Religion plays a significant factor in many people’s lives. L. Martin Nussbaum has worked to help religious institutions, such as dioceses, churches, Chabad houses, ashrams, and more, for over 35 years. His work protecting religious freedom rights led to him being recognized as the 2021 “Lawyer of the Year” in Denver for Nonprofit / Charities Law.
According to Nussbaum, there are many memorable cases he has worked on throughout his extensive career; among them are those he considers exquisite ecumenical moments.
“One such ecumenical moment was when I, a Catholic lawyer, argued to a panel of three Protestant judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals on behalf of the Chabad Lubavitch Jews of Michigan - and the courtroom was filled with Lubavitchers in orthodox dress,” he explains.
There were other notable cases where he suspected the court might not rule in his clients' favor. In these cases, he worked on strategies to turn the tide.
“An example where we ‘flipped a judge is the Purdum v. Purdum defamation case arising from the proceedings of a Catholic marriage tribunal. Both the Kansas District Court and Kansas Court of Appeals denied our motion to intervene on behalf of the Archdiocese of Kansas City. Yet, [they] reviewed my substantive brief, permitted my lengthy oral argument, and ruled in favor of the Archdiocese even though it never became a party to the lawsuit,” Nussbaum said.
Nussbaum finds many things rewarding about his practice area but one thing that stands out to him is the significance of his work.
“The deeper significance of our work is that we, during our time, are privileged to steward a precious constitutional inheritance related to religious freedom,” he said. “After fourteen hundred years of an establishment model of church-state relations in the West, our American founders began an experiment in religious liberty. It is the most distinctive thing about our country. If you think about it, the protection of right of conscience is also among the most important things to our humanity.”
The journey to becoming a lawyer that works with religious institutions is not an easy one. Nussbaum says several characteristics help create a great attorney in this field.
“They should understand both civil law and religious law - whether the latter is in the form of canon law, or an ecclesiastical charter or constitution, or in the form of a religious tradition informed by Scripture,” Nussbaum said. “Second, they should have a heightened sense of integrity and justice. This is because their clients not only want to be law-abiding but compassionate and wise as informed by their faith.”