A few years ago, the Christian Nationalist legal juggernaut Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) made a statement that should have sent chills down the spines of all Americans who value their right to worship — or not — as guided by conscience without the government meddling in religion.
Describing the Blackstone Fellowship, a program ADF runs for law students, the group said on one of its websites, “Alliance Defending Freedom seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. This is catholic, universal orthodoxy, and it is desperately crucial for cultural renewal.”
Americans United and other organizations that defend separation of church and state have long asserted that Christian Nationalist organizations want to drag the United States back to the 1950s. It turns out the problem is much worse: They want to go Byzantine on us.
The startling statement was scrubbed from the Blackstone site after Americans United brought it to the attention of journalists. But while it can be pulled from cyberspace, it simply can’t be tossed down a memory hole forever. Indeed, the statement remains an apt description of what this group really wants: a society where everyone’s rights bow to a narrow, fundamentalist definition of faith followed by some, but by no means all, Christians.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which was radicalized during the Trump presidency, has given ADF a huge lift. The group now has the legal winds at its back and is racking up victories. In light of that, it behooves all Americans to learn about this organization and its agenda.
Americans United is no stranger to ADF, a prominent member of the Shadow Network of groups working to undermine church-state separation. AU’s first report about ADF appeared in Church & State in December 1993. At the time, the group was calling itself the Alliance Defense Fund. Founded by a coalition of far-right radio and TV preachers, ADF was conceived as a kind of funding pool for other Christian Nationalist organizations working in the courts. The idea was that ADF would collect the money and act as an ATM for the Religious Right.
Most of ADF’s founders were hardly household names. The most prominent was James C. Dobson, a child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family. Other founders included Larry Burkett, an investment counselor who ran a group called Christian Financial Concepts; the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association; Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ; TV preacher D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries; Marlin Maddoux, a conservative Christian radio host and Alan Sears, an anti-pornography crusader who had worked for Attorney General Edwin Meese during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Sears would go on to become ADF’s first CEO. (Homeschooling advocate Michael Farris ran the group from 2017-22. Its current CEO is Kristen Waggoner.)
Sears is a conservative Catholic, but the other men who founded ADF, some of whom have since died, were far-right evangelical Christians. All shared a belief that LGBTQ+ rights and legal abortion must be rolled back, if not abolished outright. Sears penned an entire book attacking LGBTQ+ rights, while Dobson, Wildmon and Maddoux were known for using their public platforms to attack LGBTQ+ people, feminism, reproductive rights and church-state separation.
ADF’s attempts to roll back the legal rights of, and its attacks on, LGBTQ+ Americans led the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to label the organization a “hate group” — a designation ADF vociferously disputes. In defending the label, SPLC has pointed out that ADF supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ+ adults in America and the criminalization of such acts in foreign nations. ADF has also defended old European laws that required transgender people to undergo sterilization as a condition of receiving new I.D. documents, claimed that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be pedophiles [demonstrably untrue] and asserted that allowing gay people to adopt children and serve in the military will result in “weakening the family and undermining the values that support it, [which] will ultimately destroy our society.”
ADF, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., began with seed money of $25 million. And while the group did spend several years merely awarding grants to other organizations, by the 2010s ADF was directly litigating cases. On July 9, 2012, it announced its name change. Two years later, it had 40 attorneys on staff. Its annual budget is now more than $100 million.
ADF has opposed Americans United on several church-state issues, from tax funding of religion to social policy. The group sponsored Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a 2022 ruling in which the high court overturned 1973’s Roe v. Wade and obliterated constitutional protections for legal abortion.
Last term, the group won 303 Creative v. Elenis, which declared that a web designer has a right to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Other ADF cases at the Supreme Court include:
National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra (2018): This ruling invalidated a California law that mandated that deceptive “crisis pregnancy centers,” groups run by anti-abortion advocates, make it clear that they don’t provide abortions.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018): In one of ADF’s most high-profile cases, the Supreme Court ruled that state officials in Colorado had discriminated against a Colorado baker who refused to make wedding cakes for a same-sex couple. While the high court did not rule that the baker had a constitutional right to discriminate based on religious freedom, the ruling was a huge step backwards for civil rights.
Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017): The Supreme Court ruled that government officials in Missouri were required to give tax funds to a church that sought to make upgrades to a playground.
Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell (2014): In a blow to reproductive rights, the Supreme Court ruled that a secular business that manufactured wood products was not required to abide by a federal law mandating that employers include birth-control coverage in health care plans.
Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014): Americans United brought this case, challenging a New York town’s policy regarding the leading of prayers before city council meetings. ADF defended the city. The Supreme Court ruled that the city’s policy was constitutional, even though it tended to result in Christian prayer being used most of the time.
Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011): This ruling opened the door to increased tax funding of religious schools by making it more difficult for taxpayers to sue to block school voucher programs.
As ADF grew, so did public scrutiny of the organization. Now, with 15 Supreme Court victories under its belt, the group is receiving heightened attention. Three recent stories are of special interest — a long-form piece in The New Yorker, an article in The Nation and an investigative story in The Washington Post.
The Post story notes that ADF appears to be manufacturing cases in such a way as to facilitate getting them before the Supreme Court. The newspaper examined court filings and found that in one court petition filed by ADF, the group cited a photographer, a videographer and an artist who claimed they were ordered to work with same-sex couples. But the newspaper found two of the three vendors “had stopped working on weddings, and the other did not photograph any weddings for two years. Three additional vendors represented by ADF in similar lawsuits elsewhere also abandoned or sharply cut back their work on weddings after they sued local authorities for the right to reject same-sex couples, The Post found.”
The Post added, “ADF also had a hand in formally establishing companies for some of its clients, The Post found. Lawyers associated with the legal group signed incorporation paperwork and helped to draft company policies that were later used as a basis for the wedding lawsuits. ADF promoted some of its lawsuits with videos and images of plaintiffs photographing women in bridal gowns at what The Post found were staged events featuring ADF employees.”
A good example of this is the 303 Creative case from the Supreme Court’s last term. The plaintiff, a website designer, hadn’t created a single wedding website for any couple, whether of the opposite sex or of the same sex. But she speculated that she might want to someday and if so, she wouldn’t want to serve same-sex couples. Using this completely theoretical conjecture, ADF got her case before the highest court in the land, which ruled in her favor.
In The Nation article, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser pointed out that allowing ADF to create bogus cases like this tilts the legal playing field in the group’s direction.
Laser noted that when AU “litigates cases, we have serious heartburn around the standing phase. We’re held to incredibly high standards every time. The same rules don’t apply to the Shadow Network, because they have cronies — and I mean real cronies — right there on the bench.”
And if we’re not careful, those cronies, by embracing ADF’s tactics, may drag us right back to the 5th century.