With Millions in Assets And Hundreds of Attorneys, Christian Right Is Waging War on the Church-State Wall
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Stanford Law School in California is a prestigious institution with a distinguished past. Founded in 1893, one of its first professors was a former president, Benjamin Harrison.
When the school opened new offices in 1975, another president, Gerald Ford, was on hand for the festivities. On its website, Stanford proudly calls itself “one of the nation’s top law schools.” U.S. News & World Report agrees and ranks the school number two in the nation, behind only Yale Law School.
It came as quite a surprise, then, when officials at Stanford announced recently that they would open a “Religious Liberty Clinic” thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation that was funneled through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal group that seeks to undermine church-state separation with arguments straight out of the Religious Right’s playbook.
The creation of such a clinic at one of the nation’s best law schools underscores the incredible growth, financial power and political influence of the Religious Right’s legal organizations. Thirty years ago, fundamentalist Protestant and ultra-conservative Catholic political forces were represented in court by small, ill-funded and mostly ineffective outfits that few took seriously. They certainly didn’t have the clout to graft themselves onto major law schools.
Today these outfits have multi-million-dollar budgets, hundreds of allied attorneys and remarkable clout in the halls of government. And they are pressing courts and elected officials to fund religious schools and other ministries, open public schools to coercive prayer and proselytizing, limit reproductive rights and gay rights and give organized religion special privileges generally.
Stanford officials have made it clear that the new clinic will push a conservative religious and political perspective.
“The 47 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well,” Lawrence C. Marshall, Stanford’s associate dean for clinical legal education, told The New York Times. “My mission has been to make clinical education as central to legal education as it is to medical education. Just as we are concerned about diversity in gender, race and ethnicity, we ought to be committed to ideological diversity.”
The clinic’s founding director, James A. Sonne, told The Times, “In framing our docket, we decided we would represent the believers. Our job is religious liberty rather than freedom from religion.”
Sonne is a former professor at Ave Maria School of Law, an ultra-conservative Catholic school in Florida founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan.
A taste of things to come at Stanford may have been offered during a recent panel discussion at the clinic. The Times reported that Hannah C. Smith, Becket Fund senior counsel, asserted that church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution.
Smith, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told attendees that Becket works to show “there are certain God-given rights that existed before the state. God gave people the yearning to discover him. Religious freedom means we have to protect the right to search for religious truth free from government intrusion.”
But Smith’s approach to religious freedom is quite different from the definition of attorneys who support church-state separation, and they worry about the burgeoning influence of the Becket Fund and its allies.
The Religious Right move toward legal power began in the 1990s. A turning point occurred when TV preacher Pat Robertson jettisoned a small legal group he had formed called the National Legal Foundation and announced the creation in 1990 of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
Named deliberately to tweak the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLJ was for many years the leading Religious Right legal group in the nation. Headed by Jay Sekulow, a Jewish lawyer who converted to evangelical Christianity after his private legal practice became mired in financial problems, the ACLJ collected millions from Robertson’s eager followers. Its aim was a frontal assault on the wall of separation between church and state.