WASHINGTON (AP) — Before House Speaker Mike Johnson was elected to public office, he was the dean of a small Baptist law school that didn’t exist.
The establishment of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law was supposed to be a capstone achievement for Louisiana College, which administrators boasted would “unashamedly embrace” a “biblical worldview.” Instead, it collapsed roughly a decade ago without enrolling students or opening its doors amid infighting by officials, accusations of financial impropriety and difficulty obtaining accreditation, which frightened away would-be donors.
There is no indication that Johnson engaged in wrongdoing while employed by the private college, now known as Louisiana Christian University. But as a virtually unknown player in Washington, the episode offers insight into how Johnson navigated leadership challenges that echo the chaos, feuding and hard-right politics that have come to define the Republican House majority he now leads.
The chapter is just the latest to surface since the four-term congressman’s improbable election as speaker last week following the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a reminder of his longstanding ties to the Christian right, which is now a dominant force in GOP politics.
It’s also a milestone that he does not typically mention when discussing a pre-Congress resume that includes work as litigator for conservative Christian groups that fiercely opposed gay rights and abortion, as well as his brief tenure as a Louisiana lawmaker who pushed legislation that sanctioned discrimination for religious reasons.
Johnson’s office declined to make him available for an interview and did not offer comment for this story.
“The law school deal was really an anomaly,” said Gene Mills, a longtime friend of Johnson’s. “It was a great idea. But due to issues that were out of Mike’s hands that came unraveled.”
J. Michael Johnson Esq., as he was then known professionally, was hired in 2010 to be the “inaugural dean” of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law, named for a Southern Baptist Convention luminary who was instrumental in the faith group’s turn to the political right in the 1980s. The board of trustees who brought Johnson onboard included Tony Perkins, a longtime mentor who is now the president of the Family Research Council in Washington, a powerhouse Christian lobbying organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-gay “hate group.”
In early public remarks, Johnson predicted a bright future for the school, and college officials hoped it would someday rival the law school at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
“From a pure feasibility standpoint,” Johnson said, “I’m not sure how this can fail.” According to the Daily Town Talk, a newspaper in Alexandria, Louisiana, he added that it looked “like the perfect storm for our law school.”
Reality soon intruded.
For several years before Johnson’s arrival, the college had been in a state of turmoil following a board takeover by conservatives who felt the school had become too liberal. They implemented policies that restricted academic freedoms, including the potential firing of instructors whose curriculum touched upon sexual morality or teachings contradictory to the Bible.
The school’s president and other faculty resigned, and the college was placed on probation by an accreditation agency.
But a shale oil boom in the area also brought a wave of prosperity from newly enriched donors. And school officials, led by president Joe Aguillard, had grand ambitions beyond just the law school, which included opening a medical school, a film school and making a movie adaptation of the 1960s pastoral comedy TV show “Green Acres.”
Bringing Johnson into the school’s leadership helped further those ambitions. As dean of the proposed law school, Johnson embarked on a major fundraising campaign and described a big-dollar event in Houston with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Pressler, according to an account Johnson wrote in a 2011 alumni magazine.
But he struggled to draw an adequate amount of cash while drama percolated behind the scenes. That culminated in a flurry of lawsuits, including a whistleblower claim by a school vice president, who accused Aguillard of misappropriating money and lying to the board, according to court records.
A law firm brought in to conduct an investigation later concluded in a 2013 report that Aguillard had inappropriately diverted funds to a school the institution hoped to build in Africa, as well as for personal expenses.
Aguillard declined to comment on Tuesday, citing health reasons.
Meanwhile, the historic former federal courthouse in Shreveport that was selected as the law school’s campus required at least $20 million in renovations. The environment turned untenable after the school was denied accreditation to issue juris doctorate degrees and major donors backed away from their financial pledges.
“Mike worked diligently to assemble a very elite faculty and curriculum,” said Gilbert Little, who was involved in the effort. But “fundraising for a small private college is very, very difficult.”
Johnson resigned in the fall of 2012 and went back to litigating for Christian causes. He also started a new pro-bono firm, Freedom Guard, which Perkins served as a director, business filings show.
Five years later, Pressler, the school’s namesake, was sued in a civil case that has since grown to include allegations of abuse by multiple men who say he sexually assaulted them, some when they were children. The matter, which is still pending in court, helped spark a broader reckoning by the Southern Baptist Convention over its handling of claims of sexual abuse.
Little said the school was named after Pressler because he had a close relationship with the institution’s leaders. Johnson didn’t stray entirely from the school. He represented the college for six more years in a case challenging a mandate in then-President Barack Obama’s health care law that required employers to provide workers access to birth control, court records show.
It was the type of case that has defined his legal career.
The 51-year-old Johnson was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the eldest of four children in what he has described as a “traditional Christian household.” Tragedy struck when Johnson was 12.
His father, Pat, a Shreveport firefighter and hazardous materials specialist, was critically injured when ammonia gas leaking inside a cold storage facility exploded during an emergency repair — leaving him permanently disabled, while killing his partner.
“None of our lives would ever be the same again,” his son wrote years later in a commentary piece published in the Shreveport Times.
Johnson and his wife, Kelly, married in 1999, entering into a covenant marriage, which both have touted for the difficulty it poses to obtaining a divorce, and the couple served as a public face of an effort by evangelical conservatives to promote such marriages. In 2005, Kelly Johnson told ABC News that she viewed anything less as “marriage-light.”
Johnson has said he was the first in his family to graduate college, enrolling at Louisiana State University, where he earned a law degree in 1998. He also worked on the 1996 Senate campaign of Louis “Woody” Jenkins, where he had an early brush with a contested election.
Jenkins, a conservative state lawmaker, narrowly lost to Democrat Mary Landrieu amid allegations of voter fraud, including ballots cast by dead people and voters who were paid. A subsequent investigation by the Senate’s then-Republican majority found no evidence “to prove that fraud or irregularities affected the outcome of the election.”
But in the wake of Trump’s 2020 election loss, which Johnson played a leading role in disputing, the congressman offered a differing view of the decades-old contest while describing himself as a young law student “carrying around everyone’s briefcases.”
“Even though we had all the evidence all wrapped up,” Johnson, told Louisiana radio host Moon Griffon in 2020, the Senate “put it in a closet and never looked at it again.”
Even though Jenkins lost, Johnson drew notice from conservative activists who worked on the campaign.
Among them was Perkins, the founder of the Louisiana Family Forum, who has long promoted an existential clash between pious Christians and decadent liberals. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Mills, a longtime Perkins confidant who now leads the Louisiana Family Forum, called Johnson’s ascension to House speaker “a wonderful day in America,” adding, “if you don’t believe God is at work in the midst of this, then you aren’t paying attention.”
Of his initial interactions with Johnson, Mills said, “he just glowed.“
“The reality is Mike added value everywhere he went. And that was evident from the early days,” Mills said.
Soon Johnson was representing the group and others during his roughly decade-long tenure as an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal organization still in its infancy, which presented itself as a bulwark for traditional family values.
The group is no longer an upstart. Now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, the organization raised over $100 million in 2022 and conceived the legal strategy that led to the Supreme Court last year overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, among other conservative wins it helped secure from the high court.
Much of Johnson’s early work for ADF was far more prosaic. In court and before public boards, he represented conservatives on issues related to the exercise of faith in schools and alcohol regulations, as well as zoning disputes over casinos and strip clubs.
But Johnson’s vehement opposition to the burgeoning gay rights movement in the mid-2000s soon garnered greater attention.
In 2004, Johnson and the ADF filed suit, seeking to overturn a New Orleans law that allowed same-sex partners of city workers to receive health benefits, which a judge rejected.
He also wrote a semi-regular guest column in the Shreveport Times, where his defenses of “religious liberty” included stridently anti-gay rhetoric, including a prediction that same-sex marriage would be a “dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”
“If we change marriage for this tiny, modern minority, we will have to do it for every deviant group. Polygamists, polyamorists, pedophiles and others will be next in line to claim equal protection,” he wrote in a July 2004 column, as previously reported by CNN. “There will be no legal basis to deny a bisexual the right to marry a partner of each sex, or a person to marry his pet.”
Another column lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in 2004 to overturn a Texas law that outlawed same-sex intimacy, which Johnson referred to as “deviate sexual intercourse.”
His advocacy did not occur in a political vacuum. Then-President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign was looking to energize turnout among social conservatives, tapping allies across the U.S. to place referendums opposing gay marriage on the ballot in hopes of doing so. It’s a role Johnson leaned into.
In 2004, he represented the Louisiana Family Forum in opposing a case filed by gay rights supporters who sought to block a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that prohibited “civil unions” — a legal precursor to same-sex marriage — and codified marriage as between one man and one woman.
The amendment was overwhelmingly approved in an unusual and low-turnout election, held weeks before the 2004 presidential contest, in which it was the only issue on the ballot. The election was marred by the late delivery of voting machines to the Democratic stronghold of Orleans Parish.
In a legal brief, Johnson chided gay rights supporters for challenging the outcome in court.
“Discontent with an election’s results does not entitle one to have it overturned,” he wrote. Nearly two decades later, Johnson, then in Trump’s corner, would effectively argue the opposite.
Johnson’s harsh rhetoric in the early 2000s surrounding the issue of gay rights contrasts starkly with the amiable image he cultivated following his election to public office, which is punctuated with appeals for “a respectful, diverse society where citizens from all viewpoints can peacefully coexist.”
Yet his arguments often obscure a far more striking reality.
The Marriage and Conscience Act, which he sponsored as a freshman state representative in 2015, would have effectively blocked Louisiana from punishing business owners and workers who discriminated against gay couples, so long as it was for religious reasons — similar to arguments invoked during the Civil Rights era against interracial marriage. The bill was rejected by lawmakers in both parties.
The following year, critics charged that his “Pastor Protection Act,” which was focused on gay marriage, would also create a legal defense for clergy who opposed interracial marriage. Johnson, who has an adopted Black son, acknowledged the point but argued it wasn’t a big deal because opposition to interracial marriage was an issue of the past — unlike gay marriage.
“Maybe there are some people out there who do that. But it’s not a big current issue, I think we would agree, at least in the courts and the court of public opinion,” Johnson said during a 2016 committee hearing.
The bill was rejected by lawmakers in both parties. Johnson was elected to Congress the next fall, drawing his short tenure as a lawmaker in Baton Rouge to a close.
Lamar White Jr., a progressive who wrote a widely read Louisiana political blog, said his interactions with Johnson were always pleasant, even if he “disagreed with everything he stood for.”
“His climb to the top is not surprising considering his personal charm, his charisma and intellect, which were disarming,” said White. “That obscured the end goal and what he was really up to.”
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Trenton Daniel in New York contributed to this report.