March 03

 

Never Give Up!

by Samuel E. Ericsson, President
advocates International

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper timewe will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Gal. 6:9

On February 26, 2003 the United States Supreme Court handed down a major victory for the free speech rights of pro-life and all political protestors. In an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court concluded that the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) could not be used to punish abortion clinic protestors. Even though the picketing may not have been good for the abortion clinic business, vigorous protests outside abortion clinics did not constitute the crime of extortion. The Court lifted an injunction against the protestors and reversed the lower courts' decisions.

The case took 17 years to bring to an end. The perseverance of the team of pro-life lawyers engaged in this long battle brought to mind the advice of a first-century advocate, the apostle Paul: "do not give up!" Among the lawyers engaged in this litigation at different stages were Tim Klenk, a member of Advocates' Board, and Sam Casey, Executive Director of the Christian Legal Society and Advocates' Vice Chairman.

Reflecting on nearly three decades that I have been engaged in the religious freedom arena, it becomes clear that ten years is often the short term in seeing justice done. In the United States it can take twenty years or longer to nail down and effectively implement important principles. Let me share two other examples from the United States, as well as some modern-day heroes around the globe, as examples of not becoming "weary in doing good."

Equal Access: In 1976 a group of six high school students at Huntington Beach High School in California were told that it was illegal for them to hold a Bible study around the lunch table on campus. They were informed - incorrectly - that the Supreme Court had declared these types of activities unconstitutional in the controversial "school prayer" decisions of the early 1960's. In response to that case, Lynn Buzzard, the Executive Director of Christian Legal Society at the time, launched the Center for Law & Religious Freedom to be the action arm of CLS. Soon after I joined CLS staff in 1981 as the Center's first Director, the Center prepared a memorandum to Members of Congress proposing a legislative solution to the high school Bible club issues. It would give religious clubs "equal access" to America's public schools. Congress passed the Equal Access Act in 1984. In 1990 the Supreme Court held that "student-initiated, student-led meetings with religious content" was protected speech under the Bill of Rights.

Was the 14-year battle worth it? Absolutely! In 1980 there were perhaps 200 high schools with Bible clubs. By 2003 virtually all 27,000 high schools were open to these activities. The "equal access" principle has now been extended to include elementary and junior high schools, teachers meetings, as well as the right of access by religious groups and churches to rent space on an equal basis with secular groups. During the 27-year battle for equal access, hundreds of Christian lawyers provided legal services - most often pro bono. They never gave up!

And 27 years after the lunch-hour shutdown at Huntington Beach High School, Lynn and I are still working together promoting "equal access" concepts. But now we're in the global arena. Lynn is a Professor at Campbell University Law School in North Carolina and serves as chairman of Advocates' Board. He is also dean of the new Hangdong Law School in Korea, the first international Christian law school of its kind in Asia. He never gives up!

Clergy Malpractice: I still recall the phone calls to our home in Northridge, California on March 31, 1980 from reporters with the Los Angeles Times and ABC News. They asked about the lawsuit filed that day against our church, Grace Community Church, and four of its pastors, arising out of the suicide of a 23-year old seminary student. The plaintiffs counsel's goal was to launch a new legal theory - clergy malpractice - that would have been the most pernicious invasion of ministries in U.S. history. I immediately called Pastor-Teacher, John MacArthur, informing him about this first-of-its-kind lawsuit and said, "John, I'm glad we're first up on this issue." Even though the suit had no factual or legal basis to support it, the litigation took nearly a decade including two trial court victories that were both reversed on appeal. Finally, in 1988 the California Supreme Court ruled that the defendants had done everything possible to help the young man and, most important, held that this type of litigation did not belong in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court let the case stand without comment. Twenty-three years after the reporters' phone calls to our home, every state in the U.S. has followed California's lead. Church-state scholars have called the case "the only neutron bomb in U.S. jurisprudential history." Clergy malpractice was totally demolished as a theory. It taught me: trust God and never give up!

Bulgaria: It's hard to think of any Christian lawyer who has had a greater impact on his nation than Latchezar Popov. Latcho received his law degree from Sofia University in 1978. Since he refused to join the Communist Party, Latcho could not get a license to practice law and had to work as a civil servant until the fall of communism in 1989. In 1995 Latcho launched the Rule of Law Institute of Bulgaria with five other lawyers. He has been its Executive Director and seen the group grow to over 225 Christian lawyer members. Latcho is a tireless advocate for religious freedom in Bulgaria and the Balkans. It has often taken years to register well-known denominations, such as the Nazarenes, as well as ministries like Campus Crusade, without which the Jesus film cannot be shown in public halls throughout Bulgaria. In March 2003, 50 Members of Bulgaria's Parliament asked Latcho to represent them in Bulgaria's Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of several provisions in a new Law on Religion. So, 25 years after being denied his license to practice law because he refused to join the Communist Party, Latcho has become Parliament's counsel on religious freedom in his country's highest court because he never gives up!

Albania: In 1967 Albania's brutal dictator, Enver Hoxja, declared Atheism as the official religion of his nation - a first for Europe. The mere possession of a Bible, or a cross, was punishable by a ten-year prison term. On March 11, 2003, nineteen years after Hoxja's death and thirteen years after the fall of communism, the renowned Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, addressed a group of Albanian government and church leaders at the dedication of a new evangelical church building in the heart of Albania's capital. The new facility was dictator Hoxja's former official residence; today it's a church! Many Albanian Christian advocates - especially Alfred Mustafah, Tony Gogu and Fatmir Lacej - have worked tirelessly alongside American colleagues in preparing the ground through law so that religious freedom is a reality in Albania. They never give up!

Russia: Ekaterina ("Katya") Smyslova grew up in a Moslem home in the Soviet Union. She secretly accepted Christ at age 12, but did not get her first personal Bible for another 20 years. Katya received her law degree in 1981 and joined a Baptist church in 1991. She began helping believers with legal problems soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1997, the Russian Duma passed an onerous registration law that threatened the liquidation of thousands of churches. In 1999 Katya opened the Esther Information Center as a legal resource to churches, pastors, missionaries and ministries. She produced a CD-ROM on Russian church-state laws, rules and regulations, along with "how to's" for pastors in writing letters and working the complicated process of re-registration. Advocates International helped Katya make 3,000 copies of the CD for free distribution all over Russia. This helped keep untold numbers of churches from being liquidated. In March 2003 Katya drafted the constitution for the Russian Evangelical Alliance, a network of thousands of churches throughout Russia. Recently she wrote:

Dear Sam, I am poor by human standards, but I am blessed and happy because of awards from the Lord and fruitfulness I have in Him. I know you understand me much better than anybody else. In Russia we have the expression "fools for God." It is one of the honored categories of saints. You are a small match, which sets Christian lawyers on holy fire in many countries. There is enough fuel in every continent but somebody has to serve as a self-burning match to help make the difference. I am a match of smaller size but I try to touch every soul I communicate with, act relationally and use the language of peace and love. I learned from you, my dear Mordecai. Thank you for you never quit. Yours in Jesus, Katya/Esther

Romania: In the 1940's and 50's Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of Martyrs, spent many years in Romania's worst prisons tortured for Christ. There were no Christian lawyers to plead his case. Today Romania has changed dramatically. There are an estimated 600 Christian lawyers in Romania. Many are active in the Rule of Law of Romania, lead by Salonica Talos. Salonica is the chief lawyer for the Baptist Union and has been a tireless advocate for religious freedom for nearly two decades. In July 2003, Salonica and the Romanian lawyers will host Advocates Europe's third annual conference hoping to see over 300 Christian lawyers from 30 European nations visit Bucharest. Salonica never quits!

Mongolia: Mongolia is twice the size of Texas with over 10 million horses but only two million people. It was taken over by communists in 1927. In an effort to wipe out all religious influence, the communists slaughtered 100,000 Buddhist priests in 1937. Communism began to erode after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 1990 there were no known Mongolian Christians. Baasankhuu Octyabar met Christ in 1995 at age 21 while still in law school. When he graduated from Mongolia State University Law School two years later, he knew three other young Christian lawyers. Unaware that there was any Christian legal group anywhere in the world, Baasankhuu felt led to start a Christian lawyer group in Mongolia. It would promote religious freedom, human rights, mediation and arbitration, minister to law students and prisoners, and provide legal aid for the poor. The Rule of Law Institute in Mongolia has helped register many ministries and churches in Mongolia. It has conducted national conferences on human rights and religious freedom. The network has about 30 other Christian lawyers throughout Mongolia. At the ripe old age of 28, Baasankhuu is now reaching out to believers in North and South Korea, Eastern Russia and Northern China. It appears that with the help from his Christian colleagues in South Korea, Baasankhuu will host the 2003 Advocates Asia fall conference bringing together Christian lawyers from many nations in their region, including Central Asia. Baasankhuu never gives up!