A Future for Religious Liberty at Stanford

A Future for Religious Liberty at Stanford

Stanford Law School’s new Religious Liberty Clinic is a step in the right direction towards the rediscovery of the true meaning of religious freedom.

It was one of those very “Stanfordesque” nights.  Hanging out past midnight in our RA’s room armed with snacks, a group of friends and I found ourselves grappling with philosophical questions so deep that we were mentally exhausted at the outset.  Questions like, “what can we ever know?” or “what is free will?” dominated the conversation.  And when we touched upon the subject of religion, things got particularly interesting—it was six atheists and agnostics and myself, the sole person with religion in that room.  In the midst of the debate, my friend went so far as to use the following quote from Nietzsche: “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.”  Ouch.

Despite the off-handed comment, I must admit these kinds of conversations are what I love most about the Stanford community.  Not only am I able to practice my religion freely on campus, but through these discussions I am also able to contribute my beliefs to the university’s rich cultural and intellectual heritage. Without such conversations, I would not be able to respect and acknowledge views which I fundamentally disagree with.  Without such conversations, perhaps my peers would know far less of the views which I hold dear.

Yet ours is slowly becoming a society in which the freedom of religion is being restricted to the mere freedom of worship.  Examples—to name but a few—of this restriction of the First Amendment include the controversial HHS mandate (issued by the Obama administration as part of the Affordable Care Act) which would require religious individuals and institutions to violate their consciences and provide coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs; the concerted effort by groups to expunge all religious symbols from public life; and the passage of state immigration laws that prohibit activities considered  as the “harboring” of illegal immigrants—activities which many Christian groups identify as charity work.

The following statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) captures this argument against freedom of religion as merely freedom of worship well:

“Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home.  It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of Americans.  Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas” (“Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”).

This erroneous interpretation of religious freedom is perhaps more concretely exemplified in the irony of President Obama’s recent declaration of January 16, 2013 as “Religious Freedom Day.” The purpose of the declaration was to reaffirm that religious liberty is “a universal human right…an essential part of human dignity” without which “our world cannot know lasting peace.” However nicely worded the declaration may have been, the forty-three dioceses, hospitals, and schools that have recently filed lawsuits against the controversial HHS mandate attest to the fact that religious Americans are simply not buying the rhetoric.  The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations accurately identifies the Obama administration’s misinterpretation of religious liberty:
“Most troubling, is the Administration’s underlying rationale for its decision [for the HHS mandate], which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its “religious” character and liberties. Many faiths firmly believe in being open to and engaged with broader society and fellow citizens of other faiths. The Administration’s ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization’s religious principles.”

It is thus within this social and political milieu that I find Stanford Law School’s establishment of the nation’s first Religious Liberty Clinic to be a very welcome development.  What began as the idea of Eric Rassbach of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and became a concerted effort between the Becket Fund, Professor Michael McConnell, and current director Jim Sonne, the clinic aims to provide the next generation of lawyers with professional legal training and with a greater appreciation of the importance of religious liberty.  This is precisely because, as the USCCB correctly identifies, the defense of religious liberty “is not a Catholic issue.  [It] is not a Jewish issue.  [It] is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue.  It is an American issue.”

Equally impressive is the variety of cases which the clinic will take on, the first two of which will be for prisoners.  As director Jim Sonne explains in an interview with the Center for Law and Religion Forum at St. John’s University, the first case would involve work “for an adult convert to Judaism seeking permission for a circumcision,” while the second would consist of “an amicus brief on appeal of Native American religious practices.”

The clinic’s openness to all faiths was further exemplified in their inaugural panel event, held on January 14th.  The diverse panel included Honorable Carlos T. Bea, Professor Michael McConnell, Amardeep Singh from the Sikh Coalition, Hannah Smith from the Becket Fund, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, and director Jim Sonne, a Catholic.

Thus the development of an open and diverse Religious Liberty Clinic is the step in the right direction towards valuing the freedom of religion not simply as the ability to worship as one pleases, but the ability for one to contribute to society the fruits of such worship.

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