How do you explain what your PhD research is about at family birthdays?

“I don’t go to many birthday parties; I find all that nonsense and jibber-jabber just awful. But while doing my PhD research I’ve always kept my job at Dirk van den Broek, as checkout operator. There, customers and colleagues did often ask: ‘You work somewhere else too don’t you? What do you actually do there?’ I then explained that I have a position at the university and that I’ve received funding to undertake important research into the freedom of people, with or without religion. Is a hijab different from a colander?

“Another example I often give is to pose the question as to whether the government can force a religious organisation to appoint a female priest as head of a church organisation instead of a male priest. That’s not possible, because this is a question of freedom of association.

“I then explain that I hope that, when this thesis is complete, judges, policy officers and others who are confronted with religious issues in their work will be better able to make a judgement as to how they should handle this.”

How did you come across this topic?

“I wanted to become a judge from a young age. I hope to be appointed as interim judge in the not too distant future. When studying Law I found Criminal Law to be the most interesting, and within this I also find it interesting how you can stay under the radar of law enforcement. There are grounds for waiving punishment, for instance when someone has burned the body of a family member. According to law this is desecration of a human corpse, but if someone appears before the judge and explains that he is doing that because it’s prescribed by his culture or religion, then it can be a different story.

“I’m fascinated by unusual practices that are justified by appealing to the metaphysical. This fascination took shape in my research into the relationship between law and religion, which includes issues such as circumcision, hijabs, crucifixes, burkas, the SGP, vaccinations and President Trump’s travel ban. As government you ultimately need to take decisions that don’t result in too many raised eyebrows among other citizens.”

Isn’t that impossible?

“You can never keep everyone happy, and you shouldn’t want to do that either. But the principle of equality needs to be safeguarded as far as possible. From that viewpoint, freedom of religion is a problematic law. That’s because only part of society is religious. I often consider the statement ‘God is unique, so we need to have freedom of religion’ as a sectarian undermining of the liberal constitutional state.

“I’m not saying that you should restrict believers en masse from exercising their religion, as is the case in Myanmar, China or India. But in principle, within the triangle of freedom of knowledge, freedom of association and freedom of expression, you should be able to achieve the same result, without the raised eyebrows that you have now when you protect religion, purely because it is a religion.

“A mosque where a woman can’t be a leader doesn’t differ much from, for instance, the Rotterdam Students Corps where, until the merger, no women were welcome. You can think what you like about this, but both are associations in which you, according to the liberal principle, can choose your own friends. And I think that’s fine.”

Was that the most important conclusion?

“Yes. There’s no single reason to make an exception of religion; to give religion special protection or a special approach. But in a practical sense, as liberal constitution, you cannot really abolish freedom of religion, because you then have a disadvantage in your negotiating position compared with countries that play fast and loose with the rights of minorities.”

In your final statement of your defence you write that, for PhD students, it would be good to work as checkout operators at the local supermarket. Why?

“Scientists need to mix structurally in society. The best prior education to become a judge is to work in a supermarket. You need to be able to explain things in layman’s terms. It really improves your communication skills. A there was an entire delegation of Dirk staff at my defence, as well as customers: Thea and Gert-Jan.

“I’ve done a lot of fantastic things in my life, such as an internship at the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv, an internship at the Gerard Sprong office in Amsterdam, and I’ve been an external clerk of the court at the Rotterdam court. If I wasn’t abroad, I always combined this with my work at the Dirk. I hope that I’ll be able to continue to work there for as long as possible, although I’ll not be able to combine that with working as a judge. It wouldn’t be right if I came across a suspect while scanning a packet of butter.”

Why did you select this cover?

Smiling: “It’s a great match for my boring character!” More seriously: “It is symbolic. It almost looks like a State Bible, with the linen cover and golden letters. It’s actually a tribute to my diligent work. My articles deserve business class treatment. All six have been published, and I’m incredibly proud of that. Four in American Law Reviews, and it’s not easy getting published in that.”