- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

In 1994, a top-notch lawyer left his job at a prestigious Washington, D.C. law firm to found a non-profit, public interest law firm. Its purpose? To defend religious liberty in the courts and, in doing so, to shape the law to embrace a more robust understanding of religious liberty.

Kevin “Seamus” Hasson’s decision to found the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm dedicated to the sole purpose of the legal defense of religious freedom, was remarkable. Twenty years ago, the cause of religious liberty brought together advocates from across the political spectrum. Just a year before Seamus founded his firm, a bipartisan Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with close to unanimous support. Religious freedom was a cause that everyone could get behind.

This is what makes Seamus‘ choice significant. He had the foresight to ensure that religious freedom had a committed warrior, even when it didn’t seem to need one.

Today, it desperately needs that warrior.

The fight for religious liberty is much more tense and much more divisive than it was in the 1990s. Our nation has always been one of vigorous public debate; disagreement is nothing new for Americans. Yet, competing cultural interests have recently shown that we disagree even on what constitutes religious liberty.

This is where Seamus Hasson’s philosophy comes in. Defending religious liberty for Americans of all (and no) faith has been the Becket Fund’s mission since it was founded, but that doesn’t mean that Seamus is a relativist. Instead, he maintains that we all have “the right to be wrong.” As human beings, we are entitled to live in a society that allows us to follow our consciences—even if our consciences lead us astray.

This philosophy doesn’t guarantee that all people will find Seamus‘ work palatable. In the course of its twenty years in the courts, the Becket Fund has defended religious Americans from A to Z, Anglicans to Zoroastrians. Its cases have included several defenses of prisoners, including violent offenders, alongside individuals, families, non-profit organizations, for-profit businesses, and houses of worship.

And, while Seamus‘ work has been focused on the courts, he has not shied away from discourse on topics that many find too “hot” to touch. A hero in the true sense of William Wilberforce, Seamus has embraced the difficult and provocative—but with balance, rationality, and courage.

In 2008, the Becket Fund published a book of essays from constitutional scholars spanning the political spectrum. The topic was same-sex marriage and religious liberty. That same year, a proposed amendment to the California Constitution, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, was added to the ballot. It passed, though a federal court later deemed it unconstitutional.

“Prop 8” quickly became an explosive force for division, not just in California but across the nation. Supporters’ names and addresses were public knowledge by law, and they quickly became targets of harassment. Among the supporters of the ballot initiative was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as LDS or Mormon Church. LDS churches in California experienced aggressive vandalism, threats of violence, and charges of bigotry.

Seamus condemned the harassment and the violence in a very public sense. He gathered together a diverse group of supporters of religious freedom, among them supporters of same-sex marriage. Together, this group of scholars and activists boldly posted a letter condemning violence, harassment, and “bigotry” labels directed toward religious groups with unpopular beliefs. Their ad appeared in the New York Times titled “No Mob Veto.”

“[W]hen a religious organization enters the public policy arena, it must be prepared for disputes. Religious groups can’t claim some sort of special immunity from criticism. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between legitimate political give-and-take and violent attempts to cow your opponents into submission[D]espite our fundamental disagreements with one another, we announce today that we will stand shoulder to shoulder to defend any house of worship—Jewish, Christian, Hindu, whatever—from violence, regardless of the cause that violence seeks to serve.”

Perhaps predictably, the response to the ad was swift and hostile. Yet, despite being attacked himself for running the ad, Seamus did not back down.

We increasingly face threats to our freedom of expression in the public square. It takes true courage to stand up to these threats.

Seamus has stepped down from the Becket Fund, but its work continues. And he himself continues to be the committed warrior for religious freedom. Rather than allow religious groups and individuals to be silenced and browbeaten, Seamus made a public statement supporting their right to free expression. He put himself at risk to stand up for another’s right to follow his conscience, knowing full well that he would be attacked and accused of bigotry himself.

• Kristina Arriaga serves as Executive Director of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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