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Falwell saw law school as tool to alter society

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By Lisa Anderson
Chicago Tribune national correspondent

May 21, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Some may have found it curious when Rev. Jerry Falwell's new Liberty University School of Law recently unveiled a $1 million teaching courtroom featuring exact-to-the-inch replicas of the U.S. Supreme Court bench and the lectern and counsel tables facing it. But Liberty faculty and students understood perfectly: Falwell intended his students to be well prepared to argue before and, ultimately, to serve on the highest court in the land.

Falwell, the prominent televangelist and father of the Moral Majority who founded Liberty University in 1971, died less than a week before the school granted its first law degrees to 50 graduates on Saturday. But his dream of "training a new generation of lawyers, judges, educators, policymakers and world leaders in law from the perspective of an explicitly Christian worldview" remains very much alive.

And that's true not just at Liberty, with its evangelical Baptist heritage, but at a growing number of conservative Christian law schools, such as the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., which graduated its first class in 2003; the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, which graduated its first class in 2004; and Barry University School of Law in Orlando, founded in 1999 -- all Catholic schools. Televangelist Pat Robertson's 21-year-old evangelical Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va., was one of the first of this new wave of schools, while Liberty is the youngest. All of them are either fully or provisionally accredited by the American Bar Association.

"It's a really good and healthy development in legal education," said John Garvey, dean of the Boston College Law School, a Jesuit school, and president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools.

"Since the election of Ronald Reagan, people have been talking about the influence of evangelicals or orthodox Catholics on election results," he said. "Should there be any surprise that there should be a demand for educating young people in this way? The very people who are voting this way and urging legal reforms of this kind are people whose children are going to college and law school."

Out to change the world

Bright and enthusiastic ranks of conservative Christians of all denominations are enrolling in these new law schools. Their unabashed goal: to "confront the culture," as Falwell put it, and "change the world," as Regent's motto proclaims.

Matthew Krause, among Liberty's first law graduates, is one of them.

"I think we've complained too long about the destruction of our culture without taking any affirmative steps to remedy it," said the lanky, 26-year-old Texan. "We don't want abortion, but what are we doing about it? Let's get into the courts and find a way to combat that. Same-sex marriage we don't feel is right or a good thing for the culture. How are we going to stop that? You have to do that through the legal processes. Then, at the same time, vote in politicians who share those ideas and beliefs."

In a dark brown suit, blue-striped shirt and blue and brown striped tie, Krause already dresses like an attorney. But he also has the big smile, firm handshake and outgoing personality of the kind of politician he ultimately hopes to be.

"I've got this crazy goal to be the governor by 2022," he said, with the confidence of one who doesn't consider the idea the least bit crazy.

But first, Krause will return to Texas with his wife, Jennie, and newborn son, Jeremiah, to open a Dallas office for Liberty Counsel, a plum job for a Liberty law graduate.

Partnering with Liberty University, Liberty Counsel is a non-profit organization offering free legal assistance in the areas of "religious liberty, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family." The organization was founded in Florida in 1989 by Mathew Staver, who became dean of the university's law school last year. Top Liberty law students have the opportunity to work on pro bono cases, many of them dealing with constitutional issues.

The number of cases involving religious rights or the traditional family are on the rise, a trend consonant with the increased participation of Christian lawyers in the last decade, Staver said. And, he said, he discovered that "when we showed up, we could win."

In one of the last interviews given before his death last Tuesday, Falwell spoke to the Tribune on May 1 at Liberty University. He described his longtime desire to open an evangelical law school to counter "a colossal effort to secularize America" in the last 40 years.

"The 10 Commandments cannot be posted in public places. Children cannot say grace over their meals in public schools. No prayers at football games and on the list goes, virtually driving God from the public square. And then, of course, Roe vs. Wade in the middle of all that, legalizing abortion on demand. Now, the redefining of the family or the attempt to. So all of this reinforced our belief that we needed to produce a generation of Christian attorneys who could, in fact, infiltrate the legal profession with a strong commitment to the Judeo-Christian ethic," Falwell said.

That is what draws many students to Liberty University.

"Most students here are anchored in their Christian beliefs," said first-year law student Tashell Thompson, 21, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

"I was at a point in my life when I needed more of a conviction," she said. "When I was at Hopkins, I didn't necessarily put God first."

"I didn't want to just be a Christian attorney, but an attorney who dedicates my gifts and talents to Christ," said Chicago-born Daniel White, 25, an African-American. One of Liberty's first graduates, he is joining the Gibbs Law Firm in Florida, which argued for continued life support for Terri Schiavo.

Preparing its students

Liberty, like Ave Maria, which was started by Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, provides generous financial aid to its law students. It is a way to attract those who otherwise might consider it a "risk to come to an untried institution," said Abigail Tuomala, Liberty Law's director of admissions.

Minority students make up about 15 percent of the school, which also has a small percentage of non-Christians, she said. Tuition at the law school is $24,160 a year.

Liberty integrates the moral and religious roots of the rule of law into every class discussion, an approach Staver calls "law plus." That came through during a recent "Lawyering Skills" class when professor Rodney Chrisman presented a case and then asked his students whether they would compromise their integrity on behalf of a good client. "The Bible says a good name is a greater treasure than silver and gold." Chrisman told them.

Lawyering Skills teaches students practical aspects of law, such as interviewing clients and drawing up contracts, from the day they arrive. Installed in a refurbished Ericsson cell-phone plant, the law school is very high-tech, from universal Wi-Fi to power jacks at every seat and a video camera in every classroom.

Liberty prepares its students to handle the lingering stigma that faith and intellect are contradictory, said Rena Lindevaldsen, assistant professor of law.

Placement for Liberty's first graduates has gone well, said Jory Fisher, associate dean for the Center for Career and Professional Development. Just before graduation, 52 percent of students had accepted offers in the legal field, she said; 12 percent more had received offers but had not yet accepted them.

As for Regent, it recently made the news in the uproar over the firings of U.S. attorneys because Monica Goodling, a former aide to Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, was among about 150 Regent law graduates hired by the Bush administration.

Fisher said four Liberty graduates will clerk for judges, one at the appellate level. Such jobs pave the way to a clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court and beyond, said Staver, a fact of which Falwell was well aware.

"We'd be pleased if we trained up a John Roberts and a Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas and an Antonin Scalia," Falwell told the Tribune, with a wide smile. "We'd feel like we hit a home run."