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13 Law Tchr. 1 (2005-2006)

handle is hein.journals/lawteaer13 and id is 1 raw text is: TlE LAW


Institute for Law School Teaching  - Promoting the science and art of teaching -  Fall 2005
Is God on Your Seating Chart?
Discussing Religious Beliefs in Class
by Robert L. Palmer

Visit any law school class and one thing will quickly
become apparent. Logic rules. Arguments are
raised and dissected, weaknesses laid bare under
the cool, white light of legal analysis. What is a penumbra,
and what does it have to do with the U.S. Constitution?
How do we find these penumbras? Are they visible only
during a full moon? This sort of tongue-in-cheek question-
ing always brings a knowing chuckle from the students.
Reasoning this way - the banter of linguistic logic - is
comfortable, fun.
On top of logic (or perhaps underneath it), there is
experience. We owe this to the legal realists who taught us
to pay attention to the goings-on of the real world, where the
rubber meets the road, so to speak. Today in class we'll
discuss the death penalty. Let's start with a few studies
from the social sciences, check out what sociologists say
about the racial imbalance on death row, or how social
psychologists score the deterrent effect of the death pen-
alty. Hopefully experience and logic will align, and the
students will leave class with a beginner's level of under-
standing of the area of law covered.
But what about belief? What about God?
Belief is generally not subject to logical scrutiny. At its
simplest, belief merely exists in the mind of the person
holding that belief. Anyone who has taught in a law school
for a year or two will have come across a student who, when
pressed to back up an argument with logic, will reply with a
frustrated, I'm sorry, that's just the way I feel! That is
belief. (Of course, I am drawing a false bright line here
between logic and belief, but that line will serve for pur-
poses of this discussion.) When confronted with a statement
of belief, most of us law teachers will give a figurative
shrug by saying little or nothing. We turn the page, starting
a new volley with another student.
Belief comes from many sources-bias, ignorance,
personal experience, parental teachings. Belief also comes
from religion. This is a special category of belief, deserving
special attention. Legally and culturally, religious expres-
sion has been highly protected in America, given its own
safe haven. Most law students come to school fully aware
of that safe haven (but not knowing how it might fit in with
their education). Furthermore, most religions are based on

complex philosophical systems. A religious belief usually
isn't a knee-jerk, that's just the way I feel belief, but is
more sophisticated, part of a whole-world view of how to
decide right and wrong and, more broadly, how to live life.
And finally, numbers count. The student who says, that's
just the way I feel, probably stands alone in a classroom in
his or her belief. A student who speaks from religious
principle may well speak for others in the class.
A colleague of mine who teaches professional responsi-
bility asks students each year to analyze a moral problem
based on (1) the Golden Rule, (2) Rule Utilitarianism, or
(3) some other value system with which the given student
feels comfortable. The responses are written out and
handed in. In each class, at least ten percent of the students
base their answers on religious beliefs. I expect the actual
percentage of students with deeply held religious values is
greater than that, but some students feel constrained to use
Rule Utilitarianism or the Golden Rule because they seem
more lawyerly. The point is, like it or not, our students
bring God to class.
Despite the fact that many of our students are religious,
their beliefs often stay far below the surface, in part because
religious concepts are not readily applicable to much of the
law school curriculum. Contracts, property, tax courses,
business organizations, and civil procedure fall into this
category. The substance of these courses seems so far
removed from religious doctrine that religion is rarely an
issue. At the other end of the spectrum, religion is at the
heart of some courses - first amendment, international
human rights, and legal history, to name a few. In these
courses, religion is usually treated as an abstraction, a
right. This takes much of the edge off the conversation.

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