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New Faculty: James A. Sonne

Publication Date: 
November 01, 2012
Stanford Lawyer
Randee Fenner

James A. Sonne, the founding director of Stanford Law School’s new Religious Liberty Clinic, arrived this fall with an ambitious agenda: to create the nation’s only law school clinic devoted entirely to litigating issues of religious freedom. He comes well-equipped for the challenge, having spent much of his life studying the intersection of law and faith.

Sonne, who grew up in New Jersey, says he was raised a “religious mutt.” He explains, “My mother’s family was Jewish; my father was a psychoanalyst and nominal Episcopalian. They taught us the natural virtues, but our spiritual affiliation was never clear-cut.”

From this background and what he describes as an uninhibited search for meaning instilled by his parents, Sonne developed an interest in the Catholic Church and its dual emphasis on faith and reason. This interest continued into college, and while studying classics and political science at Duke, he became a Catholic.


After his clerkship, the family moved to California. Sonne joined Horvitz & Levy, a prestigious appellate firm, and thought he had settled into a long career there. But Sonne could not resist the chance to start the Religious Liberty Clinic when he heard about the idea last fall. Sonne marvels, “I get to do what I love—teach, litigate, write—in the subject closest to my heart—and at Stanford. Wow!”

The clinic, which opens in January as the newest member of Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic, will represent clients holding a wide variety of beliefs in a broad range of circumstances. Cases will include disputes over prisoners’ religious observances, workplace accommodations, and public exercises of religion—all of which Sonne believes promise fantastic learning opportunities for students.

“As our society diversifies,” Sonne explains, “we must expose students to the fundamental importance of religious freedom. Even if they later choose another area of practice, the lessons students will learn by serving clinic clients, many with beliefs unfamiliar to or at odds with the students’ own experience, will prove invaluable to their future work and life.”

Sonne stresses that the clinic is apolitical. He also notes, “It’s not a 
religion clinic; it’s a religious liberty clinic. Particular beliefs are secondary. If there’s no religious freedom for one, there’s no religious freedom for all.”
 Sonne cites as a model the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-
interest firm that helped fund the clinic’s launch. As Sonne explains, “It represents everyone from Anglicans to Zoroastrians with excellence and 
integrity; we plan to do the same.”