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Fighting the good fight for religious right

The battle for her personal freedom began before she was born — when her parents, Julio Cesar and Kristina, left behind all their worldly possessions as they fled Cuba to escape Fidel Castro’s emerging regime.

Is it any wonder the life’s work Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz has chosen?

Arriaga de Bucholz is executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm and educational foundation that is getting a lot of attention these days as legal defenders in the so-called Hobby Lobby case. The Becket Fund represents David and Barbara Green, owners of Hobby Lobby, the national arts and crafts chain, in the Greens' lawsuit against the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act of 2010 that forces companies to pay for employee health insurance that includes drugs and devices that could cause abortions.

The Greens, devout Christians, object to that requirement on the basis that it infringes on their religious beliefs. The case is pending, but just last week the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that Hobby Lobby and other companies can base their lawsuits on the grounds that their constitutionally protected religious freedoms have been violated.

It’s not the Becket Fund’s first fight. Founded in 1994, the organization has represented dozens of religions, from the Amish to Roman Catholics to Mormons to Buddhists to Unitarians and all in between, and lays claim to being “the only public interest law firm that defends all religions.” It is named after Thomas à Becket, the 12th century cleric who adroitly bridged the divide of church and state by serving simultaneously as Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England.

Arriaga de Bucholz, who has a master’s degree in liberal studies from Georgetown University, has her own rich background in defending human and civil rights. Prior to joining the Becket Fund in 1995, she worked with the United Nations human rights commission and before that as an advocate for Cuban human rights activists. Also on her résumé is a four-year stint as an appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The Becket Fund’s executive director and lifelong freedom fighter agreed to have a conversation with the Deseret News about religious liberties and the challenges they constantly face.

DN: Thank you for spending this time with us. Your origin story sounds like something out of a novel. What year did your parents leave Cuba and under what circumstances?

KA: They left in 1961. My parents were engaged at the time Castro elevated himself to power. My mother was working as a secretary at the Havana offices of DuPont Paints. When Castro nationalized all private businesses and took possession of all their assets, DuPont offered work visas for their employees. She left first. A few months later, after the political police briefly arrested my uncle, my father found a way to get a one-way ticket to the United States. He left everything behind — his home, his business and all his possessions. He arrived with absolutely nothing except the clothes he was wearing.

DN: So he had to start all over?

KA: My father understood that the only way he could rebuild his life and support his young growing family was to be a successful entrepreneur. While in Miami, he studied English reading books and watching “I Love Lucy.” He practiced at the local breakfast diner by ordering pancakes. One day, when the waitress served him apple pie instead, he knew it would be impossible to get rid of his thick Cuban accent. In 1967, with my brother and I in tow, he decided to join his sister, her family and his parents who had moved to Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico. Although he had been a trained litigator and a businessman in Cuba, the only job he could find in San Juan was selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners from house to house. He failed. At the time very few people had carpeting in their houses. So, he started to sell chemical products. This time he had a plan: As he went from house to house selling cleaning products, he would ask for a “cortadito.” Puerto Ricans, being very hospitable people, would gladly serve him their version of the espresso. He would then “accidentally” spill it and proceed to remove the stain with the product he was selling. He was successful on that venture and moved on to other sales jobs. He eventually sold commercial real estate. By the time he passed away in 2009, he had provided his three children with a college education and a comfortable life. Naturally, we all have a never-say-die strong work ethic.

DN: How much did your family’s history have to do with the avocation you have chosen?

KA: My exiled family is deeply grateful for the freedom we enjoy and ever vigilant to threats to that freedom. From early on, I was taught it was our obligation to understand the nature of our rights and participate in our civic and political process. My parents valued education above any material possession. Objectively, I grew up poor. But I never felt poor. We were rich people temporarily without money. With education and will, we would eventually triumph. And we did. For the last 25 years, I have had the privilege of working in human rights- and civil rights-related work. My work at the Becket Fund is to protect the freedom that is precisely at the core of all other freedoms: religious liberty. If we cannot live according to our deeply held convictions, all other freedoms are nullified.

DN: In a nutshell, what is the principle that the Becket Fund is defending on behalf of Hobby Lobby?

KA: The Becket Fund is defending the principle that individuals do not sacrifice their right to religious freedom when they enter the marketplace. Hobby Lobby is a business run by persons of faith in a way consistent with their values, which preclude paying for drugs that may cause abortions. It is unconstitutional to force religious employers to choose between prospering in their chosen livelihood or acting according to their consciences.

DN: As the Hobby Lobby publicity suggests, it appears business is brisk these days on the religious liberty front. Is that perception reality, and if the answer is yes, why the up tick?

KA: The threats to religious liberty are very serious. The government has argued that entrepreneurs do not have First Amendment rights once they enter into business. With the final version of the Health and Human Services contraceptive-coverage mandate rolling out, religious business owners are facing crippling fines as the price of living according to their beliefs. This will have widespread implications for how Americans may exercise religious freedom, and it sets a dangerous precedent that contradicts generations of constitutional thought. We expect to be dealing with the issue of the insurance coverage mandate for years to come, and will continue fighting until the religious liberty rights of all Americans are secured. In addition, the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage will create Constitutional conflicts in jurisdictions where there are no specific legal protections for those who believe in the traditional meaning of marriage. There is a movement towards using the power of the government to punish people who defend traditional marriage — through suppressing their free speech, restricting their employment and the like. Since marriage and religion have always been linked, this will be a major challenge to religious freedom. So, yes, business looks to be brisk for quite some time.

DN: What, in your view, are the Becket Fund's most significant triumphs?

KA: We have an excellent and devoted expert legal team. We win over 85 percent of our cases. Our most visible win was the unanimous 9-0 Supreme Court win in Hosanna-Tabor. The case, simply put, dealt with the ability of churches (and all houses of worship) to make hiring and firing decisions independent of government intrusion. The Wall Street Journal described it as "the most important religious liberty case in a half century." Additionally, the Becket Fund recently secured the first appellate court ruling on the legality of the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive-coverage mandate. The 10th Circuit recognized that Hobby Lobby's lawsuit against the mandate was likely to succeed, based on the heavy burden the mandate placed on free exercise of religion. And, of course, the Becket Fund has successfully defended the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, in several distinct cases. The core to our defense is that our rights come from something beyond the state; therefore, the state cannot take our rights away. Finally, of utmost importance to the Becket Fund is to educate the next generation of religious liberty attorneys. We operate excellent programs to do this: On one hand, we have a robust legal internship summer program in D.C. Additionally, we were invited by Stanford Law School to fund the creation of the only religious liberty clinic in the nation. The Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic was inaugurated in 2012.

DN: In 2013, what should Americans be most concerned about regarding religious liberty?

KA: Recently the President stated we have “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.” This is alarming. The current administration seems to be operating from the mentality that "you can practice your religion in private, but as soon as that translates into public conduct, it is no longer protected." Religious exercise, for generations, has meant the ability to demonstrate one's convictions through action, including through the ways persons of faith run their businesses. Laws that sacrifice such freedom stand in direct opposition to America's constitutional heritage, and impact all Americans, everywhere.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: