On December 4th students and faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences had the honor of hosting Professor Steven K. Green as the inaugural speaker for the University of Washington Tacoma’s Law & Religion Speaker Series. Professor Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at Willamette University. In addition, he has co-authored and written a number of books, including The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (Oxford, 2012) and, more recently, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford, 2015). Professor Green also helped draft the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and has participated in several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our learning and engagement with Professor Green started with a lunch seminar hosted by Professor Eric Bugyis and a group of students and faculty who meet regularly to discuss recent research related to religion, culture, and society. In anticipation of this seminar, our group, which we have dubbed the “Religious Studies Collective,” met in October and November to read and discuss Professor Green’s most recent book. The luncheon was an opportunity to discuss some of the important issues taken up by the book that are impacting our society today. Having the opportunity to read Professor Green’s book, have a discussion with him, and hear his thoughts on topics that we had questions about was a great way to bring our reading full circle. It also served as an opportunity to provide some context for the lecture that we attended that evening.
Professor Green’s lecture, which was hosted by the UW Tacoma Division of Politics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, UW School of Law, and the Tacoma City Club, was titled “The Tension between Marriage Equality and Religious Liberty.” Professor Green discussed the set of interrelated issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), the Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the Hobby Lobby case, Kim Davis, and the impact that these laws, cases, and decisions have on religious liberty, marriage equality, and other tensions that arise when the state intervenes in questions concerning the common good that intersect with the religious convictions of individuals and groups. While most of us have heard about and have a basic understanding of the Hobby Lobby case, and perhaps caught some of the Kim Davis case that was covered extensively by the media over this past summer, Professor Green’s lecture shed some light on the important details involved in cases like these. Cases that deal with clashes that occur between a person’s religious liberty and the legal rights of another, we learned, are very delicate and complicated situations. Not only do the rights of those involved need to be upheld, but the actual laws, legal technicalities, and application of the laws involved must be interpreted and are continuously debated.
When Professor Green concluded his presentation, the audience asked questions, which led to an interesting discussion. One of the questions concerned the legal technicalities in the Hobby Lobby case. Professor Green cited the relevance of the Citizen’s United decision, which controversially defined corporations as “people” in the eyes of the law, allowing the beliefs (religious beliefs in this case) of the owners of the corporation to be protected by the rights of the corporation as such. This in turn has an effect on the actual people that work for a corporation, such as Hobby Lobby, insofar as their right to religious freedom as individual employees is placed in direct competition with the perceived right to religious freedom of the corporation. While we only scratched the surface of understanding the complexity and depth of legal proceedings such as these, learning experiences like this give us important tools and information to approach other issues and conflicts that will certainly continue to arise in societies all around the world.
As students, we read so many books by amazing and interesting authors, and we often wish that we had the opportunity to ask them questions about their work and the important issues they write about. This was a chance to do just that! As a Religious Studies, PPE, and Global Studies student, this was an experience that allowed me look at religion and law in society through a different lens and to delve a little deeper into the legal aspects of situations where religious liberty and individual rights are sometimes at odds. Events like this take the concepts and ideas I’ve been studying at UWT and connect them to issues going on in our society today. It’s these connections that expand my thinking about the ways in which I can take my education and experience into many different arenas and make a difference when I graduate.
In the pursuit of my degree here at UWT, it has been my goal to gain a deeper understanding of different cultures, religions, and politics, and the turbulence that can occur at the intersections of these. Groups like our Religious Studies Collective and events like the speaker series give me an opportunity to think about issues in society outside of the classroom. I believe it is in this way that I can use this extra curricular education to facilitate a more dynamic approach to the way I think about issues in my own life, family, and community. In our family we’ve always said that education and life experience go hand in hand and are truly invaluable to living a meaningful life and having a positive impact on the world. A deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues we face as members of a University, state, and national community can only help to improve the way we handle differences and conflicts in our lives and the world at large.
I’m looking forward to the next lecture in this series by Professor Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, which is taking place this Thursday, March 10, at 5:30 in Joy 117, entitled “Religious Liberties for Illiberal Purposes: Theorizing Religious Liberty Claims” and for other events like this at UWT that will also bring greater depth to my education.