Church and State: Law, Politics, and Religion
In the United States, are religious rights supreme? Over the last two decades, the Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions that have elevated religious rights over the claims of workers, women, LGBTQIA+ people, and public health, indicating a nascent intent to create and enforce a hierarchy of rights with a narrow swath of religion at the top. As Melinda Cooper has argued, the concept of religious freedom in America “encapsulates the ‘double movement’ of liberal and conservative tendencies … which sees political freedom as intimately subordinate to moral law.” Yet, while we often associate “religious liberty” with the Christian Right, the “free exercise” clause (on which religious rights depend) is also implicated in everything from the right to provide food and shelter to immigrants; to abortion access, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, protest, and even ceremonial drug-taking. How can we understand the constitutional history of “religious freedom” in the United States? How can religious claims be balanced against the prerogatives of a democratic state, as well as the claims of individual “secular” rights to freedom of speech, action, and association? Is religion constitutionally “supreme” in the United States? If so, what does that mean for our understanding of the separation of church and state?
In this course, we will take a deep dive into the “religion clauses” of the Constitution – the “free exercise” clause and the “establishment” clause – and their contemporary applications, interpretations, contestations, and limitations. Topics will include the relationship between religion and public institutions, drugs, vaccines, health care, education, and taxes. Throughout, we will ask: does religious liberty meaningfully exist for those outside the Christian right? Should mega-churches be tax-exempt? Can a hospital worker be fired for refusing to take a vaccine based on their religious beliefs? What does the increased assertion of religious liberty have to do, if anything, with broader attacks on the administrative state and other individual and collective rights? Do corporations have legally protected religious views? Can states prohibit abortion based on the religious doctrine that life begins at conception? Readings will be drawn primarily from Supreme Court decisions, with supplemental scholarly articles and commentary.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 29 — February 19, 2024