Saint-Inspired Lawyering: Thomas More Society
St. Thomas More (1478-1535), a lawyer who once served as chancellor of England for King Henry VIII, is famously known for giving up his life for refusing to acknowledge that the king was head of the Church in England and could annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Before his martyrdom by beheading, he declared that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” His feast day is celebrated June 22.
Inspired by More’s example, Thomas Brejcha founded the Thomas More Society (ThomasMoreSociety.org) in 1997, a “not-for-profit, national public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.”
The firm is based in Chicago and employs five attorneys, who take on such cases as the defense of free-speech rights of pro-life activists and the right of people of faith to express their beliefs in the public square, such as through Nativity scenes on public property.
As Brejcha told the Register, “We deal with issues that people argue about at the dinner table. These battles have to be fought; otherwise, we’ll lose by default.”
Their most high-profile current case is the defense of pro-life activist David Daleiden, who filmed a series of undercover videos with Planned Parenthood officials, which he believes demonstrate that the organization profits from the sale of aborted baby parts. Daleiden is being sued criminally and civilly in multiple states, with a potential for more charges and lawsuits to be filed.
In California, for example, Daleiden is currently being charged with mail and wire fraud.
Brejcha said, “We’ve had a rough go of it in front of an unfriendly court in San Francisco. I think we’ll blow their case out of the water, however.”
The society’s lawyers have faced similar difficulties in Texas, where Daleiden could potentially face imprisonment of 20 years. One charge against Daleiden is that he violated state statutes by attempting to purchase baby body parts. As Brejcha noted, “But was that what he was trying to do? No, just the opposite. I think we have a good chance of prevailing.” (See post-press time update here.)
The Thomas More Society’s first case involved the defense of another prominent pro-life activist, Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, which promotes peaceful, on-the-street activism — such as sidewalk counseling — to end abortion.
Scheidler wrote Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion with the expressed intention of shutting down the abortion industry. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Scheidler was sued under anti-trust law, Brejcha said, “under the theory that he was having an adverse impact on state commerce, an unreasonable restraint of trade. Our response was that he was doing it for political and moral reasons, not for economic advantage.”
Brejcha thought the case would be quickly thrown out, but it took nearly five years before a dismissal came. In the meantime, under pressure by the senior partners of his corporate law firm, Brejcha left and founded the Thomas More Society.
Scheidler would next be charged with racketeering and extortion, the same laws used to take on organized crime. The high-profile case took years to settle and involved the calling of high-profile witnesses, such as Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano (the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade and the “Doe” in Doe v. Bolton cases, used to strike down the nation’s abortion laws; both women later became pro-life). After three visits to the U.S. Supreme Court, Scheidler prevailed and was awarded a modest legal-cost settlement of $63,000.
Due to the notoriety the society received, its size and caseload grew.
Funding is always a challenge, however, as the society operates as a 501c3, depending on donations for its work. Services are offered free of charge.
Eric Scheidler, Joe’s son and executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, is a client. In a recent case, Scheidler was protesting a Planned Parenthood gala at Navy Pier, a popular tourist site in downtown Chicago. He was arrested for criminal trespass, Scheidler said, “for doing nothing more than walking on Navy Pier.”
After intervention by the society, the charges were dropped, and the society is now countersuing for damages.
Scheidler said, “Our work would be really difficult without the assistance of the society. We refer to them frequently when we have a problem with law enforcement in our public protests. The police don’t always fully understand the First Amendment, and sometimes just a phone call or letter from the society allows our work to continue.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, is another client. The society has helped to ensure that students can form pro-life groups on school campuses. As she said, “We’re extremely fortunate to have their help.”
Other prominent cases in which the society is involved is the defense of Missouri State University student Andrew Cash, who was dismissed from a master’s degree program in counseling after objecting to counseling same-sex couples on relationship issues due to his religious views.
Jocelyn Floyd, a Thomas More attorney, termed the decision “frightening,” because “having a religious belief can be deemed illegal. Your belief will cause you to do actions that are discriminatory … but what is a belief if you don’t act on it?”
Floyd is currently assisting with a lawsuit involving Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, against the U.S. Department of Education, which has ordered that a male student who identifies as a girl be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom and locker-room facilities. “It’s going to be a long fight,” Floyd said.
But whatever the battle, when it comes to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty, the society can be relied upon to follow the example of St. Thomas More and mount a vigorous defense in the nation’s courtrooms.
Their work is an invaluable aid to those on the front lines of the culture wars, such as Scheidler. He concluded, “It gives me a great deal of peace to know when I’m out there exercising my First Amendment rights on behalf of the unborn that the society will be there to help if I need them.”
Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.
Thomas More Society photo