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Legal Weapon : Jay Alan Sekulow is the Christian Right's leading lion in the judicial arena. Those he opposes say he's a zealot, an opportunist--and a formidable foe.

September 02, 1993|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the height of the ferocious street battles that nearly paralyzed Wichita, Kan., in the summer of 1991, the only man standing between Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry and a jail cell was a fast-talking, Brooklyn-born attorney who began life as a self-described "nice Jewish boy."

Standing next to Terry in court, Jay Alan Sekulow did his best to keep Operation Rescue's leader out of jail and on the street, spreading his militantly anti-abortion message.

"Jay's courtroom savvy and constitutional knowledge have been absolutely critical in the growth and survival of Operation Rescue," Terry said in a recent interview. "Without his intervention, I believe several judges would have tried to crush the life out of our movement."

From the streets of Wichita to New York's South Street Seaport to the Oakland Coliseum, Christian activists confronting public officials call on Sekulow, evangelical Christianity's lion in the judicial arena.

Based in Virginia Beach, Va., the 37-year-old Sekulow supervises 75 attorneys for the American Center for Law and Justice, as well as his own Atlanta-based Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism. Dispatching and directing them--often by cellular phone as he strides through airports, lugging his oversized briefcase--Sekulow usually gets results.

Public officials around the country have been compelled by Sekulow's lawsuits--and threats of lawsuits--to permit distribution of religious tracts and allow students to hold religious services and meetings in public schools.

Sekulow won his latest victory in the U.S. Supreme Court in June, when the high court ruled 9-0 that religious groups may not be barred from using public school facilities after hours if other groups are allowed access to school grounds.

"Jay is absolutely brilliant," said Pat Robertson, former presidential candidate and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"He is very incisive on constitutional issues and he is also indefatigable. To me, he's probably the most important constitutional lawyer representing the Christian point of view in America."

But Sekulow's critics contend that he has devoted his career to knocking down the wall separating church and state, using the First Amendment as a legal battering ram.

In many ways, said Ruth Jones, staff attorney for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sekulow is "more dangerous because he appears very reasonable. It's very easy for people to find him very agreeable. He's very articulate."

"We disagree with just about everything he does," said Rob Boston, assistant director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "but we're careful not to sell him short."

Sekulow's importance, said Michael W. McConnell, a professor at the University of Chicago law school, "is less in terms of specific cases . . . than in the fact that he has been able to put together an organization that can provide high-quality representation to litigants who previously have had no place to go."

Along the way, spreading the Christian Right's message has also brought Sekulow fame and influence among the 13 million people who tune in each week to the nation's most-watched Christian programming on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Thanks in large part to the multimillion-dollar patronage of Robertson and Orange County religious broadcaster Paul Crouch, Sekulow has also become a television mini-mogul. He owns five stations in the Southeast that make up his own religious broadcasting network.

Sekulow's weekly television show appears on nearly 350 stations affiliated with Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Equal parts zealous missionary, civil libertarian and, his detractors believe, opportunist, Sekulow often describes himself as a himself as a "reasonable fanatic."

He does not deny the irony that a former Jew is now Evangelical Christianity's leading advocate.

"It's a real question. Of all the Gentiles in the world, how come it's a Jew?" Sekulow asks. "It's a mystery of God."

Pleas pour in to Sekulow from Christian activists around the country who believe their free speech or religious rights have been abridged. Sekulow and his colleagues respond almost instantly with a torrent of phone calls, strongly worded letters, legal briefs and, where necessary, court appearances.

This year, Pat Robertson's ACLJ sent a three-page letter from Sekulow to 500,000 school officials, citing a recent federal appeals court decision--upheld last June by the U.S. Supreme Court--and explaining how to circumvent an earlier judicial ban on organized prayer at public school graduations.

Sekulow said that he simply borrowed this tactic from the American Civil Liberties Union, admiring its impact. But the organization does not consider this imitation the most sincere form of flattery.

"It is disingenuous to claim that," said Robert S. Peck, the ACLU's legislative counsel. "What they're doing, by virtue of this letter, is sowing some confusion."

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