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Va. law school has a Christian context

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The dean of the Regent University School of Law stood before prospective students at a recent assembly and described what they would encounter in their classes:

"A good, fundamental legal education," J. Nelson Happy promised. And "a walk with Jesus."

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It's not what incoming students hear at Harvard or Georgetown or the University of Baltimore.

But it's how the law is taught at Regent, where evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson is chancellor, classes begin with Bible readings and the secular legal system is analyzed through the prism of the Bible.

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"We're here for one purpose," Dean Happy told the applicants. "Not just to make money. Not just to be prideful in our profession. But to serve Jesus Christ."

The mingling of legal doctrines with religious precepts is anathema to some professors at mainstream law schools, who wonder about the quality of legal analysis that such a mix produces.

Even at schools such as Jesuit Georgetown University, law professors believe in keeping religious teachings out of the classroom:

"We're obviously very interested in the moral bases of the law," said the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a former congressman who teaches law at Georgetown. "But we don't drag God into it. We don't indoctrinate. That's bad pedagogy."

The harsher critics go beyond merely questioning the quality of education. They question Mr. Robertson's motives:

"There is a concern that they are turning out a cadre of Christian lawyers to do battle on abortion rights, to do battle on school prayer, to be there to challenge the laws and policies of a tolerant society," said Steven Green, legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Dean Happy, his faculty and the students have heard the skeptics.

"I wish I could say there's a large group of people out there who can't wait to hear you're from Regent," he told prospective students. "It's just not true."

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"But we are not training an army of warriors who are going out to fight for school prayer," the dean, a Columbia Law School graduate, said. "We are training people in sound legal principles and supporting them in witness of their faith."

The 340-student law school proudly proclaims its goal in its promotional literature: "to bring to bear the will of our Creator, Almighty God, upon legal education and the legal profession."

"Our mission here is about building Christian leadership to change the world," Professor Kimberly Taylor reminds her students.

"I want every student who graduates from this school to live the Gospel, in their practice and in their lives," she added. "Do we have an agenda here that we want our students to push? No."

But some students indeed see themselves as foot soldiers in a Christian movement.

"Be prepared, because we're coming," said a smiling Jeff King, a first- year student whose goals include a seat in Congress. "We're tired of running. We can learn the law as well as anybody."

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How Regent students interpret the law can be highly controversial, and the school has had to deal with its share of conflicts.

Last summer, an issue of the Regent University Law Review was killed because it contained an article arguing that shooting an abortion doctor could be justifiable homicide. After it went to the printer, but before it was released, Paul Hill shot dead an abortion doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic.

Dean Happy said he believes the author's argument was "wrong."

"People who favor life don't advocate murder," he said.

But because he believes in academic freedom, he said, he didn't pull the article until the student who had written the piece asked that the issue be killed.

And then there was the controversy over the firing of the last dean, Herbert Titus, in 1993.

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Groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State contend that Mr. Titus was removed because Mr. Robertson feared that the former dean's radical Christian beliefs would keep the school from securing American Bar Association XTC accreditation.

(Regent has provisional ABA accreditation. Though more than 20 law schools have religious affiliations, Regent is the only nondenominational evangelical Christian law school seeking full accreditation.)

Regent classes last 65 minutes, to allow for 15 minutes of prayer while meeting an ABA standard that sessions run at least 50 minutes.

One of Ms. Taylor's recent classes in contracts law used all 15 minutes for a devotion that included her reading aloud from John 13:1, the passage the describes Jesus washing his disciples' feet.

This is a portrait of Christ as servant, she said, and it is the servant -- whether in the church or in a profession -- who best honors the Lord.

She finished her sermon. The students bowed their heads in prayer. And then Ms. Taylor launched her class on breach of contract and monetary damages.

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The give-and-take was conventional law school fare. Most students shored up their debate with legal doctrines. But eventually, one student cited the Ten Commandments.

"The Fourth Commandment says you should work six days," the student volunteered in a case that involved a fired schoolteacher who claimed back pay as damages. The teacher, he said, should have found other work to cut her losses.

Another student agreed: "As Christians, we're here under God's will. I think we are commanded to work six days a week."

Ms. Taylor reminded the class that "work is a scriptural requirement." But "you've got to advise your client of the legal requirement."

Ms. Taylor, a University of Virginia law school graduate who came to Regent two years ago after several years of practice in Chicago and Richmond, said she is glad that "I can be an explicit Christian here."

But professors at other schools believe explicit Christianity -- or any religious doctrine -- has no place in the training of lawyers.

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"Insomuch as Christian values have been part of the development of the law, they are discussed in most law schools," said Michael Milleman, a University of Maryland law professor. "But a discussion of the law does not begin from a Christian perspective. One's religious beliefs are not the starting point for analysis.

"My concern," Mr. Milleman added, "would be that the schools would improperly intermix religious doctrine and legal analysis."

Regent students "are not going to persuade a court based upon religious principles," he said. "They're going to persuade a court based on legal principles."

William I. Weston, who teaches professional ethics to University of Baltimore law students, said, "You are an agent of the client. And spouting a biblical quotation may not be responsive to the client's needs."

Regent students believe their Christianity will help them be more honest, ethical lawyers, thus improving the image of the profession.

"Hooey," said Mr. Weston. "You're either honest or you're not. It has nothing to do with being Christian."

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And if an opposing lawyer ever went out of his way to identify himself in court as Christian, "I would move for a mistrial immediately," Mr. Weston said.

At Regent, everyone identifies himself as Christian. The waitress at the posh inn and conference center that Mr. Robertson built on campus writes a greeting across the breakfast check: "Be Blessed!"

A sign over the driver's seat on the student shuttle bus declares, "May His love peace and joy dwell with you now and forevermore."

Regent University, a graduate-level campus with 1,400 students, includes schools in business, communications, divinity and education, as well as law.

It was founded in 1977 as CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) University "to recover the Christian heritage of our nation, to confront the destructive trends of society and to help meet the leadership challenges of the future at home and abroad," the catalog says.

Mr. Robertson -- who graduated from Yale Law School, failed the bar and then chose to enter the ministry -- founded the law school in 1986, after the O. W. Coburn School of Law was closed at Oral Roberts University and its library was delivered as a gift to Regent.

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The average LSAT scores for entering law students at Regent is 153, compared with 156 at the University of Baltimore and 160 at the University of Maryland.

Regent students rank last in passing the Virginia bar -- a fact that Dean Happy and students say is misleading: The students come from around the country and go back to their homes to practice, the dean said. Very few take the Virginia bar, which means the failure of a couple of Regent students causes the pass rate to plummet, he said.

The campus centerpiece is Mr. Robertson's CBN headquarters, from which he broadcasts the "700 Club."

The law center, built with donations from 700 Club members, includes the offices of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm that has been described as the Christian answer to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLJ, also founded by Mr. Robertson, specializes, according to the school catalog, in "pro-liberty, pro-life and pro-family causes." Its lawyers have argued before the Supreme Court on issues ranging from abortion to school prayer.

For many prospective students who spent a recent weekend touring the campus, Regent law school was exactly what they were looking for.

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Tamesia Garner, 40, a Texas insurance clerk, said she was applying to Regent because "God led me to see that this was the plan for my life.

"I see a lot of instances where people of faith are being discriminated against," Ms. Garner said. "I mean, when children are having Bibles taken out of their hands in school hallways, that's fundamentally wrong."

At the assembly for prospective students, Dean Happy assured them they will get a quality education from faculty members who are eager to be "a brother or a sister in Christ."

But he cautioned that even Christian love will not make the program easy.

"Some people," he told the applicants, "have historically believed that if Jesus wants them to be a lawyer, he'll let them pass the bar without studying." He paused and smiled. "And Jesus has told me that's not in the cards."


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