Colloquium on Law and Religion

April 24, 2012

This semester, the CLR inaugurated an exciting new course, “Colloquium in Law: Law and Religion.” The seminar, taught jointly by CLR Director Mark L. Movsesian and Assistant Director Marc O. DeGirolami, gave selected St. John’s Law School students an opportunity to study cutting-edge issues in law and religion with some of the most prominent thinkers in the field, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The seminar was structured as a series of workshops in which speakers presented papers to the students and faculty from St. John’s and other universities. The papers addressed a variety of topics and perspectives. Michael W. McConnell (Stanford Law School) critiqued the Supreme Court’s free-exercise jurisprudence, demonstrating the tensions in the Court’s landmark decision in Employment Division v. Smith. Philip Hamburger (Columbia Law School) discussed the history of freedom of conscience, focusing on medieval thinkers like Aquinas and Bonaventure, and M. Cathleen Kaveny (University of Notre Dame Law School) critiqued a classic contracts case, Watts v. Watts, from the perspective of moral theology. Two papers were comparative. Joseph Weiler (NYU School of Law) addressed the recent European Court of Human Rights decision in the Italian crucifix case, Lautsi v. Italy, and Ayelet Shachar (University of Toronto Faculty of Law) discussed religious family-law arbitration in Canada and the UK.

Photo Gallery

Justice Scalia’s session was the highlight of the series. The Justice spoke about several of the Court’s recent religion cases and fielded questions on subjects like the original meaning of the religion clauses, the effectiveness of history as a check on the Court and the balance the Constitution strikes between public religiosity and minority rights. “I came to law school excited about the opportunity to debate constitutional law with my classmates,” said CLR Fellow Yosefa Heber ’13, one of the students in the Colloquium. “I never imagined that I would get the opportunity to discuss the cases with one of the Justices himself. It was fascinating to hear Justice Scalia express his views and respond to student questions and criticisms.” Professor Movsesian added, “I was so proud of our students. They asked great, thoughtful questions and were ready when the Justice came back with some of his own.”

Students in the Colloquium and visiting faculty remarked on how valuable the course was. “The Colloquium was a refreshing change of pace from traditional law school classes,” said CLR Fellow Jordan Hummel ’13 “The opportunity to engage with scholars immersed in the field ― to critique their work and receive immediate responses to our questions ― was an invaluable learning experience.” Dylan Sherwood ’13 agreed: “It was exciting to ask leading scholars about their work and occasionally even get them to reevaluate their positions.” Ashley Berner of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, who attended several of the sessions, added, “What an opportunity: law students, obviously well-trained and well-prepared, engaging with renowned scholars on the deep questions of culture, law and religion. As an historian who finds herself working increasingly with jurisprudence, the Colloquium proved to be an invaluable (and enjoyable!) intellectual resource.”

The Colloquium reflects the Law School’s commitment to providing a forum for open dialogue on important issues in legal theory and practice. “Our students and the entire Law School community benefit from offerings like the new Colloquium seminar,” said Dean Michael A. Simons. “The scholarship and case law arising in the field of law and religion has a deep impact on our society. I am proud that our Center for Law and Religion now offers a platform for engaging thoughtful discussion about these important issues.”

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