A Tale of Three Clerks: Training Up A New Generations of Leaders

Most summers, Americans United is happy to welcome three law clerks from three different law schools to join our legal staff for a few months and learn a little about what it’s like to work at an advocacy group. 

Summer 2012 was no exception, and this year I had the opportunity to work personally on projects with each of them. I had been asked to be on a panel at the “Take Back The American Dream” conference organized by former Obama staff member Van Jones, give the keynote address at the annual convention of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and do a workshop for Save Our Schools, a grassroots public education group.

Three events with three slightly different topics and three law clerks: perfect mentoring symmetry.

The “American Dream” presentation was about how the Supreme Court has been restricting access to the courtroom for individuals while elevating it for “corporate” interests, including religious groups.

I asked clerk Hallie Pope to help with this one mainly because she had actually started work a few weeks before the others and had a somewhat clearer understanding of my “voice.”

I even had her watch a few videos of my past speeches that may not have compared favorably with “The Dark Knight Rises” but also didn’t need to be viewed in an IMAX theater for $16 a ticket. She did the research necessary to make the case that average citizens should worry about decisions of the Supreme Court, even ones that sometimes seemed pretty technical.

Often these decisions focus on whether people can even bring their complaint into court or establish broad principles about balancing individual rights with the claims of large and powerful religious denominations. Think about an individual’s right versus the claimed “corporate” right to conscience of companies run by ultra-conservative Catholics who oppose insurance coverage of birth control.

During my remarks, I also noted that justice delayed can be justice denied. Lately, we’ve seen justice delayed and denied because Senate Republicans won’t even give hearings to judicial nominees.

I recommended that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid turn some of those delays into what we remember from Jim­my Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: a real fil­i­bus­ter. If senators refuse to allow a vote, tell them to keep talking though the night for several nights and bring out the cots.

The presentation was well received. Afterwards, I learned something interesting: Hallie is a cartoonist and had been chronicling her law school career and clerkship with AU in a series of comic strips.  I was that week’s comic topic, even though much of the humor derived from the fear Hallie had that people were paying more attention to her non-glamorous rain boots than my speech.

On to the next speech. I tapped Ben Birney to assist with my keynote address to SNAP. I wanted to make the point that the Catholic hierarchy’s demands to be exempt from otherwise applicable laws often goes too far, especially in areas dealing with child abuse reporting statutes, laws dealing with statutes of limitations for sexual assault and even job discrimination.

This can be heady stuff. It required Ben to research the institution’s efforts to have civil courts use canon law – official doctrinal stands of the church – instead of standard legal principles to decide cases (a path only a few courts have taken so far). 

We constructed that speech to begin with references to the recent flap over birth control and, after laying some groundwork there, segued into the issues of most direct importance to this audience of abuse survivors and their families. The reception there was good as well, and I had plenty of interesting discussions afterward. 

Finally, the folks at Save Our Schools wanted me to do a workshop on how some religious groups try to slip their doctrine into public schools. Our third clerk, Andrew Noll, worked with the framework that if the Religious Right can’t do away with public schools entirely by replacing them with vouchers for private schools, they will seek to alter curriculum to fit their own sectarian viewpoint. 

Andrew was great at using the AU archives to find illustrations of all of this, including how a private school in Louisiana that will get state voucher assistance next year illustrates the “deficiency” of evolutionary theory with claims that dinosaurs still exist. (What? Where? Loch Ness, of course!)

Conveniently, the June issue of Church & State contained a cover story of how public (at least in theory) “charter schools” were also inculcating religious doctrine. This was a highly interactive session and Andrew was able to fill in a few of my own “informational gaps” during the conversation – for which I’m grateful.

These three young people are just a few of the examples of why, even in trying times, I know there will be a new generation of people who understand that America works best when we maintain that decent distance between the rule of law and the sectarian teachings of any religious body.

 

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.