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

Among the Becket Fund's recent clients was a Santeria priest in Texas, where local ordinances prevented him from performing religious rituals that involved the slaughtering of animals at his home. A federal appeals court sided with the priest and found the local laws violated his right to religious exercise, affirming the right of people to worship freely in their own homes.

A life-long desire

Hasson's own conscience started steering him in the direction of defending religious liberty when he was a graduate student in theology at Notre Dame. His interest in dissecting Catholic doctrine for a living was waning, but Hasson was intrigued and troubled by news accounts of court rulings "suppressing religious expression in America," he said.

He decided law school was the next step, after earning his master's degree in theology, toward getting involved in the growing culture wars over religious liberty.

"On the first day of law school, our professor asked what we wanted to do when we grew up and finished law school. Some said they wanted to be judges or litigators, and a few were honest and said they wanted to be millionaires," Hasson said. "I told my professor that I wanted to found a public interest law firm to fight against secularism. It worked out."

But the route from law school student to public interest attorney wasn't always clear.

While negotiating with the first law firm he joined after law school, Hasson told the hiring partner that he wanted to spend his pro bono time defending religious liberty.

"He smiled and said, 'You go ahead and spend all your pro bono time on religious liberty,'" Hasson recalled. "After about a year I had spent zero time on religious liberty because for young lawyers there was little pro bono time. I figured out why he was smiling."

One morning while shaving and "praying God at the same time," Hasson looked at himself in the mirror and asked, "How did this happen? I went to law school to become a church-state lawyer, and now I am an oil and gas lawyer."

Later that same morning at the office, he received a call from one of his former law professors at Notre Dame who had landed a plumb job as a deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president on the constitutionality of programs and policies. He offered Hasson a job to head up the office's church-state portfolio.

"It was an incredible answer to prayer," said Hasson.

He worked for the Department of Justice for less than two years before taking a job with the firm Williams & Connolly, which represented the Catholic Church and its affiliated institutions, to better cover the costs of his growing family.

But after five years, Hasson still wasn't completely at peace. He recognized that his desire to defend anyone's religious freedom anywhere in the world could only be realized by starting his own nonprofit firm.

In May 1994, more than a year after his trip to Rome, he opened the doors of the Becket Fund, named after Thomas a Becket, an Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred in 1170 for not allowing King Henry II to interfere in the affairs of the church.

A lasting legacy

Hasson, who goes by Seamus (pronounced SHAY-muss), the Irish version of his middle name James, among friends and family, has gathered a diverse group of attorneys representing a broad spectrum of believers, said Hannah Smith , who in 2007 became the first member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the legal staff of the Becket Fund.

"Seamus has a gift for finding people who are incredibly talented legally but genuinely good people," Smith said.

While Hasson credits the quality of the Becket Fund's lawyers for the firm's exceptional record, others add that Hasson's unique perspective of religious freedom as a natural right has created a new and effective defense for religious liberty.

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