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Written by John R. Vile, published on August 10, 2023 , last updated on February 18, 2024

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John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, at a press conference in 1998. The Rutherford Institute is concerned about defending First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion, particularly in school settings. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, used with permission from the Associated Press)

The Rutherford Institute, is an organization that “provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.”


Rutherford Institute plays similar role to ACLU


Chairman of the Board John Whitehead, an attorney, founded the institute in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1982. The organization is named after the 17th century Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford, who was known for his opposition to kings being above the law.


The institute plays much the same role for evangelical Christians as the American Civil Liberties Union does for its supporters. The institute is especially concerned about defending freedom of speech and religion, particularly in school settings. Weber and Jones (1994) describe it as “pro-life, pro-family, and pro-religious” (p. 142). It relies on affiliate attorneys who contribute their services on a pro bono basis.


Rutherford Institute has brought lawsuits advocating for First Amendment freedom


Its primary areas of litigation are freedom of speech issues, freedom of religion, the “sanctity of human life,” parental rights, student rights, workplace rights, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.


Included among the key cases it has filed are:


  • One to allow an American female pilot in Saudi Arabia to avoid having to dress according to Saudi Islamic custom;
  • Good News Club v. Milford School District (2001), in support of a religious group’s ability to use public school facilities;
  • A case involving parental rights; and
  • Clinton v. Jones (1997), former Arkansas government employee Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton.

With the help of the Rutherford Institute, Donna Busch filed suit against the Marple Newtown School District in Pennsylvania, which barred her from reading the Bible in her son’s kindergarten class. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek, used with permission from the Associated Press)

The institute’s participation in this last case reinforced the impression among some that the organization is partisan.


Whitehead was subsequently quite critical of the USA Patriot Act and of what he believes to be President George W. Bush’s assumption of improper powers in the guise of fighting terrorism (Whitehead 2007).


John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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