Pantagruel Comes for the Establishment Clause
Law & Liberty
In the second book of the 16th century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.” When the lawyers and jurists propose to give Pantagruel the relevant texts, writs, historical records, learned treatises, and legal authorities, he orders all of this “scribble-scrabble foolscap” immediately burned. These materials, he scoffs, are “pure subversions of equity,” for “the law grew up out of the field of natural and moral philosophy.” After a perfunctory hearing and by the light of “philosophical and evangelical justice,” Pantagruel rules with swift panache, and his judgment is hailed as wiser than Solomon’s.
Pantagruel is coming for the Establishment Clause. He comes today bearing the standard of equality, and the manifestations of equality that he would have courts superimpose on the Constitution. In several disputes ostensibly involving the constitutional prohibition on “laws respecting an establishment of religion,” courts are interpreting this provision of the First Amendment to require adherence to a kind of pure principle of equality, or its close cousin, neutrality. And just as Pantagruelic justice beguiled Rabelais’ fictional Parisian intelligentsia, so, too, does the legal professoriate extol the egalitarian justice of today’s courts. Yet though certain forms of unequal treatment by the state on the basis of religion surely do create questions of constitutional dimension, we now face something like the obverse situation: courts so rigorously adhere to notions of egalitarian justice that the Establishment Clause is bloated to the point of collapsing of its own weight.