TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Prayer in public schools has been an issue for decades. But it was out of that very issue that religious studies departments across academia were birthed.
On June 17, 1963, in the case of Abington School District v. the Schempp Family, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the favor of Edward Lewis Schempp, decreeing that mandated Bible reading and prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. However, the judges said that it was perfectly sensible to promote the academic study of religion that neither promoted nor criticized it.
Dr. Russell McCutcheon, chair of The University of Alabama’s religious studies department, said it was at this point in U.S. history that departments of religion started springing up on public college campuses — and in a surprisingly short amount of time.
In 1966, UA became one of them.
“We picked 1966 because courses in UA in religion date all the way back to 1930s, but they were taught back then by campus chaplains,” McCutcheon said. “It wasn’t until 1966 that Ph.D.-trained scholars in religion appeared in the undergraduate course catalog.
“The academic study of religion wasn’t taught here until 1966, and that’s why we pick that year as the birth of the department. It’s a story you see played out all across the U.S.”
Now, five decades later, UA’s department of religious studies is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a showcase of its accomplishments by students, graduates and faculty.
“A lot of units would invite people from outside to talk, as part of these celebrations, but we reasoned that the strength of our department is its current students, past students and our faculty,” McCutcheon said. “So our logic is we wanted to highlight those three groups.”
Their lectures will highlight the history religious studies across America and how UA’s religious studies department exemplifies some of the national trends.
“We’re a nice example of what happened across the country,” McCutcheon said. “Our department used to be three people, but it is now 10 people, and we’re starting our very first master’s degree program in the fall. So as the University has expanded, so has the religious studies program.”
The department’s anniversary celebration will continue on Wednesday, March 29, with the fourth annual undergraduate research symposium from 9 a.m. to noon at Gorgas Library room 205. Like the campus-wide lecture event, current religious studies majors and minors will be presenting their original work.
The celebration concludes at 6 p.m. March 29 with the alumni panel “Critical Thinking Beyond the Classroom.” The panel will feature five UA religious studies graduates who will talk with 100-level students about the relevance of studying religion.
“They will talk about how liberal arts training was really crucial to their success,” McCutcheon said. “They work in all different kinds of careers – from teaching to business and even higher ed. We want to expose our students to people who do different things. Things they may not have thought about when they came here.”
The alumni panel consists of:
- Keli M. Brothers, who graduated with a religious studies minor and a psychology major in 2009. She is a doctoral candidate with Argosy University online and works as a licensed professional counselor.
- Kim Davisis a 2003 bachelor’s graduate in religious studies and French who also earned a master’s in French applied linguistics and a master’s in secondary education in language acquisition in French at UA. She teaches French and mythology at Tuscaloosa County High School.
- Dan Mullinsis a 2008 graduate in religious studies and anthropology with a master’s in anthropology from UA and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. Mullins is a London-based anthropologist employed as a research fellow in digital history at the University of Hertfordshire and is a visiting scholar at Oxford University.
- Samantha Sastre graduated in 2006 with a major in religious studies and a minor in English and computer applications. She is an inside sales representative for Gemu Valves in Atlanta.
- Brett Saunders graduated in 2014 and majored in religious studies with a minor in English. After living in Colorado post-graduation, Brett moved to Naperville, Illinois, where he now works for a nonprofit Christian organization aiming to reach junior high and high school students.
The College of Arts and Sciences is funding the anniversary celebration, which is free and open to the public. Learn more about the religious studies department at its blog.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.