Robertson Leads His Religious Forces Into the Legal Arena : Civil rights: Televangelist’s American Center for Law and Justice provides free counsel in battling “anti-God, anti-family” groups. The ACLU is a major target.
Pat Robertson, who has marshaled some imposing forces in his campaign to defend the place of religion in the public arena, is increasingly relying on one of his newer organizations, a team of lawyers offering free counsel to beleaguered Christians.
Robertson, whose television show “The 700 Club” has an estimated audience of 1 million viewers daily, sees his American Center for Law and Justice as a new weapon in his offensive against “anti-God, anti-family groups.”
Robertson has named the new group so that its initials--ACLJ--are one letter different from those of the American Civil Liberties Union, a chief adversary of the Christian Right. Writing earlier this year in a newsletter, Robertson singled out the ACLU for special mention among groups he considers opposed to God and family. The ACLU, which often undertakes unpopular free speech and civil liberties cases, is Robertson’s main target.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said ACLU spokesman Phil S. Gutis. “We regard their formation as a compliment to our effectiveness and welcome their participation in the public arena.”
Founded two years ago, the goal of Robertson’s ACLJ is to provide free legal muscle for evangelical Christians who claim their rights have been violated.
Among its causes so far:
* Robertson’s center dispatched a team of lawyers to New York last summer to defend a man taken to court for confronting presidential candidate Bill Clinton with an aborted fetus.
* Center lawyers gave free advice to the Nassau County, Fla., Board of Education on drafting guidelines for a Bible study course at a high school. The ACLJ attorneys assisted the board in rebutting charges that the curriculum violated separation of church and state.
* The Robertson team intervened to obtain an injunction preventing enforcement of a ban on distribution of religious pamphlets at an Atlanta park.
Robertson has said he formed the ACLJ to go “toe-to-toe in the public arena and the courtroom” with the ACLU and to eventually become “the foremost national public interest law firm in America.” However, he has a way to go to achieve that goal, since his group has only a tenth of the personnel and budget of the 72-year-old ACLU.
The center had a $3-million budget this year and has 11 full-time attorneys at offices in Virginia Beach, Atlanta, Washington and New Hope, Ky.
Robertson’s lawyers on Tuesday will take on attorneys from the National Organization for Women, another of the religious broadcaster’s adversaries, when the ACLJ takes its first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Robertson’s lawyers will argue against a lower court ruling designed to keep protesters a specified distance away from abortion clinics. If allowed, such “bubble zones” could be used nationwide to thwart activities of groups like Operation Rescue, an ACLJ client.
The ACLJ is led by an “evangelical Catholic” and a “Messianic Jew,” terms that some Catholics and Jews do not accept.
Keith A. Fournier, the group’s executive director, is a Roman Catholic and a former prosecutor in Ohio who describes himself as “passionately pro-life.”
The group’s chief counsel and legal spokesman is Jay A. Sekulow, who has earned a reputation as one of the most successful religious liberties attorneys in the country.
Sekulow heads Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, an Atlanta-based group, and he is the top lawyer for Concerned Women for America of Washington and other conservative groups.
In the newsletter last year, Robertson wrote that “there has never been a better time to go on the offensive” in restoring religion to public life.
“We can see the day that children are allowed to pray in schools again, the Bible is once again honored as the basis for morality and law, secular humanism no longer reigns supreme in our public institutions and hostility toward religion in the public arena is eliminated. With a conservative Supreme Court in place, we can change the laws significantly in the next few years.”
Setting lofty goals is nothing new for Robertson. He founded Regency University, where the ACLJ is now based, and he developed the Christian Coalition, the group that helped Robertson take more than 300 delegates to the Republican National Convention.