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University of Iowa News Release

July 17, 2006

Bezanson Book Examines Crumbling Wall Between Church and State

A University of Iowa law professor believes that the legal principle of the separation of church and state will soon be replaced by a new notion that allows for more accommodation between the two institutions.

In his new book "How Free Can Religion Be," Randall Bezanson argues that this new notion of "accommodationism" means that government will be freer to embrace religion and encourage public participation in religion as long as it doesn't favor one faith over another.

"In the decisions it's made since 1990, the Supreme Court has put itself on the edge of a very sympathetic view of government's ability to foster religion in the public sphere, and I believe the court will continue to move in that direction," said Bezanson, one of the country's leading First Amendment scholars.

The book, published this month by the University of Illinois Press, is the third in a series of books Bezanson has written about the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. The first two books in the series, "How Free Can Speech Be" and "How Free Can The Press Be," examined changes in legal doctrine as it related to the freedoms of speech and the press.

In his new book, Bezanson examines how legal concepts of the freedom of religion have changed since the mid-19th century. He said the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes two guarantees that are often at odds--the so-called Establishment Clause that expressly prohibits government from establishing an official state religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which guarantees Americans the right to freely practice their religion.

How the courts view these two often competing rights create a tension that has been a controversial part of the American legal landscape since the country's founding. In the past, the tension took form in debates over whether the Mormon Church's 19th Century practice of polygamy in Utah could be legally prohibited, whether Amish children should be forced to attend public school until age 16, or whether public school districts could provide bus transportation to Catholic school students. Today, this tension makes the headlines in such issues as school prayer, teaching creationism in public schools, exclusion of religious schools and students from state scholarships and school vouchers, and religious use of illegal drugs and alcohol.

Bezanson said the book was not written from any single point of view, and he doesn't attempt to persuade readers that any one set of opinions is more valid than another. His goal, he said, is to provide objective information and alternative arguments by analyzing written opinions and Supreme Court transcripts that people can use in an informed discussion.

"The role of religion in our public life presents genuinely difficult questions. Intelligent people can arrive at completely different conclusions," he said. "Unfortunately, the public debate is very polarized and not very helpful for people who want to reflect on the roles of government and religion in our society. I hope the information in this book helps enlighten the debate."

In his book, Bezanson examines eight significant Supreme Court decisions that are pivotal in demonstrating how today's legal doctrine came to be defined. The cases were selected, he said, based not only on their legal power but on the compelling stories they tell.

"The people involved in these cases are interesting," Bezanson said. "They're unique individuals with fascinating stories, and none of them are 'good' people or 'bad' people. They're simply everyday people standing up for what they think is right."


For more information about the book, including an order form, from the University of Illinois Press:

For more information about Professor Randy Bezanson:

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,