Josh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty

Josh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty
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Among the crop of newly elected men and women headed to the Senate in 2019, one stands out for his record on religious liberty.

Former Missouri Attorney General and Senator-elect Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) strong track record defending America’s first freedom can be traced all the way to the beginnings of his career. 

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Fresh out of Yale Law School, Hawley clerked for judge Michael McConnell, a religious liberty giant. McConnell, who has been called “one of the preeminent legal minds on religious liberty,” has argued some of the most important religious freedom cases to come before the Supreme Court in recent years and helped to found Stanford Law School’s religious liberty clinic. Judge McConnell surmised that Hawley applied to work with him because of his writings on the issue of religious liberty. “His interest in this goes way back to law school if not before,” McConnell said in an interview. “That shows a considerable dedication to that issue.”

After a Supreme Court clerkship and a stint in the private sector, Hawley made his way to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the only pro-bono religious liberty law firm in the world that defends people of all faiths and a place where I had the privilege of working with him for a couple of years. While there, Hawley cut his teeth working on several landmark religious liberty cases that Becket brought before the Supreme Court. 

In Hosanna Tabor vs. EEOC, decided unanimously for religious liberty, Hawley helped to defend the legal principle known as the Ministerial Exception, which protects the rights of houses of worship to make employment decisions in accordance with their religious tenets. Hawley defended conscience rights in his work on the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case, which resolved one of the most far-reaching religious liberty disputes in American history. The case ensured that the owners of closely held corporations can’t be forced to violate their consciences simply because they entered the marketplace.

Hawley also worked on Trinity Lutheran vs. Comer, yet another case that landed in the Supreme Court that challenged the state of Missouri’s use of an anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment to block a Christian preschool from getting a grant to resurface their playground with recycled tires. And though he had to recuse himself from the case while serving as attorney general of Missouri, he called the eventual victory for the preschool a “great day for religious liberty” on Twitter. His press statement made his office’s position going forward abundantly clears. He wrote:

Today is a great day for Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Church, and an even better day for religious freedom in America. With today's ruling, the United States Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment does not permit government to discriminate against churches or religious organizations on the basis of faith. People of faith cannot be treated like second-class citizens.

During his tenure as attorney general, Hawley signed the state of Missouri on to the Maryland Peace Cross brief in a case set to be heard before the Supreme Court this term. Hawley joined the attorney general of Maryland and the attorneys general of 27 other states in filing a brief in defense of a forty-foot World War I memorial to fallen soldiers in the shape of a cross. The attorneys general argue that, far from violating the Establishment Clause, memorials such as these are an essential part of America’s cultural heritage.

In short, Josh Hawley’s fingerprints can be found on nearly every major religious liberty case to come before the Supreme Court in recent years.

He will now take that commitment to the U.S. Senate, a place where steadfast advocates for religious rights are sorely needed. In replacing Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington McCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate FEC votes to allow lawmakers to use campaign funds for personal cybersecurity MORE (D-Miss.), Hawley comes in as an essential vote for the kinds of constitutionalist judges who will defend the First Amendment and will no doubt be a voice calling for strong legislative protections for religious liberty. Already he has called to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits pastors from endorsing politicians. "There is no excuse to silence churches and to silence pastors,” he said. “That needs to end right now." 

Hawley's very first act as a Senator will be to swear to uphold the Constitution, whose Bill of Rights opens with the explicit command that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It's a sorry reality that so many of his soon-to-be colleagues fall short of their promise to the American people on this front, but Josh Hawley promises to bring fresh life to America's first freedom in the U.S. Senate.

Ashley McGuire is a senior fellow with The Catholic Association and the author of Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female.