SALT LAKE CITY — As an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Luke Goodrich is proud to be able to make a difference while earning a livelihood. Goodrich’s work entails representing religious groups or individuals who fall afoul of the federal government simply by trying to follow the dictates of their conscience.
Goodrich, who is a member of Misseo Dei Community, a local non-denominational Protestant church, sees his work as a calling from God.
“I’m very grateful and very thankful that my life’s work lines up with what I see as a fundamental issue of justice in Scripture,” he said. “It’s a great joy because I do think religious freedom is a basic human right and a basic issue of Biblical justice.”
Originally from Florida, Goodrich has for the past seven years lived in Utah with his wife, Sarah, who grew up here, and their seven children. Prior to that, he attended the University of Chicago law school and afterward clerked for Judge Michael McConnell, one of the nation’s leading scholars on religious freedom cases. He then worked for the U.S. State Department in the human trafficking division, followed by time at a private law firm in Washington, D.C.
When a position opened up at Becket in 2008, “I jumped at the opportunity,” Goodrich said.
Becket was founded in 1994, by Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, a Catholic. It is “the nation’s only law firm dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty and to doing so for people of all faiths,” Goodrich said.
Perhaps the most well-known of Goodrich’s clients are the Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate a number of homes for the elderly poor across the nation. The Little Sisters became the subject of national attention when they were unwilling to comply with an Obama-era Health and Human Services regulation to provide insurance for their employees that would cover all forms of FDA-approved contraception methods. Certain of those methods are considered abortion-inducing, and with their belief in the sanctity of life, the Sisters refused to comply, leaving them open to multi-million dollar fines imposed by the IRS. Becket intervened in the case on their behalf. In court, the Little Sisters claimed a religious exemption, but the 10th Circuit Court rejected their argument.
More than 100 lawsuits have been filed over the Obama-era regulation by religious organizations.
“It’s one of the only times in our nation’s history where the federal government has attempted, on such a large scale, to force so many religious organizations to violate their conscience, particularly around the issue of abortion,” Goodrich said.
In 2016 the Supreme Court heard the Little Sisters’ case and issued a unanimous ruling: “‘Surely the most powerful government in the world can find a way to distribute contraception without using Catholic nuns,’ they said,” according to Goodrich.
This May, HHS introduced the “conscience rule” that protects individuals and health care entities from discrimination on the basis of their exercise of conscience in HHS-funded programs. Several state attorneys general subsequently filed suit against HHS and the administration, arguing that the new rule is unlawful.
The attorneys general’s cases “exploit essentially a loophole because the Supreme Court’s decision did not issue a definitive ruling that the Obama-era regulation was unlawful,” Goodrich said. “Instead, it urged the parties to figure out a solution that would respect the religious freedom of the Sisters and also accomplish the government’s goal of distributing contraception.”
So far, the Third and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals have found against the Little Sisters and other religious organizations in cases filed by the attorneys general. Becket has appealed to the Supreme Court to rehear the Little Sisters case and give a definitive ruling. The Supreme Court is expected to decide by June 2020 whether it will hear the case, which Goodrich said is likely.
“Becket representing us has been a Godsend and has made a potentially very stressful situation into an enriching experience,” said Sister Constance Veit, a spokesperson for the Little Sisters.
“We are hopeful that the litigation will soon come to an end so that we can focus fully on our ministry,” she added. “For myself and those directly involved in this case, we have accepted this situation as God’s will for us at this point in history. We believe that as daughters of the Church it is our duty to stand up to defend her teachings.”
The Little Sisters case is critically important for the defense of religious liberties, Goodrich said.
“If the government can reach inside us and force us to violate our conscience, there’s very little that the government can’t do,” he said. “Every human being is born with a religious impulse, a desire for transcendent truth and by its very nature we can’t act on that impulse under coercion. If the government coerces us in matters of transcendent truth, it’s going against our fundamental nature as human beings and therefore violating our human rights.”
Goodrich recently published his first book, “Free to Believe.” In the book he examines the principle of religious freedom, threats to it and how to protect it. He offers three arguments why everyone should care about religious freedom: it benefits society, is the foundation of all of our other rights and is a fundamental human right.
Goodrich believes that ultimately the Little Sisters will prevail. Still, there are a number of significant religious freedom challenges on the horizon in the United States that Christians are ill-prepared to deal with, he said.
“Longstanding Christian beliefs about life, marriage and absolute truth, which used to be uncontroversial, are now viewed in many quarters as a threat to the prevailing culture,” he said.
Nevertheless, Goodrich believes all Christians should have hope. “As Christians, our hope doesn’t rest primarily in the results of an election or the composition of the Supreme Court. If we are Christians, our hope rests in the person of Jesus Christ,” he said.