Religious and civic leadership in the 21st century requires a thorough understanding of the guiding principles of the First Amendment, which enables Americans to negotiate religious and philosophical differences with civility and respect. Most religious and civic leaders receive little or no education about the history and significance of the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment. These principles provide the civic framework for living among people of any religion or none. To help religious and civic leaders meet the challenges of the nation’s rapidly expanding pluralism, the Religious Freedom Center is collaborating with leading graduate schools and civic and religious groups from a diverse array of ideological and disciplinary traditions to offer blended learning courses on religious freedom and religion in public life.
Participants are eligible to receive academic credit and certificates from accredited graduate schools. The curriculum’s primary goal is to prepare religious and civic leaders for effective leadership in a pluralistic democracy. Each certificate program concluded with a capstone project in which participants are expected to demonstrate the ability to apply First Amendment principles to religious freedom issues of significance in their own communities. The desired outcome is for communities to cooperate in building a democracy where religious diversity is a source of strength rather than a point of weakness, conflict or division.
By applying this constitutional framework, leaders will forge a shared understanding of the place of religion in public life and will work together to sustain America’s bold experiment of living with our deepest differences.
The first course explores the meaning and significance of the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment from our nation’s colonial and founding periods to the mid-20th century. Using primary source material, participants study the roots of religious freedom in colonial America, with special attention given to the Puritan Commonwealth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the radical experiment of “no establishment” and “free exercise” in Rhode Island. Despite the commitment to religious freedom on the federal level and in state constitutions, the United States remained a semi-established Protestant nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Protestants played a central role in movements for social reform and the establishment of educational institutions, including the common schools. At the same time, the 19th century in America was an era of virulent anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in the wake of large waves of immigration. In the 20th century, growing religious diversity, secularization of society and the application of the First Amendment to the states through the 14th Amendment in the 1940s set the stage for U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have more fully separated church from state and redefined the free exercise of religion.
In this blended learning course, emerging and established religious leaders will study the evolution of First Amendment’s religious freedom principles from the 1940s through the civil rights era and into today. Participants will address contemporary issues that concern the constitutional relationship of religion and government, along with current debates over the meaning of the free exercise of religion. Through careful examination of case law and legal briefs, as well as scholarly analysis, artistic expression and individual leaders’ accounts, students will reflect on the roles that religious groups have played in political life, the role of religion in public schools, clashes between civil rights and religious claims, religious accommodations in the workplace, government funding and faith-based social services, and the recent extension of religious exemptions to closely held corporations. Participants will consider how the challenges and opportunities of the “new religious America” can be framed by First Amendment principles to ensure that religious diversity is a source of strength for the country and not a point of weakness, contention or division. This course stresses that religious leadership in the United States requires a careful understanding of how current laws address basic questions regarding religious expression and practice in public life—questions religious leaders and their communities confront almost daily. The purpose of this course is to introduce a diverse group of students to the challenges that religious and secular leaders face in contemporary America in their attempts to advance religious freedom through the principles of free exercise and non-establishment. Students will gain a firm grounding in the legal doctrine of the First Amendment and will also have the opportunity to dig deeper into many specific areas of interests.
Effective religious leaders in a pluralistic democracy must have the knowledge and skills to accurately represent their religious tradition and the religions of their neighbors to the media as well as through the use of new media. For better or for worse, the media shapes the public’s understanding of religion in 21st-century America. The course begins with an exploration of the complex interaction between religion and media in the history of the United States, with special attention to the civic and legal frameworks provided by the guarantees of free speech, freedom of the press and religious freedom under the First Amendment. Participants examine the many ways in which the media currently reports religion news, interprets the role of religion in public life and portrays the beliefs and practices of religious individuals and groups. Students also investigate how religious communities use media technology to proclaim their beliefs (and the beliefs of others) to both their adherents and the broader public. Through case studies, participants investigate issues and controversies involving media and religion in the public sector. Participants explore best practices for creating a religiously literate society by examining how religious communities educate the public about their own religion and the beliefs and practices of other coreligionists. Special attention will be given to best practices for using media to combat negative stereotyping, stigmatization and discrimination.
Denial of the human right to freedom of religion or belief is a leading cause of repression, division and conflict across the globe. More than three quarters of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of restrictions on religious people; these restrictions result in increases in social hostilities and violence. This course explores the complex issues related to freedom of expression, religious practice and treatment of minority religions in various regions of the world. Addressing these issues will require informed dialogue on religious freedom as a universal right; support for international and regional efforts to ensure full respect for the right to religion or belief; and identification, sharing and strengthening of good rule of law practices relating to religion or belief at the national and international levels. Based on historical and contemporary examples, the international case studies presented in this class will illustrate both the challenges of the right to freedom of religion or belief and the opportunity that rule of law strategies provide to help meet those challenges. Students will examine best practices for ensuring that public policies and laws align fully with international human rights standards. The course is designed to promote cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, thus contributing to an ongoing dialogue both between and within nations about the importance of the rule of law for promoting and protecting the human right to freedom of religion or belief.
In the final semester-long course, a student will engage in a series of one-on-one advising sessions with a faculty member. The student will research, design and implement a capstone project with the goal of engaging religious communities and civic organizations in their region. The capstone projects are intended to create a halo effect in that not only will the students benefit from their training in constitutional and human rights, but so will the communities that they serve.