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Law, Religion, and Civil Rights: Adventure at the AALS Annual Meeting

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Ever wonder how lawyers and law professionals keep their cool, or lack thereof, while discussing polarizing issues such as abortion, gay rights, or police brutality? I was very curious about this precise topic while I was walking around the halls of the 2016 AALS Annual Meeting, deciding which session to attend. I scrolled through the handy-dandy AALS app and found a session called Law and Religion: a conversation about religious responses to same-sex marriage. Bingo! I took one of the last empty seats in the nearly-full room and prepared for a theological and legislative showdown.

I was slightly disappointed when, to my dismay, moderator Michael Helfand carefully navigated the contentious issue at hand.

A few different viewpoints were represented by the speakers of the panel. New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm spoke about his experiences covering the gay marriage beat. Professor Katherine Franke of Columbia University spoke about discrimination in the LGBT community, particularly surrounding the issues of civil unions and legal marriage. Russell Reno, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, discussed the role of morality in modern law. Kevin Walsh delivered his views about the changing social view of gay marriage in America, as well as a few (in my opinion, slightly problematic) remarks surrounding the “abandonment” of the definition of marriage. Robin F. Wilson spoke eloquently about same-sex marriage, religious liberty, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (aka RFRA).

Despite the opposing views of a few members on the panel, each speaker presented his or her viewpoint with respect and extremely high levels of academic integrity. (Many of the speakers are published, if not celebrated, legal studies authors.)

I was originally drawn to this topic because I thought same-sex marriage was an extremely polarizing subject. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely polarizing–especially if you have been unlucky enough to bring up the subject at a family dinner where someone starts citing the Bible and bringing up the argument that “homosexuality is a sin.” But the reality at the AALS meeting was that the topic was not discussed at a dinner table in between servings of mashed potatoes and burnt brussel sprouts. As my seat-neighbor David Pimentel mentioned, everyone presented their views respectfully while still acknowledging that their perspectives were different from that of their peers. It was at this moment that I wished law school students could have sat in on the discussion, because it was truly a master class on professionalism.

I took a very different approach later in the day when I scanned the AALS schedule looking for a second session to attend. Instead of seeking out controversy, I looked for a course where I hoped to learn something new. My wish was granted when I sat in on the Civil Rights session. Gilda Daniels, Professor Lynda Dodd, Angela Mae Kupenda, Audrey McFarlane, and Kindaka Sanders all appeared on the panel. My non-law school educated mind zero-ed in on three main topics that were discussed: affordable housing, the use of technology to facilitate equality, and police brutality. Audrey McFarlane spoke about how inequality leads to housing challenges, especially in urban environments such as New York City. She brought up the “poor door” debacle in New York back in April of 2015. Essentially, the story goes that there was a luxury apartment building that set aside a few units for lower-income tenants, as stipulated by the city’s Inclusionary Housing Program. However, the owner of the building ordered two different entrances to be made; one large and elegant entrance for the luxury tenants, and one smaller, simpler entrance for the lower income tenants. Even after controversy arose regarding the disparity between the two entrances, 88,000 people applied for the 55 available units.

McFarlane noted that even now, in the 21st century, people are opting to “take a little discrimination” if it means that they can move to a safer and more affordable neighborhood. McFarlane questioned the practice of inclusionary housing, and urged her fellow colleagues to think about new and innovative ways to make safe housing available to families living in public housing. Would that mean implementing a lottery system wherein a family could have the chance to move from the Bronx to the suburbs? Is integration the goal, or is access? Will creating more community centers improve a neighborhood?

Gilda Daniels and Professor Lynda Dodd brought up ideas surrounding social equality and technology. Specifically, Professor Dodd mentioned Campaign Zero, which is an online initiative that seeks to end police violence through comprehensive policy reform. Their infographics are easily digestible, and all of their information is carefully researched by four leading Black Lives Matter Activists; Samuel Sinyangwe, Brittany Packnett, DeRay McKesson, and Johnetta Elzie. With the rise of social media, activists in rural areas are not limited to convening only in local areas, where it might be difficult to organize people in a physical space. The internet allows for the organization of like-minded individuals no matter where they are physically located.

When I spoke with Angela Mae Kupenda, she also mentioned the importance of staying connected to civil rights groups through the use of technology. “I think social media plays a major role in reinvigorating a movement, because it gets the information out, so that people know what’s going on,” Professor Kupenda said,

It also inspires students. If you see what’s happening at other schools or other cities, you can immediately know what’s going on. That can inspire you to do something the same way, or to do something different.

Mixing tech-talk with good old-fashioned books, Professor Kupenda also offered up a suggested reading list for professors or students who are interested in civil rights history. Her picks include “Reproducing Racism” by Daria Roithmayr and “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, an account of how a white reporter went “undercover” as a black man in the Deep South of the 1950s.

Kindaka Sanders spoke about police brutality, and the concept of self-policing a local community. When he spoke about the Black Panther Party openly and legally carrying guns until the law was changed to prevent open-carry opportunities, I thought of the recent open-carry announcement in Texas. (Namely, that as of January 1, 2015, any person who has a license for a firearm can legally open carry in the state of Texas, even if they are not a resident of the state).

Many Texans support the new open-carry law, but what would happen if a group of young black men (ala the Black Panther Party) decided to re-appropriate the law and follow Texas police officers while showcasing their right to open-carry?

This session on Civil Rights was food for thought–in fact, it was an entire banquet for me. So often, college graduates (or people who have not sat in a classroom for a long time) can get sucked into their own bubble of issues. Living in the tri-state area, I sometimes take it for granted that many people around me support same-sex marriage and gay rights. Sitting in on the Law and Religion session reminded me that although this country has made progress in the realm of gay rights, we still have a long way to go to bring LGBT issues into mainstream conversations and legislation. Similarly, after listening to the speakers of the Civil Rights session, I have realized that it is imperative that lawyers and policy makers address and rectify the systemic racism that is still very much alive today.

Through attending sessions at the AALS Annual Meeting and interacting with other people involved in law academia, I was able to step outside of my bubble and think of issues that affected Americans on a macro scale, not just on my own teeny tiny micro level. I would urge anyone interested in the AALS to definitely check out their website (found here) and consider attending next year’s meeting in San Francisco.

Corinne Fitamant
Corinne Fitamant is a graduate of Fordham College at Lincoln Center where she received a Bachelors degree in Communications and a minor in Theatre Arts. When she isn’t pondering issues of social justice and/or celebrity culture, she can be found playing the guitar and eating chocolate. Contact Corinne at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.

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