Beginning this term, students at Stanford Law School have the opportunity to gain knowledge and real-world experience by participating in the nation's only religious liberty clinic.

"The launch of this new clinic is a significant moment in the development of Stanford's clinical program," said Stanford law professor Lawrence Marshall, who serves as associate dean for clinical education.

"The Religious Liberty Clinic is unique in the country, and will expose our students to issues that will expand their horizons while developing their expertise as lawyers," he explained in a Jan. 14 statement announcing the start of the clinic.

To mark the program's official inauguration, Stanford Law School hosted a Jan. 14 public reception and panel featuring respected religious liberty attorneys, law professors and judges.

The one-of-a-kind Religious Liberty Clinic will offer law students real-world experience in representing diverse clients and defending a wide span of religious beliefs and practices in various situations. It will provide opportunities for practice in the areas of administration, trials and appeals, as well as drafting amicus briefs.

The program will allow students to learn both statutory and constitutional law on religious freedom and to counsel and litigate for individual or institutional clients.

Students will represent clients seeking accommodations to practice their faith freely and will aid in long-term projects regarding religious expression and access in the public square.

The initial cases taken up by the clinic include efforts to help an inmate who has recently converted to Judaism to secure permission for an in-prison circumcision and an amicus brief supporting Native American religious practices.

In addition, the clinic is planning to handle cases involving free exercise of religion in public schools, zoning for a house of worship and employment accommodations.

The Religious Liberty Clinic is made possible partly by a gift of $1.6 million from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit institute that defends religious freedom for all faiths.

"The Becket Fund is proud to fund this extraordinary clinical legal program to teach future lawyers how to defend human dignity and a natural right," said Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, executive director of the Becket Fund.

She stressed the importance of protecting "the freedom of religion for people of all faiths, when that freedom has been unjustly curtailed."

Chosen to be founding director of the new clinic is James A. Sonne, an attorney with experience in both practicing and teaching law.

Sonne – who converted to Catholicism during his college years – holds a JD with honors from Harvard Law School, where he was mentored by Professor Mary Ann Glendon.

In addition to practicing law and teaching at Ave Maria School of Law, he has served as a law clerk for a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

"I am thrilled to launch this one-of-a-kind clinic that will offer students an opportunity to learn about the 'real practice of law' in a unique and fascinating way," said Sonne.

"It is an honor and a privilege to join the first-rate clinical program here at Stanford," he remarked, "and I look forward to working with my colleagues to equip our students with the technical skills and professional values critical to their future success in law and life."

The Religious Liberty Clinic will fall within Stanford's Mills Legal Clinic, as part of the law school's new legal education model, which stresses public service and hands-on experience.

"Clinical education is a cornerstone of our curriculum," said Mary Elizabeth Magill, dean of Stanford Law School.

"Our students learn to be first-rate lawyers by representing clients under the close supervision of the extraordinary lawyers who direct our clinics," she explained. "This clinic will expose students to legal disputes involving religious practice and belief, disputes that date back to the founding of the nation."

"Our students will now have a unique opportunity to learn to be lawyers and professionals by taking on the responsibility of representing clients in this 'old, but new' field," she added.