Leonard Leo’s acceptance speech at the 2017 Canterbury Medal Gala

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bill, Gene – thank you so much. And speaking for myself as well as my wife Sally and four of our children here tonight, thank you all for your great kindness and generosity this evening. And Gene, thank you for the kindness your father and whole family have shown my family for many years.

It’s hard to feel deserving of an award like this, in a room filled with champions of the first freedom. Enough to say that if this medal is a sign of friendship and unity of purpose and mission, the feeling is returned, and I am most grateful.

It is a privilege to be in this room with others who have received this medal.  Mary Ann Glendon, Robert George, and Eric Metaxas, to name just three friends and heroes I see here tonight. I also think of others who aren’t here: Archbishop Chaput, Carl Anderson, and the late Jack Templeton – a big presence in my life and a true friend, as his wife Pina remains today.

I am especially privileged to share this award with a formidable fellow who is here tonight with his extraordinary wife Mary. No Canterbury medalist should ever overlook that the vital work of this group all began with the vision and great heart of Seamus Hasson.

Seamus, I still fondly remember our first meeting together. Lunch at La Chaumiere in Georgetown. It was my first encounter with your plan to help our side weaponize litigation in pursuit of justice. You were visionary.

The work is carried forward now by Bill Mumma. Bill, you and Montse and a spectacular team have built what is among the most strategic public interest litigating groups in the country. It is so inspiring.

As their clients and adversaries alike very quickly learn, these are lawyers who never quit, and maybe you’ve all noticed that they have a habit of winning too.

Of course, the greatest examples of religious freedom are those who use it in daily service to others. Rabbi Soloveichik, thank you for leading us in prayer tonight. Many faiths and denominations are represented here, although I can’t help but notice a heavy turnout by what St. Thomas a Becket would call “the troublesome priests.”

In that category, one of the regular attendees of this dinner from just down the street, but who could not be here tonight because he’s on Pilgrimage in Lourdes, is our friend, His Eminence Cardinal Dolan.  Whenever I think of the Cardinal, I can still picture our very first encounter in 2004, just before the Presidential election. Then Archbishop Dolan of Milwaukee was in the throes of figuring out how to handle a bunch of former Priests and nuns who were using their expired clerical titles in a published endorsement of then candidate John Kerry. Now it’s Cardinal Dolan and the Al Smith Dinner, serving as the perfect buffer between the two Presidential candidates. A lighthearted evening I suppose, and of course everyone thought they knew how the election was going to go. The Democratic nominee looked so confident … so relaxed, so content. With just days remaining, what could go wrong?

Well, not everyone had access to Rebekah Mercer’s crystal ball. And many are still trying to sort out all the lessons of 2016. But maybe one lesson is this.  Sometimes, in a good cause, your breaks take you by surprise as much as your setbacks.

In the protection of religious freedom, we’re used to making the best of adverse circumstances … lighting candles in the darkness.  It sure felt that way a year ago after Gene’s family and America lost Justice Scalia, a peerless defender of freedom of religion and so much else as our Framers understood it. Staring at that vacancy, fear permeated every day in that countdown to November 8th. And what an amazing turn of events, thanks to our 45th president. Who could have imagined that the author of the Hobby Lobby decision in the Tenth Circuit would become the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Politics is like the rest of life – we don’t always control events as much as we like to think.  The result is that, in ways we never expected, right now we have reasons to be hopeful. And as an officer of the Federalist Society and a director of the Becket Fund, my goal remains the same and is simple to state.  It is to protect the instrument that protects us all, to preserve and extend the influence of one of the greatest works of man: the Constitution of the United States.

To be a constitutionalist is to appreciate that the most essential work has already been done for us, by as astute and wise a collection of men as ever assembled. Some jurists these days like to hold forth about changing times, and all the various features of modern life that the Framers couldn’t possibly have foreseen. What they miss is the timeless insight reflected in that document, above all the understanding of history and human nature.  For those dedicated to defending the right of conscience against the power of the state, it’s all there, needing only consistent and faithful application.

Justice Gorsuch is among a good many legal jurists who stress the importance of the structural constitution. That will be a welcome influence on the Court, in keeping with the wisdom of his predecessor.  It was Justice Scalia who often warned that without the structural protections that restrain government power, guaranteed rights don’t really have much to back them up.

What gives force to those rights is not the lofty ring of the words. It is the clearly defined limits on the reach of government.  Enumerated powers … decentralized authority … separate branches … checks and balances … the federal system … the sovereignty of the people – these are the elements of structure. And ultimately, they are what make our Bill of Rights more than a wish list.

I traveled far and wide as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. You can go to some pretty grim places, and hear boasts about all the rights they recognize, all the UN declarations they’ve signed onto, and so on and so on.  Look a little further, though, and you’ll find rank and often cruel persecution.

Outside of small house churches in Indonesia, state security officers photograph worshipers who are then targeted for discrimination. Buddhist monks in Vietnam and China are swept up from the streets and detained.  Visit a coffee house in Pakistan, Northern Nigeria, or Egypt, and there is a decent chance you’ll encounter a minority Muslim with a story of being beaten by a mob for his beliefs, while police stood by and did nothing to help.

If such treatment is not directly the doing of governments in those countries, it is the doing of private actors routinely tolerated by those governments. And high-sounding declarations of rights, parchment barriers, are no defense. Justice Scalia figured this out long before I did and taught me this basic fact. As only he would put it, “Every tin horn dictator in the world today, every president for life, has a bill of rights. That’s not what makes us free … What has made us free is our Constitution. Think of the word ‘constitution;’ it means structure.”

It is no coincidence that, here at home, so many threats to freedom of religion are rooted in a decision to cast aside the concept of limited, constitutional government. Becket is at the forefront of litigating such cases. The contraception mandate that beset the Little Sisters of the Poor is, ultimately, the progeny of a statute that has no warrant under the limited, enumerated powers of Congress under Article One of the Constitution. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority retaliated against an employee who sought to observe Passover, and its only defense is a sleight of hand argument that is a byproduct of the fact that this agency’s structure simply cannot be squared with the separation of powers. If principles of federalism held sway and Congress refrained from improper delegation of its lawmaking power to a seemingly boundless Administrative State, there likely would have been no need for Becket to come to the rescue of an Indian Tribe that was the subject of an illegal undercover raid to confiscate fallen Eagle feathers used in its religious ceremonies.

So if the mission is truly to protect freedom, anywhere, then you are in the business of restraining the powers of government. And, happily, we in the United States are still a world away from those other places where freedoms are ringingly declared and rarely honored. Among the many reasons for that, is a fierce independence that refuses to be ordered about, pushed around, or told when your faith is welcome and when it’s not.  This is the most American of qualities. And in courtrooms across our country, it can be heard in the principled, forceful, unrelenting arguments of the Becket Fund.

Before this organization came along, the legal momentum was basically all on the other side. Those days of losing by default are gone –Becket has seen to that. We’ll never lose by default again, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still lose, or that defending religious freedom will ever get easy.  One reason is this. While intolerance toward religion is not as heavy-handed here as in other cultures, it’s something often worse: It is fashionable.

Just think of the Little Sisters of the Poor, represented here tonight by Mother Loraine Marie Maguire and nine others of the order. Recall the superior attitudes directed at the Little Sisters during that controversy. For most of us, when we consider some of the most selfless people on earth, giving everything and asking nothing, the feeling we get is not one of superiority in any conceivable sense of the word. Yet that’s how these nuns were treated, these loving sisters so filled with grace, in the legal case that concerned their right of conscience.

In all the comfortable corners of elite culture, who defended the Little Sisters? Where were the indignant editorials speaking up for them, and denouncing the previous administration for its needless and obvious overreach? We get earnest lectures all the time about respect and protection for minority views in our diverse country. The silence in this case conveyed a familiar message: You just have to hold the right minority views … otherwise, well, you’re on your own.

In all of this, we can see two trends at work that, here again, I’ve noticed in other countries as well:

The first is how freedom of religion, which implies hard legal protections, is giving way to the looser, airier concept of freedom of worship. The right to “worship” sounds very broad and generous, but it’s narrow in consequence when you pause to think about it. The emphasis is all on belief and formal observance, leaving the rest a wide open question.

Freedom of religion has a much more tangible meaning, from a legal standpoint. It protects the right of conscience, not just in houses of worship but in workplaces, schools, hospitals, government offices, and anywhere else we go in this world. The short of it is that we should not be deceived by effusive talk about the right of worship, because it has an agenda not at all friendly to the real right of conscience guaranteed by the First Amendment.

And there’s a second trend that follows from this. As government policy becomes more grudging toward religious freedom, that attitude spreads in the broader culture. A hostile stance in Washington creates space for groups with kindred ideological designs. We see this in coercive tactics and nasty rhetoric directed against companies known for their religious and moral standards. The thinking of these activists seems to be, If the government’s going after those companies, why shouldn’t we?

It takes just a little imagination to see where all this leads, if you let it go unanswered. Freedom of conscience, after all, is not exactly one give-or-take item on anyone’s list of human needs or aspirations. What is closer to the heart, or more essential to our identity? Give an inch in defense of conscience, and you can measure your other losses in yards. A government that suffocates something so elemental as freedom of religion is not likely to be respectful of any other right.

Yet the good news in all of this is just as clear to see. Becket is not merely on alert, it is on the offensive … our side is no longer just minimizing losses in freedom, but, with you at Becket we are counting victories for our system of limited, constitutional government.  That is a credit to the generosity, the tactical ingenuity, the superb lawyering, and the persevering spirit that have all made this enterprise the force for good it is today.

I know I’m a lot better off for Becket, having nothing to do with the medal. What a joy it is to serve in such a cause, with such people as you – and for that I thank you.