Analysis and Commentary on Speech and Religion
Analyzing the Recent Sixth Circuit’s Extension of “Academic Freedom” Protection to a College Teacher Who Refused to Respect Student Gender-Pronoun Preferences

Illinois Law dean Vikram David Amar and UC Davis Law emeritus professor Alan E. Brownstein comment on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals by the Sixth Circuit holding that the First Amendment protects a college teacher who refused to respect student gender-pronoun preferences. Dean Amar and Professor Brownstein argue that the court may have reached the wrong outcome on the facts, and in doing so it unnecessarily decided the extent to which a key Supreme Court case should or should not apply to the public higher education setting.

Could Clarence Thomas Be Right About Twitter?

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent concurrence by Justice Clarence Thomas in a case in which the Court vacated as moot a federal appeals court ruling that the president cannot block users’ access to his Twitter account. Professor Dorf explains why Justice Thomas’s reasoning is deeply flawed, but he points out that Justice Thomas’s conclusion that the First Amendment might permit Congress to forbid Twitter from moderating content on its site finds unlikely support in arguments historically put forth by progressive politicians and scholars. In their view, very large private actors who exercise power over people’s lives comparable to and sometimes even exceeding that of government should be subject to the same sorts of norms that the Constitution applies to the government.

Sidney Powell Files a Brief Embracing Fact-Free Politics

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a brief filed by Donald Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell in a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems. Professor Dorf argues that Powell’s motion to dismiss the case should fail, but he notes that the argument presented in her brief is more subtle than is generally acknowledged.

The Evangelization of Lawlessness: RFRA Was the First “Big Lie”

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars, argues that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was the first “big lie” in that purported to “restore” case law but actually gave religious actors the right to be above the law. Professor Hamilton notes two bills that have been introduced in Congress that would take measures to carve back RFRA’s destructive reach and which would not, contrary to some claims, threaten true religious liberty.

The Upside-Down Treatment of Religious Exceptions Cases in the Supreme Court

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to reject an emergency application from the State of Alabama to lift a stay on the execution of Willie B. Smith III. Professor Dorf observes the Court’s unusual alignment of votes in the decision and argues that, particularly as reflected by the recent COVID-19 decisions, the liberal and conservative Justices have essentially swapped places from the seminal 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith, which established that the First Amendment does not guarantee a right to exceptions from neutral laws of general applicability.

A Whistleblower “Minister” Loses in the Illinois Supreme Court

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin comments on a recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court characterizing a “lay principal” at a Catholic school as a “minister” and therefore dismissing her claim under the Illinois Whistleblower Act under the so-called “ministerial exception.” Professor Griffin argues that the ministerial exception gives churches pure religious freedom to dismiss all legal claims against them, rendering them entirely unaccountable for their unlawful actions.

Obstacles to the Biden Agenda Include Americans’ Belief in Nonsense

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the willingness of Americans to believe lies and misinformation, pointing to confirmation bias and social media bubbles as playing key roles in this problem. Professor Dorf argues that we must render Trumpism beyond the pale, in part by shunning those who spread lies and minimizing opportunities for them to spread dangerous misinformation and incite riots.

The Steps the Biden Administration Needs to Take to Rescue the U.S. from the Precipice of Theocracy

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars, describes the steps the Biden administration needs to take to bring the country back from the precipice of becoming a theocracy. Professor Hamilton highlights action items with respect to the Department of Justice, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment, tax exemptions and accountability, and governmental financial support for organizations engaged in discriminatory practices.

The Rhetoric About a “Decline” in Religious Liberty Is Good News for Americans

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars, explains why the rhetoric about a “decline” in religious liberty actually signals a decline in religious triumphalism, and is a good thing. Professor Hamilton describes how religious actors wield the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) not as a shield, but as a sword to destroy the lives of fellow Americans.

Pope Francis’s Statement Endorsing Civil Protections for Same-Sex Couples Undermines the Moral Legitimacy and Legal Arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

David S. Kemp, a professor at Berkeley Law, and Charles E. Binkley, MD, the director of bioethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, consider the implications of Pope Francis’s recently revealed statement endorsing same-sex civil unions as they pertain to a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Kemp and Binkley argue that the Pope’s statement undermines the moral legitimacy of the Catholic organization’s position and casts a shadow on the premise of its legal arguments.

Stigma and the Oral Argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin explains why stigma is a central concept that came up during oral argument before the Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Griffin points out that some religions have long supported racial discrimination, citing their religious texts, but courts prohibited such discrimination, even by religious entities. Griffin argues that just as religious organizations should not enjoy religious freedom to stigmatize people of color, so they should not be able to discriminate—and thus stigmatize—people based on sexual orientation.

The Questions I Would Have Asked Judge Amy Coney Barrett Before Voting for Her to Ascend to the United States Supreme Court

Marci A. Hamilton—a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars—offers eight questions she would have asked Judge Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearings. Hamilton points out that questioning a person’s religious affiliation is considered taboo because of the false, public mythology in the United States that religion is always good and pure, despite overwhelming evidence that religion, which is run by humans, often perpetuates domestic violence against women and children.

In Gratuitously Attacking Marriage Equality, Clarence Thomas Accidentally Raised an Important Question About the Scope of Religious Liberty

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a statement by Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) gratuitously expressing his hostility to the Court’s same-sex marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and his sympathy for Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even after the Supreme Court’s decision. Although Justice Thomas characterizes Davis and those like her as people who “refus[e] to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy,” Dorf points out that no one asked Davis to alter her religious beliefs. Rather, the lawsuit against her contends that she must provide services to the public in accordance with their constitutional rights, whatever her religious beliefs.

The Construction of a Supreme Court to Thwart a Majority of Americans

Marci A. Hamilton—a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars—warns of a Supreme Court with at least six Catholics, far greater representation than in the general population of the country. Hamilton points out that the disconnect between the composition of the Supreme Court and the rest of the United States is partly a result of the courts being the final haven for those who have lost the culture wars, given that the majority of Americans endorse greater civil rights for the oppressed.

When Do Ministers Win and Lose?

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin describes the legal landscape after the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Court took an expansive view of the ministerial exception. Griffin describes two recent decisions by U.S. Courts of Appeals ruling in favor of an employee and against a religious employer, demonstrating that ministers still have a chance (albeit a small one) of winning their antidiscrimination lawsuits.

The Biggest Threat to Herd Immunity Against COVID-19 May Be the Religious Freedom Restoration Act(s) and State Religious Exemptions

Marci A. Hamilton—a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars—argues that the biggest threats to herd immunity against COVID-19 are federal and state religious liberty statutes and religious/philosophical exemptions. Hamilton describes how the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and its state-law equivalents came to be in the United States, and she calls upon legislators at all levels to amend RFRA so that once we have developed an effective and safe vaccine, we might as a country develop herd immunity and prevent more unnecessary deaths.

Religious Entities Flex Their Muscles Through the Roberts Court, Playing Both Sides of the Discrimination Coin

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars, describe how legal entities wielded their religious identity as both a shield and a sword last term before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hamilton points out that religious entities won key cases that allow them to receive from government funding while enjoying exemptions from neutral generally applicable non-discrimination laws.

The Ministerial Exception Allows Racial Discrimination by Religions

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin describes the ministerial exception—a First Amendment rule created by courts that bars the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious organizations’ employment relationships with its “ministers”—and enumerates some of the cases in which the exception led to dismissal of a lawsuit. Griffin argues that we as a society cannot achieve full justice as long as courts interpret religious freedom to include a ministerial exception that condones racial discrimination lawsuits.

Women Lose at the Court

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin comments on three recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in which religion has won, at the expense of women. Griffin explains why the Court’s decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (and the consolidated case, St. James School v. Biel), Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (and the consolidated case, Trump v. Pennsylvania), and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue together amount to sanctioned and government-funded discrimination masquerading as religious freedom.

Upcoming Execution Tests Trump Administration’s Commitment to Religious Liberty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on a religious liberty issue presented by the upcoming execution of Wesley Ira Purkey. Sarat explains that Purkey’s spiritual advisor is unable to attend Purkey’s execution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he points out that for the federal government to carry out the execution anyway would belie its purported commitment to religious liberty.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more