Law, Religion, and Social Change

LAW, RELIGION, AND SOCIAL CHANGE (Harvard Divinity School, Fall 2005)

Law and religion are disciplines that play crucial roles in constructing social and political norms and in adjudicating tradition and social change. Sometimes, law has acted out in front of prevailing sociocultural norms, as in the struggles for civil rights and the end of racial segregation and, more recently, on the issue of gay marriage. At other times, the law has been reactive and a follower of social change, as in the areas of reproductive rights and patients’ rights and the issues of abortion and euthanasia. In this course, we will read key legal decisions on the issues of racial segregation, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and the death penalty, as well as writings on these issues from religious traditions, religious movements, and religious ethics. The key task of the course will be to come to an understanding of how law and religion act to resist or promote social change on these and other controversial moral issues. Making things even more exciting, the course will be taking place after or during the Senate confirmation hearings assessing the fitness of Judge John G. Roberts to take the place recently vacated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court for the United States.  Since Justice O’Connor was a swing vote on the court on virtually all of the issues we will be considering, this means that our course will be taking place when considerable social change may be under way.


“Issues of legal approach to moral/religious viewpoints are important to the practice of ministry. I don’t think there is another course that examines the laws relating to these issues directly. It is helpful to have concrete points of departure for these issues that everyone seems to have an opinion on, and yet few are familiar with the whole legal history.”

 “Got a better understanding of how religion shaped the American constitutional system.”

 “These issues are very important and Prof. Green is very good at explaining the considerations. It’s a great course and it’s important to understanding contemporary issues.”

 “Prof. Green is very good at presenting controversial issues without heavy bias. Her discussion sections were the most rewarding. She really got me thinking critically about the court’s influence on society and our standard liberties. The misguided notion that the courts will ‘fix all’ for the good of all has been reexamined. Now I question whether that is possible.”

 “My interest is in religion and human rights, as well as ethics, made this course very helpful.”

 “This course enabled me to meld my law background with the ethics studies I am pursuing at HDS and was therefore tailor-made for my goals. I would take this course again and recommend it to other students for all the reasons above.”

 “The breadth of knowledge of the instructor as well as her teaching style made the course excellent. The readings were also stimulating. This was a tremendous learning experience.”

 “The course was engaging and thought-provoking. This class is a great journey through ethics, law, and current events.”