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‘Can I vote for a Mormon?’ — How the late Ken Starr became a champion of religious freedom

To most people, he was best known for the investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But Ken Starr’s most impassioned work in recent years was about religious liberty

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Baylor University President Ken Starr testifies at the House Committee on Education and Workforce.

Baylor University President Ken Starr testifies at the House Committee on Education and Workforce on college athletes forming unions on May 8, 2014, in Washington. Starr, whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the president’s impeachment, died Sept. 13, 2022. He was 76.

Lauren Victoria Burke, Associated Press

In January of 2012, the late federal judge Ken Starr, who died Tuesday in Houston, Texas, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post. It was about the upcoming presidential election.

The headline was “Can I vote for a Mormon?” and the piece was an impassioned defense of religious forbearance when it comes to choosing a president, although it never mentioned then candidate Mitt Romney, a Latter-day Saint, by name.

The litmus test for presidents, Starr wrote, “must not be the church they attend but the Constitution they defend.”

It was an elegant appeal in keeping with the work Starr did to promote religious liberty after leaving the government service that made him a household name. Most Americans know him as the solicitor general who led the Whitewater investigation that resulted in the revelation of President Bill Clinton’s relationship with an intern named Monica Lewinsky.

And for a while, it seemed that the “The Starr Report,” issued on Sept. 11, 1998, would define his career. But Starr went on to become president of Baylor University, where he served from 2010 to 2016, and last year released a book that has been called “an indispensable guide to defending religious freedom.”

‘A remarkable career’

Starr clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger in the 1970s and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. He became solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

In her statement on Starr’s death, current Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone called him “a dedicated public servant and ardent supporter of religious freedom that allows faith-based institutions such as Baylor to flourish.”

Starr left Baylor after he was accused of mishandling reports of sexual assault at the school; the parting was called a “mutual separation,” and he said he would continue the work he had done at Baylor advocating for religious freedom.

Writing about Starr’s 2021 book, “Religious Liberty in Crisis: Exercising Your Faith in an Age of Uncertainty,” Jim Denison described Starr’s career as remarkable and said Starr’s most recent book was “the best guide to the urgent topic of religious freedom I have ever read.”

“It is authoritative, winsome, and eminently readable and practical. It gives Christians an indispensable introduction to the issues, history, and challenges we face in defending and utilizing our religious liberties in these perilous days for Christian faith and witness,” Denison wrote.

And in First Things, Mark David Hall said Starr made a convincing argument for religious freedom that should resonate with all Americans. “Hopefully, it will encourage conservatives to fight for religious liberty, moderates to value it highly, and progressives to recommit themselves to protecting what America’s founders called ‘the sacred right of conscience’.”

‘Freedom is the baseline’

Writing for Fox News last year, Starr decried a pop culture that “has radically shifted toward a hardened attitude of aggressive demands for conformity and elimination of freedom of conscience.”

He went on to say, “In America’s constitutional republic, freedom is the baseline. When government brushes up against individual liberties, it must justify the incursion or limitation.”

In “Religious Liberty in Crisis,” Starr wrote that “the First Amendment does not so much create a ‘wall of separation’ between the church and the state, but rather a ‘wall of protection’ so that faith communities can freely chart their own course without disrupting significant public interests.” 

Despite his concerns about a public that has soured on religious liberty, he was hopeful about the future, noting court actions on cases like Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, in which a state appeals court said a church didn’t have to pay fines for meeting in person during the pandemic.

In the book, Starr wrote, “The prospects for continuing protection of religious liberty are actually quite good. Still, if we are to maintain our religious freedoms in America, we must be willing to stand up against laws and regulations that threaten to compromise their autonomy.” 

Starr’s family said Tuesday that his death stemmed from complications from surgery. He died at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston at age 76.