ACLJ: Laying down the religious law

WASHINGTON — Whether they like it or loathe it, most Americans recognize the American Civil Liberties Union as a constitutional watchdog. Far fewer know of the American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, a leader in the flourishing field of Christian legal advocacy that may be less famous but is no less determined to see its views prevail in the nation’s courts and, ultimately, its culture.

The ACLJ, the best-financed and highest profile of these conservative Christian legal groups that is headed by aggressive chief counsel Jay Sekulow, has led the way in transforming the complaints of the religious right from raucous protests on the courthouse steps to polished presentations inside the highest courts in the land.

These cases cover a broad range of religious issues, from defending a Texas high school’s practice of prayer at football games to an Illinois pharmacist’s right not to dispense drugs that violate his religious beliefs. Most aim at establishing precedent and all revolve around the conviction of the ACLJ and its colleagues that religious freedom, particularly that of Christians, is under attack by those who want to expunge all religious reference from public life.

Founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1990, the ACLJ has an annual budget of $35 million and employs about 130 people, including 37 lawyers, around the world, Sekulow said.

“They’re a very, very significant player in constitutional law, particularly regarding the First Amendment,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who often has crossed swords with Sekulow.

Sekulow, he said, “had this very clever idea of using what might be called religious arguments in the past and transforming them into free-speech arguments. So children who want to engage in religious speech in a public school are engaging in a free-speech right, not a free-exercise-of-religion right.”

Sekulow persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1990 case to uphold the rights of public high school students to have Bible club meetings after-hours on school premises on the basis on equal access and free speech.

Last month the group persuaded a federal court in Illinois to deny Wal-Mart’s efforts to dismiss a suit brought by a pharmacist suspended after refusing to sell “Plan B,” an emergency contraceptive the pharmacist considered equivalent to abortion. The court ruled that the pharmacist may proceed with the case under the Illinois Right of Conscience Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“It was a good decision,” said Sekulow, noting that the Illinois case is one of more than a dozen the ACLJ is handling that involve “conscience clause” objections by medical professionals faced with duties that violate their religious beliefs.

“Those are newer kinds of cases,” said Sekulow, sitting in the ACLJ’s headquarters, an elegant 19th Century blue brick townhouse across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court. “You really don’t see the pro-life protests on the courthouse square or in front of the abortion clinic. Now it’s more these kinds of cases. Nuanced. There’s federal legislation involved in this. There’s state legislation. There’s state regulatory issues. It’s Title VII. So it’s much more nuanced.”

At 51, Sekulow cuts a distinctive figure in the Christian legal fold, not just because he is a sharp legal strategist who eschews emotional or religious arguments but also because he is a Brooklyn-born Jewish convert to Christianity, or a “Messianic Jew,” as he puts it. In fact, in the first of the 12 cases he has argued before the Supreme Court, he won a unanimous ruling in 1987 that members of Jews for Jesus had the constitutional right to distribute religious literature in Los Angeles airport terminals.

Moreover, in recent years Sekulow has achieved a significant measure of political influence; he is consulted by the Bush administration on the choice of judges.

“He is, I think, more responsible than any other person for John Roberts being chief justice,” said Peter Irons, a constitutional scholar, civil liberties lawyer and author of the recently published “God On Trial: Dispatches From America’s Religious Battlefields.”

Sekulow said he was invited soon after President Bush took office to join what came to be called “the four horsemen.” The group, which also included former White House counsel Boyden Gray, Leonard Leo of the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, was formed “to be a kind of outside counsel on the judicial nomination issues, particularly the Supreme Court,” Sekulow said. He also worked on the nomination to the Supreme Court of Samuel Alito, which the ACLU strongly opposed. Alito took the bench in 2006.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Lisa Anderson, Chicago Tribune, via the, Sep. 15, 2007,

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 18, 2007.
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