Conversations: Stanford’s Religious Liberty Clinic

Last month, we posted the welcome news that Stanford Law School has founded the nation’s first law school clinic focused on religious liberty. This week, the new clinic’s director, Jim  Sonne (left), kindly agrees to answer some questions for us. He discusses, among other things, the clinic’s background, the sort of cases and clients it hopes to attract, the reception the clinic has received at Stanford, and the difference between a “religious liberty” and a “religion” clinic.

CLR Forum: Jim, congratulations on starting the country’s only law school clinic devoted to religious liberty. How did you come up with the idea? And why Stanford?

Thanks Mark! The original idea for the clinic was not mine, but Eric Rassbach’s at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Eric and the Becket Fund work closely with Professor Michael McConnell at Stanford. Eric, Professor McConnell, and the folks at Becket thought it would be a great project to bring here.

Coincidentally, while the Becket group was busy preparing a proposal to Stanford in concert with the Templeton Foundation, then-dean Larry Kramer and dean of clinics Larry Marshall were exploring with the faculty ways to expand and diversify the law school’s already first-rate clinical program. It wasn’t long before everyone got together, and it became clear this would be something special. I learned of the project and director post last fall, met with the deans and clinical faculty, and the project was born.

To my mind, the breadth and depth of support for the clinic is a testament to its promise, primarily as a vehicle for professional-skills education but also as a way to introduce the importance of religious liberty to the next generation of (top) lawyers. I’m honored to be part of the team.

CLR Forum: Could you describe your professional background? What is the path that has led you to start this clinic?

If I were to sum up my background, it’s that of a teacher-lawyer, with varying emphasis at any given time. I first became interested in religious liberty as a law student working with my mentor, Professor Mary Ann Glendon at Harvard. I pursued this interest from time to time as a practitioner, handling First Amendment cases at McGuireWoods in Virginia and then at Horvitz & Levy in Los Angeles. Most directly, I previously taught and wrote on religious liberty as a professor at Ave Maria School of Law.

At first blush, my path to the Stanford clinic might seem a bit circuitous. The way I see it, however, it’s the ideal destination for my combination of interests in practice, teaching, scholarship, and religious liberty generally. Plus, I get to do all this with some of the best legal minds in the country. I’m thrilled.

CLR Forum: How many students will be in the clinic and how will you select them? What sort of matters will the students handle? Trials, appeals, legislative work? Have you selected any startup projects?

We have ten students enrolled in the clinic this year. That’s impressive when you consider the small size of the law school generally (roughly 180 per class) and that students chose their 2012-2013 courses last spring when they had little more than the clinic’s name to go on. We chose our students through an application process common to the other ten clinics at Stanford. We hoped to attract a diverse group of students, in terms of background, experience, and interests, and we certainly achieved that goal.

We plan to take cases in a variety of fora involving a variety of claims, including those under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or its state-law equivalent), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and Title VII. That said, the docket must meet our pedagogical goals by allowing students to take the lead in significant matters during their enrollment. Fortunately, Stanford clinics are full time, in that the class is the only one a student takes during the term. But the term lasts only about twelve weeks, so we must tailor our caseload to permit students a meaningful experience.

Our first two cases are for prisoners.  The first concerns administrative and, if necessary, trial-level work for an adult convert to Judaism seeking permission for a circumcision. The other is an amicus brief on appeal in support of Native American religious practices. We also plan this winter to handle a public school free-exercise case, an employment accommodation dispute, and a zoning matter for a house of worship. We further hope to work with Professor McConnell on other appellate matters as they arise.

CLR Forum: Every lawyer has to find clients. How will the clinic find its clients? Have you thought about how to attract clients from a variety of religious traditions?

Our primary referral sources are public interest groups with a connection to religious liberty, either in general or for specific communities. In addition to the Becket Fund, we’ve started building referral systems with dozens of non-profit groups across the political and religious spectrum. We’re also teaming up with pro bono partners from the major law firms in the area, and with the state and federal courts.

I think the best way to attract clients from a variety of traditions, beyond building relationships one at a time, is through the cases and projects we work on. We’re confident that through our docket and other work, we’ll be able to attract a variety of faiths. Our client list for the winter term already reflects that.

CLR Forum: Religious liberty claims can be quite controversial and they sometimes conflict. Take the HHS litigation, for example. Although some religious employers believe the contraception mandate violates their freedom of religion, some employees respond that the employers are the ones attempting to restrict peoples’ rights. I’m not asking you to comment on the mandate, specifically, but how will your clinic avoid disputes like this?

To keep things simple, we’ve generally decided to represent the believer wherever his or her beliefs are challenged, regardless of the nature of the belief and even where the belief is controversial. We are a religious liberty clinic, not a religion clinic, and it’s important to train future lawyers who recognize that distinction. That said, if there are believers on both sides of a dispute, we’d likely decline to handle the case—e.g., a religious employee suing a religious employer. Likewise, we might refuse to take a case where attendant controversy or conflict would unduly distract us from our pedagogical goals. Like any legal project with a limited docket, prudence in case selection is necessary and important.

CLR Forum: Religion is sometimes viewed skeptically in the legal academy. Did you encounter any resistance to the idea of a clinic devoted to religious liberty? How did you overcome it?

We’ve received broad support at Stanford, including from our new dean, my clinical colleagues, and the faculty and staff at large. Students, both current and prospective, are also very enthusiastic and excited.  We’re planning a school-wide launch event for January, and the response has been overwhelming.

Reaction elsewhere has been quite positive. I might get a quizzical look at times. But after my explaining that religious liberty offers a dynamic platform to teach students how to act like lawyers and describing our vision and docket, which reflect the universality of religious freedom regardless of the faith involved, they seem to get it. We expect such understanding and appreciation will only grow as the clinic does.

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