Glendon Links Religion, Legal Rights


Glendon Links Religion, Legal Rights


Posted 23 September 2011, by Amanda Serfozo, The Emory Wheel (Emory University),



Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand professor of law at Harvard University and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, discussed the relationship between modern ethics, religious leadership and legal rights at the Emory School of Law on Tuesday.

The lecture was part of a 2011-2012 series titled, “When Law and Religion Meet,” a symposium featuring scholars with an interest in the fields of both law and theology. Emory Law will host speakers who will comment on topics such as genetic cloning, Islamic family law and marriage throughout the year.

Glendon has served many diplomatic and theological roles, most notably as the head of the Vatican delegation to the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush Administration. She was also the first woman to be named president of the Pope’s committee of social scientists and Catholic researchers.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has maintained a stronghold that religion is a private affair; that individual standing alone cannot maintain conditions for free practice,” Glendon noted during her opening remarks. “Freedom of religion needs free speech and supporting entities like a free press and free enterprise in order to thrive.”

At the spring meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, where the Pope met with leading Catholic thinkers, Glendon learned about the status of religion worldwide. Glendon noted that acceptance of all religions at the social and governmental levels is critical to a healthy, democratic society.

“To ignore the social makeup of religion is to ignore the implications for our own form of government, as they are undoubtedly tied,” she noted. “If there is government cooperation, there is religious cooperation.”

In her lecture, Glendon discussed how the U.S. government decides the ways in which religion is financed and how the Catholic church supports its religious freedoms.

“We are lucky to be in the United States,” she acknowledged. “No one is killing us for our beliefs.”

Glendon explained her work at the Becket Fund, a legal enterprise that works to represent those who have been restricted for practicing their beliefs, and its ongoing attempts to allow for open religious practices across every denomination.

She also answered questions from an audience comprised primarily of theology students and religious leaders from the Atlanta community, often agreeing with their proposals for creating a more tolerant state. Glendon inquired whether American education systems should teach about the commonalities of religion rather than the differences of each.

“Americans love individuality over equality, but we are proud of unity in diversity,” she said. “I agree with you, that we should be relating rather than marginalizing.”

Defining terms such as “moral ecology,” or the idea that religion is a source of social division and “profound paradox,” Glendon said a long-standing religious elitism among social groups is trickling down to the masses. She also noted that the political costs of neglecting religion could mean lesser forms of compassion, community involvement and declines in service-oriented action.

Ultimately, she advocated for the free expression of every religion and government tolerance for all.

“There can be a pluralism of various forms of religious freedom,” she said. “Guarantees regarding freedom of and from religion, only work in a society of tolerance. There is no prohibition or requirement to practice a religion, and this is not a denigration or advance of either.”

Religious leaders, according to Glendon, also serve an important function in democracies with a tolerant philosophy, particularly when it comes to working where government is legally confined.

“This is where our true responsibility lies,” she said. “What hangs in the balance is whether religion could help to hold together individual freedom and our American community.”

Glendon gave her discussion in memory of Western legal scholar and long-time Emory Law faculty Harold J. Berman. The Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion sponsored the event.

— Contact Amanda Serfozo.



Amanda Serfozo

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