Stanford launches only religious liberty clinic

Stanford Law School has opened the nation’s only religious liberty clinic, with plans for students to help all religions. 

“This is where the marriage of practice and teaching mesh so well in a clinical setting,” said James Sonne, the founding director and a new hire at the school. “We get to do real cases but get to do it through teaching. It is foremost a teaching enterprise and the chief point is to teach the students how to be lawyers.”

The clinic is part of the law school’s Mills Legal Clinic, which operates like a small law firm. Stanford students, who spend 12 weeks working in the clinic with no competing classes, will handle religious liberty cases ranging from client counseling to appeals.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

“Religious liberty issues involve questions and issues that are deeply human, and involve other areas of law,” Sonne said.

Ten students will work in the clinic this year, and it has already taken on six cases, including a problem involving the construction of a mosque and a Seventh-day Adventist employment issue.

“From an educational standpoint, there is an urgent need for students to be prepared from day one,” Sonne said.

The Religious Liberty Clinic was made possible, in part, by a $1.6 million gift from the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Sonne was most recently in private practice at an appellate firm, but taught at Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution, prior to that.

“There are other programs ]at other schools] that handle these types of cases, but they include them among other cases,” Sonne said. “All we do is religious liberty. And we do it for all religions. We are addressing the freedom to follow ones conscience and not what that leads to.”

Students will learn the laws affecting religious liberty, whether statutory or constitutional, and will be expected to counsel individual or institutional clients and litigate on their behalf. Each term, students will handle an accommodation project — for example, representing a prisoner, student, or employee facing obstacles in the exercise of his or her faith — and participate in a longer-term project involving religion in the public square —for example, representing a small church, synagogue, or mosque with zoning issues, or a faith-based group seeking access to public facilities.

The clinic’s opening docket includes two cases for prisoners: a trial-level effort to help an inmate who recently converted to Judaism obtain permission for a circumcision in prison, and an amicus brief on appeal in support of Native American religious practices.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest institute dedicated to religious freedom for all faiths.