Published: Oct. 7, 2016

It’s difficult to believe that my first semester at the University of Colorado, Boulder is half way completed.  So, it’s time to start thinking about Spring 2017, since the university will make the semester schedule available online on Monday, October 10.

The two courses I’ll be teaching in the Spring are “Philosophy and Religion” and “Special Topics: Religion and the Constitution.”  The first, PHIL 1600.003, which is offered through the philosophy department, is a course I am teaching this semester. Because it has been so wildly successful—42 students taking it for credit plus 4 auditors—I thought it wise to reprise it in the Spring.  We will meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 8:00 am until 9:15 am in HLMS 229.  Here’s a brief description of the course from this semester’s syllabus:

The vast majority of people in the world today (and throughout human history) believe (and have believed) in God as well as those doctrines that often go along with that belief, e.g., that God is omnipotent and omniscient, that miracles can and have occurred, that morality depends on God, that faith and reason are compatible, and so forth. However, over the centuries some philosophers have raised questions about the reasonableness of these beliefs while other philosophers have offered responses.  This course—Philosophy and Religion—will focus on such questions.

Even though this is an introductory class, you should be prepared to stretch your mind. Philosophy can be a difficult subject, since to do it well requires clear and rigorous thinking as well as the willingness to accept and offer critical assessments of one’s own beliefs as well as the beliefs of others. This also demands that we hone and nurture certain virtues such as honesty, charity, perseverance, courage, and humility. But like most challenging activities in life, learning to master philosophy can be deeply rewarding.

The main text for the course is authored by Fordham University philosopher, Brian Davies: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). However, the text is supplemented by a dozen articles and essays that take contrary positions on some of the issues we will be addressing in the course.

The second course I will be teaching is “Special Topics: Religion and the Constitution” (PSCI 2028.001). Offered through the political science department, we will meet on Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 am to 10:45 am in KTCH 1B87.  Here’s a brief description of the course that I am going to put on the syllabus:

This course is an examination of the relationship between government and religion in the American experience. Special attention is given to United States Supreme Court decisions dealing with religious liberty rights of individuals and churches, government aid to church-related schools and religious groups, and prayer and Bible reading in public schools.

The focus in this class will be on rulings of the U. S. Supreme Court concerning religion under the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. That portion of the amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In legal nomenclature, it is said this statement contains “two clauses,” a Free Exercise Clause (the portion that forbids Congress from prohibiting religious liberty) and an Establishment Clause (the portion that bars Congress from establishing religion). Because the First Amendment’s restrictions have been extended beyond Congress to include all governments—federal, state and local--including its executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and because the amendment gives us little direction on what its respective clauses on religion precisely mean, there is much to learn about how the courts empowered to rule on these matters in fact have reasoned and continue to reason. Consequently, in this course we will concern ourselves with two overlapping areas of study in law and religion: (1) the most important court cases in Free Exercise and Establishment jurisprudence, and (2) the principles, policies, and doctrines that can be extracted from those cases as well as the differing ways in which concurring and dissenting justices and judges have assessed them. 

The primary text for this course is edited by University of Notre Dame political scientist and legal scholar, Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court: The Essential Cases and Documents, Updated Edition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). However, selected court cases, articles, op-ed pieces will be distributed (or assigned via Desire2Learn and/or email), when necessary, during the semester.   

I have taught this course under a different name—“Law and Religion the United States”—eight times in the past thirteen years at Baylor University, where I have served on the faculty since 2003. For CU, I have revised the course a bit in order to take into consideration recent Supreme Court rulings as well as to introduce students to some debates in contemporary legal scholarship.

These Spring courses allow me to teach in areas over which much of my most recent scholarship overlaps. My latest book—Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015)—deals not only with issues of faith and reason (the focus of the course “Philosophy and Religion”) but also issues in Constitutional Law that touch on religious free exercise and establishment and the deep cultural issues that divide us (the focus of the course “Special Topics: Religion and the Constitution”).   (Taking Rites Seriously, I recently found out, has been chosen to receive the American Academy of Religion’s prestigious 2016 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Constructive-Reflective Studies.  You can read more about the award here.)