The addition of controversial attorney Jay Sekulow to President Donald Trump’s defense team is a wide-open invitation for journalistic personality stories. By all accounts, Sekulow, 61, is among America’s most zealous -- and effective -- religious litigators. He also hosts a daily radio show and has become an omnipresent Trump advocate on other media.
Early coverage on his appointment left unexplored territory on the religion aspects of the sort noted by The Forward, the venerable liberal Jewish newspaper whose print and online editions reach a broad readership. Then The Washington Post published a June 27 jaw-dropper on Sekulowian finances.
More on money in a moment. If The Forward’s treatment seemed harsh, that’s certainly predictable. Sekulow has been in the middle of many social issues that are considered “conservative” while the paper has traditionally embraced socialists and liberal Democrats.
Moreover, Sekulow was raised in Reform Judaism, but became a “Messianic Jew” (that is, an evangelical Protestant of Jewish ethnicity) during college years at Mercer University, where he later earned his law degree. After work as a trial attorney for the IRS and a business lawyer in Atlanta, in 1990 he became chief counsel for the new American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.
Like Trump’s top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, Sekulow is no expert in the Washington, D.C., quicksand the President finds himself in. But he’s battle-hardened, having argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in his religion specialization. Early on, Sekulow grasped that federal judges are less than ardent supporters of religious freedom claims and switched to a civil liberties strategy exploiting other Bill of Rights guarantees, winning for instance a 1987 Supreme Court OK for airport pamphlet distribution by Jews for Jesus.
The Forward rehashes bankruptcy and other disputes from Sekulow’s early career and AP and USA Today coverage of his finances, now thoroughly updated by the Post. Highlights from the latter: In 2011 through 2015, Sekulow and his family members earned $5.5 million from two interrelated non-profits, ACLJ and Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), which in turn sent $23 million in media and other business to two firms owned or co-owned by Sekulows, plus $16 million in legal outsourcing to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group co-owned by Jay Sekulow.
While the Sekulows declined comment, Robertson told the Post such cash flows are considered “reasonable.” Watchdogs disagree. A fat story would compare ACLJ and CASE finances with the othermajor players in religious liberty litigation. A second story theme is Sekulow’s shift beyond strict religious rights. For instance, ACLJ has sued to get Justice records about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s ill-fated tarmac chat with former President Clinton.
Lots here to unpack.
Meanwhile, reporters should be aware of the December retirement of another perennially quotable source on this turf, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Lynn is both a clergyman (United Church of Christ) and attorney (Georgetown Law). He was a former D.C. lobbyist for his UCC and then the American Civil Liberties Union, and at Americans United expanded from strict separationist demands into sweeping opposition to all forms of conservatism in religion and politics.
His cultural status is reflected in the honorary committee for a November 2 retirement bash, including: former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse; Congressman Joseph Kennedy III; Senator Al Franken and fellow comic Sarah Silverman; Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards; Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center; and General Secretary Jim Winkler of the National Council of Churches. Did we leave anyone out?
In a soft Religion News Service Q&A that left much for other journalists to pursue, Lynn says of longtime adversary Sekulow, “I consider him a friend.” They do, at least, agree on opposing the death penalty.