They turned out in bunches, more than 500 strong, at the Waldorf-Astoria last week to honor Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, founder and president emeritus of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He delivered the keynote address and received the fund’s highest honor, the Canterbury Medal.
The list of VIPs present included Cardinal Dolan, who delivered the invocation, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia; Elder Lance Wickman of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who gave the Benediction; best-selling author Eric Metaxas and CNBC program host Larry Kudlow, who both served as masters of ceremonies; and Mary Ann Glendon, the chairwoman of the Becket Fund and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
In these times when religious liberty is under extreme duress in our United States, the tribute for Hasson made perfect sense for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that he had the vision to start the Becket Fund way back in 1994 when he was a young attorney at a Washington, D.C., firm.
I interviewed Hasson at the Waldorf late in the morning after the May 10 dinner. He offered crisp details about the Becket Fund’s early days, including the dates of its incorporation on Dec. 8, 1993, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and its opening on May 13, 1994, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
In between the two dates, Hasson recalled going to New York to see Cardinal John O’Connor with the hope that he could convince the Archbishop of New York to join the fund’s advisory board. The cardinal initially cut him off at that idea, promising his support for what he termed “a miracle of God,” but stopping short of giving his assent to the advisory position. The conversation continued and before it was through, the cardinal relented, saying, “I’ll make an exception.”
“When we needed advice, he was always there,” Hasson said.
In the past 18 years, the Becket Fund has made quite a name for itself defending the right of religious liberty, no matter which religion’s freedom is at stake. “We defend believers of all stripes,” Hasson said, highlighting the fund’s A to Z approach, in this case, Anglicans to Zoroastrians.
Taking this approach means that the Becket Fund, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is “prepared to be in any court” in the United States, Hasson said. In its history it has won 85 percent of its cases.
In 2011, the Fund legally challenged the Obama Administration’s Preventative Care mandate requiring religious institutions to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, in violation of their consciences.
Earlier this year, the Fund added lawsuits on behalf of the Eternal Word Television Network, Ave Maria University and the State of Alabama to expand the conscience exemption in the Preventative Care mandate.
Religious freedom, Hasson said, is the “core freedom,” without which other freedoms are not secure. When asked his advice for the average person consistently confronted by the barrage of threats to religious freedom, he said, “Get out of denial. This isn’t a show, it’s a fight.”
“We have to hit back intelligently but as hard as we can,” he said. He advised all Catholics to read the recent U.S. bishops’ letter on religious freedom. “It’s a remarkably lucid presentation of where religious liberty comes from, why it makes a difference and what it means in practice,” he said.
He noted that anyone with an Internet connection “and the courage of his or her convictions” has the potential to “do a lot of good.”
Hasson, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, stepped down as president of the Becket Fund last year, but he has not abandoned the fight. As he told me, the fight for religious freedom in America is nothing new. The difference is that today’s skirmishes are no longer between “principled people fighting about what the principles should be.” The current battle pits religious freedom versus “hardcore nihilism.”
“It’s certainly gotten much worse under the Obama Administration,” he said.