Justice Is a Family Value

CONSERVATIVE ideologues have recently unleashed - in the name of family values - a misguided attack on the Legal Services Corporation, which helps provide access to the legal system for Americans who cannot afford a private attorney.

I believe strongly that America needs to return to traditional values of family, religion, and community that have fallen out of fashion in recent decades. As a conservative Christian, I agree with the Christian Coalition that the decline in family values reflects a decline in moral values. But nothing could be further from the truth than the coalition's claim that LSC uses tax dollars to promote divorce, break up families, and bring children into a cycle of poverty.

LSC, a federally-funded, nonprofit corporation established under the Nixon administration, makes grants to more than 900 legal-services offices across the US. These provide legal assistance in noncriminal matters to people living at or below poverty level, often including the "working poor."

As a practicing lawyer in Alabama, I have seen how the justice system can help citizens solve the difficult everyday problems that often throw families into crisis. By providing access to legal representation, LSC helps average families survive such troubles, from landlord disputes to cases of child abuse.

The Christian Coalition advocates elimination of LSC. Coalition executive director, Ralph Reed accused LSC of "subsidizing divorce and illegitimacy."

First, LSC is not a divorce mill for the average husband and wife who decide to give up on their vows. LSC handles divorce cases involving child or spousal abuse, neglect, or custody - where fundamental rights, or even the lives, of family members are endangered.

Second, eliminating LSC will not prevent the poor from getting divorces. Nor will it solve any of the tragic problems in our society that contribute to the breakdown of families. Instead, it will keep families bound in financial situations that may make it almost impossible to keep them together.

Out of thousands of family cases LSC lawyers take on every year, this example should be instructive: In Arkansas, a mother of four sought a protective order because her husband threatened to kill her. Although the order was granted, the woman was arrested because she did not have $84 for court costs. A judge ordered her held in jail until a contempt hearing, scheduled two months later. Central Arkansas Legal Services obtained a stay of the contempt order from the Arkansas Supreme Court and helped her and her children find safe living quarters. If a man is charged with spouse or child abuse, government must provide him a public defender. Is it fair that his spouse receive no legal representation in seeking a protective order, divorce, custody, or child support?

This is why LSC exists, to represent people whose poverty unjustly robs them of the chance to defend their rights and maintain their dignity. At $1.66 per taxpayer, it's safe to say our small investment in LSC's neighborhood legal centers is one of the best investments in families our country can make.

Well-intentioned citizens with conservative religious values must not be confused by political propaganda. LSC is not antifamily. The services it provides are crucial for many families of moderate means, families who need help to hang on to their homes, their jobs, and their families, and to remain productive members of their communities.

All Americans who believe in the basic democratic - and Christian - notion of "equal justice for all" should support adequate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. It represents a modest effort to keep our constitutional commitment to ensure that no Amer- ican is denied access to our system of justice.

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