When then-President Bill Clinton signed The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) the week before Thanksgiving in 1993, it marked a remarkable bipartisan effort between Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy.
The months of work, scholarship and political weight of the two senators propelled one of the most significant acts of religious liberty legislation of the past 25 years to a 97-3 Senate win, followed by a unanimous voice vote in the House.
For that work and more than four decades of Senate service dedicated to the cause of religious liberty, The Becket Fund Thursday presented the former senator with its highest honor, the Canterbury Medal.
“I am proud to have preserved religious freedom for people of all faiths through legislation such as RFRA, which is needed today more than ever. Religious freedom was sewn into the very fabric of this country from the beginning, and protecting the right of conscience for every American is essential to the future of our republic,” Hatch said in a press release from Becket.
Hatch was named the recipient more than a year ago, but the award presentation, typically presented at a gala dinner in New York City, was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic which shut down the country. The ceremony was moved to Utah at the St. Regis Deer Valley Thursday night where the former senator, now 87, and his wife Elaine were greeted with a standing ovation by the 300 attendees at a tented outdoor event.
Before distinguished guests from many faiths and backgrounds, including President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as elders Quentin L. Cook, D. Todd Christofferson, Ronald A. Rasband, Gary E. Stevenson and Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, together with their wives, tributes of Sen. Hatch’s work highlighted the annual event.
President Oaks, a past recipient of the Canterbury Medal, noted in brief remarks that he and the former senator had much in common, including lifelong devotion to their shared faith, and “we are both fervent students of the United States Constitution,” and the principles it espouses.
“Specifically, we are both committed to religious freedom for all people,” he said, listing some of the reasons Hatch is deserving of the Canterbury honor. That included his role as “a good lawmaker,” noting the senator sponsored or co-sponsored more than 750 bills that became law.
“Orrin Hatch is a model of integrity, his public service always focused on what he considered best for the country not his personal agenda or personal ambitions,” he said.
Monsignor James P. Shea brought a message from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who serves as Pope Francis’ envoy, or apostolic nuncio, to the United States. He noted the unique gathering of people of faith, “called to be witnesses of hope,” and praised Hatch’s legacy of defending the Constitution.
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, highlighted Hatch’s legislative accomplishments solidifying religious protections.
“Through his efforts, he has helped protect faithful Sikhs serving in the military, Native American worship traditions and sacred sites, prisoners who turn to their faith while incarcerated, and nuns who care for the elderly sick and dying. Without RFRA and without Sen. Hatch’s commitment to religious liberty, our freedom of conscience would simply not be what it is today,” he said in the release.
The Canterbury Medal is named for the cathedral in Canterbury, England, where Thomas Becket was martyred by King Henry II for defending religious freedom. Past recipients include President Oaks, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, who attended Thursday’s ceremony; Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Robert P. George, Mitt and Ann Romney, and Elie Wiesel, among others.
Wednesday, the Hatch Foundation in conjunction with Becket, held a religious liberty seminar highlighting some of the legal action by Becket in defense of religious liberty. Matt Sandgren, Hatch Foundation executive director, summarized Hatch’s significant contributions in a single tweet:
“Senator Hatch’s defense of religious liberty was animated by the belief that an attack on one religion is an attack on all — and it’s that very same belief that brings us together today.”