The recent case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer raises the question of whether a church can be excluded from a competitive process for awarding state aid—in this case funding rubber floors on playgrounds to protect children when they fall.
The most powerful doctrinal argument for the Church is that a decision in its favor treats the Free Exercise Clause like other constitutional rights. A citizen (or other bearer of rights) cannot be forced to give up something provided by the state because he is exercising a constitutional right, absent a compelling state interest. As Justice Elena Kagan said at oral argument, “it is as strong as any constitutional principle that there is, that when we have a program of funding — and here we’re funding playground surfaces — that everybody is entitled that funding, to — to that particular funding, whether or not they exercise a constitutional right.”
Justice Kagan was describing the so-called unconstitutional conditions doctrine and she was correct that it is regularly applied across the range of constitutional rights. It is the pull of this doctrine and the felt need to make its application consistent that it is likely to move a very large majority of the Court, including Justices Kagan and Breyer, to rule in favor of the Church.
The arguments made in the oral argument against the doctrine of unconstitutional condition in this case are weak. One was that the program at issue here was competitive rather than universal.
In his magisterial Separation of Church and State (2002), Philip Hamburger demonstrates that anti-Catholic animus contributed significantly to the post-Civil War movement to separate church and state. In the 19th century, this separation was usually between states and “sectarian” Catholic institutions and programs. “Non-sectarian” Protestant institutions and programs were largely exempt.
At the national level, the most notable manifestation of this anti-Catholic animus was the constitutional amendment proposed by Representative James Blaine (R-Maine) to prevent, among other things, public funding of schools “under the control of any religious sect.” Proposed in 1875, the amendment passed overwhelmingly in the House but did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate. However, many states soon amended their constitutions to include similar amendments. Missouri did so in the same year that Blaine’s Amendment failed in the Senate.
The embarrassing U.S. Commission on Civil Rights richly deserves the new name bestowed on it by the above headline. Its recent report to President Obama, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” contains nothing that is remotely likely to promote either peace or coexistence. To the contrary.
The history of American public education may be told as a history of gradual secularization driven not by religious neutrality but religious enthusiasm.
My general view on the Supreme Court is that it should do less. That nouveau libertarian George Will criticized the Court for resorting to “judicial minimalism” to achieve unanimity. But I, for one, find the Chief Justice’s emphasis on achieving modest but sustainable results refreshing. Judicial minimalism is generally better than the other extreme more characteristic of our time—judicial maximalism.
In some ways, my view is the opposite of that of the outstanding libertarian constitutional scholar Randy Barnett. Randy wants to combine the spirit of Lochner with the spirit of Roe to achieve a kind of consistent judicial activism based on the presumption of liberty on both the economic and the personal autonomy fronts. I doubt there’s a constitutional warrant for either kind of activism. As far as I can tell, our Framers made judicial review legal, but they also thought that in order for it to be safe, it would have to be rare.
The first day of teaching undergraduate constitutional law, I (not a lawyer) would take a well-regarded law school casebook, and I would ask a student to find the Dred Scott case in it. It was only referred to. Law schools have practical purposes, so why teach a case that is (mistakenly) regarded as completely irrelevant to contemporary law? Yet, unless one knows what the Reconstruction Amendments were presumably repudiating, how can one know what they stand for?