By Emily Chazen, J.D. ’22
When I tell people that I am a joint-degree candidate across the Law School and the Divinity School, I am often asked: “How do you plan on combining your degrees?” Until recently, I was unsure of the answer. Sometimes, I would explain that my passion for academic religious studies–the general area of my Master of Theological Studies at the Divinity School–was born of a deep commitment to visions of social justice inculcated in me in my undergraduate studies at Haverford College, and that I understood the law as a necessary tool for the actualization of those dreams. Other times, I would explain that I understood law as always already in a dialectical relationship with religion, that my knowledge of legal doctrine could only be as robust as my conceptualizations of religious institutions, practices, and beliefs. In truth, I had really just come to love Religious Studies, and I had come to love law. How I was going to combine them wasn’t so important as long as I was enjoying the religio-legal worlds that I was invited to explore.
During my 1L year especially, I struggled to see how my coursework translated meaningfully to the religious and legal justice I sought to actualize. Substantive doctrine and knowledge of procedure were necessary skills to acquire, but their connections to meaningful, real world interventions for the communities I hoped to serve felt at best attenuated. But this year, that all changed when the Religious Freedom Clinic showed me how I could combine my love for religious studies and my love for study of law. In both the clinic and its associated seminar, I was able to explore the questions that had motivated so much of why I had come to Harvard in the first place: how do we negotiate the boundaries between American religious experience and legal worlds? How can we remediate, strike across, and intervene in American institutions’ reification and consolidation of power through economic, racial, and religious disenfranchisement? And how could conducting client-centered work–the type of work that prioritizes the voices of those marginalized by the operant conditions of structural oppression–serve as a critical tool in providing people hope?
The clinical seminar, which I took in Fall 2021, provided me with the critical language I needed to start thinking about the type of lawyer I hoped to be. Professors McDaniel and Sonne focused on how to develop our legal writing skills; how to make concise, clear, and thoughtful legal arguments; and how even the most minor turns of phrase could be critical in the art of persuasion. Just as important, or perhaps more so, was the course’s focus on cultural competency, zealous advocacy, and genuine client engagement. I will never forget one particularly meaningful conversation we had about the lawyers’ role in the face of religious difference to “avoid cultural blinders and recover from cultural blunders when they occur” (Bryant 35). We discussed how attorneys, like their clients, are people–people living within the confines of an arguably inescapable sociopolitical and ideological moment rife with preconceptions and prejudices. We thought through how lawyers could challenge and frustrate their “cultural blinders” in order to both see the totality of their clients’ personhood and to make clients ‘legible’ to an audience for whom clients’ lived experiences may be foreign. And, most meaningfully, we interrogated our own biases about religious people and communities and sought to de- and re-construct our potentially harmful assumptions about religious-practitioners-turned-clients.
Like in the course, the representation I did in the clinic allowed me to combine my passions for religious studies with legal avenues for redress. During the fall semester, I worked on an employment discrimination case, advocating on behalf of a practitioner who had been discharged for her refusal to sign a state loyalty oath for religious reasons. Collaborating with another student on writing an appellate brief, I fell in love with the advocacy that the clinic did to protect something so personal and private as religious belief. I was deeply impressed with Professor McDaniel and Sonne’s ability to prioritize the individual considerations and concerns of our client.
My work with the clinic in the spring was especially meaningful to me. As a student-attorney with and Co-Executive Director of the Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), I had come (and continue) to feel especially privileged and honored to advocate for, learn from, and grow in community with clients living amidst the injustices of prisons across the state of Massachusetts. When I learned that the Religious Freedom Clinic would be representing people across faith backgrounds experiencing infringements of their access to religious worship in a federal prison in the Midwest, I was especially eager to work on the case. I had been passionate about channeling the power that Harvard Law School vested in me into disrupting mass incarceration in as many ways as one person could. In collaborating with three other students in the Clinic, Professor McDaniel, and Clinical Instructor Kelsey Flores (who joined as an incredible addition to the clinic in the spring), I felt that I had finally found a way to articulate the intersections of my passion for law and religion, actualized through work towards justice. Speaking with our client, drafting advisory documents, and working through the challenges of a demand letter, I reaffirmed my commitment to legal advocacy on behalf of the religious communities most marginalized by our society. The Clinic offered me the opportunity to integrate my passion for religious studies into the legal field, not just in the literal terms of representing religious practitioners in legal claims, but also through the cultivation of a personal praxis of religiously-informed lawyering.
As commencement approaches, and I reflect on all that the past three years have taught me and all that I hope to do, I know that my time with the Religious Freedom Clinic will stand out as an especially significant turning point. I have learned how to be a client-centered lawyer, advocating for the people and communities whose encounters with systemic harm have left them feeling frustrated, violated, and hurt. I have understood how to draft and write thoughtfully and carefully as an advocate to channel the power and knowledge I have gained into redefining oppressive and repressive institutions. And I have found a community of people committed to carving out a space in this world for those who cherish and preserve the religious traditions at the core of their being. Through the Religious Freedom Clinic, I have finally been given my answer as to how I can forge a path in the future that allows me to combine my two degrees, and for that, I am unendingly grateful.