SCOTUS Approves State Tuition Aid For Students To Attend Religious Schools

People gather outside the Supreme Court building as the court hears oral arguments in the Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue case in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger.

This opinion just came down, and I haven’t had an opportunity to read it, and probably won’t until tomorrow.  In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the justices held that the application of the Montana Constitution’s “no-aid” provision to a state program providing tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them, in violation of the free exercise clause.  This was a straight conservatives vs. liberals majority, and Chief Justice Roberts, much maligned of late, wrote the majority opinion. The Washington Post  reports,

Chief Justice John G. Roberts …said the Montana Supreme Court was wrong to strike down the program because of a provision in the state constitution that forbids public funds from going to religious institutions. The U.S. Constitution’s protection of religious freedom prevails, he said.

“A state need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.

Again, I haven’t read the legal arguments, but the ethical justification for the opinion is clear. If public schools could be trusted not to indoctrinate students with political view and social positions that their parents might oppose, the urgency of the state providing affordable alternatives would be far less. However, alert and involved parents realize, or should, that by sending students to public schools, they are too often subjecting them to partisan and ideological brain-washing, and we are seeing the results in the streets as I write this. There need to be alternatives other than home-schooling. The ethics principles here are fairness, respect, and autonomy. Continue reading

The Cake And The Clerk: If Living In A Pluralistic And Democratic Society Offends You, It May Be Time To Find Another One

Davis Protest

The kicking and screaming of the anti-gay marriage bitter-enders is becoming a national embarrassment, especially since some of the Republican Presidential candidates can’t seem to resist pandering to them. The social contract in a democracy involves accepting where the system decides to go and following along to the extent the law requires. If we don’t like a law, or a war or a government program, we are free to complain and to try to get them changed, or to pay the price for defying the law as part of the contract. We may not unilaterally declare that the law doesn’t apply to us. No, not even if we think God agrees. He’s not a party to the contract.

This is straightforward and clear. The ethics of citizenship requires it. Two current situations that have had significant developments in recent days illustrate the principle in the breach of it.

The Cake.

Jack Phillips, who is yet another Christian cake baker, lost an appeal that asserted that he had a First Amendment right to refuse to provide a cake for a gay couple to celebrate their wedding. Continue reading

Accommodating Minority Religious Requirements vs Human Rights: Ethicist Chris MacDonald Get The Balance Right

garyclementEthics Alarms is an unabashedly U.S.-centric ethics blog, for both practical and philosophical reasons, but mostly practical: I can’t cover all the worthy ethical issues that arise in this country, much less cover the world. Obviously useful ethics problems arise outside U.S. borders, and here was one I missed until now.

Paul Grayson, a professor at Toronto’s York University, was confronted with a male student’s request for a religious accommodation in a class assignment so that he would not be required to interact with female students in his class. The professor denied the request because, he wrote, “it infringed upon women’s right to be treated with respect and as equals.” The student accepted his decision and completed the assignment, interacting with female students as the assignment required. That did not end the tale, however. The dean of York University’s faculty of arts told Grayson that the student’s request would not have a “substantial impact” on the rest of the class, and should have been accommodated. That, in turn, prompted a national debate in  media, religious and educational forums. Some, citing Canada’s commitment to “pluralism,” felt that the student’s religious beliefs should have trumped the culture’s commitment to gender equality and non-discrimination. Continue reading

A Ban on Threatening “Spiritual Injury”: Unconstitutional But Ethical?

There you go, Bill, letting people be unethical again...

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment  provocateur, notes that Minn. Stat. Ann. § 211B.07 makes it a gross misdemeanor to

“….directly or indirectly use or threaten force, coercion, violence, restraint, damage, harm, loss, including loss of employment or economic reprisal, undue influence, or temporal or spiritual injury against an individual to compel the individual to vote for or against a candidate or ballot question.

The professor opines that the spiritual injury part, at least, is unconstitutional. Interesting.

Prohibiting the interference and manipulation of a human being’s rights of autonomy and self-determination by using threats to compel his voting choices is a legitimate area for the law, because ethics is notoriously inadequate at preventing electoral abuses. It is also an area where the law is an especially blunt instrument, and many conceivable violations of § 211B.07 would seem to risk colliding with free speech. “If you don’t vote for Ron Paul, I’ll never speak to you again!” comes to mind. The threat of “spiritual harm”—“Vote for Mitt Romney, my flock, or I condemn you to Hell!” adds the  free exercise of religion to the mix, particularly when the threat is linked to a position of a candidate that violates religious doctrine.

I have no difficulty concluding that any and all threats to force a citizen to vote according to another citizen’s desires are wrongful and damaging to democracy, and should be condemned and discouraged to the maximum extent possible. Ethical though such prohibitions may be, some, like the use of threatened spiritual injury, are impossible under the Bill of Rights.

So threatening to send someone to Hell if they vote for Newt Gingrich—a reasonable result, when you think about it—is unethical, but a law punishing that threat is unconstitutional.

Sorry, Ethics…looks like it’s all up to you!

 

Ethics Hero: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer

There is hope for Arizona yet...

Earlier, I wrote about a bill passed by the Arizona legislature that would broadly allow religious practices and beliefs to trump professional obligations, ethics codes and discipline. The bill, SB 1288, directed in part:

A. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s exercise of religion.

B. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s refusal to affirm a statement that is contrary to the person’s sincerely held moral or religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are specifically espoused by a recognized church or religious body…

C. A person’s exercise of religion is not unprofessional conduct.

It was widely assumed, including by me, that Republican governor Jan Brewer would sign this stunningly awful bill into a law which would allow any practice that could be called “religious” to be immune from community, cultural and professional norms of right and wrong unless they were explicitly illegal. She did not. She vetoed it, an act of responsible leadership and political courage.

You can read her veto letter here.

Arizona’s Anti-Ethical Free Exercise of Religion Bill

While I was worrying about the unethical nature of so-called “conscience clauses,” which allow certain professionals, like pharmacists, withhold their services when they clash with the professional’s religious convictions, the Arizona legislature was cooking up something unimaginably worse. Last week the Arizona House of Representatives passed and sent to the Governor Brewer to sign into law SB 1288, a mind-blowing bill prohibiting the denial of occupational licenses or positions on public bodies because of an individual’s exercise of religion.

The soon-to-be-law states:

A. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s exercise of religion.

B. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s refusal to affirm a statement that is contrary to the person’s sincerely held moral or religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are specifically espoused by a recognized church or religious body… Continue reading