On June 11, 2010, the Center for Law and Religion at St. John's University School of Law held its inaugural event, an academic conference at the University's Paris campus. "Laïcité in Comparative Perspective" brought together scholars from the United States and Europe to explore the French concept of laïcité and compare it with models of church-state relations in other countries, particularly the United States. Participants included Douglas Laycock (University of Virginia), who offered the Conference Introduction; Nathalie Caron (Université Paris-Est Créteil); Blandine Chelini-Pont (Université Paul Cézanne Aix-Marseille); Nina Crimm (St. John's University); Marc DeGirolami (St. John's University); Javier Martínez-Torrón Universidad Complutense); Mark Movsesian (St. John's University); Rosemary Salomone (St. John's University); Brett Scharffs (Brigham Young University); Michael Simons (St. John's University); Emmanuel Tawil (Université Panthéon-Assas (Paris II)), and Elisabeth Zoller (Université Panthéon-Assas (Paris II)).
The Center chose laïcité as the subject of its inaugural event for two reasons. First, studying laïcité allows the Center to contribute to an emerging and fruitful dialogue between American and European scholars. No longer content to focus solely on the domestic context, law-and-religion scholars increasingly consider foreign legal systems as well. This is a very positive development. Comparative work can illuminate aspects of one's own legal system—its history, aspirations, failures, and unstated assumptions—that one might otherwise fail to perceive. Because it is both so close to and so remote from American ideas about church-and-state—so familiar and so unfamiliar—laïcité offers a particularly good vehicle for comparison. American scholars can learn much about our conceptions of religion and religious freedom by considering the different versions that exist in the other Enlightenment Republic. And, in turn, French and European scholars can learn much about their own traditions by considering them in light of their American analogues.
Second, a conference on laïcité addresses issues that greatly concern the public at large. At this writing, both France and the United States are embroiled in controversies over the place of religion in national life. In France, the National Assembly is considering a proposal to ban the burqa—le voile integral—in public places. Although the Conseil d'Etat, France's highest administrative court, has expressed serious doubts about the legality of such a ban, the Sarkozy government is pushing ahead with the proposal, with widespread public support. In the United States, the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero has caused a heated debate between those who see the mosque as an admirable symbol of religious tolerance and those who perceive it as a triumphalist gesture calculated to cause offense. Although these particular controversies concern Islam, the place of religion in public life transcends any one creed. Both French and American society must determine how best to address the fact that religious commitments remain vital for millions of their citizens—a fact that would have confounded the secularization theorists of the last century, to say nothing of philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire.
The conference had three sessions: Laycock's Conference Introduction, titled "American Religious Liberty, French Laïcité, and the Veil," and two consecutive panels, "Laïcité in France—Contemporary Issues" and "Laïcité in Comparative Perspective." We present here an edited transcript of the day's proceedings. We have maintained the informal, conversational tone of the transcript in order to give readers a proper sense of the event. Similarly, we have not required the usual number of footnotes from authors in an effort to capture the spontaneous nature of the interchange among the participants.