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Currie Lecture and RLT Conference: Religion and Law Frame Global Legal Systems
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | Mar 17, 2014 12:03:00 AM

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As a testament to the importance of the interchange between religion and law in the framing of legal systems across the globe, over 150 attendees gathered at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University to listen to and question top scholars from Canada, Israel, Russia, South Africa and the European Union as well as the United States.

In opening the two-day Religious Legal Theory Conference on February 24, Silas Allard, associate director of the Center, shared the findings of David Law and Mila Versteeg’s empirical study of contemporary constitutional forms. They concluded that “other countries have, in recent decades, become increasingly unlikely to model either the rights-related provisions or the basic structural provisions of their own constitutions upon those found in the U.S. Constitution.”  Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has suggested that if she were drafting a Constitution today she would look elsewhere for inspiration, including to the European Union, South Africa, and Canada. 

As the New York Times reported, this turn toward preferring non-U.S. legal models marks a drastic departure from 25 years earlier when 160 of 170 global constitutions were modeled directly on the U.S. Constitution.  “What is critical,” Allard pointed out, “is that as constitutional models are diversifying, so too are we seeing a new and diverse array of models for interaction between religion and the state.”

Panels and topics ranged far and wide, from Brett Scharff’s (Brigham Young University) Rawlsian analysis of public reason as a framework for political dialogue, to Stephen Munzer’s (University of California, Los Angeles) unpacking of a German court case banning circumcision, and from a frank discussion with Center faculty about the role religion would play if it were ever put in charge, to forward looking discussions about where law and religion might be going in the 21st century and beyond.

Highlighting the power of different religions to affect state actions and key actors on the global stage, the Rev. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, delivered the Overton and Lavona Currie lecture to conclude the first day of the conference.

Bernice King (90T, 90L) introduced Ambassador Cook and offered opening remarks, reflecting on her family’s long friendship with the Ambassador and the need to encourage governments around the world to respect religious freedom. “America has learned much from our experience with religious diversity. We must share our lessons, stand with the persecuted and encourage all governments to respect and protect the universal rights of all people.”

Cook grew up in the Bronx, New York and described her childhood home as “the intersection of church and state” where “religion was not to be confined to four walls but to find expression in society.” She acknowledged the dual pull of church obligations and public responsibility, as well as her close ties to the King family. “I was born into a Christian family but also a civil rights family. Dr. Martin Luther King and Sister Coretta Scott King were our icons as we grew up. To love their family, to live in their household many times, to be close to her mother and to Yolanda King and the family, it was such an honor and a privilege.”

An ordained minister, Cook was the first female senior pastor in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Churches USA where she served for 21 years, and the first female chaplain in the New York Police Department, a position she held for 20 years, including during the tumultuous period after 9/11.

Cook shared her experiences as an appointee of President Barack Obama, and the first female and first African American to represent the United States as Ambassador-at-Large. During her three years of service (2011-2013) based in the Department of State, she served as principle advisor to the President and Secretary of State on matters of religious freedom. Her charge entailed constant attention to religion and rule of law, engaging with governments and religious leaders in 195 countries, and participating in 100 engagements in 25 countries.

“Our multilateral and consistent prayers and approaches brought together church and state as we forged ahead for human and religious rights,” observed Cook. “We never stopped fighting. We never stopped urging governments to do the right thing.”

Answering a student’s question after her lecture about the risks of raising the issue of religion in politically sensitive discussions, Cook responded forthrightly. “What’s important is that religion get on the table. In most cultures religion is central, but diplomatic discussions did not have religion. Before the paradigm was: you go over, this is what we believe, and you do it. Now you start where the religion starts....There is not risk in putting it on the table. The bigger risk is to keep it off.”