Published on: Monday, November 12, 2012
Three members of UST Law’s faculty spent part of their mid-semester break in sunny San Diego. But the pleasant weather was only a secondary reason for the trip out west.
Professors Tom Berg and Michael Paulsen and Dean Robert Vischer were among a group of 30 religious liberties scholars invited to participate in the University of San Diego School of Law’s Institute for Law and Philosophy conference on “Freedom of the Church in the Modern Era.”
The Oct. 12 conference featured presentations and commentary from many of the leading legal experts on the First Amendment religion clauses. Conference invitees explored several topics including, what justifications, if any, exist under present circumstances for giving legal protection to churches or religious institutions and what kinds of associations or institutions should fall within the coverage of a commitment to freedom of the church or institutional religious autonomy. Also discussed were the implications of a constitutional protection to freedom of the church over modern-day issues such as: the ministerial exemption, church property disputes, tax exemption for churches and whether church-affiliated hospitals have an obligation to provide abortion-related services.
St. Thomas was the only law school at the conference to feature commentary and presentations from three faculty members, said Prof. Berg, whose presentation explored the political divide that exists between “progressives” and “conservatives” on the HHS mandate and other public policy issues.
“I asked the question whether one can reconcile strong, ‘progressive’ views on public policy issues with strong protection for religious organizations that aren’t themselves progressive,” Berg said. “It’s an important topic because so many of our conflicts today are between progressives and conservative religious groups. I worry that we may be moving toward a place where progressives get suspicious of religious liberty as a general idea because it is associated so often only with conservative beliefs. So I think it is vital that we realize religious liberty is for everyone. Both conservatives and progressives have to realize that.”
Dean Vischer’s presentation at the conference also touched on the HHS mandate, and more specifically whether private businesses should be entitled to the same religious exemptions that are currently afforded to churches and some religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations. Prof. Paulsen provided commentary that argued the text of the First Amendment’s religious clause provides strong Free Exercise-protection for churches and religious organizations.
The fact that three faculty members from one school were invited to participate in the conference is another positive sign that UST Law is fulfilling its mission by leading the way in such areas of legal scholarship, Berg said.
“It was an honor for three of us to participate at a conference with so many excellent religious liberties scholars,” Berg said, “It provides an example of how faculty at St. Thomas are constantly addressing these important issues in a way that takes religious faith very seriously, and is also open to dialogue with non-religious perspectives. That’s part of our mission as a faith-based law school.”