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Litigating for a ‘Godly Heritage’ : Law: Pat Robertson’s group of lawyers provides free help to conservative Christians. It hasn’t lost a case in two years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When God needs a lawyer, the mortals who handle the cases are from the American Center for Law and Justice.

Led by a Catholic ex-hippie and a Jew who converted to Christianity, the Virginia-based center has clients ranging from subway evangelists to a man arrested for displaying an aborted fetus to Bill Clinton.

It’s justice, Pat Robertson-style. Four years after his frustrated bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the religious broadcaster has settled on a new tack to counter the “anti-God, anti-family” forces he believes are undermining America: He has organized a cadre of lawyers to supply free legal help to beleaguered conservative Christians.

And the group’s success has sent chills through entities like the American Civil Liberties Union.

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“It’s part of a growing movement within the religious right to press their agenda,” says Barry Steinhardt, ACLU associate director. “It’s a sign they’ve become increasingly sophisticated. . . . And it’s a sign for those of us concerned about separation of church and state (and) abortion rights . . . that this is not a time to relax.”

Relaxation isn’t high on Robertson’s agenda, either. Some 150 requests pour into the legal team’s headquarters weekly, and an ACLJ newsletter vows to “litigate for 10, 20, 30, 50 or as many years as it takes” to restore the nation to its “Godly heritage.”

Among the clients:

* A 57-year-old Texas grandmother jailed for handing out anti-abortion tracts next to a high school. After the center intervened, all charges were dropped.

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* Florida school board members trying to devise lawsuit-proof lesson plans that allow Bibles in the classroom.

* A New York man who confronted Clinton with a clear plastic takeout-food container holding a human fetus, in violation of a court order barring Operation Rescue demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention. Attorneys who later showed up to defend him were reportedly met by bare-breasted women and other protesters waving rubber snakes and bottles containing tiny dolls. That case is pending.

Center lawyers have also appeared twice before the U. S. Supreme Court in recent months. One case will decide whether after-hours religious meetings at a public school may be banned if meetings for non-religious purposes are allowed; the other will determine whether the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 can be used to restrict anti-abortion picketing and blockades. Jay Sekulow, the center’s lead attorney, says attempts to halt anti-abortion demonstrations--or in some cases, even passing out Bibles--near clinics “turns free-speech zones into speech-free zones.”

To date, the 2-year-old center hasn’t lost a case, and the ACLU’s Steinhardt fears that trend could continue. The federal courts, he says, are loaded with Reagan-Bush appointees who tend to look favorably on conservative legal arguments.

Another advantage for the center is Sekulow, a respected First Amendment attorney who has argued nearly a dozen Supreme Court cases, most notably on behalf of Hare Krishnas and a Jews for Jesus group seeking to evangelize at airports.

Sekulow, 36, cuts an unusual figure. A Jew who converted to Christianity in college, he began his career as an IRS attorney, then jumped into Atlanta real estate deals and tax shelters for the wealthy. A few years later, however, he was hit by a securities-fraud lawsuit, filed for bankruptcy protection and shut down his firm, $13 million in debt.

For Sekulow, disaster became epiphany: “Any time you go through something like that, you don’t come out of it the same.” He says he rededicated his life to Christ and, shortly thereafter, was asked to represent Jews for Jesus in their successful 1987 case against Los Angeles International Airport. From there, he went on to other high-profile clients (including Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry), numerous television appearances, a book and a bustling legal career. He now serves as chief counsel to two other conservative legal groups besides Robertson’s.

Fate wasn’t as kind, perhaps, to the Atlanta investors Sekulow left behind--and some of them question the sincerity of his Christian beliefs.

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“There has never been an explanation . . . an apology or a request for forgiveness,” says Bradley Cavedo, a Virginia attorney who represented investors accusing Sekulow of securities fraud. “I would think it would be hard for him to sleep at night.”

Sekulow admits he’s “not proud of everything I did,” but points out that his investors weren’t the only ones to suffer. “I lost everything,” he says. “My house, car, stocks . . . everything. If an investor lost money, I lost it first.”

While Sekulow slugs it out in the courtroom, former Ohio prosecutor Keith A. Fournier oversees the bigger picture. Fournier, 38, a onetime anti-war hippie who rediscovered Catholicism after hitchhiking across the country, is the center’s executive director.

As he sees it, “an odd sort of irony” has arisen as the forces who backed civil rights and peace demonstrations during the 1960s seek to curtail the speech of Christians and abortion opponents during the 1990s. Students used to be told, “You don’t leave your (free speech) rights behind at the school door,” he says, but the rules change if the speech involves religion: “Our position is simple. Speech is speech. . . . The content shouldn’t matter.”

But winning the right to speak out and demonstrate is only part of the battle, Fournier adds: Christians also need to “reclaim the language,” because the media and various liberal groups have manipulated and distorted the meaning of such words as life and choice.

Not that the center doesn’t occasionally distort a thing or two.

Its fund-raising letters, for example, try to cash in on conservative America’s distaste for the ACLU by repeatedly portraying the organization as an irredeemable enemy, when in fact the two groups occasionally side together. Sekulow, for one, concedes that the ACLU-bashing is overblown: “The ACLU is not the Antichrist. . . . You’ll rarely see me making comments on them.”

Actually, much of the American Center for Law and Justice is patterned after the ACLU--the use of free labor from law students and professors (in this case at Robertson-founded Regent University in Virginia) and the bid to set up a nationwide network of volunteer attorneys. Even the group’s initials, ACLJ, are a twist on ACLU.

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“We’ve learned a lot from them,” Fournier says, including the tactic of regularly mailing thousands of letters to cities and school boards to advise them on such issues as prayer at graduation ceremonies and Nativity scenes on public property.

But the ACLU’s $30-million budget is about 10 times the ACLJ’s, and it has about 100 staff attorneys to the ACLJ’s 11.

Can the center catch up?

Fournier says that isn’t his goal, but Robertson has grander plans and wants to someday eclipse the ACLU in importance.

“For years, liberal public-interest law firms have changed the legal landscape of this nation according to their agenda,” he has written. “We are hereby putting . . . such groups on notice. We will meet you face-to-face, toe-to-toe, in court or out. America will be restored to her Godly heritage.”


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