As legal systems around the world see a rise in cases of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, Bryant’s Katayoun Alidadi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and expert on the intersection of law and religion, continues to make a difference through global collaborations focused on protecting the freedom of religious belief in the workplace.
Her expertise is in demand. She has participated in the Harvard University Law School Human Rights Symposium, a workshop hosting current and former United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) members and human rights experts from a range of top-tier institutions. The April 2020 workshop was convened by Harvard’s Human Rights Program (HRP).
The workshop explored in a comparative manner the concept of indirect discrimination on the basis of religion, with the aim of developing proposals for “how human rights bodies could better protect subordinated groups,” according to workshop organizer Gerald Neuman, the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at the HRP and former HRC member.
The symposia was featured in Harvard Law Today and was preceded by the publication of Alidadi’s article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal Online. A full-length journal article on the same topic will appear in the next issue of the Harvard Human Rights Law Journal.
“We have to tackle those more subtle ways of excluding people. The goal ultimately is to have minorities participating in the regular workforce and to not be excluded.”
Indirect discrimination, also referred to as impact discrimination in the U.S. legal system, refers to rules that seem neutral at first but tend to discriminate in practice. (One example is an employer’s rule banning head scarves or head gear, which disproportionally impacts Muslim women who wear a veil or Sikh men who wear a turban.) The panel convened experts such as Alidadi to discuss legal approaches for protecting minorities from this more legally challenging form of discrimination.
No stranger to collaboration and innovation
“Organizations are, for the most part, steering away from crude forms of discrimination. Now we have to tackle those more subtle ways of excluding people,” explains Alidadi. “The goal ultimately is to have minorities participating in the regular workforce and to not be excluded, because that has a multitude of counterproductive effects in society.”
Based on legal research comparing European and North American jurisdictions, Alidadi argues the merits of an approach based on reasonable accommodations based on religion or belief in the workplace. This is all the more important because an approach focused on indirect discrimination, which is a complex notion, has had mixed results for religious minorities in the courts.
Alidadi is no stranger to collaborating and innovating new solutions through research and making a real world impact.
“I wanted to give the students a realistic viewpoint of doing research – how it works in real life, from the ethical issues to how to analyze sources. Doing research on current topics is very different – you always have to be aware of new challenges.”
For example, among her activities, she is a Research Partner at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, a research-focused institution in Halle, Germany, where she works with colleagues to create a comparative law database on cultural and religious diversity drawing from all of Europe. The database will serve as an important tool for policymaking. Previously she was a lead researcher for a comparative research project, funded by the European Commission, on religious discrimination. She also was co-author of the final report to the Commission, a panelist at the 2018 G20 Interfaith Forum, and a hearing participant with colleagues where she provided expertise to the Council of Europe, the chief human rights organization in Europe.
Food law: an emerging field
Alidadi brings this collaborative, innovative spirit into the classroom as well, for the benefit of her students. With a new course on Food Law, Policy, and Social Justice, which was supported by a Bryant Faculty Innovation Grant, she reformulated the Politics and Law Capstone course as a research-focused course on current topics in food law, an emerging field of U.S. legal studies and new territory for Alidadi herself.
She thought the topic may be of particular interest to students, providing opportunities for collaboration with Bryant faculty with related expertise, including Andrea Boggio, JSD, Professor of Legal Studies, and Nicole Freiner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science, who were guest speakers during the course.
Students also had a valuable opportunity to learn from her research expertise. “I wanted to give the students a realistic viewpoint of doing research – how it works in real life, from the ethical issues to how to analyze sources," she says. "Doing research on current topics is very different – you always have to be aware of new challenges.”
“[Food law] is a new and upcoming field. This course really opened my eyes to different fields and expanded my horizons.”
The course sparked an interest for Gianna Ceccarelli ’21, whose sister had severe food allergies as a child. “Professor Alidadi brought in a new topic in food law every week. ... We’d look at issues going on in the world and talk about how to solve it. I like that our research project was focused on a topic we liked, so it was personalized.” Ceccarelli's topic was on U.S. food labeling and allergies.
Ceccarelli also found the course helpful for making her post-graduation plans to attend law school. “Professor Alidadi focused on the real-world application of law, which is good for your senior year,” said Ceccarelli. “There are very few other schools with courses in food law – it’s a new and upcoming field. This course opened my eyes to different fields and expanded my horizons. It's inspiring to know there are so many options to specialize in.”