Michael Sampson, an insurance recovery lawyer at the downtown law firm Reed Smith, spends much of his professional time focusing on the resolution of complicated liability matters.
He has an alter ego, though, as a champion of religious freedom.
For the last four years, the native Jewish Pittsburgher has devoted significant energy, pro bono, assisting an Old Order Amish family in Southern Indiana in an immigration matter against the U.S. government that threatened their religious liberty.
The government had been insisting on the submission of identification photos to complete an immigration application requirement despite the fact that being photographed violated the family’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Sampson and his team settled the case last month. The settlement allows the couple and their family —which includes 13 children — to remain intact, and the wife to become a U.S. lawful permanent resident, without having to submit photographs.
“My clients, most importantly, are really excited,” said Sampson, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, and attended Community Day School as well as Taylor Allderdice.
Although an insurance recovery specialist, Sampson has always had a keen interest in religious freedom and religious liberty, he said. While in college, he worked as a summer intern in the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington, D.C., office, and after his second year of law school at the University of Chicago, he clerked at the ADL’s legal affairs office in New York. Prior to coming to Reed Smith, he worked as the assistant director of legal affairs for the ADL at its national level.
His background had prepared him to take on this case, which involved an Amish couple who married in 2014 after the husband’s first wife died from complications of childbirth, leaving him with 11 children. The couple then had two children together.
When the wife, a Canadian citizen, applied to become a permanent U.S. resident shortly after they married, both she had her husband submitted all the paperwork and other materials required, except the personal photographs. Although they completed immigration interviews, and even though she was fingerprinted and had agreed to provide other forms of biometric identity confirmation, her application was denied, meaning she would have to return to Canada.
When initial negotiations with the government failed to resolve the situation, Sampson and his team filed suit against the U.S., as well as certain agencies and officers, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
The decision to file suit was not an easy one.
“Our clients, the Old Order Amish, do not believe generally in litigating,” Sampson explained. “It was a real struggle for them, and their community to decide to litigate this case. Ultimately, they had to forgo their belief in non-litigation and in peaceful resolution, non-resistance, in order to vindicate their belief in not being photographed.”
Sampson used a Jewish analogy when discussing the option of litigation with his clients.
“One of the discussions we had was that their decision to litigate did not make their other religious beliefs less real,” Sampson said. He told his clients that as a Jew, even if he decided to eat something that was not kosher, for example, that did not mean that his other Jewish observances were “any more or less sincerely held.”
Through negotiations with several government agencies, the Reed Smith team, which also included Justin Werner, M. Patrick Yingling and Brian Willett, secured a waiver of the photograph requirements, clearing the way for the wife’s application for permanent residency to be granted. The government also agreed to procedures which will allow the wife to cross the U.S.-Canada border without photographic identification, enabling her to visit her extended family in Canada.
Because the case was settled, the outcome does not mandate any binding legal precedent, but Sampson is hopeful that it will set a standard that the government will follow in the event of similar cases in the future.
There is no confidentiality provision in the settlement, so the parties and attorneys involved are permitted to speak publicly about the outcome.
“The government actually was the one here that did not want to, or could not agree to a confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement,” Sampson said. “I told the government’s lawyer early on that we certainly could live with that because what it allows us to do is to be in the position to speak with others without having to beat around the bush, and share with them the resolution of our case.”
One of the questions that often arises in religious liberty cases is whether the government is able to accommodate the religious beliefs of the individuals who hold them, according to Sampson.
“In the past, what the government has said is that they have been unwilling to do so,” he said. “We think that our settlement, which is public, certainly indicates that the government is able to protect those interests that it says it has, while at the same time accommodating the sincerely held religious beliefs of the Old Order Amish.”
The outcome of the case, he said, “is one that shows respect for the accommodation for religious minorities in the United States. I think that accommodation of sincerely held religious beliefs, especially those that might be a little bit different, is very important, and anything this decision does that fosters acceptance and protection of sincerely held religious beliefs by whoever is important.”
Sampson, a member of Congregation Dor Hadash, attributes his commitment to the protection of the rights of the individual to the strong Jewish values instilled in him by his parents and his teachers at CDS.
“When I look at myself as a Jew, and know how I want to be treated, and know the rights I believe I should have and how they should be protected, I feel the same way about others, whether they are Old Order Amish, or any other religion,” he said, adding that he was raised to stand up for “equality, justice and basic human rights.”
Representing his Amish clients gave Sampson a glimpse into the lives of a religious group that is simultaneously so different from his own and also so similar.
The family he represented live on farmstead in Southern Indiana, in a home they built themselves, with no electricity.
“One of the great honors of my life was being invited into their home and allowed an insight, which most people don’t get,” he said. “What was driven home in that process is that people are people. There is this image of the Amish as so different, and so much the other. But when you go to their home, you see everybody is ultimately the same. My client has a great sense of humor and, for a while, he was laid up with a broken leg from playing softball. It drove home how similar we are regardless of religion, and that it is easy to build bridges if one works at it.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at