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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the past few years, religious conservatives have realized what their liberal counterparts saw long ago: The place where the culture wars are won or lost is in the courtroom. And so some religious leaders, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are training their own battalion of lawyers. In the third part of our series on Christians and the Public Square, NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty traveled to Virginia Beach to visit one of the new religious law schools.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

If the Founding Fathers were alive and looking for a place to hold a constitutional convention, they would surely feel at home at Regent University Law School. The Colonial brick buildings, the early American furniture, the imposing oil portraits, all reminders of a time when the nation was new and the nation's leaders spoke freely of God and Scripture. And they do a lot of that at Regent, which opened in 1986 with the money and vision of televangelist Pat Robertson. The school's mission is to bring to bear the will of God upon the law. Teaching here, says Lynn Marie Kohm, allows her to expand the boundaries of legal thinking.

Ms. LYNN MARIE KOHM (Regent University Law School): Here I have so much freedom, I can actually speak about the Bible, and I can use it as an alternative text to figure out, well, what is the principle here that should be applied to the law?

(To class room) Just want to look very quickly at Proverbs 31. If you have your Bible, open it up. This...

HAGERTY: Throughout Kohm's family law class, she and the 50 or so students swing between Scripture and statutory law, biblical characters and the division of assets. The 500 students learning law at Regent, she says, have a different sort of mission.

Ms. KOHM: Yeah, and actually that's part of our strategic plan, to educate, integrate and engage. So yeah, we're not just, you know, send them out there so they can pay their law school loans and have a nice life. No. They come here because they have a greater goal than that.

HAGERTY: It's a goal shared by increasing numbers of would-be lawyers and by several new religiously conservative law schools. Regent was accredited in 1996, making it the first. Last year Jerry Falwell opened Liberty Law School to train lawyer to be, quote, "ministers of justice." Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, opened a conservative Catholic law school in 2000 called Ave Maria. Another Catholic law school, St. Thomas School of Law, opened a year later. Only Regent has full accreditation so far, but supporters say these are serious places.

Mr. JEFFREY BRAUCH (Dean, Regent University Law School): We are a Christian law school, and essentially what that means is first we're a law school

HAGERTY: Jeffrey Brauch is the dean at Regent. He says students learn all the basics--Erie vs. Thompkins and Roe v. Wade, even if they're unhappy about the outcome. But they also ask other questions. Is there a transcendent law created by God? And how can lawyers make their arguments in this, the height of the culture wars?

Mr. BRAUCH: The biggest issues of our day are being decided in courts now. It could be abortion, turning to bioethics; ultimately whether cloning is appropriate will be decided by the United States Supreme Court.

HAGERTY: And, he says, Christian lawyers need to fight these courtroom battles.

(Soundbite of people)

HAGERTY: Which brings us to the student center and a half a dozen lawyers in the making. Michael Butler, a second-year student who plans to go into politics, says for too long, Christians have crawled under a rock rather than fight the culture wars. That ends here, he says.

Mr. MICHAEL BUTLER (Student): At heart, Regent really stands for the proposition that Christians need not be afraid to engage in the public debate. We need not be afraid to just, you know, spout biblical verses but also join those biblical verses to policy.

HAGERTY: And to correct some of the abuses in the system, says J.T. Minarchek(ph). Minarchek, who already has an MBA, says liberal judges are setting the agenda. Consider, he says, the ban on certain abortions, passed by Congress and signed by the president.

(Soundbite of classroom)

Mr. J.T. MINARCHEK (Graduate Student): And then a few federal judges that are appointed for life changed the will of 260 million Americans, and I don't think that that's what our country was designed to do.

HAGERTY: And so what can you guys do about that?

Mr. MINARCHEK: Fight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MINARCHEK: I mean, this is a fight.

HAGERTY: But what about the fear that they want to impose their theology on others?

Mr. JEREMY GAMON(ph) (Student): Regent's not out to make the United States a Christian nation.

HAGERTY: That's second-year student Jeremy Gamon. Still, Gamon says he and his friends do want to defend the religious origins of the American experiment.

Mr. GAMON: We're after our good, solid moral principles, good, solid law. It just so happens that good, solid law is Christian-based.

HAGERTY: A view that gives short shrift to Rome, Greece or even Moses, says Rob Boston at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, he says, that's the least of his concern about the new religious law schools.

Mr. ROB BOSTON (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State): If you look at what Jerry Falwell has written over the years, if you read what Pat Robertson has published in any number of books, they all tend to be very hard-right conservatives who hate the idea of separation of church and state. And when these individuals form a law school to create an army of lawyers or government officials to go out and chip away at that wall, yes, of course we're concerned.

HAGERTY: Boston says these new lawyers are sophisticated. For example, they would not take on Roe v. Wade directly.

Mr. BOSTON: What they're going to do instead is chip away bit by bit by bit, and this is what they've been doing, not only on the issue of separation of church and state but on gay rights, reproductive freedom, basically any facet of what we would call liberal values.

HAGERTY: And for Shawn Lilimo(ph), a third-year student at Regent who hopes to become a judge, the street training has already started. Ten to 20 hours a week, he reports to an office on the fourth floor of the law school, where the conservative and feisty American Center for Law and Justice is housed. He calls up an ACLJ attorney, Jeff Surtees, in Kentucky.

(Soundbite of phone call)

Mr. JEFF SURTEES (Attorney, American Center for Law and Justice): Shawn, were you able to finish up that Addie client(ph) letter?

Mr. SHAWN LILIMO (Student): Still working on that. I think it's going to be pretty rock-solid. We just have to wrap it up.

Mr. SURTEES: Excellent. Yeah, over the past few days, we got a whole boatload full of contacts.

HAGERTY: This case involves a man who claims he was not hired because he wanted several days off for a religious celebration. Lilimo's mission is to get more details, figure out the law of the 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals and whether the employer was within its rights to discriminate against the man.

Mr. LILIMO: If not, then we'll get in contact with them and say, `Hey, you're violating Title VII, and you really should have hired this gentleman.' And then at that point, you know, we'll go from there.

HAGERTY: It's joyful marriage of convenience. Lilimo and 10 other students get to teethe on real-life litigation. ACLJ gets smart labor for $10 an hour. And the fruit of this marriage is more lawsuits brought by conservatives. But student grunt work is only the beginning, says Jay Sekulow, who started ACLJ with Pat Robertson's money in 1990. The real dividends accrue when these law students at Regent or Liberty or Ave Maria or St. Thomas graduate.

Mr. JAY SEKULOW (American Center for Law and Justice): Where it's successful is, you know, you start graduating 125 students per class that are faith-based, more conservative in their approach, and you're starting to put out 600 lawyers a year, men and women, into the field that become your eyes and ears, and all of a sudden, you build up a pretty big network.

HAGERTY: All of this--the education, the training, the litigation--is part of a larger, coordinated mission, says David Wagner, a Yale-educated professor of constitutional law. It's why he chose to teach at Regent.

Professor DAVID WAGNER (Regent University Law School): It's part of a project that I want to see fostered.

HAGERTY: Wagner says there are basic assumption that have been peeled back in the past 50 years about the role of religion in society, about the nature of the family, about the sanctity of life.

Prof. WAGNER: So clearly some sort of shift has occurred, and the project that I mean is the project of analyzing that shift, and quite frankly, I'm doing it.

HAGERTY: And while he says that the Christian legal perspective has not really penetrated the halls of Yale or Harvard, Wagner believes it will one day have a place. Meantime, Wagner's constitutional law class opens in a most atypical way, with a student strumming her guitar and singing a hymn to Jesus.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I saw Christ in wind and thunder, though it's right ...(unintelligible)

HAGERTY: Moments later, Wagner launches into his lecture on expressive conduct, specifically Barnes vs. Glen Theatre, a case about nude dancing in Indiana. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can read more about the rise of religious universities at npr.org. And our series continues today on "All Things Considered."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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