Larry L Crain: An Influenced Legacy

A grandmother, young Pastor, national religious advocacy firms, and the God who directs a man’s path-  these entities worked together to propel Larry L. Crain from summers as a boy on a farm to becoming a nationally-recognized constitutional lawyer, frequent lecture, and commentator. He has litigated, debated, and practiced widely in constitutional law, especially in the realm of religious liberty. Crain  Was nurtured by a loving grandmother who taught him the importance of studying and memorizing scripture. The seeds she planted during those early years later served as a constant reminder of God’s love, mercy, and sovereignty, even during darker times when he strayed from God.

As a 63 year old father of three and grandfather of seven, Crain considers the words that became his life’s testimony: “the steps of the righteous man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down:  for the LORD upholds him with his hand” (Psalms 37: 23-24). No doubt Isaiah 30:21, “and whenever you turn to the right or to the left your ears will hear this command behind you: “This is the way. Walk in it’” also directed his life.

Crain and his wife had two young children at that time, and this monumental commitment to Christ changed their family life: “Church attendance became an important priority and a place for developing close friendships and learning how to make Godly decisions. Soon afterwards, inexplicable things began to happen: There was a major paradigm shift in the direction of my law practice.  Churches and ministries began calling me for legal help. I developed an overwhelming interest in the area of constitutional litigation and devoted myself to the defense of First Amendment religious liberty cases.”

Crain’s relationship with Christ led him to decline positions that caused sharp contrasts with all he had previously known. However, through working with John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, he began litigating religious cases around the country, representing a wide variety of religious freedom cases: a valedictorian who was censored from sharing her faith in Christ; students who were suspended for distributing gospel tracks; evangelists who were jailed for preaching the gospel; pro-life demonstrators; a nurse fired for refusing to take part in a late-term abortion; and Orthodox Jews who were prohibited from having a place of worship in their community.

Crain’s concern for First Amendment issues, particularly the rights of individuals to be free of religious discrimination, led him early in his legal career to serve as General Counsel for The Rutherford Institute and later as Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)  where he litigated a broad spectrum of constitutional issues on a national level- particularly cases that sought to impose a burden on religious liberties- before the United States Supreme Court; the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal; the Supreme Court of Massachusetts;  the Supreme Court of North Carolina; and the Supreme Court of Tennessee. His litigation experience on issues of constitutional law spans 26 states.

Practicing law in a manner consistent with his Christian faith became a conscious priority as Crain learned how to incorporate his faith into his legal practice and how to serve ministries that serve the Lord. Reading Francis Schaeffer’s works profoundly affected his thinking about law: “Romans 13 is all about the authority of God. I had never thought about the whole notion of the preeminence of God in the law: The law must be anchored in moral absolutes which trace their origin back to God’s preeminence: ‘all authority is from God’ (Romans 13), and that truth transcends the Constitution. It is where we get the notion of inalienable rights.”  So, God’s Word, Schaeffer, and the Rutherford Institute, among other influences, opened up a whole area of thought to attorney Crain and became a way of ministry. Indeed, God was and is in the business of directing the steps of His followers.

Once again looking at the grand paradigm shift, Crain recalls that in October of 1980, the month he passed the bar, “our Metro government decided it would impose a ‘fee’ on all churches and nonprofits in Nashville to pay for fire and police protection. Over a dozen churches contacted me to represent them in opposing the City’s measure. The problem was the senior partner in my law firm represented the Mayor of Nashville at the time. I was given an ultimatum: I could turn down these church clients or leave the firm and go out on my own. With no clients, no established practice, and a wife and two children, this was a tough decision. I decided to take this step of faith and leave the firm. We defeated the City’s fee (tax) upon church-owned property, and word began to spread that there was a young attorney in town who was willing to take on City Hall.”

Crain began receiving calls from clients facing all sorts of constitutional challenges to their exercise of religious liberty. In one early case, a homeschool family in East Tennessee called for help. No attorney was willing to take their case. Homeschooling was very new at that time, and the Moffats were being threatened with the removal of their daughter if they did not enroll her in public school. Crain remembers, “I represented the family and argued to the judge that their child was not a mere creature of the state but that her parents had a responsibility before God to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The court struck down as unconstitutional Tennessee’s compulsory attendance law based on my argument and found that the Moffats’ freedom to exercise their religious beliefs outweighed the state’s interest.” as a result of this court case, the next year, in 1985, Tennessee adopted its first homeschool law.

Homeschooling of the Crain children grew out of representing homeschooling families who would ask Crain if they homeschooled their children and then wanted to know why not. Crain admits, “I ran out of good excuses when I realized my clients children were testing about 30% higher than those in institutional schools-  not to mention the biblical truths they were being taught at home. So, those considerations became a big impetus for changing our family life. Homeschooling back in the early 80s was an introduction for me into how long could be used to help in religious freedom.”

Crain illustrates, “I can tell you story after story from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) founded by Michael Ferris. We still get calls to work with homeschooling issues. We just won a case last year for a group of three Nashville homeschool families who wanted to enter their children in the equivalent of the national Olympics for chest competition. They were denied the opportunity to compete because they were home-schooled and not from institutional schools.  We filed suit in federal court and won the right for them to compete. By the way, they came out fourth in the nation in this once-every-four-year’s national chess competition! These kids are chest wizards and were overjoyed that at the last minute they were allowed to compete. Without exception all these homeschool families have been courageous in their stand for Christ. Their faith has been rewarded time and time again.”

Crain further relates, “My work in the area of religious liberty also opened the door to a number of ministry and nonprofit clients over the years. One of them, an adoption ministry called Small World Adoptions, on whose board I now serve, referred a case to me involving a young Russian boy whose adoptive Tennessee mother returned her son to Russia with a note pinned to his backpack stating she no longer wish to parent the child.”  The incident prompted Russia to impose a moratorium on all U.S. adoptions. Crain gained international renown for his representation of the child for abandonment and neglect in which the court awarded significant damages on behalf of this young boy.

In 2012, Crain’s concern over the legal issues facing churches and religious ministries led him to found the Church Law Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational ministry serving churches. Today, CLI continues to provide vital legal services to churches all across the United States.

Another case Crain is particularly pleased with in the Nashville community is his work with Teen Challenge International. It serves young folks recovering from addictions and does so from a purely Christian approach. Crain tells the story: “ when Metro took steps to change the law that affected Teen Challenges right to open a facility here in Nashville, we went before a jury in federal court here and one a sizable verdict for it. I think that has had a profound impact on how Metro reacts toward local ministries; it is more careful not to trod upon Ministries that help others whether they be disabled or otherwise. I’ve seen [the impact] in the way Metro affects changes in ordinances for local ministries. So, there’s a heightened sensitivity in Metro to the fact that if they do [trample on ministries], there are lawyers here who will challenge them. At least they know there are limits on what they can do to encroach on the rights of ministries. The whole process in the cases I’ve won against Metro in the area of religious liberty has garnered a kind of mutual respect, a hard-earned mutual respect. To that and I’m now working with Metro in a federal on behalf of officers who were wrongly sued.”

Carefully guarding respect enters into Crain’s approach to his law practice: “Mutual respect is hard to earn, but when you earn it, you need to carefully guard it.” Another source says it this way: “A good name is more desirable than riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1).

Nudging him into thoughts about his legal legacy, Crain includes Kingdom goals: “I am one of what I hope is a growing number of attorneys who today see their profession as opportunity to serve the Kingdom. Some of my greatest rewards have been to see younger attorneys whom I’ve helped mentor along the way go on to do great things for the Kingdom, some of whom have won great victories before the Supreme Court. They have broadened the protection of religious liberty rights for all Americans. Like me, they see their practice of law as an opportunity for Christian service. They have changed the canvas of the law in certain areas whether it’s the case involving the baker who didn’t want to provide a cake for same-sex marriage or other such cases (one of the attorneys involved in the cake case, David Cortman, mentored under me. To have played a small role in training these once-young apprentices is a source of pride and joy. There’s lots of satisfaction seeing the endurance of the work that God began in me years ago. That’s the type of legacy I hope to leave.”

Crain summarizes: “I believe God has blessed me over the years with some of the most courageous clients a lawyer can have. Their humility and courage have always born witness to their faith in Christ.”

Such is God’s ordering of Crain’s steps when his grandmother began at the beginning with God’s word.

– Sheila E. Moss is author of Living To Matter: Mothers, Singles, and the Weary and Broken; Interrupting Women: Ten Conversations with Jesus; and various publications derived from teaching Bible and Christian ethics in Africa, Ukraine, and Venezuela; teacher of Bible classes for over 35 years.