Devout Defender of the First Amendment
Take a look at Professor Steven Green’s genealogy and you might conclude that he is the black sheep of his family. Green comes from a long line of clergyman that includes his father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather. Although the associate professor of law did not directly choose a life of religious service, his career has kept him deeply embedded in family tradition. Green has remained true to his Baptist roots — and stayed in the good graces of his family — by working to safeguard religious freedom in the U.S. and preserve the separation of church and state.
Green said he believes the government should remain neutral on religious questions, leaving issues of God, faith and worship to be decided by individual citizens. “Separation of church and state is good for both religion and government,” he explained. “I believe strongly that government use of religion tends to degrade religion. The division of church and state provides protection to both institutions.”
“I never thought I’d be a lawyer,” Green said. “But law school is a great foundation for public policy work.” As such, he followed a somewhat circuitous route to his legal career. After earning his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Green went on to pursue his interests in “the intersection of religion, law and government” by earning a master’s degree in religious studies and a doctorate in American constitutional and religious history, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I always liked history and political science,” he said, “but the study of political science is too geared toward quantitative analysis and statistics. I am more interested in philosophical and historical rationales,” he said, explaining why he ultimately decided to return to lawyering, which he defines as the combination of legislative and ethical processes in lawmaking.
Green spent four years at Vermont Law School working as a visiting professor while completing his dissertation. He taught criminal law, as well as a seminar on separation of church and state issues. He then moved to Washington, D.C., and spent 10 years working as the legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberties watchdog group.
Green said this opportunity allowed him to conjoin his academic background with First Amendment issues almost exclusively.
At Americans United, Green was directly responsible for directing both litigation and legislation efforts. “I spent about one-third to one-half of my time doing policy work on Capitol Hill, talking about legislation and strategizing, working collaboratively with the legislative staff,” he said. During this time he served on an informal advisory board to the Secretary of Education, helping to establish guidelines on religious expression in public schools. He also worked with the Department of Justice on religious discrimination issues. In addition, Green has testified before Congress and various state legislatures on First Amendment issues.
Given his background, Green was a natural choice to head the Certificate Program in Law and Government, which is designed to help students develop an in-depth knowledge of the ways in which public policies are made and modified, as well as a capacity to influence the creation of law at local, state and national levels. “I can’t conceive of teaching what I do without having had this experience,” he said. “Having professional experience in policy making has allowed me to understand how the law-making process works, how policies are formulated,” added Green, who joined the Willamette University faculty in 2001 with the desire to share this understanding with future lawmakers.
In the classroom, Green leads heated discussions on the theory of lawmaking and the role of the lawmaker. “We talk a lot about what is effective in influencing the legislative process – which changes in different instances,” he explained. “My background allows me to bring specific issues I worked on to the classroom. It informs the way I approach the materials. It helps me get students to look at materials from a practical sense.”
Green, however, does not use the classroom to proselytize. Rather, he utilizes his knowledge and experience as a springboard for larger discussions of public policy issues and the role of lawmakers. “Anyone interested in teaching these subjects will have a personal perspective,” he acknowledged. “But it is important to understand and acknowledge all sides of an argument – that there is validity in all perspectives. The important thing is to inspire students to think of these issues, to approach them critically, analytically. When you learn to respect people on opposite sides of these issues then, in doing so, you also learn the weaknesses of your own arguments.”
In addition to teaching and directing the Willamette Center for Law and Government, Green advises on key legal cases that pique his interest. Since coming to Willamette, he has served as cocounsel on several cases presented to the U.S. Supreme Court and has written a number of amicus briefs. Most recently, an amicus brief prepared by Green was cited by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion on the Court’s decision to allow a Ten Commandments display on government property in Texas. This decision was delivered alongside an opposite ruling in a different case disallowing the Ten Commandments on public grounds in Kentucky.
Despite the fact that much of his career has been focused on separation of church and state issues, Green said he believes the experience he brings to the classroom transcends this particular “societal hot button.” “I have a particular area where I have worked in policy, but the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in the process have application across multiple areas,” Green said. “There are so many applications of a law degree. That’s why the Certificate Program in Law and Government is so important. It provides opportunities for students to realize the wide breadth of their legal education. It shows students the many ways they can use their legal skills to work more holistically for the betterment of society on policy questions that are so fascinating.”
“My background allows me to bring specific issues to the classroom. It informs the way I approach the materials. It helps me get students to look at materials from a practical sense.”