William Bentley Ball (1916-1999)

On January 10, 1999 William Bentley Ball III went home to the Lord whom he had served with a deep and sincere faith. He was survived by his beloved wife of 55 years, Caroline Cook Ball, his loving daughter, Virginia Duncan and his sister, Mary Ball Martinez.


His Background

He earned his undergraduate degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University and graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 1948. Upon graduation he practiced corporate law as a lawyer for W. R. Grace & Company and Pfizer Inc. He also served as a founding faculty member of the Villanova University Law School.

He was a prominent Catholic layman and member of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, a papal knighthood. He was active in the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Council, the Christian Legal Society and the Catholic League for Religion and Civil Rights.


His Career

He responded to the invitation to serve as the executive director and legal counsel for the newly formed Pennsylvania Catholic Conference in Harrisburg in 1960. In 1968, he founded the law firm of Ball, Skelly, Murren, and Connell in Harrisburg, which then served as legal counsel for the Conference.

Admitted to practice before the Supreme Court in 1969, he became a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court Advocate, arguing nine cases as lead counsel and assisting in twenty-five others. He proposed a classical Natural Law Jurisprudence as the path to secure what the American Founders called “inalienable rights” In his multiple appearances before State Supreme Courts, Federal Appellate Courts and the United States Supreme Court he defended religious freedom as the first freedom and a fundamental human right.

Though he respected some who espouse a “strict constructionist” approach to constitutional law, Bill Ball was unafraid to contend with them over its limitations. Along with them, he was an ardent opponent of the malleable, agenda driven, concept of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” as incapable of securing a future of true freedom. Instead, he advocated for a classic Natural Law Jurisprudence.


Religion and the Law

He argued that establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is really an anti-establishment clause which must be interpreted in light of the Free Exercise, Free Speech and Free Association clauses of that same First Amendment. Religious faith and the proper role of the values informed by faith as applied to our life together have provided a foundation for freedom for all men and women of every faith or no faith. He argued that religious faith; religious persons and religious institutions should be encouraged and accommodated by the government, not treated with hostility.

He was indefatigable in his insistence that the values informed by faith serve and promote the common good. Rightly understood and applied, religious freedom means a freedom for religious expression; not a removal of such expression. It entails a freedom for people of all faiths to participate in the public square and to be a part of the daily social interactions that constitute the very tapestry of our social life.


Education and the Law

He also stood for the primacy of parents in the education and nurture of their children and should be credited as a foundation stone in the modern school choice movement. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) he successfully defended an Amish family who refused to send their children to secondary school under the state’s compulsory attendance statute because of their deeply held religious convictions.

He established some of the legal precedent now being used for the defense of voucher or educational credits by the school choice movement through cases such as Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993) where he successfully vindicated the right of a deaf Catholic school pupil to the assistance of a sign-language interpreter provided by the local public school district.


Life and the Law

He was also a Pro-Life Advocate who heard the cry of those whom Blessed Teresa of Calcutta called “the poorest of the poor”, our first neighbors, children in the womb. His defense of the Right to Life as a fundamental human right was a polestar in his life work.

Among his writings were two influential books which still bear serious consideration, “Mere Creatures of the State: On Education, Religion and the Courts and “In Search of a National Morality: A Manifesto for Evangelicals and Catholics”. William Bentley Ball, in a sense, left two Legacies. One deserves a physical place of honor. The other is a living legacy which will require others to carry forward his work. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he is one of those “great men” needed at this critical time in history.



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