Amen, I rest my case
Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz fights for religious freedom.
By Carolyn Duffy Marsan
Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, Arts ’86, isn’t your typical Washington, D.C., powerbroker.
Yes, she is executive director of a prestigious law firm. Yes, she has a spacious corner office with an enviable view of the fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood. And, yes, her walls are adorned with photos of herself with lawmakers, ambassadors and heads of state, including presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
However among her most prized possessions are photographs of herself with Pope John Paul II, Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor, Anuttama Dasa of the Hindu Hare Krishna, Kit Bigelow of the Baha’i and Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, author of The Purpose Driven Life.
Arriaga is unafraid to show her spirituality on the job, which is to be expected given that she runs a law firm once dubbed God’s ACLU.
She leads the Becket Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that takes cases focused on religious liberty. The firm argues and frequently wins — with a success rate of 87 percent — high-profile, controversial cases that involve public expressions of faith. “The Becket Fund protects that freedom that is at the core of all other freedoms: religious liberty,” Arriaga says. “If we can’t live according to our deepest beliefs, then we have no freedom at all.”
Arriaga’s success at the Becket Fund is due in part to how passionate she feels about religious liberty, a consequence of her unusual upbringing. Her Cuban-American parents fled their homeland after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. She was raised in Puerto Rico in a household where freedoms of the press, speech and religion were regularly discussed and appreciated. “Looking back I realize that we had nothing, but I never felt poor because my parents taught us that if we had freedom, we had everything,” she recalls. “We were taught to keep an eye out for government intrusion into our rights.”
She is a product of Catholic education, from kindergarten through her years at Marquette followed by master’s studies at Georgetown University. “I remember feeling moved by my theology classes at Marquette,” Arriaga says, adding that it was during her undergraduate years when she began to understand that faith provides an underlying purpose to all things and how universal it is for people to need to express their faith. “At Marquette I learned about the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Catholic social teaching. I learned the meaning of justice, just laws and unjust laws. I came to Washington, D.C., because I wanted to implement what I learned.”
Arriaga launched her career with a combination of skill, luck and chutzpah. Fresh out of Marquette with a history degree, she was in Washington, D.C., to hear a talk by Armando Valladares, a Cuban artist and writer who was sentenced by the Castro regime to 30 years in prison for criticizing communism. In his international bestseller, Against All Hope, Valladares described being tortured and held in solitary confinement during 22 years in prison. He was released in 1982 after an appeal to Castro by French President François Mitterrand.
After his speech Arriaga met Valladares and learned his interpreter had fallen ill on the trip. Valladares asked: “Can you translate for me?”
Arriaga jumped at the chance. “That moment changed my life,” she says.
A year later she was photographed sitting with Valladares in Reagan’s White House office wearing her only business suit and translating a rapid-fire conversation between the president and the former political prisoner. She spent 10 years working with Valladares, the man Reagan named U.S. ambassador to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Arriaga became U.S. adviser to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in 1991 and spent those years raising awareness of the plight of political prisoners in Cuba and aiding defectors and refugees.
Her most daring exploit came in 1993, when she coordinated a mission in which Orestes Lorenzo Perez, a Cuban Air Force MiG pilot who defected in 1991, flew a small Cessna to Cuba to rescue his wife and sons and bring them to Florida. Hanging on her office wall are mementos of the rescue mission: the orange baseball cap one of Perez’s children wore while waiting roadside in Cuba for his father to land the Cessna, along with clippings about the rescue mission from Reader’s Digest and Vanity Fair.
Traveling between Washington, D.C., and Geneva, Arriaga found time to get married and raise three children, who are now in high school and middle school. She joined the Becket Fund in 1995 and became executive director in 2010.
Seeing Arriaga today — a striking, fashionably dressed executive — it’s hard to imagine her as an ingénue translator speaking English as a second language. She is a passionate, articulate and savvy promoter of the Becket Fund and its vision of a country in which religious freedom is respected as a fundamental human right.
In hindsight Arriaga says her entire life experience prepared her for this job. She led the Becket Fund to some of its most significant legal victories in its 20-year history.
The Becket Fund is “stocked with really excellent lawyers,” says Emeritus Professor Ira Lupu of George Washington University Law School, a constitutional law expert who co-authored Secular Government, Religious People. “They are careful about the cases they take. They are polished and professional, and they are good at what they do. In the Hobby Lobby case, they out-lawyered the government from the beginning to the end. It’s not that the government’s lawyers were bad; it’s just that they’re generalists at the Justice Department. The Becket Fund lawyers are specialists. They’re very sharp.”
Arriaga says the Becket Fund represents all faiths — from Anglicans to Zoroastrians and everything in between. “What all our cases have in common is that the government is trying to restrict religious freedom, which is a fundamental human right that everyone is entitled to exercise,” she explains.
She thinks religious liberty is under attack to a greater degree than at any time since the nation’s founding. “Our Constitution makes it clear that our rights do not come from the state. Therefore the state cannot take them away,” she says. “Much of what makes this country great is rooted in this principle. The emancipation movement, the civil rights movement, the fight for the rights of workers were all started by people who exercised their religious liberty by acting according to their deeply held beliefs and fought against unjust laws.”
On the horizon for the Becket Fund are more cases involving what Arriaga considers government overreach. She appeared on television with Pastor Robert Soto, an American Indian and award-winning feather dancer. Soto’s golden eagle feathers were confiscated by the Department of the Interior and returned after a legal decision nine years later. Arriaga pointed out that the government issues permits to power companies to kill golden eagles, which are no longer endangered, but it prohibits American Indians from picking molten feathers from the ground and using them in their religious ceremonies.
Also on the docket for the Becket Fund lawyers are more cases involving the contraception mandates of the Affordable Care Act, as well as implications of same-sex marriage laws on business owners and religious institutions that support traditional marriage. The firm will continue to litigate for the rights of prisoners to express their faith traditions and the ability of religious organizations to build temples, mosques and churches despite restrictive zoning laws.
After nearly 30 years in a career that deals daily with human suffering — from the poverty, imprisonment and torture of Cuban dissidents to the inability of prisoners to follow the tenets of their faith — Arriaga is more committed than ever to the importance of religious liberty. She believes religious feelings are natural to all people and expressing religion in public is natural to all cultures. “Religious liberty is not about who God is. It’s about who we are,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to defend religious liberty as a principle regardless of the religion that’s involved in the case.”
Arriaga led the Becket Fund to some of its most significant legal victories, including:
Holt v. Hobbs
In this 2015 case the Becket Fund represented Abdul Muhammad, a Muslim inmate in an Arkansas prison. Muhammad was denied permission to grow a beard as his Muslim faith commands, although 44 state and federal prison systems around the country would permit his beard. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted an inmate has the right to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons. The unanimous decision states that prison officials can’t arbitrarily ban peaceful religious practices by all faiths.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
In the 2014 case the Becket Fund represented the Green family and their business, Hobby Lobby, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Greens are devout Christians who have a religious opposition to providing insurance coverage for four of 20 types of contraceptives mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services in the Affordable Care Act. The court ruled 5-4 that private, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby can’t be forced to pay for drugs and devices under the Affordable Care Act if doing so conflicts with the beliefs of the business owner.
Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC
In the 2012 case the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Becket Fund’s client ensured that religious organizations have the right to choose their own ministers. This unanimous decision upheld the authority of a Michigan religious school to fire a teacher without fear of government intervention from an employment discrimination perspective.