ST. LOUIS • When Dave Roland heard that Hazelwood had stopped two Girl Scouts from selling cookies from their driveway because it violated city codes, it was just the kind of constitutional case he was craving.
"It put in really high relief the dangers that can result ... if the government is not required to abide by constitutional checks on its authority," Roland said.
"People would assume you have the right to have a lemonade or cookie stand in your yard," he said. "Here we have a city that says not only is it illegal, but you can't even get a permit to do it. It's almost a caricature of people's sense of justice. It is such a sharp departure from what most people would consider common sense."
Roland, 33, and his wife, Jenifer, 35, are co-founders of the Freedom Center of Missouri, a new legal advocacy group that promotes individual liberty and limited government. The center is among a growing number of state groups that seek to litigate constitutional cases in state courts against what they see as an intrusive government.
"What we're fighting for is the right of people to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as they're not hurting anyone," Dave Roland said. "People should be free to live their lives."
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, said many of the litigation centers have grown out of the State Policy Network, a coalition of free-market think tanks whose goals, he said, include limiting government regulation of business and private property, privatizing public education and weakening public sector unions.
According to the Missouri center's website, it conducts research and pursues litigation in five areas: freedom of expression, economic and religious liberties, property rights and limited government.
In the Girl Scout case, the center represents Carolyn Mills, who received a letter in March from Hazelwood's code enforcement division informing her of a complaint about the driveway stand and warning that selling products from the home violated city code.
In April, Mills filed a civil suit in St. Louis County Court on behalf of her two daughters challenging city authority to ban the stand. The suit seeks no money, just a judge's ruling on whether the city action is valid. The case is pending.
"I just think they went too far," Mills said. "It's too much government bureaucracy getting into your business."
The center also represents a Kansas City-area couple accused of operating an apartment locator website without a real estate license. Roland argued that the couple were engaged in free speech when they posted publicly available information on their website. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the couple in July. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is planned.
"You ought to be able to share truthful information that doesn't pose a danger to anybody," Roland said.
The center also is representing an animal husbandry worker in northwest Missouri accused of practicing veterinary care without a license. That case involves a woman who for eight years has performed the routine practice of annually filing down horses' teeth.
The government took action after a competitor complained.
"Up until the 1920s, it was just taken for granted (that) people were able to earn a living in the harmless professions," Roland said. "Today, government has a strong presumption it can regulate whatever it wants, even if it's to protect from competition."
Jenifer Roland said they seek clients who are unwilling to accept a settlement.
"We try to ... select the cases that have the most potential to have the most change," she said.
Even then, Jenifer Roland knows her clients will lose most of the time.
"You have to be a little bit of an ideologue to keep it up every day," she said. "There is a fear of discouragement and cynicism when you're fighting such an uphill battle. What's most important to us is being consistent and getting our message out. We're not just fighting this in judicial courts but in the court of public opinion. We're trying to change hearts and minds."
Dave Roland grew up in Alabama. He graduated from Abilene Christian University and received a law degree and master's degree in theology from Vanderbilt University.
Jenifer Roland is a Mexico, Mo., native who attended Truman State University and earned a master's in public administration and a law degree from the University of Missouri.
The couple met in Washington, where they both worked at the Institute for Justice. The 20-year-old institute was founded with 'seed money" from libertarian and anti-regulation billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and receives much of its funding from conservative foundations.
In 2007, the Rolands moved to Missouri to work for the Show-Me Institute, the think tank backed by retired investment banker and political activist Rex Sinquefield.
Dave Roland had hoped to set up a legal advocacy center within the institute but said, "ultimately, they just weren't interested."
With savings, the Rolands launched the Freedom Center in October from their St. Louis home.
The nonpartisan center is waiting approval as a nonprofit organization. Until then, large donors and foundations are hesitant to contribute, Dave Roland said. In eight months the center has raised $70,000 from 62 contributors.
Two weeks ago, Roland was worried he and his wife might have to close their center. Later that same day, he received a donation that he said would allow the center to operate at least until the end of the year. He declined to name the donor.
But Roland did say the center decided not to accept money from Sinquefield.
"It's not that we have any hard feelings or disagreements toward Mr. Sinquefield. But one of the things we saw working there was that being associated with that name can be a barrier. A lot of times people on the left shut down if they heard we had any association," he said.
Roland said he hopes to pursue cases in which liberals and conservatives can find common ground. One example might be a civil asset forfeiture case in which property is seized absent a crime.
In such cases, he can appeal to liberals' concerns about government involvement in private lives and conservatives' support for property rights.
"We feel very strongly that the cases we take and the perspectives we bring can bring something to both sides of the current political debate," Dave Roland said.
"Our goal is to bridge the gap between the two perspectives. It's a fun place to be, but it's like walking a tightrope."