When I saw the headline “Serving God by suing others: Inside the Christian conservative legal movement,” I knew the ensuing news article meant trouble.
Would the Deseret News (which produced the above piece) have referred to the Americans for Civil Liberties Union in such a demeaning fashion? Or the Freedom From Religion Foundation?
Both of those organizations spend much of their time suing other entities over religion.
So why all the love for the conservatives? We begin with this:
SALT LAKE CITY -- Roger Gannam cites the Bible to define his company's mission. That wouldn't be notable if he worked at a church or food kitchen, somewhere known for sharing the gospel with the world. But Gannam works at a law firm, suing others and representing those who have been sued.
His employer, Liberty Counsel, advocates for conservative Christian interests in cases related to the sanctity of life, family values and religious liberty, presenting the court system as a way to live out Jesus' "Great Commission."…
Liberty Counsel is part of the Christian legal movement, a collection of advocacy groups working in the legal, public policy and public relations arenas to advance and protect conservative Christian moral values. Together, these firms have turned the courts into key battlefields in the culture wars.
Actually, the courts have been culture wars battlefields for decades. See Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges.
The power of this movement will be on display this fall, when Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is argued before the Supreme Court. The potentially far-reaching case asks what should win out when the conscience rights of small-business owners who object to same-sex marriage clash with civil rights protections for the LGBT community.
Alliance Defending Freedom, the most prominent organization in the Christian legal movement, represents Masterpiece Cakeshop, but other Christian firms will be involved in the case as well, offering input on arguments or filing briefs in support of the Christian baker. These groups compete for donations and clients, but they recognize that they're chasing after the same goals…
Their shared commitment to splashy media campaigns and aggressive legal tactics have troubled some who work at the intersection of law and religion. Debates over religious freedom are more contentious now than they were in the past, and these organizations may help explain why.
"I think that many of these organizations do overreach, do make implausible claims, and do discredit the cause (of religious freedom) when they do so," said Douglas Laycock, a religious freedom expert and distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia Law School.
So let's think about this. What are the photographers, cake decorators, B&B owners and bakers of this world supposed to do when they’re sued by activists on the cultural left? Not hire legal help at all? Can you blame these individuals for wanting to get decent representation?
Why is it OK to sue such people but not OK when these folks decide to fight back?
The article does offer some voice to these legal groups in the person of Daniel Bennett, a John Brown University professor who explains how the Christian groups are merely borrowing legal strategies from earlier movements. Also, Laycock is well known as a traditional liberal on First Amendment issues and someone who has been a strong supporter of religious liberty.
However, the writer clouds up the profile with paragraphs like these:
The growth and success of Christian conservative legal organizations has earned them some enemies, especially at a time when religious freedom protections increasingly clash with LGBT rights.
Three Christian conservative law firms -- Alliance Defending Freedom, Pacific Justice Institute and Liberty Counsel -- appear on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of hate groups because of their "anti-LGBT" positions.
It's valid to mention the SPLC charges, in part because they have received so much press attention already. However, there really needed to be an answer to those charges –- such as information about the SPLC’s track record of labeling any organization it disagrees with as a hate group -- but the writer furnishes none.
Also, note that the ADF folks refused to be interviewed by this writer which is a bit odd. I never had any problems getting Greg Scott, their spokesman, on the line and he is still sending out email blasts to reporters.
Considering Laycock’s criticisms, there should have been some kind of response. The piece faults these Christian groups for linking their cases with moral questions.
However, linking cases with moral concerns is a powerful political and fundraising strategy for these firms. When selecting cases, they consider whether an issue will play well in the press and catch the attention of potential donors, Bennett said.
"They're looking for cases that set a precedent and earn them a little money in terms of fundraising," he said. The groups profiled in "Defending Faith" bring in anywhere from $300,000 to $48.3 million in annual revenue, according to Bennett's research.
Hmmm. Compared with the ACLU’s annual haul of $133.4 million, what the religious groups get is chump change.
The writer could have pointed this out. She could have also told us that many, if not all of these Christian legal groups often provide their services pro bono.
There are some enlightening quotes from folks at the Liberty Counsel and other institutions although it would have been good for the story to have included Jay Sekulow, the lawyer whose defense of Jews for Jesus’ right to evangelize in airports landed him in front of the Supreme Court in 1987. Sekulow went on to head up the American Center for Law and Justice, which was Pat Robertson’s answer to the ACLU. The ACLJ was the first Christian legal firm that achieved any fame on high-profile cases and it’s a shame it wasn’t cited as the pioneer in religious liberty litigation.
But my chief complaint is the tone of the piece. These Christian legal groups are forming alliances much like civil rights groups, pro- and anti-abortion forces and those following a zillion other causes have done. Why are the former suspect but the latter are not?
Also, why weren't we told what the typical costs are in mounting a Supreme Court case? Compared with certain monied organizations on the left, these legal groups are operating on slim budgets. A fair report would have given readers the facts on that.