Not long after the newly degreed attorney had “hung out his shingle,” a caller identifying himself as a pastor cried, “Mr. Gibbs, I’m being sued for the faith!”
“That can’t be!” replied David Gibbs Jr. “This is America. You can’t be sued for the faith.”
The attorney’s curiosity was stirred. And with the young lawyer’s help guaranteed, the preacher drove several hundred miles in those pre-fax, pre-e-mail days, carrying the papers he had been served.
Concluding his reading of those papers, and gazing into the eyes of his visitor, David Gibbs confirmed, “Pastor, you are being sued for the faith.”
Less than a week before that 1969 phone call, while they were praying together, Glorianne Gibbs had asked her husband, “Do you suppose the Lord could use you as an attorney for His work?”
David answered, “No, honey, I don’t think God even likes attorneys!”
“Well,” Glorianne continued, “could you at least help pastors and churches without charging them . . . and that could be a ministry we could do?”
The Gibbses agreed that they could indeed do that, never expecting where God would lead them.
So it was that just five days later David Gibbs was able to tell his new client, “Don’t worry about the bill. We have a ministry that will take care of the cost.” Thus was born the Christian Law Association (CLA), a ministry of legal helps to Bible-believing churches and Christians.
The birth of a ministry
As the word got out about CLA, the “tent-making” legal fees of the Gibbs Law Firm soon began to fall far short of the expenses of its pro bono ministry, so the Gibbses began to seek support from churches and interested individuals. Today CLA operates with a staff that fluctuates in number between ten and twenty-five attorneys at any given time—some working with the ministry for a short while as interns, and others who have served with CLA for more than twenty years. In addition, more than one hundred support-staff workers across the U.S. and in other nations also serve the ministry, all supported as an independent faith mission organization with a clientele overwhelmingly comprised of fundamental Baptist churches, their Christian schools, and their pastors and members. CLA attorneys advise, counsel, arbitrate for, defend, litigate for, and meet with ministries, their leaders, and their members all on a fee-free basis, including travel and other expenses. And, although budgeted giving by churches and individuals supports the ministry, CLA attorneys serve without even knowing whether their clients are contributors.
As young Christians, David and Glorianne Gibbs attended Cedar Hill Baptist Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, then pastored by Dr. John Balyo, himself an attorney as well as a pastor. Dr. Balyo discipled the Gibbses, baptized them, and married them. To this day they credit him with being an instrument of God to direct them to the ministry He has given them.
Some readers may identify immediately with the name “Gibbs,” having seen David III, the son of David Jr. and Glorianne, appearing almost nightly on national television news during the legal battle over Terry Schiavo, the young Florida woman from whom life support was eventually removed, resulting in her death from starvation. During those days David Gibbs III represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in a pro bono effort to spare Terry’s life and give her parents custody of their daughter.
While not many of CLA’s cases become national news, every case CLA takes is important to those whom the attorneys represent and to the cause of Christian liberties.
Every case is important
A Christian lady was fired from her job because she refused to work on the Lord’s Day. At the time she was hired, the employer was closed on Sundays, but she did at that time inform the employer about her convictions. When the employer decided to open on Sundays, this lady’s refusal to work resulted in her termination. Advised to file an employment discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), she rejected a suggestion to seek representation from the ACLU and instead turned to CLA. After a three-year legal process, a jury ultimately ordered her reinstated and her back wages paid.
A Christian school was threatened with a lawsuit after expelling one student for threatening another. Legal fees would have mounted quickly, and a judgment against the school would not only have been unjustified but could have been financially disastrous to the school. More important, a non-Christian attorney might not have been as passionate about the convictions of the school and its parent-church leadership underlying the decision to expel. CLA’s attorney was not only able to have the lawsuit dropped completely and justly but saved the ministry fifteen thousand dollars in legal fees. CLA’s attorney has been able to minister in that church’s pulpit and is a regular source of counsel to that ministry.
All across America CLA is involved in aiding Christian schools facing legal threats from the parents of former students who were disciplined for violating school rules and policies. CLA believes in and defends the rights of Christian schools to establish and uphold Bible-based standards and distinctives, defining itself as “a ministry of legal helps,” existing “to preserve Christian liberty for your children and grandchildren.” In 2005 CLA received more than one hundred thousand phone calls and thousands of letters from Christians facing legal challenges for doing what God expects of believers. Some who contact CLA have been arrested for witnessing in public; others are students in public schools who have been told they have no right to read their Bibles in those schools. There are cases of churches being excluded from ministering in communities, believers being disciplined or fired for witnessing in the workplace, and an incredible array of other assaults on our freedom of religion in America.
CLA helped Christians serving on a public school board to draft a policy banning sex-based student clubs. That policy was unanimously passed in the summer of 2006 but is now facing the possibility of a legal challenge by so-called civil liberties groups. CLA’s position is that students need to be taught about sexual identity by their parents and their pastors, not by those who might have a homosexual, bisexual, or transgender agenda. CLA has drafted a sex-based club policy that relies on a “student well-being” exception contained in the Equal Access Act. They believe their policy will stand the test of the courts if the local school board has in place a federal-government-encouraged, abstinence-based sex-education policy; a zero-tolerance harassment policy for all students; and a counseling program for all troubled students. CLA will send you a copy of this policy if your local school board meets the above prerequisites.
Driving much of CLA’s activities is the conviction that Christian students, whether attending home schools, Christian schools, or public schools, should not be treated as second-class citizens on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Educating the public
CLA provides free legal defense for churches, Christian schools, and individuals facing persecution for practicing their faith. Free legal counsel is given in specific situations, and “Informing the Faithful” seminars are held yearly in cities across the country.
One statewide fellowship of Regular Baptist churches held a daylong conference with a CLA attorney as the speaker, and pastors and lay leaders were given counsel about issues they needed to be prepared to handle in their ministries. Attendees learned the importance of criminal background checks for paid and volunteer staff. They were given guidelines in order to implement in their churches the provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regarding the publishing of prayer requests concerning staff members, church members, and nonmembers, thus protecting churches from invasion of privacy lawsuits. The conference-goers also received counsel regarding changes in membership requirements, leadership standards, and strengthening their doctrinal statements to protect their churches and ministries from the pressures of alternative lifestyle advocates. The pastors and lay leaders went back home from that meeting better prepared to face the issues of the day. Some of those church leaders planned to attend CLA’s annual legal seminars hosted in their cities, to learn more about the law and its relationship to Christian ministries.
To further educate the public, CLA also offers several books. One of those is Keeping Christ in Christmas, a compilation of laws and the appeals and decisions made by courts, including the United States Supreme Court, supporting our rights to observe Christmas in the public sector. Another useful title is Understanding the Constitution, a handbook for Christians to know and exercise our freedom of religion and free speech rights. David Gibbs III has written about the Terry Schiavo case in his book Fighting for Dear Life. Also available from CLA are instructional videos for ministries to train both paid and volunteer staff. And CLA’s The Legal Alert newsletter is a monthly publication available by mail as well as online, where archived articles address subjects such as “Can Churches Be Politically Active?” “Seven Rules for Youth Ministers,” and “Computer Accountability.” The Legal Alert radio program is heard on more than 1,200 stations around the world. And CLA will also consult at no cost with local, state, and federal officials and legislators on issues of religious liberty.
The Christian Law Association exists to help churches and Christian schools like yours and mine, and individuals like you and me. Their website (www.christianlaw.org) states that the “CLA represents churches which are clear on the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and which are clear on the Bible as the only Divinely inspired, infallible, and complete Word of God by which all areas of faith and life practice are to be controlled.” Further, “CLA legally helps Christians who are active members of a Bible-believing church, and who are facing legal difficulty for exercising their Bible-based faith.” As pastor of a church that has benefited from the ministry of CLA, I can assure you that association members mean what they say!
Maybe this whole idea of “missionary lawyers” seems strange to you . . . a little odd . . . too different (at least from what may have been your concept of lawyers in general). In fact, one of CLA’s attorneys frequently states that “it’s 99 percent of the lawyers who give the rest of us a bad name!” Be assured that the Christian Law Association is a ministry staffed by men and women who believe that Christians’ rights are worth protecting, worth defending, and, driving those convictions, that our rights are well worth exercising. If and when you need these legal missionaries, the Lord’s lawyers, they will be there for you—and you will be glad they are!
The Christian Law Association may be contacted at www.christianlaw.org or at P.O. Box 4010, Seminole, FL 33775. Phone 727-399-8300.
Information in this article is a compilation of the writer’s personal experience with the Christian Law Association, information from the CLA website, and various issues of CLA’s newsletter, The Legal Alert.
James Smith is pastor of First Baptist Church, Hackensack, New Jersey.