consider the following reasoning by Justice Kennedy, which could just as well be applied to a challenge to a state marriage law:

  • ‘[T]he States may perform their role as laboratories for experimentation to devise various solutions… .’” Schuette, slip op., at 4 (quoting United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 581 (1995) (Kennedy, J., concurring)).
  • [Windsor] Grutter acknowledged the significance of a dialogue regarding this contested and complex policy question among and within States.” Schuette, slip op., at 4.
  • While this case arises in Michigan, the decision by the State’s voters reflects in part the national dialogue regarding the wisdom and practicality of [legalizing same-sex marriage] race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.” Schuette, slip op., at 5.
  • Perhaps, when enacting policies as an exercise of democratic self-government, voters will determine that [a preference for natural marriage] race-based preferences should be adopted… . The holding in the instant case is simply that the courts may not disempower the voters from choosing which path to follow. In the realm of policy discussions the regular give-and-take of debate ought to be a context in which rancor or discord based on race are avoided, not invited. And if these factors are to be interjected, surely it ought not to be at the invitation or insistence of the courts.” Schuette, slip op., at 13.
  • The Court, by affirming the judgment now before it, in essence would announce a finding that the past 15 years of state public debate on this issue have been improper.”
  • By approving Proposal 2 and thereby adding §26 to their State Constitution, the Michigan voters exercised their privilege to enact laws as a basic exercise of their democratic power. In the federal system States respond, through the enactment of positive law, to the initiative of those who seek a voice in shaping the destiny of their own times. Michigan voters used the initiative system to bypass public officials who were deemed not responsive to the concerns of a majority of the voters with respect to a policy of [how to define marriage for their own state] granting race-based preferences that raises difficult and delicate issues.” Schuette, slip op., at 15 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).
  • Yet freedom does not stop with individual rights. Our constitutional system embraces, too, the right of citizens to debate so they can learn and decide and then, through the political process, act in concert to try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure. Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject [touching upon how states will define the foundational institution of marriage] against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process.” Schuette, slip op., at 15-16.
  • The respondents in this case insist that a difficult question of public policy must be taken from the reach of the voters, and thus removed from the realm of public discussion, dialogue, and debate in an election campaign. Quite in addition to the serious First Amendment implications of that position with respect to any particular election, it is inconsistent with the underlying premises of a responsible, functioning democracy. One of those premises is that a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. That process is impeded, not advanced, by court decrees based on the proposition that the public cannot have the requisite repose to discuss certain issues. It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use [sexual] racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people. These First Amendment dynamics would be disserved if this Court were to say that the question here at issue is beyond the capacity of the voters to debate and then to determine.” Schuette, slip op., at 16-17.
  • The electorate’s instruction to governmental entities not to embark upon the course of race defined and race-based preferences was adopted, we must assume, because the voters deemed preference system to be unwise, on account of what voters may deem its latent potential to become itself a source of the very resentments and hostilities based on race that this Nation seeks to put behind it.” Schuette, slip op., at 18.
  • This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.” Schuette, slip op., at 18.
  • Deliberative debate on sensitive issues such as racial preferences all too often may shade into rancor. But that does not justify removing certain court-determined issues from the voters’ reach. Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate.” Schuette, slip op., at 18.

This is strong language from the Court justifying its decision to leave sensitive public policy issues for the voters of each state to decide. The Court should apply the same reasoning to any challenge to a state marriage law. Apart from the lack of support for a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, this is a sensitive issue touching on how communities within America choose to live and organize themselves. The Court shows wisdom in staying out of such issues in Scheutte, and it should stay out of such issues in the context of state marriage laws.

Justice Kennedy’s justifications for declining to involve the Court in classifying racial groups according to their interests is also of some relevance to marriage. If courts should not determine the interest of groups as regards race because such a “venture not only would [] be undertaken with no clear legal standards or accepted sources to guide judicial decision but also it would result in, or at least impose a high risk of, inquiries and categories dependent upon demeaning stereotypes, classifications of questionable constitutionality on their own terms,” Schuette, slip op., at 12, why should the court not also avoid perpetuating “classifications of questionable constitutionality” in the same-sex marriage context?

Consider the following:

  • The Court properly refused to review under strict scrutiny “[a]ny state action with a ‘[marriage] racial focus’ that makes it ‘more difficult for certain [marriage] racial minorities than for other groups’ to ‘achieve legislation that is in their interest.’”
  • In essence, according to the broad reading of [Windsor] Seattle, any state action with a “[sexual] racial focus” that makes it “more difficult for certain [sexual] racial minorities than for other groups” to “achieve legislation that is in their interest” is subject to strict scrutiny. It is this reading of [Windsor] Seattlethat the [district courts] Court of Appeals found to be controlling here. And that reading must be rejected.”

If providing minority groups with the advantage of constitutional strict scrutiny in order to achieve legislation “that is in their interest” would not be considered constitutionally required, Schuette, slip op., at 11, it must be asked: why bless with strict scrutiny the almost identical claims of same-sex marriage groups, though they be in the minority, are “legislatively disadvantaged,” and certainly have had difficulty in achieving their “interests” legislatively?

Indeed, it is precisely because they’ve had only limited success in state legislatures that proponents of same-sex marriage have sought constitutional rulings in order to ensure these “matters [are] foreclosed from voter review or participation.” Schuette, slip op., at 13. “Including” a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution will ensure that no states’ rights are protected, voters will grow disenfranchised at being shut out of the political process, and states will be denied their place as “laboratories” according to the design of the federal constitutional structure.

Despite lower courts’ attempts to twist their way out of the law, well-settled Supreme Court jurisprudence has always mandated the result that the Constitution does not provide a right to same-sex marriage. No such right is enumerated, and cannot now be invented at this time. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997). The Court should decline to dictate a federal constitutional right to same sex marriage and should leave this determination to the states. The reasoning in Schuette v. BAMN makes this result more hopeful.

War on the Pledge: new tactics, but the same tired thinking

by Travis Weber

April 23, 2014

The American Humanist Association (AHA) recently filed suit against the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District. The offending action? The school district is following a state law providing that students recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day. The thinking behind this and other suits is the same tired thinking that any such mention of God in a public body violates constitutional protections. Usually some alleged violation of the Establishment Clause is claimed.

Yet here, the AHA and its plaintiffs (who remain anonymous) have alleged that this recitation of the Pledge violates Equal Protection provisions contained in the New Jersey Constitution. No doubt this is an attempt to test a legal pathway for success in knocking the Pledge out of public life. This would be a win for the AHA, which likely cares very little for legal integrity but very much in achieving its goal. Yet the idea that the Pledge discriminates against some students is ridiculous. Students already have the right to refrain from reciting the Pledge. The AHA and its “plaintiffs” in this case want to force everyone else to stop saying it too.

While the AHA identifies itself, the offended student and parents remain unidentified. While reasons for anonymity in litigation vary from case to case, here it is likely they are afraid of the pushback they would receive should they be known as the plaintiffs in this suit. Yet pushback would be understandable, especially when one is the catalyst for a meddling organization to come in from out of state and tell local students and their parents how to live their lives day to day.

Yet the philosophy underlying this and similar claims begs a larger discussion. As courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause to eliminate even relatively minor indicia of religious expression from public life on the grounds that such mention is state “endorsement” of religion, public bodies are left to operate in a philosophical vacuum. Courts have permitted public schools to “endorse” secularism and humanist principles. The result is an “establishment” of a “state philosophy” and orthodoxy of secularism, with the full force of the government and power of law promoting these beliefs.

As a result, the courts have bought into a lie that scrubbing God from public life to “comply” with the Establishment Clause will lead to the ideal result – an even playing field in which no one view is promoted. Yet a philosophical vacuum cannot exist for long. And since indicia of religion are being eliminated from public schools, indicia of alternative belief systems (secularism and humanism) have rushed in to fill the void. The result is that we are indeed left with a state established religion – the “religion” of humanism.

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