Thursday, January 21, 2021


Free Exercise Clinic Launches Interactive Workshop Series

This spring, Yale Law School’s Free Exercise Clinic is launching an interactive workshop, and has invited students and faculty in the religious liberty clinics at Harvard, Stanford, and Texas to join each of the seven class sessions, which will take place remotely and synchronously. The assigned reading for each session is a classic or forthcoming article about religious liberty law and theory, and each class will feature the participation of the author(s) of the assigned article. This multi-law school class offering will afford participants a broad community in which to engage and debate timeless and pressing questions implicating the free exercise of religion.

The idea of an advanced workshop on religious liberty at Yale was hatched by three third-year law students and Michael Helfand ’07, Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Faculty and Research at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law. The students had already taken the Free Exercise Clinic and were looking for something to further broaden their knowledge of the Constitution’s religion clauses.

“I wanted to study the religion clauses because religious liberty has been one of the pillars of our constitutional framework,” said Rishabh Bhandari ’21. “As our country grows more diverse, it’s imperative that we maintain a robust religious liberty doctrine that serves people of all faiths. The clinic has helped equip students with the legal skills and insights to take on that challenge.”

Helfand will teach the workshop alongside Professor Kate Stith, the Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale and founder of the Free Exercise Clinic. The speakers and articles in the series represent some of the most important voices in the field of law and religion, producing scholarship that has and continues to transform how courts and scholars think about the free exercise of religion.

“The goal was to invite a range of speakers that could introduce the students to some of the most important and cutting-edge research in the law and religion field,” said Helfand, who Stith noted is one of the nation’s leading theorists and scholars of the Constitution’s religion clauses. “To do this, we hoped to bring together a speaker series that would represent the ideological and methodological diversity of the field.”

Once Helfand secured the participation of the authors of the assigned articles, it occurred to him and Stith that they should share the extraordinary lineup of readings and authors with advanced religious liberty clinics at other schools. Helfand reached out to Professor James Sonne of Stanford Law School, who began that school’s Religious Liberty Clinic a decade ago and who this year is also teaching Harvard Law School’s inaugural Religious Freedom Clinic, and to Professor Steven Collis of the University of Texas Law School, who will inaugurate that school’s first Law and Religion Clinic this term.

“It’s an awesome privilege to learn about religious liberty from leading scholars and litigators at YLS, exploring the practical implications of free exercise doctrine while sharpening our lawyering skills through mentored written advocacy.”
— Patrick E. Reidy ’21

Stith developed the Free Exercise Clinic at Yale Law School in 2019, modeled after the practice-plus-doctrine-plus-theory offering of Professor Sonne at Stanford. The Clinic was first offered during the spring 2020 term, generating significant student demand with more than 40 students bidding for the clinic last year.

“A variety of students every year had been seeking a clinic that engages with the religion clauses of the First Amendment and related state and federal legislation,” explained Stith. “The initial appeal to me came when I was acting dean more than a decade ago. In recent years several of my Yale colleagues (including two who will participate in our new workshop) had written important, thought-provoking books and articles in this area. I was convinced that the time had come. This would not have become a reality without the help and support of clinical colleagues, especially then Deputy Dean Mike Wishnie ’93.”

Stith credited Helfand’s commitment and passion for the success of last spring’s inaugural course, as well for the promise of the advanced workshop. Stith also lauded the expertise and contributions of Visiting Clinical Lecturer Chris Pagliarella ’17, one of the leading litigators on religious liberty, who is spearheading the fieldwork portion of the Clinic. Under the supervision of Pagliarella and attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP, the students in the Clinic write amicus briefs in a variety of cases. You can read here about the four briefs the Clinic filed last spring.

“It has been an immense pleasure working and teaching with Michael and Chris,” said Stith. “I have learned so much, not only about this complex area of law and amicus brief-writing, but both classroom and clinical pedagogy. These two are enormously talented teachers.”

Stith said that the technological breakthroughs created by remote teaching made embarking on this multi-law school, multi-guest, interactive workshop possible. She predicted that such novel initiatives would continue even when all students and professors return to the classroom because of the value of interrogating new and competing voices and ideas, as well as the ease and efficiency of esteemed guests speaking with several small groups of students at the same time. “These students are excited that they will be engaging directly with the authors of classic articles that broke new ground on several contested dimensions of religious liberty law, as well as with authors who are exploring new ideas and approaches,” said Stith. “There really is no replacing the opportunity to personally connect with some of the very best in the field, learning how they’ve developed their research and theories, and debating the substance of these varied contributions to the discipline.”

The students involved agreed that the speaker series will be a tremendous opportunity for advanced learning in an area of the law they are passionate about.

“One of the unique features of Yale’s Free Exercise Clinic is that it involves a semester of rigorous analysis of free exercise doctrine, alongside first-rate clinical practice and pedagogy, now followed by a semester of deep engagement with theory,” said Ezra Husney ’21. “The Clinic’s first semester does an excellent job teaching students the doctrine and practice of free exercise law. I think that work has well prepared us to dive into academic scholarship. We’re all very excited to engage with leading scholars because it’s the conversations with teachers and peers that lead to critical thinking and real learning.”

“It’s an awesome privilege to learn about religious liberty from leading scholars and litigators at YLS, exploring the practical implications of free exercise doctrine while sharpening our lawyering skills through mentored written advocacy,” said Patrick E. Reidy ’21. “But our Free Exercise Clinic benefits from more than exemplary faculty and generous mentors at Sidley Austin. Clinical students bring their own stories into dialogue with client experience and caselaw, underscoring for their classmates the real-world implications of religious liberty. As an ordained Roman Catholic priest hoping to teach law, I’ve taken notes on how our professors nurture this honest, thoughtful, human conversation. It makes all the difference.”