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Facade of US Supreme court in Washington DC on sunny day

AUBURN, Alabama

For Dr. Steven Brown, the legal relationship between church and state isn’t just a theoretical set of rules or something to bring up in armchair discussions about politics; as a professor of political science at Auburn University, researching legal topics in American history is part of his career. And it’s a significant part: Dr. Brown’s work has recently been recognized by his receiving the Hughes-Gossett Senior Prize on June 5.

The Hughes-Gossett Senior Prize is awarded each year to the writer of the best article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. “The people that select it are a pretty renowned group of constitutional scholars [and] legal historians,” Dr. Brown explained, adding that another reason the award is so significant is that it is presented to the recipients by a Supreme Court justice (in his case, Justice John Roberts).

Of course, Dr. Brown didn’t set out intending to get this prestigious award. “As a professor … you’re not looking for any prizes, or any recognition other than hopefully to get [your work] out and have people read it,” Dr. Brown said.

In his prize-winning article, titled "The Girard Will and Twin Landmarks of Supreme Court History," Brown examined two Supreme Court cases which arose from the same will, which stipulated the requirements for a school that the will’s writer wished his money to fund. Two of the will’s stipulations — that no missionaries or ministers would be allowed at the school’s property, and that the school be open for “poor, white male[s]” — led to the will being brought before the Supreme Court to determine its legality on two different occasions (more details available at this article from the Auburn University Newsroom).

Speaking of legal issues regarding the relationship between church and state, Dr. Brown said that nature of the actual laws underpinning this relationship is often misunderstood. “People say ‘the law requires this’ and ‘the law says that,’ you know,” he said, “and oftentimes they’re not right; oftentimes the law doesn’t say that. People wish that it would, but it doesn’t. … I think it’s important to know what the court has said and what standards have been laid out, and I think if people would review those more there’d be a little bit less of the controversy over it.”

Dr. Brown currently serves as the stake president of the Columbus Georgia Stake. Beyond just the relation of religion and the government, Dr. Brown is very interested in religious freedom, a topic which he believes should be important to everyone. He says that one of the most crucial parts of a free society is that it allows its members to have two allegiances: one to their country and one to their God.

“Where we see that religious liberty and freedom is impinged upon,” he said, “inevitably, that’s going to result in political freedom being impinged upon. … So I think it’s important for members of the Church — for members of any church — to really keep a sharp eye on religious liberty and religious freedom and make sure that those rights aren’t taken away, that they’re balanced property.”

A similar message of personal responsibility was recently given by Elder Lance B. Wickman, who said that “ ‘We the people’ must do the hard work in defense of religious freedom ‘in order to form a more perfect union’ today.”

Though Dr. Brown certainly appreciates the praise that his own accomplishments have been given, he remains humble, saying that his biggest hope is that his work will have an impact on others who read or learn about it.

“I do hope that the things that I write about and publish that people will read, and people will understand, that people will have a desire to learn more,” he said.

The LDS Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.