Next weekend, the Center for Irish and Irish-American Studies at NYU will host a conference marking the bicentennial of People v. Phillips, an early freedom-of-religion case involving the priest-penitent privilege:
“Religious Freedom in America, 1813 to 2013: Bicentennial Reflections on People v. Philips” is a weekend of events that marks the landmark 1813 case that is the earliest known constitutional test of freedom of religion and the priest-penitent evidentiary privilege in American law. A dynamic line-up of events will demonstrate how a trial for a petty jewelry theft escalated into an argument for religious freedom when the local priest was subpoenaed to testify what he had heard in confession.
In People v. Philips, William Sampson — a banished political exile from Ireland and a Protestant — argued on behalf of the Trustees of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Barclay Street before the presiding judge, Mayor DeWitt Clinton. William Sampson’s experience of religious-based intolerance in Ireland propelled him to persuade the court that America should not look to British common law for legal precedent when dealing with Catholics, then a small but growing minority in New York City.
William Sampson’s own published account of the case, The Catholic Question in America, will be presented in a staged reading adapted by Steve DiUbaldo of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on Friday evening, 12 April. A full-day symposium follows on Saturday, 13 April, where 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. On Sunday morning 14 April, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the final resting place of lawyer William Sampson and DeWitt Clinton, will mark the 200th anniversary of the case with an encore reading of The Catholic Question and a wreath-laying ceremony.
Details are here.