September 1, 2010
St. John’s scenic Paris campus was the setting for Laïcité in Comparative Perspective, the Center for Law and Religion’s inaugural academic conference held earlier this summer. Scholars from a cross-section of universities in Europe and the United States came together for a lively roundtable discussion and debate on religious liberty in France, the United States, and other countries. The participants were:
- Christopher J. Borgen (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Nathalie Caron (Université Paris-Est Créteil)
- Blandine Chelini-Pont (Université Paul Cézanne Aix-Marseille)
- Nina J. Crimm (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Marc O. DeGirolami (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Douglas Laycock (University of Michigan Law School)
- Javier Martinez-Torrón (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)
- Mark L. Movsesian (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Rosemary C. Salomone (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Brett Scharffs (BYU Law School)
- Michael A. Simons (St. John’s University School of Law)
- Emmanuel Tawil (Université Panthéon-Assas) (Paris 2)
- Elisabeth Zoller (Université Panthéon-Assas) (Paris 2)
Douglas Laycock, the Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, opened the conference with a compelling keynote on American Religious Liberty, French Laïcité, and the Veil. Referring to the American and French approaches to religious liberty as “distant cousins,” he argued that the divergence from common roots results from cultural and historical differences.
The Conference continued with two panels. The first addressed current issues in laïcité − the French model of church-state relations − including the proposed ban on burqas in public places, the existing ban on Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in France’s public schools, and the rise of militant secularism in the country. The second panel compared laïcité with church-state relations in other countries, including Spain and the United States.
The high-quality presentations sparked substantive and enlightening roundtable exchanges. Participants fully engaged each other’s ideas with respect and honesty, offering a range of perspectives. For example, while some favored a ban on conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, others argued that the ban infringed on religious freedom and questioned its necessity. “This was more than just a robust academic dialogue,” Dean Simons noted. “It was a highly informed exploration of real world issues of religious expression that impact the daily lives of people throughout the world – from the smallest villages to the largest cities to our own St. John’s community.”
“This event was a perfect way to inaugurate the Center for Law and Religion,” said Professor Movsesian, the Center’s Director. “One of our main goals is to advance St. John’s Vincentian mission by promoting open dialogue on law and religion around the world. Studying laïcité in a comparative way is entirely consistent with that mission. Our exchanges were candid, sometimes even provocative.”
Established in 2010, the Law School’s Center for Law and Religion provides a forum for the study of law and religion from domestic, international and comparative perspectives. In addition to hosting academic conferences and speakers from academia and public life, it also coordinates the Law School’s law and religion curriculum and promotes dialogue among scholars with different viewpoints, both religious and non-religious.