A Dialogue on Religious Lawyering

By Benjamin Ferland, J.D. Candidate & CLF Student Chapter President, University of Alberta

“So three lawyers, a Catholic, an Evangelical, and a Mormon are sitting in a lounge over lunch when…” sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s exactly what happened in Edmonton on March 14th as students, faculty, and local practitioners gathered at the University of Alberta to discuss the role of religion in the legal profession.

There are many today, including some who profess religious membership themselves, who argue that religion or ‘religious conscience’ is an inappropriate point of reference in public or professional decision-making. Perhaps nowhere is this sentiment more clearly expressed than in the recent banning of prayer from public council meetings. More recently, in the medical context, this thinking led the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to override its members’ conscience rights in the provision of controversial procedures such as physician-assisted suicide. These approaches suggest that there is simply no room for religion in the professional or public life of an increasingly secular society.

Similar refrains reverberate throughout the legal community. These critics suggest that the only conscience operating in the advocate’s mind is that of the client. Others argue that because legal practice is so closely related to the machinery of the secular state, religious lawyering will discredit both the law and the legal profession, and may even elicit discriminatory practices. Indeed, just such criticism appears to underlie some of the resistance to Trinity Western’s proposed law school.

These are serious concerns in an increasingly pluralistic society, concerns that deserve this profession’s thoughtful consideration. As members of an organization predicated on deepening and enriching the operation of our faith in the practice of law, CLF’s student members felt obliged to open the floor on this matter. “What better way to take up this issue,” our U of A members thought, “than to bring in some practicing religious lawyers and put the question to them directly? Can a lawyer’s faith inform his or her practice? Should it? What might this look like?”

CLF’s student chapter collaborated with the Faculty of Law and student members of the Reuben J. Clarke Society in hosting this intriguing lunchtime discussion. The Faculty provided the food and we invited all who were interested to join us for lunch, while a panel of three local lawyers reflected candidly on the operation of their respective faiths in legal practice. Students, faculty, and other members of the legal community filled the room to hear from our panelists on this prescient topic. Some of those in attendance were Christians, but many were not, reinforcing the manifold interest in this topic.

Dean of Law Dr. Paul Paton introduced the subject of “Religious Lawyering,” as an area of legal ethical scholarship that gained prominence through a series of forums at Fordham University in New York. The so-called “Religious Lawyering movement” is now an ongoing discourse between lawyers, judges, scholars and students of various religious backgrounds. Their work concerns not only whether there is a place for religion in the practice of law, but also how faith might inform this noble vocation. In conjunction with the Faculty and our colleagues from the Reuben Clarke Society, we sought to move this discussion from theory to practice.

Jeremy Taitinger, partner at Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer, joined Michael Pucylo, partner at Miller Thomson, and Robert Mendenhall of Richardson GMP in discussing just how their respective faiths (Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Mormon, respectively) have and continue to inform their understandings of law, professionalism, and their interactions with colleagues and clients. Each speaker brought a unique perspective on topics ranging from how to balance obligations to firm, family and community, to the lawyer’s role in providing greater access to justice. Each recalled ways in which their faith commitments have bolstered or challenged their professional lives, as well as how their legal practices have advanced the collective aspirations of their faith communities.  

Despite the diversity of views presented by our panelists, a common theme emerged from our discussion that is of great importance not only to ‘religious lawyers,’ but also to our profession and society as a whole: neither the lawyer’s role as an advocate, nor the codes and regulations governing our profession displace or dispense with the practitioner’s individual conscience. On the contrary, it seems that the lawyer’s function in democratic society depends upon our ability to seek justice and recognize injustice in the system. Our panelists were unanimous in finding that their faith was inseparable from their work as lawyers.

We agreed that our profession serves a critical role in preserving the rule of law that every Canadian, regardless of creed or religious background, lives under. Lawyers bear a considerable share of responsibility in shaping and maintaining the meaning of justice in this land. The discussion itself was predicated on the notion that our role as lawyers requires us to access a conception of justice beyond the black letter of the law and our codes of conduct. Coming out of our discussion, we recognized that we will not always agree in our conclusions in this regard.  Nevertheless we think it wiser to think and speak honestly together in terms of what actually binds and inspires us in this vocation, rather than banishing meaningful dialogue on justice altogether.

By gathering to discuss these things openly, as a community of legal professionals, we contributed one small entry to this necessary and ongoing dialogue. By engaging this topic in the very place where women and men are groomed into legal professionals, we invited and encouraged those now entering the profession to consider their future practices in light of eternity, or at least, to be honest with themselves and each other about the moral foundations upon which they stand.