Attorney makes defending religious liberty his mission

Attorney follows his conscience to protect right of others to do the same

Published: Friday, Aug. 10 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

At the end of 1992, Kevin Hasson's career was at a crossroads. He was enjoying his work at a large Washington, D.C., law firm and the financial security that came with it. But a long-held dream of dedicating his legal training to defending religious liberty kept creeping in, obscuring his current path.

A devout Catholic, Hasson retreated to Rome just after Christmas to visit the catacombs, St. Peter's Basilica and other sacred sites to pray and sort out what he should do.

"The conviction came back very strongly that I should go ahead and start the public interest law firm," he recalled in a recent interview. "I called my wife from a pay phone across the street from St. Peter's and told her I wanted to start a public interest law firm to defend all religions for free."

Obeying his conscience, Hasson returned home to found the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which devotes its resources to defending religious liberty in courts around the world. For example, in one of the most prominent legal battles over religious liberty in the United States, the firm currently represents five faith-affiliated organizations that have sued the federal government over its controversial health care mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.

Hasson retired from the firm a year ago, but its 11 lawyers and staff are continuing his legacy of representing people, regardless of their beliefs, who feel that their freedom to follow their conscience and exercise their faith is threatened.

The right to be wrong

Considering his life story, it's no coincidence that Hasson bases his defense of religious liberty on the right to follow one's conscience, which he describes as that "interior, quintessentially human voice that speaks to us of goodness and duty."

"To refuse to follow its judgment (even if it later turns out to have been mistaken) is to consciously reject what we believe to be true and turn our backs on what we believe to be good," he writes in the latest edition of his book, "The Right to be Wrong," published by Random House's Image Books.

Hasson elaborates that giving people the freedom to follow the dictates of their conscience and exercise their faith, as long as it doesn't threaten public health, safety or morals, is critical for a pluralistic society to peacefully function.

"We can, and should, respect others' duty to follow their consciences even as we insist that they're mistaken. Why? Because others have the same duty to follow their presumably mistaken consciences as we do to follow our presumably correct ones," he writes.

Hasson said defending a person's faith for its own sake and not just because it adheres to a particular set of beliefs is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Becket Fund, which receives funding from contributors that are diverse in faith while generally conservative in their politics.

"If we got all of our clients together, they would probably have a food fight," Hasson said jokingly, noting that he disagrees with the beliefs and practices of many of the firm's clients. But he is passionate about defending their "right to be wrong."

The Becket Fund is strategic in selecting this eclectic group of clients, a key criterion being whether the case will create a legal precedent advancing religious freedom for all.

"When I was there, we turned away 15 cases for every one we took," said Hasson, who now serves as president emeritus of the firm. "On the other hand, we have won 85 percent of our cases."

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