Tuesday, June 30, 2020
I echo Rick's praise for the Supreme Court's decision this morning in Espinoza with congratulations to him and others who have toiled for many years on school choice and religious freedom issues. One thought that occurs to me is to note briefly the important legacy of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist in today's decision (in a majority opinion appropriately written by a former Rehnquist clerk).
One aspect of that legacy is that then-Justice Rehnquist's dissents early in his time on the Court in cases such as Nyquist (1973) and Meek v. Pittenger (1975) criticizing overbearing separationism in First Amendment school funding doctrine have been vindicated, though much of that vindication had already occurred when he was Chief Justice in Agostini v. Felton (1997) and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). But it was only because the disco-era Establishment Clause separationism of the 1970s and early 1980s has now (rightly) been discarded to permit funding for religious schools in certain types of programs that the issue in Espinoza about no-aid discrimination in state constitutions could be teed up. As Justice Rehnquist wrote in Meek:
The Court apparently believes that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment not only mandates religious neutrality on the part of government but also requires that this Court go further and throw its weight on the side of those who believe that our society as a whole should be a purely secular one. Nothing in the First Amendment or in the cases interpreting it requires such an extreme approach to this difficult question, and '(a)ny interpretation of (the Establishment Clause) and the constitutional values it serves must also take account of the free exercise clause and the values it serves.'" 421 U.S. 349, 395 (1975) (citation omitted).
A second aspect of Chief Justice Rehnquist's legacy in Espinoza is his opinion in Locke v. Davey (2004). In assigning the opinion in Locke to himself, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote a narrow, almost case-specific holding (a characteristic Rehnquistian move) limited to funding for clergy training or "devotional theology" studies. An opinion in Locke by Justice Stevens (the senior associate justice in the majority) would presumably have given a constitutional imprimatur to no-aid state constitutional provisions (but then perhaps jeopardizing the majority by losing the votes of Rehnquist, O'Connor, and Kennedy). Indeed, Justice Breyer's dissent in Espinoza gestures toward just such a broad reading of Locke v. Davey, though not (in my view) persuasively so...thanks to William Rehnquist.