Put yourself in the shoes of a child growing up in a depressed community, one that offers little in the way of opportunity and much in the way of gang activity. As you grow older, you struggle to find a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. You’re reminded daily of how difficult it is for your family and neighbors to make ends meet.
Enter the Latin Kings, one of the world’s largest Latino street gangs. In the Chicago area alone, there are an estimated 70 gangs with more than 150,000 members. The allure of the gang lifestyle is real and strong: It offers acceptance, a family, and a possible shot at wealth.
Two sets of brothers, Elias and Saul Juarez and Oscar and Ruben Sanchez, know this story all too well.
My law partner, John Mauck, and I had the privilege of defending these four men in court, putting each of them on the witness stand to share their stories with a judge. But we weren’t defending them because of their gang activity. We were defending them because of something much more powerful.
Elias, Saul, Oscar, and Ruben had been running an anti-gang ministry. And after seven long years of litigation in a civil lawsuit that included over 70 alleged Latin King gang members, the judge had to decide whether these men were members of the Latin Kings or men of God running a ministry.
It’s odd that it even came to this. After all, if you knew Elias, Saul, Oscar, and Ruben the way I’ve come to know them, you would have no doubt as to who they are. Perhaps this story is best told from the beginning.
My clients grew up in Elgin, Illinois—a poor, Latino neighborhood outside of Chicago. From a young age, they felt pressure to join the Latin Kings. Elias and Saul’s older brother Martin was a Latin King member. Before he died in a federal penitentiary, Martin tried to discourage his younger brothers from joining the gang. “Don’t do it. It’s not the way,” Saul recalled Martin telling him through tears over the phone from prison.
While Saul followed Martin’s advice and avoided the gang life, Elias followed in Martin’s footsteps—as did their childhood friends Oscar and Ruben Sanchez. Despite their different paths, Saul remained close to his brother Elias and his friends.
But it wasn’t until after Martin died that Saul, in the midst of mourning, found the one true way—faith in Jesus—and began sharing his faith with Elias in hopes that he too would find forgiveness and a new life.
As Saul recounted, “I was in my room crying when my mother came in and asked me to come to church with her. I went nervous and trembling. As I sat next to my mother, I listened to Bible verse after Bible verse, testimony after testimony about changed lives. They kept hitting my heart and I simply responded to the altar call.” Saul also felt called to share his faith with Oscar and Ruben. “I was that guy that would always talk about Christ everywhere I went,” Saul told the court.
Once you’re in the Latin Kings, however, there is no easy way out.
The Latin Kings’ motto, “Once a King, Always a King,” is indicative of the life of loyalty it offers and demands. Those who want out must pay a high price—some have lost their lives trying to leave what authorities consider to be one of the most violent gangs in the country.
But Saul kept encouraging his brother Elias and inviting him to church. Eventually, his persistence paid off. At church, Elias encountered the same love and power of God that Saul had found. He may have gone in to church that day as a Latin King with no future, but he left as a forgiven man with eternal life.
Empowered by the joy of his salvation, Elias walked into the next gang meeting without fear and said he wanted out. He was willing to pay the price, knowing he would face a beating. For two long minutes, Elias took savage blows from his fellow gang members. But that didn’t stop him. Bloodied and bruised, he began telling them about Jesus.
Oscar was there. In fact, it was Oscar’s job to time Elias’ beating. While he watched the clock, he also watched Elias’ courage and conviction. The gang could not touch what Elias had. Oscar and Ruben saw what a real change Elias’ newfound faith had made. And they wanted what he had. Soon, the two of them began going to church with Elias and Saul. Eventually, they left the Latin Kings, too.
Elias, Oscar, Ruben (first picture), and Saul (second picture) get baptized.
Photos courtesy of Mauck & Baker, LLC.
But God’s work wasn’t done. These four men began sharing their faith with others.
Moved by their love of Jesus Christ, they committed themselves to anti-gang efforts, organized an anti-gang violence parade in Elgin, spoke with at-risk youth in local schools, and even joined some local police officers to speak out against gang violence.
So, now you may be thinking: How in the world did these four men end up in a seven-year legal battle with the State of Illinois and City of Elgin?
The short answer is the Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act.
This act allows the government to haul suspected gang members into civil courts—where they do not have a right to an attorney or a speedy trial. Unfortunately, my clients were swept up in the government’s dragnet. And in its tough-on-gangs zeal, the government refused to let them out—despite the overwhelming evidence of their new lives and publicized anti-gang efforts. But the effects didn’t stop there. The suit ended their anti-gang talks in schools, as the schools couldn’t risk allowing in alleged gang members.
As far as the state and city were concerned, my clients were still public enemies. The suit chilled their freedom to speak out against gangs. They couldn’t even share their faith with gang members without looking like they were one of them.
Because my firm, Mauck & Baker, is committed to defending religious liberty, we stepped in. And with the support of the Alliance Defending Freedom Grants & Funding Program, we were able to defend these men and their ministry.
Thankfully, after seven long years and five days of testimony, the court cleared their names but refused to find that the suit had damaged or chilled their religious exercise or gang ministry.
While we are elated that the court cleared them, we can’t help but wonder how many lives could have been saved had the government encouraged my clients’ ministry instead of using it against them. How many youth wouldn’t be gang members if it weren’t for the unwillingness of government officials to acknowledge the truth and respect religious liberty?
This case is also a reminder that religious liberty is not an end in itself. It is a constitutionally protected means of setting people free. In my clients’ case, their ministry evangelizing to Latin King gang members was a more effective anti-gang weapon than any court injunction or state statute. It offered gang members more than fear and fines. It offered a way out of the shadows and into the light.
This is why the attorneys at Mauck & Baker fight for religious liberty—a fight we could not wage without the support of ADF and the Grants & Funding Program.
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