National Edition

The law firm behind the Hobby Lobby win

Published: Monday, June 30 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Lawyers for Hobby Lobby making statement outside U.S. Supreme Court immediately following the decision. From left: Emily Hardman, Adele Kiem, Angela Wu, Asma Uddin, Lori Windham (at microphone) and Kristina Arriaga.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

WASHINGTON — Fewer than a dozen attorneys work for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a 20-year-old public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.

But even with a small corps of lawyers, the firm is making its mark by seeking out — and often winning — cases that set law-changing precedents. On Monday, it added another precedent-setting ruling to its credit with a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores, supporting religious rights of for-profit corporations.

The narrow ruling marks the first time the nation's top court specifically extended religious freedom protections to a corporation, rather than just individuals. And even if the high court had come down against Hobby Lobby, it was the kind of high-profile case that has set the Becket Fund apart since its founding. The firm looks specifically for opportunities to represent believers of all faiths — Muslims or, in the most recent case, evangelical Christians — who see their freedom to live their faith in jeopardy, with an eye toward not just protecting individuals, but also changing the law and the debate on issues of religious liberty.

"I think Becket has been quite successful in teeing up issues that press the boundaries of the religious liberty claim," said Linda Greenhouse, a professor at Yale University's Law School who spent 30 years reporting on the high court for The New York Times. "The notion that a corporation could claim a faith-based right not to obey a federal law would not have been taken seriously even a few years ago. The ACLU wouldn't have argued it."

Shaping the law

The firm — named for former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket (1118-1170 A.D.), martyred for defending his eccliastical office from interference by King Henry II — rejects cases that are unlikely to set the kind of legal precedent that advances religious freedom.

"When I was there, we turned away 15 cases for every one we took," Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, Becket Fund founder and now its president emeritus, told the Deseret News in 2012. "On the other hand, we have won 85 percent of our cases."

At that time, Hasson asserted "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."

He wrote, in the 2012 edition of his book, "The Right to Be Wrong," that, as a society, "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."

Among other cases in which Becket has been involved are a 2011 case involving the right of a Christian homeless center to serve clients with a religious emphasis; a 2010 case reversing an earlier 9th Circuit decision striking "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance; and a 2009 case supporting the right of a Santeria priest in Texas to perform religious rituals in his own home.

But the firm's strategy of selecting cases is about more than a scorecard.

"The mission of the Becket Fund is to shape the law, so that the broadest possible base of support for religious liberty can be generated by the American people and embodied in American law and court decisions," said William P. Mumma, the firm's current president and board chairman.

To that end, the firm is blind to the faith of its clients, Mumma said.

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