Faith-based Law Schools: How Are They Different?

There are 49 religiously affiliated law schools. They represent a spectrum of denominations and shades of belief. Some faculty incorporate this into curriculum, others do not. How, if at all, are these schools different from their secular counterparts? What effect might the religious commitments and beliefs of the sponsoring faiths have on subject matter, perspective, student life, academic freedom and admissions?

If you look carefully, you will notice a small scroll attached to most doors in the Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Called a mezuzah, this piece of parchment is inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, Judaism’s founding legal and ethical religious texts.

Those students who are Orthodox Jews touch it every time they enter a room, explained Michael Eric Herz, vice dean of the New York-based law school. Others walk on by, respectfully passing it on their way to class or a professor’s office.

“Some students walk out the door (after graduation) knowing nothing of it,” Herz said.

To Herz, that is the beauty of a place like Cardozo law. It is a top-notch institution for becoming a lawyer. But it also is a comfortable place for those students who have strong religious beliefs — and those who do not.

That is the challenge religious-affiliated law schools face when it comes to legal education. They must strike a balance between the secular task of studying the law within a decidedly non-secular environment.

On the other hand, these law schools have opportunities to say and do things that a more traditional facility may not, educators say. At schools such as Regent University School of Law, professors start each class in meditation or prayer, noting how particular scriptures relate to that day’s conversations about torts or Constitutional law.

“For many people, attending a law school where they don’t have to check their convictions at the door can be very liberating,” said James D. Gordon III, a longtime law school professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, part of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

A broad spectrum of faiths

There are drawbacks. While any student can apply to a religiously affiliated law school, these institutions tend to attract a smaller pool of potential candidates. Some, including Cardozo and Regent, find themselves fighting assumptions about their law school that appear in student chat groups and blogs.

Ultimately, educators agree on one thing: There are nearly 200 law schools in the United States and less than 50 have a religious setting. If a student feels put out by a particular school’s affiliation, they are free to apply elsewhere.

The nation’s non-secular law schools cover a broad spectrum of faiths: Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Mormon and others. Most have merely symbolic or external signs of their affiliation – like the mezuzah at Cardozo. Conversations about faith or the Bible rarely if ever arise within traditional law-school classes.

Educators estimate that only a dozen or so have truly strong ties to their religion or sponsoring church, including names such as Regent, Brigham Young, Ave Maria School of Law and Liberty University School of Law.

The subject is of interest not only to prospective law students, but to the legal educational community in general. There are dozens of papers debating the subject. The Association of American Law Schools even held a panel discussion at its 2009 annual meeting to cover the topic in more depth.

Herz, who spoke on the panel, describes himself as the contrarian of the group. He would not describe Cardozo as a Jewish law school, yet he admits there are obvious signs to the contrary.

For example, the law school is closed early on Fridays and completely on Saturdays for the Sabbath or day of rest. All food served in the cafeteria and at law school events is kosher. And one of its seminar rooms is reserved every day for afternoon prayer.

Still, Herz calls these superficial compared to the law school’s larger mission, which is to educate students in the study of law, pure and simple.

A similar law school is at Baylor University, which has a Baptist affiliation and is located near the heavily religious area of Waco, Texas.

Although Baylor Law School is largely secular, Dean Bradley Toben notes a small inscription near the law school’s entrance. The verse, taken from the King James Bible, reads in part: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

The verse is Biblical – after all, Baylor is a Christian university, Toben said. Yet the law school is free to operate separately and make its own decisions as to how much interaction students have with religion within their coursework.

“The concept is part of our environment, but it’s not at all in your face,” Toben noted. “Not every faith commitment needs be shouted.”

Honoring the Honor Code

Law schools with more substantial influences include Brigham Young’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. Both the university and the law school are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.

One thing that clearly differentiates BYU’s law school from others is its Honor Code. This document outlines the university and law school’s expectations for student behavior, dress and grooming. For example, students may not engage in pre-marital sexual relations and must abstain from things like alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee.

“The Honor Code helps to create an environment that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. Now, many students choose not to adhere to these things, so they choose not to come here. There are lots of places to attend law school,” Gordon said.

Multiple violations of this Honor Code can result in dismissal from the law school, Gordon said, although that is a rare situation.

“I think one reason students come here is they want to study law in a place that supports their religious convictions,” Gordon said. “It’s not very often where it comes to a point where it’s not working out (and a student is dismissed).”

Regent University School of Law also wears its religious affiliation on its proverbial sleeve. Televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent in 1978 to provide “Christian leadership to change the world.” The law school joined in 1986 with a similar tagline: “Law is more than a profession. It’s a calling.”

To that end, every course starts with a 10-minute “period of devotion” where students pray together. Faculty may use the time to share Biblical verses and how they relate to the material in that day’s class. Regent also has a full-time chaplain to support the campus spiritually.

Dean Jeffrey A. Brauch described Regent’s philosophy as offering “a JD plus.” In other words, students are encouraged to ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” from a personal and professional standpoint.

For example, when Brauch teaches a Civil Procedures class, students will go through the rules of discovery from multiple perspectives. They learn the basics of how information is exchanged between attorneys. But he also talks about the challenges he faced as an attorney, such as the temptations to hide information and shade the truth.

“First and foremost we are a law school. We train men and women to be excellent attorneys,” Brauch emphasized. “Students must make decisions about the type of character they want to have when they go out and practice the law.

“Look at the really big scandals of our time: Enron, Bernie Madoff. Those weren’t because of a lack of intellect. The problem was a lack of character and integrity,” Brauch said. “We want to shape character as well as intellect. It’s about using Christ’s character as a way to practice the law.”

That does not mean students are expected to toe the party line, Brauch added.

“It is not a place of monolithic opinion,” Brauch said. “The best days are when we can have a discussion of technical legal issues to broad legal policy and beyond.”

At BYU’s law school, the students and faculty are encouraged to have faith-based discussions within the classroom. Indeed, one of the school’s basic tenants – found on its Web site, admissions materials and all over campus – is to incorporate “religious, ethical and moral values in the instruction.”

Its mission also notes that the J. Reuben Clark Law School teaches “the laws of men in the light of the laws of God. The Law School strives to be worthy in all respects of the name it bears, and to provide an education that is spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging and character building, thus leading to lifelong learning and service.”

“Our faculty is free to bring religious perspectives into the classroom. Some choose not to,” Gordon said. “Others include religious perspectives from time to time when it seems natural or relevant to what they’re talking about.”

“All schools teach professional ethics and values. Religiously affiliated law schools can connect those values to the students’ religious beliefs, which underscores the importance of these values to students,” Gordon said.

Religion, law and the curriculum

Veryl Miles is the dean at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington D.C. CUA is unique because it is the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States.

In terms of curriculum, non-secular law schools vary as to how much their affiliation impacts course offerings. In addition to the more traditional legal courses available there, law schools like CUA, Cardozo and others provide more specialized offerings.

For example, CUA provides classes on everything from Canon Law for American Attorneys to Islamic Law to Contemporary Social Issues Under Jewish Law. Cardozo has its Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization, which offers a “distinctly Jewish perspective on issues in law and culture,” its Web site notes.

What that means for CUA’s students is that their law school courses will be filled with the values of the Catholic Church, including its commitment to social justice and “care in the development of our students’ professional identity,” Miles said.

“Each year at our first year orientation, I specifically encourage each entering class not to ‘lose themselves’ upon coming to law school,” Miles said. “That is, they should not forget the moral, ethical and religious values and beliefs that have formed their character prior to law school.”

For Baylor’s Toben, having the freedom to talk to students about their faith has provided him with countless opportunities to counsel students through some of the toughest periods of their lives – including law school itself.

“Students self-select, and I’d like to think they select us for many purposes. They have a comfort level (with our environment),” Toben said. “We don’t compartmentalize our faith lives. A person of faith shares that perspective and relies on that perspective no matter what the venue.”

Students at CUA’s law school can expect to hear and to raise questions concerning law, justice, reason, faith and conscience throughout courses, lectures and conversations during their time at law school, Miles noted.

“Opportunities for discussion of personal values in the study and practice of law –
whether those values are faith-based or not – go a long way in bridging a common disconnect many law students and practicing lawyers experience as they seek to reconcile the demands of legal practice with their personal moral convictions,” Miles said.

“While I do not suggest that providing such opportunities is the sole purview of religiously affiliated law schools, I do believe we have a calling to instill in our students that we are all a union of both body and spirit,” she continued.

The challenge of religiously-affiliated law schools

Most religiously affiliated law schools say they admit students with a variety of faith beliefs. But the majority of their student bodies tend to come from the community most closely associated with their founding institution.

Miles said CUA struggles with people’s assumptions about what they will encounter on campus both in terms of students and faculty.

“I think the greatest challenge is in informing others about our school and who we are. Many people who are not familiar with our school make an incorrect assumption that you have to be Catholic or religious to attend, or that we teach theology and religion,” Miles said. “We are an inclusive and diverse law school, with students, faculty and staff representing people of many faiths, racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as political and philosophical views.”

For those who are not a part of the Mormon faith, Gordon said it can be challenging to be a minority on the BYU law campus. For example, there are no special orientations, organizations or student groups devoted to non-Mormons. But that is in part on purpose so that these students do not feel too noticeable on campus.

Still, the degree to which they feel part of the community depends on the individual student, Gordon said. He said there are many examples of non-Mormons serving as heads of student organizations.

At Regent, Brauch said he believes the Christian environment helps foster a sense of community among students.

“I find as I watch them interact with each other and with our faculty members there is general support and an encouraging environment at our law school. They pray for each other. They help each other in practical ways,” Brauch said.

In fact, Regent ranked No. 7 for Best Quality of Life in the Princeton Review’s 2009 edition “The Best 174 Law Schools,” a recognition it has earned multiple times.

Law schools with a so-called milder affiliation like Cardozo say their student bodies show no favoritism to a particular faith. For example, Cardozo has a rabbi on the faculty, but the law school also has plenty of other faiths represented, Herz said.

“It just doesn’t factor into our hiring or our admissions policy,” Herz said. “A big piece of it is who you attract or who is in the building. … Most of our students are not Jewish. I actually don’t know how many Jewish students we have and I guess that is significant. I would guess as many as any New York law school.”

Baylor is largely the same, Toben said. There are nine faiths represented in its faculty, and there are as many Catholics as there are Baptists, he said. He estimates that about 23 percent of the law school’s students are Baptist.

One thing educators at religiously affiliated law schools seem to generally agree on is this: Students graduate from their law schools ready to practice the law just as well as any other student out there.

“Each attorney must bring his or her own character and sense of integrity to the lawyering task,” Miles said. “As a Catholic institution, we invite all students to understand that the legal profession is a service profession, and to particularly encourage service to those who are most in need.”

After graduation, BYU’s law students have no problem integrating into everyday society. After all, these students typically attended non-secular undergraduate schools and have held jobs of various kinds beforehand, Gordon said.

“They’re accustomed to dealing with people of different perspectives and values. They know how to be respectful and to accept diversity to be successful,” Gordon said.

This post is authored by Karen Dybis, and was published in the 2009 Back to School issue of preLaw Magazine.  Click here for the digital edition of this issue or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school. 

Leave a Reply

Close Menu