Founded by some 30 leaders of the Christian Right, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal advocacy and training group that has:
- Supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad
- Defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad
- Contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia
- Claimed that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy Christianity and society
ADF also works to develop “religious liberty” legislation and case law that will allow the denial of goods and services to LGBTQ people on the basis of religion. Despite its regular defamation of LGBTQ people, the group has managed to win special advisory status at the United Nations, in the European Union, and with the Organization of American States. Since the election of President Trump, ADF has become one of the most influential groups informing the administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights
In Its Own Words
“Allowing males to compete in the female category isn’t fair and destroys girls’ athletic opportunities. Males will always have inherent physical advantages over comparably talented and trained girls—that’s the reason we have girls’ sports in the first place. And a male’s belief about his gender doesn’t eliminate those advantages.” – ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb, referring to trans female athletes as male in ADF news release, 2019
“Men who self-identify as women are still biological men. Sure, they can take synthetic hormones to make themselves appear more feminine, style their hair, and wear makeup (or not). But being a woman is more than a physical appearance or a feeling—it is a biological reality. And no amount of wishing or desire will ever change the fact that a feminized man will never truly experience what it is to be a woman.” – Marissa Mayer, senior web writer, on the ADF website, 2019
“The only surprise is the rapidity with which this degradation of our human dignity has occurred. It has occurred, with raging effect, and within twelve months, on the heels of government mandated recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ – an oxymoronic institution if ever there was one. And, for its radical adherents, this has led to a deification of deviant sexual practices. It has further resulted in the inevitable and aggressive persecution of devout Christians who refuse to bow to the false god of sexual license.” – ADF-affiliated attorney Charles LiMandri, “The Tyranny of Made-Up Sexual Identities, 2015
“The endgame of the homosexual legal agenda is unfettered sexual liberty and the silencing of all dissent.” – ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley at the Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage conference, 2014
“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. Christians must strive to build glorious cultural cathedrals, rather than shanty tin sheds.” – Blackstone Legal Fellowship website, 2014
“When given the same choice the Supreme Court of the United States had in Lawrence vs. Texas, the Indian Court did the right thing. India chose to protect society at large rather than give in to a vocal minority of homosexual advocates. … America needs to take note that a country of 1.2 billion people has rejected the road towards same-sex marriage, and understood that these kinds of bad decisions in the long run will harm society.” – Benjamin Bull, former executive director of ADF Global, on the recriminalization of consensual sex between adults of the same sex in India, 2013
“[C]ontrol of the educational system is central to those who want to advance the homosexual agenda. By its very nature, homosexual acts are incapable of bearing fruit – indeed, strictly speaking, they are not sexual, as they are incapable of being generative or procreative. Thus there is the need to desensitize and corrupt young minds, both to undermine resistance to the agenda and for recruitment among those that are at an emotionally vulnerable stage of development.” – Then-senior ADF Legal Counsel (Global) Piero Tozzi, speaking at the World Congress of Families gathering in Madrid, Spain, 2012
“And in the course of the now hundreds of cases the Alliance Defense Fund has now fought involving this homosexual agenda, one thing is certain: there is no room for compromise with those who would call evil ‘good.’” – Alan Sears, speaking at the World Congress of Families gathering in Madrid, Spain, 2012
“The government should promote and encourage strong families. When school officials have to choose between protecting children in those families or furthering the homosexual agenda, the choice is obvious: protecting our children comes first.” – Austin Nimocks, then-ADF senior counsel opposing a “Welcoming Schools” curriculum, 2008
“In the end, those who profess to be ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’ or who have otherwise slipped in and out of homosexual behavior, including ‘cruising’ for anonymous partners, are people who succumb to a dangerous temptation.” – Austin Nimocks, then-ADF senior counsel, writing at TownHall.com, 2007
“As the homosexual agenda continues to sexualize our culture, other once-forbidden behaviors are exalted as just more alternative lifestyles. The result is that the well-being of millions of children is at risk, along with the right of parents to protect their children from sexual exploitation.” – Alan Sears and Craig Osten, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, 2003
“We mention the new promotion of pedophilia in the context of talking about the influence of homosexual behavior on college campuses, because, despite all objections to the contrary, the two are often intrinsically linked.” – Alan Sears and Craig Osten, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, 2003
“The issue under rational-basis review is not whether Texas should be concerned about opposite-sex sodomy, but whether it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem. It clearly is.” – ADF attorney Glen Lavy, counsel of record, amicus brief, Lawrence v. Texas, 2003
According to its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was launched on the morning of Jan. 31, 1994, during a meeting of more than 30 Christian leaders, in order to “defend religious freedom before it was too late.”
The founding board and original funders included James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ; D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries (now D. James Kennedy Ministries); and Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association. Its original purpose was to oppose the ACLU and other “radical groups” as well as to fight for “religious liberty.” Since its founding, ADF has expanded its operations abroad as it battles abortion, LGBTQ equality, and what it considers the “myth” of the separation of church and state.
Originally called the Alliance Defense Fund (the name changed in 2012), ADF has been funding cases and training attorneys since its inception, claiming that it is “advocating for freedom in court,” though it also is working to “change the culture,” because, it says, legal victories aren’t enough. In other words, ADF is attempting to eradicate the separation of church and state and graft its version of conservative Christianity onto the legal profession and the culture at large through its legal strategies, the training of thousands of attorneys and its advocacy of policy changes at the state and federal levels.
ADF has several initiatives that help train conservative Christians. These include a variety of programs designed for young lawyers, including the Young Lawyers Academy, which schools new U.S. attorneys and provides opportunities to “engage the culture and join a network of Christian attorneys around the globe,” and the Areté Academy, which “launches highly accomplished university students and recent graduates on a path to future leadership in law, government, business, and public policy.”
ADF Academy is a training program that purports to equip participants to “effectively advocate for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” ADF claims more than 1,800 lawyers have participated. The organization also offers the secretive Blackstone Legal Fellowship, through which Christian law students study under prominent scholars, participate in internships, and prepare for life and leadership in the legal profession. Since 2000 (the year of Blackstone’s inception), ADF claims it has trained more than 1,600 law students from 225 law schools in 21 different countries.
In 2014, the Blackstone website noted that part of its core curriculum included a reading list that not everyone would agree with. “No offense and certainly, no proselytizing, is intended,” ADF stated. “Rather, Alliance Defending Freedom seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries,” which, the statement continued, “is catholic, universal orthodoxy and is desperately crucial for cultural renewal.”
ADF also has a legal academy that, according to a 2013 media kit, is a “state-of-the-art lawyer training project” launched in 1997. Attorneys who attend the academy do so free of charge, but they are required to do 450 hours of pro bono work over a three-year period “on behalf of the Body of Christ” and the mission of ADF. Past sessions of the academy included topics such as effectively equipping attorneys “to battle the radical homosexual legal agenda,” upholding the sanctity of life and parental rights, and defending religious liberty.
Alan Sears was the longtime president, CEO and general counsel of ADF until January 2017. He served in various positions during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and also worked for the Department of Justice and was appointed director of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography.
Under Sears’ leadership, ADF expanded its training, funding and outreach not only domestically but internationally. Using its international platforms, ADF works with policymakers and other organizations to outlaw abortion, deny equality and marriage to LGBTQ people worldwide, and continue to push for a hard-right Christian theocratic worldview that is reflected in legislation and policies.
In January 2017, ADF named longtime theocratic right-wing activist, attorney and Baptist minister Michael Farris as its second president, CEO, and general counsel. Farris left the Convention of States, which he co-founded in 2013, to take the position at ADF. The Convention of States advocates for holding just what its name implies—a convention of states—to add amendments to the Constitution in order to stop “the federal spending and debt spree, the power grabs of the federal courts, and other misuses of federal power.”
Farris’ history in the religious right dates back to the 1970s, when he opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. In the early 1980s, he was head of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in Washington state, and, in 1983, he founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a legal advocacy group that is also a ministry to “defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms.” According to its mission statement, the HSLDA relies on “parental rights” and “religious freedom” to guarantee the “fundamental, God-given, constitutional right of parents and others legally responsible for their children to direct their education.”
Farris also signed on to the original 1986 Coalition of Revival (COR) Manifesto, the same year that he served as treasurer for the Committee to Draft Pat Robertson for President. Farris was part of the COR steering committee. Among COR’s positions was this one: “We deny that anyone, Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, private person or public person is exempt from the moral and juridical obligation before God to submit to Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of his life in thought, word and deed.” Another COR requirement was that one be “willing to be martyred for Jesus Christ and the establishment of his Kingdom here on earth” and also be willing to submit to the “hierarchical order” God has created, “in which we are willing to submit as to Christ to employers, civil government, and church leaders, and within families, wives to their husbands, and children to their parents.”
Farris, who ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1993 (he lost), also founded the elite evangelical Patrick Henry College (PHC) in Purcellville, Virginia, where HSLDA is based. PHC is often referred to as “God’s Harvard” and, though very small, is a well-known training ground for the religious right and a pipeline for conservative jobs in Washington, D.C. Students in PHC’s Strategic Intelligence Program, for example, can graduate with security clearances from summer internships and end up in the CIA, FBI or the National Security Agency.
The HSLDA, where Farris remains on the board, has become a powerful lobbying tool for the Christian Right in terms of education. Though its members only make up about 15% of the nation’s 1.5 million homeschooled children, it has been highly influential in derailing homeschooling regulations in many states. “I’ve never seen a lobby more powerful and scary,” said the legislative director for Michigan Democratic representative Stephanie Chang in 2015.
The HSLDA is also anti-LGBTQ, promoting a constitutional amendment in 2004 that would have banned same-sex couples from both marriage and civil unions. In 2006, the group lobbied for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, and in 2012, Farris threatened to sue three LGBTQ students at PHC who were anonymously running a blog titled Queer Patrick Henry College. Farris sent a private message to the blog’s Facebook page, in which he complained that the blog was infringing on the school’s copyright of the PHC name. He threatened that if the blog wasn’t taken down, the school would pursue legal action, reveal the bloggers’ identities, and seek damages. The bloggers posted Farris’ message publicly and soon thereafter, he backed off on his threat to litigate.
In 2010, ADF was granted special consultative status at the United Nations, which allowed ADF attorneys to attend and intervene at treaty and convention drafting meetings. In that capacity, ADF attorneys are positioned to help craft language on the international stage that cleaves to ADF’s agenda of Christian primacy in the public arena.
Also in 2010, ADF was accepted into the EU Transparency Register, which allows the organization to influence policies of institutions of the European Union. Since granted this status, ADF has, according to its website, “provided numerous expert opinions and keynote addresses to European Parliament committees and inter-groups.”
And, in 2014, ADF was accredited by the Organization of American States (OAS), the world’s oldest regional organization, established to promote state sovereignty as well as human rights, democracy, security and development. With accreditation from the OAS, ADF attorneys are able to influence policy by attending meetings and debates—to battle “groups promoting abortion and radical sexual agendas.” ADF has also received official accreditation for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Currently, according to its website, ADF has offices in Mexico City, Vienna (the headquarters of its international arm), Brussels, London, New Delhi, Geneva and Strasbourg, France. It also offers training in locations around the world as well as access to grants and consultation.
Battling the 'homosexual agenda,' gay sex and marriage equality
ADF’s longstanding antipathy toward LGBTQ people has become public through its work on lawsuits, various statements its leaders have made and materials it has offered on its website over the years. It has also promoted the idea of a “homosexual agenda”— a nefarious scheme to destroy Christianity and, eventually, civilization through LGBTQ people’s efforts to secure equality under the law. To those who believe in this conspiracy theory, LGBTQ people are not really seeking equality; rather, they are actually seeking to destroy such things as Christianity, the family and culture.
Sears co-wrote a book first published in 2003 and still available called The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. The authors claim that ADF has nothing but “respect, compassion, and sensitivity toward those ensnared in homosexual behavior.” But they then go on to support the pseudoscientific and dangerous practice of so-called “ex-gay” therapy, to falsely claim that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia, and to claim that schools are “indoctrinating children” into being LGBTQ. Lately, the authors breathlessly claim, “homosexual behavior on college campuses is taking a dangerous new turn — the promotion of sexual relations between adults and children, known as pedophilia.” Despite all scientific objections to the contrary — virtually all legitimate medical associations have debunked the once-common claim that gay men molest children at higher rates than straight men — Sears and his co-author insist that homosexuality and pedophilia “are intrinsically linked.”
The book also argues against any form of domestic partnerships or civil unions because they “will eventually destroy the institution of male-female marriage.” In addition, the book claims, “radical homosexual activists have the family, and particularly innocent, vulnerable children in their sights as well.”
One of ADF’s past “affiliated organizations” was something called the Corporate Resource Council (CRC), whose website was registered to ADF. The CRC was active from 2002 until 2012, and the URL to its former website defaulted to the main ADF site (snapshots of it are available in the web archive). The CRC stated on its site that it was providing “objective analysis” of the value to corporations “of family- and faith-friendly employee policies.”
The site included several white papers that argued against domestic partnerships and protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace. One attempted to outline why domestic partnerships were not good business policy, saying that only small numbers of people use them and in any event the practice “requires employers to treat cohabitation as equal to marriage.” Another, by longtime anti-LGBTQ activist Maggie Gallagher, encouraged employers to support only marriage between a cisgender woman and a man and to avoid supporting domestic partnerships, which, she argued, “discourage marriage” and send “a confusing signal, giving the appearance of providing an appropriate context for having and raising children.”
Still another white paper was the infamous paper by virulently anti-LGBTQ activist and medical doctor John Diggs, titled “The Health Risks of Homosexual Sex,” which claimed there are “serious medical consequences to same-sex behavior.” Diggs included several false claims about LGBTQ people, saying, in effect, that because they are LGBTQ, they are promiscuous (according to the paper, lesbians have far more sex with men than straight women do), don’t live as long as straight people and are mentally ill. The paper also included graphic descriptions of various sexual practices allegedly “common” among LGBTQ people.
ADF also has worked to keep LGBTQ sex criminalized. In 2003, the group filed an amicus brief in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that various laws prohibiting private sexual acts between LGBTQ adults were unconstitutional. In the brief, page after page describes, in graphic detail, vaginal, oral and anal intercourse and various infections that may result from the latter. ADF argued that the Texas ban was in the interest of public health, because gay men and lesbians, the brief contended, engage in “risky” sexual behaviors that increase the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. “The issue under rational-basis review is not whether Texas should be concerned about opposite-sex sodomy,” it argued, “but whether it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem. It clearly is.”
In 2003, Farris, before joining ADF, also co-wrote a 2003 amicus brief with ADF attorneys Jordan Lorence and Joshua Carden in support of Texas’ criminalization of LGBTQ sex in Lawrence v. Texas. Farris listed his affiliation in the brief as the Center for the Original Intent of the Constitution, which was formed in 1998 by the HSLDA and then was moved under the auspices of Patrick Henry College. The brief argued that states should have the right to police and criminalize sexual behavior, stating: “Defining the criminality of certain forms of sexual conduct, such as same-sex sodomy, is a policy issue that has historically and properly been left to the state legislatures.”
ADF has also involved itself in battles over marriage equality, perhaps most visibly in the court battle over California’s Proposition 8, the amendment that overturned marriage equality in that state. When opponents of Prop 8 filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the amendment, ADF sought to intervene, as did the anti-LGBTQ hate group Liberty Counsel, which had represented Campaign for California Families, a group that had been successful in previous anti-LGBTQ marriage initiatives. The group ADF was affiliated with, Protectmarriage.com, was allowed to defend Prop 8 rather than the group Liberty Counsel worked with.
The trial did not go well for the Prop 8 defendants, who produced few witnesses to support their contention that marriage equality harmed children and heterosexual marriage. The court found one witness lacked qualifications to offer any expert testimony; another, a Claremont College professor, only rebutted a limited aspect of the plaintiffs’ case. Another proponent of Prop 8 who offered testimony claimed that “homosexuals are 12 times more likely to molest children” (a falsehood) and that allowing marriage equality would cause states “to fall into Satan’s hands.” The witness claimed the internet as the source of this information.
Prop 8 was struck down in August 2010 by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled that the amendment violated due process and equal protection rights. Liberty Counsel appeared to blame ADF for a poor showing, stating in an Aug. 4, 2010, press release that ADF opposed the Liberty Counsel’s help and that even Walker expressed concern about the lack of evidence presented at trial by ADF. Regardless, the Prop 8 defendants filed an immediate appeal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Walker’s ruling in February 2012 but on narrower grounds. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2013 that Prop 8 supporters had no right to appeal the district court ruling.
ADF, which has argued that removing anti-LGBTQ laws from criminal codes will pave the way to marriage equality, has worked to keep those laws on the books, but mostly overseas since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in this country. The group has advised anti-LGBTQ organizations in countries like Belize that are trying to keep the law that criminalized LGBTQ sex on the books. That law was declared unconstitutional by the Belize Supreme Court in 2016.
In other instances, ADF leadership has defended criminalization, as when Benjamin Bull, former director of ADF Global, applauded the Indian Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 that recriminalized LGBTQ sex, making it punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The court did the right thing, Bull said, choosing to “protect society at large rather than give in to a vocal minority of homosexual advocates.”
Bull also traveled to Russia in 2014 as part of a planning committee for a Russian conference held by the anti-LGBTQ hate group World Congress of Families. (The conference was canceled in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but appears to have convened under a different name.) The planning committee allegedly met with Yelena Mizulina, a member of the Russia parliament and one of the architects of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws.
Bull left ADF in 2017 and worked briefly at the Washington, D.C., offices of Texas-based First Liberty before becoming vice president and general counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
Other ADF attorneys have publicly advocated retaining anti-sodomy laws. Jeffrey Ventrella and Piero Tozzi, two senior counsels for ADF at the time, spoke at a 2012 conference in Jamaica, with Tozzi defending the laws as a “bulwark” against an unspecified “agenda.”
In 2011, Tozzi filed an amicus brief along with Brian Raum, another ADF attorney, in a case being heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Karen Atala Riffo v. Chile, the first LGBTQ case heard by the court. (The court is an autonomous judicial institution based in Costa Rica. Together with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, it makes up the human rights protection system of the Organization of American States.)
The plaintiff in the case, Karen Atala, was a Chilean judge who divorced her husband, another Chilean judge, in 2001. She had full custody of her daughters, but in 2004 a Chilean court ordered her to relinquish custody to her husband, ruling that because she was living with her female partner, her lesbian relationship put the development of her children at risk.
Atala lodged a complaint of discrimination with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which asked the Chilean court to justify its ruling. The case ended up with the Inter-American Court, and after a years-long battle, the court ordered the Chilean government in 2012 to pay Atala restitution.
The ADF amicus brief, which argued that sexual orientation should not be a category of non-discrimination in the convention of human rights in the Americas (the American Convention of Human Rights), claimed that Atala was “using her daughters” as a way to further her personal goals and had placed her own interests and achievements above the interests of her children, in spite of the “emotional and social damage” that her cohabitation with a female partner had on her children. The brief also argued that Atala was “imposing” her lifestyle on her daughters and that sexual orientation should not be used in claims of discrimination, further suggesting that “empirical evidence” shows that sexual orientation can change for a “significant number of individuals.”
ADF International, the organization’s international arm, has also been extremely busy in Romania, where it has partnered with groups that have ties to far-right Christian nationalism and white nationalism.
The day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision on June 5, 2018, ADF International tweeted its opposition to a decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). That decision, in the case Coman and Others, held that the residency rights of same-sex spouses married in one EU country must be recognized in all EU countries, even if the country doesn’t recognize marriage for same-sex couples. In this case, one of the men is American and the other Romanian. They had been legally married in Belgium but were denied the right to live as a married couple in Romania.
ADF International has been working to get civil partnerships between members of the same sex banned via the country’s constitution since at least 2015. It filed a brief at the Romanian Constitutional Court pushing for a referendum in July 2016. The group then organized a conference to push for a referendum in April 2017 and further advocated for it to go through at the UN Human Rights Council.
ADF International collaborated closely in Romania with a collective of local groups under the banner of the Coalition for the Family (Coaliția pentru Familie). One of the coalition’s cofounders, Bogdan Stanciu, is head of the anti-choice group Pro Vita in Romania. Stanciu was also the administrator or Romanian Altermedia, a consortium of white nationalist radio stations, newsletters and websites affiliated with David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader. The German Altermedia site was banned in that country for its neo-Nazi content; the Romanian Altermedia site featured similar content. Stanciu was also head of a group called Noua Dreapta (New Right), a far-right ultranationalist Christian organization with antisemitic and anti-Roma views. He wrote for the group from 2001-04.
The president of Romania’s Coalition for the Family was accused by the U.S. embassy in Bucharest of organizing an anti-LGBTQ, Christian nationalist protest at the Romanian Peasant Museum where people carried signs reading “Die Faggots” and “Get out of the country” while others used Nazi salutes.
ADF International has also misrepresented its involvement in Coman and Others, claiming on its website that it was a “third party intervener” at the CJEU, even though ADF was never allowed to participate in the case in front of the EU court.
ADF is also involved in education. Its efforts to deny rights and dignity to LGBTQ students dates to at least 2005 (when it was known as Alliance Defense Fund). That year, the group launched the so-called “Day of Truth” campaign with other groups, including Focus on the Family, to combat the “promotion of the homosexual agenda.” The Day of Truth was meant to counter the ongoing “Day of Silence” (held in April), in which students remain silent as a protest and to help spread awareness about the effects of anti-LGBTQ bullying.
The original Day of Truth website included a piece called “The Ten Big Myths of Homosexual Behavior,” provided by the anti-LGBTQ hate group Mission: America. It also included a “fact sheet” provided by the now-defunct ex-gay group Exodus, which included many false claims about LGBTQ people, including that a “deficiency of same-sex love” in a person’s background will cause that person to be LGBTQ. The sheet also claimed that LGBTQ people can “change” (to heterosexual). And it said that marriage between couples of the same sex should not be allowed, as “there are moral, social, and medical reasons why homosexual behavior should not be affirmed.” It also claimed that LGBTQ people are promiscuous, violent and mentally ill. In 2009, Exodus took over the Day of Truth, but in September of 2010, it pulled its support and gave it back to ADF, claiming that the event had become too divisive and confrontational. Nevertheless, the “fact sheet” was still publicly available that year. In 2011, Focus on the Family took over the Day of Truth and renamed it “Day of Dialogue,” although ADF is still available for legal counsel for students, something it has claimed throughout the event’s history.
ADF also promotes the use of specific language in efforts to discredit and undermine LGBTQ people and reproductive rights. A media kit available on the ADF website from 2012 through 2014 provided a page that listed its preferred terms in a “Media Reference Guide.” Some examples include using “homosexual agenda” for the lesbian and gay civil rights movement; “cross-dressing” and “sexually confused” rather than the term transgender; “gender-identity confusion/gender confusion” for gender identity; “(leftist) sexual indoctrination programs” for sexual education programs and health education; “sexual preference/choice” for sexual orientation; “sexually mutilated male/female, self-proclaimed male/female, biological male/female” for intersex person/male/female; “special legal protections, privileged class” for equal rights, equal protections and protected class; and using quotation marks around the word marriage when referring to same-sex couples and around the word hate when referring to hate crimes.
Like other anti-LGBTQ groups, ADF opposes anti-bullying initiatives that attempt to protect LGBTQ students. In 2012, ADF teamed up with Focus on the Family to create a “yardstick” to compare what makes a “good” anti-bullying policy versus what makes a “bad” policy. A “good” policy, by ADF’s measure, “does not single out groups for special protection; rather, prohibits bullying against all students” and “does not use materials or lessons [sic] plans from homosexual activist groups.” A “bad” policy “singles out ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity,’ etc. for special protection” and “requires tolerance training and similar programs using materials and lesson plans crafted by homosexual activist groups.”
Policies that prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the materials say, “open the door to the advancement of the political agenda of homosexual activist groups in schools.” The adoption of such policies, the materials add, has resulted in “public schools subjecting young students to books, lessons, and programs designed to advance the homosexual agenda and undermine traditional notions of sexuality and the family.”
The yardstick also states that bullies should not be educated to think differently about their victims and states that schools should limit anti-bullying policies to on-campus incidents, including cyber-bullying, and that public school teachers should not be required to report bullying. It also calls for forbidding investigation of bullying without the consent of the bully’s parents. ADF’s preferred policy also abolishes anonymity for crime victims below legal age and calls for no investigation into anonymous complaints unless “good cause or threat of imminent physical harm exists.” It also says private schools should be exempt from state anti-bullying laws.
One ADF attorney, Erik Stanley, told a 2014 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, that Matthew Shepard’s murder has been “debunked” as an anti-gay “hate crime” that had been used by pro-LGBTQ activists to advance the “homosexual legal agenda.” This claim is a popular conspiracy theory among anti-LGBTQ groups, turning on the theory that Shepard was murdered over drugs or for some other reason unrelated to his sexual orientation. But it is a claim that has been debunked.
ADF has made good on its threats to sue schools that accommodate trans students. In early September 2016, ADF filed a lawsuit against a school district in Minnesota. The suit claims that cisgender girls were caused “distress” because a trans student who identifies as female was using school facilities designated for women. The trans girl had requested use of the facilities in 2014 after transitioning, and the school district agreed in early 2016.
Aside from playing to the myth of predatory behavior by trans girls, ADF consistently misgendered the trans girl in its lawsuit and accused her of dancing to loud music “with sexually explicit lyrics in the locker room while ‘twerking,’ ‘grinding,’ and lifting up his skirt to reveal his underwear.”
Since the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in the United States in June 2015, ADF has ramped up its involvement in so-called “religious liberty” legislation and lawsuits that portray discrimination against LGBTQ people as a “right.” Across the country, opponents of LGBTQ equality are working to persuade state legislatures to pass laws known as Religion Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) that allow individuals and businesses to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people on the basis of their privately held religious beliefs. The RFRA narrative often includes the idea that Christians are a “persecuted minority,” victimized by a secular (and pro-LGBTQ) “agenda.”
In keeping with the falsehood that Christians are a persecuted minority and no longer have free speech rights, ADF officials make frequent reference to losing even more rights, often within their overall idea that things like the “homosexual agenda” are taking away the rights of Christians who speak out against it.
Sears gave an interview in 2014 to The Remnant, a radical traditionalist Catholic newspaper, in which he seemed to be promoting that narrative. He said that history demonstrates that a democracy without values turns into totalitarianism and that “utopians” seek to re-order society by “forging draconian new laws and forcing new behaviors on others.” Often, Sears said, “these dictatorial decrees are done in the name of ‘equality,’ which really means the subjugation of individuals, families and society to the State and its currently fashionable schemes such utopians seek to set and control.” He claimed that violence and destruction results “with punishment imposed on all who oppose the fabrication of their ‘new world orders’.”
ADF, which claimed, at least in 2016 on its website, that it does not promote legislation or lobby government officials, was involved in both drafting and promoting Arizona’s S.B. 1062, the RFRA bill that was eventually vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer in early 2015 after a backlash following its initial passage.
ADF was also intimately involved in crafting Mississippi’s H.B. 1523, which passed early in 2016 and was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The law allows people who do not agree with marriage equality or LGBTQ rights to withhold goods and services without fear of legal repercussion. The bill includes protections for those who believe that sex outside of marriage is bad and for those who believe in a strictly binary gender identity. The Clarion-Ledger newspaper discovered that ADF helped write H.B. 1523 and helped write Bryant’s signing speech. Emails obtained by the paper reveal that former ADF Senior Counsel Austin Nimocks emailed Bryant’s administration two days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality in June 2015. The email included an attached “model executive order” that would “prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views about or actions concerning marriage.”
The Mississippi law was challenged in court shortly after its passage. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked it from becoming law in late June, saying that the law grants privileges to people who hold certain moral convictions, which “violates both the guarantee of religious neutrality and the promise of equal protection of the laws.” Bryant said he would appeal and ADF announced it would serve as his co-counsel. In June 2017, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Reeves’ ruling, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing in the case, so the statute went into effect. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the case.
ADF attorneys have also offered testimony and legal analysis to state legislatures in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado, specifically in favor of restrictive bathroom bills that exclude trans people and against legislation that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. An ADF attorney also testified via telephone to the South Dakota Legislature on a religious freedom bill.
ADF has been involved in other skirmishes regarding religious liberty, as when it attempted to manufacture a controversy in 2014 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, by falsely claiming that the owners of a commercial wedding chapel were about to be arrested and jailed for refusing to marry couples of the same sex. The controversy dissolved when it was revealed that the chapel fell under religious exemption rules and the owners of the chapel told local media that they had never been contacted by ADF attorneys, who instead were emailing city officials. A city spokesman stated that the city had never threatened to jail the chapel owners or take legal action of any kind. In 2016, a federal judge tossed almost all of ADF’s claims in the Idaho case.
Another strategy ADF employs is “pre-enforcement” challenges — that is, legal challenges to nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people before a business or church is found in violation. One such case was filed in Colorado in September 2016. ADF claimed Colorado’s nondiscrimination protections are unconstitutional because they infringe on a Christian web designer’s freedoms of speech and religion. The state’s law makes illegal to refuse service on the basis of sexual orientation or to advertise discriminatory intent. A federal judge upheld Colorado’s law in 2019, and in 2020 an appeal by the web designer was pending before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A similar case filed by ADF in May 2016 involved two calligraphers who challenged a city ordinance in Phoenix, Arizona, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations. The two had not been asked to provide goods or services for a same-sex wedding, but they sued nevertheless so that their eventual refusal to do so would not be illegal. ADF argued that the ordinance violates the women’s right to free speech. A judge rejected that claim in September 2016, and denied ADF a preliminary injunction. The judge noted that the plaintiffs “confuse conduct with expressive speech,” and found that the law was not a burden to them. That is because while it does prevent them from refusing to provide services or products to same-sex couples, it does not stop them from publicizing their religious views about marriage equality and LGBTQ people in general.
After the election of Donald Trump as president, anti-LGBTQ groups were granted unprecedented access to the White House. ADF, which had 55 affiliated attorneys who had previously been identified as serving in various legislative and judicial capacities on the state and federal levels, was among those exerting influence over the administration.
In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions consulted with ADF before issuing a memo outlining guidelines on interpreting federal religious freedom protections to government agencies and departments. ADF senior counsel Greg Baylor noted that Sessions had met with the group in a series of “listening sessions” that Sessions himself had convened. Sessions also addressed ADF’s closed-door “Summit on Religious Liberty” at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, California. The event was closed to the press, but following attention in the media, his remarks were leaked to the right-wing partisan site The Federalist.
In another striking move, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief before oral arguments were made to the Supreme Court in September 2017 in support of ADF’s Masterpiece Cakeshop lawsuit, in which a Colorado baker refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Jack Phillips, the baker, refused the couple in 2012. Marriage for same-sex couples was not yet legal nationally, but the couple were planning to be married in Massachusetts, where it was legal. Colorado state law forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found that Phillips had discriminated against the couple.
The complaint resulted in a lawsuit against Phillips that was argued before the Supreme Court in December 2017. Arguments were made by ADF’s Kristen Waggoner but also the U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who may have been an ADF-affiliated attorney. The Nation reported that on two ADF press releases Francisco was listed as an allied attorney, though ADF later claimed that their “media dept. got it wrong.” ADF made several other changes to its website following The Nation’s report.
The Democracy Forward Foundation sued the DOJ in April 2018 to compel compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, stating that the DOJ has “failed to sufficiently respond to Plaintiff’s requests for records concerning connections between Noel Francisco, Solicitor General of the United States, and Alliance Defending Freedom.”
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling on Masterpiece in June 2018, in which the majority stated that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had displayed bias against Phillips’ religious beliefs when it sanctioned him, but the ruling upheld protections for LGBTQ people and applied only to the Masterpiece case, thus avoiding the larger issue of whether businesses can discriminate on the basis of religion.
The court also issued a ruling in June 2018 on another ADF case in which Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington state, refused to create flower arrangements for a same-sex couple planning a wedding. There, the court sent the case back to the Washington state Supreme Court to hear again in the wake of Masterpiece, thus opening other chance for ADF to attempt to bring it back to the Supreme Court. In June 2019, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Stutzman, but ADF again asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
ADF continues to be extremely active in terms of free speech lawsuits against colleges and universities via its Center for Academic Freedom project. It has partnered with the libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty in several lawsuits against colleges, including Kellogg Community College in Michigan; University of Massachusetts-Amherst (settled in June 2018); and the University of California-Berkeley (settled in June 2018).
In another ADF lawsuit, brought by a Christian student against Gwinnett Community College in Georgia, the Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the student, who claimed his religious rights were violated when he was not allowed to hand out Christian pamphlets on campus. ADF sued, and the college changed its policy. As a result, the lawsuit was thrown out in a federal court. ADF appealed that decision, because the court failed to address whether the student’s constitutional rights were violated.
ADF also filed a lawsuit against Arkansas State University in December 2017 on behalf of the student group Turning Point USA (TPUSA), claiming that the university has a too-restrictive speech policy. TPUSA has been dogged by the discovery that a few of its officers and members have ties to the white nationalist alt-right, as when former TPUSA Florida field director Juan Pablo Andrade was attending a TPUSA student conference in December 2017 and was filmed in a hotel room paid for by TPUSA saying that the only thing the Nazis didn’t get right was that they didn’t keep going.
In May 2018, ADF was dealt a blow in one of its anti-trans lawsuits against a school district in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unusual move, ruled from the bench less than an hour after oral arguments, striking down ADF’s attempts to ensure the further marginalization of trans students in the Boyertown Area School District. The district had implemented a trans-inclusive policy in 2016 that allowed students to use restroom facilities in accordance with their gender identity. ADF sued on behalf of several students who claimed they felt uncomfortable sharing facilities with a trans classmate, claiming that the guidelines violated Title IX and also the students’ right to privacy. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in schools.
The circuit court’s ruling also pointed out the anti-trans sentiment underlying the lawsuit, stating that the appellants’ “real objection is to the presence of transgender students, not to any ‘environment’ their presence creates.” The allegations, the ruling further noted, “include an assertion that a cisgender student was harassed merely by a transgender student washing that student’s own hands in a bathroom or changing in a locker room. That is not the type of conduct that supports a Title IX hostile environment claim.”
ADF lost again in June 2018 in one of its pre-enforcement lawsuits — legal challenges to nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people before a business is found in violation. In this case, the Arizona Court of Appeals for Division One ruled that the Phoenix-based Brush & Nib Calligraphy Studio could not legally violate the city’s nondiscrimination protections because of the owners’ religious beliefs. The studio had not yet discriminated against any LGBTQ people but believed that the ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be overturned or should not apply to religious beliefs.
The court referred repeatedly to the Masterpiece ruling to explain why Brush & Nib should not discriminate. The ruling stated: “We recognize that a law allowing Appellants to refuse service to customers based on sexual orientation would constitute a ‘grave and continuing harm’” and that “Allowing a vendor who provides goods and services for marriages and weddings to refuse similar services for gay persons would result in ‘a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.’”
In April 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear three cases that would directly affect the lives of LGBTQ people. All three deal with whether existing federal bans on sex discrimination in the workplace also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. One of the cases is R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ADF is defending a Michigan-based funeral home that was sued by a longtime employee who said she was fired because she came out as transgender. The appellate court ruled in favor of the employee, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on Oct. 8, 2019.
ADF claims on its website the lawsuit is trying to protect people from “unelected agencies” (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). But it also relies on anti-trans myths to claim that allowing transgender women to keep their jobs “undermines” cisgender women’s rights because, according to ADF, cisgender men will masquerade as women to access services for women. ADF also claims the funeral home owner and the employee “parted ways” when, in fact, the employee was fired.
Throughout 2019, ADF attorneys and spokespeople appeared in a variety of news reports regarding their lawsuits against transgender people. ADF engages in misgendering transgender people and refers to trans women as “biological men” or uses male pronouns for transgender women. Deliberate misgendering is considered anti-trans harassment and harmful because it denies them their identity and personhood.
In January 2019, ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner appeared on Fox News and repeatedly misgendered a trans woman who sued Colorado cake maker Jack Phillips (an ADF client) for refusing to make a cake for her. In July 2019, ADF’s Christiana Holcomb appeared on NBC’s Today where she referred to transgender female athletes as “biological males.”
ADF also took up the case of an Ohio college professor who refused to refer to a transgender student by her preferred pronouns and instead referred to her by her last name only. The professor was disciplined by the university after the student filed a complaint, but the professor still refused to use the student’s preferred pronouns, claiming it was against his free speech rights and religious views to do so. In February 2020, a trial court dismissed the case, saying that misgendering students is not protected free speech and that government employees like Nicholas Meriwether, who works at a state-funded institution, Shawnee State University, have limited free speech rights when they are performing their jobs. The court also determined that the First Amendment does not protect them from disciplinary proceedings.
Transgender athletes competing in girls’ sports became another anti-trans front in 2019 for ADF. In June, ADF filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of three cisgender female high school athletes in Connecticut, though there is no definitive proof that transgender athletes have advantages over cisgender athletes. Connecticut has a trans-inclusive policy with regard to its schools and competing in sports, but ADF alleges that transgender girls have an unfair advantage over cisgender females because they’re “biological males” and are thus stronger and faster.
ADF followed the complaint with a lawsuit filed in February, 2020, arguing that Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in programs that receive federal funding, does not apply to trans students. The law, ADF argues, was designed to prohibit discrimination against cisgender girls and women. If ADF is successful, trans student athletes may not be allowed to compete in school sports in accordance with their gender identities. Three cisgender female high school track athletes filed suit with their mothers alleging that allowing trans girls to compete against them results in “boys displacing girls in competitive track events in Connecticut.” Days after the lawsuit was filed, one of the plaintiffs in the case defeated her trans rival twice in eight days, winning two state championships.
In March 2020, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the Connecticut lawsuit to support ADF’s claims. The statement of interest contains similar language to ADF’s, referring to trans girls as “biological males” and claiming that the policy allowing them to compete with cisgender girls deprives the latter “of the single-sex athletic competitions that are one of the marquee accomplishments of Title IX.”
The DOJ has filed other statements of interest and amicus briefs supporting ADF’s anti-LGBTQ arguments in its lawsuits over the past few years, including in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and in the funeral home case that went before the Supreme Court in 2019.
ADF also backed a nationwide campaign in 2020 to get anti-trans sports bills passed in state legislatures. In Arizona, it worked with Republican state lawmaker Nancy Barto and the anti-LGBTQ group Center for Arizona Policy to push such a bill. In Idaho, Republican state Senator Mary Souza sponsored an anti-trans sports ban bill and claimed that Alliance Defending Freedom had been working with lawmakers on the bill and would “be responsible for any legal defense fees.” The Idaho bill passed and was signed into law by the governor in March 2020.