The Rutherford Institute made its name crusading for religious freedom - helping Orthodox Jews who were prevented from holding services in their homes and Indians prosecuted for using owl feathers in their rituals.
But its latest case has nothing to do with God and, critics say, a lot to do with conservative politics.
The Rutherford Institute is bankrolling Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit against President Clinton.
“Unless Clinton-bashing has become a religion, I don’t know why they are involved in this case,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It is unusual for a group to suddenly take on what looks like a very partisan political issue.”
And that stands out in a case that Clinton’s defense team believes is backed by Clinton’s political enemies - a charge Jones vigorously disputes. Clinton’s chief lawyer, Robert Bennett, has said: “We believe she is being controlled by people who are extreme right-wing political Clinton-haters, and that’s relevant to issues of motive and bias.”
The institute’s founder insists that the Jones case, the institute’s first sexual harassment suit, fits with his organization’s mission of protecting human rights.
“Our involvement in the Paula Jones case stems from the fundamental principle that no person - not even the president of the United States - is above the law,” said John W. Whitehead, the fervent Christian who formed the institute in 1982 to defend believers against government intervention.
The institute is named for Samuel Rutherford, a 17th-century Scottish minister who was charged with treason when he questioned the divine right of kings and argued that all people are subject to a higher law.
The Charlottesville-based institute describes itself as a nonprofit legal and educational organization specializing “in the defense of religious liberty and human rights.”
It has about 200 cases active in the courts, uses about 1,000 volunteer lawyers, has a permanent office staff of about 50 and a budget of about $6 million a year, Whitehead said.
Whitehead said most of its money comes in donations of $20 or less.
The institute uses the Constitution’s free-speech guarantees to defend the rights of believers. It represented a woman who wanted to place Nativity scenes in government buildings, a prison inmate who was prohibited from receiving religious literature and a student who was reprimanded for praying over his lunch.
In recent years, it has broadened the range of cases it takes, representing a boy who wanted to read conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s book in class and a Virginia Reform Party candidate who was excluded from a gubernatorial candidates’ debate.
Freedom of worship and freedom of expression are related, agreed Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Those two are closely intertwined and make sense,” Willis said. He added: “I still don’t understand the decision to become involved in the Paula Jones case.”
Jones claims Clinton, while Arkansas governor, exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room in May 1991. At the time, she worked for an Arkansas state agency.
Clinton denies her allegations. Trial is set for May.
Jones’ first lawyers backed out of the case after a disagreement over a settlement.
When Whitehead heard about that, he approached her representatives and offered the institute’s help, putting her in touch with Donovan Campbell, a member of the institute’s board who works for the Dallas law firm of Rader, Campbell, Fisher & Pyke.
“It’s a basic human rights issue,” said Whitehead. “The right to be free from sexual harassment.”
Whitehead estimates that the legal battle against Clinton will cost his group $200,000, and the institute has sent out fund-raising letters with an appeal from Jones.
“I know many of you who are familiar with the work of The Rutherford Institute are wondering why this group is coming to my aid,” writes Jones. “It’s because I’m speaking the truth and need help … so please, in the name of freedom, send in whatever gift you can today to The Rutherford Institute to help them with my case.”
Donations haven’t been pouring in, Whitehead said.
“There’s a sexual angle to the case that bothers some people,” he said. “I thought I would have people patting me on the back … but I haven’t heard a thing from anybody.”
Whitehead stresses that he has no personal beef with the president.
“I’m not out to get Bill Clinton,” he said. “The fact that he’s in this mess isn’t good for the country, but he started it. We didn’t start it.”
Whitehead said that if not for Clinton’s strong support of abortion rights, he would have considered voting for him. “I think he’s been a decent president,” he said.
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