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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."

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.

"Because of how we're made, we are each free — within broad limits — to follow what we believe to be true in the manner that our consciences say we must," Hasson writes in his book. "That is, we are free to celebrate our beliefs in public and try respectfully to persuade others of them. We are free, in fact, to organize our entire lives around them."

And, Hasson claims, history has shown that repressing that natural right will eventually backfire.

"He is a true litigation entrepreneur," said Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. He noted how Hasson's approach can disarm secularists because it is consistent with their concept of human rights.

"He came up with a great approach to defending the first freedom that recognizes the connection between religious liberty and preserving human dignity. His approach is much less tied to a particular faith but about the broader human right."

Smith said Hasson's approach persuaded the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse itself in 2010 and agree that the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance wasn't government endorsement of a religion, but reflected the Founding Fathers' philosophy that certain "inalienable rights" came from a higher source than government and couldn't be taken away.

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After battling the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease for more than a decade, Hasson retired last year from work at the Becket Fund. But as emeritus president and a board member, his influence and legacy remain.

"We all admire him for his vision and courage," Smith said. "Seamus understood from the beginning that the Becket Fund had to be a place that recognized that if anyone didn't have religious freedom, then no one had religious freedom. He really established that as the bedrock principle of the Becket Fund, and it's one that continues."

email: mbrown@desnews.com