Hartford, Connecticut, March 30, 2017 – The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College recently hosted a lecture by Marc Stern (pictured at right), general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and one of the country’s leading church-state lawyers.
Speaking in Rittenberg Lounge on March 21 to a crowd of students, faculty, and visitors on “The Old Time Religious Liberty – Gone For Good?” Stern lamented the shift away from treating religion as a distinctive legal category which requires special protection under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and special restrictions under the Establishment Clause. Over the past three decades, Stern said, this has been replaced by a desire to treat religion on the same terms as other institutions, practices, and beliefs.
“We used to think of religious liberty as guaranteed under the Bill of Rights,” Stern said. “Now there is a change. Religious liberty as an equal protection right is not an independent right anymore; it’s a comparative right.”
Religion once was universally considered to play a useful role in society, Stern said, but that is no longer the case for many “cultural elites.” Contributing to this development has been the rise of the “nones” – individuals who claim no religious identity. To be sure, Stern said, “nones” have the right to not have religion imposed on them as well as to challenge any such imposition.
Asked by Greenberg Center Director Mark Silk, “Would everything be great if we went back to the ’70s?” Stern replied, “We used to have a small government that did nothing. Today the government does a lot of things so it’s not so simple to put things back to the ’70s because the rest of the universe has changed.”
Stern spoke during a visit to campus as this year’s distinguished visiting fellow at the Greenberg Center. Over the course of several days, he also taught classes in the Department of Religious Studies and the Public Policy and Law Program, presented a paper at the Center’s monthly luncheon seminar, and joined the Jewish Studies weekly Torah discussion.
Stern worked for the American Jewish Congress for 33 years, has authored numerous legal briefs of church and state matters, and in 2012 he received the First Freedom Center’s National First Freedom Award for his contribution in promoting religious liberty. Stern earned his B.A. at Yeshiva University and J.D. at the Columbia University School of Law. He is currently the American Jewish Committee (AJC) general counsel.
The Greenberg Center sponsors public lectures, organizes conferences and workshops, contributes to the liberal arts curriculum, and supports the publication and dissemination of materials for both academic and general audiences. To learn more about the Greenberg Center, click here.
Written by Lorig Purutyan ’17