Professor Xiao Wang of the University of Virginia School of Law has won an Association of American Law Schools award for his paper on a recent trend in religious freedom litigation.

For his paper “Religion as Disobedience,” Wang will receive the 2024 Harold Berman Award for Excellence in Scholarship, presented to scholars for an outstanding article on the subject of law and religion published within their first 10 years teaching at an AALS member school. Published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, the article argues that courts have used federal statutes concerning religious exercise to make it easier for plaintiffs to bring religious freedom lawsuits and harder for governments to defend and enforce policies such as vaccine mandates and anti-bias laws. Analyzing the sincerity of plaintiffs’ beliefs will help prevent religion from being used as a tool of disobedience, Wang argues.

In the first analysis of its kind, Wang reviewed 350 federal appellate cases and found that in the past 30 years, the Supreme Court has never found a single plaintiff to be insincere in a religious freedom case.

“Federal appellate courts, likewise, have found plaintiffs sincere 93% of the time,” he writes, adding that in employment discrimination and Americans with Disabilities Act cases, plaintiffs meet the burden of proof to prove their claims just 27% and 60% of the time, respectively.

“Without appropriate tools to discern genuine religious practice from opportunistic litigation, free exercise becomes an open invitation to true believers and make-believers alike to break the law,” he writes.

Wang thanked Professor Micah Schwartzman ’05 for his “valuable feedback and advice” on the paper.

This year’s winners will be recognized during an awards ceremony at the AALS annual meeting on Jan. 4.

Wang, who joined the Law School this year, writes about federal courts, constitutional law, and law and religion. His research addresses generally how lower courts implement and apply Supreme Court precedent. Wang is also an assistant professor of public policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

He directs the school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, organizes the En Banc Institute and supervises the National Appellate Clinic Network. He has led appeals before state courts, federal circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wang graduated from Yale Law School, where he was a Truman Scholar, and earned his master’s in public policy and B.A. in economics from the University of Virginia, where he was a Jefferson Scholar.

Also at the annual meeting, Professor Kenneth S. Abraham will receive the 2024 Prosser Award from the AALS Section on Torts and Compensation Systems, and Professor Payvand Ahdout will receive an award from the Section on Federal Courts for her paper “Separation-of-Powers Avoidance.”

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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