Last week, when the news broke that Pope Francis had met with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the national controversy over her case was re-ignited.
Her attorney, Mat Staver, and his legal organization Liberty Counsel, sent out a press release about the visit last Tuesday, September 29, after the Pope left the US. Staver reported that the meeting was a private one between the pontiff and Kim Davis and her husband Joe, and that the Pope had clasped Davis’ hands, thanked her for her courage, and exhorted that she “stay strong.”
Amid the ensuing furor over the Pope’s apparent backing of Davis’ controversial stand, the Vatican issued a statement asserting that Pope Francis did not know the details of her case, and that the meeting "should not be considered a form of support of her position.”
Staver, meanwhile, has talked about how the meeting with the Pope validates his arguments about the importance of conscientious objection. He has helped keep Davis in the spotlight, while also bringing national attention to the Liberty Counsel and himself.
Attorney Mathew Staver is an evangelical activist, representing the conservative side across the US in debates over abortion, gay marriage and religion's place in the public sphere. His Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which he and his wife Anita (also an attorney) founded in 1989, bills itself as a nonprofit committed to "restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family.”
Mat Staver is also a former Seventh-day Adventist, who graduated from Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University) majoring in theology and minoring in history and Biblical languages. He earned a masters in religion from Andrews University, and then pastored in Kentucky.
While declining to do an interview with Spectrum (probably due to the intense level of media enquiries he is already getting), Staver, now 59, did confirm basic facts about his Adventist background for us.
Staver became an Adventist in 1975, after hearing an Adventist evangelist speak. (His mother was a Catholic.) He was a member of the church until 1984. He did not tell us why he left, but other news reports have quoted him citing theological differences.
He went to law school at the University of Kentucky after watching a film about abortion, with the aim of getting involved on the legal battleground for conservative social issues, and graduated in 1987.
In his commercial practice after becoming a lawyer, Staver represented Adventist entities Florida Hospital and the Sunbelt Health System, he told Spectrum. “I have a great respect for the Adventist church,” he said.
Nevertheless, after nearly a decade in the church, Staver became a self-defined Evangelical, and started Liberty Counsel. The organization has grown steadily in terms of staff and profile. Liberty Counsel employs 10 attorneys who last year worked on 142 active cases, pro bono. The group is funded by donations, which totaled more than $4 million last year.
Liberty Counsel has been at the forefront of many social legal cases involving “traditional family values,” coming down on the side of the far religious right. The nonprofit has fought for the right to discriminate in employment based on sexual orientation, contested a library program that awarded to “witchcraft” certificates to Harry Potter fans, sued the Massachusetts judiciary in a failed attempt to block the nation's first same-sex marriages in 2004 and successfully argued in the US Supreme Court that anti-abortion activists should be allowed to protest outside clinics. Liberty Counsel also has a program that plans trips to Israel and strengthens ties between Americans and Israel.
Were Staver’s ultra-conservative politics honed during his time at Southern and Andrews? It’s hard to say. But his arguments for freedom of religion and speech, advocating for rights like prayer in schools, differ from the traditional political-issue distance that the Adventist church maintains, and its strong focus on the separation of church and state.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and keynote speaker at Spectrum’s 2008 conference), has said there is “an enormous amount of bluster” in Staver’s legal arguments.
Along with many civil liberties advocates — some of whom have labeled the Liberty Counsel a “hate group” because of its stance against gay rights — Lynn strongly disagrees with the actions of Kim Davis, and Mat Staver’s stance in defending her. "When you make heroes out of people who refuse to accept the rule of law and who fail to acknowledge the dignity of other human beings,” he told the Associated Press, “you are on a very dangerous path."
Photo: Orlando Sentinel
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