Secularism and Its Discontents

Religious Liberty in France and the United States

France and the United States are both democracies committed to a separation of church and state. How they achieve that separation, however, differs greatly: In France the government enforces secularism in the public square, while in the United States the government is barred from interfering in people’s free exercise of their religious beliefs. Join the SNF Agora Institute for a pair of discussions exploring what these countries’ distinct approaches mean for notions of citizenship and belonging in deeply plural societies, and what each country can learn from the example of the other. SNF Agora Visiting Fellow Rachel Donadio will moderate both panels.


12 p.m.          Panel 1 – French Secularism: A Sustainable Model?

France is an outlier in Europe in its insistence on “laïcité,” a strict absence of religion in the public sphere. What does that mean for the lived experience of citizens in modern France, especially religious minorities like Muslims? How do today’s fierce debates in France over laïcité connect with those over race and l’identité républicaine, or French national identity? In a country with increasing religious diversity, can this state-imposed model of laïcité hold—and at what cost?


  • Hakim El Karoui is a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based research institute, and author of its reports A French Islam Is Possible (2016), New Arab World, New “Arab Policy” for France (2017,) and The Islamist Factory (2018). He has been an informal adviser to the government of Emmanuel Macron and is a partner and Paris office head of the Brunswick Group, a strategic advisory firm.
  • Mayanthi Fernando is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-directs its Center for Cultural Studies. Her research interests include Islam, secularism, liberalism, and gender/sexuality. She is the author of The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (2014), which examines the intersections of religion and politics in France.
  • Mathilde Philip-Gay is a professor of law at the University of Lyon 3 and director of its Center for Constitutional Law. She is the author of Droit de la laïcité (2016) and teaches in a program supported by the French state that trains religious leaders and state functionaries, including police officers and prison and hospital workers about the application of French laïcité.
  • Joan Scott is professor emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She is the author of many books in the fields of French history and feminist theory, including The Politics of the Veil (2007) and Sex and Secularism (2017).
  • Patrick Weil is a senior research fellow at the French National Research Center in the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and a visiting professor of law at Yale Law School. His work focuses on comparative immigration, citizenship, and church-state law and policy. His most recent book is De la Laïcité en France (2021). His recent publications include “Freedom of Conscience, But Which One? In Search of Coherence in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Religion Jurisprudence,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law (2017); and “Can a Citizen be Sovereign?” Humanity Journal (Spring 2017). He is founder and chairman of the NGO Bibliothèques sans Frontières/Libraries Without Borders.

12:55–1 p.m.       BREAK 

1 p.m.          Panel 2 – U.S. Religion in Public Spaces: Freedom of Conscience or Culture War? 

The United States has enshrined in its Constitution the principle that citizens can practice their religion freely without state intervention. This freedom extends, with some limits, to public spaces like parks and public schools. But does the state protect this freedom equally among all faith groups? With prayer in school, in particular, are religious minorities receiving the same protection as members of the Christian majority? What effect have recent efforts to protect prayer in school had, both practically and in terms of broader cultural and political battles?


  • K. Healan Gaston is lecturer on American religious history and ethics at Harvard Divinity School and author of Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy (2019), the first comprehensive study of “Judeo-Christian” constructions of American democracy and national identity. She is currently writing a second book on the Christian ethicist and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr and his younger brother, the theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr. Her interests include religious pluralism, secularism and secularization, religion and the law, the ethno-religious and religio-racial dimensions of American experience, interfaith religions, and religion’s changing place in an increasingly global, corporate, and digital age.
  • Daniel Mach is the director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. He leads a wide range of religious-liberty litigation, advocacy, and public education efforts nationwide, and often writes, teaches, and speaks publicly on religious freedom issues. Mach currently serves as an adjunct professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, focusing on constitutional law and religious liberty. Prior to his work at the ACLU, Mach was a partner in the Washington office of Jenner & Block, where he specialized in First Amendment law.
  • Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. He clerked for Justice David H. Souter of the Supreme Court of the United States and served as an attorney-adviser in the Office of Legal Counsel at the United States Department of Justice. Movsesian serves on the board of editors of the Journal of Law and Religion (Cambridge). He posts regularly at First Things, the Law and Religion Forum, the Library of Law and Liberty, and the Volokh Conspiracy, and co-hosts the Legal Spirits podcast series.
  • Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer and scholar working for the protection of religious expression for people of all faiths in the U.S. and abroad. The author of two books, When Islam Is Not a Religion (2019)and The Politics of Vulnerability (2021), Uddin has worked on a wide variety of religious liberty cases, including several before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her legal, academic, and policy work focuses on freedom of expression such as religious garb, land use, access to religious materials in prison, rights of parochial schools, and religious arbitration. Uddin worked with the U.S. Department of State on advocacy against the UN Defamation of Religions Resolution.


SNF Agora Institute programs are supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).