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Using the Courts to Wage a War on Gay Marriage

The New York Times

May 9, 2004

LONGWOOD, Fla. - The map that hangs above Liberty Counsel's weekly planning meeting measures the small firm's national reach, with color-coded tabs marking the status of 33 active cases in 13 states.

Their agenda: stop same-sex marriage by using the courts.

>From an unmarked beige tin warehouse near a railway line at an address they insist on keeping secret, Liberty Counsel has employed a range of legal tactics to fight same-sex marriage across the country.

"This is the central command center for the defense of traditional marriage against the same-sex marriage movement," said Mathew D. Staver, president, general counsel and founder of the firm. "We will use every means the law can provide."

Supporters of same-sex marriage say Liberty Counsel and other conservative organizations have had a strong impact on their efforts.

"We used to be up against the government when fighting for gay rights, but more and more often we find ourselves also battling against Liberty Counsel and similar organizations," said Jon W. Davidson, a Los Angeles-based senior counsel for Lambda Legal, a legal organization fighting for gay rights. "It is clear in the case of same-sex marriage that the religious right has started using legal tactics normally associated with liberal and progressive groups like the A.C.L.U. or N.A.A.C.P."

Other groups are fighting same-sex marriage, including the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona and the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia. But it is Liberty Counsel that has been at the forefront of the legal battles. Mr. Staver's firm obtained the restraining order that stopped the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The weekly meeting map shows that same-sex marriage remains a prime focus for Liberty Counsel. Yellow tags mark four states where officials have recognized or conducted same-sex marriages, matched by four blue tags that signify the firm's lawsuits against those officials. Red tags on 13 states with lawsuits seeking recognition of same-sex marriage are matched by seven green tags noting the firm's attempts to intervene.

An orange tag marks the brief Liberty Counsel filed with the Supreme Court of California, and a lone gold dot marks a victory for their cause: the striking down of a same-sex marriage lawsuit by the Superior Court of West Virginia.

"Until we started the tracking map, it took forever just to figure out where we had court cases," said Rena M. Lindevaldsen, the firm's lead lawyer on this issue. "It has been an exhausting few months since the marriages began in February."

Ms. Lindevaldsen dismisses the links advocates of same-sex marriage have drawn to the civil rights movement. "Homosexuality is a choice that people make," she said, "while race is something you cannot change."

On the strength of donations, Mr. Staver said, his firm plans to expand activities in the coming months. The number of lawyers will double to 10 this summer, and Mr. Staver says he will oversee the opening of a law school intended to train a new generation of like-minded lawyers.

While Mr. Staver said it was faith that prompted him to found the firm in 1989, same-sex marriage was not the prime issue then. Instead, he said, his intentions were primarily to fight for "religious freedoms."

In practice, this has meant representing clients ranging from student evangelists prevented from posting flyers in public schools to public officials fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government offices.

In addition to using the courts, Mr. Staver addresses legal issues through regular radio and television programs and in a dozen books he has written, the latest of which, "Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk," will be published in September.

But Mr. Staver's most prominent moment probably occurred when he argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1994, against a Florida judge's order that limited picketing outside an abortion clinic.

In that case, Madsen v. Women's Health Center, the court upheld a 36-foot buffer zone that kept protesters away from the entrance, but struck down a 300-foot zone inside which the protesters could not make unsolicited approaches to clinic patients.

All cases are handled pro bono, with the law firm's finances mainly coming from donations and court-awarded fees in successful lawsuits.

Registered as a nonprofit group, Liberty Counsel had revenue of $1,374,658 in 2002, a big increase from $163,341 in 1997, according to tax records provided by GuideStar, a philanthropic research group.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose Liberty University has been represented by Mr. Staver, is a major supporter. Since joining the university's board last year, Mr. Staver has been in charge of the steering committee seeking to establish the Liberty Law School. Although not yet accredited by the American Bar Association, the school will begin teaching several dozen full-scholarship students this fall.

"The law school will teach the biblical worldview, but also instruct on practical lawyering," Mr. Staver said. "We will train the next generation of lawyers to protect religious freedoms through the courtrooms."

Mr. Staver and Ms. Lindevaldsen said that while they disapproved of homosexuality, they were compassionate, and they distinguished themselves from those who "spread hate" against gay people.

"Adultery and homosexuality are both against God's will," Mr. Staver said. "Such sinners must be helped."

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