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New Faces: Law Professor Leslie Griffin

A new constitutional law professor shares her views on religion, the courts, and mastering the breaststroke.

People  |  Sep 5, 2012  |  By Sue Jones

Law professor Leslie Griffin. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Leslie Griffin

William S. Boyd Professor of Law
Boyd School of Law

Leslie Griffin's academic pedigree is by all accounts stellar. She studied religion at Notre Dame as an undergrad and got her master's and Ph.D. at Yale. She taught religion before going to Stanford for her law degree. Standing out as a student came fairly easy for the constitutional scholar. Her biggest lesson, though, came in the swimming pool, where she's still struggling to learn the breaststroke.

Why did you go into law? I studied and taught religion first before going to law school. What I like about law is that it is not an ivory tower field. There's a great ability to do the academic things -- teaching and publishing articles -- and to stay involved in real cases. It's both legal theory and practical application.

Biggest misconceptions about your field? That law and religion and ethics had nothing to do with one another. Now with the country's increasing religious and non-religious diversity, the courts are called upon more and more to resolve important disputes. For example, look at the controversy over the healthcare law, contraception, and religious freedom. [Griffin was recently the lead drafter of a letter from 175 law professors on behalf of the Center for Reproductive Rights outlining their legal opinion that it does not violate the first amendment to require religious employers to provide contraceptive insurance coverage to their employees.]

What is your take on that? When you step back and look at the issue, it boils down to religious freedom versus individual rights, particularly of women. But what does religious freedom mean? One way I phrase it is, "Why would religious freedom allow employers to disobey the law?" Religious employers should not get to act differently from any other employer.

Most memorable case: Just this past year there was a huge case that went to the Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC. A teacher at a Lutheran school was fired after filing a disability discrimination complaint. The school later alleged it fired her for being a bad Lutheran because Lutherans don't sue. I felt very strongly that people deserve their day in court, whether they are a minister or a school teacher at a religious school. We had the sorrow of losing unanimously. After that, you just have to pick yourself up and figure out how you keep working for things you believe in.

People would be surprised to know: In the last 10 years I took up swimming and joined a masters swim group. I did not grow up doing athletic things. I can't figure out the breaststroke yet -- I just don't know what that sweeping motion with the arms is all about -- but I have a terrific butterfly.

Favorite swimmer: I was really inspired by Dara Torres, who went to the Olympics four years ago at age 41. I had just taken up swimming. (Torres won three of her 12 Olympic medals in 2008).

Can't work without: Apple products. In my first academic job, someone introduced me to the little Mac SE computer and I've loved them ever since.

Favorite professor: That would be my swim coach, Lorin Koszegi. I used to just swim up and down without thinking much about what I was doing. Then I joined his masters group. That was the first time in my life that I wasn't a good student, a fast learner. It was good to be the dunce in the class. I learned you can try really hard and still not get something. My coach was so patient, and he kept coming up with different ways to help me understand the strokes. I think that is making me a better professor. I can better empathize, and now really understand differences in how people learn and internalize a concept.

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be? Give more opportunities for people to have the life they want to lead. It's interesting to me how technology and the law can do that. Women have more opportunities both because of reproductive technology and the final recognition by the courts that women have to be equal. It's what you hope for when you're a lawyer and an educator (and a bad athlete) -- that you can help people get the opportunity to pursue their talents.