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Evangelicals' Champion to Argue Case at High Court

December 02, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nation's leading lawyer for evangelical Christians was born and raised a Jew in Brooklyn, but decided in college that Christ was the Messiah.

"I've never found a conflict between my Jewish identity and my Christian beliefs," said Jay Alan Sekulow, 47, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit law firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

The firm was created to be a mirror image of the American Civil Liberties Union. And thanks in part to Sekulow's victories in the Supreme Court over the last decade, the strict separation of church and state -- the constitutional rule long championed by liberal groups such as the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress -- is being edged aside by a new equal-treatment-for-religion rule favored by Sekulow and other conservatives.

Today, Sekulow is scheduled to argue before the Supreme Court a case that asks whether the government sometimes must pay for religious teaching. It is a constitutional clash that pits one part of the 1st Amendment against another, a case in which liberals are touting the state's right to "just say no" to funding religion, while conservatives, including Bush administration lawyers, insist federal courts should tell the states how to spend their money.

Sekulow said that growing up Jewish helped him see issues from a minority viewpoint. In the courts, on radio and on television, Sekulow has brought the perspective of a combative outsider determined to fight discrimination against Christians.

He has represented children who want to pray in school; high school students who hope to form a Bible study club; abortion protesters who want to pass out leaflets on sidewalks outside medical clinics; and community activists who want to display the Ten Commandments.

His daily radio program, "Jay Sekulow Live!," which is heard on about 150 Christian radio programs, along with his regular appearances on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club," have made him a familiar figure to many across the nation.

With his short, stocky build and booming voice, Sekulow looks and acts like a fighter. His opponent is what he and his supporters see as a hostility toward religion that has been foisted upon the nation by the ACLU and enforced by the courts.

Sekulow has portrayed the dispute that will bring him before the Supreme Court today as a matter of discrimination against a Christian student. "Josh's case is the fulfillment of the struggle for freedom in America," he said last week.

He was referring to Joshua Davey, a Christian student and aspiring minister who lost a state scholarship because of his religious aims.

Davey's case began in 1999, when Gov. Gary Locke of Washington created the Promise Scholarship to aid high-achieving students from middle- and low-income families. Davey graduated near the top of his high school class and qualified for the state scholarship of $1,125. He enrolled in Northwest College, a private school affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and said he planned to prepare for the ministry.

When state officials learned of Davey's plans, they informed him that he could not receive public money. Washington, like 35 other states including California, has a ban in its constitution on the use of taxpayers' money to support religion. While it protects the "absolute freedom of conscience" in all matters relating to religion, the constitution also says, "No public money shall be applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction."

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a similarly two-sided approach to religion. On the one hand, it protects individuals in their rights to "freedom of speech" and the "free exercise" of religion. On the other, it forbids the government from taking any action "respecting an establishment of religion."

Sekulow sued on Davey's behalf in a federal court in Seattle, charging that the loss of the scholarship violated Davey's rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and the equal protection of the laws. A federal judge ruled for the state, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Davey on a 2-1 vote.

Sekulow said he hopes the Supreme Court justices set to hear arguments in the case of Locke vs. Davey today will "send an important message to states that they cannot discriminate against students who choose to focus on religious studies."

A Bush administration lawyer is set to join Sekulow in arguing for the student. A victory for Davey would give a boost to President Bush's "faith-based initiative" and remove a barrier to the funding of state vouchers, money that can be used to send children to religious schools.

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