Religious Right Fights for Rights

Christian law firms like the American Center for Law and Justice focus on religious liberty

`WOE unto you, ... lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne,'' Jesus says in Luke. And the New Testament pointedly distinguishes between the law and grace.

But while early Christians may have distrusted ecclesiastical lawyers, today a relatively new breed of Christian lawyer strides into court with the United States Constitution in his hand and the gospel in his heart.

Among these Christian litigators for religious rights, the most prominent - thanks to their number, their budget, and a penchant for self-promotion - are the lawyers of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). The center, based in Virginia Beach, Va., was founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson in 1991.

A number of smaller organizations also field legal teams to defend their views of religious liberty, including the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, Va., founded in 1975, and the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., started in 1982. These groups further leverage their legal clout by training and advising hundreds of affiliate lawyers around the country.

The purpose of these groups, writes John Whitehead, president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, is ``to make sure that religious people have a lawyer and they get a fair shake in the courts and a square deal regarding their religious civil liberties.''

Throughout most of US history, government usually didn't interfere with the religious rights of Christians and judges didn't worry about laws or practices - like school prayers or municipal Christmas displays - that embraced Christian values in what most people regarded as unthreatening ways.

The landscape changed with the US Supreme Court's 1963 decision that banned prayer in public schools. With that ruling, the high court embarked on an often tortuous effort, which continues, to define the meaning of the Constitution's religion clauses for an increasingly pluralistic society.

Wall of separation

In a line of cases interpreting the First Amendment's ban on ``an establishment of religion,'' the Supreme Court has erected what is often termed a wall of separation between church and state. Supporters of that wall, including many religious people as well as secular thinkers, see it as a way to keep government from interfering with religious rights (as well as the rights of nonbelievers) and to protect religious diversity.

But many Christians, especially evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, say a strict wall between church and state trivializes religion. They view it as a device to fence religious values out of the nation's public life. Also, they say, laws and judicial rulings that built the wall have violated another clause in the Constitution, which protects the ``free exercise'' of religion.

Out of this concern that modern jurisprudence is trampling on religious rights, the Christian legal-rights movement was born.

While most attorneys at the ACLJ, the Christian Legal Society, and the Rutherford Institute readily identify themselves as Christian lawyers, they say their mission is to protect religious rights for everyone. Lawyers with these organizations, for instance, have represented Orthodox Jews who challenge zoning ordinances that prohibit home synagogues. Still, these lawyers labor mostly in behalf of their co-religionists. This appears to be especially true for the ACLJ. When it was founded three years ago, the center ``was just two metal desks and Pat Robertson's dream,'' says executive director Keith Fournier. But it has grown rapidly. Today it employs 20 lawyers in Virginia Beach and at offices in Washington, Atlanta, Phoenix, Mobile, Ala., and New Hope, Ky.

The Rev. Mr. Robertson is president of the ACLJ, and money for its $10-million annual budget comes from viewers of his Christian Broadcasting Network as well as from direct-mail appeals.

Last August, the ACLJ moved into a new center in Virginia Beach, next door to the Christian Broadcasting Network. The ACLJ shares the $13 million facility - which Robertson calls a ``strategic command center for turning the tide in America'' - with Regent University College of Law, also founded by Robertson in 1986. A number of ACLJ lawyers and interns have come from the law school, whose faculty has a strong conservative Christian orientation.

ACLJ lawyers have become rapid-response troops in the battle for religious rights, as they define them. They receive pleas for help from people all over the country who claim their rights have been violated by public officials. The lawyers respond with volleys of letters, faxes, and phone calls. On occasions when heavier firepower is called for, ``SWAT teams'' of ACLJ lawyers rush to the scene of a dispute.

``Ninety percent of the cases we handle are resolved without litigation,'' says Ben Bull, who heads the Phoenix office. ``We courteously but forcefully explain to school authorities or city officials what the law is. Usually that's enough.''

ACLJ goes to court

The ACLJ is not hesitant to go to court when necessary. Most of the lawyers are experienced litigators. The center's efforts are focused in two main areas:

* In the religious-liberty area, the ACLJ ``receives 25 to 50 requests each week from Christian high school students who complain that their Bible clubs have been denied equal access to school facilities after hours,'' chief counsel Jay Sekulow says. Students also tell of being forbidden to do things like read the Bible in school lunchrooms or write a report on a book with Christian themes.

``In most of these cases, school officials just don't know what the law is,'' says Stuart Roth, an ACLJ lawyer in Mobile, Ala. ``They've been so spooked on the separation of church and state that they overreact, and they purge all religious speech in school.''

Outside the school context, ACLJ lawyers have successfully challenged laws in two states that prohibited the word ``Pray'' or other religious terms on custom license plates. Tomorrow, an ACLJ attorney will argue in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of a Catholic landlord charged under the state's antidiscrimination law because he refused, for religious reasons, to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple.

* In the anti-abortion area, the ACLJ represents Operation Rescue and its founder, Randall Terry, in legal actions involving protests at abortion clinics. Also, Mr. Sekulow says, in Colorado, Texas, and other states, the center is ``trying to burst the `bubble zones' around clinics'' imposed by ordinances or judicial decisions. ``Protesters have a right to get their message out in the vicinity of clinics,'' he says.

Sekulow is by many accounts the shining star among religious-rights lawyers. A Jew who converted to Christianity in college, he has argued victoriously before the Supreme Court in four cases involving religious liberty or the rights of abortion protesters.

``I respect Jay greatly,'' says Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. ``He is one of the most gifted appellate advocates in this field.''

Sekulow attributes much of his success to his emphasis on the free-speech rights of believers, rather than on their rights under the free-exercise clause. ``Many of these issues - such as in the school setting - really are about discrimination against expression solely on the basis of its religious content,'' he says.

Sekulow is regarded as a shrewd strategist who selects cases for maximum impact. ``We like cutting-edge issues, so we can make new law,'' Mr. Bull says.

Evangelizing ministry

But the ACLJ is animated by more than a lawyerly concern for free speech and religious rights. The center's leaders view their role as part of an evangelizing ministry.

This was evident in the ACLJ's vigorous promotion last fall of ``See You at the Pole.'' On Sept. 15, thousands of high school students around the US assembled at their schools' flag poles for prayer meetings before classes began. The event ``presents Christian students with an opportunity to boldly proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ'' Sekulow wrote.

The ACLJ's religious fervor is also manifest in its literature. Executive director Fournier is a prolific writer on conservative Christian themes. In recent articles and a booklet, he has evoked echoes of Bosnia, asserting that America is undergoing ``religious cleansing'' by ``secularists.'' Mr. Fournier calls the church-state wall of separation a ``wall of hostility and bigotry'' against believers.

Though his writings peal with knells of alarm, Fournier relishes the battles ahead. ``There is going to be major social change in this country in the next 20 years,'' he says. Clearly he believes that conservative Christian advocates are serving as God's lawyers in trying to bring about such change.

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