Students create website for Church, Law and Ethics course

With its photos of leather bound law tomes and the U.S. Supreme Court building, the Daniel Elliott Lankford’s website looks like that of many other law firms.

But read the small print, and you will quickly see that all is not as it seems: “Daniel Elliott & Lankford is a fictitious law firm which was created by three students at Wake Forest University School of Law for a class project. This website is not intended for use as legal advice and no one listed on this page is a licensed attorney.”

The website was the final course project for Professor Steve Nickles’ Church, Law and Ethics class. Three videos on the site discuss government enforcement of religious obligations, as they pertain to Islamic Mahr, Jewish Get and Spiritual Custody Orders. The website also serves as a marketing tool for its three creators: Leslie Daniel (’13), Will Elliott (’13) and Ben Lankford (’13).

The students created the website as a vehicle to deliver the three videos about government enforcement of religious obligations in secular courts. Elliott had been using a blog format for his weekly papers during the semester. That gave Daniel the idea of creating a website and adding more content. The three students all received As in the class.

For Daniel, who participated in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Externship program and plans to work in business law at Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston after graduation, the intersection of church and business law made for an interesting study.  The way churches are run mirrors the way businesses run, she said.

“I found it really interesting that the class was a mix of law and divinity students,” she said. “Each side always had something interesting to add to the discussion that the other had not thought of.”

Elliott, whose uncle is both an attorney for the Georgia Presbyterian Diocese and an Episcopalian priest, has long been interested in the study of law and religion. Influenced by his uncle’s involvement in an important church-law case decided last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, he plans to look for a job as an assistant district attorney after graduation.

“The freedom of religion in America allows people to feel comfortable about being incredibly passionate about their religious beliefs,” he said. “Any time there is a group of people who passionately believe something, there is a potential for conflict and controversy with other groups.”

Churches have to deal with many of the same aspects of law as businesses do, he said. But the role of religion in our society, as defined by the Constitution, can complicate matters.

“The separation of church and state can feel like an unnatural concept at times. As Americans, people are free to follow their religion,” he said. “Since America is a democracy, our government is our people. But that government is not allowed to be religious. I think it can be hard to reconcile that in many ways.”

Lankford, who describes his family as fairly religious does not believe in God, but religion is still important to him.

“I’m interested in church law because I think the courts and ‘civil’ authority need to get out of people’s religions,” he said. “It is important that America continues to have the highest protections for religious expression because without religion, we are left with the government as our sole authority. And I hate the idea of a government divorced from the religious (self-evident truth) undertones which make America the best country on earth.”

As someone who aspires to a career as a public defender, Lankford said that the course could help him in working with clients who don’t always have a good understanding of their legal rights. For example, someone might consider taking peyote a religious practice, but the law would see that as a criminal offense.

“I wanted to show the areas where religion and the law rubbed each other sore,” Lankford said. “In a child custody hearing, which parent decides the child’s religious upbringing, taking into account that the first amendment both allows people religious freedom and forbids the government from enforcing religious doctrine. It’s a tough question, but I think our courts must err on the side of letting people chose their own religion/beliefs/family values.”