Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’

An Encouraging Victory for Religious Liberty

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

The Supreme Court has issued a very important ruling on the HHS mandate.  By a narrow 5 to 4 majority, the Court found in favor of the religious liberty rights of two family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.  The Court held that they do not have to fund insurance coverage for abortion-causing contraceptives that they consider to violate their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.

This is a significant victory for religious liberty. It shows that the government does not have unlimited power to force people to violate their beliefs. It is also a vindication for all those who have objected to the HHS mandate, and who have defended religious freedom.

There has been, and will continue to be, a great deal of commentary on this decision.  At this point, though, it’s valuable to make sure that we understand clearly just what the Court did, and what it did not do:

  • The decision was was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), and not the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   However, the Court recognized that RFRA offers broader protection to religious liberty than the First Amendment.
  • The decision does not in any way restrict access to contraceptives, nor will it impose any additional costs on women who seek them.  This ruling is very limited — it just requires the government to find some other way to accomplish the basic (and in my view, lamentable) goal of the HHS mandate — free contraceptives — without requiring the corporations to pay for them.
  • However, the ruling does mean that the government, in pursuit of its public policy goals, cannot impose substantial burdens on religious believers, without seeking some way to accommodate or exempt them.
  • It is not clear what impact this decision will have — if any — on the challenges brought against the HHS mandate by religious non-profit organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities.   There is much speculation about this, even to the point of very close analysis of a particular sentence in the majority opinion, but that’s all it is — speculation.  The Court specifically left that issue open for a future decision.
  • This case upholds the idea that corporations have legal standing under RFRA (in legal parlance, they are “persons” within the meaning of the statute).  The Court recognized that corporations are just vehicles through which real, live human beings act, and, in some cases, exercise their own constitutional rights.  This is an important recognition of the Catholic social teaching about the value of mediating institutions that operate in society and stand between the state and individuals.
  • The ruling was limited by the Court to closely-held corporations that are controlled by religious people who operate with explicitly religious missions.  It does not give carte blanche to all corporations to ignore generally applicable laws.
  • Nor does the case give automatic permission for religious people to engage in discrimination on account of race, sex, etc.  Despite the fear-mongering in the dissenting opinion and in the media, this notion was specifically ruled out in the majority and concurring opinions.  Any claim for a religious exemption will still have to satisfy the scrutiny of a court, applying the standards of RFRA to the particular facts of each individual situation.
  • The Court did not strike down the Affordable Care Act or the HHS mandate in general.  That was not at issue in the case at all.
  • The discussion and debate about this issue, and about the general intersection of law and religion, will certainly continue.  A pluralistic society like ours should recognize and respect a broad scope for the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience, consistent with public order and safety.

    So we have much to be thankful for.  Please give thanks to God for the wisdom of the Justices in the majority of the Supreme Court, and for the courage and persistence of the owners of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and their attorneys, particularly those at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom.

    A Welcome, Disappointing Decision

    Monday, June 30th, 2014

    Pro-Lifers rarely win court cases, so it is very gratifying to win one in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, even in victory, there is disappointment, and a sense that the constitutional rights of pro-life people have been relegated to second-class status.

    The case was McCullen v. Coakley, and it arose out of a terrible Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. Pro-lifers were prohibited from entering that zone, which effectively banned any attempt to speak to women seeking abortions (“sidewalk counseling”) completely. However — and this is crucial — abortion clinic staff were permitted to be in the zone and speak to the women who were approaching the clinic.

    The Supreme Court, by a unanimous decision, found that the law was unconstitutional. However, the Court’s unanimity is actually deceiving — although all nine justices agreed that the law was invalid, the Court was actually split 5 to 4 on the reasoning. And the reasoning of the majority is very troubling.

    One of the fundamental principles of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech is that the government cannot pass a law that is based on the content of a person’s speech, and that discriminates against one particular point of view. The principle is called “viewpoint neutrality”.  The majority found that the Massachusetts law did not violate the requirement of neutrality, but still found the law unconstitutional because it burdened speech more than was necessary to fulfill the government’s legitimate objectives.

    But that reasoning is gravely flawed.  Take it out of the abortion context for a second. Consider the hypothetical case of a law that places a buffer zone around a mine entrance where there is a highly contentious strike taking place. Imagine that the law prohibits striking miners from being in that zone, but allows management employees to be in the zone and speak openly to strike-breaking workers seeking to enter the plant. Can anyone imagine a court upholding such an obviously biased law? Of course not — it would be a clear case of the government taking sides in a strike, and showing favoritism towards one point of view.

    The Massachusetts statute is exactly the same, and is clearly not “viewpoint neutral”. It was specifically designed and intended to prosecute and deter only pro-life speakers, while giving pro-abortion speakers free reign to speak and act.

    Nevertheless, the majority of the Court, led by the Chief Justice, implausibly concluded that the law was “viewpoint neutral”, because on its face it did not single out pro-life speech. This is absurd — everybody understands very clearly what the goal and effect of this law is.  As Justice Scalia stated in his concurring opinion,

    The obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to “protect” prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks.

    In short, although the Court unanimously struck down the law, there is only a minority of Justices who believe that pro-lifers deserve the full protection of the Constitution. This follows a disturbing trend in the Supreme Court, in which abortion distorts the Constitution — indeed, abortion corrupts everything it touches.

    Again, to quote Justice Scalia:

    Today’s opinion carries forward this Court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents. There is an entirely separate, abridged edition of the First Amendment applicable to speech against abortion.

    So, while it’s good that we’ve won a big case, it’s clear that pro-lifers continue to be treated as second-class citizens in our courts.

     

    What’s Next for Marriage and for Us

    Thursday, June 27th, 2013

    I was asked yesterday to contribute to an online symposium at National Review Online about the implications of the Supreme Court decisions on marriage.  Here’s my contribution:

    From a legal standpoint, the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA is extraordinary and far-reaching. Our entire legal history and tradition regarding marriage continues to be dismantled. Nobody can know what will come from redefining thousands of federal statutes and regulations — wherever the words “marriage” or “spouse” appear. It will take decades to know the ultimate legal consequences.

    But there is a deeper meaning. We have been engaged in a great struggle for the soul of our society, and the souls of individuals. The battleground has been over the nature and significance of marriage, and why people should choose marriage as the centerpiece of their lives. We have long been contending against a hostile culture.

    This task will go on, regardless of whatever the law might be. Families, schools, and churches will all continue to teach the authentic meaning of marriage — one man, one woman, lifelong, faithful, and inherently oriented to having children. But the terms of engagement have dramatically changed. The Court’s ruling will make our mission more difficult, by branding the real meaning of marriage as mere bigotry, hatred, and irrationality.

    In a way, though, this may enable us to become more effective teachers. The big lie at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision — that same-sex relationships are the same as real marriages — cannot ultimately gain sway over the hearts of people. It is false, and deep in our hearts we know it. And it will only highlight the contrast between the false values of a corrupted society and legal system, and the true virtues of authentic, loving married couples.

    The law is a great teacher, and this Supreme Court decision teaches a lie. But the truth about marriage will continue to be attractive to people, who always prefer truth to lies.

    Many of the other contributors took a “it’s not as bad as it could have been” approach.  I’m not convinced.  The expansive, dismissive language of the majority opinion — claiming that bigotry alone supports laws defending real marriage — will certainly be used by future litigants to attack the laws of the states that have not yet gone over the edge.  Same-sex “marriage” advocates have already begun predicting that it will only be a matter of five years before they will succeed in overturning all those state laws.

    The language of the decision will also be used in the public square to shape the debate, by branding us as the equivalent of racists.  Soon, the media won’t even try to obtain and present our side of the story.  There won’t be much of a debate, if only one side is allowed to show up.

    The Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act will also shape the implementation of a wide range of federal laws, which reach far into every recess of American life.  Think only of ERISA (which governs employee benefit plans and pension plans) and the Affordable Care Act (which governs health insurance plans), and you can see how significant will be the redefinition of “marriage” and “spouse” under federal law — every benefit plan, and every health insurance plan, will likely have to cover benefits for same-sex “spouses”.

    The potential for conflict with religious liberty and conscience rights will be just as severe as with the HHS mandate.

    Likewise, we can easily see a time when the IRS will play a role.  When it scrutinizes the policies of organizations that seek (or already have) tax exempt status, what will happen when it finds that an organization “discriminates” against same-sex couples in employment, benefits or services?  Will “discriminatory” churches be denied tax exempt status, or have it stripped from them? Remember, the old saying, “the power to tax is the power to destroy”.

    While I continue to be optimistic that people will see through the lie in the Supreme Court’s decision, as an attorney I’m pessimistic.  People will still choose authentic marriage, and we will continue to teach about it, and call people to it.  But from a lawyer’s perspective, it’s very difficult to see a future that is free of continuing legal and social pressure and conflict, all designed to make us conform to the new view of marriage, and punishing us if we fail to do so.

    The Supreme Court Casts Us Beyond the Pale

    Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

    Our black-robed Platonic guardian rulers on the United States Supreme Court have now decreed that the federal government — the democratically-elected Congress and the President, that is — may not define the word “marriage” to mean what it always has meant, and always been understood to mean.  Our entire legal history and tradition, dating back to its roots in Roman and English law, has now, at the stroke of a pen of five unelected judges, been swept into the dust heap.

    The Court’s specific ruling was to strike down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by wide majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.  This provision stated that for the purposes of federal law, “marriage” could only mean a union of one man and one woman.  Until ten years ago, that provision of law would have been completely unremarkable, indeed, unnecessary.  After all, until a decade ago, nobody would have considered it possible that any person would consider “marriage” to mean anything different.

    But now, in the post-modern world of ethical, moral, and rational relativism, words no longer mean what they have always meant.  And “democracy” certainly no longer means government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

    Instead, five Justices (including one who graduated from my own alma mater, Cardinal Spellman High School) have decided that anyone who believes that “marriage” means “one man, one woman”, is irrational, motivated solely by hatred and a desire to stigmatize and insult homosexual persons.  Yes, the Supreme Court has now said that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the vast majority of Protestant communities, Orthodox Jews, virtually all Muslims, and many others of no faith, are mere bigots.  We have been cast out of polite society.

    This may sound like “sour grapes” or hyperbole.  So don’t just take my word for it, consider this section from Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent from the Court’s judgment:

    But to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions…  In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement. To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the majority is sure) with the purpose to “disparage,” ”injure,” “degrade,” ”demean,” and “humiliate” our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual. All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence—indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history. It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.

    The Court’s calumny of our position is, of course, utter nonsense.  There are an abundance of rational reasons to defend the authentic definition of marriage.   Just consider the scholarly arguments made in the recent book What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense by Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Gergis.  Or, you could watch this video of a presentation I gave to a parish meeting to explain the many reasons that support the real definition of marriage.

    It is a sad day when millions of Americans have been slandered by the Supreme Court.  It is sad when reason, history and tradition are traduced so casually.  And it is even sadder when one of the highest institutions of our government gravely wounds the fundamental  structure of society.

    The Message Could Not Be Clearer

    Friday, January 20th, 2012

    The juxtaposition of events couldn’t have been more stark.  Nor could the message be any clearer — the current Administration has a deep-seated, inveterate hostility to religious freedom.

    The first event happened just last week, in its most important religious liberty decision in decades, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the autonomy of churches to act according to their beliefs, without government intrusion.   The case was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and I’ve written about it before.  Essentially, the case involved the ability of churches and other religious organizations to choose their own leaders, according to their religious beliefs.

    It’s important to note that, in deciding the case, the Supreme Court specifically rejected the Administration’s argument that churches have no special protection in the choice of their leaders, and should be given no more deference in such decisions than any other association — like a bowling league.  This, despite the fact that the First Amendment grants clear, specific protection to the freedom of religion.

    That was a bold example of the radicalism of this Administration, and their disdain for religious freedom.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court can actually read the Constitution, and understands what it means — and handed down the clearly correct ruling.

    The second event happened today.  The Administration announced that it was going to issue final regulations that would require religious organizations to provide full health insurance coverage for sterilization, abortifacient drugs, and contraceptives.  A very narrow exemption was granted, but it is so tiny in its coverage that few, if any, organizations will qualify.  I’ve written about this regulation before as well.

    Religious organizations of all denominations had denounced this plan, and had called for a broader exemption, in order to respect the conscience rights of those who object to being forced to pay for morally offensive drugs and procedures.  Yet the Administration disdained their request, and made no changes in the proposal.

    Again, you could not ask for a clearer example of the hostility of this Administration towards religious freedom.  The secularist, anti-life ideology of our rulers will not compromise, and will force all others to conform.

    Sometimes, things are seen most clearly from a distance.  Yesterday, Pope Benedict received some of the bishops of the United States at one of their periodic “ad limina” meetings.  In his remarks to the bishops, the Holy Father made some pointed observations about the threats to religious liberty:

    it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

    Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.

    The Holy Father is right.  We as lay Catholics need to take action to defend our freedom, and the freedom of our Church.

    Remember, elections matter.

     

     

    The Supreme Court’s Religious Freedom Mess

    Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

    Some day, maybe, if we wish hard enough and clap until Tinkerbell’s light comes back on, the Supreme Court will fix the mess that it’s made of First Amendment religion jurisprudence.

    Plain Meaning

    The First Amendment deals with two basic categories of religious rights in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.  They read as follows:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

    At the time that the First Amendment was enacted, these provisions only applied to Congress, but since then the Supreme Court has applied it to the states as well, under the theory that they were incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment’s limitations on state power.  Also, at the time that the Amendment was enacted, the meaning of these phrases was pretty self-evident.

    The Establishment Clause meant that there could be no “established church” — namely, a church that had enjoyed special legal status, that received unique privileges under the law, and that all citizens were either required to belong to or financially support.  Established churches were the norm in most European countries at that time, so our Founding Fathers knew well what it meant — all citizens would experience legal coercion to belong to that church, or would suffer penalties for not belonging.

    The Free Exercise Clause was also well understood at the time.  It meant that the government could not forbid, restrict, or penalize people from practicing their faith.  This provision guaranteed that — in the words of the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 — people would not be “troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof”. Perhaps the best statement of the well-understood meaning of the Free Exercise Clause was by George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish population of Newport, Rhode Island:

    The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

    As we all know well, one of the main reasons that people have come to America was to enjoy these guarantees of religious freedom.  That was true in the colonial era, and it remains true now.

    Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made a complete hash of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, with the result that the freedoms they guarantee have become threatened.

    The Establishment Clause Muddle

    The most recent example of this came the other day, when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case arising out of Utah.  A private organization was founded to recognize and remember state troopers who died in the line of duty on the highways of that state.  They worked with family members to erect a memorial cross (or another symbol, at the choice of the family) near the site of the trooper’s death.  They obtained permission from the state highway authorities to do so, with the understanding that the state did not pay for or endorse the symbol erected.

    Naturally, a group of Christophobic atheists brought suit, claiming that the erection of the memorials violated the Establishment Clause.  The theory was that the use of the cross as a symbol of remembrance would signal that somehow the State of Utah was endorsing the Christian religion — a particular irony, since the majority of citizens of that state are not Christians, but Mormons.

    Anyone who reads the bare words of the Establishment Clause, and considers its original and plain meaning, would find this an easy case — permitting private people to put up a memorial cross on the side of the road does nothing to create a state church, and there’s nothing in such a gesture that would coerce anyone into joining or supporting any such church, or would penalize anyone for not joining.

    Sadly, the Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence is such a mess that the federal Court of Appeals ruled that the memorial crosses violated the Establishment Clause, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.  Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent from the Court’s ducking of the issue, commented on the absurdity of it all:

    Since the inception of the endorsement test, we have learned that a creche displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Likewise, a menorah displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… A display of the Ten Commandments on government property also violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Finally, a cross displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, as the Tenth Circuit held here, except when it doesn’t…  Such arbitrariness is the product of an Establishment Clause jurisprudence that does nothing to constrain judicial discretion.

    The Empty Free Exercise Clause

    The Supreme Court has not shown much more wisdom in interpreting the Free Exercise Clause, and in fact has virtually emptied it of any meaning.

    In the case of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court was faced with a case involving the denial of unemployment benefits to several Native Americans, under a rule that denied benefits to anyone who couldn’t pass a drug test.  But the reason they couldn’t pass the test is because they used the drug peyote in their religious practices — much as we use wine at Mass.  They challenged the law, claiming that it would force them to violate their religious beliefs.

    At that time, the Native Americans looked to have a good case.  The Supreme Court had previously held that a law could not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless the government had a compelling interest and the law was narrowly defined to serve that interest.  Under that standard, it would appear that the use of ritual peyote — much like the use of sacramental wine, in the face of blanket alcohol prohibitions — would have to be permitted as an exception to the law.

    The Supreme Court instead changed the rules, and held that they were properly denied the benefits.  The Court held that the government is not required under the Constitution to grant exceptions to neutral laws that apply to all people, even if that law imposes a burden on a person’s religious liberty.  In essence, the Court said that the government can require a person to forego their religious practices — to give up their sacraments — in order to qualify for benefits.

    In one decision, the Court essentially gutted the Free Exercise clause.  The irony is that the majority opinion was by a man whose religion is frequently a subject for attention and comment — Justice Scalia, who is a Catholic.

    Where this Leaves Us

    These may seem like arcane bits of legal doctrine, but they are highly relevant to a central issue facing us at this time — the extent of religious liberty in the United States.  Policies and laws are being pursued that disqualify Christian and Catholic people from full participation in society, and that penalize churches that disagree with or refuse to comply with government policies.

    If applied according to their plain meaning, the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses would offer protection from such measures.  Sadly, the Supreme Court has made such a mess of things that the First Amendment may offer little protection to those whose ancestors who came here to America seeking religious liberty.

    Erasing the First Amendment

    Thursday, July 8th, 2010

    When we all studied American History and Civics 101 in school, we were taught that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees religious liberty to all.  It ensures that the government cannot interfere with religious belief or practice, nor canthe state reward or punish religious people or groups for their beliefs.  All religions are to be treated equally, with no favoritism or legal restrictions.  It’s to enjoy this specific freedom that the early settlers, and many of our ancestors, came to this country.  It’s part of what makes America great.

    Too bad that the Supreme Court has been on a path to erase the First Amendment to the Constitution.

    This has nothing to do with the issue of prayer in public schools or copies of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.  It has everything to do with marginalizing and penalizing religious practices that are not popular with the current powers that be.

    The first major instance of this came in 1990, in the case of Employment Division v. Smith.  The case involved the denial of unemployment benefits to several Native Americans, pursuant to a rule that denied benefits to anyone who couldn’t pass a drug test.  But the reason they couldn’t pass the test is because they used the drug peyote in their religious practices — much as we use wine at Mass.  They challenged the law, claiming that it would force them to violate their religious beliefs.

    The Supreme Court held that they were properly denied the benefits, because the government is not required under the Constitution to grant exceptions to neutral laws that apply to all people, even if that law imposes a burden on a person’s religious liberty.  In essence, the Court held that the government can require a person to forego their religious practices — to give up their sacraments — in order to qualify for benefits.

    In one decision, the Court essentially gutted the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.  The irony is that the majority opinion was by a man whose religion is frequently a subject for attention and comment — the Catholic Justice Scalia.

    The most recent shredding of religious liberty came last week, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.  This case arose at a public university law school — an arm of a state government.  The Christian Legal Society, an interfaith group of law students, adoped rules that required all its officers and members to subscribe to a basic tenet of Christian moral teaching — that sexual relations are properly reserved only to a man and woman joined in a marriage.  The school denied the organization recognition because of this provision “discriminated” against personw who are engaged in homosexual acts and relationships. The effect of this was to deny the Christian students access to funding and activites that were open to all other kinds of groups (including, ironically, a “gay and lesbian” association).

    The Supreme Court upheld the denial of recognition to the group, holding that the school could require that all student organizations accept anyone who applies, both as members and as leaders.  In essence, the Court decided that the state government has the power to regulate the identity and message of religious organizations, and can force them to accept people who deny or undermine the integrity of their beliefs.  And, by implication, the Court’s decision means that a religious group cannot be a full participant in the “marketplace of ideas” unless its beliefs conform to current standards of political correctness.  In other words, the government can play favorites among religious groups — granting “equal” access to those it approves, and denying it to those it disapproves.

    So much for the “free exercise” and “free association” rights that are supposedly guaranteed under the First Amendment.

    This decision was written by Justice Ginsburg, but was joined by two Catholic Justices, Kennedy and Sotomayor.  Since this was Justice Sotomayor’s first foray into religious liberty jurisprudence, it does not bode well for how she will rule in future cases.

    There is a movement afoot in America to stigmatize religious people who uphold traditional moral teaching (particularly about homosexuality and other sexual subjects) as bigots who do not have to be tolerated in the public square.  Whether they knew so or not, the Justices of the Supreme Court have advanced that agenda and, in doing so, have reduced the liberties of all.

    Misguided “Personhood” Initiatives

    Thursday, May 6th, 2010

    In a number of states, pro-lifers are sponsoring what they call “personhood” initiatives — either legislation or state constitutional amendments that they claim will overturn Roe v. Wade and grant legal protection to the unborn. Unfortunately, this is a well-intentioned but legally and tactically misguided strategy.

    We need to recall the state of the law. The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade, and has upheld in every subsequent abortion decision, that an unborn child is not a “person” who is entitled to protection by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected by that same Fourteenth Amendment. Obviously, I believe that this is an awful miscarriage of justice, but that’s the law as it stands.

    Because the federal constitution is the supreme law of the land (see Article VI of the Constitution), the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion override all state laws or constitutions.  Congress cannot overrule a Supreme Court decision interpreting the Constitution. Nor can a Supreme Court decision interpreting the federal constitution be overruled by state constitutional amendments or legislation. Only a federal constitutional amendment (e.g., the Human Life Amendment) or a subsequent Supreme Court decision can overrule the holding in Roe that an unborn child is not a “person” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    As a result, “personhood” bills like the federal “Sanctity of Human Life Act” or the “Life at Conception Act” simply cannot accomplish what their sponsors desire — they cannot overturn Roe v. Wade by simply defining an unborn child as a “person” under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The same holds true for similar state constitutional amendments that are being proposed around the nation.  I wish it were otherwise, but there it is.

    We also have to consider the state of the judiciary. Some people are proposing these “personhood” initiatives as a way of starting a case that will challenge the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. The problem with this approach is two-fold.

    First, no justice who has ever sat on the Supreme Court has ever given any indication that he or she would hold that an unborn child is a “person” under the Fourteenth Amendment. In fact, only two justices currently on the Court have ever said that they would overrule Roe on any grounds (Justices Scalia and Thomas). Even if we assume (without any factual foundation) that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito would also vote to overrule Roe, there’s no indication that they would support the “personhood” theory.  In any event it would still not be enough — you need five votes, and there just isn’t another Justice on the Court who would vote to overrule Roe. Second, the result of this strategy will almost certainly make things even worse.  Instead of overturning Roe, a case involving a “personhood” law would likely produce an even stronger Supreme Court decision upholding the right to abortion, either by affirming Roe on the non-personhood of the unborn, or (God forbid!) by holding that abortion rights are necessary to ensure women’s equal status in society, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Justice Ginsburg’s favorite rationale for abortion rights).

    On the whole, I believe that these “personhood” initiatives are a distraction from practical, achievable ways that we can reduce abortions and increase legal protection for the unborn. Parental notification, limits on public funding, and fetal homicide/assault bills are far more profitable ways for the pro-life movement to spend our time. We have to use these kinds of bills to build an authentic pro-life culture, so that a real Human Life Amendment, or a pro-life Supreme Court, becomes politically possible.

    So, while I fully respect the intentions of those who promote “personhood” bills or amendments, I would not endorse or support them, or encourage anyone else to do so.