A Balancing Act
Religious Freedom v. United States Law: Michael Helfand champions both sides.
Asked recently how he, an Orthodox Jewish man, feels about working at a Christian university, Michael Helfand, a Pepperdine associate professor of law and associate director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies, was quick with an answer. Helfand had just given a presentation at Harvard Law School for a conference on “Religious Accommodation in the Age of Civil Rights.” The audience included scholars from law schools nationwide.
“The woman who asked the question thought it would be challenging for me,” says Helfand, who responded easily and enthusiastically. “The reason somebody like me comes to Pepperdine is because Pepperdine is deeply serious about cultivating a meaningful religious community that comes in the context of higher education.”
The University is sensitive, understanding, supportive, and respectful of him and his goals, says Helfand, who is also a full-time faculty member at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. In fact, the Pepperdine School of Law named Helfand Professor of the Year (2013-2014) and awarded him the inaugural Dean’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship (2013-2014).
Religious belief and what happens when it collides with United States law is a primary focus of Helfand’s work. He has spoken about the topic at multiple law conferences and in media interviews. His related writings have appeared in scholarly publications, in newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times andNewsweek, and he has completed editing a book,Negotiating State and Non-State Law: The Challenges of Global and Local Legal Pluralism, to be published in 2015.
“Pepperdine encourages the type of things I work on because they think it’s important to contribute to a conversation about what religion should be doing within society,” he says.
People have the right to follow the values and laws of their faith, Helfand says. But religion and law conflict because as government grows and increasingly affects citizens’ daily lives, laws are passed that clash with how people choose to live. And, as the U.S. tries to take into account different ways of thinking, believing, and viewing the world, the more difficult it is to create a legal system that meets everyone’s needs. As a result, balancing law and diverse beliefs has become complicated.
“It’s a doubled-edged sword. There are more challenges, but there are greater things we can accomplish,” Helfand says.
Attracting attention to the issue are recent high-profile cases that involved private businesses whose policies were aligned with the company leaders’ religious beliefs rather than with federal law. When companies are up-front and obvious about their religious aspirations, then, explains Helfand, their employees are aware of those beliefs and so should have no basis to object.
However, when conflict does occur, it’s important that government and religious communities act in good faith to balance competing values.
“You have people who have serious needs on both sides of the equation,” Helfand says. “We want to make sure we don’t take the easy way out and that we reconcile different worldviews.”
Law should become a vehicle for understanding others’ needs and those who work in this area must be dedicated to that goal.
“We need to consider how other people view the world and how we can help them live deep, meaningful, and authentic lives,” Helfand remarks. “Anytime we decide we’re going to pass a law that somehow will impinge on that religious lifestyle, we want to make sure that we really need to.”
esolving cases through religious arbitration tribunals can enhance people’s religious freedom, Helfand says. The flip side is that certain religious communities may apply pressure and push people to do things they don’t want to do.
“What law needs to do is to find sophisticated ways to differentiate good cases from bad cases,” Helfand says.
Tension between religious liberty and civil rights was the focus of Helfand’s testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in March 2013.
“It’s something striking. Here I am very obviously Jewish, and I get to represent a Christian university before the commission to express the importance of religion,” Helfand says. “That’s a powerful moment for me because it brings together different religions to express the meaning of what religion brings to so many people. ”
At Pepperdine, Helfand enjoys sharing information with fellow faculty members about issues of mutual interest.
“Pepperdine affords me the opportunity to frequently speak to people who are informed on and care about these subjects which makes my work better,” Helfand comments. “I’m grateful to Pepperdine.”
Helfand is particularly proud of his work with the Glazer Institute where he coordinates the Brenden Mann Israel Internship Program and the Glazer Scholars, students interested in pursuing academic and extracurricular interests from Jewish and Christian perspectives.
“We’re a Jewish studies institute at a Christian university,” Helfand says. “We’ve found that
it really opens up extraordinary conversations about how religion impacts you and changes the way you think about the world. We’re proud that we can provide insight from the Jewish faith tradition that can help students pursue meaningful lives."