Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, a fellow at Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is acting as special counsel to the far-right Thomas More Law Center as she represents Southern California megachurch pastor John MacArthur in his legal battle against public health restrictions on indoor worship. TMLC is one of several right-wing Catholic institutions founded and funded by the Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan.
Multiple conservative churches and religious-right legal groups are challenging pandemic-related public health measures. In a flurry of legal wrangling over the weekend, Los Angeles County officials sought a restraining order against MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, which is continuing to meet indoors on Sunday morning in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. Ellis cheered when a judge backed the church, winning an agreement from MacArthur that the congregation would use masks and social distancing until a Sept. 6 hearing. But county officials appealed, and a higher court overruled the judge, leaving the church subject to the ban. MacArthur went back into defiance mode, and said from the pulpit Sunday that “the good news is that you’re here, and you’re not wearing masks.” Ellis recently retweeted Falkirk co-founder Charlie Kirk’s admonition: “If your church is still closed and refusing to open you need to find a new church.”
Ellis appeared last week on fellow Falkirk fellow Eric Metaxas’s radio show, where she claimed that churches like MacArthur’s were “not defying any law” but simply “standing with the Constitution.” Metaxas said that Christians who are willing to tolerate restrictions on churches “might as well just move to China.” Ellis said that throughout history, “churches have been persecuted by tyrants not unlike [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom.”
As special counsel at Thomas More Law Center, Ellis has aligned herself with a group that portrays itself as a defender of religious liberty for Christians and has taken aggressively anti-Islam, anti-LGBTQ-equality and anti-choice positions. During the Obama administration, TMLC President Richard Thompson warned that the media and cultural elites were waging a “war against Christianity.”
In a May radio show, Thompson talked about his group’s legal battle with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who he described as “a lesbian married to a lesbian” who has “weaponized” the attorney general’s office and “focused on attacking Christians” for “their belief in traditional marriage.”
For her part, Ellis seems to take particular pleasure in demeaning transgender people. Earlier this month, she posted a link to a months-old story featuring Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, with the comment, “This guy is making decisions about your health.” And on Tuesday, the first night of the Democratic party’s online convention, she tweeted a hashtag used by right-wing conspiracy theorists who claim that Michelle Obama is really a man.
TMLC fought to overturn the law that allowed openly gay and lesbian people to serve in the armed forces and posted an anti-gay video attacking President Barack Obama’s decision to allow gay people to serve in the U.S. military. TMLC was also among religious-right groups that made false claims about the impact of including LGBTQ people within federal legislation targeting hate crimes law. In 2010, TMLC represented religious-right activists who sued then-Attorney General Eric Holder, claiming that the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act “creates a special class of persons who are more equal than others’ based on nothing more than deviant sexual behavior.” TMLC contended that “the sole purpose of the law was “to criminalize the Bible and use the threat of federal prosecutions and long jail sentences to silence Christians from expressing their Biblically-based religious belief that homosexual conduct is a sin.”
TMLC spokespeople have in the past been among the religious-right figures who claim that Islam is not really a religion—and thus, some claim, not worthy of constitutional protection. TMLC was even rebuked by another conservative religious liberty group, Becket, when a TMLC official tweeted in 2012, “Believe Islam a religion, then support the Becket Fund. Believe it will destroy US, then supt thomasmore.org.”
In 2012, a spokesman for TMLC said Islam “entered America disguised as a religion” and that its real goal is “to destroy America and to establish an Islamic nation under Allah and Sharia law.” That same year, TMLC’s Thompson claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had taken over the education system of the United States military. Five years earlier, TLMC opposed a New York City school offering a dual-language program in English and Arabic, calling it a “Trojan Horse” for the recruiting of “homegrown terrorists.”
More recently, Thompson has charged that many public schools have become hotbeds of Islamic propaganda. “Teaching Islam in schools has gone far beyond a basic history lesson,” Thompson said. “Prompted by zealous Islamic activism and emboldened by confusing court decisions, schools are now bending over backwards to promote Islam while at the same time denigrating Christianity.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from TMLC in the case of a public high school student who argued that forcing her to fill out a worksheet about Islam violated her First Amendment rights.
TMLC has pushed for a more aggressive legal strategy within the anti-abortion movement to get federal courts to approve “personhood” laws that would give fertilized eggs and developing fetuses legal recognition as a person. Back in 2004, TMLC represented women who unsuccessfully sued Planned Parenthood in an effort to force the group to provide women with (false) information about a link between abortion and breast cancer; a judge required the women to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal fees, a ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
TMLC also represents the Church Militant, a hard-right Catholic and Christian nationalist group that has returned the favor by telling its supporters that giving to TMLC is “a lot better than giving money to a corrupt hierarchy.” Church Militant recently mocked Wilton Gregory, the African American archbishop of Washington, D.C., who angered conservatives with criticism of Trump’s crowd-clearing photo-op with a Bible; a Church Militant video called him a Marxist” and an “African Queen.”
Thompson once told the Church Militant that the courts were “de-Christianizing America” and warned, “unless we get back into promoting Christianity as something that is necessary for the survival of our nation, we will ultimately lose the basic reason why our country was founded.”
TMLC also represents the Tennessee General Assembly in a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement policy. The Trump administration has urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case.
TMLC’s Citizens Advisory Board includes Allen West, Alan Keyes, and Michele Bachmann.