Dec. 27, 2007
Law class to examine separation of church and state
A presidential campaign heavily focused on the candidates' religious faith will make an interesting backdrop for a class on religion and constitutional law offered this spring by the University of Iowa College of Law.
"One of the issues we'll be looking at is the role that religion plays in politics, and how it affects political decisions," said Randall Bezanson, the professor of law who will teach the class.
There shouldn't be a lack of current material to discuss, he said. So far in the presidential campaign, Baptist minister Mike Huckabee has made his religious beliefs the centerpiece of his run, Mitt Romney has had to address public questions of whether Mormonism is or is not a part of Christianity, and Barack Obama has contended with whispers that he's a closet Muslim.
"I can't remember a time when everybody feels obliged to profess their religious beliefs when they run for office," Bezanson said.
At the same time, numerous ongoing church and state issues are working their way through the courts, including school vouchers, and a recent United States District Court ruling from Iowa that prohibits public money from being spent on a faith-based prisoner counseling program.
"We'll take a broad look at the separation of church and state, see how it affects politicians' votes, and how politicians conduct themselves in representing a constituency that holds virtually every form of belief, including none," said Bezanson.
The heart of the class, though, will be how the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion has been legally interpreted through the years. Using Bezanson's 2006 book "How Free Can Religion Be" as a guide, the course will examine eight key U.S. Supreme Court decisions as they relate to how religion and government can intermingle, and how an individual can freely express his or her religion. He said the class will focus on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, and its prohibition of the establishment of a government-sanctioned religion.
For years, Bezanson said, the Supreme Court took a strict separationist view of church and state, espoused early in the nation's history by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who believed there should be no civic expression of religion in any way.
"Their view was that religion couldn't be free if it was connected to government," he said.
But starting in the 1970s, a new constitutional interpretation more friendly to religion began to evolve.
"The Court is shifting now to be much more welcoming to claims of individual free exercise of religion, and suggests that government can purposefully accommodate religion as long as it applies those accommodations equally to all religions," Bezanson said. "There aren't many answers to these legal questions, though, so church and state has always been fuzzy and messy. In recent years, it's gotten even more fuzzy and messy."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.