Legate CHARLES LiMANDRI leads a landmark David-versus-Goliath case in New Jersey . . .
by Brian Fraga
This summer, a jury in New Jersey will hear arguments in Ferguson v. JONAH, which promises to be one of the most important religious liberty cases in years.
In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is using New Jersey’s state Consumer Fraud Act against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a religious nonprofit that works with and helps people who are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction to find counseling.
Assisted by the SPLC, four former JONAH clients and their mothers are suing the nonprofit, partially on grounds that JONAH commits consumer fraud by claiming that people can overcome same-sex desires and that homosexual behavior itself is disordered.
Charles LiMandri, president and chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, is defending JONAH. A member of Legatus’ San Diego Chapter, LiMandri spoke with Legatus magazine about the upcoming trial — and the possible ramifications for Catholics who hold fast to Church teachings on same-sex behavior.
When and where will the trial be held?
The trial is scheduled to begin June 1 in Jersey City, N.J. Because this is such an important and controversial case, the judge is going to have us show up on May 29 to start selecting a jury.
What is this trial about? What is at stake?
Basically what we have is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is probably the most extreme liberal group in the country, filing a lawsuit that they themselves call a first of its kind in the history of the United States. And indeed it is.
They think they can get a judicial ruling to silence organized religion and say that God is wrong on homosexuality. It’s the first case of its kind where they’ve gone after people for having an opposing worldview because they believe that worldview to be oppressive and hurtful.
The SPLC’s lawsuit violates the basic right to self-determination and it sets the stage for outlawing counseling that the Left does not like, including counseling by the clergy. We have to stop them here, or we are going to be fighting them all over the country. They are poised to take this nationwide.
How do you plan to argue this case?
A major theme for us, which we believe is going to resonate even with liberals, is that this is case all about the right to self-determination, free choice and free will. The other side is trying to stop people who have any opposition to homosexual behavior. The position of the Southern Poverty Law Center now is to declare that nobody should have the right to say that.
The Consumer Fraud Act has never been used to further an ideological viewpoint. It was written to stop the sale of fraudulent consumer products or fraudulent services.
We believe we can and will win this one as long as we don’t get our hands tied by unfair court rulings. As we stand, I’m confident we have a winning case because we have the truth on our side, and the party with the truth on their side, in my experience, will win 80% of the time.
What are the religious liberty implications? What could be the impact of this case?
The SPLC lawsuit is a direct attack on religious liberty. The SPLC has targeted on its website 70 other organizations — including Catholic, Evangelical and Mormon organizations — and they are soliciting people to sue these organizations now if they win the case. I predict $100 million in legal fees will be generated by people suing these organizations.
It’s a very important case in terms of the direction of our society. They’re going to trumpet the case as though it’s at the U.S. Supreme Court and, who knows, the case could end up there. The case will almost certainly go up on appeal. It’s going to end up making some kind of law at the appellate level.
Whoever wins at the trial court level is going to have a tremendous platform to trumpet to the rest of the world either a major victory or a major defeat because the issues are so very important.
With an endowment of more than $300 million, the Southern Poverty Law Center is well-funded and well-staffed with attorneys. How much of a factor has their financial strength been in bringing the case to trial?
We can’t compete with their money. Producing thousands of documents and conducting 40 depositions in 12 states is expensive. It’s been a huge undertaking for us to take this to trial.
It really is a David-versus-Goliath situation. I’m basically going month-to-month, bringing this case to trial by the grace of God through donations. Money is a big issue for us with volunteer attorneys and people working for the bare minimum. I’m talking close to minimum wage. But I have attorneys helping me out because they realize how important this is.
BRIAN FRAGA is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.