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Advocacy

New Law Clinic Handles Religious Liberty Cases

Students now can choose from 11 clinics for hands-on training.

By Sam Scott

In January, Stanford Law School drew national attention with the opening of its newest legal clinic, the only one in the country dedicated to cases involving religious liberty.

The opening docket showed how broad an array of issues sits beneath that umbrella. Cases included a Jewish prisoner blocked from getting a circumcision; two Seventh-Day Adventists fired from FedEx for refusing shifts on their Sabbath; and a Muslim congregation facing resistance to its planned mosque.

"There is really a great variety of substance a student can sink his or her teeth into," says third-year student James Wigginton, one of four students handling cases in the clinic's first quarter.

In a different year, Wigginton might have opted for the Supreme Court litigation clinic, one of a small number of law school programs that allow budding lawyers to work on cases bound for the highest court. But the advent of the religious liberty clinic offered an ideal match between his personal belief in the importance of religious freedom and a professional desire to grapple with a variety of complex legal issues from trial-level advocacy to appellate court briefing.

"It's the kind of topic that gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you excited about what you're going to do."

Funded in part by a $1.6 million gift from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit focused on protecting religious expression, the clinic originated as an idea of Law School professor Michael McConnell's. It opened to praise from religious leaders and scholars from as far away as Australia, as well as some notes of criticism.

In response to a New York Times article, one letter to the editor from a professor in New York admonished the clinic for ignoring cases involving freedom from religion. A professor from Virginia cautioned that the clinic's representation of Muslim clients could be of concern if it advanced an Islamic political ideology.

James Sonne, the clinic's director, takes issue with the substance of both criticisms. The initial docket may have reflected only worshipers' complaints, but future cases will vary. Indeed, one potential client is an inmate appealing his sentence based on the judge's reliance on religious law, an apparent encroachment of religion into the public square.

Likewise Sonne rejects the possibility of promoting any one faith. The cases students represent can involve any religion. "Religious liberty is a universal human right shared by everyone regardless of your religious belief," he says.

Manuel Possolo, a third-year student, says he and his fellow students recognized the difficulties that demands and burdens of some cases might pose for institutions like prisons. Often, he says, they empathized with both sides.

Though its focus is unique, this clinic represents a growing trend at the Law School: hands-on practical education. It is the 11th clinic under the auspices of the Mills Legal Clinic, where students may specialize in areas from immigrants' rights to intellectual property.

In the past decade, the number of full-time clinical faculty has increased more than fourfold and student participation has grown significantly, says M. Elizabeth Magill, dean of the Law School. Currently about 60 percent of students take part in at least one clinic, and the school is considering making participation a requirement. "That comes out of the sense that it's the best way to get people ready for the profession they're going into," she says.

Whether or not students specialize in religious liberty cases as professionals, Sonne points out that mastering cases that require a grasp of constitutional issues, statutory questions and the intersection of law, religion and culture will help them no matter what they practice. This clinic, like all the other Stanford Law clinics, focuses on making better lawyers, he says.

Still, students in the religious liberty clinic may also experience things many fledgling lawyers don't. Says Wigginton: "When I worked as a summer associate in Los Angeles, I don't know, were my clients praying for me? I doubt it. The clients here do."

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