The Great Debate: A Report On My Visit To Liberty University

It finally happened. I was actually invited to participate in an event at Liberty University!

Although I have spoken at Pat Robertson’s Regent University on several occasions and was even a judge once at its law school’s moot court competition, the late Dr. Jerry Falwell’s creation in Lynchburg, Va., had always been an impenetrable venue for me. I assumed that the failure to have me there may have been related to a comment Falwell once made on CNN’s “Crossfire” – that he would not allow me to preach “out on the corner” near Thomas Road Baptist Church.

But times change, and I was invited to take part in a Sept. 9 debate at Liberty’s law school by students there. They proposed that I debate Mat Staver, former Liberty University School of Law dean and founder of Liberty Counsel, the legal group that is defending clerk Kim Davis in Rowan County, Ky.

The theme of the debate was “Has the United States Supreme Court Rejected Religious Liberty?” At first I had thought the debate proposition was in error. After all, several recent cases have upheld the legal arguments of the Religious Right.

The high court found that a religious group could define anyone it employs as a “minister” and therefore not be liable for employment claims by employees that it dismissed for non-religious reasons. It ruled that Arizona taxpayers don’t even have the legal right to argue that the Arizona tuition tax credit scheme was an unconstitutional advancement of religion. It held that the town of Greece, N.Y., could open its meeting with prayers that were almost always Christian. And it determined that Hobby Lobby, a craft store purveyor of garden gnome and pink flamingo paraphernalia, has the right to refuse to cover certain forms of contraceptives in its health insurance plan. 

So where in any of these decisions is even a scintilla of evidence pointing to hostility to religion?

Ah, but wait. We can’t forget the marriage-equality ruling from June! That one really did reject the right wing’s view: that marriage is only lawful and moral when it’s between one man and one woman. And remember, Staver was among those who predicted that this decision would usher in the fall of Western Civilization.

We tossed a coin to determine who would go first. I lost but did not view that in any way as a sign from above. We then entered the law school’s “Supreme Courtroom,” a replica of the actual U.S. Supreme Court’s main chamber (but with the add-on of plaques on every door promoting the Ten Commandments). The place wasn’t quite full, but we had a good turnout. (As a side note, Staver pointed out that the Green family, which founded Hobby Lobby, paid for the building.)

Staver’s opening remarks were directed primarily at a cover story in last month’s Church & State, which reported on the reaction of several Religious Right leaders to the marriage-quality decision under the headline “Mad Men.” He seemed to think we were implying that he’s insane, so I pointed out that the reference meant “angry” as opposed to “crazy.” He attributed the whole article to me personally, but I noted that I give wide latitude to the actual editor of the magazine and respect his ability to pun with cultural references.

From there Staver acknowledged that he and I have differing “worldviews” and that these have an effect on our understanding of the law. Indeed, we do: I don’t think American law should follow a conservative Christian playbook. He made some legal arguments but bolstered all of them by referring to how scripturally “faithful” people like the Green family and Kim Davis, really are. He got a bit further off the rails when he suggested that the Obama Administration had wanted to force the Greens to fund “genocide” (abortion via contraception) and then implied I had no respect for Davis’ dignity. In Staver’s world, insulting the dignity of same-sex couples by refusing to give them a marriage licenses is of no concern at all.

I did ask Staver if he would, in principle, support Christians who believe that Acts 17:26 (look it up) is a basis for racial segregation. I also managed to get a chuckle by noting that the reference, absent a reading, was a kind of “gotcha moment” since not a lot of people memorize entire portions of the Bible these days.

I also expressed concern that for Staver it seems that “Christian liberty” was the only “religious liberty” he seemed concerned about and inquired whether he had ever paid the nearly $24,000 requested from a Wisconsin  school district that Liberty Counsel inaccurately smeared as being part of the “war on Christmas.”

After the event, several students (who were unfailingly polite) engaged me one on one. They seemed to be genuinely interested in my positions, and I appreciated that.

No, it wasn’t a sermon at Thomas Road Baptist Church. Still, it was a spirited give-and-take at the school founded by Dr. Falwell. His grave is on campus. I do have to wonder if he didn’t turn over just a little bit.

 

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.