In 2005, Texans voted to pass Proposition 2, banning the state from performing or recognizing same-sex marriages. One of the amendment’s authors, Kelly Shackelford, a devout Christian and president of the Free Market Foundation (FMF), was confident that the amendment would hold, going so far as to state that it “was written with lock-tight language to avoid any sort of lawsuit having any real chance of success.” Two years later, Shackelford, this time on behalf of the Liberty Legal Institute (LLI), filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case involving a young man who was disciplined by his school for holding a banner that read “Bong hits 4 Jesus” at an event.
Those two cases might seem diametrically opposed. But Shackelford, who acts as chief counsel of LLI, a group dedicated to protecting freedom of religion and religious speech, is also at the helm of FMF, a conservative Christian group dedicated to fervently pursuing “principles which limit government, promote free enterprise and Judeo-Christian values.” And, Shackelford says, when he represents someone of a different religion as part of an LLI case, he is practicing one of the most basic principles of his faith.
“If you believe in the standard, you should be willing to protect it for everyone,” Shackelford says. “People who stand for only what they believe are not confident in what they believe. They are not confident in their decisions.”
That’s one thing most people agree on who know him: that Shackelford has always been confident in his beliefs and decisions—and his desire to “protect the standard.” While growing up outside of Nashville, he struggled choosing between a future in the ministry and the law. He chose the law but remained active in the church. After graduating first in his class from Baylor Law School he began a clerkship, but became restless.
“I was sitting in my office thinking of a way to combine my faith and my passion in law,” he says. “Then I laughed, because such a job didn’t exist.” But, as Shackelford might say, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Two weeks later, he was offered a job with the Rutherford Institute, a Christian-oriented legal group dedicated to protecting religious and human rights. That was in 1989. In 1997, he left to start LLI, which is also dedicated to protecting religious freedoms, as well as First Amendment rights, by providing free legal service to religious people whose rights have been abused. But where the Rutherford Institute encourages Christians to get involved in the court system, the LLI offers help to people of all religions. Though Shackelford believed in the mission of the LLI, he worried that cases would be slow in coming to the group.
“I thought we would open, let people know about us, and maybe we would have a case by the end of the year,” he says. He needn’t have worried. Even before the LLI’s phone number was listed in the new phone book, the group was inundated with requests. “We had 25 cases right away,” he says. “It just seemed to grow and grow from there.”
Upon further reflection, this doesn’t surprise him. After all, he says, when the government takes on a religious freedoms issue, the people at the heart of the matter are rarely in a position to fight back.
“If a person is not allowed to pray over their meal in the cafeteria, do they really have $100,000 to fight?” Shackelford says. “Most people who have the government come down on them don’t have any money. If they don’t know there is someone to fight for them, then freedom is lost and eroded for everybody.”
The people helped by the LLI come from myriad situations and religious backgrounds: from residents of a senior center in Balch Springs who were denied the right to sing gospel songs or discuss the Bible, to a small church that was not allowed to use small amounts of a hallucinogen during its religious ceremonies. No matter the issue or the religion, Shackelford says the LLI is on the side of religious expression.
“We have represented Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Indians, Catholics,” he says. “We represent every faith because we are here to protect freedom of religion and free speech.”
His position as president of the Free Market Foundation, however, is entirely different. While he fights for the Bill of Rights at LLI, at Free Market he fights for religious and political causes more closely allied to his own personal beliefs. There he uses the media and legislature to push the positions close to him and the organization—protecting the family unit through acts such as Proposition 2, opposing abortion rights and controlling the scope of government. It may seem that it would be difficult to protect the interest of Christians one minute and Muslims the next, but Shackelford’s colleague, Jim Ho of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, says he is more than capable.
“It’s rare to find someone who is very effective as a political activist and at the same time a brilliant lawyer,” says Ho, who has worked with Shackelford on behalf of the LLI. Shackelford’s convictions don’t get in the way of the people he represents, Ho says. “He is like all good lawyers,” Ho says. “He is out to get the best result for his client.”
Even if it means defending a student’s right to hold a sign suggesting that Jesus should inhale.
“For freedom of religion there isn’t much protected past what is free speech,” Shackelford says. “We may not agree with what they are saying, but we will help them anyway.”
For Shackelford, the fiscal payoffs of his efforts have been modest. But he says that what he lacks in a big bottom line, he gains in unique, exciting experiences. He has had the chance to argue in front of the state and U.S. Supreme Court. His influence is widespread: his quotes and opinions appear on NBC’s Today Show, on CNN, in The New York Times and in The Wall Street Journal. He has been instrumental in creating new law and passing acts such as the Texas Religious Freedoms Restoration Act. On a daily basis, he gets to defend a constitutional right that allows him to live his life how he chooses.
“The government will always go after the weak first,” Shackelford says. “If religious freedoms are going to be lost, and you refuse to stand, you are eventually going to see yours taken away.”