When Jim Sonne became the inaugural director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic in the summer of 2012, he entered uncharted territory: No other law school in the nation has a clinic devoted to this subject.

Yet, in just one year, Sonne has created a model program, engaging students in a wide variety of lawyerly roles while representing clients whose legal issues span the religious and political spectrums.

“So far, we’ve handled matters for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Native Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs,” says Sonne. “And we work at the agency, trial, and appellate levels, seeking to engage in reflective lawyering in broad service to those in need.”

Sonne adds, “Religious liberty is a natural right for people of any, or no, faith; part of our job is to teach students how to articulate this to decision makers, who can be skeptical particularly where the religious practice is controversial or uncommon.”

Illustration by Gérard Dubois

Kerrel Murray, JD ’14, who was a member of the clinic’s first quarter last winter, immediately became involved in representing Harbor Community Church. The church, located in a residential neighborhood in Ventura, California, offers daily worship, meals, showers, laundry facilities, and a clothing pantry to its homeless members.

“This is at the heart of their religious belief,” explains Murray, “to worship God by reaching out to those who need it most.”

Unfortunately, neighbors objected. “I’m sure there were many different justifications, but ultimately they saw the church’s homeless ministry as a ‘problem’ the city needed to deal with,” says Murray.

City staff responded by informing the church that it was not in compliance with zoning regulations. “The city claimed it was okay for the church to engage in ‘traditional’ worship, but it needed a permit to provide what staff viewed as daytime ‘social services,’ ” Murray explains. “But, of course, religion is not limited to what happens in the sanctuary.”

The clinic became involved at this juncture and Murray along with two other students—James Wigginton, JD ’13, and Manuel Possolo, JD ’13—traveled to Ventura to gather the information necessary for the permit application.

“We saw the church, took photos, talked to the pastor and homeless congregants, and generally got a good sense of exactly what the church was doing and the efforts it was making to ensure the public’s safety,” says Murray. “We even spoke with neighbors to understand their objections.”

The students then drafted the application, taking special care to include a detailed picture of the church’s efforts to provide a critical service, while meeting neighbors’ concerns. “We wanted to impress officials with how the church had taken the initiative, but we also wanted to make clear the church’s right to worship in this way and wanted to create a solid record should it be needed down the road,” Murray says.

After a painstaking, line-by-line review with Sonne and staff attorney Jared Haynie, the clinic filed the 61-page application. One city official said it was “as good as anything that has ever been filed here.” The city later held a town hall meeting and a hearing. Each was attended by more than 250 people and included input from spring-quarter students. The city has yet to make a decision.

“For me, this clinic had everything,” Murray says. “I learned so many valuable skills, from fact collection to planning legal strategy. I particularly liked the human element and getting to interact directly with the client. And it is especially rewarding to work for people with strong beliefs that form their identity and to try to remove the obstacles that are blocking them from expressing those beliefs.”

Courtney Quirós, JD ’14, had a similarly rewarding experience in a different context. When Quirós joined the clinic in spring quarter, she asked to work on the case of Pablo Diaz, an inmate at Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Florida.

“Diaz was born in Cuba in 1975, but even though he had a Jewish mother and grandmother, the family never practiced its religion for fear of unwanted attention from the government,” Quirós explains. “So, he wasn’t circumcised.”

While in prison, however, Diaz came back to his faith. “A visiting rabbi asked whether there were any Jewish prisoners,” says Quirós. “And when Diaz said he wasn’t circumcised, so couldn’t be Jewish, the rabbi corrected him, explaining that he was Jewish because of his maternal lineage.”

After that, Diaz became observant, wearing the traditional skullcap, keeping kosher, and studying Jewish texts. And the more he read, the more he came to believe that God wanted him to be circumcised.

“He was bothered by all the liturgical references to circumcision,” Quirós says. “He became convinced that God wanted him to make the sacrifice, both for his Jewish identity and for his rehabilitation.”

Diaz obtained funding from an outside group, but the prison refused to allow the procedure. He appealed through the grievance process—a necessary precursor to litigation—but had missed a critical deadline. Accordingly, when the clinic became involved during winter quarter, it assisted him in refiling the grievance.

When Quirós joined the clinic in spring quarter, the first order of business was to determine whether Diaz had, in fact, followed the clinic’s instructions. Once she confirmed he had met all deadlines, Quirós and fellow clinic student, Paul Harold, JD ’14, flew to Florida to meet their client and the prison officials.

“The prison really gave us the runaround,” says Quirós, “but we finally got to see him.” And that’s when Diaz impressed the students with the importance of his request. “He was very clearly a religious believer,” she says. “He also wanted to be circumcised before his parole hearing to show his commitment to a new life.”

The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC), however, was in no hurry to act on Diaz’s request, even though there was no compelling reason to deny it. After consulting with Sonne, Quirós reached out to the press, hoping to bring some pressure to bear on the decision makers. Simultaneously, the clinic team drafted a complaint and sent it to the DOC legal counsel, explaining that a suit would follow if Diaz’s request was denied.

A few weeks into the summer break, the clinic received the exciting news that the DOC had relented and had granted Diaz’s request.

“We were ecstatic,” says Quirós, who will return to the clinic next year as an advanced student. “This has been a fantastic experience and one of the best things I’ve done in law school.”

Still, Sonne recognizes that, despite the clinic’s early success and growing popularity with students, it must further communicate its unique mission.

“We need to continue to show through our work that we are a religious liberty clinic and not a religion clinic,” he stresses. “Our purpose is to teach legal skills in a dynamic and deeply human area. These issues are important for everyone.” SL

On October 2, Mr. Diaz was circumcised in accordance with his faith. On 
October 9, Ventura’s Planning Commission denied a permit for Harbor Church’s homeless ministry. Concerned about the impact on its religious freedom and the vulnerable population it serves, the church has asked the clinic to appeal.