March 2009

March 2009

Dear Friend,

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvestif we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." Galatians 6:10

When justice grinds too slowly, it is easy to become discouraged. But be of good cheer because our LORD promises "at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." In the religious freedom battles AI is waging around the world, ten years is often the short-term. But with your help, we are getting the job done. Let me share some drawn-out battles that led to significant victories - leading to present opportunities to protect religious freedom.

Clergy Malpractice: On March 31, 1980, 29 years ago this month, the church in Los Angeles where our family attended was sued in the first-ever "clergy malpractice" lawsuit. In his press release launching the suit against our church and four of its pastors, the attorney labeled us a "cult" with no right to freely counsel church members and others from a biblical perspective. Providentially, at the time of the suit, I was on leave from my Los Angeles law firm serving as the Executive Pastor at the church with a congregation of about 15,000. As promised, God had uniquely prepared us "in advance" to defend the case. Ephesians 2:10

Nine years later - after two successful trials, including a five-week jury trial, and two incredulous appellate court reversals - the California and the United States Supreme Court slammed the door shut on suing pastors, church counselors and all other "non-licensed therapists," such as drug Hot-line counselors. After 20 years that decision has become so well-established that it has been followed by every state that has faced the same question. It has also provided helpful talking points globally, including assisting defense counsel in the landmark freedom of expression case in Sweden in 2004 where a pastor was on trial for his sermon on homosexuality. And so we have reaped a harvest of "religious freedom" for pastors and churches "at the proper time!"

Equal Access for Students: At a Congressional hearing on June 2, 1982, U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield presented a 7-page memo by Christian Legal Society proposing a solution to the decades-long controversy over "voluntary student prayer" in public schools. Our memo proposed that schools give student-initiated, student-led Bible clubs "equal access" to a room on the same basis as given to chess clubs. The hard-fought Congressional battle ended with President Reagan signing the Equal Access Act on August 11, 1984, and the United States Supreme Court upholding the Act in an 8-1 decision on June 4, 1990.

The Impact: Since 1984, an estimated 10 million students have held campus meetings with "political, philosophical, or religious content." When Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, the Act provided that those seeking asylum from religious persecution must also be given "equal access" to the protections offered applicants seeking asylum from political or other types of persecution. These battles took time - and continue - but now we've reaped a harvest of "religious freedom," not only for pastors, but for students and the persecuted all over the world!!

Bulgaria's Long Road to Religious Freedom: During the post-war Soviet-era, Bulgaria was referred to as the 16th Soviet Republic because of its allegiance to Moscow and its hostility to religious freedom. In 1971, ignoring church law and procedures, the Bulgarian Communist Party, with Moscow's blessing, appointed a new Patriarch for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Maxim. Maxim and his bishops were viewed by many Bulgarians as mere Party puppets.

The Split: Soon after communism collapsed in Bulgaria in November 1989, a movement began among some reformers in the Orthodox Church to appoint a "legitimate" Patriarch. In May 1992, several priests and seminarians from over 100 local Orthodox churches split from the "Old Synod" of Maxim, calling themselves the "New" or "Alternative Synod." From the outset, most government officials began to take sides in the split favoring the Old Synod. Things got very ugly politically and in the government-run media.

The New Law on Religion: In 2002, Bulgaria's Parliament proposed a new Law on Religion that was heavily biased toward the Old Synod. Latcho Popov, whom I first met in 1994, launched the Rule of Law Institute in Bulgaria in 1995. Latcho has earned the respect of lawyers, government officials, diplomats, Parliamentarians, as well as the leaders of the New Synod. During the Parliamentary debates on the proposed Law on Religion in December 2002, Latcho was the only non-parliamentarian invited to sit behind closed doors and listen to the debates.

When the new Law was passed, the Old Synod was, in effect, given a "monopoly" on the Orthodox faith in Bulgaria. 77 Orthodox members of Parliament asked Latcho, an evangelical, to challenge the new Law in the Supreme Court on several constitutional grounds. When the case was finally decided, one member of the Supreme Court abstained from voting, thereby creating a tie vote and undermining the Constitutional challenges by the 77 Parliamentarians.

Padlocking Churches: On a Sunday in July 2004, police marched into 107 New Synod churches, removed the parishioners, padlocked the churches, put the reformer priests and their families out on the street and confiscated their bank accounts. Latcho agreed to represent over 800 parishioners on behalf of themselves and the 107 churches. When Bulgaria's Supreme Court offered no relief, Latcho took the case to the European Court on Human Rights in Strasburg.

The European Court of Human Rights: After filing thousands of pages of affidavits, exhibits and motions with the European Court and patiently waiting for several years, the Court finally issued its ruling in the confiscation cases in January 2009. The Court ruled that Bulgarian officials had violated the law and several provisions of the European Conventions protecting religious freedom in its conduct against the New Synod. It sent the case back to Bulgaria to set things aright.

Latcho now faces the difficult task of implementing the European Court order. No doubt some Bulgarians are not pleased that the European Court gave their government a black eye. The good news is that the decision may have practical ramifications beyond the fact pattern in Bulgaria.

The Family Under Attack in Bulgaria: While running the Rule of Law Institute and mentoring lawyers since 1995, serving as President of Advocates Europe since 2002, consulting on the 2002 Law on Religion, and handling the New Synod litigation, Latcho has also been busy protecting family values in Bulgaria. Last month, thanks in large part to Latcho's mobilizing and networking of 50 Bulgarian, regional and international pro-family groups, Bulgaria's Parliament refused to cave-in to the forces seeking to "redefine" same-sex relationships to be the same as traditional marriage.

Thanks for supporting Advocates International and colleagues like our dear brother, Latcho, who walk the talk of making the most of every "religious freedom" opportunity while doing good to all people. With your ongoing help, we are continuing to harvest religious freedom for all, while...

Living in His-Story,

Sam Ericsson
Founder & President

P.S. Meeting challenges like those facing Latcho is at the heart of our Global Task Force on Religious Freedom made possible by your gifts. Thank you!