The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

Interview with 2015 James Wilson Fellow: Nick Reaves

by James Wilson Institute on March 14, 2019

Nick Reaves, a 2015 James Wilson Fellow, is currently serving as Counsel at the Becket Fund, a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths. Previously, he was an associate at Jones Day. He also clerked for Judge D. Brooks Smith on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He received his JD from the University of Virginia School of Law and graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Economics and Political Science from the University of Notre Dame.

How has the James Wilson Fellowship impacted your thinking and career?

The James Wilson Fellowship helped me to think more deeply and critically about the “roots” underlying the legal issues I deal with daily. At Becket, we try not only to make the best arguments possible for each individual case, but also to develop and promote consistent legal theories and principles that we believe apply across multiple cases and provide the foundation and framework for our litigation. The Fellowship’s focus on thinking deeply about important and challenging legal issues and the principles that underlie them certainly helped prepare me for this work at Becket.

What were some of your favorite parts of the Fellowship?

I think what makes the Fellowship work so well is the pairing of lectures on foundational principles of natural law by leading academics with unstructured time to think through and digest these concepts in conversation with other Fellows. I found these opportunities to think deeply and reflect on the questions raised during the Fellowship most valuable—and I have remained in touch with several of the friends I made at James Wilson to this day.

Why did you choose to work at Becket?

I chose to work at Becket for a few reasons. First, I believe in and am passionate about Becket’s mission to advance religious liberty for people of all faiths. Having the opportunity to work toward advancing that mission each day has been incredibly rewarding. Second, I could not ask for better colleagues or clients. I learn something new every day from my brilliant colleagues, all of whom are doing groundbreaking work in the field of religious liberty. I also feel honored to represent so many amazing clients. Protecting their ability to continue serving those in need and exercising their faith is very rewarding. And finally, working at Becket has given me the opportunity to research and write on a broad array of legal issues, to be involved in cutting-edge litigation at every level, and to gain invaluable skills and practical experience as an attorney.

Beyond threats to conscience, what do we stand to lose if we do not properly respect religious liberty?

When religious liberty flourishes in a society, people recognize the importance of respecting each other as unique individuals who have different, sincere, and deeply held beliefs about matters of great significance. As a result, people also learn that not everyone is going to agree on everything—especially when it comes to matters of religious belief and conviction—but that this is okay in our pluralistic society. However, without the freedom to believe and to express those beliefs publicly, there is a danger that we as a society will forget about these important differences and in turn lose the respect and tolerance that we once had for those with whom we disagree.

What do you think is the most common misconception about the separation between church and state?

Many people today mistakenly believe that the Establishment Clause was intended to prevent the government from even acknowledging religious beliefs or recognizing the role of religion in society and, consequently, that any reference to a religious belief or any depiction of a religious symbol by the government is unconstitutional. That is not the case. Becket recently made this argument in its Maryland Peace Cross Amicus Brief, filed at the Supreme Court. The Establishment Clause was written as a reaction to established religions as they existed at the time of the Founding. These established religions—both in the American Colonies and in Great Britain—shared several common elements. The Establishment Clause was thus intended to prevent the newly-created federal government from engaging in actions that were understood to constitute one of these common elements; the Clause was not intended to completely exclude religion, or religious symbols, from the public square.

What are some promising legal cases Becket is spearheading?

Becket has been on the frontlines of two important legal issues recently. First, Becket represents a number of religious student groups on college campuses which are being excluded or kicked off campus for insisting that their leaders share their religious beliefs. Second, Becket represents two different Catholic foster care and adoption agencies targeted for their religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage. Both sets of cases raise important and unresolved legal questions, and I look forward to seeing how they progress and am optimistic that both will be resolved favorably for Becket’s clients.

What are the next big issues facing the Supreme Court on the religious liberty front?

I think the biggest question the Supreme Court will have to address this term is how to interpret the Establishment Clause, particularly as it applies to passive religious symbols. The Court’s current jurisprudence on this issue is—as almost everyone today acknowledges—in shambles. Hopefully, when the Court hears American Legion v. American Humanist Association, it will bring some order and clarity to this area of the law.

Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not represent the positions or perspectives of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.


Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790