JURIST >> OPINION >> Forum >> God Goes to Law School... 

Professor Ali Khan
Washburn University School of Law
JURIST Contributing Editor

In mid-October this year, under the unusually blue and warm skies of Minneapolis, the Law Journal at the new University of St. Thomas School of Law (UST) held its founding symposium God, the Person, History, and the Law: Themes from the Work of Judge John T. Noonan, Jr.. Judges, theologians and law professors made presentations on the development of religious doctrine, freedom of religion, marriage and family, judicial ethics, and social justice. Although many contributors examined the work of Judge Noonan, who listened to panelists in attentive silence, others ventured into broader issues of law and religion. The discussion of issues was by no means confined to the Catholic viewpoint - scholars of other faiths and of no faith engaged in legal soliloquies and conversations with each other and with the audience.

To me, what was most striking about the symposium was the palpable presence of God. Even non-believers could not resist talking about God.

The experience threw into stark relief the fact that in all but a few law schools, secularism has monopolized the learning and teaching of law. God is absent in our law school buildings, courses and events. God痴 name is rarely taken to launch a new structure, start fundraising, or finish an academic year. Even believers are afraid to take God痴 name in law schools, for a wall has been built between the legal and the spiritual. God is banned from law schools because any shared recognition of God could offend non-believers.

But why is God relevant to legal education, some ask? For example, they say, what has God got to do with the teaching of secured transactions or payment systems? And which god are we talking about anyway?

These questions are generally raised to show that more harm than good will be done if God is interwoven into legal education. The fear of contention in the name of God is not unfounded. Imagine a law professor warming the hearts of his audience by following the example of General William Boykin, who believes God chose Bush for the White House to fight evil. Speaking to Baptists in Florida, the General narrated the story of a Muslim warlord in Somalia, who had boasted that Allah (God) would shield him from American soldiers. "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol," General Boykin said. Such contentious views about God, if allowed in the classroom, will most certainly harm legal education.

Contention, however, is not foreign to legal education. The UST law symposium I attended had its own moments of contention. Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit gave a passionate keynote address for choosing social justice over a jurisprudence of grammar that reduces law to technocratic management. Speaking to a predominantly religious audience, Judge Reinhardt was highly skeptical of infusing law with any form of religious fundamentalism. After listening to a panel discussion, the judge point-blank asked a panelist whether the heaven had been reserved exclusively for the panelist痴 particular faith. In another panel discussion involving the freedom of religion, a secularist scholar was fearful of the word under in the pledge of allegiance 徹ne nation under God. He was afraid that one meaning of 砥nder God could suggest to schoolchildren that God is tyrannical in that God likes Americans to be 砥nder Him.

Despite contention, a sense of mutual respect permeated the symposium. As a Muslim, I felt at ease as I listened to scholars of other faiths and of no faith. I began to reconsider whether law schools must be secular to impart legal learning of high quality. Can piercing legal analysis take place within the realm of faith? In addition to panelists, the audience was, for the most part, deferential to the diversity of religious views.

Yet there was one scary moment for me. A question was asked whether 都omeone poised to destroy America in the name of God is entitled to free exercise of religion, and whether the government might lawfully torture him to get the necessary information. The question was double-barreled. I knew the 都omeone in the question was a Muslim. The question also raised the possibility of torturing Muslims accused of terrorist plots. At first, I was disturbed. Later, I conceded to myself that the same question can be (and must be) asked at any law school, religious or secular. A religious school will not serve the ends of legal education if tough questions are outlawed for fear of stereotyping a faith. At the same time, however, I also wondered whether America would be safer if the United States Supreme Court took God out from public pledges.

God was not taken out of any weekend festivities arranged by the UST Law Journal. God was everywhere. It is no coincidence that the symposium痴 title begins with God. God痴 name was formally invoked before each meal was served during the symposium. The dedication of the law school痴 new building - a tall structure with ceiling-high glass windows that seem to relish in light and transparency - started and ended in the name of God.

God was not confined to mere festivities. Even panel presentations started with prayers. On the first day of the symposium, I myself began the presentation on Islamic law by reciting in Arabic the first and the oft-repeated verse of the Quran: 的n the name of God, most kind, most merciful. On the last day of the symposium, Professor William Quigley (Loyola) asked the entire audience to rise and pray for the world痴 poor, for whom traditional law schools have done nothing. It was refreshing to see a law professor leading a prayer at a law symposium at which judges, priests, persons who had served the meal, law students, staff, and panelists - Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Secularists - were all standing, with heads down, eyes closed, some out of conviction, some out of politeness, but all in a posture of prayer.

In many ways, the UST symposium stepped outside the traditional boundaries of legal discussions. From the beginning to the end, the founding symposium was much more than a mere intellectual event in which presentations are made to highlight multiple prongs, tests, standards of scrutiny - an endless doctrinal chatter that begins to cloud the purpose of law. Doctrine is important but it cannot turn a deaf ear to God痴 voice, warned Professor Val Ricks (South Texas). In his luncheon address, Professor John Powell (Ohio State) argued that a spiritually engaged life mandates an active engagement in issues of social justice. Law must make a concerted effort to reduce 都urplus suffering, he said.

It remains to be seen how the UST Law Journal will evolve in the years to come. If the October symposium is any indication, the theme of social justice will continue to occupy the imagination of future editors. The Journal will remain free within the realm of faith, but shunning all forms of parochialism. It might devote some of its resources to promoting scholarship in quest for social justice - not limited to secular justice that condemns religion as a source of strife, but justice that sees God as a sure guide and offers a unity of the intellectual and the spiritual. Though its pages, God may yet go to law school.

Ali Khan is a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas. His publications are available here.

October 27, 2003


JURIST Contributing Editor Ali Khan is Professor of Law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. A law graduate of Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, he also holds LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees from New York University, where he was the Robert Marshall Fellow in Civil Liberties and the Judge Jacob D. Fuchsberg Fellow in Criminal Law. At Washburn he teaches international law and human rights. He has published numerous articles on international law. His latest book, A Theory of Universal Democracy: Beyond the End of History has just been published by Kluwer.

Professor Khan is a member of the New York Bar.