On the latest episode of Giving Ventures, titled “Religious Liberty Defenders,” host and DonorsTrust Vice President Peter Lipsett talks with Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute; and Eric Patterson, president of Religious Freedom Institute.
Becket Supports ‘Religious Liberty For All’
Becket takes on dozens of faith-based cases a year and boasts victories for men and women of all religious backgrounds, including victories for a Native American tribe and a group of Catholic nuns.
“Our mission really is to defend religious liberty. We are not a Christian or a Catholic or a Jewish group. We really defend religious liberty for all. Our goal is to defend and enshrine, really, religious liberty in the courts,” says Rienzi.
The Becket Fund is a public-interest legal and educational nonprofit that defends religious liberty for those of all faith backgrounds — “from A to Z — Anglican to Zoroastrian,” reads it website.
“We haven’t yet run out of work and I don’t expect us to run out anytime soon,” says Rienzi.
‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ Victories
In fact, the team at the Becket Fund has argued before the Supreme Court three times on behalf of a group of Catholic nuns dedicated to helping the indigent elderly — and the team won every time.
The nuns refused to comply with an Obama-era contraception mandate, which required employers that offer insurance to include in their plan coverage of birth-control pills or other contraceptives.
“The idea that the United States government needs the help of Catholic nuns to distribute contraception is really just a pretty stupid idea. It really doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Rienzi.
‘Willingness to Co-Exist’ Helps Everyone
The victories the Becket Fund team amasses snowball and benefit subsequent clients. Becket’s victory in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, later secured the religious freedom of a Native American man.
The majority opinion in Hobby Lobby held that the contraception mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; that precedent later helped the cause of indigenous leader Robert Soto.
“He’s from the Lipan Apache tribe in Texas and they use eagle feathers in some of their sacred dances but the federal government said it was illegal of them to possess eagle feathers,” says Rienzi.
“Well, he ended up winning his case a couple years after Hobby Lobby based on the Hobby Lobby win.”
In addition to preserving the religious practice of Catholic nuns and Native Americans, Becket’s victories have also preserved the religious observance of Sikh soldiers committed to wearing their headpiece.
“Our willingness to coexist with people of other religious beliefs benefits lots of people,” says Rienzi.
All-Star Attorneys Team Up with First Liberty
The team at First Liberty Institute is also racking up a lot of wins for religious freedom. In fact, Shackelford says his network of attorneys has won more than 90% of its cases every year for the past 24 years.
“We had 621 [cases] last year and every one of them — that’s our model,” he says, adding First Liberty identifies expert lawyers and advocates in the communities where their clients live and work.
“It just is a better way to litigate, I think, when you have great people in those communities that know that community — the jury, the judge — and you can combine expertise that we bring with them.”
Groff v. United States Postal Service
In addition to successfully representing Joe Kennedy — a high-school football coach fired for silent prayer on the 50-yard line — at the Supreme Court, First Liberty has another high-profile case pending.
“It’s a guy who was on the mission field, came off the mission field after many years and said, you know, because of his deeply held beliefs that he could not work on Sunday — the sabbath.”
So, he went to work at the U.S. Postal Service. The postal service, though, was quick to demand the gentleman, Gerald Groff, deliver packages on Sunday and failed to provide religious accommodation.
“I think this case is going to be a much bigger case than just one guy not having to work on his sabbath,” says Shackelford, noting the case has the potential to correct 46 years worth of erroneous case law.
“It’s one to be watching for. This [decision] will come out before June is over and it’s going to affect everybody in the country who works and is a person of faith and the protection they have.”
Defending Religious Freedom Abroad
While Becket Fund and First Liberty focus on preserving religious freedom at home, the Religious Freedom Institute works with legislators around the world to craft laws that protect freedom of conscience.
“We start with the premise that religious freedom is necessary for human flourishing—for both the majority and the minority — to be able to live their authentic religious lives in public,” says Patterson.
Some of the countries his organization focuses their efforts on include countries with routinely fail to protect religious minorities — particularly countries with high levels of social hostility and state coercion.
“So, specifically in Iraq, what we’re trying to change is the dynamics where different groups see each other always as the enemy because they’re different — Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yazidi — whatever.”
The way his group exerts influence is through the university system and statesmanship seminars that educate participants to co-exist and not impulsively view someone of a different faith as an enemy.
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