Defending the Faithful
01-22-2019 09:00am

Defending the Faithful

A unique legal clinic at Stanford represents believers who clash with state and corporate rules—and teaches students lessons in humanity.

In 2014, Michael Fuqua, an inmate in the Arizona state prison system, was told to report for work on a Saturday. A devout Christian who also follows Old Testament practices, Fuqua wrote to the corrections officer in charge of work assignments saying that his faith requires him to refrain from work on seventh-day Sabbaths (Saturdays) and on religious holidays—and that Saturday also was a religious holiday.

Fuqua offered to swap shifts and work extra hours, to no avail. When he refused to work, he was taken back to his cell and cited for refusing an assignment (a felony). This resulted in five days of detention, 30 days of extra duty, and 30 days of lost privileges.

Fuqua sued, arguing that his due process and religious liberty rights had been violated, but he lost in the trial court. He then enlisted the help of the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic. In May 2018, the Clinic won a reversal in Mr. Fuqua’s case, securing a unanimous, precedent-setting vote of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic, founded in 2012, is the only clinic in the country dedicated to that subject. In the program, Stanford Law School students practice full-time for 12 weeks, immersed—as in a medical residency—in writing briefs and arguing the cases as first-chair lawyers under the active supervision of experienced faculty. It is one of 11 full-time law clinics at the school.

Since it opened, the students have argued a wide variety of cases involving the rights of believers. Their docket has included cases of a recently converted Jewish prisoner who was blocked from getting a circumcision; Seventh-day Adventists who were fired by FedEx for refusing to work on Saturdays; a Hare Krishna organization challenging taxes on its temple property; a Muslim security guard seeking to maintain his beard in accordance with his faith; Sikh truck drivers who refused to cut their hair for pre-employment drug tests but offered alternatives; and a Jehovah’s Witness who was denied a public-sector job for refusing to take a loyalty oath.

Director James Sonne says the Clinic’s work is particularly important as more immigrants arrive from different cultures, with religious beliefs that conflict with supposed mainstream—and increasingly secular—perspectives and state or corporate rules.

“Society has become more diverse, while at the same time government has become increasingly involved in everyday life,” says Sonne. This results in more clashes between and among church and state, regardless one’s views. “These challenges re-present the perennial question of religious liberty, which is an individual’s ability to follow their conscience, even in the face of other obligations.”

For the law school students, who come from diverse backgrounds themselves, the Clinic offers a chance to represent real clients in these difficult cases. “It’s an opportunity for good lawyering, to be a bridge and try to find solutions that can work across various perspectives, views, and backgrounds,” says Sonne. The students take on cases in successive 12-week quarters, representing religious challenges in the realms of prisoner rights, employment, and land use, which often involves churches and property taxes.

In one such case, the Clinic students represented a neighborhood church that ministered to the homeless in Ventura, California. The church welcomed the homeless as members of their congregation and offered food, clothing, and showers along with worship and prayer, in their view following Christ’s mandate to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Neighbors complained. In response, the city told the Harbor Community Church it could no longer operate the ministry since, in the city’s view, such outreach to the homeless constituted unauthorized social-service agency functions in a residentially zoned area. The church’s pastor, Sam Gallucci, called the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic for help.

The students ultimately won the case at the Ninth Circuit. “The court recognized unanimously that homeless ministry is a protected religious exercise,” says Sonne. And the case could have repercussions nationwide since the National Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2015 that 71 cities around the country have passed or attempted to pass regulations that prohibit food-sharing to the homeless, including by churches.

The Clinic is overwhelmingly popular among students, with applications far outpacing available spots. Sonne finds that especially gratifying. “All too often, the media and other thought leaders in our society misperceive religious liberty as something only people of faith should be concerned about,” he says, “rather than as a basic norm of liberty that belongs to everyone and is essential to a just and flourishing society. Our students get it.”

The students often end up working with people whose faiths and life perspectives differ from their own, making it a rich cross-cultural experience. “Students walk with their clients, work with them, and the walls come down. They realize how much their clients’ religion is core to their humanity,” says Sonne. “Our students learn client-centered lawyering and human-first lawyering, which is a universal lesson they carry with them.”

While some students may continue to work in the area of religious liberty, many will go on to other types of law practice. “Our students go to top clerkships and top firms,” says Sonne. “While not all of them are going into this line of work, they’ll surely take the lessons they’ve learned about humanity and apply them at the highest levels of the law.”

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