Orlando Sentinel
"Liberty Counsel's leader hits hard from the right"

By Melissa Harris | Sentinel Staff Writer
May 23, 2004

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Recent Liberty Counsel cases
Kantaras, Linda v. Kantaras, Michael

Filed: June 2003

Liberty Counsel is leading the appeal of a judge's ruling that the Florida marriage of a woman and a transsexual was valid because Michael Kantaras was, indeed, a man. The judge has awarded custody of their two children to Michael.

In regards to the Matter of Zenobia Henderson

Filed: May 2003

Liberty Counsel failed to become the guardian of the unborn fetus of a 28-year-old mentally retarded, deaf and seizure-prone woman in Miami who was raped. The judge ordered an abortion and sterilization.

Warner v. City of Boca Raton

Filed: November 2001

Filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court supporting the American Civil Liberties Union's argument that vertical shrines and markers should be allowed in the city's public cemetery. A decision is still pending.

Dunamis Community and Outreach Ministries v. Volusia County, Fla.

Filed: May 2001

Liberty Counsel represented a small Christian group that wanted to build a church near Cassadaga, a community of psychics. County leaders denied the zoning request after neighbors testified they didn't want it. On the eve of the trial, the county settled and the church was allowed.

The Good News Club, Andrea Fournier, and Darleen Fournier v. Milford Central School District, N.Y.

Filed: December 2000

U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Good News Clubs, after-school Bible study for children ages 5 to 12, are allowed to meet in public schools if other outside groups can, as well. Mathew Staver has represented Good News Clubs on building-access issues in several states.

SOURCES: Liberty Counsel, Sentinel research

Biography: Mathew staver, 47
  • Title: President and general counsel, Liberty Counsel; vice president for law and policy, Liberty University.

  • Family: Wife, Anita; daughter; two grandchildren.

  • Education: Bachelor's degree, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tenn.; master's degree, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich.; law degree, University of Kentucky.

  • Political/civic experience: Trustee, Liberty University; chairman of the steering committee for Liberty University School of Law; board member, House of Hope.

  • Books: Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk due out in September; Take Back America; and Faith & Freedom: A Complete Handbook for Defending Your Religious Rights.

  • Quote: "I don't think I'm very radical. I'm passionate and aggressive. And I'm totally convinced that the Lord has me where I am for a reason."
    Legal work.
    May 23, 2004

    Housed in an inconspicuous warehouse on a tiny street in Longwood is religious conservatives' war room in the battle against gay rights.

    Inside, Mathew Staver and his law group, the Liberty Counsel, operate amid law books, framed copies of the Constitution and photographs of the White House and Supreme Court.

    Most conspicuous, however, is a tacked-up map of the United States blanketed in labels -- about 30 -- representing the scope of Staver's current and past court battles against gay marriage.

    His group is spearheading fights in California, New York and Massachusetts, crafting appeals that could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also working to roll back other rights for gays, overturn Roe v. Wade and ensure that Christians can freely evangelize in public schools.

    While many credit him for not vilifying his liberal counterparts like others before him -- including ally Jerry Falwell -- Staver acknowledges he's gunning for a cultural revolution.

    In 15 years, he has effectively chipped away at centuries of legal precedent to that end.

    Since founding the Liberty Counsel in 1989, Staver's efforts have ranged from suing school districts to fighting for the rights of anti-abortion demonstrators and fetuses.

    Staver often needs only to threaten a lawsuit to get a principal to relent. That was the case at Dr. Phillips High School, after it attempted to ban a Christian-themed homecoming float last year.

    His group also has forced schools to allow distribution of religious literature, prayer during graduation ceremonies and building access for after-school religious clubs.

    He first drew national headlines in 1994, when he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court against imposing limits on abortion-clinic pickets. The court upheld noise restrictions and a 36-foot barrier but struck down a broader safety zone.

    Otherwise, Staver's group was relatively anonymous during much of the 1990s. Not anymore.

    In the past four years, the Liberty Counsel has intervened in nearly every major Central Florida and national conservative issue.

    He fought to force two mentally retarded Florida women to give birth to children of rapists; supported "Choose Life" license plates; opposed gay adoptions and fought to retain "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

    And while he's an ardent defender of publicly displaying the Ten Commandments, he spoke out against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's refusal to follow a court order on the issue.

    He is perhaps most well-known for stopping the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., from allowing gays to marry in early March. He is also suing in San Francisco, where the mayor has OK'd same-sex weddings, but has failed to stop gays in Massachusetts from matrimony.

    Jon Davidson, senior legal counsel for Lambda Legal, the nation's oldest gay-rights law group, said his colleagues spend more and more resources fighting ultraconservative legal groups.

    "Among those, Liberty Counsel takes the most conservative position and is the most aggressive in the way they litigate them," Davidson says.

    Staver's rise to national prominence -- and the size and wealth of his organization -- took off after forging a relationship with Falwell recently.

    Liberty Counsel raked in almost $1.4 million in 2002, about $1 million of which came from donations. Just six years earlier, Liberty Counsel earned only about $293,000, mostly from court victories.

    "Before their affiliation with Jerry Falwell, they were an obscure, somewhat struggling religious-right group that didn't have a high profile," said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

    Liberty Counsel will grow from five to 10 lawyers this year and plans to open a law school and policy center at Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

    "He and I just think alike, and we have therefore been good friends for many years," said Falwell, whom Staver successfully represented in a lawsuit over his church's property rights.

    The calling

    Staver hasn't always felt called to do God's legal work.

    He was born in Harvard, Ill., the youngest of seven children, in 1956. Staver's mother divorced a father he calls abusive shortly after the family moved to Florida. Staver was 21/2 years old.

    To support the family, his mother worked three jobs. Originally raising her children in the Lutheran Church, she switched to Roman Catholic largely for its flexible worship hours, Staver said.

    In high school, Staver paid little attention to class work.

    His focus was on football until he severely pulled a leg muscle during the third game of his senior year. With a college career in the balance, Staver continued to play with the pain until he could barely walk.

    He spent the year after graduation partying and working for his mother's lawn-mowing service -- until he heard a traveling pastor preach in his hometown of Charlotte Harbor.

    That's when he turned his life over to God.

    He graduated from Southern Adventist University and went on to attend seminary at a Michigan school affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

    While a pastor at three small Adventist churches in Kentucky, he met his wife, Anita, now a lawyer for Liberty Counsel, and was invited to watch an abortion video.

    "After watching it, I went to the law school library, pulled a copy of Roe vs. Wade, Xeroxed it and read it," Staver said. "It was a major turning point in my life and the first case I had ever read."

    He felt God call him to protect unborn babies and enrolled in the University of Kentucky's College of Law.

    His fight

    Dressed in a conservative suit and wearing large, thin-framed glasses, Staver, who earns $75,000 a year according to tax records, said he doesn't engage in hate speech.

    Rather, he argues that gay marriages are wrong because they harm children and society. Staver cites studies that he claims prove children raised in same-sex or one-parent families do poorer in school and are more at risk for a variety of social ills from teen pregnancy to drug addiction.

    "I think Mat is more effective than a lot of people in those kind of groups because he doesn't buy into some of the worst rhetoric," said Frank Ravitch, a law professor at Michigan State University specializing in church-and-state issues. "He won't work with some people because they're bigots, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, or declare people unchristian if they're not his kind of Christian."

    Still, Staver, who attends First Baptist Church of Orlando, does have a very conservative agenda, including that Christians should pull their children from public schools, where he says religious freedoms aren't protected.

    And he believes that even in cases of rape and incest, abortion should be banned.

    More than anything else, Staver's critics accuse him of being the Johnnie Cochran of the right -- media-hungry, flashy and prone to exaggeration.

    For example, Staver threatened to sue a library in Jacksonville because it gave children certificates for completing Harry Potter's "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," a collection of books. Staver accused the library of promoting witchcraft.

    His group also filed briefs in the 2000 presidential-election dispute, saying Bush's stance on abortion justified the effort.

    "They certainly don't stand for freedom because they engage in a Talibanish-like approach," said Lance Block, an attorney who fought Staver over the fate of a mentally retarded woman who was impregnated while in a Miami-area group home. "They're trying to force mentally retarded women to have babies. There's nothing free about that."

    The next month and a half will be critical for the Liberty Counsel's agenda, including a hearing on the appeal of the Massachusetts gay-marriage decision, fighting three challenges to New York's marriage law and an expected California Supreme Court ruling on San Francisco's marriage licenses.

    But Staver's legacy may be his ability to keep school districts nationwide on guard.

    Ned Julian, the Seminole County School Board's attorney, keeps a copy of one of Staver's books on his shelf so he can "know where the other guy is coming from."

    "No one likes lawsuits," Julian said.

    "But his cause is entitled to be represented by lawyers just as causes find their way to the ACLU."

    Melissa Harris can be reached at mharris@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6269.

    Reprinted by permission