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Two Christian Advocacy Groups Put Faith in Courts

Supporters and critics say the organizations are a force to be reckoned with in battles on rights.

March 05, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — When a severely disabled Miami woman was raped and impregnated, Florida-based Liberty Counsel stepped in, attempting to block an abortion and seek guardianship of the fetus.

When a Huntington Beach ministry was booted from the warehouse where it worshipped and wound up in a dirt lot, the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund swiftly filed suit, arguing that the city had violated the federal religious land-use act.

Now, the two groups are suing to block San Francisco's same-sex marriages, an issue that will almost surely land before the state Supreme Court. They are part of a growing Christian legal advocacy movement bent on enhancing the rights and promoting the moral visions of evangelical Christians in the public sphere.

Both groups have defended the right of Christian public school students to express their views and to have access to school funds and meeting space. Both have fought on behalf of antiabortion protesters. Both increasingly have battled laws that offer benefits to gays and lesbians.

There is no shortage of sniping between the two: They woo the same donors and have jockeyed for top billing on key California cases. Each lobs mild insults at the other.

Funded by prominent conservative Christian ministries, the organizations so far have met mixed results in the courts. In San Francisco, each group has separately gone to court to block same-sex weddings, adopting slightly different legal arguments. Neither has succeeded so far.

But supporters and critics alike say the two groups are a force to be reckoned with, as common in the courtroom as the secular civil libertarians and gay rights groups they seek both to imitate and counter.

"The American Civil Liberties Union and the alphabet soup of other organizations on the other side of these issues were in court for a generation before people of faith woke up and decided we needed to appear," said Alan Sears, the Alliance Defense Fund's president and general counsel and a former federal prosecutor. "The other side attacked first. They hit and they hit and they hit, and finally we're defending."

"We found," said Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver, "that you could pass all the laws you wanted to, but then the courts would strike them down."

Staver was a young Seventh-day Adventist preacher when he watched a video on abortion and realized that "law could be beneficial to faith." He founded Liberty Counsel in 1989 and forged a close alliance with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

At Staver's urging, Falwell is opening a law school at his Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., along with a Center for Constitutional Litigation and Policy where Liberty Counsel will operate. Staver is a Liberty University trustee and serves as chairman of the law school steering committee.

Staver quickly learned that the main weapon in the arsenal of secular civil libertarians -- the 1st Amendment -- could serve his purposes in protecting freedom of religion.

Now, he says, the fight to preserve traditional marriage is ultimately a free speech issue as well.

"There's a desire to criminalize and take away freedom of speech of people like me who think homosexuality is wrong and traditional marriage is the model," he said.

The Alliance Defense Fund followed a different trajectory. Backed by well-known conservative ministries, including Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ and Coral Ridge Ministries, it was launched with fanfare at a national convention of religious broadcasters in late 1993.

A coalition of nearly three dozen member organizations with shared ideology, the group aimed to raise millions of dollars for grants to support key litigation carried out by others. Its goal: "to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel."

The group has tapped hundreds of evangelical Christians already practicing law across the country as a kind of farm team. In exchange for all-expense-paid training at hotel seminars, the lawyers work at least 150 pro bono hours on Alliance-funded cases.

About two years ago, the group hired staff attorneys to directly litigate cases "that will have lasting national precedent," Sears said.

The organizations have secured important victories in cases where religious clubs or newspapers sought the same type of public school funding or access to meeting space that secular groups receive, said University of Texas Law School professor Douglas Laycock, who has taught at Alliance seminars.

In some cases, the groups take positions the ACLU endorses. Many successful cases have involved situations where schools deny a student the right to distribute religious literature, pray or express beliefs in a setting not sanctioned by the school.

Liberal critics, however, say that in some cases, the groups exaggerate minor victories.

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