How should social change affect how we think about laws on religious freedom? On Sunday Governor Mike Pence defended his state’s religious freedom law, noting that the President had voted for a similar law protecting religious freedom twenty years previously when he was an Illinois State Senator. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman responded: “If you have to go back two decades to justify what you’re doing today, it may raise questions.” It is hard to come up with a more perfect encapsulation of the progressive mindset: even a two decades-old position carries no epistemic weight with the present.
In my previous post, I laid out the two new principles flowing from the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the matter of labor-union organizing at Pacific Lutheran University. The NLRB may now, as per its December 2014 decision, regulate religiously affiliated colleges and universities heretofore considered outside its jurisdiction. Secondly, the Board has established narrow criteria under which faculty at a religiously affiliated, or in fact any other, college or university can be considered “management.” In so doing, it has facilitated the formation of labor unions in higher education. Full-time faculty have, as I had noted, generally been…
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) handed down a decision in December 2014 that has great import for the relationship of church and state as that relationship plays out through institutions of higher learning.
The decision dealt with the Service Employees International Union’s attempt to organize contingent (part-time and non-tenure track) faculty at Pacific Lutheran University, a religiously affiliated institution. The NLRB, by a vote of 3 to 2, articulated with this decision two new principles: first, regarding labor regulation of religiously affiliated colleges and universities, and second, deciding whether and to what extent faculty are to be considered “management” and hence exempt from the Board’s jurisdiction.
The Hobby Lobby case, “one of most publicized controversies in decades involving a religious claim,” in the words of Columbia law professor Kent Greenawalt, prevented the Obama administration from mandating under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that all employers cover all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration—even those drugs and devices that objecting employers believe “cause the demise of an already conceived but not-yet-attached human embryo.”
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibits the government from forcing closely held, family-owned corporations to cover such drugs and devices if a less restrictive means is available. One less restrictive means available to the administration, the Court noted, was to extend to such corporations the significant concessions the Obama administration already made for objecting, religious non-profits. This is a step the administration is now taking.
It was a high-profile win for religious objectors. Nonetheless, the highest percentage of Americans in a decade, according to the Pew Research Center, see religion’s influence as waning. How can this be?
The recent decision by the California State University system to enforce its “all comers” policy against religious groups on its 23 campuses is the latest in a disturbing and (at least in some cases) unprincipled effort to rid colleges and universities of conservative religious groups with creedal faith statements.
The Supreme Court bears much of the blame. In its 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Court unwisely upheld the nondiscrimination policy of the Hastings College of the Law, a public law school in San Francisco. Its “all comers” policy is that student groups must admit as members and even leaders any student who wants to participate. The Republican club must accept Democrats. The pro-choice club must accept pro-lifers. The Jewish club must accept Christians.
In May some of us were waiting, with apprehension and hope, for the outcome in the Hobby Lobby case; but we were lifted with relief–and with an unexpected delight—by the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. We would have been grateful if the Court had been willing to do no more than sustain the practice of having invocations to God as the prelude to the town meeting in this small town in New York. As Justice Kennedy noted, the First Congress had moved to appoint chaplains only days after approving the language for the First Amendment. To pronounce those prayers as illegitimate now under the Establishment Clause would have marked a telling moment in driving religion entirely out of the public square. But instead of settling the case on that ground, the Court did far more: Justice Kennedy made it clear that these prayers did not have to be watered down to something so generic, so purged of the possibilities of offending, that they would be scrubbed of any identifiable religious character. They did not have to be submerged in vague “non-sectarian” prayers offered merely to the “divine,” whether that was the God of the Bible or “forces in the universe.”
Print up a bunch of money, and the value of money is almost sure to decline. Make up a host of new rights and the value of rights is likely to plummet as well. As our modern experience demonstrates.
Simplifying, we might imagine three stages in the devaluation of rights. In stage one (which, like the “state of nature,” probably never quite existed), a right would be categorical. If you have a right to freedom of speech, say, this would mean that you can say whatever you want (at least within the scope of the right’s coverage) and the government cannot sanction or restrict you. Period. Justice Black sometimes talked as if freedom of speech were or should be an absolute right. The average lay person may sometimes think this is what a right means.
My late leader of days long gone, the first Mayor Daley of Chicago, once poured out his heart about life in the political arena: “I have been vilified, I have been crucified, I have been ….criticized!” Well, I haven’t been vilified or crucified, but I have been criticized vigorously for my writings in this space on the reasoning in the Hobby Lobby case, and criticized by a long-time friend, the Editor of the Public Discourse, Ryan Anderson. My response reveals his critique, while at the same time it may sharpen and deepen the argument.
This week it’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the “contraception mandate” that are provoking discussion. But beyond the specific facts and carefully narrow decision in Hobby Lobby runs a more general and perennial question: Does freedom of religion mean that sincere religious objectors have a qualified (not categorical) right to be exempted from otherwise applicable laws– a draft law, a compulsory schooling law, a regulation requiring employers to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and some abortifacients? At least according to the conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court’s answer to that question for many decades was “no.”