This academic year, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic student fellows have been actively defending religious liberty around the world in a variety of cases.
Here are a few highlights of our fellows’ work.
Defending Religious Minorities in Nepal
This past winter, third-year law students Andrew Scarafile and Daisy An, and second-year law student Huan Nguyen worked alongside pre-eminent scholar and human rights attorney, Mark Hill KC, as part of a parliamentary delegation exploring the state of religious liberty in the country, in partnership with Bellwether International. The Nepalese Constitution nominally protects religious liberty, but bans on proselytization still exist and local police and lower courts often misinterpret laws to punish religious individuals for living out their faith.
The student fellows met with members of Parliament and the UK Ambassador to Nepal. And the delegation also met with high-ranking government leaders, including the former Minister of Justice, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Human Rights, and the Attorney General.
“The students had the chance to work alongside top-ranking government officials in the UK as they advanced religious freedom issues globally and in Nepal. They were also able to see how high the stakes can be in countries where basic freedoms are denied,” said Professor Stephanie Barclay, who oversaw this project.
The delegation also met with and learned about Christian and Muslim religious leaders currently imprisoned for sharing their beliefs, including one who was preparing a legal filing for his case at the Supreme Court of Nepal. These religious leaders face harassment, arrest, conviction, and jail time for simple acts like posting a prayer on YouTube. One pastor was convicted of violating a proselytization ban because he posted a picture of himself holding scriptures on Facebook and also posted prayers online.
"Working on Pastor Acharya's case was the most fulfilling experience I have had with the Religious Liberty Initiative,” said Nguyen. “Sharing the Gospel is central to the expression of the Christian faith and I am proud of the role I had in protecting the pastor's freedom to do so.”
Our student fellows worked with the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief to draft a report that was submitted to the United Kingdom Parliament. This report will ultimately be shared with the government of Nepal, to assist Nepal in ensuring that religious freedom is fully respected throughout the country.
“Working on the Nepal case was one of the most impactful experiences of law school for me. It was eye opening to see how different countries provide such a lower level of protection for free exercise outside of the United States,” said Scarafile. “I was very grateful for the opportunity to contribute my work on such an important case with such high stakes.”
Asylum for Uyghur Muslims Facing Persecution in China
Third-year law students Josh Lacoste and Elisabeth Crusey, and second-year law student Chris Ostertag helped a young Uyghur Muslim from China, who came to the United States for college, with her application for asylum. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, there are approximately 500 to 1,000 Uyghurs in the U.S. asylum system, some having waited upwards of eight years for resolutions to their cases.
The need for resolution is significant. Uyghurs in China, including this young woman’s family, are subjected to social ostracization, interrogation, and imprisonment in detention camps simply for being Uyghur. She has good reason to fear being sent to a camp if she returns to China; on her most recent trip home, she was interrogated by Chinese police and held for hours simply because she is Uyghur and she had spent time in the United States. Her situation is so challenging we are unable to identify her for fear of reprisal.
Student fellows from Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic helped research asylum law and country conditions in China, prepared materials supporting her application, and met personally with her to help her prepare for the interview. Josh Lacoste and John Meiser, the Religious Liberty Clinic’s managing director for domestic litigation, accompanied her to the asylum interview.
In February of this year, the Religious Liberty Clinic filed an amicus brief in support of a criminal complaint that the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur Human Rights Project filed against China for genocide to bring awareness to and encourage action to end the atrocities committed against Uyghurs by the Chinese government.
Legal Analysis to Aid Documentation Efforts for Yezidis in Iraq
Student fellows Huan Nguyen (2L), Daisy An (3L), Andrew Scarafile (3L), Christopher Ostertag (2L), and Rose Higgins (LL.M.), presented to UNHCR staff about the impacts of religious discrimination on the Yezidis, particularly in complex documentation cases.
Following the Da’esh (ISIS) perpetrated genocide in 2014, Yezidi have been displaced and killed; today, various legal structures make it almost impossible for Yezidis to participate in normal life due in part to the overwhelming loss of critical national identification and documentation.
In partnership with Bellwether International, the students spent several weeks investigating complex documentation cases that Yezidis currently face to aid ongoing efforts of providing missing documentation led by UNHCR. They presented legal analysis on complex cases, including missing documentation in the Dohuk governorate where a large population of internally displaced (IDP) Yezidis remain, in cases involving the practice of tabri’a (disavowal of family members with perceived or convicted of affiliation with Da’esh), advocating for the use of alternative methods for proving paternity/lineage besides DNA testing, and mapping Iraq’s judicial system.
The fellows worked directly with Yezidi staff from Bellwether International and engaged with a former Iraqi judge to provide critical legal analysis on these cases. The fellows then presented their findings to senior UNHCR staff about the situation and provided recommendations on how to reform laws that contribute to religious persecution for displaced populations, like Yezidis.
"Supporting the Religious Liberty Initiative's collaboration with Bellwether International to realize the right to civil documentation of displaced Yezidis in Iraq was a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful and impactful research that was focused on addressing the needs of very vulnerable people and communities,” said Rose Higgins, an LL.M. student in International Human Rights Law at Notre Dame Law School.
Assistance in Drafting Amicus Curiae Brief for Death Penalty Case in Nigeria
Finally, student fellows, in cooperation with ADF International, assisted in drafting an amicus curiae brief to be submitted in the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Nigerian Sufi Muslim who was previously convicted and sentenced to death for allegations of blasphemy and who is currently appealing his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
"Yahaya Sharif-Aminu's conviction in Nigeria was an egregious violation of international human rights,” shared 3L Daisy An. “Working on his case was deeply fulfilling and I am proud of the role that the Religious Liberty Initiative played in defending his case."
“It is not only right, but a rare and precious privilege, to lend our voices to the chorus of advocates championing Sharif-Aminu’s freedom,” added 2L Chris Ostertag.
The brief argues that the blasphemy law under which Sharif-Aminu is being prosecuted violates the right to freedom of religion or belief under international law, among other protected rights.
The Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic student fellows begin defending religious liberty and human rights while they are still in law school. As the Class of 2023 prepares to graduate, we celebrate their accomplishments and look forward eagerly to the good work they will do in the years to come.
About the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative
Established in 2020, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative promotes and defends religious freedom for all people through advocacy, formation, and thought-leadership. The initiative protects the freedom of individuals to hold religious beliefs as well as their right to exercise and express those beliefs and to live according to them.
The Religious Liberty Initiative has represented individuals and organizations from an array of faith traditions to defend the right to religious worship, to preserve sacred lands from destruction, to promote the freedom to select religious ministers, and to prevent discrimination against religious schools and families.
Learn more about the Religious Liberty Initiative at religiousliberty.nd.edu.