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In Paula We Trust

With Jones v. Clinton, a Christian-right legal group makes its case

By Jay Branegan/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, November 24) -- Back when John Whitehead was a left-leaning student at the University of Arkansas and a writer for the local underground paper, he interviewed a young law professor named Bill Clinton who was planning to run for Congress. The idealistic Whitehead thought that Clinton could be another "people's candidate," like George McGovern, but he fretted to his interview subject that politicians often become "corrupt and phony." Don't worry, Clinton told Whitehead, "I won't let that happen to me."

Twenty-three years later, Whitehead, now a born-again Christian, has some follow-up questions for Clinton. They have to do with Paula Jones. The Rutherford Institute, a legal-advocacy group he founded to fight discrimination against religious believers, has taken up Jones and her claim that Clinton made a crude sexual advance toward her six years ago, when he was Arkansas Governor. When Jones' team of lawyers recently quit after she rejected a settlement offered by the President's attorneys, it was Whitehead's group that hooked Jones up with her present attorney. And thanks mainly to Rutherford's generous funding--Whitehead estimates its share of her court costs could add up to $200,000--Jones has been able to force the President, who denies the incident happened, to defend himself in a trial to begin in May.

Clinton's embarrassment is a spectacle many conservative groups are relishing. But it's not exactly a fight between church and state, which is what the Rutherford Institute more typically pursues. Since Whitehead founded it 15 years ago with $200 and his family's Christmas-card list, the nonprofit foundation in Charlottesville, Va., has generally stayed focused on what he says is "my calling from God"--to defend religious liberty against what he sees as government encroachment. In interviews and publications, the institute describes Christians as a besieged population assaulted by a coarse, secular culture and the government that fosters it. Dramatizations in the group's Religious Apartheid video show bureaucrats dismantling a family and soldiers brainwashing a hapless father with four sinister buzz words of the secular world: "love, tolerance, diversity and choice."

The institute pioneered the tactic of using constitutional free-speech guarantees as a legal weapon for people claiming they were denied the right to religious expression--a frequently successful court strategy now imitated by other religious-rights advocacy groups. Rutherford's clients have included schoolchildren who wanted to pray over their lunches, a girl who wanted to read her Bible on the school bus and a Hindu who refused jury duty on religious grounds. The group also briefly considered defending Paul Hill, who was convicted of the 1994 murder of a doctor and another man at a Florida abortion clinic, but refused to argue, as Hill wanted, that the killing was justifiable homicide. "Violence never justifies violence."

Given that focus on religious expression, many on the Christian right were surprised to see Whitehead leap into the Jones-Clinton fray. The lawyer Whitehead got for Jones is Donovan Campbell, a Dallas attorney who has argued other cases for the institute and was a leader in a successful fight 12 years ago to reinstate the Texas law making sodomy a crime. In the Jones case, Campbell is pursuing a distinctly secular legal strategy. He says he plans to make Clinton's relations with women a key issue. He started raking those coals last week, taking the deposition of Gennifer Flowers, who claimed in 1992 to have had a 12-year affair with Clinton.

Whitehead has a reputation for following his own path. By the standards of the religious right, he qualifies as a bit of a cultural maverick. (His taste in music runs to the only-sometimes-spiritual U2 and the intricately ironic Beck. His favorite artist is the mordant British painter Francis Bacon.) Although the institute has never taken up a sexual-harassment case before, he says he accepted this one because it was a "human-rights issue." And because "I think she's telling the truth."

Whitehead insists he has no personal or political animus against Clinton. "I don't know enough about him to dislike him. I really don't disagree a lot with Clinton," he says. If it weren't for his opposition to Clinton's position on abortion, Whitehead insists, "I could vote for the man very easily." He denies speculation that he pursued the high-profile Jones case in the hope that it would boost donations to the institute, which Whitehead admits are "down some." (That may explain why he has closed his last two regional offices in the past year.) He says some of his traditional donors are "horrified" that he's involved in such a seamy public episode. All the same, after taking up the case, he rushed out a fund-raising letter. So far, says Whitehead, donations to Jones' cause have been paltry.

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