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At Stanford, Clinical Training For Defense Of Religious Liberty

Publication Date: 
January 21, 2013
The New York Times
Ethan Bronner

Jim Sonne, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic, spoke with The New York Times' Ethan Bronner on the launch of the law school's new Religious Liberty Clinic and the types of clients he expects the clinic will represent. 

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.


"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.


And while religious-freedom disputes through much of the country's history were between Christian sects — Baptists versus Anabaptists, Protestants versus Catholics — the divide today, according to Michael W. McConnell, a law professor here who came up with the idea for the clinic, is between those who are religiously committed and those who are not.


The new clinic joins 10 others at Stanford — including community law, criminal law, environmental law and immigrants' rights — and is part of the increase in practical education at law schools nationwide as institutions try to show that they are responding to students’ needs. At Stanford, some two-thirds of the students take part in a clinic, and the school is considering making everyone do so eventually, according to its dean, M. Elizabeth Magill.