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'Truth with triumph'

"'Truth with triumph'" Continued...

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

When Mr. Swenson transferred his services to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, Mr. Staver was surprised, since he hadn't known the revival was denominational. But his family eventually joined that church, and he eventually attended a Seventh Day Adventist seminary in Michigan, graduating first in his class in 1982. The denomination assigned him to pastor three churches in the Lexington, Ky., area.

But during college, Mr. Staver's study of Scripture took him on a theological path that diverged from his denomination's teaching, eventually leading him to the Baptist church.

But not as a pastor. Before switching belief systems, he switched careers, the result of an epiphany sparked when a group of evangelical pastors invited him to watch a video on abortion that featured photos of a baby developing in the womb.

"I was astounded . . . it was as though I had been asleep this entire time," he said. The baby in the film wasn't, as he had imagined, a blob of tissue, but "indisputably a human life, one God had created. Yet the law had changed to the extent that human life was now something permissible to take. . . . That was when I realized that the law could either help us or hinder us in the expression of our faith."

American law, and its historic Judeo-Christian roots, became a passion that carried Mr. Staver through the University of Kentucky law school, where he graduated in 1987. Two years later, he opened Liberty Counsel.

The pro bono firm first tackled cases involving religious-liberty controversies in public schools, then branched out to defend pro-life protesters, on-the-job religious expression, and the traditional family. Tax records show that Liberty Counsel litigated 82 cases last year on a budget of $1.4 million, 75 percent from direct donations, of which Mr. Staver paid himself a salary of $75,000. Recently, the group has crossed legal swords in high-profile gay-rights cases, including the attempt to overturn gay marriage in Massachusetts (a loss), and the attempt to turn back San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's same-sex marriage licenses (a win.)

His track record has won Mr. Staver respect among activists fighting on the other side. "He has a credible reputation as a lawyer," said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He's a formidable opponent. I think most [liberal church-state activists] would probably agree with that."

Asked to reveal his own greatest weakness, Mr. Staver pauses, mind whirring almost audibly as he sorts through prudent replies. Then: "I don't mean this to sound boastful, but I'm pretty content with who I am," he said. "I'm not perfect, but I'm content with who I am." Still, he says he's his "own worst critic. I'm always Monday-morning-quarterbacking myself, thinking about how I can do or say something better."

One improvement, from his perspective: His views on religious liberty have widened to accommodate the reality of a multi-religion nation. He recounts a case he argued in 1989 against a Seminole Community College teacher who planned to show his students the blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ.

"I wouldn't do that now," he said. Instead, he would ask for equal time, for the opportunity to have a movie like The Passion of the Christ shown elsewhere on campus.

"I think I've become more principled in my thinking on free speech-that it's for all of us or none of us," he added. "The First Amendment allows for messages we don't like. How we combat that is by allowing truth beside error, not truth instead of error. . . . If you put Christ beside Satan, truth beside falsehood, right beside wrong, you will invariably have God's Word not returning void. Truth will triumph."

Right now the question is whether Liberty Counsel will triumph in McCreary vs. ACLU. Mr. Staver hopes the case will at last cut through the massive tangle of conflicting case law surrounding Christian public displays.

But there is more at stake in McCreary than monuments. Liberty Counsel's petition to the Supreme Court also asked the justices to revisit the so-called "Lemon test," the 1971 "excessive entanglement" decision by which courts often judge the constitutionality of intersections between government and religious expression.

Mr. Staver's team didn't just ask the Supreme Court to review the Lemon test, they also asked the court to establish a new test. And the court said yes.

Was Liberty Counsel's move too bold? Might the delicate 5-4 majority that often marks this court's decisions on social issues tip this time in the wrong direction? "It's true that the new test might not be a test we like," Mr. Staver admitted. "But the old test is one that nobody likes. It has resulted in hopeless disarray among the courts on church-state issues."

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