Back in 1993, a band of TV and radio preachers came together to form a new Religious Right group called Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) that would focus on the courts.
Although there had been previous efforts by the Religious Right to influence the legal system, the original idea behind ADF was a little different: It would serve as a funding pool. The radio and television evangelists would tap the power of their massive audiences for $25 million in donations that would be parceled out to Religious right legal groups. I once referred to the group as a “giant ATM for the Religious Right’s legal work.”
But that model didn’t last. Soon, ADF was hiring its own lawyers and taking on cases itself. (The group also changed its name to Alliance Defending Freedom.) As the organization grew with an annual budget topping $40 million, many of the legal groups it had once funded became less prominent. The ADF pioneered a more sophisticated legal strategy, basing many of its arguments on “religious freedom” and “free speech.”
Today’s Washington Post includes a profile of the ADF, focusing mainly on one of the group’s attorneys Kristen Waggoner. The Post refers to the ADF as a “powerhouse,” and the feature highlights the string of victories the group has won lately, including the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
The extent of that victory is debatable. The ADF represented a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. The ADF and its allies in the Religious Right had hoped the high court would use the case as a vehicle to announce a broad new rule giving Christian fundamentalists the right to refuse to serve LGBTQ people and others on the ground of religion. That didn’t happen. The court ruled for the baker on the narrowest of grounds, declaring that the proceedings in Colorado had been tainted by religious bias. In the lead opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy made it clear that LGBTQ people may not be subjected to “indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
The Post’s story, which appears in the newspaper’s Style section, focuses mainly on Waggoner and even delves into some aspects of her personal life. It’s a breezy read that doesn’t really go deep into what ADF hopes to do. I’ve met some ADF staffers over the years (but not Waggoner) and have found them, on a personal level, to be nice people -- but I am always aware of the organization’s larger goals, and those remain alarming.
The ADF is avowedly theocratic. Its goal is to infuse its brand of Christian fundamentalism in every aspect of our lives. The church-state wall, it believes, is an “artificial” barrier. The ADF would happily strip women of their right to legal abortion, reduce access to birth control, infuse Christian symbols at the seat of government, politicize house of worship by nullifying the Johnson Amendment and take away the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
This last point is important and in many ways has been the crux of ADF’s work of late. The group just doesn’t seem to like LGBTQ people very much. The ADF denies having an anti-gay animus, but its actions indicate otherwise.
Time after time, the ADF has worked to strip LGBTQ Americans of basic rights. The group fought doggedly to block marriage equality, and when that failed after the Supreme Court upheld it in 2015, the group shifted gears. It started taking on cases like the one concerning the Colorado bakery seeking to secure a legal right to discriminate.
Most recently, the ADF has also been leading the way with a new flock of cases that target the transgender community. The ADF has long been obsessed with enforcing traditional gender roles. Its first president, Alan Sears, wrote a book in 2003 called The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today that attacked wacky comedy films such as “Some Like It Hot” and “Tootsie” for promoting cross-dressing.
And while the group takes pains to portray itself as an organization that promotes “religious freedom,” it defines that term in a way that would allow Christian fundamentalists to impose their narrow version of Christianity on everyone else.
For years, the ADF has sponsored a “Freedom Legal Academy” for attorneys and summer training for law students called the Blackstone Legal Fellowships. Faculty for the Blackstone program at one time included discredited “Christian nation” advocate David Barton and two men – Gary DeMar and Andrew Sandlin – who are members of the extreme Christian Reconstructionist movement that seeks to replace American democracy with Old Testament “biblical law.”
The goal of the program is equally shocking. The ADF stated bluntly on its website that the program aims to “recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.”
This all-too-frank line has since been removed, but I have no doubt that its spirit remains alive and well at the ADF.
What would it be like to live in a 21st century nation with laws based on the time of the officially Christian Byzantine Empire? Unless Americans start fighting back against groups like the ADF and stand up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to stack the federal judiciary with far-right judges, we may all be unfortunate enough to find out.