THE RELIGIOUS QUESTION IN AMERICA: A Bicentennial Look at People v. Philips

THE RELIGIOUS QUESTION IN AMERICA: A Bicentennial Look at People v. Philips

An evening reenactment of the earliest known U.S. court case in 1813, testing freedom of religion and priest-penitent privilege followed by an all-day symposium on religious expression then and now.



The Catholic Question: How a jewelry theft in 1813 New York City became a legal argument about religious freedom in America

Friday, April 12th at 7pm 
Tishman Auditorium, New York University School of Law 
40 Washington Square South between MacDougal & Sullivan Streets | See Map

A play by Steve DiUbaldo
Based on William Sampson’s The Catholic Question in America (1813)
Staged reading produced by Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

Hear the original and historic arguments on the issue of religious freedom adapted from William Sampson’s own published account of the case. The Catholic Question has been adapted for a staged reading by Steve DiUbaldo, the recipient of a Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Scholarship and the Rita Goldberg Playwright Foundation Scholarship at New York University.

Tickets: Purchase tickets at or call (212) 868-4444. Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Free admission for college students with ID & Glucksman Ireland House members. Contact  212-998-3950 (option 3) or email for the members’ discount code.

Support for these events has been provided, in part, by Arts & Science and the Humanities Initiative at New York University.

Download a copy of our poster for The Catholic Question.

Religious Freedom in America, 1813-2013:
Bicentennial Reflections on People v Philips

Saturday,13 April 2013, 9am — 5:15pm 
Tishman Auditorium, NewYork University School of Law 
40 Washington Square South between MacDougal & Sullivan Streets | See Map


Presented in partnership with New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, and the Irish American Bar Association of New York.

In the wake of a number of bias incidents, the Catholics of New York City, a small but growing minority, sought a judicial decision in 1813 that would protect their “free exercise and enjoyment of their religious profession and worship.” People v. Philips is the earliest known constitutional test of freedom of religion and the priest-penitent evidentiary privilege in American law. Based on the record of the trial by the Irish political exile and radical lawyer William Sampson, scholars from a wide variety of disciplines will consider the original arguments in relation to their understanding of religious freedom today.

Download a copy of the poster for Religious Freedom in America.

Welcoming Remarks

John Sexton, President of New York University, & J.J. Lee, Director of Glucksman Ireland House, NYU

Postcolonial New York, a Catholic Minority & Emerging Jurisprudence

People v. Philips in the context of 19th century constitutionalism, religious exemption, evidentiary privilege, and Catholic history.

  • Martin Burke, Associate Professor of History, CUNY Graduate Center
  • Jason Duncan, Associate Professor of History, Aquinas College
  • Peter J. Galie, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Canisius College
  • William E. Nelson, Judge Weinfeld Professor of Law, NYU
  • Thomas J. Shelley, Professor Emeritus of Theology, Fordham
  • Moderator: Dean Lauren Benton, Professor of History, NYU
11:30am -12:30pm

Walter J. Walsh, Associate Professor of Law, University of Washington, Seattle
How William Sampson (1764-1836) came to be Amicus Curiae in People v. Philips, in the context of his interests in radical politics and human rights law.

Introduced by Marion R. Casey, Clinical Assistant Professor of Irish Studies, NYU

Religion, Rights and the State

People v. Philips in the context of 20th century constitutionalism and religious exemption, as well as in our current understanding of the relationship between religion, the law and human rights.

  • Steven K. Green, Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law/Director, Center for Religion, Law and Democracy, Williamette University
  • Leslie C. Griffin, William S. Boyd Professor of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Mary J. Hickman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, London Metropolitan University
  • Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, Fordham
  • Moderator: Angela Zito, Associate Professor of Anthropology & Religious Studies/ Director, Religious Studies Program/ Co-Director, Center for Religion & Media, NYU
Featured Speaker:

Judge Bryan M. E. McMahon, Emeritus, Irish High Court

Introduced by Gráinne de Búrca, Florence Ellinwood Allen Professor of Law, NYU

Roundtable Q&A

Evaluates People v. Philips in light of contemporary developments in the United States, Ireland and Europe

Moderator: Gráinne de Búrca, Florence Ellinwood Allen Professor of Law, NYU

Meet the Speakers Reception

Saturday, April 13th. 5:30-7:30pm 
Glucksman Ireland House, New York University 
1 Washington Mews (Entrance on 5th Avenue) | See Map

In the welcoming surroundings of Glucksman Ireland House, continue the discussion with your fellow attendees and symposium presenters as you enjoy delicious hors d’oeuvres and wine at this special VIP reception. Meet faculty of NYU Irish and Irish-American Studies and get an opportunity to mingle and muse over the weekend’s interesting events.

Tickets: Purchase tickets at or call (212) 868-4444. Tickets: $25 in advance, Space is Limited.

Photo: Shavy

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