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New faith in the law
Falwell wants students to preach through their practice
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Liberty University opened its faith-based law school last fall.  Professors there begin class with a prayer.
Liberty University opened its faith-based law school last fall. Professors there begin class with a prayer. (DON LONG/TIMES-DISPATCH)
LYNCHBURG Jerry Falwell wants graduates of his new Christian-based law school to save America's increasingly secular soul.

"I want them to permeate the legal profession," the plain-spoken evangelical preacher said of students at his Liberty University School of Law, which opened in the fall.

His Christian lawyers will become prosecutors, judges and legislators who will see life and the law through a conservative, Christian lens, Falwell said.

That lens is focused on stopping abortion on demand, bringing back voluntary prayer in public schools and preventing the legalization of same-sex marriages.

"We are pro-life, pro-family, pro-Israel and pro-military," declared Falwell, who sees life as a spiritual battle and the devil as a real person.

"We want to train strict-constructionists -- ones who don't make law but interpret the law as it is," Falwell said in a recent interview.

"We believe in the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Most of the law schools have gone off the deep end to the left. We'll be as far to the right as Harvard is to the left."

Falwell has joined a so far small but important religious revolution in the legal world, one his law school dean, Bruce W. Green, called a "growing group of faith-based law schools."

The movement includes religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, which Robertson started 18 years ago, and the Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic school that opened four years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., with money donated by Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza.

The three faith-based law schools have this in common: the underlying belief in the divinity of Jesus, that God's higher law trumps man-made laws and that natural law is written on the human heart.

"Students come here to the law school because of our mission," said Falwell, who started his private, Christian-based Liberty University in 1971.

That mission is to "produce future leaders" and equip them "with a superior legal education in fidelity to the Christian faith expressed through the Holy Scriptures," according to the law school's mission statement.

Joey Hamrick agrees. He said he chose the fledgling law school because "I knew I would be taught honest Christian law that takes the Bible as the infallible word of God.

"I could have gone to a more prestigious secular law school, but here I'll be taught a better grasp of truth and law."

Hamrick, 21, from Jacksonville, Fla., said, "My view of God drives my view of everything in the world. We're told our Christianity should extend to our fingertips." Hamrick has political aspirations, though he said "I'm not sure where the Lord will send me."

Anthony Rago Jr., 21, came to Falwell's law school directly from Falwell's university. "I am a Christian and I believe that the Christian philosophy of law is proper," said Rago, a thoughtful, intense Virginian from Appomattox.

His Christianity places him on the conservative side of legal issues.

Rago said, for instance, that Roe v. Wade, the case that led to legalized abortion, "is not really law. It abrogates natural law -- the principle of life."

. . .

Liberty's law professors -- all Christians -- begin each class with a prayer before launching into the more mundane details of contracts or civil procedure.

"We receive strength, joy and encouragement from your word," professor Roger Bern prayed before the start of his class on contract law. "Guide our discussion today. Thank you for Jesus today."

Bern peppered the class with questions during the lively session. The students, whose average age is about 27, appeared intensely interested in the fast-moving discourse, similar to that in any law school.

But if Falwell's law school is starting a revolution against secular America, it's doing so with humble roots. The law school, along with its law library, is tucked away in a small corner of a massive building adjacent to the Liberty University campus where cell phones once were manufactured.

The building, which is undergoing a major renovation, boasts corridors a quarter-mile long. Its roof covers some 20 acres. The law school takes up about 120,000 square feet.

Its inaugural class of 60 students is taught in three classrooms by six full-time faculty members and three administrators with faculty rank.

Green, the new dean who was in the inaugural class at Regent's law school, said Liberty's law school plans to enroll about 450 students within five years. The school is seeking provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association.

"Our emphasis is on the connection between law and morality and faith and reason," said Green, who is much less evangelical and far more cautious than Falwell in discussing the mission of the school. "There is a growing disconnect between law and morality. Here, the difference is the faculty will integrate those discussions."

. . .

Scriptural law, such as the Ten Commandments, and natural law underpin much of common law, Green pointed out.

Natural law, based on man's innate moral sense, is "given to all nations and is not a Christian concept alone," he said. "It's in the nature of things."

The Ten Commandments illustrate natural law more clearly, such as the prohibition against taking innocent life or taking property from another without cause, he said.

Man's law, when devoid of these moral underpinnings, can result in atrocities, such as Nazi Germany's laws dealing with the Jews.

"If you separate law and morals, on what basis could we say that [German law] was wrong?" Green asked. "When we teach, we discuss these underlying principles."

Though students don't have to profess a faith, most "are quite mission-oriented. The majority project some faith. A substantial majority professes the Christian faith . . . but we're not a seminary. We're not a graduate institution that teaches the Bible," Green said.

He dismissed critics' warnings that faith-based law schools will produce evangelical lawyers out to force change in the nation through the law.

That fear is unfounded, Green said. "It is fundamentally not Christian to coerce. The mind is free and may be subject to persuasion but not to coercion."

Liberty's law school is similar in philosophy to Robertson's Regent law school.

Regent's school, which started with 103 students in 1986, now has slightly more than 500 students. Regent also trains "men and women to apply their faith in how they practice law," said the school's dean, Jeffrey A. Brauch. "We want our students to think in Christian ways about legal issues."

Ave Maria, with 222 students and 20 full-time professors, teaches law in "reference to the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church," according to the school's Web site.

. . .

Opinions about Falwell's new law school from legal, political and religious experts vary from cautious welcome to outright fear.

"We have a couple of hundred law schools and I think it's healthy and useful that you look at law from a religious perspective . . . American legal education has drifted from the roots of law and religion."

Howard said, "It enlarges the dialogue. It tests the secular assumptions on which most of our law schools operate . . . The question I would raise is . . . the student body is largely self-selected, drawn to it precisely because of its Christian principles. The risk that's run is that the conversation will be limited within that law school . . . There has to be a critical examination of fundamental assumptions."

"He wants his law students to be a vanguard for drastic change," Lynn said. "He wants to convert as many people as possible and impose his Christian values on them. He wants people to convert to his brand of Christianity. . . . He wants to impose his biblical world view on the country. That's why the law school is so important to him."

"What's the Christian legal take on the medical use of marijuana? The law covers a lot more than two or three hot-button issues. . . . But the American way is to let them have at it."

Freeman said he thinks the 71-year-old Falwell launched the law school because "time is short. He wants to get all this stuff wrapped up before he's called to his eternal reward. That's part of it. He's approaching the end of his career."

. . .

Falwell also is starting up a "21st-century Moral Majority" movement whose main goal will be to get evangelical Christians out to vote in the next presidential election.

"Usually, we wait six months before the [presidential] election. We're starting 48 months this time," Falwell said. "Thirty million evangelists are the most we've ever gotten. We want to get 40 million [to vote] in 2008."

The new coalition will recruit supporters at 225,000 evangelical churches across the country. While Falwell's two sons run his church and university, he said he will focus on electing another conservative president.

Falwell said he will personally visit churches to urge those 18 and older to register to vote. "We're going to the church pews . . . we'll get them to fill out voter registration forms . . . we'll transport them to the polls," he said. "We don't have to tell them how to vote."

The time is ripe for that evangelical voter movement, he said. "I think we've been helped by radical runaway federal judges attempting to secularize the country," Falwell said.

U.Va. political analyst Larry Sabato said Falwell's push to change America is just the democratic way.

"I would remind him that mobilization begets counter-mobilization," Sabato said. "It's one of the oldest rules of politics.

"But the more I study our system, the more I see that it's strengthened by diversity. We're the most diverse democracy in the history of the world. There's nothing to worry about. That's the glory and genius of this system."