By Sheila Pursglove
Constitutional law allows Frank Ravitch to combine two major interests – working to stop discrimination and a passion for history.
“Also, as a child I experienced what it was like to live as a religious minority in a country that has religious freedom. I saw the benefits when government institutions and people were respectful of the religious diversity in my hometown of Philadelphia and the nation as whole, and I saw the emotionally devastating consequences when schools and other government entities acted as though the dominant religion in an area deserved favored status,” says
Ravitch, a law professor and Walter H. Stowers Chair in Law and Religion at Michigan State University College of Law.
A member of the MSU Law faculty for 11 years, teaching Law & Religion, Torts I, Professional Responsibility, Constitutional Law I, and Law and Interpretation, Ravitch also is faculty representative to the AALS and adviser to the Asian/Pacific Law Students Association, and is director of the Kyoto,
“I enjoy having very bright students and having a chance to share knowledge with them that can help them become better lawyers and thinkers,” he says.
“I also enjoy the research I get to do for the books and articles I write.”
Law didn’t feature in Ravitch’s original career plans. After earning an undergrad degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, he worked in advertising and promotions in New York. Not finding it as challenging as he had hoped, he went on to earn his J.D. from The Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University, and LL.M. with distinction from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
“Everyone had always said I should be a lawyer so I decided to give it a try and I ended up loving the intellectual challenge of law school and the law,” he says. “I found it to be far more creative than I expected.”
One big challenge he faced – as do his law students – was getting over the notion that law is just a bunch of rules.
“There are certainly rules in law, but they need to be applied to numerous situations and the rules, of course, change over time,” he notes. “The key is equipping the students to be able to apply the law to the many factual situations that arise or could arise, and to better predict how the law may change in a given area based on current trends in the law and new situations to which it is being applied.”
His main research focus of law and religion came about accidentally from a previous focus on employment discrimination law, after writing about the discrimination students faced in school districts that still violated the 1962 and ’63 school prayer decisions when they did not take part in the prayer.
Since joining MSU Law, Ravitch has authored a number of law review articles, essays, book reviews, and book chapters, as well as amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has authored several books, including “Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses,” and “Law and Religion, A Reader: Cases, Concepts, and Theory.”
His most recent book, “Marketing Creation: The Law and Intelligent Design,” was published by Cambridge University Press last year.
“The evolution of that project – pun intended – was interesting. I didn’t start out with an axe to grind in the discussion, but after reading the materials on the Intelligent Design side I realized it was just a rehash of an ancient concept that can be dated back at least to ancient Greece called natural theology, which has no serious scientific merit,” he says.
With his own background in marketing, Ravitch was intrigued by the effect that legal decisions had on the packaging of these ideas.
“I realized very quickly that much of the approach of the ID (Intelligent Design) movement is based in marketing ID to survive legal challenges and win over believers in the court of public opinion. This led to an interesting turn for the project,” he explains. “It has been fun since then because I have learned that the ID movement has people who will go onto various websites and try to lambast books or articles that are viewed as negative toward them – which is odd for a supposedly ‘scientific’ approach. Every time this happens it has been interesting that someone else exposes the agenda of the reviewer, but book sales go up.”
He is currently working on the treatise, “Religion and the State in American Law,” supported by a large grant from the Lilly Endowment and the brainchild of the late Boris Bittker, a renowned Yale Law professor who wrote several chapters.
“Scott Idleman and I were brought in by Boris and have been finishing work on the project,” Ravitch says. “It will be the first comprehensive treatise on Law and Religion in roughly 100 years.”
Author of the chapter on Law and Religion for the “Columbia Guide to Religion in America” from Columbia University Press, and of recent articles about Free Exercise and Establishment of Religion issues under the Japanese Constitution, Ravitch also has served as an expert commentator for print and broadcast media.
He also has shared his expertise overseas. Named a Fulbright scholar in 2001, he served on the law faculty at Doshisha University in Japan, where he taught courses relating to U.S. constitutional law and law and religion.
“I love the city of Kyoto and Japanese food, culture, the Japanese language, and the many ancient sites and natural beauty in Kyoto and other parts of Japan,” he says. “I also enjoy Japanese constitutional law, especially the robust protection potentially available for free exercise of religion – or no religion – in Japan since the decision in Matsumoto v. Kobayashi. In the U.S., as a result of Employment Division v. Smith – and perhaps before that as a practical matter – we have not had such robust protection.”
He continues his Fulbright involvement by serving on a Fulbright Review Committee under the auspices of the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars.
A resident of Haslett, near Lansing, Ravitch is the divorced father of Ariana and Elysha. In his leisure time, he enjoys skiing, learning languages, and going to the gym; and gives back to the community with public presentations explaining the law before school groups, community groups, and service clubs.