Falwell's Law 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.
By Emma Schwartz
LA Times Staff Writer
November 21, 2004
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
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
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
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
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,
"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