Joshua D. Davey is just like every other Harvard Law first-year: he loves to argue; he can boast of a 4.0 grade-point average “since he was born,” according to his best friend; he’s an unbeatable debater; and he drinks a lot of coffee.
Just like every other Harvard Law first-year—except Davey is married, and has been since he was a sophomore in college.
Just like any other law student, except he lives in suburban Waltham, avoids the “crazy law school parties” he hears fellow students rave about and prefers quiet dinner parties to bars.
And while most of his famously opinionated peers like to shout loudly about the matters closest to their hearts, when Davey talks about his major interests—theology, God, faith—he brings his voice down to a shy whisper.
For an evangelical Christian from working-class Spokane, Washington, it can be hard to fit in at Harvard—even more so at Harvard Law School. At a school dominated by a tiny intellectual elite, Davey represents the rest of America, that portion of America that few people at Harvard—not liberals and not even moderate conservatives—represent. He’s not exactly a NASCAR dad, but he’s close. He’s the kind of guy Pat Robertson would like, and he himself likes Pat Robertson. In many ways, he just doesn’t fit in.
So it was curious when, after less than a semester at HLS, Davey suddenly found himself the school’s public face.
Davey is not a typical law student for another reason. There is a good chance that in his time at HLS he will read his own name in textbooks, hear about himself in lectures and watch as a case bearing his name becomes a legal landmark. That is because Davey is the plaintiff in “Locke v. Davey,” a church-and-state case currently before the Supreme Court.
The case dates back to his days as a student at Northwest College outside of Seattle, where he was refused a state-funded scholarship there because he was studying pastoral ministry. Davey could have changed his major to a non-religious field, but he chose to stick to his instincts. He contacted the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative law firm founded by Pat Robertson, one that has been called the right-wing answer to the ACLU. “I thought maybe they could just send a letter to the state or something. I didn’t know it had anything to do with constitutional law,” Davey said.
ACLJ turned Davey’s case into a full-blown lawsuit. They lost their case before the state’s supreme court, then turned around and won in an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—the court recently made famous by its decision that including the word “God” in the pledge of allegiance was not constitutional. They then headed to the Supreme Court. Along the way, ACLJ made something of a convert of their client.
The firm’s mission—“to undo the damage done by almost a century of liberal thinking and activism,” according to its website—became something of a personal mission for Davey. He began to see his case as a chance to protect religious people from discrimination propagated by a secular, liberal power elite.
The implications of the case have been called “breathtaking” by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. If the Supreme Court rules in Davey’s favor, scholarship law will change in as many as 36 other states. The law that pushed him into the suit has already been overturned in his home state, Washington.
But the case’s most tangible impact so far has been on Davey’s life. When he first contacted Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at ACLJ and the host of the call-in radio program “Jay Sekulow Live,” Davey hoped to become a pastor. He wanted to go to a theological ministry, not law school. But watching Sekulow channel his faith into his work, Davey’s mind changed.
“The same reasons I wanted to become a minister in the first place: to benefit society, to live out and apply my faith through my career—I think that’s equally applicable through law,” he says.
Modeling himself after Sekulow, a devout Christian who has twice been named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, and perhaps unknowingly after Robertson, who holds a J.D.S. from Yale, Davey applied to law school. And, as Davey says, sitting in Harkness Commons, “Here we are.”
A Different World
Davey is surprisingly short—shorter than he looks on television. But his solid build and bright smile more than make up for what he lacks in stature. He is carefully dressed and well-spoken, often folding his hands together before him as he speaks to show he means business.
Though Davey isn’t noticeably uncomfortable in Harkness, HLS's makeshift student center, his assuredness fades when he talks about his place at HLS. Next to him, a group of lively students discuss race and the courts. Davey lowers his voice.
He calls the divide between him and his peers “the anti-religious bias in the academy,” and he says it’s more social than intellectual.
“Diversity has tended to focus on just racial and ethnic diversity,” he says. “And I hope that that can move to an ideological diversity as well, where you have religious people being given a little more credit.”
Northwest College, which Davey’s close friend and fellow Northwest alum Jeremy J. Frank says is sometimes jokingly called “Northwest Bridal College,” doesn’t have that kind of bias. There, it wasn’t unusual for Davey to have married his high school sweetheart, a girl he’d been dating since he was 15, while a sophomore in college. And it wasn’t taboo to challenge the separation between church and state. Indeed, the school recently featured a summary of Davey’s case prominently on its website.
Davey got a preview of the culture shock awaiting him at HLS when his friend Frank journeyed east two years ago to study finance at Boston College. “I found the overall Boston area to maybe be—I don’t know.” Frank stumbles, searching for the right words. “There was a difference in culture.”
While Boston’s intellectual atmosphere was a welcome change, its social scene provided a challenge. “Things like marriage are just culturally different,” Frank says. “I think at Boston College out of the 14,000 students they have two married undergrads." At Northwest, he says, married students were common.
But Frank did what Davey would come to do: he found a group of friends with similar ideals, stuck with them and enjoyed himself. Today a large part of Davey’s social circle is made up of the group Frank first found. This kind of self-segregation is the easiest option, Davey says, since the alternative—“coming to a place like this and saying you’re a Christian and worrying that people are going to think you’re an idiot because of that”—isn’t all that attractive.
But Davey does wish he could bridge these social divides. And in this pursuit, he comes back to the matter that brought him to HLS in the first place.
“I don’t want to ask for special treatment,” he says. “What we’re asking for is equal treatment. I don’t think religious people are a minority in this country, but they are a minority in places of influence. People who have positions of authority ought to remember the positions of the broad population.”
He’s talking about his case, but he might as well be talking about his place at Harvard.