Schwartzman Wins McFarland Prize for Outstanding Scholarship


University of Virginia law professor Micah Schwartzman has won the Law School's Carl McFarland Prize, which is awarded to a junior faculty member for outstanding research.

June 6, 2013

University of Virginia law professor Micah Schwartzman, an expert in law and religion, jurisprudence and political philosophy, has received the Law School's Carl McFarland Prize, which is awarded to a junior faculty member for outstanding research.

"Micah's scholarship is meticulously argued and unstintingly fair to opposing views," said Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney. "He has become a force to be reckoned with both in law and philosophy."

Schwartzman, who joined the faculty in 2007, graduated from UVA Law in 2005, having previously earned his undergraduate degree from UVA in 1998 and a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Schwartzman's recent scholarship has explored the First Amendment's religion clauses, the free exercise clause and the establishment clause.

"I'm interested in the theoretical foundations of those clauses — that is, the moral and philosophical arguments that can be given to justify the way that they're understood and applied," he said.

UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock, one of the nations' top authorities on the law of religious liberty, praised Schwartzman's scholarship.

"Micah is establishing himself as one of the leading young religious liberty scholars in the country," Laycock said. "He prefers to approach the law in philosophical and normative terms, but he can also crunch cases with the best of them. He has the full tool kit."

Schwartzman's research considers questions such as whether the religion clauses require that the law give religious beliefs and practices special benefits or disadvantages.

"The establishment clause prohibits the government from supporting or recognizing religion in some ways," he said. "It picks out religion distinctively. To give you an example, the establishment clause has been interpreted to prevent certain types of government funding of religion. A taxpayer might come along and say, 'I don't want my tax money to support religion.' So why is it that a taxpayer has a claim when their money supports religion, but not when it supports other things that they disagree with in conscience?"

In a recent paper, "What If Religion Isn't Special?," which was published in the University of Chicago Law Review, Schwartzman considers what happens if religion is not "distinctive" as compared to secular or non-religious moral claims.

"The classic example is from the Vietnam era, where you have draft protestors who aren't religious who come forward and say I don't want to fight," he said. "What are we supposed to think about those cases? Do they deserve constitutional protection? And if they don't, does that suggest that there's something mistaken about the scope of the constitutional protection that we have? In other words, should it be broader? Should we not just protect religious beliefs, but also other beliefs?"

The paper asks whether it's fair to restrict protections only to those with religious beliefs. "It argues that it's not," he said.

Schwartzman has also recently co-authored articles with UVA Law professor Richard Schragger on whether religious institutions ought to receive special treatment.

"A common theme between these projects right now is a question about the way the law treats religion and whether it should provide distinctive benefits and burdens to religious practices," he said.

Schwartzman said he is also interested in the role of religious reasons in political and legal decision-making.

"The role of religious reasons in political and legal decision-making — should congressmen or judges appeal to religious arguments in making political and legal decisions — I take to be a subset of the question: How does the state justify its actions? What are the requirements that political actors have in providing reasons for their decisions? And that is kind of the overarching question for me — what is the nature of political and legal justification?"

One paper, "Judicial Sincerity," which was published in the Virginia Law Review, considers whether judges have a responsibility to give reasons for their decisions and to believe the reasons that they give. Another, "The Sincerity of Public Reason," published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, argues that citizens, particularly political officials, have obligations to be sincere in their reason-giving.

"I'm interested in the nature of political and legal justifications," he said. "Do we have obligations to give reasons that we believe for the political and legal decisions that we make? I'm interested in the ethical requirements of reason-giving. And I'm interested in the substantive constraints on the types of reasons that might be given."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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