Friday, August 31, 2007

Constitutional First? Court Approves Funding for Reconstruction of Church Buildings

American Atheists v. City of Detroit, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2007 WL 2300693, Civ. No. 2:06-cv-11696 (E.Dist. Mich.) has spawned a hue and cry among strict separationists, who claim that it represents the first time in modern history that a court has approved the public funding of improvements to houses of worship.

American Atheists brought a federal Establishment Clause challenge to grants made by the City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority to three local churches for improvements to exterior facades, parking areas and landscaping as part of the city’s efforts to improve the downtown area in advance of the All-Star Game in 2005 and the Super Bowl in 2006. The stated purpose of the grants, which reimbursed qualifying landowners and long-term lessees for 50% of approved improvements, was to retain and attract downtown business and related civic purposes, and plaintiffs in fact did not deny that the "secular purpose" prong of Lemon was met. Neutral criteria for projects included structural and architectural qualifications, and a private project management company administered the grants. The court issued a decision in favor of the city and the churches on August 8th, upholding the constitutionality of the grants in substantial part except for improvements to the churches’ monolithic signage and stained glass iconography. As to these, the court concluded that the expression of religious messages on such structures would constitute a “diversion” of funding to religious speech – i.e., sectarian purposes. Improvements to church exterior facades, parking lots and landscaping were approved. The court held that Mitchell v. Helms was a “jurisprudential shift” that had modified the stricter requirements of the Tilton trilogy limiting capital funding for sectarian institutions. Mitchell dictates that as long as the criteria for eligibility are neutral, the “pervasively sectarian” nature of the institutional recipient is notwithstanding. Divertibility is not an issue, the court noted, where the improvements are capital in nature and do not directly serve religious services or messages.

Presuming an appeal is filed (final judgment was entered August 24th), this is certainly one to watch. Although Marty Lederman claims that the case “would likely be the vehicle for a wholesale 5-4 overturning of almost 40 years of Establishment Clause doctrine” if it reached the Supreme Court, I think he’s being a bit hyperbolic. There is no reason the Supreme Court, or the Sixth Circuit for that matter, could not issue a decision that simply notes that the Supreme Court has never ruled that the Establishment Clause prohibits churches from receiving public funds that are available to all similarly situated beneficiaries on the basis of criteria that are neutral to religion, even if the funds are for the renovation of a historic church structure, provided the funds further an important governmental purpose such as historical preservation or civic improvement, and where the funds are not used to indoctrinate such as by funding religious art or iconography. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel recently offered the opinion that "[t]he Establishment Clause does not bar the award of historic preservation grants to the Old North Church or to other active houses of worship that qualify for such assistance, and the section of the National Historic Preservation Act authorizing the provision of historic preservation assistance to religious properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places is constitutional." Provided a legitimate public purpose unrelated to furthering religious speech and activity is served and no denominational preference is exhibited, government does not tear down the Wall of Separation of Church and State by shoring up the walls of historic churches.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Planned Parenthood Fights For Right to Endanger Women

There's an interesting blog post by Leon Wolf over at about safety code violations at Planned Parenthood clinics in Missouri and New Jersey and a recent lawsuit filed by the Missouri chapter of Planned Parenthood seeking to be freed of its obligation to comply with the health and safety requirements expected of other walk-in clinics. I'll not repost it all here, but it's worth a read. Remember this when someone tells you that without Roe v. Wade women would be forced to have abortions in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Monday, August 13, 2007

FoxNews Coverage of BYX v. Machen

FoxNews has done a story on the Beta Upsilon Chi lawsuit against the University of Florida. There are several versions of the story running on FoxNews today, but at least one of them is available here on the FoxNews website.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Supreme Court Chronicler Tackles the Kulturkampf

Peter Irons, emeritus professor of political science at the University of California - San Diego and co-editor of the groundbreaking May It Please the Court series of audiotapes and transcripts of key Supreme Court decisions, has published God On Trial (Viking 2007), a travelogue of sorts through half a dozen American communities that have been impacted by the religious cultural wars of the last twenty years.

Irons reminds us that just as “all politics is local,” so also is all jurisprudence, and particularly constitutional law. Irons’ thesis is that the big decisions about the constitutionality of religious symbols such as public memorial crosses and Ten Commandments displays that emanate from the Supreme Court have their genesis in local political struggles between factions that view the symbols as vibrant and meaningful and those who regard them as exclusionary and imperious. The seeds of the book, Irons says, are found in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ aphorism, “We live by symbols,” and he seeks to tell the stories of the people who have played key roles on both sides of these so-called “symbol cases.”

The book’s readability and unpretentiousness have Irons sounding like an Ernie Pyle of the Kulturkampf. Irons combines solid, fact-combing legal journalism with fascinating interviews of the personalities who instigated the cases or found themselves swept up in them, from trial lawyers and politicians to preachers and regular folks. These are presented in unbroken monologues spoken in the subjects' own voices, like an oral folk history, and are deftly edited and detailed. The effect is refreshingly different from the stale Q&A format - rather like being taken on a personal walking tour by, for example, Barry Lynn, through his early life as a Goldwater Republican in blue-collar Bethelehem Steel country, or by Jay Sekulow as he recounts growing up Jewish on Long Island.

As a strict separationist himself, and a veteran of several of the court battles he discusses, Irons cannot help but cast the conflict (perhaps unconsciously) as one between those who desire to impose their religious beliefs on others and those who want tolerance. He maintains the overall balance of the book fairly well, though, and he is clearly trying to be honest and accurate in his portrayals of both sides. For its small flaws, God On Trial is a delightful summer read.