The Cultural Defense

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Oxford University Press, USA, Jan 15, 2004 - Law - 404 pages
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In a trial in California, Navajo defendants argue that using the hallucinogen peyote to achieve spiritual exaltation is protected by the Constitution's free exercise of religion clause, trumping the states' right to regulate them. An Ibo man from Nigeria sues Pan American World Airways for transporting his mother's corpse in a cloth sack. Her arrival for the funeral facedown in a burlap bag signifies death by suicide according to the customs of her Ibo kin, and brings great shame to the son. In Los Angeles, two Cambodian men are prosecuted for attempting to eat a four month-old puppy. The immigrants' lawyers argue that the men were following their own "national customs" and do not realize their conduct is offensive to "American sensibilities." What is the just decision in each case? When cultural practices come into conflict with the law is it legitimate to take culture into account? Is there room in modern legal systems for a cultural defense?In this remarkable book, Alison Dundes Renteln amasses hundreds of cases from the U.S. and around the world in which cultural issues take center stage-from the mundane to the bizarre, from drugs to death. Though cultural practices vary dramatically, Renteln demonstrates that there are discernible patterns to the cultural arguments used in the courtroom. The regularities she uncovers offer judges a starting point for creating a body of law that takes culture into account. Renteln contends that a systematic treatment of culture in law is not only possible, but ultimately more equitable. A just pluralistic society requires a legal system that can assess diverse motivations and can recognize the key role that culture plays in influencing human behavior. The inclusion of evidence of cultural background is necessary for the fair hearing of a case.An invaluable resource for practitioners, students, and the merely curious, this comprehensive treatment of cultural conflicts in diverse societies will spark lively debate.

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About the author (2004)


Alison Dundes Renteln is Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at the University of Southern California and Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. An expert on cultural rights, her publications include International Human Rights: Universalism Versus Relativism (1990) and Folk Law: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Lex Non Scripta (co-edited with Alan Dundes) (1994). She holds a Ph.D in Jurisprudence and Social Policy from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from the University of Southern California.

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