Far be it from me to sit in judgement on the Supreme Court, but then playing armchair judge is a pastime for most of America. And the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association practically begs for review (pardon the pun), particularly with so many individual opinions being written in spite of the 7-2 ruling (to be honest I wasn’t aware the Court could even issue anything other than a 5-4 ruling anymore). In this case I think the Court got it exactly wrong largely based on those express opinions as reported in the Washington Post, which I will be referencing throughout this piece, so feel free to call me out if there is some nuance of legal thought I am overlooking by not reading the entirety of their opinions. However I do believe the underlying premise is sound.
The initial argument is basically that a cross on public land favors a specific religious point of view, which is unconstitutional. The mental gymnastics that the justices who voted to allow the cross to stay had to go through are particularly astounding, and the fact that so many of them took so many paths to get there shows that there really isn’t any clear logic or reasoning to support it, unlike the opposition argument. Note that this in itself does not indicate they are wrong; there can be several good arguments in favor of something, and reasonable people can disagree about which one is the best. However the fact is that none of the arguments put forward by the justices are good or even sufficient arguments, particularly as a matter of practical law when considering that they will be used as precedent in other cases.
What sort of cases? Consider for a moment the issue of Civil War memorials. While many of these memorials may not have a religious component, some may, and all of them are subject to First Amendment challenges (either by those who want to tear them down or those who want to keep them up). Let’s consider the justices opinions in terms of these memorials:
Justice Alito, from the main opinion (WP):
“For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”
Alito was joined in deciding that the cross may remain by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Take out “the Cross” and replace it with “the monument” and this passage would apply equally well to every Civil War memorial in the country. I know from personal experience it would apply to the entirety of Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA.
Justice Gorsuch, according to the Washington Post, “would have dismissed the case because he believes the “offended observer” has no legal standing to sue.” So if you’re offended by Civil War memorials… tough titty.
“Breyer said he was persuaded by the specifics of the case: that crosses are specifically linked to World War I sacrifice and that the cross had stood for 94 years without controversy.” (WP) Oh, good. Because the Civil War happened before WWI, and many of those monuments stood even longer than that without controversy. Because, y’know, a lack of controversy in the past totally trumps any present controversy. Or future controversy. Just ask Dred Scott.
To be fair, a couple of justices did give me hope of nuance, even if I didn’t love the way they decided. “Kagan praised Alito’s ruling, but said she refused to join it in full “out of perhaps an excess of caution.” “Although I too look to history for guidance, I prefer at least for now to do so case-by-case, rather than to sign on to any broader statements about history’s role in Establishment Clause analysis,” she wrote. Kavanaugh said that the decision allows the cross to remain on public land but does not require it. Maryland officials could make other arrangements, he said, such as transferring the land to a private group.” (WP) From reading these comments, I’m almost persuaded to believe they might be thinking about the same sort of issues I am. Of course I might be flattering myself (wouldn’t be the first time), but it is nice to see a bit of judicial restraint even in the face of a poorly decided issue.
I understand that reasoning by analogy is flawed, but I am only using an analogy to highlight my point, not to establish it. And the point is this: decisions coming out of the Supreme Court, particularly ones that have a sizable majority such as this one, set a strong precedent for the entire country. I am a fan of stare decisis and history as much as the next Court watcher, but even more I am a fan of an awareness of the future and what it might hold. While nobody can predict that with even a reasonable modicum of accuracy, it’s not too hard to draw reasonable conclusions from the present, and a bit of restraint in current decisions could yield significant room to maneuver in future cases.