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Thomas Berg
Thomas Berg

Breaking the Ice: Professor leads Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic

Name: Thomas Berg

Title: James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Policy, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Education: B.S., journalism, Northwestern University; M.A., philosophy and politics, Oxford University; M.A., religion, University of Chicago; J.D., University of Chicago Law School

For class, Thomas Berg, the James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Policy at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, writes and sings original lyrics to emphasize points for constitutional law students.

As supervising attorney of the school’s Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, Berg offers guidance to students writing amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and other appellate courts.

Berg’s clinic and other efforts recently resonated with a Supreme Court majority in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion cited a casebook Berg wrote with two other professors. Roberts largely agreed with a brief Berg co-wrote last year with then clinic student Scott Andrew Fulk in overturning a Montana program that barred using scholarships from a tax-credit program at religious schools.

For Berg, it was the latest result in more than 25 years of scholarship and advocacy he has done for religious freedom.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Talk about the last interesting places we each traveled.

Q: Why did you study law and pursue it as a career?

A: I always liked constitutional and political history, so law was a natural path. I had brief detours doing news reporting and almost becoming a Russia scholar. But I kept returning to law, because it lets you advance ideas about individual and common good in practical ways.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” by Jemar Tisby.  I’m rereading “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” by Reinhold Niebuhr. And “Why We’re Polarized,” by Ezra Klein. For my current work, I read a lot about polarization: not the happiest subject.

Q: What’s a pet peeve of yours?

A: Drivers who don’t believe in zipper merging.

Q: What do you like best about your work?

A: Helping students hone arguments, especially in their writing. In the Religious Liberty Clinic, we do multiple drafts, moving from the big picture (theme and organization) to details of each sentence. We aim to address the other side’s best arguments, as an effective advocate must.

Q: What do you least like about it?

A: Grading 85 final exams. It’s usually at Christmastime when you’re taken up with holiday stuff, or in the middle of May when it’s becoming beautiful outside.

Q: What do you like doing away from work?

A: In non-pandemic times, singing. I’m in the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. With my wife, Maureen, I’ve joined the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir. I use music at work by writing and singing lyrics for constitutional law class. As an example, for the growth of presidential power, the song is “Truman Reagan Bush Obama Power Concentration.” (To the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”)

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A: I grew up in Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb whose only interesting site is Hillary Clinton’s childhood home. If Chicago counts, then: No. 1, Cubs at Wrigley Field. No. 2, an architecture river cruise. No. 3, Valois’ “See Your Food” Cafeteria in Hyde Park. It has the greatest omelets and other things — and cheap. You watch your food being made behind the grill. It became slightly famous as one of Barack Obama’s favorite food places.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you most admire—and why?

A: Abraham Lincoln. He rose from political obscurity because his speeches against the spread of slavery were so powerfully argued, which reflected his legal mind.

Q: What’s your favorite depiction of the law or the legal profession in popular culture?

A: “Anatomy of a Murder,” the novel (although the film is great too). The novel, which was written by Michigan Supreme Court justice, has great courtroom dialog. Not just the questions and answers, but the thoughts running through the defense lawyer’s mind every moment.

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