Alliance Defending Freedom and First Liberty: taking over America’s public schools

AU’s latest lawsuit opposes the Shadow Network’s hostile takeover of America’s public schools

The billion-dollar Shadow Network of Christian Nationalists we’ve been warning you about is targeting Americans United’s newest lawsuit in Oklahoma. So far, three major Shadow Network players are involved: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), First Liberty Institute and the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Oklahoma’s Attorney General warned the charter school board not to approve St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, a  so-called “religious public charter” school, and has refused to defend the board’s unconstitutional approval. So the board has turned to ADF.

A group of Christian Nationalist TV and radio preachers launched ADF in 1993 to attack church-state separation. By mid-2022, its annual revenue exceeded $104 million. ADF claims to have trained nearly 2,500 young lawyers through legal fellowships, which are meant to help it “recover the robust Christendomic theolo­gy of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” ADF has burrowed its tendrils deep into the halls of power. Before her Supreme Court appointment, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was paid thousands to deliver lectures to ADF legal fellows. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri was on ADF’s fellowship faculty. His wife Erin works for ADF and is litigating a case designed to block access to forms of birth control. The Hawleys met while clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts. U.S. Rep. and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson of Louisiana worked for ADF.

First Liberty Institute

In letters and testimony, First Liberty Institute urged Oklahoma’s charter school board to approve St. Isidore. An attorney speaking for the Institute “offered to personally represent” board members who ignored the attorney general’s advice.

The Institute has worked to erode the church-state wall for decades. As Andrew L. Seidel noted in his book American Crusade: “The Institute wants Christian supremacy. It fought to keep evolution out of public schools; and bible classes, Jesus portraits, and school-imposed prayer in public schools. Like other Crusaders, the Institute wraps this supremacy in religious freedom.”

Last Supreme Court term, the Institute litigated and spun the “deceitful narrative” in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which a public high school football coach imposed prayers on students at the 50-yard line after games. AU defended the school district. We also supported Maine in Carson v. Makin, the Institute’s case to force taxpayers to fund religious education and indoctrination. Before Kennedy, the Institute brought in about $8 million per year; now that’s up to more than $25 million.

The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative

The Initiative was designed to implement the ideas of the founder of another member of the Shadow Network, the Becket Fund (which we profiled in May). The Initiative’s main arm, the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic, is run by Stephanie Barclay, a former Becket attorney.

Barclay clerked for Justice Neil Gorsuch during the catastrophic 2022 term, even as the clinic filed a slew of legal briefs in Supreme Court cases, usually opposing AU. It supported the coach in Kennedy v. Bremerton, backed forcing Maine taxpayers to fund religious education and supported requiring Boston to display a Christian flag in front of its city hall.

Just weeks after the Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Initiative hosted a conference in Rome at which Justice Samuel Alito demanded privilege for and deference to conservative Christians. The Initiative paid for Alito’s trip, one of several that has landed him in “the hot seat.” And Justice Barrett taught at Notre Dame alongside many of the lawyers involved with the Initiative. In fact, the Initiative was founded four months before Barrett was thrust onto the Supreme Court.

The clinic assisted the Oklahoma religious school’s efforts to obtain approval to be a public charter school. A Notre Dame law professor affiliated with the Initiative and the clinic was clear about this school being the first in a national assault: “I hope that St. Isidore may be the first of many faith-based charter schools to work with states … around the country.

Not on our watch!

Not on our watch! AU is not only fighting their hostile takeover of religious freedom and public education, we’re also training the next generation of lawyers and activists, and building a diverse coalition that is ready for the long term fight. We know there’s no easy fix, but we also know that together we can relegate Christian Nationalism back to the fringe.

We're witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education and religious public charter schools are the next American frontier. America needs a national recommitment to the separation of church and state. Rachel Laser, President and CEO

Americans United is fighting corruption, dark money, and an overfunded crusade against the separation of church and state. We need your support.

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