Tag Archives: Alito

The Age of Grievance

There are a number of ways to escape “the news of the day.” Suicide, of course; substance abuse (mostly booze), studied ignorance…I can’t be the only person who needs some respite from the daily reports of Trump damage, environmental despoliation, insane conspiracy theories and the like.

Recently, I’ve been escaping into fiction. Mostly science fiction and mysteries–guilty pleasures that are finally available to an almost-retired person. I’ve particularly enjoyed a series written by a Canadian writer, Louise Penny, who follows an Inspector Gamache through sixteen books. I was reading book number 8, when I came across an observation that explained not just crime, but political behavior. The Inspector was explaining motivation–and attributing much of it to fear.

Especially, he said, fear of loss.

Could there be a more apt description of the political insanity we inhabit? During the past four or five years, the word “grievance” has become an indelible part of our political discourse. It applies almost always to people who believe they are at the cusp of loss–loss of the world in which their particular identity dominates others. As I have often noted, research has established that “racial grievance” is the most reliable marker of Trump support.

Other research has found that certain Christians exhibit an almost hysterical fear that their “religious liberty”–defined by them as their right to prescribe the behavior of others– is slipping away. Linda Greenhouse, one of the most thoughtful observers of the Supreme Court, focused on that fear in a recent New York Times column. She wondered whether Amy Coney Barrett would join the “grievance conservatives.”

Greenhouse began by discussing the recent 5/4 decision exempting religious gatherings from COVID restrictions, and noting that it was likely to be moot, since the restrictions had already been modified.

The real significance of the decision lay in the which-side-are-you-on test it posed for the newest justice. I don’t mean the conservative side versus the liberal side. Obviously, she’s a conservative. What matters is that a month into her tenure, she chose to align herself with what I call grievance conservatism: conservatism with a chip on its shoulder, fueled by a belief that even when it’s winning, it’s losing, and losing unfairly.

The embodiment of grievance conservatism is Justice Alito, who in a speech last month to his fellow members of the Federalist Society said that “it pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

Greenhouse pointed out how ironic this was:

Justice Alito is a member of a Supreme Court majority that during his nearly 15-year tenure has been more deferential to the demands of religious believers than any Supreme Court in modern history. Just this past summer, the court ruled that a state that offers a subsidy for private-school tuition must include parochial schools in the program; that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry; and that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plans.

As Greenhouse also reported, Alito and Thomas wrote “sympathetically in early October about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused for religious reasons to issue marriage licenses to same- sex couples.”

Since the two justices were neither voting to grant the appeal nor dissenting from its denial, their opinion was entirely gratuitous. They simply used the case as a platform to reiterate warnings about the threat to religion from official recognition of same-sex marriage.

Greenhouse is absolutely correct when she observes that what religious adherents want is not equal treatment. Equality is no longer sufficient. “Special treatment is the demand.”

There is also irony to this (quite correct) “special treatment” characterization. Back in the early days of the gay civil rights movement,  religious figures hysterically objected to any grant of civic equality to members of the LGBTQ community, asserting that laws against discrimination weren’t equal rights, but “special” rights.

What these frantic warriors for “religious liberty” really fear is loss of their unearned privilege. And as Inspector Gamache understood, fear of loss can make people do criminal things.

 

Misunderstanding Religious Freedom

It was refreshing to read New York Times column responding to the recent–and I must say, weird and troubling–ruminations on same-sex marriage issued by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The reason I label these “opinions” weird is that they were not dissents, not even concurrences. They were peevish outbursts–not far removed from “get off my lawn” explosions by cranky old guys. I’m unaware of other instances in which Supreme Court Justices used a unanimous and otherwise predictable decision as an opportunity to simply gripe that the world wasn’t going their way.

As David Von Drehle wrote,

It was an odd document, not a dissent; just a four-page grumble about matters that may someday be a problem depending on the facts of unknown future cases. The justices might consider woodworking, because, from the looks of this, they don’t have enough to keep them busy. The statement, which carries no legal weight, is essentially a cry from the heart on behalf of Americans whose religious views condemn same-sex marriage. Fair enough: The freedom to hold beliefs different from those of the mainstream is a cherished aspect of American liberty. But the statement crosses into sophistry by suggesting that religious liberties are somehow infringed if they aren’t privileged above the civil law.

And that, dear readers, is the crux of the matter. The piteous complaints that meet any effort to ensure the civic equality–note the word civic–of Americans who do not conform to their religious beliefs are based upon their conviction that they (and only they) are in possession of Truth, that they (and only they) know God’s Will, and that other citizens should therefore be forced to comply with their beliefs and their bigotries.

Von Drehle notes that the Justices offer no new basis for their opposition: he references Thomas’ 2015 argument that same-sex marriage is not mentioned in the Constitution– and points our the obvious: opposite-sex marriage isn’t mentioned there, either.

Thomas and Alito engage in a profoundly damaging legal error: religious freedom is not the right to impose some people’s beliefs on other citizens.

Far too many Americans define “freedom” as “my right to do what I want, no matter how harmful that may be to my fellow Americans.” We see that distortion in the refusal of “freedom fighters” to wear masks to protect the health of their neighbors.

Our legal system was profoundly influenced by what is sometimes called the “libertarian construct.” That construct provides that we each have the right to “self government”–to live our lives as we see fit, to worship or not, to form and exchange opinions, to go about our business free of official constraint– so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we grant an equal right to others.

There are all kinds of good-faith differences of opinion about the nature of the harms that justify government interventions–second-hand smoke? Seat belts? There is no such “gray area” when it comes to our obligation to extend “an equal right to others.”

When the issue is religious liberty, Von Drehle gets it right, and the Justices get it wrong.

By prohibiting establishment of a state religion, the Constitution explicitly bars “courts and governments” from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views…

Nor does religious freedom confer immunity from criticism. Religious freedom by its nature implies robust disagreement over strongly held values. Imprecations will be hurled, alas. Names will be called. Devout Christians should appreciate this; indeed, we are called blessed when we’re reviled for the sake of our faith. Furthermore, we’re taught to distinguish between civil and religious authority, and to render due respect to both.

Churches and other religious establishments rightly have certain protections from laws that might compel them to violate their beliefs while conducting their own business. It’s dangerous to confuse that safe zone with a general power to flout the law.

I say AMEN.