Faith and the Law (School)

As a third-generation secular agnostic who grew up in and around many communities of faith in a small Northern Alberta town, I’ve often held a mystified respect for how much a religious worldview can shape and focus a person’s life. Throughout law school I’ve often wondered how the external moral framework and well-defined community of organized religion might impact the study of law. So, as ever the nosey news-boy, I decided to ask.

The results of these conversations are not meant to be authoritative or even representative. They are simply a collection of thoughts from folks who either possess a strong personal faith or who grew up in religious households and carry those traditions forward. For me, the major takeaway was a barely disguised envy at people’s ability to draw on the support of a community and external guidance to help in withstanding the rigors of law school. But, I’ll let them speak for themselves:

Ian’s (2L) Christian faith has had a huge impact on his law school experience. He told me that he couldn’t imagine what it would have been like without it.

“I think many law students have had a moment where they ask themselves, ‘Does any of this matter?’ For me, my faith provides the answer for that question. It gives meaning in a way nothing else has been able to. Law school can be a stressful environment for everyone, but I can honestly say God has brought me through it all, and that’s a great comfort to me.

“I’m grateful that the law school has been a respectful and tolerant environment towards my faith and others. While the number of Christians at the Faculty is very small, I have felt reasonably supported by the administration in my role as Christian Legal Fellowship president, and as a Christian personally. While I naturally find myself disagreeing with the majoritarian perspective on certain issues both inside and outside class, I have felt able to express my beliefs when I wanted to. There was one instance where a professor said something which was offensive and deprecatory towards a certain group of Christians represented in the classroom. I approached the professor after class, and he offered a full apology the next day.”

Lily (1L) says religion has helped her to step back and connect with her classmates as friends rather than simply as colleagues. She explains that:

“Jews traditionally have two large meals in the home over the Sabbath (Shabbat), and inviting friends is a great way to connect. As I personally do not use electronics on that day, in accordance with Orthodox practice, I am forced to engage more fully with my guests, without distraction. I have taken the opportunity to reach out to people to invite them to my home to cook for them and try and create community. Judaism does not believe in proselytizing, so the get-togethers are very non judgemental and low-key. It was important to my husband and I to create an open home environment, and it has been such a pleasure and joy to bring this to life in the law school setting.”

Lily extends an open invitation to her Shabbat dinners to anyone of any faith or background who might want to attend, so get in touch.

Amir (2L) finds that his faith doesn’t conflict much the principles we’re learning in class. “There is Islamic scholarly work which supports a distinction between legal duties and the moral realm even when they are not congruous. Law school has actually made me more interested in delving into the tenets of Islamic law. When I come across a thorny problem in class I now often go look up what Islamic legal thinkers have to say on the matter. It’s a very positive feeling when you have two different epistemic traditions that often lead to the same answers. You could say it’s mutually enriching.”

When it comes to the culture of the school he brought up the there are strong principles of non-interference in Islam. “There a popular verse that reads: to you your religion, to me mine. I would never expect the dominant law school culture to change for for the benefit of a minority. However, I think adherent Muslim students might feel more welcome if students had more opportunities to participate in dry events. It’s really just about respectful pluralism, same as the rest of Canadian society.”

Ben (2L) says that going to church provides him with an alternate community in which the metrics of law school success are neither interesting nor relevant. This leaves him better able to attach his self-worth to things other than the law and his performance at school.

He added that the skills and aptitudes associated with a religious practice are helpful, such as reading dense text, looking carefully for meaning, epistemic humility, rhetoric, and keeping the centrality of community standards in mind.

Things can get tricky when abstract discussions of religious liberties feel deeply personal. “It feels like a burden to navigate things like the Trinity Western and Carter decisions when religious/Christian rhetoric around them is not particularly attentive to marginalized people and to necessities of a secular civil society. Feels like I have a lot of explaining to do and I often just can’t be bothered to do it.”

He adds that these cases raise interesting theological debates over the extent to which religious people ought to push for their ethics to be implemented as general rules. To him such a project often conflicts with a social commitment to religious autonomy and the protection of marginalized groups.

“I feel that debate in my own life and practice because I need to both support my friends and relations at law school in their own personal careers, goals, struggles and successes, while at the same time maintaining a bit of critical distance and thinking carefully about my participation in the law as an institution that is at least parallel to and maybe at cross purposes with Christianity.”

Maryam (3L) says that for her, faith is deeply personal and entirely separate from academics,  but added that “every time I get stressed, my dad preaches to me about having faith to fall back on in these times for mental health. But I’m not practicing enough to have that benefit.”

She went on to say that “socially, it’s impacted me mostly because of how alcohol-soaked the law school’s social scene is. But more generally being Muslim at the law school and in law can be alienating.”

“I’ve met a number of great friends in class and through the Muslim Law Students Association. A shared cultural experience has left me particularly close with other South Asian students.”

Daniel (1L) had this to say:

“My religious faith has been a very important part of the law school journey so far. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the environment and workload, but my faith has been critical to being grounded.

“Academically, I try to remind myself that I am not defined by how well or poorly I might do in school; though it’s easier said than done. I am thankful to have the opportunity to study law with such an amazing group of colleagues, and having faith that it’s all a part of God’s grander plan gives me comfort. Through highs and lows, prayers have certainly carried me through.

“Being in law school, I am constantly amazed by how bright my colleagues are and how different we all are. I have had the pleasure of exchanging thoughts with so many people with different views, and personally, it has helped me to grow both intellectually and spiritually. It has given me to the chance to test and reaffirm my faith. Christian friends at school have been very supportive in my journey.

“Lastly, I try to stay active at my local church. As much as I love my law school friends, it’s always nice to step outside the bubble. My church has been a great support for me both as a place of worship and community. Being at church reminds me of who I truly am, as defined by my faith, and the community is very loving and encouraging.”