Gregory Houston Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard but he can’t, and that’s a problem. Holt is Muslim and he believes that wearing a beard is a requirement of his Salafi faith. But he’s serving a life sentence for attempted murder in Arkansas, where the Department of Corrections has banned beards as a potential security threat. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Holt’s case, and just as interesting as the outcome of his claim is who will argue it for him. Holt, who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad, has put his faith not in a big name first amendment litigator nor in the secularist American Civil Liberties Union, but in the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Holt’s faith in the Becket Fund is well founded. A small, non-profit public interest law firm, with just eleven litigating attorneys and a $5 million annual budget, the Fund is a rising star in Washington. Everyone from unknowns like Holt to corporate giants like Hobby Lobby, which this year won expanded religious exemptions from Obamacare, turns to Becket for high profile cases at the high court. Its lawyers are most famous for arguing the often politically incorrect view that the constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion has been eclipsed in recent years by government deference to other parts of the constitution. That’s no easy task, since arguments over religious liberty can be some of the thorniest, and most heated, in America.
But the Becket lawyers are shaking up Washington for a simple reason: they win. Over 20 years, Becket has won 85% of its cases–from 1920-2000, the ACLU averaged a little over 65% in religion cases at the Supreme Court, according to the website procon.org. The Supreme Court repeatedly cites the Fund’s briefs in decisions, and Becket’s first case at the Court in 2012 was a 9-0 slam dunk, ruling that the government cannot interfere with a religious group’s choice of whom to hire, even when the employees claim they were discriminated against because of their physical disabilities. Becket is mastering a pattern, supporters say: identify religious litigants with strong claims, present compelling constitutional arguments, and recruit top free exercise litigators. The result is a resurgent ascendancy of religious freedom relative to other rights. “They have outsized success in these cases coming to the court and winning them at the court,” says Viet Dinh, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General and professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “In many ways I think of them as God’s ACLU.”
Every generation has its own fight over religious freedom—it’s a debate that has driven the American story from the day the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower. The influx of Catholic immigrants after the Civil War prompted the rise of the Blaine amendments to stop public funding of religious education. Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag sparked national debates during World War II. Public school prayer, nativity displays, and the pledge of allegiance prompted the fights of the later 20th century.
It was in the midst of those debates, in 1994, that Kevin “Seamus” Hasson founded the Becket Fund. Hasson, a Catholic lawyer specializing in religious liberty law at Williams and Connolly, felt that the conversation about religion in America was becoming one great non sequitur—one side was arguing that religion was not a societal good while the other insisted that America was a Christian country. Hasson believed that religious liberty comes not from the government or from faith itself, but rather from human dignity. “What we require freedom for is to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, embrace whatever it is we believe we have found, and express it according the full measure of humanity,” Hasson, who retired in 2011 due to Parkinson’s, says.
Though many of its recent and more prominent clients have been Christian, the Becket Fund has made a point of not pegging itself just to Christian interests, taking on Muslim and Jewish clients, and even more obscure religious causes, like those of a Santeria priest in Texas. Unlike commercial for-profit firms, Becket relies on donors to underwrite its free representation of clients. Some 70% of its donations come from individuals, usually in $25,000 to $100,000 chunks, says Becket Fund president Bill Mumma. The firm’s lawyers are first amendment religious liberty specialists, but the Fund requires they also all be faithful—employees include Mormons, Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and others.
Becket broke onto the national scene thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Its clients Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school, and Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Eternal Word Television Network, are among the 319 plaintiffs claiming the law’s requirement to provide female employees with insurance plans that include payment for various contraceptives violates religious freedom. But Becket also focuses on low-profile, high-impact cases. The Fund defended Amish men in upstate New York who said local building regulations infringed on their traditional construction methods. It backed a Sikh woman who wanted to wear a kirpan, a small, religiously-symbolic knife, at her job in a government building. Becket has also mastered plain English press releases and media-savvy optics. When the Supreme Court ruled with Becket that Hobby Lobby should have a religious exemption from the contraception mandate, Becket’s female lawyers, not its male ones, were front and center on TV.
Ultimately, though, Becket’s success comes from higher courts’ openness to new interpretations of the First Amendment’s religious protections. For the last half of the 20th century, the Supreme Court read the amendment’s ban on state-established religion and its guarantee of free religious exercise largely as protecting minorities including smaller sects, women and others. Under recent, more conservative courts, Becket has found sympathy for the idea that majority Christian religions get those protections, too, especially when they face off against local, state and federal governments. That casts religious freedom in a similarly broad jurisprudential light as the First Amendment’s subsequent guarantee protecting free speech. “The overall trend is the court coming to a good place for the proper accommodation of religious views,” says Georgetown’s Viet Dinh, and “that is largely due to the work of the Becket Fund.”
The next big question for Becket is how broad that approach can go—and which other government-protected rights the Supreme Court believes should rank below religious freedom. America’s rapidly shifting views on sexuality, and the government’s willingness to protect same-sex relationships, will soon conflict with groups that believe their religious freedom includes the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Mumma suggests his firm will remain on the front line of that fight. “Anytime the government moves strongly closer to or farther away from those big issues that religion occupies, you are going to get religious liberty cases,” he says. “I think we are not yet done with that sort of big round of religious liberty cases.”
For now, Becket’s small team of lawyers is already working on some 40 cases. Firm leaders say it has no plans to expand, instead maintaining its focus on finding and litigating high-impact cases. “When the music stops and we go into court, it really matters whether our lawyers have written a good brief, made a good argument, are able to present a case that’s compelling to judges of all political flavors,” says Mumma. “If we can’t do that it doesn’t matter how much public attention we get.” So far, that strategy is working.