Monday, August 26, 2019

Courts Taking a Bite Out of Establishment Clause

      The Supreme Court took a bite out of the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion in June by allowing a Maryland state agency to display and maintain a 40-foot Christian cross on public land as a World War I memorial. Writing for the majority in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. based the decision on the premise that the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, had historic significance as a memorial to fallen wartime service members apart from its symbolic affirmation of Christian doctrine.
      Alito's opinion tracked the central argument that Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general, made in defending the Peace Cross on behalf of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Katyal emphasized that the cross had acquired an "objective meaning" as a memorial to the millions of service members from all sides killed in World War I, including the 49 men from Prince Georges County killed while wearing U.S. uniforms.
      Civil libertarian supporters of church-state separation had expected the Court, with its conservative Republican majority, to allow the cross to continue standing where it has stood for 90 years, but hoped for a narrow ruling that would maintain limits on how far the government can go in favoring or endorsing one specific religion. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement on the day of the ruling, June 20, describing it as a "narrow" decision.
      The Court sent a signal a week later, however, that the decision portends a relaxed view for future Establishment Clause challenges beyond the specific facts of the Peace Cross case. In a brief order issued on June 28, the justices told the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision to bar the city of Pensacola, Florida, from maintaining a stand-alone, 34-foot Christian cross in a public park in the city. 
      The wooden cross at issue in Kondrat'yev v. City of Pensacola was erected in 1941 by the National Youth Administration to serve as the focal point of what was to become an annual Easter sunrise program — in short, the setting for an annual religious service in a government facility. The appeals court found the cross to run afoul of the Establishment Clause in a decision issued in September 2018, but the Supreme Court gave the city a partial victory in its appeal by ordering the appeals court to reconsider its decision in the light of the justices' ruling in American Legion.
      By the way, the city of Pensacola's official seal includes a Christian cross as its central image. A cross is also the central image in the official seal that Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, adopted in December 1944. The Lehigh County seal is the focal point of an Establishment Clause suit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation but rejected on Aug. 8 by a panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
      In his opinion for the appeals court, Judge Thomas Hardiman, a two-time runner-up for a Supreme Court seat, applied American Legion in finding no constitutional violation. Hardiman conceded that the plaintiffs suffered legal injury as a result of "direct and unwelcome contacts" with the official seal, but he read the Court's new decision to give a presumption of constitutionality to "longstanding symbols" that incorporate religious imagery
      At the Supreme Court, attorney Michael Carvin, representing the American Legion, conceded that some governmental displays of a Christian cross would likely violate the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion. In answering a question from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Carvin adopted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's suggestion in a decision in the 1980s that a Christian cross atop city hall would be unconstitutional, because, as Carvin explained, "it constitutes proselytizing."
      Carvin went on to reject some of the hypotheticals suggested by the other side in the Peace Cross case. "If they're putting up crosses at every courtroom, every DMV window, and all the parade of hypotheticals we've gotten on the other side, I can certainly understand why somebody would believe that they're trying to convert you to Christianity." he told the justices.
      Pensacola and Lehigh County both seem to have gone too far, under Carvin's reasoning and under the Court's fact-specific decision in the Peace Cross case. The Bayview Park cross in Pensacola serves as the stage for a religious service. The Framers of the First Amendment surely would have deemed it improper for the government to use public funds to build a church or an outdoor facility for the specific purpose of holding religious services.
      The city seals in these two municipalities also offend church-state separation by incorporating the preeminent symbol of Christian doctrine, just as much as a Christian cross atop city hall would give official imprimatur to one religion over all others. The non-believing Lehigh County plaintiffs complained of seeing the seal with its Christian cross, for example, when paying real estate tax bills or reporting for jury service, analogous to Carvin's hypothesis of a cross on every DMV window.
      The self-styled religious freedom advocates who defend these governmental displays of Christian symbols are no friends of the religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment. The Framers wanted nothing to do with government-established religion, but the self-styled originalists on the Supreme Court have lost sight of that original understanding of the Establishment Clause and may be leading lower courts to go farther afield from that original understanding as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment