Think tank names to know when following those red-hot courtroom battles on religion

Unlike so many towns, Salt Lake City is blessed with two dailies under separate ownership. Better yet, they’re continually sharp-eyed on the news of religion. The Salt Lake Tribune has deservedly piled up many an award, but faces strong competition from The Deseret News (owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

The News’s Kelsey Dallas came through earlier in August with a must-read survey headlined “Serving God by Suing Others: Inside the Christian Conservative Legal Movement.” Her 2,000-worder, with carefully-balanced pro and con views  (Professor Douglas Laycock’s criticisms are especially noteworthy), was quickly uppicked by Religion News Service and then via RNS by National Catholic Reporter.

Litigation by religious interest groups is hardly new, of course, but the action has gotten so red-hot that leftists put the very phrase “religious liberty” within scare quotes. Conservative religious advocates lost big on gay marriage but scored on e.g. state funding for a Lutheran school playground and on Hobby Lobby’s gain of religious exemption from the Obamacare contraception mandate.In coming weeks, reporters will be monitoring the indispensable scotusblog.com to read the briefs and learn the date for oral arguments in the Supreme Court’s big case on Masterpiece Cakeshop’s refusal in conscience to bake a gay wedding cake (docket #16-111).

Dallas drew from the new book “Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement” by political scientist Daniel Bennett of John Brown University. (The publisher is University Press of Kansas, again demonstrating the value for journalists to monitor releases by collegiate book houses.)  Bennett studied 10 public interest law firms that reporters should be familiar with. The largest players by 2014 revenues:

* Alliance Defending Freedom ($48.3 million). In January, Michael Farris, noted homeschool champion and president of Patrick Henry College, succeeded founder Alan Sears as ADF president.

* American Center for Law and Justice ($17.5 million). Led by the Jay Sekulow, who’s earning much ink and cable TV time with his added role as a lawyer defending President Trump. He’s a controversial figure otherwise, per a previous Guy Memo.

* First Liberty ($8.2 million). Headed by President Kelly Shackelford, the firm claims a 90 percent courtroom win rate against groups like the A.C.L.U., Freedom From Religion Foundation, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and government agencies.– Liberty Counsel ($5.6 million). In addition to leading this group, Chairman Mathew Staver has been a notable figure as founding dean of the law school at the Falwelllian Liberty University.

* Thomas More Society ($3.1 million). The Chicago-based firm led by Thomas Brejcha has been especially prominent in defending rights of pro-life activists.

* Thomas More Law Center ($2 million). Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., its co-founders were current President Richard Thompson and Thomas Monaghan, a Catholic activist who was formerly CEO of Domino’s Pizza.

* Pacific Justice Institute ($2 million). President Brad Dacus, onetime legislative assistant to Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), focuses on parental rights causes as well as religious liberty.

Due to defense of religious rights over against assertions of LGBTQ rights, several such firms have been branded “hate groups” by the oft-cited Southern Poverty Law Center. (Traditionalists might reply that in this regard SPLC itself  deserves that same label.)

Though the Christian organizations sometimes defend religious rights of non-Christians, Dallas’s list omitted another major player of journalistic interest -- the Becket Fund, which emphasizes its interfaith agenda. The firm was founded by Kevin Hasson, now succeeded as president by former financial executive William Mumma. Notable names on the Becket board include the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Princeton Professor Robert P. George, General Counsel Lance Wickman of the Mormon church, prominent Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik and the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Dallas indicates that these firms compete for donations, yet often backstop each other. In addition to the usual courtroom litigation and filing of friend-of-the-court briefs, they are necessarily putting more strategic muscle into public education, political activism, and cultivation of young attorneys. 

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