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Stanford To Start New Religious Liberty Law Clinic

Publication Date: 
January 27, 2013
Source: 
The National Law Journal
Author: 
Karen Sloan

James Sonne, director of Stanford's Religious Liberty clinic, spoke with The National Law Journal's Karen Sloan about the clinic's January launch and some of the cases its students will work on this sping. 

A Florida prisoner who converted to Judaism as an adult who can't obtain a circumcision while incarcerated.

A Muslim group in California facing opposition to their plans to construct a mosque.

A Seventh Day Adventist whose employer will not adjust his work schedule to allow him to observe a Saturday sabbath.

Those are some of the clients who will be represented by a new religious liberty law clinic at Stanford Law School, which administrators say is the first of its kind at a U.S. law school.

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The clinic was established with $1.6 million in seed funding from the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which supports the free expression of religious beliefs regardless of the faith. Unlike many public interest law groups that support religious freedom, Stanford's clinic will take on clients from any religion, said director James Sonne.

"The point of a clinic is to teach professional skills to law students using real cases and live clients," said Sonne. "We think the religious liberty aspect offers a unique way to do this work, and it's something the students get excited about. As our culture becomes more diverse, it's a great way for students to represent clients whose beliefs are different from their own."

Most people have embraced the clinic's mission to represent clients of all faiths, Sonne said. However, Mat Staver, dean of the Christian-affiliated Liberty University School of Law said this month that the clinic's representation of Muslim clients could be of concern if it advances an Islamic political ideology.

Sonne countered that religious freedom extends to all people regardless of their particular religious beliefs, though he acknowledged that this clinic has the potential to be more controversial than most otherlegal clinics.

The new clinic finds cases largely through referrals from other religious legal advocacy groups, Sonne said. Most cases will deal with the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and Title VII.

For example, the clinic plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of a Native American man in a California prison who has been denied the ability to smoke a ceremonial pipe, Sonne said.