"An Interfaith View: Flying While Muslim," a Commentary by Lawrence Swaim

May 11, 2007

Author: Lawrence Swaim

Source: Infocus News


When Omar Mohammedi filed a lawsuit in defense of six Imams who were unceremoniously kicked off a US Airways flight, he thought he was engaging in straightforward civil rights litigation. Then Kevin J. Hasson, President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, offered free legal services to John Does cited in the lawsuit. In an open letter to Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Hasson contended that airline passengers who used cell phones to complain about the Imams were simply exercising their civic duty. He was "appalled," Hasson wrote, adding categorically that the claim was "not about religious liberty."

A former Justice Department attorney under President Reagan, Hasson is a charismatic speaker, a clever lawyer, and a compelling writer. He is also a conservative self-promoter who sometimes writes as though he alone is capable of understanding the First Amendment. That’s ironic, to say the least, because the Becket Fund often seems more like an operation of the Religious Right than a defender of religious liberty.

The avowed strategy of the Becket Fund is to ensure religious liberty by encouraging the maximum amount of religious activity. Indeed, the Becket Fund has represented Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews in court. (To his credit, Kevin Hasson unequivocally supported the right of Keith Ellison to carry a Koran while being sworn in as a Congressman.) But the Becket Fund is far more likely to defend Christians facing legal difficulty than non-Christians, and is particularly willing to defend Christian clergy accused of hate speech, including hate speech against Muslims. Unless accompanied by a disavowal of the hateful content, such a defense of free speech has little to do with religious liberty, which must always be concerned with maintaining a baseline public civility without which religious pluralism won’t work.

Furthermore, the Becket Fund proposes to use government to empower religion, but mainly religion of the "right" kind. It supports school prayer, which would almost surely be controlled by evangelical Christians, and school vouchers. In other words, the Becket Fund wants legal opinion to take a direction that more closely approximates the preferences of center-right Christians than non-Christians. It’s okay to advocate that, but it’s not the same thing as religious liberty. It’s a selective defense of—and therefore an advocacy for—the social interests of conservative Christianity.