In 2016, the California State Capitol in Sacramento hosted a traditional Nativity scene on its grounds for the first time since 1974. The crèche was a gift from the American Nativity Scene project, which seeks to place such crèches in state capitals and other public venues across the nation to promote the traditional message of Christmas, according to founder Jim Finnegan. The Nativity scene was removed from California’s capitol in 1974 after Jewish groups argued it was a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
Crèches now can be found in 17 state capitals, Finnegan said, including the Massachusetts State House, which also saw the return of one in 2016 after a lengthy absence. Playing a key role in the re-emergence of the Christian faith in the public square, Finnegan said, was the legal acumen of Catholic attorney Tom Brejcha and his Thomas More Society of Chicago, a not-for-profit, national public-interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty. Brejcha assisted with a successful lawsuit in the 1980s to keep a similar Christmas crèche in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, a precedent-setting victory.
Finnegan, who would like to see a Nativity scene in every state capital in the country, said, “Public officials are often resistant to allow public expressions of faith on public venues, but after they get a letter from the Thomas More Society assuring them that it is within believers’ First Amendment rights to put up such displays, they relent.”
| The crèche found in the Massachusetts State House returned in 2016 after a lengthy absence.
“The First Amendment protects religious speech as well as political speech,” Brejcha said. “If you can get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or point of view in a public forum, you can get on a soapbox and proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ Child.”
The Thomas More Society got its start in 1997, when Brejcha left his law firm to continue his work on NOW v. Scheidler (the National Organization for Women vs. Chicago pro-life leader Joseph Scheidler), a case that he described as a “transparent attempt to gag pro-life activism at abortion clinics nationally through the blatant misuse of federal antitrust and racketeering statutes.”
It would take 28 years and three visits to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Brejcha prevailed. Scheidler recalled, “I was not impressed with Tom at first. I thought I needed someone more aggressive and flamboyant. But, he proved he was brilliant, good on his feet in front of judges and could win cases.”
Today, the Thomas More Society employs five staff attorneys who regularly consult with many others. They are at work on about 60 cases in the areas of “pro-life activism, rights of conscience, religious liberty and family values,” and assist individuals with the administrative assistance they need in establishing organizations to work in each of these areas. The society offers its services pro bono, and hence is dependent on public donations to continue its work. St. Thomas More was chosen as its namesake because he is the patron saint of lawyers and politicians, and “he gives us an example to live up to every day.”
Among their most high-profile clients are David Daleiden and his Center for Medical Progress, whose undercover investigations of abortion provider Planned Parenthood led to allegations that it was selling aborted baby body parts for profit and endangered its public funding. Daleiden has been charged with multiple crimes for his undercover work, including 15 felony counts in California. Brejcha believes the charges are a ridiculous overreach by California prosecutors, which “even the Los Angeles Times, which is no friend to the pro-life cause, has criticized.”
“David’s work has been pivotal in sparking two congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood, and referrals for criminal prosecutions by the Justice Department ... they are still reeling from the impact of his work, and are very bitterly resentful,” Brejcha said. David has been the victim of a vicious and unprecedented counterattack. Such undercover video exposes are done routinely and are a staple of contemporary American journalism. David is being singled out for prosecution.”
The society has a long list of other pro-life clients, including 40 Days for Life, Lila Rose and Live Action, Students for Life and Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League. While the society always is ready to file a lawsuit when a dispute arises, often, as in the case of the Nativity scenes, all that is needed is a simple letter to be sent. Such has also been the case with Students for Life, which assists students in setting up pro-life clubs at their schools.
A freshman at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Washington, for example, formed a pro-life club in conjunction with Students for Life at the school. The school refused him permission, however, to put up pro-life posters or host events. The society sent a demand letter to the school, resulting in a reversal of the policy.
“The law is on the side of these kids,” Brejcha said, “so we want to make sure their First Amendment rights are protected.”
The Thomas More Society has weighed in on behalf of many Catholic clients, including the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo when they saw a $3-million strip club open on the other side of their backyard fence from their Stone Park, Illinois, headquarters. Brejcha learned of the club and called the sisters to offer to help their attorney. “They told me they couldn’t afford an attorney,” Brejcha said.
The Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit on their behalf, complaining that the club operated in violation of zoning laws and led to secondary effects harmful to the area, such as prostitution. In 2016, after a three-year battle, the society was successful in having Club Allure’s liquor license revoked, and the club has closed.
Brejcha said that the society’s work was “as necessary and vital now as ever” and hopes similar such organizations will pop up in cities across the country so that people of faith, family and pro-life beliefs can hold their own in the culture war.
“For years, our side was losing by default, even though the law is on our side,” Brejcha said. “We have the right to speak our views in public, just as the other side can express its views.”
He’s concerned by reports that on college campuses and elsewhere efforts are being made to stifle free speech, declaring, “the other side is turning to coercive tactics when they can’t get their way. They resort to intimidation, vandalism and even assault and battery.”
Brejcha welcomed ongoing donations to the nonprofit society, assuring supporters, “We’re getting better and better at winning cases, and getting our results more quickly.”
Jim Graves writes from California.