Fervent anti-abortionist takes another battle to Supreme Court

December 08, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- By his own passionate claim, Jay Alan Sekulow is a soldier of God, whose own religion melds the traditions of Judaism with the messianic hope of Christ, and whose legal agenda has the Christians ultimately winning the battle for America's culture.

It is a culture war, he believes, that is waged one legal skirmish at a time. The "combat" breaks out again today in the Supreme Court as lawyers argue the only abortion case likely to be heard this term by the justices.

Mr. Sekulow knows how to win there. Though he is just 37 years old, he has stood before the court six times and has never suffered a total defeat since he won his first appeal at age 31.

Reserved role

Uncharacteristically, this talkative, high-energy lawyer will be silent this morning as the justices listen to a case that has been building for seven years: a lawsuit seeking to stop abortion clinic blockades by using a tough 23-year-old federal anti-rackets law as a shield.

Mr. Sekulow's increasingly visible legal organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, is one of three groups handling the blockaders, and he has been a principal strategist.

In a move to make the case look less like an abortion dispute and more like an argument over the anti-rackets law's scope, Mr. Sekulow will let Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey -- an architect of the original 1970 law -- do the talking this morning.

But the nattily dressed and supremely self-confident Mr. Sekulow will be an instantly recognizable presence at the lawyers' table.

A tough and unyielding crusader, he is best known as the legal cheerleader for the Christian causes of the Rev. Pat Robertson and as the stubborn defender of Operation Rescue's unrelenting campaign to shut down the nation's abortion clinics.

Religious message

A Jewish-raised Christian convert whose two sons go to a Christian school, Mr. Sekulow argues that "people of faith have been extricated, removed in large part from the political arena. Many people expect faith in God to be a hobby, something you check at the door. . . . What I want to see is [that] the people of faith have access to the marketplace of ideas."

When they do, he predicts, "I believe the Christian message will carry the day."

It is a message that came to him at 18, attending the Southern Baptist-affiliated Mercer University in Macon, Ga., before he went on to its law school. Required to take a course on the Bible, he chose the New Testament, "so I could prove to my gentile friends that they were wrong, that Jesus Christ was no messiah."

Instead he became a believer. Now he worships in what he calls a messianic synagogue, Beth Hallel, a Christian "practicing in a Jewish context," as he puts it.

It is something of a tribute to Mr. Sekulow's religious passion that the Supreme Court is hearing a case in which abortion clinics are trying to salvage a second federal law as protection against Operation Rescue blockades. The first -- an 1871 civil rights law -- fell last January, in one of Mr. Sekulow's triumphs before the court.

At issue this morning is a plea by the National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics to allow clinics to sue blockading organizations and their leaders personally for tripled damages under a 1970 law originally passed to root out mob control of business firms.

It is no surprise that Mr. Sekulow and his legal group are centrally involved in the new case. Since 1988, he has been the front-line legal defender for Randall Terry and Operation Rescue, starting with battles against court-ordered bans on their anti-abortion demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

ACLU nemesis

As with women's rights groups, Mr. Sekulow is also the legal nemesis of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. His main professional ties now are to Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which some describe as the ACLU of the right.

Last summer, ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser cited the ACLJ and its legal strategies as primary threats to the ACLU's causes.

"Never before," Mr. Glasser wrote, "has the ACLU been required to defend the Bill of Rights from such a lethal combination of orchestrated local attacks -- all systematically generated by a single, well-funded, nationally organized antagonist to individual liberties."

With offices in Virginia Beach and five other cities, the two-year-old ACLJ is smaller than the ACLU. It operates on an $8.1 million budget, has 18 full-time lawyers, and 200 "affiliated" lawyers in 50 states. The ACLU, in business for 73 years, has a national budget of $30 million, 118 full-time lawyers, and uncounted thousands of "cooperating" lawyers across the nation.

Mr. Sekulow's past successes at the Supreme Court have come in what he calls "free speech" issues, often on behalf of groups outside the mainstream, such as Jews for Jesus, dissident presidential candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., the Hare Krishnas.

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