WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby decision has thrust a once little-known boutique law firm into the center of a growing conservative movement to make faith-based exemptions as potent a legal tool as free speech has been for liberals.
The tiny Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was the legal power behind the Supreme Court’s decision last month to extend religious rights to corporations for the first time. Before that, the Washington firm’s attorneys successfully defended a church school’s religious right to be exempted from federal anti-discrimination rules and, in another case, even persuaded the progressive 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep “under God” in school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance.
With just a dozen full-time attorneys, the fund’s string of Supreme Court successes is earning it a reputation in legal circles as a powerhouse, though its leaders downplay talk about the firm’s growing influence.
“We had a good laugh,” said Kristina Arriaga, the firm’s executive director, when asked about the nationwide attention that followed the Supreme Court’s June 30 Hobby Lobby ruling.
It’s a bit of false modesty, however, since the fund also prides itself on being highly selective about the kinds of cases it accepts, looking for appellate-level lawsuits that have the ability to change legal precedents.
“We defend religious liberty as a principle, in and of itself,” Arriaga said. “We believe religious liberty is not about who God is. It’s about who we are.”
In the Hobby Lobby ruling, justices ruled that the religious owners of the chain of craft stores do not have to provide full contraceptive coverage for female workers as required under the Affordable Care Act. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decision carried “startling breadth” and would open the door for other religious-minded businesses to seek exemptions from federal laws.
Previously, the Becket Fund played a key role in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2012 decision that gave broader powers to churches and religious schools to circumvent federal anti-discrimination laws. Becket successfully defended the Michigan church school that had fired a teacher after she claimed she was discriminated against because of her narcolepsy.
“They are smart, they are hardworking, and they are prepared,” said Ira Lupu, law professor emeritus at George Washington University. “And they win.”
The fund’s legal work is always offered free of charge, funded by about $5 million last year from donors and grants, according to tax records. Of the 170 cases it has taken since it began in 1994, the firm boasts an impressive 87 percent success rate.
Compare that to Alliance Defending Freedom, another religious liberty law firm started in 1994, which took in nearly $40 million last year, has 44 in-house attorneys and delivered an 80 percent success rate.
Becket founder Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, who stepped down as president in 2011 because of Parkinson’s disease, has said he created the fund in response to a “culture war” in the U.S., hoping to preserve religious rights from what he saw as a half-century-long assault by the secular movement.