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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why the Movie "Big Fan" Starring Patton Oswalt is Great for Teaching the Free Exercise Clause

If you haven't seen Robert Siegel's 2009 film "Big Fan," starring the hilarious Patton Oswalt as "Paul from Staten Island," a 36 year old bachelor who lives with his mother and whose life revolves around his fanatical devotion to the New York football Giants, then you should go see it as soon as possible.  (Here is the trailer).  I say this even if you're not a law professor who teaches church/state law.  If you are a law professor who teaches church/state law, then consider your obligation to see the movie doubled.

In almost every law and religion class, at some point somebody raises the question of why religion and not other types of belief should be constitutionally protected.  This sometimes transitions into a discussion of the various definitions that scholars and courts have given for "religion," including so-called "content based" definitions, which define belief systems as religious or not religious based on their content, e.g, only a belief in a god or an extra-human source of authority counts as religious.  Many find these content-based definitions unsatisfactory because they exclude belief systems (maybe Taoism, for example) that we generally think of as religious.

So then we talk about so-called functional defintions of religion--those definitions that define what counts as religion w/r/t what role or function the system plays in the person's life.  Maybe each person's "ultimate concern" (as Tillich says) is that person's religion--whether that's Christianity or environmentalism or atheism or their family or whatever.  At this point, someone will generally point out, hey wait, does that mean that someone whose whole life revolves around baseball should be constitutionally protected??  Everyone in the class laughs heartily, although also somewhat uncomfortably, because, let's face it, it's not that easy to identify why precisely someone whose life revolves around environmentalism deserves protection but not someone whose life revolves around the Boston Red Sox.

Or the New York Giants, for that matter.  Under any fuctionalist definition of religion, Paul's maniacal devotion to his favorite football team qualifies.  His fandom is the one thing that gives his life meaning.  He  dresses in Giants clothes, thinks and talks incessantly about the Giants, adorns the room of his boyhood home where he still lives in Giants paraphernalia, has only one friend, with whom he talks almost exclusively about the Giants, and works as a parking lot attentdant so he has the time and opportunity to draft the passionate pro-Giant, anti-Eagle speeches he gives in the middle of the night on sports talk radio.  The religious intensity of Paul's devotion becomes evident in all sorts of ways throughout the movie (I won't ruin it for you)--even the trailer explicitly states that for Paul and his buddy (and lots of other fans as well), football is their religion, and the stadium their church.

I show the trailer at the beginning of my law and religion class and use it to explore the "specialness" (or non-specialness) of religion as compared to other types of belief systems.  The Supreme Court famously said that Adele Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist, could not be denied unemployment benefits when she refused to work on Saturday.  What if Paul refused to work on Sunday?  Should he get an exemption from generally applicable laws so that he can worship at his church of choice, even if that "church" is a parking lot outside the stadium where the Giants play (he and his buddy are too poor to buy tickets so they tailgate outside and watch the game on TV from there)?  I find that having a real character to refer to when having this discussion of what, if anything, makes religion unique (and/or how we should define "religion") which tends to extend throughout the semester, makes the discussion richer, more grounded in specifics, and definitely more fun.

Do others use film in this way, or related ways, in their courses?

Posted by Jay Wexler on January 22, 2013 at 04:42 PM in First Amendment, Jay Wexler, Religion | Permalink

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Jay, like many law professors, I use "Big Fan" in all my courses. Indeed, Alabama is launching an experimental section for 1Ls devoted to all the Oswalt oeuvre.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 22, 2013 5:04:24 PM

Thank you very much for this review. I will definitely be seeing this movie since it comes so highly recommended from you!

Posted by: Robert Reeves | Jan 23, 2013 12:22:28 PM

"Under any fuctionalist definition of religion"

ANY? Doubtful. Not sure how it settles all the "ultimate questions" of life itself. What about when it isn't Giants season? Must have other things that guide his life then. But, I admit, didn't see the film.

But, maybe the Silver Linings Playbook can be used next somehow. The book might be better, but the movie will do.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 24, 2013 2:24:02 PM

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