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Religion, Division, and the First Amendment


Richard W. Garnett


Notre Dame Law School


Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 05-23
Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 94, 2006

Abstract:     
Nearly thirty-five years ago, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that state programs or policies could excessive(ly) - and, therefore, unconstitutionally - entangle government and religion, not only by requiring or allowing intrusive public monitoring of religious institutions and activities, but also through what he called their divisive political potential. Chief Justice Burger asserted also, and more fundamentally, that political division along religious lines was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect. And from this Hobbesian premise about the inten(t) animating the First Amendment, he proceeded on the assumption that the Constitution authorizes those charged with its interpretation to protect our normal political process from a particular kind of strife and to purge a particular kind of disagreement from politics and public conversations about how best to achieve the common good.

This Article provides a close and critical examination of the argument that observations or predictions of political division along religious lines should supply the content, or inform the interpretation and application, of the Religion Clause. The examination is timely, not only because of the sharp polarization that is said to characterize contemporary politics, but also because of the increasing prominence of this political division argument.

The inquiry and analysis that follow have empirical, doctrinal, and normative components: What, exactly, is religiously based social conflict - or, as the Court put it in Lemon, political . . . divisiveness on religious lines? What, exactly, is the relevance of such conflict to the wisdom, morality, or constitutionality of state action? How plausible, and how normatively attractive, are the political-divisiveness argument and the principle it is intended to vindicate? How well do this argument and this principle cohere with the relevant text, history, traditions, and values? And what does the recent resurfacing of this argument in the Religion Clause context reveal and portend about the state and trajectory of First Amendment theory and doctrine more generally?

Working through these questions, I am mindful of John Courtney Murray's warning that we should cherish only modest expectations with regard to the solution of the problem of religious pluralism and civic unity, and also of his observations that pluralism (is) the native condition of American society and the unity toward which Americans have aspired is a unity of a limited order. Those who crafted our Constitution believed that both authentic freedom and effective government could be secured through checks and balances, rather than standardization, and by harnessing, rather than homogenizing, the messiness of democracy. It is both misguided and quixotic, then, to employ the First Amendment to smooth out the bumps and divisions that are an unavoidable part of the political life of a diverse and free people.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 69

Keywords: First Amendment, Establishment Clause, religious freedom, division, divisiveness, public life, religious arguments, constitutional law, church and state

JEL Classification: K10, K19

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Date posted: November 30, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Richard W., Religion, Division, and the First Amendment. Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 05-23; Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 94, 2006. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=855104

Contact Information

Richard W. Garnett (Contact Author)
Notre Dame Law School ( email )
Room 327
P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-6981 (Phone)
574-631-4197 (Fax)
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