From the outside, you'd never guess that 210 E. Palmetto Ave. is home to a powerhouse law firm. Located adjacent to an upholstery shop in an industrial area of Longwood, close to railroad tracks and not far from a dirt road, is one of the most muscular defenders of social conservatism in the country. But if you didn't know where the Liberty Counsel offices were, you'd never find them.
Inside the building which looks more like a law office, with leather chairs and wood desks a dozen or so of the Liberty Counsel's lawyers and staff stand in a circle in the lobby, hands held. It's 8:35 on a recent Wednesday morning, time for the daily prayer meeting. But first, some chit-chat.
"Yesterday we did the Court TV chat," president Mathew Staver says. Staver, a former minister and worker's compensation attorney, looks exactly like you'd imagine a Baptist lawyer would: gray hair, large glasses, impeccable suit, tall but not overly so, in shape but not muscular, smart but not smarmy, confident but not arrogant, pleasant but not laugh-out-loud funny.
The day before, Staver and an American Civil Liberties Union attorney traded barbs in a Court TV web chat as San Francisco city attorneys asked the California Supreme Court to dissolve an injunction barring the city from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
"It was mostly between the two of us," Staver says, meaning him and fellow Liberty Counsel attorney Erik Stanley, who is standing next to him. They chuckle.
"They [the Court TV moderators] weren't letting any questions through," Stanley replies, smiling. To fill up the dead space, Stanley took it upon himself to create a screen name and feed Staver questions to answer. Two made it through.
"It wasn't like a set-up question," Staver tells the group.
"They were softballs to you," Stanley replies.
"I think that the court is going to uphold the injunction," Staver says.
Then it's time to pray. Liberty Counsel staff offer things in their lives to pray about. Staver mentions that on Sunday, he'll leave for Massachusetts, where he'll argue in court to overturn that state's Supreme Court ruling forcing the reluctant state to dole out gay marriage licenses. Liberty Counsel manager Rosie Rodriguez's child adoption is looking good. A co-worker's friend's car was stolen. Another's relative is having a baby soon. Stanley's going to argue a case in Madison County, Illinois, where the "juries are out of control," he says.
Staver leads them in a brief prayer, as the sharp, biting sounds from the machinery next door cut through the serenity of the moment. No one, except me, seems to notice. Staver runs through all the requests, plus the ones that may not have been offered aloud, before asking the Lord to bless the Liberty Counsel and help it expand nationally and internationally. He asks God to bless the justices in California, and those across the country who support the Liberty Counsel financially.
As quickly as the prayer ends, the meeting adjourns, and it's back to work. And work, in this case, is more than filing briefs and making oral arguments; it's about more than law books and settlements. These are soldiers in the culture war, defending "traditional" values from moral decay. And while Liberty Counsel was set up 15 years ago to focus mainly on pro-life and religious-freedom issues, the firm's main one could argue obsessive focus now is stopping gay marriage, which to hear Staver tell it is "the most important social battle of our lives."
If Staver has his way, the Liberty Counsel's influence is only going to grow. In five years, "I see Liberty Counsel as being at the head of the ongoing culture war," he says. "I can say the culture war is going to intensify, but so will we."
TIME TO SHINE
It's perhaps fitting for a man so dedicated to preserving traditional marriage that from Staver's office at Liberty Counsel headquarters, you can look through the window and see his wife, fellow attorney Anita Staver.
Mathew Staver is 47, a stoic, often expressionless speaker whose inflection changes little as he conveys a convincing wealth of knowledge on most subjects you choose to bring up.
He grew up Roman Catholic, more out of necessity than anything else. When he was 2 years old his abusive, alcoholic father left, leaving his mother to raise seven children by herself. She worked three jobs to make ends meet. The Catholic church in Charlotte Harbor was the only one in town that held more than one service, so it was the only one the Stavers could attend.
In high school, Staver was an avid athlete who held placekicking records for his football team. After an injury killed his dreams of football glory, Staver says he meandered aimlessly through life and "started doing a little partying" he doesn't elaborate until an evangelist led him to Jesus.
He spent 13 months working as a cook on a dredge in Nicaragua, saving money for college, before attending the Southern Missionary College in Collegedale, Tenn., which was run by Seventh Day Adventists. His grades weren't good at the start Staver entered on academic probation but by the end he was pulling high marks. He graduated from seminary in Michigan first in his class in 1982.
After seminary, he took a job preaching for three small churches in Lexington, Ky. While there, "I saw the ACLU had filed suit against a nativity scene and it was removed," he says. "I got frustrated about that. That was something that got me interested in religious freedom, and how faith should impact society."
In 1983, fellow pastors showed Staver a video on abortion, including grisly photos of aborted fetuses. "I had no idea about abortion," he says, adding that before the video he hadn't given the issue much thought at all. He looked up a right-to-life group in the phone book, and went down to the University of Kentucky's law library to read the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling.
Soon after, he applied to law school, and gave up his preaching job.
He graduated in 1987, and started work defending companies from workers' compensation claims in Orlando, while taking on some pro-bono work with religious cases. Two years later, he formed his own law office, Staver & Associates, which he used to fund his newly created Liberty Counsel, a law firm that would handle religious issue-oriented cases for free.
His mission statement: "To restore the culture one case at a time, by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family."
"I wanted to be able to fully engage in what I felt was a calling," he says.
His first two cases involved school controversies. In the first, in 1990, the Liberty Counsel intervened successfully on behalf of a high-school student who wanted to pray at graduation. In the second, in 1992, Staver represented a Lakeland fourth-grader who brought invitations to her church's alternative Halloween party to school, only to have the principal throw them away because they were deemed religious. Staver filed a federal lawsuit and won.
In fact, Liberty Counsel boasts a remarkable success rate. "[O]ur 83% success rate is phenomenal," reads one of its brochures. "We don't say that to boast, but to state the point when Liberty Counsel shows up, we win and God is glorified."
In 1999, Staver shut down Staver & Associates and began devoting himself full time to the Liberty Counsel. They moved to their current offices, owned by a supporter who cut them a break on rent.
For the first six years, most of Liberty Counsel's work focused on religious freedom and abortion cases. Staver and his colleagues defended the right of students to pray, and picketers to protest outside of abortion clinics.
Then, slowly, gay rights cases began popping up on the group's radar. First came custody cases in which one spouse left for a homosexual relationship and sought custody of the children. For a while, Staver would farm these out to domestic-relations firms, but as these situations became "more and more pervasive," he created a "traditional family" section at the Liberty Counsel.
"Now we're extremely involved in that," he says.
Then he began working on defense-of-marriage acts in various states, including a case in Georgia where a gay couple tried to export their civil union from Vermont. "We won that case two years ago," Staver says.
Of the 17 gay-marriage related cases currently making their way through courts around the country, Staver says his group is involved in 15 of them.
The Liberty Counsel's tax records show that last year it litigated 82 cases and had a budget of almost $1.4 million, with about 75 percent of that money coming from direct donations. Staver paid himself a salary of $75,000.
Next year, Staver expects the budget to grow to $1.9 million. That's a far cry from 1997, when the group was pulling in $163,000, predominantly from fees awarded in court victories. This year, Staver expects to add five lawyers, and will help open a law school at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia this fall.
And while Staver credits his recent rise in prominence to shutting down his own law firm and concentrating full time on the Liberty Counsel, it's undeniable that the recent controversy over gay marriage has helped thrust him into the limelight.
Staver is leading the charge to overturn the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage, and is part of the lawsuit in San Francisco. He also successfully obtained an injunction to keep a mayor in New York state from issuing gay marriage licenses.
This indeed is the Liberty Counsel's year to shine. Staver only sees his creation getting bigger. "We're nowhere near what I want [Liberty Counsel] to be," he says. "I envisioned that it would be the national leader in all of these issues."
REFIGHTING THE WAR
Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the Liberty Counsel's rise to national prominence. While the group has spent a decade acting as a sort of in-house counsel for various right-wing causes, those who take a more liberal view of social and church-state issues find it an increasing annoyance.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, talks dismissively of the Liberty Counsel's philosophy. "They can have any position they want, but there's only one right one," he says. "If [Thomas] Jefferson or [James] Madison had a choice of joining Americans United or the Liberty Counsel, there is no doubt they'd be joining Americans United. They're refighting an intellectual battle that's been over for 200 years. ... To the extent they make arguments that are it's hard for me to claim they make any sense. They believe they are a besieged minority. This is of course ridiculous."
Lynn also points out that the Liberty Counsel's attacks on gay marriage serve another purpose. "Conservatives are apoplectic about this issue. It's literally the end of human civilization," he says. "This is it. It's all over. Because of the apocalyptic language of the right, it's seen as one of the biggest issues around. It's where the money is. It's where their donors and supporters want them to spend their time."
Indeed, the ads Liberty Counsel runs on AM talk radio seek the support of listeners by claiming the group is a crusader in the fight against the "homosexual agenda." But as any visit to the Liberty Counsel's Longwood headquarters will demonstrate, money is a secondary consideration. This is a holy war. And they are God's lawyers.
MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD
"I've never heard him raise his voice," Karen Rochester, Liberty Counsel's spokeswoman, says of Staver. "Never. Never ever. He amazes me. He gives grace, and that's what it's all about. It's the unspoken things, there's like a presence in this place. I think it begins with that morning (prayer) circle. If there was going to be any backbiting, it wouldn't work. You're like in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood here."
Rochester, a 40-year-old single mother who doesn't look a day over 30 is a former Marine and paralegal who bubbles with enthusiasm; doubly so when the topic is her boss.
After the Marines, she worked in a personal-injury law firm in Virginia that filmed commercials of its employees in space suits. "They were crazy, but it was a lot of fun," she says.
From there, she and her former husband moved to Florida, where she got involved in the parent-teacher association, and consequently began worrying about what her children were being taught in school. Through her church, she heard about Liberty Counsel; there wasn't a position for a paralegal, but the group had just created one for a media representative. Rochester took it. That was two years ago.
Now, she's in charge of managing the Liberty Counsel's increasing press inquiries, as well as producing Staver's half-hour weekly television show Law and Justice. She also writes the script for his 90-second radio program, "Freedom's Call," which airs on more than 100 Christian radio stations around the country.
Like most of Liberty Counsel's employees, Rochester could find a better-paying gig if she wanted to. But here she's serving God. "You have to have those core beliefs to work at Liberty Counsel," she says. "It's the glue that holds us together. That, and respect for Mat."
That respect goes both ways. Last year, Rosie Rodriguez, the self-described "organization freak" who runs the Liberty Counsel's fulfillment area (business office) faced tragedy. Her 20-year-old sister, Jenny herself a part-time Liberty Counsel worker was fatally injured in a car crash on I-4. At 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday, Rodriguez called her fellow employees to let them know what had happened. An hour later the entire crew showed up at the emergency room.
"Here they come, tracking down the hallway," Rodriguez says. "They did not leave until they had to come to work on Monday. [Jenny] ended up living a week. The entire week, I cannot tell you what the people here meant to me."
Today, there is a plaque in the office's lobby honoring Jenny's memory.
Rena Lindevaldsen is the Liberty Counsel's point person on same-sex marriage issues. It's a job she took after leaving a corporate litigation firm in New York City, where she made about $500,000 a year. Though she had wanted to focus on religious law, she didn't realize that there were attorneys actually doing so full time until 2001. So she started taking on cases in New York City pro bono. Her employer wasn't too thrilled with the idea, so she worked nights and weekends. Eventually she found the Liberty Counsel.
"It's a huge pay cut, absolutely," she says.
Her dedication to same-sex marriage cases, she says, is partly by choice. Lindevaldsen came on board just as Lawrence v. Texas the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down antisodomy laws was reaching its zenith. She wrote an amicus brief asking the court to allow states to criminalize gay sex.
"When I look at what's out there, I don't see anything more important than marriage," she says. "To me, it's the most vital issue out there."
To that end, she's currently involved with 20 cases nationwide defending traditional marriage, and she also works closely with Exodus International, an Orlando-based Christian group that tries to make gays straight.
Last year, Lindevaldsen conceived the "Day of Purity," a day for high-school kids to promote abstinence by taking a vow of silence and passing out literature on their school campuses. "There was no day where students who believe in sexual purity have a voice," says Lindevaldsen, who home-schools her children. "We just felt there was a need to give them a voice, to let them know they're not alone. I never dreamed it would go where it went."
This year's Day of Purity, in February, spread to hundreds of schools in nearly every state, plus schools in nine other countries, and garnered the endorsement of all kinds of powerhouse Christian organizations and Gov. Jeb Bush, all with only two months of promotion.
ANSWERING THE CALL
"I always felt like Jonah," says Liberty Counsel attorney Joel Oster, a bulky man with close-cropped red hair and a goatee. "In search of money rather than my calling." He was working in a general-practice law firm in Kansas City, but didn't feel like that was where God wanted him to be.
"I felt as if our history books were being rewritten," he says. "They're taking out references to God. They're trying to hide our religious heritage and pretend it doesn't exist. Churches were being pushed out of cities."
Two issues prompted his career change (he found Liberty Counsel online). One, abortion: "It confounds me how the other (pro-choice) side does not get it," he says. "Why can we not pass laws that ban murder?" (He and other anti-abortion activists expect to challenge Roe v. Wade when and if the Supreme Court becomes more conservative; currently, they see that issue as a stalemate.) The other was a controversy in Kansas in the early '90s, in which conservatives tried to remove a book about lesbianism from a school library. The ACLU sued, and won. "It bothered me that schools could not take out books," he says.
Oster is working several free-speech cases, including a highly publicized one out of Ft. Myers. There, a 14-year-old wanted to pass out anti-abortion literature to her middle-school classmates during a "day of remembrance" for the "victims" of abortion, which to Oster includes both the fetus and the mother. The school board wouldn't let her do it, so she sued seeking a court order overruling the school board. In April, a federal judge rejected Oster's request, but he's pressing on regardless.
Asked about the ACLU, often the Liberty Counsel's archenemy, Oster replies: "I think the ACLU really equates to job security. They've perpetuated this myth of the separation of church and state. They've wreaked more havoc to religious liberty than any law out there."
A CATACLYSMIC MOMENT
Staver films his weekly television program inside the studio of the Calvary Assembly of God church on Clay Street in Winter Park, without the benefit of scripts or a TelePrompTer. The half-hour show, Law and Justice, appears on several Christian stations nationwide, including Superchannel in Orlando (the one with the skyscraper that's been under construction forever).
Staver enters, wearing the navy-blue suit that was hanging on the back of his office door the day earlier, and clutching the bottle of Zephryhills water that never strays far from his hand. He takes off his glasses and buttons his double-breasted coat.
Almost immediately, he changes the game plan. He scraps the first segment and decides to devote his entire program to the gay-marriage issue. He and Stanley, who will co-host the show, debate how far into specifics they want to go, since the program won't air for two weeks and the situation could change dramatically.
Staver sits behind a faux news desk as the cameras get into position. Behind him is a collage of the American flag, a bald eagle, and the slogan "Liberty Counsel. Taking America Back."
"Is the eye right behind me?" he asks, referring to the eagle.
"Once you see it, it's all you notice," adds Nancy Kerr, a Liberty Counsel staffer.
So Staver adjusts his chair to keep the oddly hypnotic eagle eye from becoming a distraction. The cameras are set. "Are you ready to pray?" he asks.
From his spot behind the desk, he asks God to "bless the words that we say and the thoughts that we think."
Time to begin. "The issue of same-sex marriage, if it hasn't come to your hometown and state, certainly will in the near future." He coughs. "Liberty Counsel is on the front line sorry, let's do that again."
The second time he nails it. "May 17, 2004" the day the first same-sex marriages occurred in Massachusetts "could be a cataclysmic moment in American history," he warns.
"The slippery slope has begun," Stanley chimes in. "And we're close to the bottom."
That sentiment echoes what Staver said in an interview a day earlier, and in fact summarizes the urgency now driving the Liberty Counsel and its conservative allies: "There's a train in motion and nobody's trying to stop it," Staver says. "When we show up, we are winning a lot of battles. The problem is, nobody had shown up for years."