Dan Kelly’s divine inspiration

1991 writing reveals a man certain that he has God on his side

March 2, 2023 6:45 am
Church in Brooklyn, stop sign and one way sign

Picture of a Christian church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, taken in October 2012 | Getty Images Creative

In his Editor’s Introduction to the inaugural issue of the Regent University Law Review, the once and potentially future Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly was quite sure about both the provenance of law and its immutability. 

“Law originates with God and is impressed on His creation, including mankind,” Kelly wrote in 1991, the year he turned 27, as a student at the religiously affiliated Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “We are, and must be, subject to the principles contained in Scripture.”

Daniel Kelly speaks to reporters on March 1 | Photo by Henry Redman

Kelly narrowly edged out fellow conservative Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow in the Feb. 21 primary and is now facing Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal, in the April 4 general election. The outcome will determine whether liberals or conservatives hold the majority as the court prepares to rule on a challenge to the state’s 1849 abortion ban, as well as on the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to maintain a lock-grip on the state Legislature, and future fights over rules for and results from the 2024 presidential election.

Kelly’s embrace of extreme views related to his religious convictions is already well known. Even before he was tapped by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court in 2016, attention was drawn to his hardcore conservative views. In his application to Walker, Kelly included a book chapter in which he likened affirmative action to slavery (“both spring from the same taproot”) and warned that allowing same-sex couples to wed “will eventually rob the institution of marriage of any discernible meaning.”

In blog posts he wrote between 2012 and 2015, Kelly denigrated the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama as a victory for “the socialism/same-sex marriage/recreational marijuana/tax increase crowd” and called abortion “a policy that has as its primary purpose harming children.” Kelly, the past president of the Milwaukee Lawyers Chapter of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, has done legal work for Republican lawmakers and for Wisconsin Right to Life, which has endorsed him.  

But the 1991 law review introduction seemingly goes further in spelling Kelly’s beliefs about the religious underpinnings of secular law.

Regent University Law School was founded in 1986 by televangelist Pat Robertson, part of Regent University. At the time Kelly graduated, in 1991, it was only provisionally accredited. Rival conservative Dorow also got her law degree from Regent, in 1996, the year the school became fully accredited.

Protasiewicz has previously remarked on this happenstance, that both Kelly and Dorow got their law degrees from Regent University, saying this “obviously raised some red flags for me.” She referred to the law school as “not particularly highly rated.” The school never, in the years they attended, ranked among the nation’s roughly two dozen top-ranked law schools. “I don’t know why someone would choose to go there unless you have views that really align with the views [of] Pat Robertson,” she said.

Just as we do not choose to submit to the general theory of relativity, so is consent unnecessary with regard to the general principles of Scripture, though when considered carefully, reason will show that it is only logical that we are subject to them.

– Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly

Kelly’s 1991 law review introduction, unearthed by a Wisconsin Examiner reader, offers insights into the mind of a candidate who remains deeply committed to the idea that all law comes from God and that God doesn’t change his mind about anything.

“There is no codification of the law of nature to fit every occasion, nor need there be,” he wrote. “The law of nature and nature’s God provides the framework within which we operate and the guiding principles for filling in the interstices.”

Calls for the law to evolve and change in response to worldly events are anathema to this perspective. When it comes to interpreting the law — whether it be about reproductive rights, or redistricting, or the regulation of businesses, or restrictions on guns — Kelly’s hands are tied, and it is God who has tied them.

“Today it is popular to argue that law is nothing but a humanly created instrument designed to enable one group of people to regulate the activities of another group,” he writes in the introduction. “So construed, law is a malleable concept that can be easily reformulated as various behaviors and desires come in and go out of vogue. This understanding of law is convenient, but has little substance to commend it.”

Kelly brings in Sir William Blackstone, an 18th century English jurist who believed that law “is a rule; not a transient sudden order from a superior, to or concerning a particular person; but something permanent, uniform, and universal.” He also evokes physicist Stephen Hawking, whose “work relies on the fact that the laws of the universe have always been the same and always will be.”

“Just as we do not choose to submit to the general theory of relativity, so is consent unnecessary with regard to the general principles of Scripture, though when considered carefully, reason will show that it is only logical that we are subject to them,” Kelly writes.

It is in this spirit that Kelly pledges to dedicate, if not his life, than at least this new venture at the Regent University Law School:

“The overarching mission of the Regent University Law Review is the same as that of Regent University, that is, to bring glory to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. In addition, the Law Review seeks to further the mission of the Regent University School of Law: to bring the will of God to bear upon the legal profession through a legal education characterized by excellence, personal discipleship and nurture, and the application of Biblical principles to law.”

‘Bring glory to God’

Having a strong belief in God is not disqualifying for any office. But Kelly’s past writings and  ongoing pronouncements suggest that he does not distinguish between his particular Christian religious beliefs and secular law. He believes his job as a judge is to apply his reading of Biblical scripture to the legal cases that come before him. That is potentially at odds with how Wisconsinites who are not Christian or who don’t share Kelly’s particular views see the role of a state Supreme Court justice. 

Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for the Protasiewicz campaign, issued a statement to the Examiner regarding Kelly’s affiliation with Regent University and his religiously charged writing:

“Dan Kelly chose to attend a law school that wasn’t even accredited, and that’s fair game for criticism. While Judge Janet personally follows her Catholic faith and is also a proud graduate of Marquette University Law School, she knows a judge must uphold the Constitution and laws of our state, not carry a religious or political agenda. She is the best choice to return fairness and impartiality to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

Yet anyone looking to make hay out of Kelly’s religious beliefs is well-advised to tread carefully. 

In 2019, Brian Hagedorn, Walker’s former chief legal counsel then running for the court, lost the support of the powerful Wisconsin Realtor Association after it emerged that he and his wife had helped found a Christian school that reserved the right to expel students for being gay or even for having parents who are gay. Hagedorn was also confronted with writings in which he compared homosexuality to bestiality, deemed the NAACP “a disgrace to America” and dubbed Planned Parenthood “a wicked organization more devoted to killing babies than to helping women.” 

But Hagedorn was able to skillfully deflect the criticism over these extreme positions as an attack on his religion, warning that his opponent “Lisa Neubauer and her liberal allies will do anything to take over the court, including attacks on people of faith.” He won the race.

Kelly, for his part, seems to regard his strict adherence to religious worldview as a selling point: In a campaign appearance before the Dane County Republican Party on Feb. 7, Kelly blasted Dorow for referring in her campaign literature to the rights that “our state to federal constitutions endow upon every citizen.” This, he said, showed that Dorow just didn’t get it, asking his audience, “Where do our rights come from?” The correct answer was God, not government, he said, citing the Declaration of Independence, which sets forth that “all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

It’s the same hymnal Kelly was singing from as a law student at Regent in 1991. His law review introduction concludes with a call to “continually look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and, most importantly, to put into practice what we see in that law.” In so doing, “not only will we be blessed . . . but we will also bring glory to God, which is our overarching mission.”


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Bill Lueders
Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor of The Progressive magazine and current editor-at-large, is a Wisconsin writer who lives in Madison. He also serves as the elected president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide group that works to protect public access to government meetings and records.