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Government Must Exclude Religious Speech from Government Property, Writes Federal Judge

-- it says so right there in the First Amendment. Well, somewhere in there. Doesn't it?

Here's the key excerpt from near the start of Judge Karlton's concurrence in Faith Center Church v. Glover, a case in which the majority concludes (based on a more plausible argument, though one I think is still ultimately mistaken) that a library may exclude "religious worship" from a policy that opens library rooms broadly to "meetings, programs, or activities of educational, cultural, or community interest":

This should be a simple case it asks whether the county can be forced to subsidize a religious organization's prayer meetings by requiring it to provide the religious organization with a free place to worship. A quick reading of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States should answer the question. Judge Paez's opinion tracks the cases and reaches its laborious result because the law has so elaborated that the reaching of the conclusion requires the effort the opinion demonstrates. As I now explain, that elaboration is premised on a failure to accept the plain meaning of the First Amendment.

Both Good News Club v. Milford Cen. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001) and Lambs Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384 (1993), turn on the High Court's purported inability to distinguish between a sermon and a speech. That distinction, however, is compelled by the First Amendment, which establishes different standards relative to government action concerning speech and government action concerning religion. The purported inability of the High Court to adhere to the distinction embodied in the First Amendment leads it to conclude that the issues tendered by cases, such as the one at bar, implicate viewpoint discrimination under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. They simply do not. As the First Amendment notes, religious speech is categorically different than secular speech and is subject to analysis under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause without regard to the jurisprudence of free speech.

This is quite a remarkable and, in my view, entirely unsound argument. Consider the text of the relevant part of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ....

A "quick reading" of the "plain meaning" of the text reveals, I think, two relevant things. First, the Amendment bars "establishment of religion," a term that is hardly self-defining. At the very least, it's far from obvious that including religious speakers evenhandedly among many nonreligious beneficiaries of a government program -- including religious speech and even worship within the category of "meetings, programs, or activities of educational, cultural, or community interest" -- constitutes an "establishment of religion." There's just nothing "plain" about the meaning; some (though a minority on the Court) have read the phrase this way, but it's hardly something that a "quick reading" reveals.

But a quick reading does reveal that the First Amendment protects "freedom of speech," with no limitation to "secular speech." That the pre-semicolon part of the Amendment protects "the free exercise" "of religion" hardly "plain[ly]" keeps the post-semicolon part from protecting "speech" and "press" both secular and religious. It's certainly quite sensible to read the first clause as the Court has read it -- protecting the exercise of religion generally (whether against discriminatory burdens or against all burdens), including religious conduct as well as religious speech, and limiting the stablishment of religion (whatever that means) -- and at the same time to read the second clause as the Court has read it, which is protecting speech generally, including nonreligious speech as well as religious speech.

One may surely argue for the "wall of separation between church and state" interpretation of the Establishment Clause (which Judge Karlton later endorses), or the particular subinterpretation under which this "wall" mandates discriminatory exclusion of religious speech from generally available programs. One may even argue, though few Justices have, that religious speech cases should be analyzed "without regard to the jurisprudence of free speech." But most certainly this is not an argument that can be gotten simply through a "quick reading" that grasps the provision's "plain meaning."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. No Hostility to Religion Here! We Just Need to Discriminate Against Religious Speech To Insulate Society from the Excesses of the Zealous:
  2. Government Must Exclude Religious Speech from Government Property, Writes Federal Judge
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No Hostility to Religion Here! We Just Need to Discriminate Against Religious Speech To Insulate Society from the Excesses of the Zealous:

Judge Karlton's concurrence in Faith Center Church (see also the post below) argues — right after concluding that "religious speech is categorically different than secular speech and is subject to analysis under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause without regard to the jurisprudence of free speech":

Those, like myself, who advocate adherence to the strictures of the Establishment Clause, do so not out of hostility towards religion. Rather, we are motivated by recognition of the passions that deeply-held religious views engender, and the serious threat of marrying those passions to government power.

So far so good, though it's not clear how giving religious groups the same access to free library meeting groups that secular groups have — or giving religious groups equal access to a wide range of evenhandedly distributed benefits, such as nonprofit status, the charitable tax exemption for donations to charitable groups, and more — involves "marrying [religious] passions to government power." The judge goes on:

That threat is not merely historic. One need only look about the world to see that danger in play. The scenario is the same whether it is in Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants kill each other in an effort to establish governmental power, in Israel, where Jews and Muslims do the same, in Iraq, where Shi'a and Sunni are engaged in similar slaughter, or in Sudan where Muslims murder Christians. Nor is that the only danger.

Again, it's not clear that evenhanded treatment of all religious groups alongside secular groups in access to government benefits has much to do with conditions that lead Catholics and Protestants to kill each other. Likewise, when the judge goes on to say, "Where government plays a role in the religious life of a pluralist society, there is the danger that government will favor the majority religion and seek to control or prohibit the rites of minority religions. Such favor can only lead to alienation and social unrest," I can't see how a rule of equal treatment for all religious groups alongside secular groups would create such a danger.

But then the judge moves on:

The wall of separation between church and state that Thomas Jefferson thought the First Amendment raised, in no way prejudices the practice of anyone's religion. Instead, it serves the salutary purpose of insulating civil society from the excesses of the zealous. The Good News Club and Lamb's Chapel majorities' disdain of the Jefferson model is premised on the belief that religious values enhance rather than endanger society. The legal issue, however, is different. It asks whether one can distinguish between religious speech in a categorical way, and the answer is yes. Of course there may be close cases. Such cases require the development of a delicate jurisprudence designed to protect the Establishment Clause while insulating religious practice from government intrusion.

So the judge has no hostility towards religion, but "the excesses of the zealous" — apparently just the religiously zealous — are something that must be avoided even by discriminatorily excluding religious groups from the benefits available to comparable secular groups.

The issue is not, contrary to what the judge argues here and earlier in the opinion, "whether one can distinguish between religious speech" (which I take it means "between religious speech and nonreligious speech," especially given the other quotes I give immediately below), nor is it about "the High Court's purported inability to distinguish betwen a sermon and a speech" or "[t]he purported inability of the High Court to adhere to the distinction embodied in the First Amendment" between religious speech and nonreligious speech, nor about the Court majority's supposed "doubt about the ability to distinguish between religious practice and secular speech." While the majority opinion does turn on whether courts can consistently distinguish (without undue side effects) between religious worship and other religious speech, of course the courts could distinction between religious speech (such as sermons) and secular speech.

The question is whether courts ought to draw such a distinction, in a way that strips religious speech of the same Free Speech Clause protection that secular speech has, and thus discriminates against religious speech, in order to somehow "insulat[e] civil society from the excesses of the zealous." It seems to me that if one really wants to avoid "hostility towards religion," equal treatment of religious speech and nonreligious speech — regardless of what one fears from the "zealous" — is the proper approach.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. No Hostility to Religion Here! We Just Need to Discriminate Against Religious Speech To Insulate Society from the Excesses of the Zealous:
  2. Government Must Exclude Religious Speech from Government Property, Writes Federal Judge
43 Comments