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LGBTQ activists demand restrictions on Harvard Law’s new religious freedom clinic

Don’t help anyone ‘jeopardize reproductive justice’

Harvard Law School is refusing to defend its newly announced religious freedom clinic in response to criticism by some students that it will harm progressive priorities.

Activists are demanding restrictions on the new legal clinic, including restraints on which clients and subject matter it can take, while enjoying more flexibility for their own preferred clinics, such as the new LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic.

In a letter published by The Harvard Law Record earlier this month, gay rights organization Lambda blasted Dean John Manning for ignoring their objections to a religious freedom clinic after he floated the proposal with a curriculum committee in October.

Lambda leaders said they wrote a letter to him in November “seeking a guarantee that the clinic would not weaponize ‘religious freedom’ to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people or jeopardize reproductive justice.”

The group favors a legal clinic that supports “religious minorities, incarcerated individuals, and religious asylum-seekers,” and another “aimed at addressing urgent problems of bigotry, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.” But it demanded a ban on cases involving religious conscience on sexuality matters.

Manning ignored multiple requests for comment from The College Fix, and right-of-center faculty and students declined to provide a public defense of the religious freedom clinic.

Prof. Jack Goldsmith, a high-profile conservative legal thinker and former George W. Bush administration official with a new memoir, told The Fix he did not have “an informed take” on the subject.

Prof. Adrian Vermeule, known for his advocacy of Catholic “integralism,” did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and neither did the campus chapter of the Federalist Society.

Eli Nachmany and Jacob Richards, first-year students who helped develop a petition asking HLS for right-of-center clinics including a religious freedom clinic, declined to comment.

Both cited recent Federalist Society chapter elections, stating that they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the chapter. Nachmany, however, celebrated the clinic’s approval on Twitter.

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Not satisfied with promise to only serve ‘underserved’ and ‘vulnerable’ clients

HLS said its clinic would be “modeled on” the religious freedom clinic at Stanford University, which it noted has represented Sikhs in the trucking industry as well as a Seventh-day Adventist and a Muslim.

Students will represent “underserved” clients “from a diverse array of religious traditions,” the school announcement said. Manning further qualified the announcement by limiting representation to “vulnerable” clients.

Pressure was on Harvard to add a religious freedom clinic after Yale University announced its own in October, the same month Manning broached the possibility with the curriculum committee. Douglas Colby (below), current president of Harvard’s Federalist Society, publicly questioned why Harvard didn’t have one after years of student requests.

Manning’s failure to give Lambda veto power over new clinics upset the group. In its letter to the Record, the gay rights group demanded that HLS institute “a formal, transparent process to solicit student input before any major changes to the curriculum, such as the addition of a new clinic.”

Lambda leaders Youzhihang Deng, Matt Shields and Mia Gettenbe said they asked Manning last fall if the proposed clinic would “engage in work that seeks to abridge the civil rights of or otherwise discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.”

He “refused to directly respond to the question,” citing academic freedom, they said. At that point they assembled “a collective representing over 50 percent of the student body” to ask if the proposed clinic would defend clients who practice so-called conversion therapy or “undermine the rights of the trans community,” and from where it would getting funding.

MORE: Harvard law students ask for religious freedom clinic


On the same day that the clinic was announced, Lambda held a protest to voice its discontent, according to The Harvard Crimson. They held signs including “HLS FOLLOW YOUR ANTI-DISCRIMINATION POLICY” and “YOUR SILENCE IS POLITICAL DEAN MANNING.”

According to Lambda, after the rally the protesters marched into Manning’s office and delivered their assortment of manila protest signs. A Lambda photo shows one such student caped in a rainbow flag.

Shields, Lambda co-president, told The Crimson that while Manning ignored them, other deans reached out.

“They were very, very great, but they did not know anything about the clinic, and it just was a conversation of them saying, ‘we don’t know that’ or ‘we don’t know whether we can tell you that,’” he said.

That doesn’t seem to match up with the account of HLS spokesperson Jeff Neal.

He told the newspaper that Manning has met with Lambda students at the curriculum committee open house and emailed with the group’s leadership. HLS has also invited them to meet with Vice Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education Daniel Nagin and Assistant Dean for Clinical and Pro Bono Program Lisa Dealy, among others, Neal said.

Regarding Lambda’s point about the dean exerting control over client selection, the spokesperson said Manning “does not dictate the case selection of any of the School’s clinical professors or it’s 46 legal clinics and student practice organizations.”

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IMAGE: Dennis Owusu-Ansah/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Connor Ellington -- University of Texas