Clinic Defends Religious Liberty

Students in the Law & Religion clinic pose outside the law school.
The Fall 2023 Law & Religion Clinic.

A man is handcuffed and arrested in downtown Houston’s Discovery Green public park. Moments earlier, inspired by his religious beliefs, he was protesting animal mistreatment in industrial farming.

That man, Daraius Dubash, is an animal rights advocate whose case, Dubash v. City of Houston, was taken on by the Law and Religion Clinic at Texas Law. As Dubash explains in a video, he volunteers with Allied Scholars for Animal Protection, founded by his co-plaintiff, Dr. Faraz Harsini. “Dubash’s Vedanta religious beliefs require him to seek to protect those who cannot protect themselves in an ever-expanding circle of compassion that includes animals,” says Professor Steven T. Collis, who co-teaches the clinic with Professor John Greil, of the Hindu philosophy. “So, for him, the speech the government tried to silence is religious speech. And engaging in these protests is a form of religious exercise.”

Over the fall semester, clinic students met with Dubash and Harsini to ask questions, write filings for the court, and work with co-counsel the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that defends Americans’ individual rights to free speech.

The Dubash case offers an incredible learning experience for Texas Law students, but it’s not the only such opportunity. Beginning with its first cohort in spring 2021, each semester the clinic’s enrolled students represent individuals and groups of all faiths who face challenges to their religious liberty. Typically, plaintiffs approach the clinic to seek help. Since the clinic launched, 60 students have participated, including the 18 students currently enrolled. Another 10 will join the clinic in the fall.

Veda Tsai '25 and Alexia Baker '25 typing on their laptops, working hard in the war room in preparation for the PI hearing.
Veda Tsai ’25 and Alexia Baker ’25 working hard in the war room in preparation for the PI hearing.

“We’re one of the only clinics in this space representing clients in the earliest stages of litigation all the way up through appeals,” says Collis, founding faculty director of the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center and its Law and Religion Clinic. “A lot of clinics just do amicus briefs, but we’re trying to give our students the full-blown experience of representing, advising, and helping clients at all stages of litigation and pre-litigation. That includes transactional advising for churches.”

Clinic students act as practitioners in a teaching law office. They get to work on cases that may involve the free exercise or establishment clauses, similar state constitutional provisions, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its state equivalents, antidiscrimination statutes, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Students serve as first chair or co-counsel on some matters and assist faculty or outside counsel with others.

Alongside helping with litigation, the clinic does additional work critical for religious liberty. “Most religious institutions are not large, hierarchical churches or charities with lots of money that can hire specialized attorneys—they are small, congregational entities with few resources that cannot protect themselves against the many pitfalls they may encounter,” Collis says. 

He notes clinic efforts that include advising Muslim halfway houses on how to properly incorporate and set up their governing documents, drafting articles of incorporation and trust documents for churches that otherwise could not afford legal help, drafting employment manuals for churches that can’t afford labor lawyers, and helping churches establish nonprofits in compliance with federal and state tax and nonprofit law. 

“By having our students do this work for them upfront, we are helping them avoid litigation in the future and comply with all the laws that are unique to them,” Collis says. 

During the seminar portion of the class, students explore a comprehensive survey of the law regarding the free exercise of religion, anti-establishment principles, church autonomy, religious discrimination, and more.

Drawn to the Clinic

Students are drawn to the clinic from across the ideological spectrum. They often—but not always—have an interest in religion, Collis explains, and may want to work with him and Greil while seeking an expansive clinical experience.

“Religion law affects every other area of the law,” Collis says. “So, when students come here, they get to work on a wide variety of areas of the law—criminal law and immigration cases, transactional work, and Supreme Court litigation—while focusing on the religion law component of it.”

Advanced clinic 3L student Matt Liles points to two reasons he enrolled. First, a desire for practical lawyering experience. “A clinic is the only opportunity during the school year to work on real cases and learn what it’s like to be an actual litigator, as opposed to just learning the ‘theory’ of the law,” he says. Second, the clinic involves the sort of work he’ll be doing following graduation at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Arlington, Virginia. “By participating in the clinic, I am getting a huge jump-start on the skills and experience I’ll need in my day-to-day job after law school. It’s a great opportunity to show up to my first job as a lawyer already competent,” says Liles.

For advanced student Veda Tsai 2L, the clinic provides grounding in the nation’s founding documents. “I was inspired to enroll in the clinic because I have sought to understand religion and the history of our founding documents. Although I grew up in Texas, I was raised Buddhist, and my interactions with some other major religions were limited,” she says. “As an Asian-American, I’ve been blessed with the duality of two starkly different cultures—Western and Eastern—with sometimes complimentary and other times opposing values. Walking between these worlds and code-shifting made me curious about the underlying reasoning of the First Amendment, one of this nation’s pillars.”

Meanwhile, clinic student Clayton Dana-Bashian 2L is an atheist who shares that he’s experienced religious discrimination. “My beliefs are out of step with the majority of powerful decision-makers in this country and I felt that joining the clinic was a way to ensure that others do not face the same marginalization I have experienced,” Dana-Bashian says.

Practical Experience

Alongside the ongoing Dubash case and others, the clinic is working on Perez v. City of San Antonio to stop the city from uprooting trees and destroying a religious site sacred to Native Americans in Brackenridge Park.

“That case went to the equivalent of a full-blown trial, like what you see in the movies,” Collis says. “Something like 99% of cases never go to a trial-like hearing.” In this instance, students got the rare opportunity to see opening arguments, the presentation of evidence, witnesses, cross-examinations, and closing arguments. “Litigation almost never does that, but the students got to see it,” Collis says.

And they weren’t simply passive witnesses.

The clinic occupied hotel conference rooms in San Antonio where students worked with lawyers from the firm assisting with the case, Jones Day (including then Jones Day attorney Jennifer Psirogiannis ’22—now clerking for a federal judge—who was a clinic student in spring 2022). Collis describes an all-hands-on-deck effort over the entire five days: students conducted research, looked up cases, helped prep the lawyers, passed notes, and pointed out flaws in testimony. “They were really doing everything they could to help all the lawyers argue the case,” Collis says.

“It’s quite funny, looking back on it, how excited my classmates and I got when the professors would turn around with a brief instruction on a yellow Post-it note, and we all would scramble to find a case, email an answer, or look through the thousands of pages of exhibits to spot that one ‘golden nugget’ or a quote that we were just adamant would ‘destroy’ the other side’s argument,” says Tsai.

“I miss the rush of trial . . . and maybe even an 11 p.m. email asking for an obscure case,” she says.

Passion for Law

Although fun, the experience was also deeply meaningful. “The opportunity to attend a preliminary injunction hearing reignited my passion for law,” says Tsai, noting the work with litigators who examined witnesses with questions the students wrote and cited student research while responding to the judge. “Our client shared with us how our advocacy made him feel cared for, valued, and hopeful not only for his own spirituality but for its survival for generations after,” she says.

The culmination was powerful. “After long nights, thousands of hours, and hundreds of miles traveling back and forth, our team was nearly brought to tears as one of our attorneys gave the closing argument. Our overwhelming emotion stemmed from the magnitude of what this meant to an entire community and to our clients whom we’ve fought so hard for,” says Tsai.

(Since then, Collis notes a “partial victory” in that case. In December, Greil argued the Fifth Circuit case on appeal in New Orleans, and now the case is in an ordered mediation. “If we don’t come to some resolution using the Fifth Circuit’s mediator, then the panel on the Fifth Circuit will have to issue an opinion,” he says. Meanwhile, clinic students remain engaged with the mediator to the greatest extent possible, working on mediation statements [“memos that go to the mediator,” Collis explains] and conducting research—basically “everything we can do to get them involved,” Collis says.)

Law & Religion Clinic students at the Perez v. City of San Antonio hearing.
Law & Religion Clinic students at the Perez v. City of San Antonio hearing.

For Greil’s oral argument at the Fifth Circuit, the students mooted him on three different panels, which included preeminent law and religion scholars including Professor Doug Laycock. “The students completely held their own, demonstrating deep knowledge of the seminal cases and probing important details of the factual record,” Greil says. “Those deep dives into specific cases also informed our conversations during seminar, with students bringing those insights to different doctrines we discuss in the classroom. Ultimately, I would give the students the best praise an attorney can give a moot panel: I don’t think I was asked any question at oral argument, that I hadn’t already practiced in a moot.”

Students will take the clinic experience with them.

Dana-Bashian says the clinic has taught him to more effectively work with others who have different core beliefs. “At the end of the day, if everyone believes, thinks, and acts as I would, our advocacy would have been weaker,” he says. “The clinic let me see that play out in real time.”

“The practical experience I have gained from the clinic is pound-for-pound much more valuable than the hornbook law I have learned in classes,” Dana-Bashian says. He hopes to clerk for a federal judge following graduation and then work for a federal agency.

After her graduation, Tsai plans to clerk for a federal judge before returning to a Dallas law firm and intends to stay involved with religious liberty through pro bono work. “The Bill of Rights continues to be protected by litigation like this,” she says of Perez v. City of San Antonio. “I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for Professor Collis and Professor Greil to get to do this every day.”

Category: Clinic News