Freedom of religion or free of religion?

Former W&L professor of religion Winnifred Sullivan thinks laws protecting religious freedom are mistakes

Photo of Winnifred Sullivan. Photo courtesy of the Washington and Lee website.

Photo of Winnifred Sullivan. Photo courtesy of the Washington and Lee website.

Alex Kizner

What would a world look like without any religious protections?

On Oct. 26 former Washington and Lee Professor of Religion Winnifred Sullivan lectured on the political and legal challenges of religious freedom in the Northern Auditorium of Leyburn Library.

Sullivan explained that despite America’s dedication to protecting religious freedom, this principle faces many challenges in practice.

“As Americans, of course, we are brought up to believe in religious freedom… Yet more and more recently it has seemed that the precise legal framework for religious freedom has become difficult to agree on,” Sullivan said in her lecture. “What exactly is protected, and who is protected? We don’t seem to know anymore. Religious freedom seems to be in crisis.”

Sullivan argued that the court system has historically struggled to create a legal definition of religion and to determine what, or if, religious exemptions are protected by the establishment and free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.

According to Sullivan, the introduction of new laws permitting some exemptions to general laws on the basis of religion, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, have failed to solve the practical problems surrounding religious freedom.

Because of this failure, Sullivan argued that America should eliminate religious exemptions altogether.

Speaking of the nationwide backlash against a religious freedom law in Indiana this spring, Sullivan explained her belief that laws giving exemptions for religious persons have never been wise.

“[L]aws protecting religious freedom are a mistake,” Sullivan said. “I believe that distinguishing between people of faith and people not of faith, or between good religion and bad religion, is the business of churches and not of the law. The law should not discriminate in that way.”

Anna Russell Thornton, ’16, wasn’t convinced that Sullivan’s solution was the best way to address the legal problems associated with religious freedom.

“I am hesitant to provide a solution which curtails the sincere and non-threatening beliefs of citizens simply because the current system is imperfect,” she said. “We should not define problems by their possible solutions, nor limit the creativity of our problem-solving to historical precedent.”

The lecture was sponsored by W&L’s religion department. While on campus, Sullivan also gave guest lectures in the classes of both professor of religion Alexandra Brown and professor of politics and law Mark Rush.

Sullivan enjoyed her visit to W&L and getting to interact with all the students, as well as seeing her former colleagues.

“I am a big fan of Professor Brown… she is a great teacher, colleague and friend.”

Sullivan taught courses on the history of religion in the United States and approaches to the study of religion at W&L from 1995-2000. She is now the chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Indiana at Bloomington.

Sullivan is the author of multiple books on religious freedom and law, including The Impossibility of Religious Freedom and Prison Religion: Faith-based Reform and the Constitution.