Twin Cities lawyer brings faith to bear in litigation
David Lillehaug led the battle to exempt churches from Minnesota’s new “conceal carry” law.
It’s safe to say the specter of gun-packing parishioners was not on David Lillehaug’s mind last fall when he was working as Paul Wellstone’s campaign lawyer. But many twists of fate later, Lillehaug has found himself at the forefront of many local faith communities’ fight against Minnesota’s new “conceal and carry” legislation.
A former United States attorney, Lillehaug is representing Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC) and 12 other churches in a lawsuit against the State of Minnesota for unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom.
Why is Lillehaug leading this charge? Political grandstanding? After all, he was a candidate for attorney general in 1998 and a strong United States senate DFL candidate hopeful in 2000.
No, it’s simpler than that. His pastors asked him to. “Historically, Lutherans have been quiet on public policy,” says Lillehaug, who is an active member of ECLC and a partner in the Fredrikson & Byron law firm. “Most faith communities are reluctant to get within 100 miles of a courthouse. But there are limits to what the state can do. My pastors took the time to read this law, then came to me and said, ‘We don’t think the state can do this to us.’ I read it and said, ‘I don’t think they can either.’”
On June 6, a Hennepin County district court judge ruled the 12 churches supporting the suit may prohibit guns in their worship centers without following “onerous” signage language and personal notification provisions of the new law.
“This is the equivalent of a blue moon,” says Lillehaug. “It’s not very often that a judge in the early stages finds a law unconsti-tutional.”
Meanwhile, other congregations around the state are awaiting a decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals which could extend the order.
The Rev. Erik Strand, one of the two pastors at ECLC, has this to say about Lillehaug: “David has clear values. I respect that. He and his wife, Winifred, are involved in many areas of our church and not always the visible up front stuff. They are encouraging and supporting of our staff and always willing to pitch in where we need help. Their faith is real. And you don’t always know that about people in public life.” (Lillehaug is also co-host of the public television program, “Face to Face.”)
David Lillehaug was raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, son of an Augustana College music professor. After graduating with highest honors from Augustana in 1976, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors in 1979. “In my family, it was a choice between law and music. I played a mean flute, but I decided early on that law was the best way [for me] to make a difference for people.”
As chief federal prosecutor from 1994-1998, he led a 100-person office and be-came known as the “neighborhood U.S. attorney,” for bringing the resources of the federal government to high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. “Being a U.S. attorney was a real challenge,” he says. “It put my ideals on the line and my principles to the test. I’m proud of the results we achieved and the real difference we made in people’s lives.”
Some notable victories included successful prosecution of con-artists who were preying on Minnesota’s elderly, a large out-of-state corporation that was polluting the Blue Earth River, and several high-profile white collar criminals.
Speaking of current corporate scandals, Lillehaug said, “The fundamental is-sues are honesty and integrity, and some people haven’t been telling the truth. Whether you wear a suit or don’t, you are entitled to equal protection under the law. Jesus was not impressed by wealth.”
Lillehaug’s faith has been real to him since he was a child. “Rather than having a ‘road to Damascus’ experience, I’ve felt the presence of God from my first memories of being around our dinner table and going to Sunday school. It’s been up to me to reach out to that Presence and I’ve done so with more frequency and intensity as I grow older. Now, it’s a real gift from God to use my vocational calling to stand up in court for my congregation. I believe the lawsuit has spread a spiritual message: Blessed are the peacemakers. Lutherans can make an impact.”
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Killian is a freelance writer and a member of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.
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