WASHINGTON -- For 17 years, The Becket Fund has been a small, nonprofit law firm known for defending religious liberty cases for people of many faiths.
It has fought for the right of Buddhists in Connecticut to build a temple, despite opposition from the local zoning board. It has defended the right of Sikh boys in France to wear turbans to school. And its founder, Kevin Hasson, a Catholic, spoke out in defense of Rep. Keith Ellison's (D-Minn.) right to be sworn in as a member of Congress using a Koran in 2006.
Still, The Becket Fund has kept a relatively low profile, attracting little controversy while gaining a reputation for principled defense of religious liberty.
That's about to change.
The group jumped head first into the culture wars recently by filing lawsuits on behalf of a Benedictine college, a Roman Catholic university, and an interdenominational school against President Barack Obama's employer contraception mandate.
It's a fight bound to bring some heavy incoming fire at the firm, given the charged nature of the debate. But The Becket Fund's willingness to wade in to the high-stakes debate comes in part from new leadership. Hasson, a former Justice Department attorney under President Ronald Reagan who has suffered from Parkinson's disease for more than a decade, stepped down from his leadership post almost one year ago.
A somewhat unlikely replacement took over: William P. Mumma, a Wall Street banker who runs the New York trading desk for Mitsubishi UFJ Securities USA.
Since Mumma took over last May, he has infused The Becket Fund with a new sense of energy and urgency, expanding the organization and increasing its fundraising.
For many years, Mumma told The Huffington Post, The Becket Fund "had a super-clear strategy: how does the law work to support religious liberty? But in effect The Becket Fund was operating as a Venus fly trap … They waited patiently for the right cases to come."
"What The Becket Fund is trying to do right now is when we know there's an issue that is really threatening to religious liberty, we are actively out there looking to see if there's a client we can help," said, Mumma, who converted to Catholicism as an adult.
Hasson wanted Mumma to replace him, precisely because he had the potential take Becket in this new direction, Mumma said.
"Bill is a Wall Street guy. Bill is a true believer. He wanted to raise the profile and reorganize. So we are a nonprofit that runs like a well-oiled business now," said Becket's executive director, Kristina Arriaga, who has worked for the organization since 1995. "We have gone from guerilla warriors to special forces," she said.
Arriaga said Becket has gotten more aggressive in the face of what it views as a hostility to religious freedom under the Obama administration. The fight with Obama over whether to force religious institutions to offer contraception, including the morning after pill, in health insurance plans has put this tension under a very bright spotlight.
After initially mandating that employers pay for such services in insurance plans, the White House changed course and said that health insurance companies would be ordered to provide those contraception free of charge.
One of Becket's attorneys, Mark Rienzi, has been an outspoken voice arguing that the Obama's change on contraception is not the compromise the White House says it is. And after Becket hired the conservative public affairs group, Shirley and Banister, in January, the company helped organize a conference call to brief reporters on the lawsuit the firm was filing against the White House on behalf of Ave Maria University, a private Catholic college in Florida.
The public debate has pitted advocates who believe religious liberty is being used as an excuse to deny health services to women, and those who hold that the First Amendment's free exercise is being trampled. The White House amendment of its position took the dispute off the front burner, but it continues to simmer among religious liberty advocates.
Even when the controversy was raging, parts of the issue weren't fully explored, including whether the refusal of religious institutions to provide contraception in insurance plans crosses the line from First Amendment liberty to causing harm to another person. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech have been sacrosanct in the U.S. up to the point where the exercise of those rights hurts another person. Hasson wrote a book in 2005 exploring this line, titled "The Right to Be Wrong."
The Becket Fund, founded to defend the First Amendment, argues that women seeking contraception who work for an employer that objects to providing it can access Title X funding, which provides taxpayer money to pay for contraception. As for women who take birth control pills to reduce the threat of ovarian cancer and other health reasons, Arriaga said that "none of our clients in the HHS mandate lawsuit have asserted that they are against the use of contraceptives for medical reasons.”
Arriaga said she was not concerned about criticism that Becket will face for taking the contraception mandate cases. But critics who have battled with Becket in the past are already seizing on the firm's participation in suits to label it part of the "religious right."
"I think that the positions that the Becket Fund has taken in general are not at all dissimilar to the ones taken by the American Center for Law and Justice or the Alliance Defense Fund," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, referring to law advocacy groups founded by evangelical leader Pat Robertson and James Dobson, respectively.
"I've always thought they were just a hair's breath away from those groups and now it seems they are trying to raise their profile dramatically in the challenge," Lynn said of Becket. "I think there's a kind of competition on the so called religious right about membership and contributions."
Lynn said he believes a conscience exemption exists, but the contraception mandate case is one of "a claim of conscience that trumps the medical needs and ethical decisions of a woman employee."
"I say baloney," Lynn said. "The right is with the employee to be able to obtain the full range of medical coverage. I don't think there is such as thing as a corporate conscience except in narrow circumstances."
Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for American Center for Law and Justice, told HuffPost that the Becket Fund has been "more of a niche group, very ecumenical." But its involvement in the contraception issue shows "they're moving with the times, and I think that's a good thing."
"You're seeing a bit of a broadening out out in taking on new issues quickly," Sekulow said.
But the contraception fight is also a natural one for Becket to join, given Hasson's deep Catholic roots. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not been the only group to speak out against the mandate, but led the charge. And the two most senior voices in the White House opposed to Obama's decision -- Vice President Joe Biden and former White House chief of staff William Daley -- are both Catholics.
Mumma said he thinks Becket's reputation will be vindicated as the lawsuits make their way to the Supreme Court. He cited as a hopeful sign a recent decision, where all nine justices in January ruled against Obama's Justice Department in a religious freedom case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"What we would like to see with the HHS lawsuit is when they make their way through the courts that we get a similar outcome, and that judges who are liberal or Democratic in their outlook, and who might be enthusiastic supporters of the current administration, will nonetheless find that in the cases we've picked, and in the arguments we've made, that they agree with the Becket Fund's understanding of religious liberty, which when all is settled will then help calm a little bit any concerns that we have taken a partisan position," Mumma said.
CORRECTION: A headline elsewhere on HuffPost referred to the Becket Fund as a Catholic organization. We've since changed the headline to reflect that it is not solely a Catholic organization.