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Stanford Law School opens Religious Liberty Clinic

Stanford Law School students will get hands-on experience defending freedom of religion for their clients. The students' cases will range from prisoners' religious rights to land-use issues surrounding the construction of a mosque.

Stanford law students gained a new opportunity to explore fundamental human rights Monday when the Law School formally opened its Religious Liberty Clinic, the only one of its kind in the country.

 It is sponsored by a $1.6 million donation from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Law students in Stanford's clinics work as lawyers with real clients and real cases, under the supervision of an attorney. James Sonne, the director of the Religious Liberty Clinic, joined the Stanford law faculty in 2012 after teaching at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla. His own litigation experience includes church property disputes and cases concerning faith-based universities.

The clinic's docket is already filling up.

This quarter, students will defend a prisoner who recently converted to Judaism and was denied a circumcision by the prison. They'll also file an informational brief in a case regarding Native American religious practices by prisoners.

Upcoming cases involve land use issues surrounding the building of a mosque, religious outreach to the homeless and the firings of Seventh-day Adventists who refused to work on Saturdays.

The cases represent a wide variety of religions, Sonne said.

"We're trying to show that religious liberty is a universal human right shared by everyone regardless of your religious belief, practice or background," he said.

Sonne declined to name any case as the most controversial.

"They all have their own element of spice," he said. "Although the religious practice itself may be controversial or may be cause for debate, the freedom to follow one's conscience and practice one's faith is a separate question."

Students began work at the clinic on Jan. 7, embarking on the introductory boot camp common to all Stanford law clinics. The intensive week-long course covered legal procedure, rules of practice and legal history, among other topics.

 The highlight for Sonne, though, was the first client meeting.

"Students see how this stuff actually affects real people," he said.

Students at the Law School's 12 clinics act as full-time lawyers – the clinic is their only class for the quarter, usually in their third year of law school.

"They learn how to be a lawyer, not just how to think like a lawyer," Sonne said.

The clinics, collectively known as the Mills Legal Clinic, offer students "time to reflect on deeper questions that one might not get when you're out there billing hours and serving clients," Sonne said. "It's a different discipline than doctrinal legal education."

Law School Professor Michael McConnell originated the idea of the Religious Liberty Clinic, which became a reality thanks to the Washington, D.C.- based Becket Fund, an institute dedicated to advocating the free expression of religion, regardless of denomination. The clinic's scope likewise encompasses all religious traditions.

"What we offer is a wider range of cases and a wider range of religions represented. We represent anyone of faith," Sonne said.

The changing face of America presents new challenges to the future of religious liberty, he said.

"As our culture becomes more diverse there's more of a demand for intercultural understanding," Sonne said. "Our greatest legacy will be the learning the students do and the way their careers are enriched."

Paul Gabrielsen is an intern at Stanford News Service.

Media Contact

Jim Sonne, Stanford Law School: (650) 723-1422, jsonne@law.stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu