Imagine a world where religious freedom is respected as a non-debatable, fundamental human right. That’s the world The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty strives to create.
And the nonprofit, public-interest law firm and educational institute has been making progress toward that ideal since it was created in 1994, winning some of the most significant religious freedom cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The firm’s most recent high-profile victory came last spring, representing the owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores and their legal fight to live their faith by not offering employees certain types of birth control as mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
Bill Mumma has been the president and chairman of the Becket Fund since 2011. A former Wall Street executive, Mumma doesn’t have a legal background, but he is passionate about religious freedom and also serves as a trustee at the Witherspoon Institute, a board member of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students and as vice chairman of the New York Men’s Leadership Forum.
Mumma met with us to share his predictions on the most recent Becket Fund religious liberty case before the high court and his optimistic perspective on government, courts and the American people protecting and preserving religious liberty.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has brought three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in just as many years. This month, an important case involving prisoners’ religious rights. Tell us about that case.
Bill Mumma: Sure, but I first have to say that getting three Supreme Court cases in three years for any institution alone, that is a small operation like the Becket Fund, is pretty remarkable ... We feel very lucky to have this opportunity to go to the court, and to win over and over. And we think we will win the Holt v. Hobbs case you just mentioned. The prisoner is in for life; there is nobody questioning his guilt or innocence. He is there for a reason and he wants to wear his beard because he believes that is part of his religious exercise, and in 40-plus states he would be able to do that. But the state of Arkansas thinks he shouldn’t. So it makes for a great question for the Supreme Court: Do prisoners have religious liberty rights? We believe the answer is going to be a resounding yes.
Now there was an interesting convergence of both what we might call right-of-center and left-of-center groups coming together on this ligation.
Mumma: There really was and the Becket Fund appreciates that more than anyone because it is our conviction that religious liberty is not a political issue, not a partisan issue at all. It crosses all the divides, religious and political. We have the Obama administration filling an amicus brief in support of our argument. The ACLU filed in support of us along with many conservative Christian organizations and Jewish organizations, too. So we have a real coming together, everyone supporting this prisoner’s right … not because the individual is so highly sympathetic … he has been in prison for a reason. It is because the principle is one that all Americans can embrace.
By obtaining robust religious rights through the courts under federal laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is there any threat of a legislative backlash?
Mumma: I wouldn’t characterize it is as backlash, so much as all three branches of the government have to be in accord before any of us should be comfortable. So we certainly wouldn’t want an executive, our legislative or our courts pulling away from religious liberty, but they can’t pull towards it alone, either. So, we have these statutes because there have been times the Supreme Court’s decisions have unnerved Congress and they have tried to get in there and reinforce religious freedom. That has been good. I think we will get the same. I am not worried about a backlash from Congress at all.
You were in court for the Holt arguments. Any observation about what you saw in terms of tones of the justices?
Mumma: When you go into the court there are nine justices and they speak, they interrupt immediately. They cut off the lawyer right away and began interrogating the lawyer. In the Holt case the tone was different. There was very little interrupting for quite a long period, as Doug Laycock made his argument (for the prisoner). The questioning was very measured. My take-away from that is the justices don’t find the principle to be that difficult to embrace and that they are supportive of the argument we made. Now I might be overly optimistic, but I think it bodes well for the outcome.
What do you see as the major threats right now to religious liberty in our country?
Mumma: I am an optimist on the religious liberty fight. I went to high school in Nebraska and you see the storms coming from way far away and they make a ferocious and noisy wind on the way in. And they rain like crazy and they make a tremendous noise on their way out. I think we are not at the beginning of the religious storm, but in fact we are on the way out. If you look at what happened in the late sixties and early seventies that was the entry -- all the wind and noise. A lot of disruption around religion and religious liberty and then we had the rising tide of political correctness and erosion of understanding of religious liberty, and now we are at the … break point where everyone is waking up to the concern and focused on it. But we see the Supreme Court come in, time and time again, to support religious liberty. So in my own view, we are going to get a contest, which is good for democracy, and a debate. We will get some people who don’t like the outcome and some who do. But when all the wind and storm is over I think we will see the same enthusiasm for religious liberty that Americans have always enjoyed.