Justin Aimonetti J.D.-M.A. ’20 and Christian Talley ’20, students at the University of Virginia School of Law, won a writing competition for their analysis of religious liberty and environmentalism. 

The duo won the annual White River Environmental Law Writing Competition, sponsored by the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law and Vermont Law School, for their paper “Religion as Sword, But Not as Shield: Rectifying the Estrangement of Environmentalism and Religious Liberty.”  

They donated their $1,000 prize to an emergency fund established during the COVID-19 pandemic for Law School and University contract workers and employees.

Forthcoming in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Aimonetti and Talley’s paper explores how religious liberty and environmental law evolved from allied concerns to competing legal interests.  

“For a brief period in the late 1980s, there appeared to be a real chance that religious litigants could prevail on religious liberty claims to halt environmentally harmful development projects that infringed their religious practice,” the pair said in a statement. “But the court foreclosed this possibility when it tightened, and eventually rejected, strict scrutiny for incidental burdens on religion.”  

The paper discusses how religious liberty would go on to be invoked in order to evade environmental regulations. 

“By contrast, relying on later-enacted statutes like the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, modern litigants have enjoyed a measure of success asserting religious liberty challenges to gain exemptions from environmental regulations,” they said. 

The writing competition victory builds on their previous win in Stanford Law Review’s inaugural Student Essay Competition in January. The topic is pertinent, they said, as the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear more cases concerning the scope of the free exercise clause. 

They said Professor Scott Ballenger ’96 and classmates Anna Cecile Pepper ’21 and Dana Raphael ’20 provided valuable feedback. 

The White River competition is open to original essays addressing any relevant topic in the fields of environmental law, natural resource law, energy law, environmental justice, land use law, animal law and agricultural law. 

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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