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Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor addressed an audience of 400 at the University last Friday, telling them that the current high court is "narrowly and deeply" divided on the role of religion in public life. The 45-minute speech, which was open only to participants in the conference entitled "Religion in American Life," a bicentennial seminar on the status of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Beginning by addressing the complexity of the issue, O'Connor said a definition of religion is one major obstacle to its understanding. She added that the understanding of religion must be granted from history, but should be limited to a philosophy on which to build. "What is needed is a compass to point us, the court, in the right direction," she said. Recent court decisions have reinterpreted long-accepted meanings of the religion clauses, adding uncertainty to the state of the law and the public role of religion in American life, she said. The three-day conference, which was sponsored by ten legal and religious groups and hosted by the Law School, explored and attempted to clarify the role of religion in American public life. Much of O'Connor's presentation was devoted to the effects of the "Smith" decision, which instituted a new test for determining the separation of church and state. "Smith" rejected previous rulings, and instead reduced the freedom that members of religious groups have to practice their faith without any government intervention. O'Connor disagreed with the ruling on "Smith," and said she feels the free exercise clause "establishes a positive liberty, a right to the free exercise of religion." In light of recent decisions, she called the existing doctrine "quite fragile," and pushed for the "endorsement test," which considers whether the state "sends a message" with a given policy. O'Connor said the government should not make a person's religious beliefs effect his political or community stature, adding that she supports the endorsement test because the government can not endorse without "giving the message that non-adherers are outsiders." After her speech, O'Connor received a standing ovation and answered questions. Esbeck Carl, a law profesor at the University of Missouri, said he was very impressed with the justice. "She is truly a class act," he said. "Even though there are many who disagree with her, as a human being she clearly won over the audience." John Jerome, a member of the United States Catholic Conference, said O'Connor shared his concerns caused by recent Court rulings. "We are worried what might happen," he said. "She has the same feelings as all religious people have."

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