Marci Hamilton

On this date in 1957, Marci Ann Hamilton — litigator, legal scholar, child protection advocate and opponent of “extreme religious liberty” — was born in Dallas, Texas, to Carol and Bill Hamilton, a stay-at-home mom and a sales representative for a national firm.

After earning a B.A. in philosophy and English from Vanderbilt University in 1979, she earned master’s degrees from Penn State University in those subjects in 1982 and 1984, the year she married Peter Kuzma, a Ph.D. organic chemist. Hamilton’s interest in the crossover between philosophy, theology and existentialism attracted her to the work of philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

She then earned a J.D. in 1988 from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was editor-in-chief of the Law Review. She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (one of her idols) and Judge Edward Becker of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Hamilton is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice and a Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously she held the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. In 2016 she founded CHILD USA, a nonprofit academic think tank dedicated to improving laws and public policy to end child abuse and neglect. 

She successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) at the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores (1997). She has represented numerous cities, neighborhoods and individuals dealing with state-church issues as well as claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Regarding Boerne (pronounced BUR-nee), Hamilton said, “I was essentially the only law professor in the country who was very publicly saying that extreme religious liberty was wrong. Most of the law professors were on the other side. (Omnia Magazine, University of Pennsylvania, May 21, 2020)

In the preface to God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2014), a revision of Hamilton’s God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (2005), she notes how after her Boerne victory (which Congress and states later got around by passing new RFRAs), she “was led on a journey into the underside of religion, because all the groups that lobby against religion sought me out. They earnestly and generously educated me about the facts of religiously motivated illegal behavior.”

Hamilton adds in the preface, “Ten years later, I am no longer shocked at the unacceptable behavior of too many believers, but I am even more determined that Americans learn about the dangers inherent in the religious liberty regime that was initiated in 1993 with the RFRA. The Framers called too much liberty ‘licentiousness.’ I simply call it extreme.”

In the Omnia interview, Hamilton said: “Working on all these issues on the opposite side of organized religion had never been part of any plan. My husband’s Catholic and I’m Presbyterian. We’re not atheists by a long shot. But when all the clergy sex abuse reporting started happening, I began getting calls from all over the country.”

She reached out to offer her help to plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Anderson in 2011 in the wake of a Philadelphia grand jury report about clergy sex abuse. “I have a personal stake in this. My children are Catholic. My daughter was baptized by a pedophile priest. I have family pictures with a pedophile at one of the most important ceremonies of a child’s life. So I am in it, yes, in Philadelphia. Because it’s the only way to make this archdiocese do the right thing.” (Philadelphia Business Journal, March 27, 2013)

Hamilton has “profound contempt” for any institution or person covering up pedophilia or otherwise endangering children, e.g., denying them medical care due to religious beliefs. “I criticize the failure to protect children from sexual abuse wherever I see it, whether it is in a university, a private school or organization, or a public school. The whole culture needs to wake up and do better on this issue. The Catholic Church’s problem is that it is the largest institution in the world, and its victims have been coming out of the woodwork.” (Omnia, ibid.)

CHILD works to eliminate statutes of limitation so that abusers can be prosecuted no matter how long ago the crime occurred. Dozens of states have passed Child Victim Acts to enable that. Hamilton and co-counsel made history in March 2020 when they filed the first two lawsuits against the Church of Scientology for child sex abuse.

She received the 2015 Religious Liberty Award from the American Humanist Association and was the recipient in 2014 of FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award. Her acceptance speech titled “Extreme Religious Liberty Is Tyranny” can be viewed or read here. Hamilton also wrote FFRF’s amicus brief before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby challenge of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation