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Defending the Faithful

Publication Date: 
September 01, 2013
Source: 
California Lawyer
Author: 
Eric Berkowitz

James Sonne, founding director of the Religious Liberty Clinic, spoke to California Lawyer's Eric Berkowitz about the clinic's goal to "make clear the difference between the freedom to practice one's religion and the practice itself" and the invaluable experience he believes the clinic offers students.

By the time Pastor Sam Gallucci realized that he needed a good lawyer, his church's "Operation Embrace" had already drawn the ire of many of its Ventura neighbors. Gallucci started the outreach ministry during the 2008 financial crash to serve the area's growing homeless population. In short order the small, middle-class evangelical Missionary church, called Harbor Community Church, was transformed into a five-day-a-week survival station for the city's poorest citizens, providing food, showers, and clothing - as well as a heavy dose of Christian counsel.

Gallucci says that Operation Embrace has helped more than 200 destitute families leave the streets and find a better life. He also says that up until last fall, he received very few complaints from the surrounding homeowners. But after city authorities decided in 2012 to clear out a notorious homeless encampment some five miles way, the church saw a sharp rise in the number of street people crossing its threshold - from 60 or 70 a day to as many as 120. And suddenly, it wasn't so OK with the neighbors anymore.

...

The same might be said of her supervisor, James A. Sonne, founding director of the Religious Liberty Clinic. A practicing Roman Catholic, Sonne prominently displays in his Stanford office a photo of himself with Pope John Paul II. However, Sonne refuses to say directly whether he embraces the Church's positions on same-sex marriage or abortion. Besides, he insists, the clinic is not about advancing anyone's narrow religious agenda - least of all his own. "It's not like I have some secret that makes me better," he says. "I am not on some religious mission."

"Part of what we are doing as a clinic," he adds, "is to make clear the difference between the freedom to practice one's religion and the practice itself. In cases involving minority religions, the distinction can get lost due to politics and cultural bias."

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"I am surprised that Stanford Law School would accept funding from an ideologically driven nonprofit," Lynn says. "I could imagine if the Red Cross wanted to give money to teach international relief law. That would make sense. But if an ideologically driven group wants to give money and the recipients say they are going to cover the waterfront, the truth is they will not."

Sonne counters that the Becket Fund represents clients of all faiths and that its legal cases "run the gamut." He also says - and Becket's executive director, Kristina Arriaga, confirms - that the three-year grant to the Religious Liberty Clinic came without strings attached.

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It was not the sort of place likely to attract an intellectual maverick. (The school is now based in a new town in Florida, also called Ave Maria, that Monaghan developed; there he tried to ban pornography, birth control, and other "activities offensive to traditional Christian principles.") Yet during Sonne's time at the Michigan campus, his writings often ran against the grain of Christian-right dogma. In a series of articles, Sonne warned against allowing private employees to use "conscience" claims to upend at-will employment contracts. He also argued that a 2003 bill cosponsored by then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), would force private employers to indulge employees' religious practices "in a radical way" and as a consequence "fundamentally disrupt" the workplace.

 

Asked to reflect on those positions now, Sonne shrugs. "Just because something is religious," he says, "doesn't mean it should always prevail."

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Sonne and his students will certainly do their best. But win or lose, Sonne observes that learning to express the viewpoints of a misunderstood minority to a skeptical, if not hostile, audience is an invaluable experience. "Handling these types of cases prepares the students for their futures," he says, "no matter what they do."