By BJC Staff Reports
On April 7-8, Alan Brownstein, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, will deliver the 2015 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta and Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
A nationally recognized constitutional law scholar who primarily focuses on church-state issues, Professor Brownstein has been published in numerous academic journals and is the co-author of dozens of op-ed articles and columns discussing a range of legal issues. His assistance is often sought by advocacy groups on matters relating to religious liberty and equality.
What led you to the study of First Amendment issues?
First Amendment values relating to freedom of speech and religious liberty and equality have always been both interesting and important to me. I remember being directed to recite the Regent’s Prayer — the prayer that was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale — each day in public school and thinking even then that there was something wrong with the government and my teachers telling what I should be saying when I prayed to G-d. I was in high school and college in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests challenged government policies. Freedom of speech and association issues seemed to be part of daily life. My interest in constitutional law continued through my studies at law school. I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to pursue these interests as a scholar and teacher.
You practiced law early in your career. What do you enjoy about teaching as opposed to litigating cases?
Teaching and writing scholarship and litigating are as different as night and day. Litigation is organized conflict within the parameters of accepted law. Writing articles as a scholar allows you to challenge existing orthodoxy and to try to develop solutions to problems without regard to a client’s interests. … A teacher doesn’t experience the kind of immediate, real world results that an attorney does. It is really a profession of faith. We hope that what we do in the classroom makes a difference in our students’ education, but the impact we have isn’t clear like winning a case.
How has the church-state landscape shifted?
The church-state landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. For the most part, the current Supreme Court has taken the position that, except in extreme cases, church-state controversies should be resolved through political deliberation rather than through constitutional adjudication. Accordingly, the Court has increasingly interpreted both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause to mean as little as possible. I strongly disagree with the Court’s direction. Certainly, the basic distrust of government which underlies our constitutional system applies as strongly to government decisions relating to religion as it does to any other category of decisions. Democracy is a great system of government, but that doesn’t mean we should be deciding what constitutes religious truth at the ballot box or in the halls of state legislatures or the chambers of local school boards.
Why are you focusing one of your lectures specifically on “respectful discourse” regarding religion and equality?
Unfortunately, I think respectful discourse is often missing in public debate in our polarized society. We focus too much on speech that rallies people who already agree with our point of view and often demonizes the opposition to accomplish this goal. Persuasive speech that seeks to identify ways to settle disputes requires identifying the common ground that people share and building from that foundation.
What do you hope attendees will take away from the lectures?
I would hope that my lectures would help audience members understand and appreciate the several important values that come into play in church-state disputes. Taking all of the relevant values and concerns that are implicated in a church-state controversy into account may mean that we have to work harder to develop a fair and just solution to a problem. But liberty, equality and speech values are so important that we need to be careful to avoid solutions that only achieve simplicity and clarity by sacrificing values which demand our respect. I would also hope that my remarks might help people to engage in respectful discussions of difficult issues — particularly with regard to interactions with people who for one reason or another we see as “strangers” to our community.
What drew you to the Shurden Lectures?
I have tremendous respect for the work of the Baptist Joint Committee, Brent Walker and Holly Hollman. Accordingly, I was predisposed to be receptive to any invitation from the BJC when Brent called me and invited me to participate in the Shurden Lectures. Also, the past speakers in this lecture series include some of the most prominent and effective advocates for religious liberty and equality in the U.S. I consider it to be a great honor and privilege to be included in such a distinguished group of speakers.
From the February 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next article.