New Catholic Law School To Begin

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Assembling auto parts in Tennessee, Elizabeth Hopkins considered herself in a rut. Then she read about a Roman Catholic law school planned by the Domino's Pizza founder, and her life was changed.

``I really believe it's providence to do this,'' says the 25-year-old Catholic from Franklin, Tenn., a Loyola University fine arts graduate who will be one of Ave Maria School of Law's first students when classes begin Monday.

Ave Maria is among various conservative Catholic causes bankrolled by Tom Monaghan, who sold his controlling share in Domino's in 1998 and has pledged to spend his hundreds of millions promoting his faith.

He is devoting $50 million to the law school, hoping to meld legal theory with staunch Catholic theology while addressing his concerns that Catholic education has been watered down.

Other reasons he has cited: ``The lack of God in our society, the breakup of families, the low legitimacy rate, abortion — the list goes on.''

Ave Maria opens with 77 students — nearly twice its initial goal — drawn from 218 applicants in 44 states, admissions chief Michael Kenney says.

The class' median score on the national Law School Admissions Test was 158, on par with many of the law schools ranked among the nation's top 50 by U.S. News and World Report.

Some critics say they believe that Monaghan seeks to create ultraconservative, religiously radical lawyers. Others question whether his money would have been better spent on any of the more than 20 existing Catholic law schools nationwide.

``For him to come along and say (Catholic colleges) are not doing well and `We're going to have a truly Catholic law school,' that's presumptuous,'' says the Rev. Robert Drinan, a law professor at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school. ``There appears to be a political agenda.''

To Jane Benshoof of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, Monaghan's mission is ``to train a cadre of lawyers who will do advocacy and lobbying'' to change the Constitution, namely a woman's right to have an abortion.

``They're not training lawyers; they're training advocates for a point of view, to push a certain theocratic view through their legal work,'' says Benshoof, whose nonprofit legal and policy advocacy group promotes women's reproductive rights.

Ave Maria's governing board includes the fervently anti-abortion U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.; Helen Alvare, director of planning and information for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; a Catholic archbishop and cardinal, two Notre Dame law professors, an appellate judge, and others.

Monaghan wasn't available for further comment. But Bernard Dobranski, Ave Maria's dean, says critics' views are exaggerated.

``We're not a seminary; we're a law school'' that will discuss Catholicism when it's ``relevant or appropriate,'' he says. While believing law and morality are linked, ``we never lose sight of the fact that our primary responsibility is to train people to be good lawyers.''

Former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork says he plans to teach ``Moral Foundations of the Law'' at Ave Maria, not preach Catholicism. After all, he says, he's not of that faith.

``I know they intend to bring a Catholic perspective in at some level, but I don't think it will interfere with the straightforward teaching'' of such legal issues as contracts and torts, Bork says.

To Hopkins, who had worked at a variety of jobs after graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans, Ave Maria looked like her calling.

``It talked about appealing to the moral foundations of law, which I found fascinating,'' she says.

Patrick Laurence, a 26-year-old Catholic from Pasadena, Calif., had believed ``that by becoming a lawyer you had to lose a little bit of your soul.'' Now, he hopes Ave Maria will teach him ``to be a Catholic lawyer, how to hold onto your principles.''

``It might be pie in the sky, but I hope this school does something to introduce something in our country to put back our moorings,'' he says.

Kelly Bremigen, a 22-year-old Catholic from Albany, N.Y., said she hopes her Ave Maria studies make her an anti-abortion attorney, ``even if I can't afford to put food on the table.''

Ave Maria will have to win provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association so that its first graduates can sit for the state bar exam, Kenney says.

Its yearly tuition of $19,750 compares to $25,092 at the Catholic University of America's law school, which Ave Maria's new dean had headed. In Ave Maria's back yard, the University of Michigan's law school — ranked seventh by U.S. News — costs in-state residents $19,116 a year, $25,086 for students from outside the state.

The school's building — the former headquarters of a public health company — is to include a library with more than 200,000 volumes, nearly three times what the bar association requires for accreditation.


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