NEW YORK—The day before he was to leave for Portland, Ore., to argue a major pro-life case, New Jersey attorney Christopher Ferrara spent hours with a legal assistant making hundreds of copies at a local shop. He knew that his legal adversaries from a major firm were working with dozens of secretaries and researchers to prepare for the case which opened in federal district court Nov. 3, so he tried to tip the scales in his favor by praying the Rosary silently to himself and invoking the intercession of St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers.
As president of American Catholic Lawyers Association (ACLA), a small group that does all its work pro bono and relies solely on donations and an occasional grant, Ferrara is not slow to compare his position to that of David facing Goliath. But the stakes for the cases he handles are too high for the individuals involved and for the free practice of religion, for him to flinch as he goes into the legal arena.
“We have seen time and time again that if a Catholic is going to practice his faith in any serious and effective way, or do his utmost to defend unborn babies, he will come under fire from the strong interest groups in our society that want to keep Catholics out of public influence and keep abortion on demand legal,” Ferrara said in a recent Register interview. “If he does any damage to the culture of death, it will come down upon him like a ton of bricks.”
In Oregon, he is defending pro-life activists who are being sued under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by the local Planned Parenthood affiliate and a host of others from the abortion lobby. The defendants, Don Treshman, who works for Human Life International in Front Royal, Va., and Monica Miller, are charged with pro-life conspiracy for, among other allegations, making two signs and a bumper sticker that are considered threatening to abortion doctors. The signs list the names and addresses of a number of doctors who perform abortions, charge them with “crimes against humanity” and ask for any information that might lead to their arrest and prosecution in an anticipated Nuremburg-style trial.
Plaintiffs claim that the defendants are stirring up violence against abortion-ists and are asking for punitive damages for revenue lost and extra security costs. Planned Parenthood, following the judge's directive refused comment on the case.
Ferrara argues that his clients have not been involved in violence themselves, and that the information they give about abortionists is an exercise in free speech which they believe to be their obligation as Catholics to make public.
He says that the suit is an attempt to classify all pro-life speech as threatening and to implicate all pro-life advocates in the violence that has taken place against abortion doctors. If Treshman and Miller lose the case, Ferrara stated, anyone making a public pro- life statement could be implicated in a conspiracy. In a fund-raising letter, he writes: “Pope John Paul II himself has condemned abortion as ‘an abominable crime’which Catholics must resist. Is the Pope a racketeer?”
The Portland case is similar to the one that Chicago pro-lifer Joe Scheidler lost last spring after a long jury trial. The head of the Pro-Life Action League, and one of the most popular activists in the movement, Scheidler was found guilty under RICO of running a nationwide ring of pro-life advocates and was hit with more than $60,000 in damages from three abortion clinics. The plaintiffs did not prove any physical violence on Scheidler's part. Rather, he was found guilty of extortion against clinics by leading Operation Rescue actions blocking entrances and harassing women by trying to talk them out of getting an abortion.
The decision drew fire from First Amendment defenders, some of whom favor abortion rights.
Ferrara, who has been on the case since the suit was brought in October 1995, hopes that the Chicago decision will not cast a shadow upon his arguments in Portland.
“We simply cannot afford to lose this case,” he said. The shooting death of the Buffalo abortion doctor, Barnett Slepian, may also cast a shadow on the proceedings, said Christopher Slattery, director of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life in New York City. Lawyers for his organization are representing the non-Catholic defendants in the case.
“It's a bad time for the trial of this case because the Buffalo shooting can be used to inflame the jury,” said Slattery. “Despite the obvious free-speech rights of pro-lifers, we'll have to work hard in the case to make our point in this case.” The case is set to go to trial December 7.
Ferrara's organization is also representing a group of Catholic parents who brought suit against an upstate New York public school board. Parents claim that their children were required to take part in school-sanctioned pagan rituals, occult practices, and Eastern spirituality methods, in violation of their religious beliefs. The suit charges that students were instructed during classroom time to make images of the Hindu god “Lord Ganesha” and the Aztec serpent-god Quetzalcoatl. They also were asked to lie down on top of graves during a class “cemetery walk” to compare their sizes to those of the deceased, and were lectured on the powers of crystals and told to put such objects on their bodies, the parents charge.
The case is scheduled for summary judgment soon in federal district court in White Plains.
Other cases involve a Catholic worker at a Wisconsin public health clinic who was fired for refusing to distribute contraceptives, a Catholic priest who was discharged as a military chaplain for preaching against abortion, and Catholics suing for the right to erect a Nativity scene on pubic property in a New Jersey town that allows a menorah.
Ferrara, 41, founded his Catholic Lawyers association in 1990 after a challenge from a friend. “He said to me that what we need is a law firm and advocacy group to defend the rights of Catholics, because he saw we were beginning to get beat up in the public arena and in the court,” recalled Ferrara. “We started out with a vestigial organization, writing letters, drumming up publicity, just trying to get ourselves known. Eventually, the cases started to come in, one by one. Now, we really have to pick which ones we can devote the time and resources to.”
He acknowledged the work done by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in terms of bringing public pressure against anti-Catholic artistic or media displays, but more is needed on the strictly legal end of the issues, he said.
The well-funded and effective American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia, and the many regional legal centers that defend pro-lifers are Christian in focus but not specifically Catholic.
“There is a great shortage of exclusively Catholic law centers who are out to defend fellow Catholics in an often hostile legal world,” said Ferrara. “A lot of what we do is preventative in nature. There are times when a case will be dropped or settled when people see that our clients have lawyers that will aggressively defend their civil rights.”
He completed his undergraduate work at Fordham University in the Bronx and got his law degree in 1987 from the university's Law School in Manhattan. He practiced law in the secular field for a number of years and kept up his regular practice for a few years after founding ACLA. Now Ferrara is the organization's one full-time lawyer, with an office in Fairfield, New Jersey. He has one full-time legal assistant and a few part-time employees, and relies on other Catholic lawyers to handle cases which he takes in different parts of the country.
He and his wife have five children and consider themselves “ultra-tradition-alists.” They attend Latin Mass in Pequannock, New Jersey, at a church staffed by Fraternity of St. Peter priests who have permission to celebrate all the sacraments according to the 1962 rituals.
He is also an ardent promoter of the message of Fatima and has written extensively on the miracles there and the Blessed Mother's messages.
His religious convictions and professional direction have merged nicely, he said.
“There is nothing better than to litigate for principle instead of money,” Ferrara told the Register. “The amount of work involved in these cases and the size of the legal teams I have to face most times would be intolerable if I were doing this just for money.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.