Taking on Obamacare’s Contraception Mandate

Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, November 2013  
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Nov. 24, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

In the early 1960s, Kristina Ar­riaga‘s fath­er was a des­ti­tute Cuban refugee liv­ing in Miami. The pen­ni­less émigré scrimped and saved so that he and his wife could feast on pan­cakes and saus­age links at a nearby In­ter­na­tion­al House of Pan­cakes.

“That was my fath­er’s dream,” said Ar­riaga, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Beck­et Fund for Re­li­gious Liberty.

In­side the res­taur­ant, her fath­er ordered the 99-cent all-you-can-eat spe­cial in muddled Eng­lish. When the wait­ress re­turned to the table with a mug of root beer and a slice of apple pie, Ar­riaga’s fath­er de­cided at that mo­ment that the fam­ily would move to Pu­erto Rico.

Not­with­stand­ing the trav­ails of her fath­er, Ar­riaga not only speaks flaw­less Eng­lish but has as­sim­il­ated fully in­to Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety as head of a well-re­garded pub­lic-in­terest law firm. The Beck­et Fund for Re­li­gious Liberty has re­ceived me­dia at­ten­tion of late for its ad­vocacy on be­half of the own­ers of Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain, who are seek­ing an ex­emp­tion from the Af­ford­able Care Act’s con­tra­cep­tion man­date on the grounds that it vi­ol­ates their re­li­gious free­dom. The Su­preme Court is ex­pec­ted to de­cide later this month wheth­er to hear the case.

At the Beck­et Fund, Ar­riaga’s role is to “crys­tal­lize” leg­al con­cepts for the gen­er­al pub­lic, she said. “I’m a com­mu­nic­at­or, not a law­yer.” Al­though the law firm has been em­braced by the con­ser­vat­ive es­tab­lish­ment, the Beck­et Fund does not take a po­s­i­tion on highly charged is­sues like abor­tion. “We like to say we rep­res­ent cases from Anglic­an to Zoroastri­an.”

Raised in Pu­erto Rico, Ar­riaga was in­cul­cated by her par­ents with a love of all things Cuba. “My child­hood was com­pletely ab­nor­mal,” she said, with a laugh. “I grew up eat­ing Cuban food, read­ing the Cuban en­cyc­lo­pe­dia, and singing the Cuban na­tion­al an­them every day at 4 in the af­ter­noon.

“My fath­er thought his exit would al­ways be tem­por­ary, so he spoke with great pas­sion about re­turn­ing to Cuba to fight for free­dom. He was hop­ing the Fi­del Castro re­gime would only last a couple years.”

After gradu­at­ing from Mar­quette Uni­versity, Ar­riaga was hired by the Cuban Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Found­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton. “I thought that if my fath­er couldn’t go back to Cuba and lib­er­ate it then it was my job to do so,” she said.

Later, Ar­riaga served as an aide and in­ter­pret­er for Ar­mando Val­ladares, U.S. am­bas­sad­or to what is now the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion. She would at times ac­com­pany him to the Oval Of­fice, where her du­ties ex­ten­ded to amp­li­fic­a­tion. “I didn’t real­ize [Pres­id­ent Re­agan] was already deaf at the time, so I wasn’t just trans­lat­ing, I was yelling.”

In the early 1990s, Ar­riaga vaul­ted in­to the pub­lic con­scious­ness when she helped stage an air­plane res­cue of a fam­ily in Cuba. About a year be­fore, a MiG-23 pi­lot had de­fec­ted from the troubled Com­mun­ist re­gime. With $35,000 from a donor, Ar­riaga pur­chased a twin-en­gine Cessna, which the de­fect­or then flew to Cuba and landed on a coastal high­way where his wife and two chil­dren were wait­ing. The in­cid­ent, which was chron­icled by Van­ity Fair and Read­er’s Di­gest, had dir­ect con­sequences for Ar­riaga: Shortly there­after, her car was set on fire in the middle of the night.

In the lat­ter half of her ca­reer, Ar­riaga served as an of­fi­cial at the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment un­der then-Sec­ret­ary Jack Kemp, fol­lowed by a four-year ap­point­ment to the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights. She joined the Beck­et Fund for Re­li­gious Liberty 17 years ago.

The 49-year-old, who holds a mas­ter’s de­gree in lib­er­al stud­ies from Geor­getown Uni­versity, is mar­ried and lives with her three chil­dren in Al­ex­an­dria, Va.

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