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Tear down that wall!

"Tear down that wall!" Continued...

Issue: "Katrina: One year later," Aug. 26, 2006

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that struck down state abortion bans, awakened a sleeping giant: a coalition of Protestants and Catholics whose sacred texts teach plainly, "Thou shalt not murder." Christians rose to fight back.

One of those Christians was a former pot-smoking, left-wing underground journalist named John Whitehead. When 1974 began, Whitehead was a liberal civil-rights attorney whose philosophy lined up squarely with that of the ACLU. But that year, God turned him from scoffer to believer and over the next eight years, influenced by the writings of Francis Schaeffer, R.J. Rushdoony, and others, he realized that Christianity had become a minority viewpoint in need of legal protection.

Whitehead in 1982 founded The Rutherford Institute as a public-interest law firm. The Christian Legal Society (CLS), founded in 1961, had long been active as a legal fellowship, and in 1976 it launched the Center for Law and Religious Freedom and began filing amicus (friend of the court) briefs the following year. CLS, though, did not begin direct litigation until 1996: "With the founding of The Rutherford Institute, you saw Christian litigating firms emerge on the model of the ACLU, litigating their own cases," said Hans Hacker, a professor of political science at Stephen F. Austin State University.

From 1989 to 1999 the other major groups emerged. Chris Levenick, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who studies church-state relations, said Christian public-interest legal groups "have been enormously important in this regard. They have provided an institutional counterweight to the mainline secularists." In The Culture of Conservative Christian Litigation, Hacker writes that "many conservative Christian litigators adopted a philosophy fusing tolerance for diverse ideas, sophisticated legal arguments, and respect for professional norms of the practice of law."

Christian lawyers have often advocated positions on free expression "that are decidedly more liberal than their liberal foes," Hacker said. "[Philosopher] John Stuart Mill said that truth profits from its collision with falsehood. That's what these guys believe on many issues." Hacker said the movement as a whole doesn't seek to advance Christianity as a state religion, but rather to preserve the First Amendment rights to free exercise and expression that allow people to advance their ideas in the marketplace, whether those ideas are religious or not.

The various religious-liberty shops have unique personalities driven by both mission and individual leadership. Among them:

  • Pacific Justice Institute takes on so-called "big game" cases of national import, but remains a champion of the little guy. Attorney Brad Dacus, 42, who founded the group, works through a West Coast network of more than 500 pro bono attorneys. "Our goal is to make sure everyone gets help, even if it's not a high-profile, precedent-setting case," he said. In 2004, PJI fielded 704 requests for assistance. Last year, that number tripled. Among the most prevalent requests are those involving religious land use. "The No. 1 curtailment to church growth according to pastors I've spoken with on the West Coast isn't lack of members or money," Dacus said. "It's local governments restricting them, saying, 'We don't want you.'"
  • Liberty Counsel founder and chief counsel Mathew Staver once aspired to be a pastor but switched to law after a post-Roe, pro-life video of a child developing in utero convinced him to take his stand at the intersection of faith and the Constitution. Staver's group, ubiquitous in the fight to preserve traditional marriage, in July defended California's Proposition 22, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
  • With a $26 million budget, the Alliance Defense Fund is the largest group in the movement. Launched in 1994 by a coalition of evangelical groups, including Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and others, ADF was originally formed to raise funds, train attorneys in civil-rights litigation, and disperse grants to groups such as those mentioned above, which would then use the money to do battle in court. Headed by former Justice Department attorney Alan Sears, ADF early in this decade became involved in direct litigation and has been involved in major religious-liberties victories.
  • Headed by super-lawyer Jay Sekulow, the American Center for Law and Justice has become the movement's main Washington Beltway presence. Considered a brilliant Supreme Court advocate, Sekulow has notched nine victories there, the most of any of the groups. He maintains close ties with the Bush administration and weighed in heavily on the president's high-court picks. ACLJ has also built a network on Capitol Hill and works closely with conservative lawmakers to craft legislation that preserves and expands First Amendment rights.

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