FedSoc Blog

Stanford Law Opens Nation’s First Religious Liberty Legal Clinic


by Publius
Posted January 23, 2013, 1:16 PM

According to The New York Times:

Backed by two conservative groups, Stanford Law School has opened the nation’s only clinic devoted to religious liberty, an indication both of where the church-state debate has moved and of the growth in hands-on legal education.  

Begun with $1.6 million from the John Templeton Foundation, funneled through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the school’s new Religious Liberty Clinic partly reflects a feeling that clinical education, historically dominated by the left’s concerns about poverty and housing, needs to expand.

“The 47 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well,” said Lawrence C. Marshall, the associate dean for clinical legal education at Stanford Law School. “My mission has been to make clinical education as central to legal education as it is to medical education. Just as we are concerned about diversity in gender, race and ethnicity, we ought to be committed to ideological diversity.” Mr. Marshall became a hero to liberals for his work to exonerate death penalty inmates when he was a professor at Northwestern Law School a decade ago.

The clinic’s students, who began this month, are taking cases focused on free expression of religion — representing Seventh-day Adventists who were fired by FedEx for refusing to work on Saturdays, a Jewish convert in prison whose request to be circumcised was rejected and a Muslim group that was told its plan to build a mosque violated land-use laws.

They will avoid the other side of the issue — challenging government endorsement of faith. This includes crèches in public squares, prayer sessions at public events, and cases tied to believers’ rejection of gay rights (a Christian photographer refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding) and elements of the new health care law (a business owner refusing to cover contraceptives for employees).

“In framing our docket, we decided we would represent the believers,” said James A. Sonne, the clinic’s founding director, explaining that the believers, rather than governments, were the ones in need of student lawyers to defend them. “Our job is religious liberty rather than freedom from religion.”

Mr. Sonne, who grew up the son of a psychoanalyst in a nominally Episcopalian home near Cherry Hill, N.J., converted to Roman Catholicism while a student at Duke University. He went on to Harvard Law School and later a professorship at Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution. He acknowledges the political coloration of much of the religious-freedom debate but says he does not want his clinic to be seen as a program for conservatives.

His first four students — a Mormon, a Methodist, a Catholic and someone brought up as a Seventh-day Adventist — agree, saying they were drawn to the clinic by the profound questions it raises and the real lawyering it offers, from meeting a potential client to appellate review.

“This is not only about strong family values but about democracy,” said James Wigginton, 26, the Mormon member of the clinic. “Religious ideas need to be expressed openly in public. Hopefully that attracts liberals as well as conservatives.”  . . .


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