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'Truth with triumph'

Law | A possible landmark Supreme Court case on the Ten Commandments is another level in Mathew Staver's step-by-step approach to win back lost religious liberties

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

When Mongan Nyman and her classmates exchanged Halloween candy in October 2000, Morgan's included messages like "Costumes are cool but heaven is awesome!" But Robert Davidovich, principal of Cushing Elementary School in Delafield, Wis., said the second-grader's holiday messages violated the separation of church and state.

Then he made Morgan go to each classmate and take the candy back.

That afternoon, she got off the school bus crying, her mother said. She cried all night, too, once becoming so upset she threw up.

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Three months later came Valentine's Day, and Mr. Davidovich refused to let Morgan pass out cards with sayings like "Jesus loves you." This time, her parents, Jeff and Shanon Stockhausen, called attorney Mathew Staver.

Mr. Staver, head of Liberty Counsel, a religious-liberty law firm in Orlando, Fla., filed suit in March 2001, charging that the school district had violated Morgan's rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. It took just weeks for the district to settle out of court. That April, the district changed its policy to allow students to express their religious beliefs on campus, and publicly apologized to Morgan in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

On Valentine's Day 2002, Mr. Staver received a religious card from Morgan-and so did every member of her third-grade class.

A grade-school fracas over Valentines and Halloween candy may seem an oddball case for any constitutional lawyer who hopes to be taken seriously. But liberal civil-rights groups, including the ACLU, have learned to take Mat Staver very seriously. His Liberty Counsel files bulge with victories, and his win-loss record is a liberal's bad dream. Liberty Counsel wins more than eight in 10 of its cases, and it now has one headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Staver in February will argue before the high court McCreary County, Kentucky vs. ACLU of Kentucky. At issue: whether public displays of the Ten Commandments violate the Constitution. The usual opponent is, of course, the ACLU.

Like several of the other two dozen or so Commandments cases now inching through the civil courts, McCreary involves so-called "contextual" displays in the Kentucky counties of McCreary and Pulaski. In such displays the Commandments appear alongside other historic documents such as the Magna Carta and the U.S. Bill of Rights. Courts are sharply divided about the monuments: Currently, four federal circuit courts and one state Supreme Court say they're constitutional, while three federal circuit courts say they aren't.

McCreary marks the first time since 1980, when the high court purged the Commandments from public-school classrooms, that it will review the issue. And it is the first time the court will receive full briefs and hear oral arguments in a Ten Commandments case.

For Mr. Staver, the case is part of a case-by-case approach to winning back lost liberties. Take little Morgan Nyman's case, for example. To some lawyers, trivial stuff: small school, small town, not much press potential, and certainly no money in it. But to Mr. Staver, Morgan's suit was much more: a clear-cut case of religious discrimination that, if won, would not only right wrongs, but also lay another brick in the foundation he is building through Liberty Counsel.

"Our strategy is to regain lost religious liberties incrementally," Mr. Staver said. "You have to take the long view, select the right cases, make the right legal arguments, knowing where you are contextually in history."

Friends say this fits with Mr. Staver's personality. "Mat is extremely methodical," said Art Ally, Liberty Counsel board member and president of the Timothy Plan Family of Mutual Funds, who has known Mr. Staver for 15 years. "He is very intelligent, but he can apply that intelligence in the most thoroughly logical way. . . . There are a lot of intelligent people who couldn't come in out of the rain."

Mr. Staver says he became a Christian as a teenager. His father was an abusive alcoholic who left the family when Mat was only 2 years old. Left alone in Charlotte Harbor, Fla., to raise seven children, his mother worked three jobs to support them, often on Sundays. A professing Lutheran, she began attending a local Roman Catholic parish because it was the only church in town offering multiple service times.

"I was religious," Mr. Staver says of his early years, "but in retrospect I would not say I was a Christian." He became one at age 18 when evangelist Art Swenson arrived in Charlotte Harbor to preach a series of sermons on end-times prophecy. "It was the first time any organized religion had ever emphasized the Bible to me," Mr. Staver remembers. During five weeks of marathon preaching, he only missed one night, and finally professed faith in Christ.

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