The spirit of the law

moses and the lawI read with particular interest a Houston Chronicle article on Tuesday about the growing number of "Christian-based" law schools sprouting across the country. The story hooks onto a new law school opening in Louisiana called the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law. The school is supposed to open in 2009 and is named after a lawyer active in the Southern Baptist Convention. Reporter Mary Flood highlights a few interesting points and takes off on a brief survey of religiously affiliated law schools around the country. The story manages to summarize a few highlights, generally miss more substantive issues and note that many of the law schools classes begin with a prayer. Oh, and classes like torts and contracts will have discussions involving religious issues, as if that is some novel development:

"The law school will deliver through the lens of a biblical world view needed today in our nation and our system of justice," said Joe Aguillard, president of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where he hopes the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law will open in 2009.

Aguillard wants his school to graduate lawyers whose understanding of the law is rooted in "the absolute truth of the Bible" and the foundations the Bible provided for American law.

He notes that means abortion should not be legal. The press release announcing the plans for the private school, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, included a picture of a fetus in the womb reaching a hand out to grasp the finger of a surgeon during an operation.

I am not sure about the relevance of abortion in establishing a law school, but apparently it was important enough to note high in the story. Is it all that surprising that a law school named after Pressler would be against abortion?

The article correctly notes, or implies, that basing an entire legal curriculum on religious issues is not exactly the norm. However, I am not sure that is what these schools or doing, or that what they are doing in highlighting and emphasizing the religious roots of our legal system is that far out of the norm.

I attend a secular state-funded law school, and all of my classes have at one point or another discussed serious religious issues. In three of the four areas of law I am studying -- torts, contracts, property -- we have discussed how the foundations are in principles found in the Bible. The Good Samaritan rule is a good place to start. (My textbook contained the entire passage from the Book of Luke.)

Another shortcoming is that while the story highlights Ave Maria School of Law, there is little mention of the dozens of other Catholic law schools that will have at least some level of piety in the class room and the curriculum.

Regarding Ave Maria, this paragraph -- quoting Charles Roboski, associate dean for external affairs -- is priceless:

"Students feel comfortable sharing issues of faith here," Roboski said. He called it a pro-family campus, meaning students with families may feel especially welcome, and pro-life, meaning anti-abortion.

Thanks for the clarification about those terms. No doubt Roboski is anti-abortion, but is that clarifier all that necessary?

The story rightly points out that there are plenty of law schools affiliated with religious institutions, but they should not be confused with institutions such as Ave Maria:

Despite the new trend merging religion and law, other law schools at universities with religious affiliations have strictly secular curriculum and don't stop for prayer. In Texas they include the law schools at Baylor University, St. Mary's and Southern Methodist University.

John Attanasio, dean of SMU's Dedman School of Law, said his school's mission "is to train lawyers. The practice of law is largely secular, so that's what we're about."

The article attempts to divide American law schools and the teaching of law into two neat little boxes. There are those secular schools that teach the law the proper way, which start classes with "probing questions about the separation of church and state," and there are the others, this growing force, that want to "intertwine ... the tenets of one or more branches of Christianity into the legal curriculum."

I would argue that the statement is not precisely accurate since American law is by its nature already intertwined with Christian tenets. How that history is highlighted is another matter, but it is an important distinction. The issue of mixing today's religion and the law is no doubt controversial, but the issue is not as clear-cut as this story implies.

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