Utah’s Orrin Hatch collects Canterbury Medal for his fights for religious liberty

The Republican teamed with Democrat Edward Kennedy in the Senate to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects minority faiths. He is the fourth Latter-day Saint to win the prize.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, shown in 2018, has received the Canterbury Medal for his efforts to safeguard religious freedom.

The wait is over for Orrin Hatch.

After learning way back in February 2020 that he had been awarded the prestigious Canterbury Medal for his defense of religious freedom, Utah’s former longtime U.S. senator finally collected the coveted prize at a gala Thursday in Park City.

“I am proud to have preserved religious freedom for people of all faiths through legislation such as [the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act], which is needed today more than ever,” a “humbled” Hatch said in a news release. “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.”

The big event was twice delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ceremony originally was bumped from last May to October, then pushed back all the way to this month.

Hatch joined an elite list of recipients of the Canterbury — awarded by Becket, a leading religious liberty law firm — that includes Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

He also became the fourth member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to win the medal. Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency and a former Utah Supreme Court justice, collected the honor in 2013. Hatch’s successor in the Senate, Mitt Romney received the Canterbury, along with his wife, Ann, in 2008 soon after he left office as Massachusetts’ governor.

Becket pointed out that Hatch, who served as a Republican senator from Utah for 42 years, teamed up with his late Democratic friend Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to write and pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). He also was the “principal author” of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and supported the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.

“Senator Hatch’s relentless work to pass RFRA unquestionably solidified religious liberty protections for all Americans,” Becket President Mark Rienzi said in the release. “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 Senator Hatch’s commitment to religious liberty, our freedom of conscience would simply not be what it is today.”

For his part, the 87-year-old Hatch said he “always believed that an attack on one religion is an attack on all.”

“That’s why,” he added in a separate release from the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, “over more than four decades of Senate service, I worked to build coalitions of common interest to preserve religious liberty for people of all faiths. Protecting these rights is essential to the future of our republic.”

While the RFRA, seen as a bedrock law safeguarding the religious freedoms of minority faiths, stands as Hatch’s greatest triumph on the issue, his foundation noted that the Utahn, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, sponsored or co-sponsored more than 750 bills that became law.

“Often overlooked are his efforts on the Senate Judiciary Committee — principally, his role in confirming judges that would put the First Amendment front and center,” said Matt Sandgren, the Hatch Foundation’s executive director. “At the time of his retirement, Senator Hatch had participated in the confirmation of more than half of all federal judges who had ever served. His primary consideration when evaluating the fitness of any judicial nominee was his or her commitment to upholding religious freedom. The senator’s legacy lives and breathes through the judicial branch. And for that reason, people of all faiths are beneficiaries of Senator Hatch’s service.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has come under fire from LGBTQ groups and allies. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted the organization has become increasingly conservative and has weighed in on same-sex marriage cases. It supported California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, both now relegated to history with the Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage.

The Canterbury Medal is named after the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who repeatedly blocked King Henry II’s encroachments on church liberties in England.