Whether it's Christian fundamentalist school children refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or Santeria priests offending animal lovers with their ritualized sacrifices, defending the legal rights of religious Americans has never suffered from a lack of drama. Yet the long, colorful history of this jurisprudence notwithstanding, it was only a few months ago that I first heard of a law school giving students the opportunity to work in a clinic that's devoted exclusively to these kinds of cases.
The Religious Liberty Clinic at Stanford University is still only eight months old, but already it boasts a fascinating clientele, including a convicted killer who, after rediscovering Judaism, demanded he be permitted a circumcision while still in prison; a pair of Seventh-Day Adventists who lost their jobs after they refused, on religious grounds, to work Saturdays; and a small evangelical church that continues to provide food and clothing to the homeless, in spite of strong objections from some of its neighbors.
Much of this legal work is, no doubt, laudable. But within the context of a prestigious secular law school, it can also raise eyebrows. And at Stanford, concerns about the Religious Liberty Clinic were amplified by its ties to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty - a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based law firm that presently is waging an all-out war against the federal Affordable Care Act's mandates for coverage of contraceptives. To get the clinic off the ground, Becket secured a $1.6 million grant from the conservative John Templeton Foundation.
Did the money come to Stanford with any conditions attached? Eric Berkowitz
, who wrote this month's cover story ("Defending the Faithful"), naturally wondered. And even though officials at both Becket and at Stanford assured him there were no strings, Berkowitz admits that the question still bothers him. "It's difficult to imagine either Templeton's or Becket's financial support continuing," he observes, "if they don't like the kinds of cases the Stanford clinic is taking on."
But Berkowitz's story isn't just about the money. It also introduces us to James Sonne - the Harvard-trained academic who directs this unique enterprise. Over the course of his reporting, Berkowitz found Sonne to be both likeable and extremely smart. But he also views Sonne as something of a mystery that he couldn't entirely crack. "Sonne is a devout Catholic and taught for a while at a law school in Michigan [Ave Maria] that was founded by Catholic fundamentalists," he says. "Yet in his current position he feels it's absolutely essential for him to separate his own religious beliefs from defending religious rights in general. It is, to say the least, an interesting balancing act."