Faith motivates Rancho Santa Fe attorney in high-profile legal battles

Charles LiMandri was a successful civil litigator when, in 2003, he decided to combine his religious values with his legal skills and file a court brief in support of keeping the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

While he had long been active in community service as a member of his children’s school board and the Rotary Club, among other endeavors, “I wanted to give back in a more direct way,” said LiMandri, 60, a Rancho Santa Fe resident.

That direct involvement led to more cases, and ultimately to what may be his most prominent effort — working in both the legal and political arenas to preserve a 43-foot cross atop Mount Soledad in San Diego, where it has stood since 1954.

After two decades of legal wrangling and political maneuvers, cross proponents — who argue that the monument is both a war memorial and a landmark — may have won the day this summer, after the purchase of the land beneath the cross by a private nonprofit from the federal government for $1.4 million.

Over the past 12 years, LiMandri has taken on a variety of “pro bono” cases, meaning he absorbs the cost of the legal work. The common thread, according to LiMandri, is defending traditional family values and religious freedoms. A devout Catholic, he is convinced that his cherished religious liberty is in jeopardy, because of court decisions and shifting cultural mores.

Roughly half of his practice, which employs four full-time and one part-time attorney, is devoted to such nonprofit work, while the rest is focused on business litigation in such areas as insurance, real estate, personal injury and maritime law.

In 2012, after supporting the pro bono work on his own for nearly a decade, LiMandri launched the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which can accept donations and grants to support the causes close to the attorney’s heart.

“We’re focused on religious liberty, or people’s right to self-determination, to follow the dictates of their conscience,” LiMandri said.

That quest has led LiMandri into controversial waters: He has defended four San Diego firefighters who defied orders to participate in a gay pride parade, and the operators of a New Jersey organization that offered referrals to men who sought therapy to change their sexual orientation.

The results have been mixed. In the Mount Soledad cross case, San Diego voters strongly supported retaining the cross, while courts over the years have ordered it to be removed. In the firefighters’ case, the first trial resulted in a hung jury, while LiMandri won the second trial and a subsequent appeal.

This summer, LiMandri suffered a stinging loss when a jury decided against his client, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, which referred clients to “conversion therapy” designed to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight.

LiMandri said rulings by the judge doomed his side. For example, six expert witnesses for the defense were disqualified from testifying, and the judge also issued jury instructions disallowing references to homosexuality as a disorder. Also, the defense was harmed by testimony about controversial nudity techniques used by one of the conversion therapists.

The case was exhausting and intellectually draining, said LiMandri. “I don’t fight these battles to lose.”

After the case ended in late June, LiMandri said, he just wanted to return home to San Diego from New Jersey and resume his private practice. But shortly after he got back, his phone rang with a request to defend David Daleiden, president of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), from a lawsuit stemming from a series of undercover videos filmed by Daleiden and his associates.

According to LiMandri, the videos documented discussions by officials with the nonprofit group Planned Parenthood involving the illegal sale of fetal body parts. However, Planned Parenthood and its supporters contend the videos were heavily edited in order to mislead the public, and nothing illegal or improper occurred. The videos have triggered efforts by some members of Congress to defund Planned Parenthood.

A hearing on a motion by LiMandri and his legal team to dismiss the lawsuit will probably be heard in January.

Supporters of LiMandri’s pro bono work applaud his dedication to cases such as JONAH and CMP.

“Chuck is a brilliant litigator with a national reputation. He also is a guy who charges on his white horse where angels fear to tread. He’s fearless and principled, and smart,” Maggie Gallagher, chairperson of the Freedom of Conscience board of directors, and a Washington, D.C.-based writer, wrote in an email in response to a query from a reporter.

Even those who disagree with LiMandri’s conservative positions praised his passion.

“Chuck has been an effective opponent and a worthy opponent and a good litigator. I just disagree with him on the cases he chooses to prosecute or defend,” said James McElroy, a San Diego attorney who led the legal battle to remove the Mount Soledad cross from land that was once owned by the city. “Ultimately he’s a nice guy, a family guy; we just disagree very strongly on the issues of the day.”

For example, although LiMandri said thousands of people have changed their sexual orientation with the assistance of conversion therapy, groups such as the American Psychological Association and the World Health Organization have come out against the practice, a viewpoint shared by McElroy.

“Gay people are not sick, they’re not ill, they don’t need to be cured,” said McElroy, who sits on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the civil lawsuit against JONAH, alleging that conversion therapy amounts to consumer fraud.

Former San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre, who battled LiMandri in court on the firefighter case, and also once appointed him to represent the city in the Mount Soledad cross case, said, “We’ve had our differences, but I’ve always respected him … He lives his values. And these days, so few people do that.”

LiMandri said the work consumes a lot of his time and energy, and has even hurt his legal practice. “I’ve lost clients over the work I do; they’re afraid of being associated with me.”

He would like to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Barbara, who was working as a paralegal when they met, have five children. He’d also like to exercise more, and read books for pleasure, such as the historical novels he enjoys.

But he feels compelled to follow the example of one of his personal heroes, Sir Thomas More, an English lawyer who defied King Henry VIII based on his religious convictions, and was beheaded for his trouble. More was elevated to sainthood in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

“We’re trying to preserve a Judeo-Christian culture which permeates society,” LiMandri said. “There’s no financial incentive. But there’s a big incentive to better society for future generations.”