Faith and Law

Stephanie Barclay

Notre Dame Law School

Associate Professor of Law

Stephanie Barclay, associate professor of law at the Notre Dame Law School, was first exposed to the law as a 10-year-old when her father’s company was involved in a legal dispute. The case was appealed from a lower court in Arizona to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and Barclay’s father brought her along for the proceedings. Sitting next to her dad there in that courtroom, she became enthralled with the oral arguments. Not only did this argument seem like a lot of fun, but Barclay realized her family was really depending on their lawyer to represent them well. She was struck by the realization that a lawyer could be a powerful force for good. At that tender age, the die was cast.

Barclay’s next influential moment occurred while attending Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. During a summer opportunity in Europe, she first got a taste for religious liberty law while advising religious organizations in Romania. There, she witnessed the real suffering people endure when they are denied religious liberty.

“This type of work highlights the best of our religious liberty traditions and commitment to pluralism, where people of different faiths are willing to not just tolerate each other, but advocate for each other.”

“The freedoms we enjoy (here in the United States) are like oxygen. And when these freedoms are missing, the oppression of the human spirit is suffocating,” she said. “I saw how religious freedom enables people to live their life in a meaningful and authentic way, allowing them to flourish and maintain their dignity.”

Barclay’s early experiences in Romania motivated her to think about how her First Amendment research can apply in an international context. One of her current articles compares and contrasts the way religious freedom is protected in the United States and how it is protected abroad. Her international experience highlights how important it is for countries to get this type of protection right.

“There are certainly challenges for religious freedom in the United States, but many of those challenges pale in comparison to persecution of religious individuals of all faiths abroad,” she said. “For groups like Uyghurs in China or Christians in North Korea or even atheists in Afghanistan, the lack of freedom of conscience is a life-or-death matter.”

Barclay handled her first religious freedom case during her first job out of law school, as an associate at Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C. A prison inmate was being denied diet accommodations requested for religious reasons.

“That principle meant something to me,” she said. “The importance and right for anyone, of any faith, to be able to practice their religion as much as possible, even in prison.”

A view from above a woman writes in a notebook sitting on a leather couch.
Stephanie Barclay works in the Kresge Law Library.

She argued and won that case in a familiar courtroom, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. This time, it was her father who was there to watch her, in the very courtroom where she had sat with him over 15 years before. She soaked in the moment, recalling that this is where a little girl's dream of becoming a lawyer had begun.

Since then, she has drafted many articles and briefs focusing on religious liberty issues. Barclay joined Notre Dame Law School in 2020, both as a faculty member and to direct the Law School’s new Religious Liberty Initiative. The initiative involves promoting more religious liberty scholarship, coordinating events for thought leaders in this space, and launching a new Religious Liberty Clinic. Regarding her role, Dean G. Marcus Cole has said, “I am absolutely thrilled for Stephanie to direct our Religious Liberty Initiative. She is an exceptional scholar and teacher, and one of the nation’s leading advocates for religious freedom, and as such, ideal to lead this effort.”

A woman is interviewed by multiple people with microphones.
Stephanie Barclay speaks to reporters after oral argument in a federal court hearing where Barclay defended a Native American sacred site.

Barclay will become the first woman to lead a law school’s religious liberty clinic in the country. Through this work, students will defend religious freedom for clients of all faiths.

In the last two months, Barclay and the students in the first Religious Liberty Initiative cohort filed amicus briefs supporting religious liberty protections for Oak Flat, an Indigenous sacred site in Arizona being threatened with destruction. Regarding this case, Apache Stronghold leader and former San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. said, “We are so grateful and honored that Notre Dame is helping the Apache in our time of greatest need.”

This issue is one Barclay cares deeply about. Before coming to Notre Dame, Barclay litigated a different case at Becket defending a sacred site in Oregon. And rethinking protections for sacred sites is the topic of a recent Harvard Law Review article she co-authored.

Barclay’s students have also helped write briefs filed in the Northern District of New York, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, defending the rights of Muslims, Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews. “This type of work highlights the best of our religious liberty traditions and commitment to pluralism, where people of different faiths are willing to not just tolerate each other, but advocate for each other,” Barclay said. Aly Cox, a 3L student, said, “The chance to work on these cases was one of the most meaningful parts of my law school experience, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Religious Liberty Initiative.”

Barclay said she is grateful for terrific mentors who have encouraged her to find her own voice in a field that is often dominated by men, and to aim higher than she would have on her own. Barclay grew up in a small, rural town in Arizona. She said it was a big deal for her to go to law school, and she thought she would probably stay local and work for a small law firm. Her mentors helped her see beyond that and set her sights higher — to look at clerkships, to pursue jobs in urban centers and to go abroad — all of which pushed her out of her comfort zone.

That push led her to become a law professor, first at BYU Law School, where she was voted professor of the year both years she taught there. It also helped her to pursue a Supreme Court clerkship. Barclay will clerk for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch during the 2021-22 term.

“I am so grateful for those who encouraged me and helped me believe in myself,” she said.

The mentorship Barclay has experienced now fuels her passion to encourage and support students as a professor. She says giving career advice and encouragement to students is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a professor. She finds the students at Notre Dame to be collegial and respectful, and all the students she has met have inspiring reasons to become a lawyer.

“Professor Barclay is a dynamic mentor, in and out of class,” said Kathryn Boswell, one of her law students last semester. “She empowers each student to speak up and bring our real-life experiences into class, making us and our classmates better. Being her student prepared me to be a more attentive, kind and empathetic lawyer. I am grateful for all I learned about the discipline and as a person.”

Barclay’s mentors also showed her that she did not have to choose between career and family, and that you can have a fulfilling life professionally and personally.

A family of five walk together hand in hand.
Stephanie Barclay and her family walk through the arches outside the Kresge Law Library.

“Of course, balancing career and family has meant more than a few all-nighters, an active account with Uber Eats and a perpetual pile of unfolded laundry. But, for me, the measure of happiness and success is not found in keeping a perfect household but in meaningful moments each day, like laughing with my husband, sharing my passions with my kids and serving my academic community. In the end, those are the moments that add up to a fulfilled life,” she said.

Barclay and her husband, Doug, are parents to three young children, two noisy guinea pigs and a mischievous dog. “Working from home during the pandemic quite literally felt like I was in the middle of a zoo sometimes,” she said. Barclay noted that many other parents, especially single parents, faced lots of disproportionate burdens this last year.

She says she is lucky to have a supportive partner, and she tries to integrate her kids into her work whenever she can. In fact, her husband and two of her kids came to watch her and cheer her on during the successful oral argument at the Ninth Circuit — the case that brought Barclay’s dream of becoming a lawyer full circle.

Written by Denise Wager
Photography by Barbara Johnston

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