Begun in 1997 by Texas attorney Kelly Shackleford, Liberty Legal Institute (LLI) is the legal arm of the Free Market Foundation and has been described as the “flip side to the ACLU.” A 501(c)(3) corporation based in Plano, Texas, it provides free legal services and support to those dealing with religious liberty issues. Supported by donations and through awards of attorney’s fees from cases, LLI claims a network of over 120 attorneys across Texas. LLI’s mission statement declares that its goals are “[t]o achieve expanded religious freedom and family autonomy through litigation and education designed to limit the government’s power, increase the religious rights of citizens and promote parental rights.”

LLI’s parent company, the Free Market Foundation, was founded in 1972 with the mission “[t]o protect freedoms and strengthen families throughout Texas by impacting our legislature, media,grassroots, and courts with the truth. To do this we are guided by the principles, which limit government, promote free enterprise and Judeo-Christian values.” Associated in 1989 with Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Free Market Foundation serves as Focus on the Family’s public policy base in Texas. In 1997 Shackelford, a graduate of Baylor Law School, became president of the Free Market Foundation and set up LLI after his tenure as an attorney for the Rutherford Institute.

LLI’s cases have included Barrow v. Greenville Independent School District (5th Cir. 2003) and HEB Ministries v. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (Tex. App. 2003), which was brought before the Supreme Court of Texas in January 2005.

In Barrow, a teacher was denied a promotion to principal because her children attended a private religious school. It was alleged that the district superintendent, citing district policy that all principals and administrators enroll their children in public school, told Ms. Barrow she would not be promoted until she complied. LLI intervened and after a trial court found for the district, Shackleford appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.The appeals court found for Ms. Barrow and awarded LLI attorney fees.

In HEB Ministries v. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, LLI took up the cause of religious schools that were fined by the state for calling themselves “seminaries” without first meeting certain state requirements and won the case before the Texas Supreme Court (2005). LLI purports to have either won or settled every case it has accepted.

While supporters applaud LLI’s willingness to support certain issues, others argue that LLI promotes a dogmatic, right-wing agenda that is hurting schools and communities. Shackelford’s response to those who claim he is hurting public schools with LLI’s lawsuits and associated legal fees is that this is merely the cost of government not doing the right thing in the first place.

While LLI focuses primarily on litigation, it also provides educational resources. Its guides cover such controversial topics as politics in the pulpit, religious speech in the workplace, and religious expression in public places. LLI also produces a Texas voter’s guide for Focus on the Family.

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