Friday, January 26, 2018
The Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More College hosted a three-speaker event earlier this week on the topic "Religious Liberty at a Crossroads: Legal Perspectives." The speakers were me, Fred Gedicks, and Ilya Shapiro.
Thomas More College is the liberal arts college of the Diocese of Covington (Kentucky). Prior to the evening talk, I had the opportunity to explore the campus. The architectural highlight is Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel, which occupies the geographical center of campus.
The opening claim in my talk was that it is important to keep legal perspectives on religious liberty in perspective. A legal perspective is neither the only nor the most important perspective for thinking about religious liberty. It is more important to think about what religious liberty is for, and to use our civic freedom to exercise our religion.
As for the legal perspective itself, my primary theme was: "If you're litigating, you're losing." This is true of normal people and institutions. You end up in court because something has broken down and you find yourself in court opposite somebody else. If you're in as a defendant, someone has brought legal action against you. And if you're in as a plaintiff, it's because you failed to get the protection you seek in some other way.
It's not great being in a lawsuit, even as a plaintiff. You have to deal with lawyers. And even if you win, you might still end up worse off than if you never had to file. That's a particular risk of religious liberty litigation because it is so easy to get framed by ideological adversaries as seeking special rules of "the normal law doesn't apply to us" sort. A better way to think about these cases is as the normal consequence of a general commitment to religious liberty as it interacts with other legal requirements. But the "special rules" framing has been more prevalent.
Another feature of recent religious liberty cases comes into view when thinking about the limits of "if you're litigating, you're losing." This is generally _not_ true of "movement litigation." In "movement litigation," you're litigating to move the law in a certain direction. If you win, you've moved the law. And if you lose, you haven't moved the law but hopefully the law is no worse than it was (though there is a risk of this happening).
Religious liberty can sometimes operate as movement litigation. But the contraceptives mandate cases were not of this sort. The cases were preservative rather than transformative.
Although some of the cases are still pending, the religious liberty claimants have largely prevailed. But while we've "won" for now, that doesn't mean we aren't losing more generally. The mandate was very aggressive, and the sources of that aggression remain.