SAN DIEGO — The culture wars that continue to rage in the U.S., fanned by legal battles over the redefinition of marriage or religious symbols and speech in the public square, can make for unpredictable bedfellows.
Take Charles “Chuck” LiMandri, a San Diego trial lawyer whose specialty includes religious-freedom litigation. Once the West Coast counsel for the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center, LiMandri is now the president and chief counsel of his own public interest firm, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.
Over the past decade, he has been involved in a slew of high-profile cases, from Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that had effectively banned same-sex “marriage” in the Golden State, to the Mount Soledad Cross controversy, where litigation has dragged on for years.
“Chuck LiMandri is bringing something new to the religious-liberty fight,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organization for Marriage. Gallagher got to know LiMandri when he became the counsel for the California group that launched a hard-fought 2007 petition campaign to get Proposition 8 on the state ballot.
“Most of our religious-liberty lawyers are appellate lawyers — which means they don't take on the messy, time-consuming work at the trial level,” Gallagher told the Register.
LiMandri, she said, is also “a genius trial lawyer, with knowledge of a broad array of relevant law from employment discrimination to anti-defamation and anti-stalker law we need to protect our rights going forward.”
Arguing for Prop. 8
This summer, LiMandri served as the counsel for San Diego County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg, who provoked a political firestorm after he petitioned to halt orders from state officials who directed county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Dronenburg filed the petition after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26 that the private-citizens group that took up the defense of Proposition 8 lacked “standing.” The landmark marriage case was remanded to the federal court, which ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
Dronenburg questioned whether the first ruling applied only to the two California counties where the plaintiffs resided or to all California counties.
Dronenburg has since withdrawn his petition, as the issue will likely be decided when a related case is resolved.
It wasn’t the first time that LiMandri got involved with a Proposition 8-related legal issue.
During the Proposition 8 campaign, he served as the general counsel for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and also consulted with the Proposition 8 legal team, which represented the initiative’s sponsors.
He worked closely with then-auxiliary Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Diego, who spearheaded the petition drive to get Prop. 8 on the ballot.
The two men first met while both were undergraduates at the University of San Diego. Before they collaborated on the Prop. 8 campaign, the San Diego Church leader had invited LiMandri to the Religious Liberty Committee of the California Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Challenging ‘Marriage Equality’
The legal fights sparked by Proposition 8 underscore the fresh challenges that “marriage equality” poses to religious freedom and conscience rights.
During an interview with the Register, LiMandri said that his legal work was inspired by St. Thomas More, who gave up his life rather than bow to the demands of King Henry VIII.
“St. Thomas More coined the word ‘integrity,’ which means being fully integrated. That is the challenge these days, when the culture tells you to keep your faith confined to the four walls of church on Sundays,” said LiMandri, expressing himself in his usual passionate style of speech.
He recalled that, during one legal case, the counsel for the opposing side sought to challenge his credibility as a litigator by noting LiMandri’s strong religious beliefs.
“Does my legal judgment exist independent of my faith and values? No; don’t kid yourself: Everyone is affected by their values, so why should I be automatically disqualified?”
Gallagher, who now serves as the chairwoman of LiMandri’s public interest firm, described the father of five as “a gentleman, a prayerful man and a fearless white knight.”
But some who oppose his stance on hot-button cases call him “anti-gay” and worse.
Defending ‘Reparative’ At present, LiMandri is defending Jonah International, a Jewish group that offers help for for people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction. Jonah is the target of a lawsuit that accuses the group of violating New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by making promises it can’t deliver on.
The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which contends that “reparative” or “conversion therapy” doesn’t work and, in any case, is designed to “cure” a condition that doesn’t need fixing.
The case represents a growing effort to bar therapeutic solutions for people who wish to change their homosexual orientation.
“When the Southern Poverty Law Center came after a small Jewish group doing same-sex counseling with their $250-million war chest and seven top lawyers, no one but Chuck was willing to take on that goliath task,” said Gallagher.
“We need more heroes, and we need to support heroes like Chuck. That’s why I agreed to serve [as chairwoman of the board].”
Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, described LiMandri as “an outstanding trial lawyer.”
Thompson began working with the California lawyer after LiMandri got involved in the Mount Soledad Cross case in 2004. The cross, which now stands on federal land as part of a memorial honoring U.S. veterans of the Korean War, has been the subject of protracted litigation since 1989.
“The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit against the city to remove the cross, which stands on its base at over 43 feet,” said Thompson.
“The city decided to capitulate. At that time, several citizens in San Diego wanted to protect the cross, and Chuck contacted us.”
LiMandri became the Thomas More Law Center’s West Coast counsel. Meanwhile, the Mount Soledad Cross litigation continued.
In 2011, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross’ location on government property was unconstitutional, and the case is now back in the federal trial court, where litigants have proposed dueling remedies for resolving the dispute.
“This is the longest-running religious-liberty case in the history of the U.S.,” LiMandri told the Register. “I have been active in the case for nine years and have donated more than two million dollars of pro bono attorney time.”
LiMandri has not only argued the case in court; he helped to bring the controversy to the attention of legislators, like U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has sought to get the cross protected through a proposed amendment inserted in the upcoming 2014 Defense Authorization Act.
“This provision creates a foundation in federal law for emblems of belief on war memorials and monuments,” Hunter said in a statement.
Duncan’s proposed amendment is not the first time the Mount Soledad cross has drawn support from Capitol Hill, a pattern that partly reflects LiMandri’s gift as a powerful advocate in a variety of forums.
“He goes above and beyond his duty,” said Thompson.
LiMandri, for his part, offered two explanations for his persistence.
“I draw much clarity, conviction and courage for my work from Eucharistic adoration, which I do with my wife, Barbara, every Monday morning at 5am. I find that is the best possible way to start the week.”
But he also wants to win the case.
The cross, he said, is a “symbol of a culture war launched by secular progressives, who want the cross out of sight and out of mind. I want to preserve this legacy they built for their fallen comrades, and I also don’t want the secularists to win.”
So Chuck LiMandri won’t give up the fight for the Mount Soledad Cross. He predicted that if the dispute cannot be resolved in the trial court, “it will go to the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of 2014, and that should be the last stop.”
“It is the most important case on this issue,” he said. “And it will help decide all the other cases involving [public display of] religious symbols like the Ten Commandments.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.