Legal Weapon : Jay Alan Sekulow is the Christian Right's leading lion in the judicial arena. Those he opposes say he's a zealot, an opportunist--and a formidable foe.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the height of the ferocious street battles that nearly paralyzed Wichita, Kan., in the summer of 1991, the only man standing between Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry and a jail cell was a fast-talking, Brooklyn-born attorney who began life as a self-described "nice Jewish boy."

Standing next to Terry in court, Jay Alan Sekulow did his best to keep Operation Rescue's leader out of jail and on the street, spreading his militantly anti-abortion message.

"Jay's courtroom savvy and constitutional knowledge have been absolutely critical in the growth and survival of Operation Rescue," Terry said in a recent interview. "Without his intervention, I believe several judges would have tried to crush the life out of our movement."

From the streets of Wichita to New York's South Street Seaport to the Oakland Coliseum, Christian activists confronting public officials call on Sekulow, evangelical Christianity's lion in the judicial arena.

Based in Virginia Beach, Va., the 37-year-old Sekulow supervises 75 attorneys for the American Center for Law and Justice, as well as his own Atlanta-based Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism. Dispatching and directing them--often by cellular phone as he strides through airports, lugging his oversized briefcase--Sekulow usually gets results.

Public officials around the country have been compelled by Sekulow's lawsuits--and threats of lawsuits--to permit distribution of religious tracts and allow students to hold religious services and meetings in public schools.

Sekulow won his latest victory in the U.S. Supreme Court in June, when the high court ruled 9-0 that religious groups may not be barred from using public school facilities after hours if other groups are allowed access to school grounds.

"Jay is absolutely brilliant," said Pat Robertson, former presidential candidate and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"He is very incisive on constitutional issues and he is also indefatigable. To me, he's probably the most important constitutional lawyer representing the Christian point of view in America."

But Sekulow's critics contend that he has devoted his career to knocking down the wall separating church and state, using the First Amendment as a legal battering ram.

In many ways, said Ruth Jones, staff attorney for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sekulow is "more dangerous because he appears very reasonable. It's very easy for people to find him very agreeable. He's very articulate."

"We disagree with just about everything he does," said Rob Boston, assistant director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "but we're careful not to sell him short."

Sekulow's importance, said Michael W. McConnell, a professor at the University of Chicago law school, "is less in terms of specific cases . . . than in the fact that he has been able to put together an organization that can provide high-quality representation to litigants who previously have had no place to go."

Along the way, spreading the Christian Right's message has also brought Sekulow fame and influence among the 13 million people who tune in each week to the nation's most-watched Christian programming on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Thanks in large part to the multimillion-dollar patronage of Robertson and Orange County religious broadcaster Paul Crouch, Sekulow has also become a television mini-mogul. He owns five stations in the Southeast that make up his own religious broadcasting network.

Sekulow's weekly television show appears on nearly 350 stations affiliated with Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Equal parts zealous missionary, civil libertarian and, his detractors believe, opportunist, Sekulow often describes himself as a himself as a "reasonable fanatic."

He does not deny the irony that a former Jew is now Evangelical Christianity's leading advocate.

"It's a real question. Of all the Gentiles in the world, how come it's a Jew?" Sekulow asks. "It's a mystery of God."

Pleas pour in to Sekulow from Christian activists around the country who believe their free speech or religious rights have been abridged. Sekulow and his colleagues respond almost instantly with a torrent of phone calls, strongly worded letters, legal briefs and, where necessary, court appearances.

This year, Pat Robertson's ACLJ sent a three-page letter from Sekulow to 500,000 school officials, citing a recent federal appeals court decision--upheld last June by the U.S. Supreme Court--and explaining how to circumvent an earlier judicial ban on organized prayer at public school graduations.

Sekulow said that he simply borrowed this tactic from the American Civil Liberties Union, admiring its impact. But the organization does not consider this imitation the most sincere form of flattery.

"It is disingenuous to claim that," said Robert S. Peck, the ACLU's legislative counsel. "What they're doing, by virtue of this letter, is sowing some confusion."

Sekulow acknowledges that, philosophically, he may appear to be a bundle of contradictions. For example, he opposes official prayer or organized Bible readings led by teachers in public school classrooms, or at school functions below the level of high school.

The existing understanding of the separation of church and state, Sekulow said, "is not the kind of separation intended by the Founding Fathers. It is a separation of state from its Christian underpinnings. In the place of Christianity, a newer religion, or faith, has taken root: secularism, or . . . secular humanism."

And Sekulow battles secular humanism, "with its Trojan horse of neutrality," without mercy. He charges that "public schools are being used to indoctrinate children in evolution, New Age philosophy and sexual amorality. . . . The penetration of secular humanism into our judicial and educational institutions has chased virtually every mention of Christianity out of many schools."

But critics like Skipp Porteous, of the Massachusetts-based Institute for First Amendment Studies, charge that Sekulow is the one pulling the Trojan horse into public schools. Porteous says that many of the legal challenges brought on behalf of "student-initiated" religious activities are actually engineered by adult missionary groups aiming their efforts at children as young as elementary-school age, and brought by young "surrogates" they recruit.

Sekulow acknowledges the existence of such child and youth evangelism groups, run by adults, but says he will not represent them and, in one case, dropped clients affiliated with such a group.

Nonetheless, Porteous said, Sekulow's victories "have opened the doors of the public schools to missionary work."

As a tactic, Sekulow says he is personally opposed to the physical blockading of abortion clinics, but he told a group of Loyola Law School students in March that if the federal civil rights law originally aimed at the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations could be used against Operation Rescue members today, it could be used tomorrow against Greenpeace and the gay-rights group Act Up.

When Sekulow visits law schools around the country, the Christian Right's best-known attorney delivers another unexpected message. For although his religious beliefs--a form of Christianity for converts called Messianic Judaism--are deeply held, it is the gospel of the First Amendment and pluralism that he preaches.

"Most people are very surprised by what comes out of my mouth on free speech," he told the Loyola students.

Sekulow reminds law students that the First Amendment applies to the Hare Krishnas, to political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, to producers of R-rated movies and heavy metal music, to proprietors of adult bookstores. Although, he confessed, it is difficult bringing such views to conservative groups that support his legal work, like Concerned Women for America, "people who would just as soon burn me if I said you can burn the American flag."

But Marc D. Stern, a staff attorney with the American Jewish Congress who has opposed Sekulow on a number of cases, is not overly impressed with Sekulow's professed devotion to the First Amendment. Stern said he considers Sekulow a "zealot."

Still, Stern said, "you can't quibble with the fact that he's won the cases."

The June victory was Sekulow's fourth in the U.S. Supreme Court. He has also secured the right of religious groups to pass out literature at LAX, prevented the federal government from using anti-Ku Klux Klan legislation to charge anti-abortion activists with crimes and upheld the right of a student Bible-study club to meet on the grounds of a high school.

Sekulow spends much of his time representing Terry and Operation Rescue. When two people were arrested in New York last year for trying to hand then-candidate Bill Clinton a fetus, an Operation Rescue move that ultimately resulted in Terry's conviction, it was Sekulow who was there to defend them.

But NOW's Jones contends that "Operation Rescue is not about the First Amendment. It's about preventing women physically, emotionally or any other way they can develop, from getting abortions."

Apart from Sekulow's own legal talents, it was his teen-age conversion to Christianity, a nasty bankruptcy and the patronage of an Orange County religious broadcaster that changed the course of his life and propelled him to national prominence.

"I was secure in my Jewish identity," he wrote in his book, "From Intimidation to Victory." But his bar mitzvah at age 13 was a "glorious day," in part because it meant "the end of Hebrew school."

At Atlanta Baptist College (later Mercer University), he became interested in Christianity, influenced in part by a New Testament professor who was married to a converted Jew. The culmination of "an intellectual quest" came at 18, when an encounter with Jews for Jesus on campus led to his conversion.

He married a fellow student, Pam McPherson, a Christian, and went on to Mercer Law School, where he graduated second in his class.

Sekulow established a firm with a friend, another converted Jew named Stuart J. Roth. Before long, they had nine attorneys, two certified public accountants and three paralegals. Sekulow prospered. By the mid-1980s, he was earning $250,000 a year and had bought a large house in the suburbs, entertaining frequently and lavishly.

But Sekulow, whose first job out of law school was as a prosecutor with the IRS' tax litigation division, was caught flat-footed when IRS regulations changed in the mid-1980s, causing his law firm, which controlled the construction company, to collapse within three months.

According to documents filed with the federal bankruptcy court, when Sekulow filed in 1987 he listed $13,071,748 in debts and $638,000 in assets.

But even before the bankruptcy, Sekulow had a rocky relationship with some of the lawyers who worked for him, several of whom successfully sued him and his firm.

Joyce F. Glucksman, who has the disabling condition spina bifida, left a job she had for eight years to come to work for Sekulow, assured by him that her health coverage would be secure. When Glucksman was fired in what she was told was a cost-cutting move, she sued and won a judgment of $1.8 million, but collected only $5,000 and still has no health insurance.

At the nadir of his career--broke and without a law firm--Sekulow's professional career was literally resurrected by Jews for Jesus, the group whose campus visit sparked his conversion. After a short stint doing First Amendment work for a New York firm, Sekulow was asked by Jews for Jesus to represent them before the U.S. Supreme Court in the LAX case in 1987.

This, legal experts say, was the equivalent of being handed a winning lottery ticket, because the Los Angeles statute, aimed at protecting visitors to the 1984 Olympics, explicitly barred First Amendment activity and thus was clearly unconstitutional.

"The first time I ever really argued a constitutional issue was to the Supreme Court," Sekulow said, still marveling at what happened when he was "down for the count."

But Sekulow's inexperience with constitutional litigation showed, and his maiden appearance before the high court was not an impressive one. American Lawyer magazine noted that he had the temerity to interrupt the justices, calling him "rude and aggressive . . . so nervous that at times he appeared nearly out of control."

Nonetheless, he won in a unanimous decision.

Looking back on his career, Sekulow said that his legal victories belong to God: "(T)he freedom to proclaim the gospel rises above Satan's smoke-screens and lawyers' hot air. We are winning."

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this article from Atlanta.

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