Teaching president

It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late February when 27 Rice students packed Sewall Hall’s Room 303 for a course called The Legal Framework of Religious Tolerance. The topic up for discussion couldn’t have been more timely: the passage of Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1062, which would give business owners a legal shield for denying service to any individual or group that offends that business owner’s religious beliefs. The proposed law, which was vetoed Feb. 26 by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, led to an outcry among the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The goal of the course co-taught by Rice President David Leebron is to seek a critical understanding of the United States' tolerance-rich legal invocations of religious freedom. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The course is co-taught by Rice President David Leebron and Lawrence Sager, one of the country’s pre-eminent constitutional scholars and the co-author of “Religious Freedom and the Constitution.” It is sponsored by Rice’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, which was founded in 2013 with a gift from Houston philanthropists Dr. Milton and Laurie Boniuk.

As legal documents flashed across students’ laptop screens, Leebron and Sager, the Alice Jane Drysdale Sheffield Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law, prodded the students to think carefully about the apparent clash between liberty and equality. The exercise underscored the course’s goal, which Sager and Leebron said is to seek a critical understanding of the United States’ tolerance-rich legal invocations of religious freedom while considering how to distinguish religious actions and commitments from other morally important beliefs and activities.

The course marks Leebron’s first semester-long teaching assignment at Rice, and the direct connection with students is something he relishes. “I enjoy my job as president, but administration is not the enterprise,” he said during an interview in his Allen Center office. “The enterprise is teaching and research, first and foremost. This gives me a chance to see just how talented our students are.”

Leebron, who was dean of Columbia Law School before coming to Rice and is an expert on international trade, human rights and corporate finance law, said he had been looking for an opportunity to teach a course. “I thought a legally oriented course around this topic (religious tolerance) would be a very good course for students who might have some interest in law and constitutional law and also for those who are interested in issues of religion and society,” he said. “It’s an area where the United States is — most of the time — a really good example for the rest of the world. We have incredible religious diversity that we have to seek to accommodate. The cases are hard because you can’t let everybody just make up their own rules, even if what they want to do is religiously based. I have been interested in issues around religious diversity for a long time, but my engagement with Milton Boniuk has really deepened that interest.”

Melanie Zook, a Wiess College sophomore double majoring in policy studies and psychology, said she was drawn to the course by her interest in public policy and possibly pursuing a law degree. “This course is a great way to get a sense of what law school will be like,” Zook said. “Both professors are accessible and sympathetic to how confused we all can be by the dense legal texts we’re discussing. President Leebron likes to say, ‘If you’re not confused, you’re doing it wrong.’”

Leebron’s teaching style is something Blake Delaplane, a Duncan College junior double majoring in political science and policy studies, appreciates. “President Leebron teaches with authority, but also with intellectual humility,” said Delaplane, who is the founder and president of the Rice University Federalist Society. “He treats class much like a chess match where, with every posited argument, he offers a counter. By presenting both sides of an argument, he creates a sort of legal arena in which students learn to wrestle with various positions in a case through class discussion.”

The students’ intellectual heavy lifting comes with a culinary reward. Leebron and Sager have instituted the practice of meeting with a small group of students for dinner at one of the serveries. “I went to the first of these dinners they had, and I loved it,” Zook said. “It’s easy to put President Leebron on a sort of pedestal as the president of the university, but these dinners are sort of humanizing.”

For Leebron, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where he was elected president of the Law Review and worked with future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, it’s the students who deserve his admiration, as he said in a Feb. 12 tweet: “Enjoying my class,” he wrote. “Until this year, took it on hearsay, faith and circumstantial evidence how good Rice students are. Now seeing it firsthand!”

About Jeff Falk