Last week, on January 16, America marked Religious Freedom Day. The day commemorates enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786, a precursor of the First Amendment. Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia statute disestablished religion in the commonwealth—“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever”—and prohibited civil penalties for the expression of religious belief—“all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” Jefferson saw the statute as one of his three great accomplishments; along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia, he directed that it be noted on his tombstone.
Connecticut’s Roger Sherman was the only Founder to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of American Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the U.S. Constitution (1787). As a member of the first federal Congress, he played an influential role in drafting the First Amendment.
Yet when Supreme Court justices have turned to history to interpret the Establishment Clause, they have referenced Sherman only three times. By way of contrast, Thomas Jefferson, a man who played no role in drafting or ratifying the amendment, is referenced 112 times.
Almost every constitutional law scholar—Left, Right, and center—agrees that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is, to put it kindly, confused. Much of the blame for this mess can be laid at the feet of Everson v. Board of Education, which turns 70 this year.
It does not take a sophisticated legal realist to recognize the hopelessness of any claim that the status of Christmas as a state or federal holiday violates the Establishment Clause. Justices don’t want to be the greatest grinches of all time.
And, in any event, under current law it is clear the current Christmas holiday is constitutional. It has a secular purpose and context as well as a religious one—most importantly being the anchor of the holiday season that more than any other boosts consumer spending. Evaluating Christmas as a holiday is a bit like evaluating Christmas displays themselves for constitutionality. A secular context, like enough dancing reindeers or increased GNP, can redeem the religious content. It may seem odd to a layman but the more crassly commercial Christmas becomes, the more it becomes legally safe as a holiday.
But instead of thinking what the current Establishment Clause doctrine means for the Christmas holiday, we can turn the question around and ask what the Christmas holiday means for the meaning of the Establishment Clause.
David Cortman showed remarkable poise and command last January when he made his first appearance before the Supreme Court. The case was Reed v. Gilbert, and he represented the cause of a small, fledgling church having no fixed site for its services. His masterful performance was recognized this week: victory, with a box score of 9 to 0. Cortman brought to the aid of this small congregation all of the dedication and resources of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
In the second book of the 16th century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.”
This next episode of Liberty Law Talk is with Steven Smith on his new book The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Our conversation explores Smith's challenge to the dominant academic narrative that the Supreme Court's mid-twentieth century decisions imposing secular neutrality vindicated the religion clauses of the First Amendment. In this version, their essence was to secure a government free of religion, tout court. But what if the First Amendment's original public meaning and subsequent practice reflected a very different essence? Our conversation begins with the history of the ratification of the First Amendment. What do we make of…
“As an initial matter, the Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion.” –Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Greece v. Galloway
“Probably”? As if the May 5, 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, upholding prayers said at the beginning of legislative meetings, didn’t upset strict separationists enough, Justice Clarence Thomas’s radically originalist concurring opinion was enough to bring on shouts for an exorcism. To the contrary, Thomas’s reasoning about the First Amendment establishment clause is the most rational way to preserve liberty, by recognizing the institutional principle of federalism as well as the individual right of religious free exercise. This becomes clear once we see this opinion in light of his earlier, lengthier establishment opinions.
I’m often asked whether it’s challenging to be a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity seriously, to which my answer is, first, no, and, second, I certainly prefer it to being a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity casually. In any event, my contributions to the institution’s Catholicity through participating in its intellectual life are warmly welcomed, and to the extent I am involved in ritual events, I treat them like I would treat being a guest in someone else’s home. Still, my colleagues have been accommodating nearly to a fault. In more than one setting, prayers have been ecumenically tailored to my presence—wholly unnecessarily, but considerately nonetheless.