Monthly archives: August, 2007

Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses

Frank S. Ravitch, Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses. (New York University Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0814775851

The issue of neutrality is one that Ravitch takes issue with. In fact, his second chapter baldly proclaims that “Neutrality, whether formal or substantive, does not exist in the religion clause context,”. He goes on to observe that “Claims of neutrality cannot be proven. There is no independent neutral truth to baseline to which they can be tethered. This is important because it means that any baseline to which we attach neutrality is not neutral, and claims of neutrality built on these baselines are by their nature not neutral.” Ravitch is similarly suspicious of hard originalism, finding that originalist analysis often ends up in a “battle of the framers”. Observing that, “short of inventing a time machine and bringing a cadre of pollsters from Gallup back in time, it is unlikely that we will ever know what the framers intended about the wide array of specific issues confronting courts in the religious clause context”.

Taken together, the ideals of neutrality and originalism are two major bulwarks of religious clause interpretation in modern federal jurisprudence. Examining contemporary issues such as the display of crosses on public grounds, the display of the Ten Commandments and school prayer, Ravitch illustrates their weaknesses, noting that, “the current approach of relying on often unsubstantiated interpretive devices … has not led to great clarity or a better understanding of religion clause interpretation. Claiming that original intent or neutrality supports a position is not the same as proving it, and when one’s evidence for these approaches can be easily countered by judges or commentators who hold a different perspective, the likelihood of confusion is greater.”

Contending that “multiple, narrow principles of interpretation can lead to more clarity, consistency, and coherence in religious clause interpretation”, Ravitch draws upon the work of Philip Bobbitt in advancing the use of what Ravitch terms the “modal approach” in order to find a more equitable and just approach to the interpretation of the religion clauses. Ravitch advances the use of principles such as separationism, accommodationism, liberty, equality, “soft” originalism (defined as the broad intent of the framers) and pragmatism as narrow, cooperative principals rather than broad, exclusionary ones in order to lead to ” better, or at least more realistic, legal reasoning”.

In contrast to Slack’s approachable, journalistic style, Ravitch writes in a manner more characteristic of legal scholarship. His prose is dense, closely reasoned and in places difficult. However, this book will undoubtedly find a place in a specialist collection, particularly in a law school collection that focuses on religion clause jurisprudence. Slack’s more accessible style and clear manner of writing makes this book suitable for both the specialist and the general audience.

Subjects: Supreme Court

A Review of TechnoLawyer’s Free BlawgWorld 2007 ebook

Brett Burney reviews this innovative new ebook, comprising a wide range of blog postings ranging from legal news, legal marketing, law technology, and law practice management, along with hyperlinks to each respective blog. Also included is the TechnoLawyer Problem/Solution Guide a vendor sponsored, topic-targeted Q&A.

Subjects: Features