Right Hand of God

Two Texas leaders of the extreme Religious Right get ready to flex their political muscle

Bullock died in 1999.

Ford met Kelly Shackelford in the late 1980s during one of several attempts by gay-rights groups to overturn Texas' anti-sodomy laws. They were introduced by a colleague and friend who believed, as Shackelford and Ford do, that homosexuality is a crime. Shackelford wound up filing a brief supporting the statute, which eventually would be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a friendship was formed.

At the time, Shackelford was in his late 20s but already a rising star among the legal right: In 1988 the Nashville native graduated from Baylor Law School with the highest GPA in his class, clerked that year for U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater, then worked as a regional coordinator for the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, once described by The New York Times as "a kind of evangelical Christian civil liberties union." Shackelford could have had his pick of high-paying jobs in the business world, yet he chose instead to work for Rutherford.

Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Mark Graham
Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir

"I went to law school because I felt like I had gifts, but I wanted to use them somehow in ministry," he says now, sitting in the modest Plano offices that house both Free Market Foundation and Liberty Legal Institute. "So, I literally remember sitting in my office thinking, I don't want to work for the big law firm and make a lot of money, so what do I want to do? I'm clearly supposed to use my legal skills and gifts, because the Lord showed me in law school that those were gifts and I need to not hide them somewhere; I need to use them. But I want to use them somehow in ministry. I want to be able to help churches and pastors. That was my real heart. I laughed, because there was no such job that existed anywhere in the country. Then about a month later, I was offered that very job."

Rutherford was founded in 1982 by attorney John Whitehead, who believed that the judicial system had but one true judge--God himself. Whitehead is among the most vocal abortion opponents around, calling for nonstop picketing of abortion clinics and the "harassment" of doctors who perform the procedures. The year he formed Rutherford he also published The Second American Revolution, considered one of the key events in the foundation of the New Christian Right. "Getting involved in local politics will eventually mean Christians running for office," he said at the time. "This will include attending and eventually taking control of party conventions where grassroots decisions are made." Whitehead was, clearly, a man ahead of his time.

And Shackelford was thrilled to be involved with his institution. Shackelford's task was to recruit other attorneys across the country who would aid in cases involving "religious freedom and family," as he describes it--meaning cases involving the display of religious artifacts and literature on government property, defending teachers or children who want to pray in public schools and, in one instance, defending a man who distributed anti-abortion literature.

They're all cases, Shackelford insists, in which "the government is trying to tell someone what they could or could not do regarding their faith, or trying to tell a parent how to raise their child or what school to put their child in or anything where the government was interfering with the God-given rights of parents over their children or God-given rights of any citizen to worship God in any way they see fit."

In 1997 Ford decided it was time to finally "battle politically 'behind the scenes,'" as he wrote in Free Market Foundation's "scrapbook," published two years later. He was gathering his powerful donors, among them James Lightner of Dallas, a generous financial supporter of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke; Wal-Mart heir John Walton; oilman Albert Huddleston, also a contributor to Beth Ann Blackwood's strong-mayor campaign; chicken man Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim; Nelson Bunker Hunt; toxic-dump impresario and strong-mayor supporter Harold Simmons; Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller and others who were anything but conservative when it came to spending on Free Enterprise PAC in the late 1990s through the 2002 elections. In fact, by 2000 FreePAC was the state's 20th-largest political action committee, spending some $550,000 during the election cycle--an amount it would double in 2002.

When Ford decided to turn his attention to Austin, he and the board went looking for a leader who would keep working to protect "freedoms and families," as Shackelford puts it. Ford remembered Shackelford and put him in charge of Free Market Foundation--and it was, to put it mildly, quite the blessing for the organization. Shackelford not only founded Liberty Legal Institute but became a decidedly public spokesman for a previously private endeavor, appearing not only on Christian TV shows but also ABC News, MSNBC and other mainstream programs.

And Shackelford got involved in several high-profile cases: Doe v. Santa Fe ISD, in which a federal court ruled that students couldn't pray before high school football games; Planned Parenthood v. Texas Department of Health, siding with the Texas Legislature's creation of a law requiring parental consent before state funds could be used to buy prescription drugs for minors, including contraceptives; and Planned Parenthood v. Eduardo J. Sanchez, in which Liberty Legal filed an amicus brief in support of the Texas law that prohibits federal and state funds to be used for abortions.

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