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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Religious Tests and a Committee Chair Candidate

Fans of the relationship between religion and public dialogue, and of issues concerning the Religious Test Clause, may enjoy this story about Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill), who has announced that he is running for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  (He's a long shot.)  The news sources on this lean left but are helpfully buttressed with committee footage.  They suggest that Shimkus is a skeptic about global climate change for theological reasons: he believes humanity will not destroy the world because God promised Noah that the world would not be destroyed after the flood.  

I take no position on that question, other than to point out that there is a good deal of interpretive leeway left between the world's not being destroyed and its being damaged significantly, and good stewards of creation might well take that point seriously.  Nor will I mock Shimkus, as some of the stories have done.  But the story is a nice illustration of two points.  First, there is no getting around questions of religious truth; they will necessarily influence debates over public policy, explicitly or implicitly.  Second, this is further reason why the Religious Test Clause, whose  text and/or broader implications are sometimes read quite broadly (as in the debate over some recent Supreme Court nominees), cannot properly be so read.  There is a significant difference between saying that Shimkus's faith should not be grounds for excluding him from public office, and saying that he is entitled to be free from questions or criticism about his faith and its implications, or that his colleagues are forbidden to deny him the chairmanship (or, in some hypothetical case, confirmation to, say, a relevant cabinet post) precisely on the grounds that they either disagree with his faith-claim or think it renders him unsuitable for a position that involves these issues.  The former is impermissible; the latter must be permissible.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 10, 2010 at 09:35 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Comments

I don't understand where the problem is. It seems that the line of reasoning would be the same as in Employment Division v. Smith. Shimkus wouldn't be denied the chairmanship because he is X religion, but because he believes Y. Perhaps more interesting would be if Shimkus's religion prevented him from taking oaths of office for some reason. I would still say that Shimkus has to take the oath, for the same reason as he can be prevented from being chair of the committee for his mockable beliefs, but at least in the latter case you could discuss competing constitutional claims.

Posted by: Where's the issue? | Nov 11, 2010 7:08:04 AM

I'm confused, Paul. I understand that you're not taking a position on the substantive issue of Shimkus' candidacy. But are you saying that his candidacy must be considered by his colleagues without regard to the views he brings to the table?

Because this seems to say that:

"The former is impermissible; the latter must be permissible."

Since "the latter" consists of "his colleagues are forbidden to deny him the chairmanship (or, in some hypothetical case, confirmation to, say, a relevant cabinet post) precisely on the grounds that they either disagree with his faith-claim or think it renders him unsuitable for a position that involves these issues," I'm wondering what grounds you would regard as appropriate for Shimkus' colleagues to exclude him from the chairmanship.

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Nov 10, 2010 4:32:05 PM

Well said, Paul.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 10, 2010 10:44:18 AM

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