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News Posted on November 26, 2013

Professor Alan Brownstein Delivers Barrett Lecture

Professor Alan Brownstein delivered the 2013 Edward L. Barrett, Jr., Lecture on Constitutional Law in the Kalmanovitz Appellate Courtroom on November 19. Brownstein, who holds the Boochever and Bird Endowed Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at King Hall, spoke on "Coercion and Endorsement: Constitutional Challenges to State Sponsored Prayers at Local Government Meetings." The lecture drew an outstanding turnout of King Hall faculty, students, alumni, and staff.

Following a brief introduction by Dean Kevin R. Johnson, Professor Brownstein spoke on the current U.S. Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway, which he called "a strategically important battleground for the soul of the religion clauses of the First Amendment." Brownstein provided an overview of the case, which concerns a New York town's practice of beginning monthly town board meetings with a prayer, reviewed the so-called "coercion" and "endorsement" tests used by various of the Justices in deciding establishment clause cases, and offered a "thumbnail sketch" of Court doctrine in the area and how that doctrine could arguably bear on the town meeting prayer setting.

In this regard, Professor Brownstein explained his view that religious displays such as that of the Town of Greece are not necessarily unconstitutional.  Perhaps town meetings may include prayers if the prayers are individual expressions of faith and not presented as manifestations of community views, if the audience is not asked to participate, and if the town employs a truly open and egalitarian speaker selection process.  The Town of Greece does not currently meet these standards and thus undermines the rights of religious minorities and nonbelievers, he said.

"If the Court upholds the Town of Greece's policy, it will have to reject any reasonable understanding of both the coercion test and the endorsement test," said Brownstein. "In doing so, it would dramatically undermine the protection provided by the establishment clause to religious minorities and nonreligious individuals."

Established in 1986 to mark the retirement of Edward L. Barrett, Jr., founding Dean of UC Davis School of Law and a nationally renowned Constitutional Law and Criminal Procedure scholar, the Barrett lecture each year provides one of the Law School's most-anticipated events.