Ready To Give Up That Law License, Mr. Civil Disobedience?

A couple of days ago I wrote about the new theocratic Pledge of Solidarity in Defense of Marriage document signed by two probable Republican presidential candidates and a bunch of Christian Right luminaries. But I made a mistake about one of the three reported drafters of this manifesto, Matt Staver, calling him Dean of the Liberty University School of Law. Turns out he stepped down from the post last year, and is now in private practice, though seems he did some similar lawyering when he was at Liberty. But in any event, a 2011 profile of Staver by my friend Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches makes you wonder if the dude is wading in some dangerous professional as well as political and spiritual waters:

Late last month, after federal authorities arrested a Tennessee pastor on charges of aiding and abetting an international parental kidnapping, students at Liberty University Law School saw one of their exam questions come to life.

The pastor was charged with helping Lisa Miller, an “ex”-lesbian, abscond to Nicaragua with her young daughter Isabella after she flouted a series of court orders requiring Isabella’s visitation with Miller’s former partner, Janet Jenkins. According to the criminal complaint and FBI affidavit, Miller has been in hiding with Isabella since September 2009, living in the beach house of Christian Right activist and businessman Philip Zodhiates, whose daughter Victoria Hyden works as an administrative assistant at Liberty Law School.

Students at Liberty Law School tell RD that in the required Foundations of Law class in the fall of 2008, taught by Miller’s attorneys Mat Staver and Rena Lindevaldsen, they were repeatedly instructed that when faced with a conflict between “God’s law” and “man’s law,” they should resolve that conflict through “civil disobedience.” One student said, “the idea was when you are confronted with a particular situation, for instance, if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law, essentially… civil disobedience was the answer.”

This student and two others, who all requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by Staver (who is also the law school’s dean), recounted the classroom discussion of civil disobedience, as well as efforts to draw comparisons between choosing “God’s law” over “man’s law” to the American revolution and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. According to one student, in the Foundations course both Staver and Lindevaldsen “espoused the opinion that in situations where God’s law is in direct contradiction to man’s law, we have an obligation to disobey it.”

Deborah Cantrell, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, and an expert in both legal ethics and family law, said that discussions of civil disobedience in law school classrooms must “be transparent that this is not a simplistic conversation.” She added that a law professor should emphasize that the discussion is a “normative” one, and that civil disobedience has consequences, including jail, and, for a lawyer who advises a client to disobey a court order, possible loss of their license to practice law.

You don’t really have to explore Staver’s course offerings at Liberty to find out he’s counseling civil disobedience; he’s made it explicit in promoting the Pledge of Solidarity, which itself constantly asserts the “higher law” of “traditional marriage.” But Cantrell’s point is important: Officers of the Court aren’t generally sanctioned to spit contemptuously at the U.S. Supreme Court or the entire judiciary’s prerogatives.

So it makes you wonder if this man who wants to be thought of as a sort of contemporary Martin Luther King: is he willing to surrender his legal license for counseling defiance of the law? And if not, how seriously are we to take his–and his co-signatories’–protestations of brave determination to champion God’s Plan for America come what may?

It’s a good question.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.