tampabay.com

Schiavo case puts 'legal missionary' in spotlight

By BILL VARIAN
Published March 23, 2005


SEMINOLE - Like his father, David Gibbs III has dedicated much of his young legal career to defending the religious liberties of others.

Through the Seminole-based Christian Law Association, which his father founded, Gibbs teaches Christian groups how to avoid litigation. Then, if they do need legal help, the association represents them for free.

Gibbs, 36, has done his work - some call him a legal missionary - in relative obscurity so far.

"He's not, from our perspective, a major player on the religious right in the legal world," said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

That is quickly changing.

Gibbs is at the center of the religious right's latest battle: saving the life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who has commanded the attention of Congress and the president.

"I believe that God gives each life a calling," said Gibbs. "I believe that I have been called to help other Christians."

Gibbs is the third lead attorney to represent Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, in their efforts to keep her on a feeding tube. He is not being paid.

A Baptist and father of four, he works with a sense of mission.

His father formed the Christian Law Association in 1969 to provide free legal assistance to churches, religious schools and other "Bible-believing organizations." According to government records filed by nonprofits, the group's mission is to spread the gospel of Jesus and help defend constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

"I grew up around it," said the younger Gibbs.

The organization, run by David Gibbs Jr., raises nearly $3-million a year from donations for that purpose, according to the most recent federal disclosure form available from 2002. Two thirds-of that money that year was paid to Gibbs Law Firm, also run by the father, for its legal work.

Gibbs attended Duke University law school and later joined his father's firm in Seminole.

He drew headlines five years ago for his defense of a group of children's homes near Corpus Christi, Texas, that was facing abuse allegations, and he gives talks at seminars around the country on how to avoid those kinds of accusations.

Until the Schiavo case, Gibbs was known in the bay area as the lawyer who attempted to persuade Hillsborough commissioners that they could pass a tougher anti-nudity ordinance and withstand a likely court challenge. Commissioners ultimately said no, though a host of supporters appeared before them to make the decision more difficult.

"He's somebody you want on your side if you're on the pro-family side," said Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms, who backed the ordinance.

He wrote a book with his father, Keeping Christ in Christmas, that makes the case the holiday can legally be celebrated in public places. Last year Fox News asked his thoughts on the impact of evangelical Christians in the 2004 presidential election.

Gibbs says he does not believe the election represented a threat to church-state separation.

"What most Americans do not realize is that if the rights of Americans do not continue to be based upon America's original religious foundation, any rights we retain will become increasingly dependent upon the beneficence of the state," he wrote.

Gibbs is forceful, with a strong voice, but polite. As a sudden fixture on the news networks, he called Greta Van Susteren "ma'am" when he appeared on her legal affairs program. CNN's Larry King told Gibbs to call him Larry, not sir.

Gibbs said he would. And he did.

Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.