Judge Justin Walker: A Warrior for Religious Liberty
In early July 2018, as the national debate was raging over who would fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the Supreme Court, a law professor named Justin Walker penned a column for National Review. The column was about one prospect who was then sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The piece was titled “Judge Brett Kavanaugh: A Warrior for Religious Liberty.” In it, Walker recited Kavanaugh’s deep concern for religious freedom, from chairing the Federalist Society’s Religious Liberty practice group to his dissenting opinion in Priests for Life v. HHS.
That dissent asserted that the Obama administration’s contraception mandate violated religious organizations’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Walker highlighted a description of Kavanaugh’s opinion as “pure perfection”—the words of one of the attorneys who challenged the mandate.
Articles tend to reveal things about their authors as well as their subjects. This article was no exception. Walker was writing about the values he cherished. In fact, he had spoken on religious liberty at numerous events before publishing his article.
Little did he know that he would soon be nominated to the same court that Kavanaugh occupied for 12 years. President Trump recently picked Walker to fill the latest vacancy on the D.C. Circuit, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing for him on Wednesday. He deserves to be confirmed without delay.
Judge Walker’s credentials speak for themselves. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He did so near the top of his class at Duke University. He subsequently graduated, again with high honors, from Harvard Law School before clerking on the D.C. Circuit—for Kavanaugh—and then for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Walker devoted his legal career to teaching, writing, and practice. He helped draft five Supreme Court briefs and took his valuable experience in D.C. back home to Louisville.
He has not hesitated to speak out for his principles. He called the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate “catastrophic.” He has criticized unaccountable bureaucracies whose structure conflicts with the original meaning of the Constitution. He co-founded a law school fellowship dedicated to “federalism, separation of powers, originalism, natural rights, and the common good.”
Respect for those concepts—which (as noted above) for Walker include religious liberty—are values he shares with Kavanaugh. During the 2018 Supreme Court battle, he appeared in dozens of interviews to make the case for the nominee and traditional legal principles.
Walker later became a judge himself after President Trump nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. In that capacity, he faced the challenge of applying the principles he had championed after churchgoers were thrown a curveball in Louisville by Mayor Greg Fischer.
There the On Fire Christian Church followed the example of many congregations across the country dealing with the pandemic by planning on a drive-in Easter service that would keep everyone at a healthy distance, following CDC guidance.
But Mayor Fischer ordered the church to cancel. Never mind that Kentucky has its law protecting religious freedom.
After the mayor refused to back down, First Liberty Institute went to court on the church’s behalf to block the mayor's unconstitutional order. Fortunately for religious freedom, the case was assigned to Judge Walker.
He granted the order in a twenty-page ruling that did not mince words. He wrote that the mayor’s ban was something he “never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion.”
Walker traced the pedigree of religious freedom from scripture to the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony to “recent years,” when “an expanding government has made the Free Exercise Clause” guaranteeing religious freedom “more important than ever.” He exposed the mayor’s double standard in allowing “a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs.”
Even “drive-through liquor stores” fared better than places of worship in Louisville. “[I]f beer is ‘essential,’” Walker asserted, “so is Easter.” His opinion is essential reading for anyone who wants a blueprint for defending religious freedom under today’s challenges.
As pro-life and religious liberty leaders, we urge the confirmation of this proven constitutionalist to the DC Circuit.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of Susan B. Anthony List, Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council.