“His organization ‘relies on the Thomas More Law Center as a faithful and extremely effective ally in promoting and defending the traditional family values shared by most Americans,’ said Gary Glenn, president of American Family Association of Michigan, an organization best known for fighting gay rights.”
December 4, 2005
Law center fights battles of faith
Thomas More cases range from defening
intelligent design to opposing same-sex marriage
by Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News
ANN ARBOR — Richard Thompson is confident the day will come when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
As head of a law firm touting itself as Christianity’s answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, Thompson would gladly litigate a case that could give the nation’s highest court an opportunity to further restrict or even reverse the case that legalized abortion. This is because the Thomas More Law Center, which Thompson co-founded in 1999 with Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, sees its mission as protecting life at conception, religious freedoms and family values, one case at a time.
The law center was recently thrust into the limelight with the nationally watched case challenging intelligent design, a controversial theory that explains life as being so complex that it could have been created only by an intelligent being.
But the five attorneys in the firm’s Ann Arbor office — along with 403 volunteer lawyers in other states — are working on 200 cases in 40 states on issues ranging from keeping Christian symbols on public property to protecting the speech of anti-abortion activists to challenging the gay community.
The law firm, among a handful in the country working exclusively on Christian causes, seeks to change American culture that it believes has been shaped by liberal organizations.
“If we succeed in those issues, we will succeed in returning to our culture established by our Founding Fathers,” said Thompson, 68, president and chief counsel of the firm and the former Oakland County prosecutor who tried to stop Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who has claimed to have helped more than 130 people commit suicide.
The law firm’s work is getting attention.
Just last week, it represented the Novi family that prevailed over a neighborhood association to keep a nativity scene in their front yard.
Critics such as the ACLU say the Thomas More Law Center is advocating the dominance of one religion in this country.
“We are seeking to enforce the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “They are trying to rewrite it. The founders of this country wrote the First Amendment to get away from religious tyranny and to ensure this culture had a fertile soil for multiple religions to grow. That’s not what the Thomas More Law Center wants.”
Still others are concerned about how it uses its legal muscle to chip away at Roe v. Wade.
The Thomas More Law Center recently reviewed ballot language proposed by Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion Lansing group, which seeks to amend Michigan’s Constitution and define life as beginning at conception in hopes of paving the way to making abortion illegal in Michigan.
The Michigan Board of Canvassers is scheduled to consider the language Wednesday. If approved, the group said it hopes to get the measure on the ballot and passed as soon as possible.
In South Dakota, the More center helped write a bill that was nearly passed last yearthat would have banned abortions in that state. Observers thought the intent was to force litigation on women’s constitutional right to have an abortion, perhaps as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.
Planned Parenthood’s Kate Looby says fighting efforts like those waged by the center are frustrating.
“I’d like to spend my time preventing unplanned pregnancies and taking care of children here right now that need our love and energy,” said Looby, South Dakota state director for Planned Parenthood Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota. “It’s very frustrating to us on the front lines of this culture war.”
But others say it’s about time someone is working in the judicial system to fight for Christian interests.
His organization “relies on the Thomas More Law Center as a faithful and extremely effective ally in promoting and defending the traditional family values shared by most Americans,” said Gary Glenn, president of American Family Association of Michigan, an organization best known for fighting gay rights.
Roots in election loss
The Thomas More Law Center was founded after Thompson lost his elected seat as Oakland County prosecutor in the wake of trying to prosecute Kevorkian. Soon after, he and Monaghan, a devout Catholic, were talking about the country’s political climate and how culture wars were being waged and won in the courts.
Monaghan put up the $500,000 to start the law firm, named after the Catholic patron saint of lawyers. He increased its funding annually through mid-2004. Now, the $2.3 million public interest law firm is funded exclusively by 50,000 individuals with $25 annual memberships and other benefactors. “They are an excellent organization, and one that is an avid defender of the Christian faith and religious expression and exercise as it relates to the Christian faith,” said Jared Leland of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., law firm working on behalf of all faiths.
The More center received considerable attention recently during the 40-day trial defending the decision of a school board in Dover, Pa., to require science teachers to tell students about holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution and about the theory of intelligent design.
The latter is backed by some scientists, as well as President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI. But most scientists and others oppose it, arguing that intelligent design is creationism in disguise.
Bernadette Reinking, a new Dover school board member opposed to teaching intelligent design in science classes, bristled at the interference.
“We felt there was an outside interest trying to control what was happening in Dover,” Reinking said.
The school board members who supported the policy were voted out of office in the election last month, so it is unclear where the lawsuit may be headed. The judge hasn’t rendered a decision, and the new board could reverse the policy.
But Thompson said it wouldn’t matter if the lawsuit were dropped because it already has thrust intelligent design into the public dialogue.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said.
Fights are on varied fronts
The center rarely hesitates to take on controversial cases.
It has been defending the 50-year display of a 29-foot cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif. The firm is also representing 12 anti-abortion activists who were fined millions of dollars for identifying and publishing the names and addresses of abortion doctors in Portland, Ore.
The firm has also worked on a variety of Ten Commandments cases and worked to stop same-sex marriage rights in Michigan and other states.
The center is also not shy about ruffling its neighbors, including the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
“We seem to be a test case for them,” said district spokeswoman Liz Margolis.
A federal judge last year ordered the school district to pay $100,000 to the firm in legal fees following the case of student Elizabeth Hansen. Hansen unsuccessfully sought to get her opposing views on homosexuality discussed on a Diversity Week panel in which ministers explored the compatibility of homosexuality with some faiths. The courts ruled her rights to free speech were violated.
School officials said it was simply a mistake by educators who are not well-versed in constitutional law. They also said their decisions were not part of a pattern of bigotry, but just the opposite: They sought to promote tolerance and understanding.
Randy Friedman called the lawsuit “opportunist,” especially in an era when all school districts are struggling with limited dollars.
“If you are pursing a principle, even if it’s a praiseworthy principle, aren’t there ways to achieve it without stripping away badly needed dollarsfrom innocent kids?” Friedman said. “The only people that got penalized here was the kids.”
School officials also can’t figure out why the firm has filed another lawsuit challenging their same-sex benefits policy, when the city, county and university have similar policies.
“We spend a lot of potential instruction money trying to defend the rights of the students and our staff against a small minority of people trying to dictate how public schools should operate,” Margolis said.
But Thompson said that’s ridiculous.
His firm is only working to ensure that the rights of Christians are not trampled on and to reform what he sees as an increasingly anti-Christian society.
“We look at ourselves as counterculture,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to change the culture.”
The Thomas More Law Center
Headquarters: Domino Farms, Ann Arbor
Number of full-time lawyers: Five
Lawyers working pro-bono for the firm in other states:403
Supporters say: Protects and defends Christian rights and values
Opponents say: Advocates for dominance of one religion, chips away at diverse freedoms
Contact: (734) 827-2001
Web site: www.thomasmore.org