Third ICLARS Conference: Background for Issues Discussed

This past year was particularly significant for the law and religion field. On 11 January 2012 the Supreme Court of the United States issued its judgment in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, without question one of the most significant religion decisions of the Court in decades. One year later, on 15 January 2013, the European Court of Human Rights delivered judgment in a similarly significant set of four consolidated cases in Eweida and Others v. The United Kingdom. These US and European cases have brought law and religion questions to the forefront of public consciousness, and the decisions have spawned profound and ongoing debates.

But of course these decisions that provide temporal bookends for the past year are certainly not the only developments with salience. Another example is the controversy swirling around the mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which requires that insurance coverage for contraception and other ethically sensitive matters be provided for employees of religiously affiliated institutions that oppose such coverage on conscientious grounds. This has resulted in a spate of litigation in U.S. Courts, and the underlying issues have counterparts elsewhere.

On another front, the demonstrations and violence unleashed in what is variously called the Arab Spring or the Islamist Awakening remain a major concern, with recent tensions in Turkey and especially Egypt highlighting uncertainties about the ultimate directions and destinations of the complex social processes involved.

Still other questions arise in the context of the complex interface of religious beliefs and gender perspectives. Representative of just one aspect of this interface, so far in 2013 Brazil, France, New Zealand, and Uruguay have joined the 13 other countries in the world where same-sex marriage allowed in all or some jurisdictions. As this is written, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales is moving through final stages in Parliament. Similar legislation has undergone consultation in Scotland, while the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against same-sex marriage in April. In the United States, two significant Supreme Court opinions with relevance to the intense and ongoing debates about same-sex marriage were issued in late June. In Hollingsworth v. Perry the Court held that the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage did not have standing to appeal the lower court’s order invalidating the ban, effectively opening the way for California to become the 13th US state to legalize same-sex marriage. Issued on the same day, the opinion in United States v. Windsor found Section 3 of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional, as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. Religious persons and institutions have of course taken sides, sometimes opposing sides, in the debates surrounding these processes.

At the more philosophical level, we are seeing new instantiations of classic tensions between liberty and equality, and differing ideas about how modern secular states can best institutionalize respect for plurality and difference. The foregoing are representative of the broader array of complex social issues that ICLARS and its members are uniquely qualified to address and with respect to which they can help promote deeper understanding.

With these ideas in mind, the Steering Committee—eminent law and religion scholars from Italy, Spain, India, Argentina, Germany, Israel, and South Africa—developed the themes of the Third ICLARS Conference.