Christian conservatives take the culture wars overseas to foreign courts
When a devout Christian man in England was fired in 2002 for refusing to work on Sundays, his case became something of a cause célèbre among British evangelicals. But the money and part of the legal strategy behind Stephen Copsey's latest court appeal comes not from London but from Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Alliance Defense Fund.
The legal advocacy group founded by Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, sees Copsey's case as part of an emerging threat to religious freedom in the United States. "If these cases are imported by United States courts as controlling precedent, we basically abandon America as we know it," says Benjamin Bull, chief counsel at ADF.
The fund, which has had recent victories challenging gay marriage in San Francisco and protecting student Christian groups, is part of a growing movement of Christian conservative lawyers who are taking the culture wars overseas. With the Supreme Court citing foreign and international law in recent controversial opinions, court cases across the globe have taken on new urgency for some activists on the right and the left, who see new opportunities to influence what happens in America's courtrooms.
"It's crystal clear to us that unless we get involved in the outcome of foreign law then we're going to be at grave risk," says Bull. Ann Beeson, associate legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, says "We now see regional and international human rights forums as simply another tool in the fight for social justice here in the United States."
Since the mid-1990s, Christian conservatives have grown more influential in the world of international human rights, long the province of the cultural left. American Christian organizations now lobby at the U.N. and provide funding, advice, and friend-of-the-court briefs in abortion, emergency-contraception, and religious-freedom cases from Colombia to Canada, from Australia to Nigeria. Groups such as the ADF, Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel have developed international networks of Christian lawyers, trained foreign lawyers, and sent their lawyers abroad.
Like most conservatives, though, these groups oppose using foreign law in U.S. court decisionsand ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow and Liberty Counsel's Mathew Staver say they are not trying to influence U.S. law through their international work. "I think that is the wrong approach," says Sekulow. "I don't litigate a case in Europe with the idea that it's going to come back and impact the law in the U.S. We want to help people of faith in those countries."
But more is potentially at stake. The Supreme Court has cited international law going back to the 1800s. But, beginning in the late 1990s, several justices began using foreign sources of law, more controversially, to interpret the U.S. Constitution. Last year, the court said "the opinion of the world community"evidenced in part by a U.N. convention the United States has not signedsupported its decision to ban the juvenile death penalty. In 2003, the court referred to a European Court of Human Rights decision and an act of British Parliament when it struck down Texas's antisodomy law. And the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2005 cited a Canadian case in its landmark decision legalizing gay marriage.
Still, the importance of foreign and international law to the future of conservative causes in the United States is unclear. Foreign opinions, legal scholars say, so far have reinforced Supreme Court decisions but have been far from decisive. And, says Harvard constitutional law professor Charles Fried, "There's considerable hostility to the use of foreign precedent at all." Nor is there anything resembling an international consensus on either gay marriage or abortion. In fact, much of the world still has more restrictive abortion laws than does the United States.
But as long as U.S. courts are willing to cite foreign and international law, ADF, which has a $17 million annual budget, plans to make influencing foreign law a priority. "We can see which way the wind is blowing," says Bull. "We're not going to sit idly by while our court system changes before our very eyes."