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Cases & Controversies
Onward, Christian Lawyers
Our reporter gets kicked out of Jerry Falwell's new law school.
A MODEST DEGREE OF EMBELLISHMENT in its catalog for prospective students might be expected from an upstart school. But the law school launched this fall at Liberty University, the Reverend Jerry Falwell's 33-year-old Baptist institution, tries to turn water into wine.
Liberty School of Law's catalog features photos of grandiose cathedrals, stone-carved passageways, gothic spires, and starkly lit columns. The school itself sits in a corner of a building surrounded by a metal fence and connected to an 800,000-square-foot industrial compound. The complex used to house an Ericsson cell phone plant. Located just outside Lynchburg, Va., a historic river town, Liberty Law is flanked by strip malls, the roar of the highway, and radio towers that dot the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Inside, where the school occupies a single long floor, the décor is Best-Western-meets-dentist's-office. Cardboard placards taped to drywall point the way to classrooms.
Liberty Law has yet to win accreditation from the American Bar Association, though it's on track to earn a provisional stamp of approval that would allow graduates to sit for bar exams. During the school's first week in late August, workers were still banging furniture into service. Which may explain why Liberty officials said they weren't ready for visitors. The dean's office declined my appeals for an interview or an informal visit, telling me that a look around would be "disruptive to the start of classes." I showed up anyway and was reduced to skulking around, which included mumbling my way out of a school photographer's request that I pose for a promotional photo.
Even if Liberty isn't eager to greet the press, it's been courting students since last year. Dean Bruce Green has filled the school's P.R. literature with august pronouncements from the ancients on the virtues of intellectualism. ("The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled," Plutarch apparently intoned 2,000 years ago.) Green also launched a blog to chronicle the founding of the law school and opine on the annals of Western legal thought. ("In my last post I neglected to mention that primary among the influences on Kuyper's thought was the work of the Dutch statesman and historian Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.") Green enters the school's building with the purposeful gait, spectacles, and bow tie of a confident veteran of the academy. But he was plucked by Falwell from the American Family Association, an antigay religious group that is currently calling for boycotts against Kmart and Disney, which it accuses of selling sexually permissive products and programs.
Though he's new to the law school game, Green's pitch is working. The 61 students who began classes at Liberty this academic year weren't griping about the work-in-progress feel of the campus. Perhaps influenced by a posting on Green's blog that gently derided the sloth of a student "slouching on the back row in sagging jeans and a FUBU sweatshirt," on the day I visited, the students exhibited respect for their new school by attending class in suits, leather briefcases in tow. "There's a definite sense of purpose, and a seriousness and respect for what we're doing here," said Brad Miller, a sandy-haired student from California, as he munched on a granola bar and fought to keep the crumbs off his black suit in the windowless student lounge.
The school's factory-like setting isn't a bad fit for its mission. From the pulpit, Falwell recently said that Liberty Law is in the business of manufacturing "junkyard dog lawyers who believe in God and the Bible." Falwell calls Liberty a necessary corrective to the liberal lawyers and judges who have "almost wrecked the country," and predicts that his junkyard dogs will "win many important battles against the anti-religious zealots at the American Civil Liberties Union." Reached by phone, he elaborated, "We'll be training lawyers to infiltrate the profession to return the country to a Judeo-Christian model."
The reverend's targets find his embrace of aggressive lawyering paradoxical. "There's a huge irony in criticizing activist judges and then launching a school with the intention of creating your own activist judges and lawyers," said Joe Conn, a spokesperson at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Most of the students I buttonholed on campus smiled a lot but wouldn't talk to me about what they planned to do with their Liberty Law degrees. No faculty members would speak with me either. At the end of the day, I went back to the student lounge, where an administrator finally had a comment. "You need to leave," she said.
Lucky for me, moments earlier I'd met Brad Miller. The 24-year-old told me that he plans to enter politics after graduation and said that he for one has adopted the view that conservatives like him have no choice but to fight for morality and Christianity. "We're not looking to join a political debate, but we feel like we're being pulled into one," he said with a shrug. He sat up straighter in his plastic chair. "That's why this school was started."