Legal practice vs. religious faith: Experts weigh in

Abdullahi An-Na'im, Michael Broyde and Frank Alexander

Left to right: Abdullahi An-Na'im, Michael Broyde and Frank Alexander

Written by Chris Manzer

When word got around Emory Law School this week that faculty members representing the three Abrahamic faiths were going to share their views on negotiating the tensions between legal practice and religious faith, every classroom seat was taken, along with some parts of the floor.

Professors Frank Alexander, founding director of the school’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), and CSLR senior fellows Michael Broyde and Abdullahi An-Na’im spoke with students, local professionals and staff about how their respective religious beliefs were the impetus and guide for their work in law.

From his perspective as a Protestant, Alexander said he sees legal practice as a means of service and a response to the grace of God. “Faith makes my practice possible in a confessional sense,” he said.

An-Na’im, a Muslim and human rights activist, identified the pursuit of justice and the testimony to truth as central principles of the Qur’an that inspire his legal practice. He acknowledged that these principles may pose problems for traditional American legal duties, like attorney-client privilege, which oblige lawyers to suppress knowledge on behalf of their client.

Broyde, a widely recognized expert on Jewish law and member of the Beth Din of America, pointed out that the Jewish tradition values a secular legal tradition that has as its minimal goal to ensure that “might does not make right.”

“Faith and practice must work together so that faith learns how it can be practiced responsibly.”

-Abdullahi An-Na’im

All panelists agreed that religious belief is the impetus and guide for their work in law, but they admitted that religious integrity does not make the practice of law easy. Alexander said there were times when he has had to withdraw from representation because he could not support a client’s designs.

“Law is its own duty,” said Alexander. Affirming the tension between the duties of representation and the convictions of faith gives the Christian lawyer the room she needs to “criticize and challenge the law” while acknowledging the “sacred duties of a lawyer” to those she represents. The tension between law and faith is good for the law, he said, because that tension gives the law space to be improved.

In response, An-Na‘im said lawyers should be wary of reposing in faith too comfortably. In the practice of law, the faithful must find a way to practice their faith. “Faith and practice must work together so that faith learns how it can be practiced responsibly,” he said.

Religious commitment may mean you give up a client like Penthouse Magazine. Broyde, who made this refusal early in his career, acknowledged that students must be careful before quitting a job for moral reasons.

“You must learn to balance principles with reality,” Broyde said. Today, the condition of the legal market means that obligations that militate against certain clients must be put in the balance with obligations to feed family, spouse and self. Broyde admitted that often these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, with a difficult weighing of priorities.

Whether in legal practice or advocacy of social policy, Islam (and probably any religion) leaves no room for neutrality on important social issues, said An-Na’im. His own work has focused on human rights and gender equality around the world, which he describes as “socially responsible scholarship.”

In fact, An-Na’im stressed that scholarship and advocacy should always have purpose and contribute to the conversation on pertinent moral, legal and social debates of the day. This stance should not compromise the professionalism of scholarship or advocacy, he said.

Each panelist emphasized the importance of a common commitment to practicing with integrity and holding the legal system to a basic standard of justice. As Broyde noted in his discussion of the development of Islamic religious arbitration, it takes scholars who live in both worlds—secular legal practice and religious practice—to advance these ideas.

Today’s post is reported by Christopher Manzer, a second-year JD/MTS student at Emory Law and Candler School of Theology.

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