If a Law is Wrong, Must I Obey It?
Report on Asia/Pacific J. Reuben Clark Law Conference hosted by the New South Wales Chapter at The Sydney School of Law of The University of Notre Dame, Australia, Friday, May 31 to Sunday, June 2, 2019
Dean Patrick Parkinson of the T.C. Beirne School of Law at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia introduced the theme of the conference. Dean Parkinson who also serves on the Board of Freedom for Faith Australia and practices Christianity as an Evangelical Baptist, discussed “If a law is wrong, do I still have a duty to obey it?” He examined the moral authority of law, as taken from Christian teachings, which are the seat of Western legal tradition. He then presented two conflicting statements: My faith does not exempt me from compliance as a citizen; I am not always obligated to obey the law if it conflicts with the moral requirements of my faith. He concluded that we must recognise that we are moving away from comfort with the moral basis of law toward a period of increasing discomfort. Our mandate as Christians is to be salt and light to the rest of the world. We must approach the issue from a New Testament perspective, call out corruption when we see it, and seek to preserve the fundamentals of our western legal tradition. This may mean that we will gradually be seen as being in opposition to the moral values of a post-Christian society.
The Saturday conference panels further engaged with Dean Parkinson’s suggestions on how religious lawyers could continue to live and practice their faith while maintaining an ethical obligation to follow the law. John Taylor’s presentation focused on Helmeth Hubener, a member of a small branch in Nazi Germany. At age 15 Hubener was confronted with the moral dilemma of what he should do when required to support an evil regime. He made choices contrary to German law because of a personal concern for the German people. Those choices ultimately resulted in his execution 2 years later. Taylor ended with the thoughts: Does the 12th Article of Faith require adherence to the law in every circumstance? Are there fundamental principles to which even the law is answerable?”
Among the final speakers of the conference were Dr. Emily Kwok, who addressed the mental health of lawyers and judges, and David Meredith, who analysed what was meant by “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. Both speakers garnered a great deal of audience participation and Kwok left the audience with the sobering requests for lawyers to equip themselves to recognise high-risk mental health situations, and adopt effective ways to cope as early as in law school. She noted that this conference was a wonderful space for lawyers to openly and safely share their challenges.
The conference concluded with a formal dinner at the Shangri-La hotel overlooking Sydney’s Opera House. More than 60 lawyers were in attendance including some from as far away as Hawaii.
by Keith Thompson
Member of the Chapter Relations Council in Sydney