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The Nation

Falwell's School Joins Others in Teaching Law to Their Flocks

The legal program at the reverend's university represents the latest effort by the religious right to change American society.

November 21, 2004|Emma Schwartz | Times Staff Writer

LYNCHBURG, Va. — What Debra Meador read disturbed her. It didn't seem right that schoolchildren were once barred from holding prayer groups after class. Or that the Ten Commandments couldn't be displayed in a government building.

So at 34, the human relations specialist from Lynchburg made good on a longtime interest by enrolling in law school. But unlike most prospective lawyers, she applied to only one place.

"I wanted to take it in a Christian setting," said Meador, a member of the inaugural law class at Liberty University, a Baptist college founded here in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. "I don't believe anyone could be neutral. We're willing to tell you what we believe and to follow that."

The school, like Meador, who aspires to argue cases before the Supreme Court, has grand designs. Right now, it has only 60 students and six faculty members. Provisional accreditation by the American Bar Assn. -- which certifies that a school has been evaluated on the quality of its legal education and allows students to sit for the bar exam in any state -- is at least two years away.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Law school -- An article in Sunday's Section A about a new law school at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, a Baptist college in Lynchburg, Va., referred to a Roman Catholic law school at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. The law school is in Minneapolis.

But by teaching law from a Christian perspective, Falwell hopes to train a cadre of Christian lawyers to fight what he sees as the growing secularization of public life across the country.

And the school plans to offer select students hands-on experience with a law firm that takes on constitutional issues. That would occur when Liberty Counsel, a legal organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on cases involving religion and traditional values, moves its legislative arm to the campus.

Best known for establishing in 1979 the Moral Majority, one of the first evangelical efforts to affect political discourse, Falwell sees the law school as an extension of his mission.

"We certainly are training Christian activists," Falwell, who this month announced the creation of a 21st century version of the Moral Majority that aims to re-energize religious conservatives, said in an interview last week. "We're turning their attention to understand the Bible is the infallible word of God, that the American Constitution is a sacred document and that the Christian worldview is their matrix of service."

But for many students, the Christianity at the school's core does not mandate that they promote religion in the courtroom. Nor do faculty members see producing such graduates as their goal. As they point out, lawyers -- not Falwell -- do the teaching.

For Brad Fraser, a 23-year-old Pennsylvanian who completed his undergraduate degree at Liberty, the law school's purpose is not "to legislate morality. Our goal is to get back to the underlying principles that form the law."

The school is not the first to approach the law from a Christian perspective, nor is it the only such institution to emerge in recent years. Legal organizations backed by evangelical Christians have been waging court battles over the last two decades.

But it represents the latest effort by the religious right to transform American society -- on everything from the division between church and state to such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage -- from the inside out. And it's an indication of the alienation that many conservative Christians feel amid the larger secular culture.

"Christians are just now coming around to see the importance of law and legal institutions in terms of judges and government," said Michael P. Schutt, director of the Institute for Christian Legal Studies at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., whose law school takes a similar approach to Liberty's. "So Christians have begun to think about how we can influence these important perspectives."

It's a direction that has raised eyebrows among some civil libertarians and constitutional law scholars who fear that schools like Liberty are designed to preach, not teach.

"I don't believe that the understanding of Jerry Falwell about the history of America and of the American Constitution is remotely accurate, nor is it ethically responsibly," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a longtime critic of Falwell. "It is designed to turn America into his view of a Christian nation.... When you get these insular institutions who believe they are right and fighting the entire world, you get extremists coming out as graduates."

The picture inside Liberty's law school -- a recently remodeled building acquired from a manufacturing plant that moved out of town -- sheds a decidedly more complex light on the sort of legal education students receive.

On Thursday, a property-law class opened with a prayer, led by the instructor. But for the rest of the hour, the students' attention turned to more mundane subjects: leases, mortgages and tenant contracts. They read cases on who had the right to inherit property and discussed the differences in legal interpretations across courts.

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