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Cultural Bias In The Courtroom

Cultural background can affect legal decisions in the courtroom. Alison Dundes Renteln, a professor of political science and anthropology at the University of Southern California will be speaking on minority rights and cultural bias in the courtroom in her talk “The Right to Culture as a Human Right: Religious Liberty, Gender Violence and the Cultural Defense,” at the UO Jan. 29. 

Renteln says that in her opinion, actions that cause “inoperable harm” to another individual should not be changed due to cultural background. However, she says culture should help create the context in each case that is presided upon.

“I’ll be talking about a range of cases where people were motivated by cultural imperative or cultural considerations,” Renteln says.

Renteln, author of the book The Cultural Defense, specializes in discussing whether judges should take religion as a defense in court cases and has been working the last 20 years to shine light on cultural bias in our legal system. For example, a baptized Sikh may be required to wear a ceremonial dagger called a kirpan as a symbol of religious commitment, but someone else might see a kirpan as a weapon, and that creates a cultural and possible legal conflict.

“It’s a question of how much adjustment should be made,” Renteln says. “I think we need to be flexible where we can, even if it’s beyond our comfort level.”

One of Renteln’s biggest accomplishments in creating more awareness is writing the article “Making Room for Culture in the Court,” which was published in The Judges Journal and received by every judge in the country.

Although she knows that not every person will agree with her on such a controversial subject, her goal, she says, is to get the conversation started. 

“I’m hoping people will come away with an understanding of worldview and how that affects our legal system,” Renteln says.

Renteln’s free lecture, “The Right to Culture as a Human Right: Religious Liberty, Gender Violence and the Cultural Defense,” will be held at 3:30 pm Jan. 29 in the Ben Linder Room of the EMU at the UO.