A Jewish Advocate For Christ
Jay Sekulow has faced questions about financial practices at his not-for-profit.
The unusual personal history of Trump’s new defense lawyer.
President Donald Trump welcomed an unlikely Jewish-born darling of the Christian right to his inner circle of defenders in mid-June.
Attorney Jay Sekulow, the newest addition to Trump’s personal legal defense team, has been accused of fraud in the past. He has put his family in charge of his organizations. And he has been instrumental in limiting access to legal abortions across the world.
As part of Trump’s legal team, Sekulow, 61, will be working under the direction of New York attorney Marc Kasowitz in the face of an independent counsel investigation into questions about possible collusion between Russia and individuals in Trump’s presidential campaign — and more recently, amid concerns about possible obstruction of justice by the president himself.
Though Kasowitz is grabbing newspaper ink with his boasts of being the toughest lawyer on Wall Street and reportedly trying to establish a legal office in the White House, Sekulow is the only lawyer on Trump’s team, as of yet, who has actual experience litigating before the Supreme Court.
Through his work as a private attorney and as chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, Sekulow has led a decades-long legal campaign on behalf of evangelical and conservative Christian causes. That campaign began with a successful Supreme Court decision for Jews for Jesus in 1987, and has been exported to nearly every corner of the Christian world.
Sekulow made a splash early when, on a June 11 episode of ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” he declined to rule out the possibility of Trump firing Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who was appointed to head the special counsel investigation into Trump’s campaign.
But the limelight is far from something new for Sekulow. Since his early days as an Atlanta tax lawyer, Sekulow has led a life of opulence. According to reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in the early 1980s Sekulow established a successful practice that specialized in creating tax shelters for wealthy Atlantans. It enabled him to spend money on expensive cars and high-end real estate.
“Very charismatic, very charming,” Jeff rey Cohen, an Atlanta lawyer who worked at Sekulow’s Atlanta law firm in the 1980s, told the Forward. “He brought in business like nobody I’ve ever seen in my life. He was extremely good at that.”
When a real estate development failed, investors sued Sekulow for fraud and securities violations. Sekulow declared bankruptcy, and over a dozen creditors and former employees filed suits against him.
Cohen himself sued Sekulow in 1983 for breach of contract after Sekulow failed to pay him a promised yearend $20,000 bonus. In 1991, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cohen described his experience at Sekulow’s firm as “an eight-month nightmare.” (Sekulow and his representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comments.)
Sekulow has continued to face questions regarding his financial practices at the ACLJ, a conservative not-forprofit legal advocacy initiative he runs that was founded in 1990 by the televangelist Pat Robertson, and at Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, a not-for-profit group founded by Sekulow himself in 1988.
Sekulow set up CASE following his bankruptcy trial. He remains the group’s president. CharityWatch, a not- for- profit organization that provides ratings for U.S. charities, gives CASE a C+ on its philanthropic ratings scale, in part because the only voting members on CASE’s board are Sekulow’s family. Daniel Borochoff, the president and founder of CharityWatch, told the Forward that because the ACLJ receives nearly all of its funding through CASE, it rates both not-for-profit organizations based on CASE’s financial reports.
Borochoff cited the composition of CASE’s board — stacked exclusively with Sekulow’s own family — as “the most concerning thing.”
“That’s a bedrock principle of nonprofits, that the board consists of independent people,” Borochoff said.
Sekulow’s wife, sons and brother all take salaries from either one or both of these organizations. In 2014, Sekulow’s brother Gary Sekulow received $396,008 from CASE and $238,492 from the ACLJ. An Associated Press investigation found that the Sekulow family has personally received over $33 million since 1998 via these two charities. Though Jay Sekulow does not take a salary through the ACLJ, he owns a 50% stake in a law firm that has received millions of dollars from the ACLJ for services rendered, including $5 million in 2015. (The AP report noted that there was no mention of Sekulow’s stake in the law firm in the ACLJ’s tax documents.)
Sekulow calls himself a “reasonable fanatic,” though he’s also a converted fanatic: Sekulow, born to a Reform Jewish family in Brooklyn, had a spiritual awakening at his Baptist college in Atlanta. According to a testimony Sekulow published on jewsforjesus.org, after a friend convinced him to read Isaiah 53, Sekulow became convinced that Jesus Christ was the true Messiah.
“I kept looking for a traditional Jewish explanation that would satisfy, but found none,” he wrote. “The only plausible explanation seemed to be Jesus.”
Though he remains a stalwart voice of support for Israel, and a friend of Judaism, Sekulow has taken it upon himself to champion conservative Christian causes such as defunding Planned Parenthood and keeping “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.
Sekulow, who served as an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, has also spent his career doggedly fighting for religious exemptions and against “[t]he penetration of secular humanism into our judicial and educational institutions.” His fight has taken him to the Supreme Court 12 times since 1987.
He has championed the rights of student groups to show religious movies on public school grounds after class, of pro-life protesters to swarm people entering and leaving abortion clinics and of football players to pray before their games. In his first case before the Supreme Court he received a unanimous verdict in favor of his clients — Jews for Jesus pamphleteers who had been barred from handing out pamphlets in the public areas of Los Angeles’s airport.
Robertson, the fiery Southern Baptist ex-minister who unsuccessfully bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, founded the ACLJ in 1990 to litigate on behalf of conservative Christians. (The name was designed to produce a similar acronym to the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union.) In 1992, Robertson hired Sekulow as the group’s chief counsel.
As Jeff rey Toobin noted in The New Yorker in 2005, Sekulow’s main innovation in his Supreme Court cases was arguing them as freedom of speech cases — what Toobin called “intellectual sorcery”. Until Sekulow, religious expression — like organized prayer — had been largely prohibited in schools and on government property under the Establishment Clause — the separation of church and state. Though both religious freedom and freedom of speech are directly protected by the First Amendment, Sekulow found that arguing his cases on the basis of the latter right produced better results
“I took a lot of heat from people on my side, who thought I was abandoning the religion clauses of the First Amendment,” Sekulow told Toobin. “But I wanted to win the case.”
Since the late ’90s, the ACLJ has expanded into Europe, Russia, Africa and South America to promote its ultraconservative social agenda. Its European arm successfully stopped marriage equality campaigns in the Czech Republic and has lobbied to stop embryonic stem cell research in the European Union. In 2012 the ACLJ submitted a brief to the European Commission of Human Rights opposing a transgender woman’s right to marry. The group has supported antigay propaganda in Russia and fights against gay and lesbian rights in Brazil.
In 2009 the ACLJ opened offices in Zimbabwe, to “provid[e] legal training and legal research facilities to attorneys throughout the country.
Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Jordan Sekulow, Jay Sekulow’s son and the co-director of CASE, met with the vice president and other leaders of the repressive dictator Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party. Human Rights
Christian Advocate: Sekulow after a 2004 Supreme Court case. He argued for a law to ban commercial websites from putting material ‘harmful to minors’ on the internet.
Family Ties: The ACLJ works around the world to oppose gay equality and abortion rights. This ACLJ webpage shows Sekulow’s son, Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ’s executive director, during a mission to Zimbabwe.