On July 8, 2022, the Center for Law and Religion and frequent partner LUMSA University co-hosted an academic conference on Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech. Organized by the Center’s co-directors, Professors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian, and LUMSA Professor Monica Lugato, the one-day event took place on LUMSA’s campus in Rome, Italy and drew scholars from the United States and Europe.
Addressing a very current topic, Liberalism’s Limits explored the outer boundaries of liberal democracy’s commitment to autonomy and freedom. Traditionally, liberalism has emphasized both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Yet liberal regimes face serious challenges to their own core principles in both religious exemption—the right of individuals to receive an accommodation from complying with generally applicable law on the basis of religious scruple—and hate speech—speech conveying deeply insulting, vilifying, discriminatory views against a target group.
To examine these issues and the problems they pose for the continuing viability of liberalism in Western democracies, the conference began with a public session at which Professor Cesare Mirabelli, president emeritus of the Italian Constitutional Court, and Professor Chantal Delsol, a philosopher and member of the French Academy, delivered keynote addresses and engaged with audience members. After the public session, conference participants presented short papers in three private workshops on Liberalism’s Limits, Religious Exemptions, and Hate Speech.
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In addition to the keynote speakers and conference organizers, conference participants included Professors: Stephanie Barclay (Notre Dame); Paolo Cavana (LUMSA); Gayane Davidyan (Lomonosov); Richard Ekins (Oxford); Adelaide Madera (Messina); Javier Martínez-Torrón (Complutense); Marco Olivetti (LUMSA); Andrea Pin (Padua); Jeffrey Pojanowski (Notre Dame); Angelo Rinella (LUMSA); Steven Smith (San Diego); and Kevin Walsh (Catholic University of America).
The event received coverage in the Italian media, including a Vatican Radio interview (in Italian) with Professors Mirabelli and Lugato. “The questions asked at the conference might be grouped into two categories,” Professor Lugato explained on air. “On the one hand, [there were] questions about whether liberalism, at least in its classical sense, has exhausted itself; and on the other hand, [there were] questions about whether liberal political and legal systems demand certain limits on individual liberties just in order to survive as liberal systems, and what those limits might be.”
Noting that the Rome conference marked a decade of cooperation between the Center and LUMSA, Professor Movsesian says: “During those 10 years, we have jointly sponsored public events on pressing issues in law and religion, including one conference, in 2014, at which Pope Francis gave the keynote address. July’s event on religious exemptions and hate speech is very much in keeping with our tradition of exploring crucial and difficult questions.”
For Professor Barclay, this year’s exploration at the intersection of law and religion was meaningful and inspiring. "I was very grateful to be included in the conference focused on liberalism's limits,” she shares. “The organizers—Mark, Marc, and Monica—put together a program that stimulated thoughtful discussion and helped to build important connections between the conference attendees. The important discussions focused on during this conference have sparked new ideas for my own scholarship." While Professor Barclay and the rest the participants continue to examine liberalism's limits, the papers they presented at the Rome conference will appear on the Center’s award-winning blog, the Law and Religion Forum.
About the Center for Law and Religion
Established in 2010, the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s Law provides a forum for studying law and religion from domestic, international, and comparative perspectives with the aim of:
In addition to hosting academic programs locally and around the world, the Center coordinates the Law School’s law and religion curriculum. It also hosts the Law and Religion Forum, a blog about recent law and religion scholarship and news, and Legal Spirits, a podcast series on law and religion issues in the courts.