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When Church and State Intersect

Boyd School of Law professor Leslie Griffin brings together philosophy, health care law, and constitutional law to explore issues in bioethics.

People  |  Sep 22, 2016  |  By Tovin Lapan

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

Leslie Griffin took a circuitous route to a life in law, but she arrived just in time to capitalize on an uncommon skill set.

Griffin, born in Connecticut, grew up in a Catholic household and studied theology at Notre Dame before getting a doctorate in religious studies from Yale. She taught theology at Notre Dame for a time, but she gradually came to realize that some of the most pressing questions concerning religion and society were being decided in the courts.

So she left Notre Dame and enrolled at Stanford Law School, where a prescient professor told her to stay the path. “At the time, religion and law wasn’t a big field, and many law schools didn’t offer law and religion courses,” Griffin said. “There was a great professor at Stanford, Thomas Grey, and he saw the way things were going. He said my background in religion would be a growth stock that would pay off.”

Antonin Scalia joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 and Clarence Thomas was appointed in 1991, adding two justices protective of religious rights. Then in 1993, a year after Griffin graduated from Stanford, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave the federal government additional responsibilities in protecting religious freedom.

Out of law school, Griffin clerked on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before spending a fellowship year at Harvard focusing on ethics. She went on to teach at Santa Clara University, where she started the first seminar on law and religion, and worked for the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

Griffin said she is an academic at heart, though, and she soon returned to teaching. She focused on constitutional law and ethics while developing a specialty in church-and-state issues. After a stint at the University of Houston she joined the law faculty at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law in 2012.

“I see my career as trying to combine abstract ideas with practical legal training,” Griffin said.

That work has naturally led to an interest in bioethics and the law, and Griffin, along with co-author Joan Krause, published a new textbook, Practicing Bioethics Law, in November 2015.

“There are three aspects to bioethics law, which are philosophy, health care law, and constitutional law,” Griffin said. “We tried to bring those three worlds together with readings that represent all three aspects.”

Bioethics is full of the hard-to-pin-down issues Griffin loves to explore such as when assisted suicide should be allowed, and how do you know when a patient has truly given informed consent?

It is also an exciting time to work on constitutional law and religious freedom. During the spring 2016 U.S. Supreme Court session, the justices heard a case involving a religious institution’s refusal to cover contraception in employee health plans.

In fact, there are so many legal issues and cases involving religion these days, Griffin felt like there was more going on than could be covered in academic papers and law reviews. Two years ago, she launched a legal blog with Marci Hamilton, another religion and law expert, so they could stay on top of all of the developing cases. The blog has grown to include outside voices, and Griffin is eager to promote more female voices.

“The sad but unsurprising reality is that women’s voices are still underrepresented when it comes to legal issues of contraception, religion, sex abuse ... ,” Griffin said. “At first Marci and I were doing it all, but we’ve gotten some more young women involved, including some former students.”

As for her teaching style, Griffin admits she has softened over her 22 years behind the lectern. “In the beginning I may have been too hard. There’s a balance you have to strike, and in the old days we had different visions of authority,” she said. “I think we’ve given up on the model of teachers knowing everything …  I like to run a tight class. I call on students a lot, but I try to do that in a way so students know I respect them and want to get the most out of them. UNLV students really have a great attitude, they really want to learn and they value their education.”