Puns as Legal Analysis

A comment reminded me of this passage from Justice Stevens’ opinion in County of Allegheny v. ACLU:

It is also significant that the final draft [of the Establishment Clause] contains the word “respecting.” Like “touching,” “respecting” means concerning, or with reference to. But it also means with respect — that is, “reverence,” “good will,” “regard” — to. [Footnote: “Respect,” as defined in T. Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (6th ed. 1796). See S. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (7th ed. 1785); see also The Oxford English Dictionary 733-734 (1989); Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 1004 (1988).] Taking into account this richer meaning, the Establishment Clause, in banning laws that concern religion, especially prohibits those that pay homage to religion.

This seems to be a very weak argument — more a play on words than legal analysis.

First, the Clause doesn’t ban laws respecting religion. It bans laws respecting an establishment of religion.

Second, the fact that an English word has multiple meanings doesn’t mean all those meanings are applicable in each context. Indeed, any usage of a word in a legal document (rather than in a joke or in a poem) is usually understood as triggering just one meaning, at least when the meanings are relatively far removed from each other.

For instance, one can debate what “common law” means in the Seventh Amendment protection of a jury trial in suits “at common law,” since at various times (and even at the time of the Framing) “common law” has meant several things: (1) judge-made law (or, if you prefer, judge-found law, though that’s a legal fiction) as opposed to statutes, (2) a particular body of law that was once made by judges, even if now it is codified in statute, as opposed to law that was originally created by a legislature, (3) Anglo-American law as opposed to European civil law, which is derived from Roman law, and (4) law that is sufficiently linked to the sort of law historically enforced in common-law courts as opposed to the sort of law historically enforced in so-called courts of equity. But once courts conclude — and rightly so, I think — that “common law” in the Seventh Amendment is rightly understood using definition 4, they don’t then also bring in the other definitions.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” has long been understood to mean “no law with reference to establishment of religion” [UPDATE: i.e., either an establishment of a national religion or an interference with state establishments of religion] and this understanding of the word “respecting” was pretty clearly the understanding at the time of the Framing (as well as the Fourteenth Amendment). Compare, for instance, article IV, sec. 3, cl. 2 (emphasis added): “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” Or compare the uses of the word “respecting” in the Federalist. That doesn’t tell us just what qualifies as a law that is with reference to establishment of religion [UPDATE: nor does it tell us how the Fourteenth Amendment should affect all this]; but it does give us a general sense of the meaning of “respecting,” though not the meaning of “establishment of religion.”

What reason is there to then read “no law respecting an establishment of religion” as also having the “richer” meaning of “no law that expresses reverence for religion” (omitting the phrase “establishment of” before “religion”)? I see none, other than an interpreter’s preference for the particular result.