Apr. 12-14, Religious Freedom in America, 1813 to 2013: Bicentennial Reflections on People v. Philips, USA

Glucksman Ireland House has planned a three-part program next April that is intended to highlight the trans-disciplinary nature of Irish Studies at New York University as well as some of the surprising ways in which it intersects with American history and culture. “Religious Freedom in America, 1813 to 2013: Bicentennial Reflections on People v. Philips” is a weekend of events April 12-14, 2013.

Nearly two hundred years ago, in the wake of a number of bias incidents, the Catholics of New York – a small but growing minority in the City – sought a judicial decision that would protect their “free exercise and enjoyment of their religious profession and worship.” The case, People v. Philips, is the earliest known constitutional test of freedom of religion and the priest-penitent evidentiary privilege in American law. It was successfully argued by William Sampson, ruled on by the presiding judge, New York City Mayor De Witt Clinton, and published in 1813 as The Catholic Question in America.

Ireland is at the center of People v. Philips. By rehearsing a legacy of religiously-based intolerance in Ireland, Sampson – a banished United Irish political exile and a Protestant arguing on behalf of the Trustees of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Barclay Street in New York – persuaded the court that America should not look to European law, and particularly British common law, for legal precedent when dealing with Catholics.

On Friday evening, April 12, 2013, People v. Philips will be re-enacted theatrically so that modern audiences can hear the original and historic arguments on the issue of religious freedom. William Sampson’s own published account of the case is being adapted for a staged reading by Steve DiUbaldo, an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at New York University. Mr. DiUbaldo is the recipient of a Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Scholarship and the Rita Goldberg Playwright Foundation Scholarship. Among his works are “Coyote and the Origin of Death” which premiered to excellent reviews at the Lyric Theater in Los Angeles in August 2012.

A full-day symposium follows on Saturday, April 13, 2013. Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines – especially law, religion, history, and politics – will comment on Sampson’s 1813 record of the trial and consider it in relation to their own understanding of contemporary issues, i.e. to “see” through the lens of Irish and early American history. New York University President John Sexton will open the symposium. Participants include retired Irish High Court Justice Bryan McMahon and Prof. Walter J. Walsh of the University of Washington, Seattle School of Law, who will give the keynote address. The symposium is presented in partnership with New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, and the Irish American Bar Association of New York.

On Sunday morning, April 14, 2013, tributes will be paid to William Sampson and to DeWitt Clinton at their gravesites in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. This event is presented in partnership with the New York Irish History Roundtable and Green-Wood Historic Fund.

The coincidence of the bicentennial of People v. Philips with Glucksman Ireland House’s twentieth anniversary in 2013 presents an opportunity to revisit William Sampson’s prediction that the published trial is “a document of history, precious and instructive to the present and future generations.” Indeed, its essential issues, freedom of religious expression and confidentiality privilege, are not only relevant two centuries later, but continue to be contentious in the United States, with global implications.

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