Falwell's School Joins Others in Teaching Law to Their Flocks

The legal program at the reverend's university represents the latest effort by the religious right to change American society.

Los Angeles Times/November 21, 2004
By Emma Schwartz

Lynchburg, Va. -- What Debra Meador read disturbed her. It didn't seem right that schoolchildren were once barred from holding prayer groups after class. Or that the Ten Commandments couldn't be displayed in a government building.

So at 34, the human relations specialist from Lynchburg made good on a longtime interest by enrolling in law school. But unlike most prospective lawyers, she applied to only one place.

"I wanted to take it in a Christian setting," said Meador, a member of the inaugural law class at Liberty University, a Baptist college founded here in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. "I don't believe anyone could be neutral. We're willing to tell you what we believe and to follow that."

The school, like Meador, who aspires to argue cases before the Supreme Court, has grand designs. Right now, it has only 60 students and six faculty members. Provisional accreditation by the American Bar Assn. - which certifies that a school has been evaluated on the quality of its legal education and allows students to sit for the bar exam in any state - is at least two years away.

But by teaching law from a Christian perspective, Falwell hopes to train a cadre of Christian lawyers to fight what he sees as the growing secularization of public life across the country.

And the school plans to offer select students hands-on experience with a law firm that takes on constitutional issues. That would occur when Liberty Counsel, a legal organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on cases involving religion and traditional values, moves its legislative arm to the campus.

Best known for establishing in 1979 the Moral Majority, one of the first evangelical efforts to affect political discourse, Falwell sees the law school as an extension of his mission.

"We certainly are training Christian activists," Falwell, who this month announced the creation of a 21st century version of the Moral Majority that aims to re-energize religious conservatives, said in an interview last week. "We're turning their attention to understand the Bible is the infallible word of God, that the American Constitution is a sacred document and that the Christian worldview is their matrix of service."

But for many students, the Christianity at the school's core does not mandate that they promote religion in the courtroom. Nor do faculty members see producing such graduates as their goal. As they point out, lawyers - not Falwell - do the teaching.

For Brad Fraser, a 23-year-old Pennsylvanian who completed his undergraduate degree at Liberty, the law school's purpose is not "to legislate morality. Our goal is to get back to the underlying principles that form the law."

The school is not the first to approach the law from a Christian perspective, nor is it the only such institution to emerge in recent years. Legal organizations backed by evangelical Christians have been waging court battles over the last two decades.

But it represents the latest effort by the religious right to transform American society - on everything from the division between church and state to such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage - from the inside out. And it's an indication of the alienation that many conservative Christians feel amid the larger secular culture.

"Christians are just now coming around to see the importance of law and legal institutions in terms of judges and government," said Michael P. Schutt, director of the Institute for Christian Legal Studies at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., whose law school takes a similar approach to Liberty's. "So Christians have begun to think about how we can influence these important perspectives."

It's a direction that has raised eyebrows among some civil libertarians and constitutional law scholars who fear that schools like Liberty are designed to preach, not teach.

"I don't believe that the understanding of Jerry Falwell about the history of America and of the American Constitution is remotely accurate, nor is it ethically responsibly," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a longtime critic of Falwell. "It is designed to turn America into his view of a Christian nation&. When you get these insular institutions who believe they are right and fighting the entire world, you get extremists coming out as graduates."

The picture inside Liberty's law school - a recently remodeled building acquired from a manufacturing plant that moved out of town - sheds a decidedly more complex light on the sort of legal education students receive.

On Thursday, a property-law class opened with a prayer, led by the instructor. But for the rest of the hour, the students' attention turned to more mundane subjects: leases, mortgages and tenant contracts. They read cases on who had the right to inherit property and discussed the differences in legal interpretations across courts.

It's much like any other law school, instructor Morris E. Osborne, who spent years at the Florida firm of Akerman Senterfitt, said after class. The only difference: Osborne can, if he sees the opportunity, use the Bible as a teaching tool.

Students and faculty members say the curriculum includes law school staples: tort law, criminal procedure, constitutional law, contracts and real estate. There is also a three-year required series on lawyering - training in everything from filing a brief to interviewing clients.

Where Liberty's curriculum differs from most law schools is that legal studies are integrated with questions about morality, discussions centered on natural law and classes peppered with Christian perspectives on course material. The most concrete example, students and faculty say, is the first-year Fundamentals of Law course, which includes an examination of Christian influence on the foundation of the American legal system.

But mostly, what this viewpoint means for instructors like H. Beau Baez, a Georgetown University law graduate who teaches torts, is that "we can explain not just what the rule is in the current state of the law, but what the law should be."

It's an important perspective, said Bruce W. Green, the law school's dean, because law based on morality and natural law is "underrepresented in the free marketplace of ideas," making schools like Liberty all the more important to "make sure that viewpoint is heard."

Law schools with strong religious underpinnings are showing signs of growth around the country. Ave Maria School of Law, a Roman Catholic institution in Ann Arbor, Mich., opened four years ago, and University of St. Thomas, also Catholic, in St. Paul., Minn., graduated its first law class last spring. Both schools have received provisional ABA accreditation.

Although nearly all of Liberty's students are Christian, not all are Baptist. One is Jewish; a few said they hadn't set foot in a church in years before coming here. (Attendance at services is not required, but most students do go.)

There were more than 200 applicants for Liberty's inaugural class, Green said. This year the school expects more than twice that number of applications.

Perhaps the closest parallel to Liberty is Regent University's law school, founded in 1986 by the Rev. Pat Robertson, host of television's "The 700 Club." Based three hours east of here, the school - which received its full ABA accreditation in 1996 - has a close relationship with the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington nonprofit law firm also founded by Robertson.

If Regent's graduates are any indication of Liberty's future, many more go into public-interest law than the national law school average of about 3% of a class. But even at Regent, they account for no more than 10% of the graduates, with the remainder opting for more traditional legal fields, said Jeffrey A. Brauch, the school's dean.

Although a number of Liberty's students express interest in public service and politics, their career goals run the gamut of the legal profession, from the intrigues of international law to the corporate offices of Wal-Mart.

Students and faculty express a similar draw to the school: that it's a place with a clear Christian mission, where a high priority is put on training honest, effective lawyers.

"A lot of us have concerns about where the culture is going and want to use the Bible and faith and their legal degrees to get the culture back in the direction they think is best," said Michael Krause, a 24-year-old from San Antonio who says he wants to be governor of his home state one day. "But it's not like they are teaching us to use the Bible. They're teaching us to use our education."

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