The man credited with sending conservative jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts paid tribute Thursday to former Sen. Orrin Hatch and the rise of conservative judges.
Leonard Leo, executive vice president of The Federalist Society, said he couldn’t imagine a “successful conservative legal movement” without Hatch.
“Senator Hatch, you've had an enormous impact on at least two generations of jurists and lawyers,” Leo said, “and we all owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude for that and for so much more.”
Hatch and Leo were among the speakers Thursday at a symposium hosted by the new Hatch Foundation at the University of Utah. The symposium was titled “Protecting Our Religious Liberty.” Leo was the keynote speaker.
The Federalist Society believes in interpreting the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it and that judges should rule to constrain government actions that infringe upon liberty. The society is best known for making recommendations that President Donald Trump has relied on as he selected two Supreme Court nominees as well as a number of selections for lower courts.
Hatch, who left the Senate in January after representing Utah there for 42 years, introduced Leo as a “fellow foot soldier in the fight for religious freedom.”
“For those who may not know,” Hatch said, “The Federalist Society is arguably the most consequential legal organization of modern times.”
Leo’s keynote address focused on the need for the courts to stop administrative action that infringes on religion. He pointed to Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order that runs homes for the elderly and was not automatically exempt from the requirements to provide contraception in employer health plans under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters went to court to ensure an exemption from the requirement.
“Intolerance toward religion [in the United States] is not as heavy-handed as it is in other cultures,” Leo said. “It’s something arguably more disarming and insidious. It is fashionable. Just think of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Recall the superior attitudes directed at the Little Sisters during that controversy.”
Leo said the Trump administration will do nothing more important than appoint judges who will adhere to the fixed meaning of the Constitution.
“And judging by the reaction from the other side,” Leo said, “I suspect the left agrees. Now remember, the left’s agenda is fundamentally incompatible with the original meaning of the Constitution. The courts that give Congress a free pass when it oversteps enumerated powers, they need justices who see no problem with giving more authority to the administrative state.”
During a panel discussion, religious leaders from Utah described a supportive environment.
Neale Neelameggham, of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan, recalled that when fundraising for the temple began in 1995, he reached out to other faiths for advice and support. Neighbors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suggested where to buy land. Area Muslims gave permitting advice and donated legal work so the temple could acquire the necessary rights of way.
“Without the community help, we wouldn’t be here,” Neelameggham said. “Everyone had faith. They wanted to practice their faith. They wanted us to practice our faith.”
Misunderstandings and lack of perspective exist in Utah, too. Avais Ahmed, with the Utah Muslim Civic League, recalled attending Davis High School, where he said he was the only Muslim out of a class of about 1,000.
Many of his Latter-day Saint friends thought they were a religious majority in the world, he said, and didn’t know anything about Islam.
Ahmed encouraged Utah’s religious leaders to go into their communities and meet people who are different.
“We, as leaders of our various communities, we can go out and break this us-versus-them lens."