Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions about the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, the Racial Justice Program, and the work we do.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project (LRRP) (formerly the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project) is a law and policy think tank based at Columbia Law School that promotes social justice, freedom of religion, and religious plurality. We analyze and develop strategies to address the complex ways in which religious liberty rights interact with other fundamental rights. 

Our mission is to ensure that laws and policies reflect the understanding that the right to free exercise of religion protects all religious beliefs and communities, including the non-religious; requires respect for principles of religious plurality and equality; and must be balanced against other liberty and equality rights where they are in conflict.

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project’s work takes the form of legal research and scholarship, public policy education and advocacy, legal support for activist organizations, and academic and media publications. Much of our initial work related to limiting the enactment of anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-choice religious exemptions that frequently violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Our work has expanded considerably since then to advance a more nuanced understanding of the meaning and scope of religious liberty rights, including through our work advocating for the rights of religious minorities and non-believers. We seek out affirmative strategic opportunities to frame the meaning of religious liberty in a way that supports and complements the rights of LGBTQ+ people, people of color, women, religious minorities, immigrants, and others. 

Recent projects have included:

  • In January 2019, The Law, Rights, and Religion Project convened activists, litigators, and theologians from across the country to discuss the strategic risks and opportunities of religious exemption litigation brought to resist regressive laws and policies. The convening included advocates involved in religious exemption litigation in the immigration and abortion rights contexts and sought to develop cross-movement, strategic thinking on the intersection of religious liberty and progressive advocacy.
     
  • In November 2018, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project published a briefing paper for state and local human rights commissions on their responsibility to rigorously enforce anti-discrimination laws and policies, including on faith-based organizations that receive government funds, despite the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions in Masterpiece Cakeshop and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer.
     
  • In January 2018, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project published Bearing Faith: The Limits of Catholic Health Care for Women of Color. This report presents new research finding that pregnant women of color are at greater risk of being deprived of a range of reproductive health services in many U.S. states as a result of their disproportionate use of Catholic hospitals, which place religious restrictions on care. The Law, Rights, and Religion Project is now working to address the impact of Catholic hospitals on women of color in states where we found particularly significant racial disparities, including New Jersey and Wisconsin.
     
  • In October 2017, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project partnered with Muslim Advocates to submit a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 15 religious minority groups and civil rights in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission. The brief noted that rigorous enforcement of civil rights laws is essential to protecting the rights of religious minorities, and that therefore creating an exemption from civil rights law would threaten rather than advance religious liberty.

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project's Racial Justice Program (RJP) is the only project in the country dedicated to examining and addressing the impact of religious liberty law on communities of color. Religious exemption laws and policies often disproportionally harm communities of color. For example, a Law, Rights, and Religion Project study found that Black and Latinx women in many states are more likely than white women to give birth in hospitals that place religious restrictions on reproductive health care. At the same time, laws and policies that disfavor religious minorities—like the Muslim travel ban—are often racialized, targeting both religious and racial minorities.

One of the primary aims of the Racial Justice Program is to illuminate the ways in which the notion of “religious liberty” has been captured by parties with a particular, and narrow, political agenda – something we term White Christian Supremacy.  Advocates of this agenda are loathe to defend the religious liberty rights of non-Christians, and remain insensitive to the ways in which the interests of people of color are left out of, if not harmed by, a concept of religious liberty that privileges the interests of white conservative Christians.

The Racial Justice Program examines and exposes the power of white Christian supremacy and its historical roots in anti-Blackness.  White Christian supremacy is anchored in the notion that conservative Christianity and mainstream white culture and values are superior to other religious systems and cultural norms.  As such, white Christian ideology seeks to supersede democratic values that are grounded in the idea that the U.S. is a diverse and pluralistic society that is committed to equality and liberty.

Learn more about the Racial Justice Program, here.

Federal courts have relied on the Law, Rights, and Religion Project's analysis of religious exemption laws, including a court in Mississippi that found an anti-LGBTQ+ exemption bill to be unconstitutional. The Law, Rights, and Religion Project’s invited testimony in Congress played a critical role in preventing the enactment of the federal First Amendment Defense Act, which would have promoted conservative religious views about sex and marriage and weakened federal anti-discrimination laws. Our legal analysis of an anti-LGBTQ+ Missouri exemption bill, signed by 14 law professors from law schools in Missouri, was instrumental in stopping the bill from advancing out of committee. Our written work has been broadly cited by fellow advocates and academics in many articles, reports, administrative comments, and legal briefs.

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project’s Bearing Faith report was exceptionally successful; our launch event featuring abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker, SisterReach founder Cherisse Scott, and other reproductive justice advocates was attended by over 250 people. The Law, Rights, and Religion Project later co-hosted a congressional briefing on the report with Senator Kamala Harris, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, and the National Women’s Law Center.

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project has provided training, strategic guidance, and legal and advocacy support on religious liberty law to immigrants’ rights and other activist groups. By educating advocacy organizations about free exercise law and fostering communication between faith-based groups and LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights organizations, LRRP has helped to develop a coherent understanding of religious liberty rights across social movements.

Our work to promote cross-movement and cross-disciplinary ties among social justice advocates has yielded fruitful collaborations with groups working in the fields of immigrants’ rights, racial justice, and Muslims’ civil rights.

No; the Law, Rights, and Religion Project works to protect religious liberty for everyone. We therefore support laws and policies that allow people to exercise their faith free from government persecution, discrimination, and coercion. In contrast, we oppose laws and policies that seek to elevate certain religious beliefs over others, force people to support or subsidize religious beliefs they do not hold, reduce religious plurality, attack church-state separation, or erode other fundamental rights to liberty and equality.

Moreover, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project believes that both religious liberty and equality rights are benefitted when civil rights laws, including employment, housing, and public accommodations anti-discrimination laws, are robustly enforced. Rather than harming religious liberty, civil rights laws are essential for protecting religious plurality and equality. LRRP rejects the framing of a zero-sum conflict between religious liberty and anti-discrimination law and is committed to upholding both values.

Professor Katherine Franke is the founder and faculty director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project. Professor Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University and is a nationally recognized scholar, teacher, and public voice on sex/gender, sexuality, and racial justice.

Elizabeth Reiner Platt is the Law, Rights, and Religion Project's Director. She has an extensive background in gender justice and reproductive rights, including with A Better Balance, Urban Justice Sex Workers Project, and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Kira Shepherd is the Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project's Racial Justice Program. She comes to LRRP with experience in racial justice and immigrants’ rights, including positions at The Black Institute, ColorOfChange.org, and Make the Road New York.

Liz Boylan is the Associate Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, which houses the Law, Rights, and Religion Project. She holds a Master's in Public Administration, and has worked in higher education administration and programming for over 10 years, with the College Art Association, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law.

You can learn more about our team members on our Staff page, here.

No. The Law, Rights, and Religion Project engages in education and advocacy, but we do not engage in lobbying. This is in accordance with our affiliation with Columbia University in the City of New York, a 501(c)(3) organization.

Learn More About Our Work

The Law, Rights, and Religion Project's homepage may be found here; for an expansive understanding of our work, we recommend you check out our Policy Page, where you can find our policy papers, position statements, reports, legislative analysis and testimony, and amicus briefs filed by the Law, Rights, and Religion Project. Access our Policy Page, here.

Subscribe to our Mailing List

For the most up-to-date information from the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, we encourage you to join our mailing list.  Newsletters are sent out approximately once every two weeks and include information on research, programs, events, and opportunities with the project. You may sign up for our mailing list here.

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Contact us

For further questions, please contact Elizabeth Platt, Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, at elizabeth.platt@law.columbia.edu.  Full contact details, including our phone number and mailing address may be found here.