June 2004 Church & State | Featured

In December of 1993, right-wing radio talk show host Marlin Maddoux announced the formation of a new legal organization that would attack church-state separation and oppose groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Our intent is to out-swamp them so bad they'll wonder why they ever went into this business," bragged Maddoux, a Dallas radio minister, since deceased, who at that time hosted a program called "Point of View."

The following year, Maddoux and five Religious Right colleagues made good on the promise, launching the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). Now marking its 10-year anniversary, the organization hasn't quite "out-swamped" AU and the ACLU – but it has raised millions of dollars for Religious Right legal cases and been active in federal and state lawsuits that seek to blast holes in the wall of separation between church and state.

Lately, the ADF has been in the news in a big way. When battles over same-sex marriage erupted in California, Massa­chu­setts, Oregon, New Mexico and New York earlier this year, the ADF spearheaded the opposition. In many ways, it was a natural move for the group. For years, the ADF had been opposing "domestic partner" laws in various cities, fighting ordinances protecting gays from discrimination and even working to deny gay parents custody of their own children. The ADF would regularly mail lurid fund-raising letters warning of the latest plot by "militant homosexuals" to undermine the Ameri­can family.

Still, the ADF remained under the radar for most Americans. Although the group became well known in Religious Right circles, it was far from a household name elsewhere. With the battle over same-sex marriage heating up in several states, that may be changing.

Newspapers usually describe the ADF, which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., as a "conservative" group but give little additional information. USA Today even called the ADF "a legal alliance that promotes religious freedom...."

Critics say a description such as that doesn't even begin to tell the story. Far from supporting religious liberty, the ADF champions the exact opposite: It was formed by a band of television preachers and radio broadcasters to advance the Religious Right's perspective in the courts.

The ADF, watchdogs at Americans United say, champions a radical agenda to destroy the wall of separation between church and state. It even has close ties to the most extreme faction of the Religious Right – a movement that wants to create a harsh fundamentalist Christian theocracy in America. (See "The ADF's Reconstructionist Ties," page 9.)

Since its founding, the ADF has played a role in nearly every church-state case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and many lower federal courts. Since 1994, the ADF has directly or partially funded cases dealing with government aid to religion, religion in public schools, abortion, gay rights and religiously based censorship. Throughout, the organization's goal has been the same: merge religion and government.

The idea behind the Alliance Defense Fund was simple: Prominent Religious Right leaders would lend their names to the organization and help it solicit funds. The ADF was originally conceived as a type of giant Religious Right ATM. The group would collect millions from ultra-conservative, politically active fundamentalist Christians and then parcel the money out to Religious Right legal groups working in the courts to lower the wall of separation between church and state. Although footing the bill, the ADF would remain behind the scenes.

A good example occurred in 1995 when the Supreme Court heard a case from Virginia called Rosenberger v. Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, in which a conservative Christian student successfully sought money from the UVA student subsidies for his evangelical newspaper. On the surface, the case was litigated by attorneys with a Washington, D.C., group called the Center for Individual Rights. But it was really the ADF that provided the funding that made the case possible.

That model was the original plan, and the ADF stuck with it for many years. Today, the group still provides that type of funding to outside legal groups. But two years ago, perhaps eager to get a taste of the courtroom action itself, the ADF expanded its efforts and hired staff attorneys to begin directly litigating cases on its own.

From the beginning, the ADF was clear about what it wanted to achieve. Its founders announced the group's formation in 1994 with a huge direct-mail campaign aimed at fundamentalist Christians. Maddoux and five other high-profile Religious Right leaders endorsed the effort: James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family; Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ; D. James Kennedy, a television evangelist and head of Coral Ridge Ministries; the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association; and Larry Burkett, president of Christian Financial Concepts (now Crown Financial Ministries), a fundamentalist-oriented financial services company. (Bright and Burkett both passed away in July of 2003.)

In a letter soliciting donations for the ADF, Dobson wrote, "[B]y pooling resources, substantial amounts of money can be channeled into a critical aspect of the civil war for values – namely, the legal battle in our nation's courts for the sanctity of life, the defense of religious freedom, and the preservation of traditional family values."

The innocuous-sounding language masked the ADF's real agenda: Knocking down the church-state wall and aligning the country with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

Early ADF fund-raising mail almost always found a way to drag in references to President Bill Clinton, and the ACLU was a frequent target. For many years, ADF solicitations were accompanied by a mock newspaper article headlined, "The ACLU Finally Meets Its Match."

In the late 1990s, the organization shifted gears and decided that gay bashing would be more lucrative. A 1999 letter sent under the signature of Alan E. Sears, president and general counsel of the ADF, stated, "I can't stress enough that the traditional family is under relentless attack by homosexual activists. By God's grace, the Alliance Defense Fund is a major force in opposing them."

Like other anti-gay fundamentalists, Sears is always careful to claim that he loves his enemies. The same letter, after four pages of portraying gays as a dangerous, malevolent force, asserts, "At risk is our freedom to help people find forgiveness for their sins. That is the greatest need for the heterosexual and the homosexual alike, and the reason that ADF is motivated by compassion, not hatred, for our opponents."

Aside from attacking gays, Sears never hesitates to launch salvos at Jefferson's wall of separation. Sears, a longtime Religious Right ally who served as an anti-pornography crusader in the Reagan administration, has repeatedly ridiculed that protective barrier.

In a January ADF e-mail alert bragging about the ADF's successes, Sears charged, "One by one, more and more bricks that make up the artificial 'wall of separation' between church and state are being removed and Christians are once again being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to equal access to public facilities and funding."

In a February alert, Sears called separation of church and state "bogus." In August of 2003, he issued an alert asserting that in recent years "we have seen one brick after another removed from the so-called 'wall of separation' between church and state."

In an August 2003 opinion column for Baptist Press, the news organ of the Southern Baptist Convention, Sears really pulled out all of the stops. He accused "radical advocates" of "trying to rewrite the Constitution by making the First Amendment say something it doesn't. The First Amendment plainly forbids the creation of a national denomination, because that would be an 'establishment of religion.' It says nothing about the so-called 'separation of church and state.'"

Church-state separation, Sears went on to assert, was invented by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan. "Klan doctrine," he wrote, "is not a good way to interpret the U.S. Constitution."

Reflecting on Bright's death last July, Sears remarked that Bright was crucial to the overarching goals of the ADF.

"It was Bill Bright," said Sears, "who challenged us to think 'God-sized thoughts,' to envision not just fighting, but winning, not just keeping the door open for the gospel, but reclaiming the entire legal system under a higher law."

(Church & State sought to ask Sears about these views, but he did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Attacks on church-state separation and assaults on the religious neutrality of the public school system were the ADF's bread and butter in the early years. In fact, in August of 1995 Sears told the Denver Post the ADF was formed because, "There are some groups with a particular agenda, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State."

While ADF still works assiduously to undermine the church-state wall on a number of fronts, the group has been heavily focused in recent months by the latest Religious Right-declared "culture war": gay marriage.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom earlier this year ordered the city to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses, the ADF couldn't wait to jump into the fray. ADF attorneys were so eager to get involved that they ran over one of their own allies – Religious Right attorney Mathew Staver's Florida-based Liberty Counsel.

Staver, who is now closely aligned with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, had accepted ADF largesse in the past. He hoped to be the lead attorney in an effort to stop same-sex marriages in California, but ADF attorneys had the same idea. Staver later told the Los Angeles Times that he was prepared to challenge domestic partnerships in California even before the same-sex marriage flap but deferred when the ADF asked him to.

When gay marriages started in San Francisco, Staver rushed into court to block them but made a procedural error in filing his papers. While that matter was being resolved, ADF attorneys slipped into court and filed their own papers, hoping to seize control of the issue. ADF Chief Counsel Benjamin Bull later rubbed salt in the wound by dissing Staver in the media, telling the Times that some of Staver's work was not up to par.

Staver fired back, telling the newspaper that the ADF has in the past taken credit for his cases when they have only partially subsidized them with small grants.

A state court later consolidated the cases, leaving Liberty Counsel and the ADF jockeying for control of the legal effort.

"Please be in prayer in the days ahead – for the court, for the ADF attorneys involved in the case, and most of all, that God's plan for marriage and the family will be allowed to prevail," Sears wrote in a recent e-mail to supporters.

The ADF also sued in Oregon, where officials in Multnomah County had been issuing same-sex marriage licenses. The group claimed a great victory when a state judge ordered a stop to the licenses, but in reality the decision was mixed because the judge refused to invalidate the 3,000 same-sex marriages that had taken place. Nevertheless, Sears immediately issued a "Special News Alert" to supporters via e-mail attributing the victory to ADF attorneys and the Almighty.


Sears is so incensed about gay rights that in 2003 he coauthored a book titled The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. Heavily advertised in the right-wing media, the tome, produced by Broadman & Holman Publishers, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, asserts that the ultimate goal of gay activists is to intimidate conservative Christians into silence.

Sears comes off looking a tad paranoid in The Homosexual Agenda. He tends to see gay conspiracies everywhere. In the book, he asserts that the zany 1959 comedy film "Some Like It Hot," in which two musicians dress as women and join an all-female band to hide from mobsters, promotes cross dressing. Sears also speculates that the popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants is gay. (To make the case, Sears cites a Wall Street Journal article that notes that SpongeBob often holds hands with his friend Patrick, a pink starfish.)

To ensure that its anti-gay, anti-separation agenda survives in the years to come, the ADF has launched special efforts aimed at law students. Every summer, it holds a seminar for attorneys in training called the Blackstone Fellowship.

The ADF's website (www.alliancedefensefund.org) says the program is designed to, "Profoundly influence Christian law students to take their training and knowledge into positions of influence where they can bring about needed change in America's legal system." (In 2003, 10 percent of the program's attendees came from one school: Ave Maria Law School, an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic institution founded by Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan.)

The staffer who runs the Blackstone program for the ADF, Jeffrey J. Ventrella, is, like Sears, no fan of gay people. During a Feb. 24 debate on gay rights at Rice University, Ventrella veered into rhetorical excess.

"For that organ that was designed to be the font of new life," he said, "to be placed in that cavity which was designed to eliminate waste – what that tells us is that, philosophically, death has swallowed life."

According to Houston Voice, Ven­trella's statement "prompted shocked outbursts and laughter from the crowd."

Ventrella also has little use for the public schools. In a May 1999 article published in New Horizons, a magazine published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he wrote, "In recent decades, God has granted his church a new interest in rearing covenant children. Many Christian parents have recognized that covenant faithfulness necessitates removing their children from the godless secular schools. Home education and private Christian schools have become common."

Previous Blackstone Fellowships have featured David Barton, a Texas-based "Christian nation" advocate whose historically inaccurate retelling of U.S. history is wildly popular among the Religious Right.

For lawyers already working in the field, the ADF sponsors a "National Litigation Academy." The five-day seminar amounts to a crash-course in how to be a lawyer for the Religious Right. Attendees don't pay for the training but in return pledge to provide 450 hours of free legal services to ADF over a three-year period. On its website ADF boasts, "As of September 2003, more than 700 individuals have graduated from 17 National Litigation Academy sessions and pledged more than $65,000,000 of pro bono legal work!"

Attorneys or would-be attorneys who go through ADF training often end up later working on cases for groups like Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, the Liberty Counsel or other Religious Right legal outfits. Others simply freelance.

The group's success may be due in part to its powerful friends – especially FOF's Dobson. Since its formation, the ADF has retained strong ties to Focus on the Family. Dobson was a founder, and Focus Vice President of Public Policy Tom Minnery serves on the ADF Board of Directors. (The board also includes representatives from Campus Crusade for Christ and Coral Ridge Ministries.)

Backing from Religious Right heavy-hitters like Dobson has made it easier for the ADF to raise funds. Although it has yet to reach its goal of netting $25 million per year, the sums collected are not shabby. According to information from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), a voluntary oversight group of which ADF is a member, the group raised nearly $16.5 million in fiscal year 2002-03. Of that figure, $11.5 million went for programs and services, about $2 million went for administrative expenses and a little over $2 million paid for fund-raising.

ECFA summaries do not include information about salaries, but as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the ADF must make much of its financial information public on a federal tax document known as a Form 990. This form, which must by law be made available for inspection, shows that Sears is well compensated for his work at the ADF: In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, he earned more than a quarter of a million dollars.

With well-heeled attorneys on staff, an army of volunteer lawyers nationwide and a growing public profile, what can the ADF achieve? Defenders of church-state separation say the answer to that question depends to a large extent on the federal courts.

In recent years, observers note, the Supreme Court has approved certain types of government aid to religious institutions, culminating in the 2002 ruling upholding vouchers for private religious schools. While the ADF and other Religious Right legal groups were quick to claim credit for this, in reality the decisions were brought about because Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and the first George Bush had stacked the federal courts with justices with a wary or even hostile view toward church-state separation.

But in other instances, the Supreme Court continues to uphold church-state separation in the face of ADF attacks. The high court has shown no desire to overturn the school prayer rulings, for example, and has turned down cases dealing with the display of religious symbols like the Ten Commandments on government property.

In Alabama, ADF attorneys fought Americans United and backed former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in his battle to display a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building. Even with the ADF's help, Moore lost every round.

And, despite the ADF's constant vows to overturn legal abortion and roll back gay rights, so far a high court majority has not gone along. The court has voted to keep the core findings of Roe v. Wade intact and last year struck down state laws that made consensual gay sex among adults a crime.

"Groups like the ADF advocate a radical restructuring of church-state relations in America," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "They want to remove the church-state wall and gain favored status from the government for their version of fundamentalist Christianity. We plan to fight them every step of the way."