Update (5/20/19): On May 20, Media Matters published the second installment of this two-part investigation into ADF's network of allies in the government. The additional report includes a database of more than 100 ADF allied attorneys, Blackstone Legal Fellows, and current and former staff who held government positions at the local, state, and federal levels in 2018. The full database can be found here
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is stunningly opaque about its large network of affiliated lawyers, what positions of influence they hold, and what beliefs they must agree to in order to be officially tied to the group.
ADF's lack of transparency is multifaceted. For one, many members in its network do not publicize their relationship with the organization. Additionally, on several occasions, ADF has claimed affiliations with individual attorneys or officials who have disputed their ties, or removed references to affiliations with individual attorneys or officials following reports that exposed those connections.
Through its Blackstone Legal Fellowship and allied attorney program, the number of ADF affiliated lawyers could be as high as 5,000 -- and many of those attorneys also have influential positions in government, ranging from local school boards to federal agencies. This legal network is one of the key tools in ADF’s arsenal that allows it to affect policies that impact LGBTQ people across the country, but journalists and the public have very little information about it.
ADF is one of the most powerful anti-LGBTQ groups in the country
ADF is one of the largest and most influential anti-LGBTQ groups in the world, and it takes extreme positions on nearly every aspect of LGBTQ equality. The group has supported Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, defended the discredited and dangerous practice of conversion therapy, advocated against adoption and foster care by LGBTQ people, and supported policies that ban trans people from using facilities that align with their gender identity, as well as dozens of other positions that are dangerous to LGBTQ people.
ADF uses its revenue of more than $50 million per year to advance its mission of “advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family” through direct litigation, grant funding for other cases, and legal training programs. Since its founding in 1994, ADF has played a role in over 50 Supreme Court decisions, including cases regarding abortion and LGBTQ issues.
In the last few years, ADF has been involved in several high profile court cases in which it argued in favor of legal discrimination against LGBTQ people. Last June, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor of ADF client Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to serve a gay couple, in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. The Supreme Court has taken on another ADF case for its upcoming term, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which could determine whether civil rights protections in employment extend to LGBTQ employees.
ADF has influence through the large network of lawyers who have completed its Blackstone Legal Fellowship
Outside of its own staff and litigation, ADF seeks to influence the legal landscape by providing funding and training opportunities to create a large network of lawyers sympathetic to ADF’s mission. ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship has been around since 2000, and the group reports that it “has trained more than 2,100 law students from more than 225 law schools in 21 different countries.” ADF has written that the program seeks to train Christian law students “who will rise to positions of influence as legal scholars, litigators, judges, and perhaps even Supreme Court justices.”
The Blackstone fellowship is a nine-week summer program that includes three weeks of training seminars and six weeks in legal internships, including in government entities. ADF says that “those selected to become ‘Fellows’” at the end of the program “receive ongoing training, resources, and support through an international community,” and the group boasts that its alumni “are serving on law reviews, securing clerkships, joining major firms, working in the government and nonprofit sectors, and accepting positions in academia and the judiciary.”
ADF spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on its fellowship program; in 2019, expenses per person include $6,300 in scholarship funding, several flights, lodging, and weeks of meals for its interns. But as a result, the organization reaps the benefits of fostering a large network of potentially influential conservative lawyers at the onset of their careers. ADF has additional training programs for young legal professionals or students and recent graduates “on a path to future leadership in law, government, business, and public policy.”
ADF also has a network of more than 3,300 allied attorneys
In addition to its training programs for law students and new attorneys, ADF has created what it calls a “powerful global network” of over 3,300 “allied attorneys.” Attorneys in the network receive opportunities for funding, access to ADF’s legal resources, and additional training programs; in return, allied attorneys provide pro bono service to ADF, such as litigation, amicus briefs, media work, “legal services to churches & religious non-profits,” and “research assistance, legal advice, and drafting of bills for legislators, policy makers, administrative agencies, etc. relating to religious liberty, sanctity of life, and marriage & family.”
ADF can activate these allied attorneys when it learns about LGBTQ-related events to quickly get involved in cases down to the local level. In turn, these attorneys can also alert ADF to LGBTQ-related matters in their localities and bring the force of a national group to their backyards. ADF has written that it “depends upon its network of attorneys and others to bring appropriate matters to our attention.”
ADF notes that its allied attorneys must agree to a statement of faith as part of their application. In the past, ADF’s FAQ page about the program linked directly to an 11-point statement on its website that opposes trans identities and same-sex marriage and lumps in “homosexual behavior” and “acting upon any disagreement with one’s biological sex” with bestiality and incest as “forms of sexual immorality” that are “sinful and offensive to God.” However, after a detailed report on the program and its influence by Sarah Posner in The Nation, ADF said that allied attorneys “do not have to agree to the same statement of faith as employees” and removed links to the statement.
ADF specifically encourages government attorneys to join the allied attorney program. On its FAQ, ADF notes that government attorneys who are “prohibited from doing private pro bono litigation” can instead provide ADF with “legal research, educational presentations, or other types of work related to Alliance Defending Freedom mission areas.”
Between its allied attorneys and Blackstone fellows, ADF has a network of legal allies that reach across the globe and hold an unknown number of U.S. government positions.
ADF operates with an extreme lack of transparency about its training programs and allied attorneys
ADF is extremely opaque about its programs and has worked to keep details about them from the public, such as removing mentions of its allied attorneys’ statement of faith after The Nation’s investigation. It also does not release a comprehensive list of people who participate in its programs, and many of its participants and alumni do not publicly identify their relationship with ADF. A noncomprehensive Media Matters review of allied attorneys mentioned on ADF’s website found only 300 of its reported 3,300 members, many of whom were mentioned on pages that are now archived. Additionally, it is unclear whether allied attorneys remain counted in the network for life, or whether the 3,300 number includes former allied attorneys, some of whom could have cut their official ties with the group with no public record. The number of allied attorneys could thus be larger than the 3,300 claimed by ADF.
Additionally, it seems that some participants in these programs are unaware of their status as allied attorneys or may have avoided publicizing it during judicial nomination processes. For example, confirmed federal Judge Jeremy Kernodle submitted answers to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary during his nomination stating that he served as an allied attorney with ADF on a 2017 case. But in a later questionnaire, he asserted that he “did not apply or request to be an ‘allied attorney’ with ADF” and first “discovered that ADF had listed [him] as an ‘allied attorney’” when he began preparing responses to the questionnaire for his nomination. Kernodle continued that he only worked with ADF on one case and was “not certain when” he first became an allied attorney.
Another now-confirmed federal judge, Kyle Duncan, reported participating in several speaking engagements for ADF but did not report his status as an allied attorney in his nomination questionnaire or in follow-up questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee. ADF, however, previously documented his affiliation as an allied attorney while Duncan served in the Louisiana Department of Justice.
Other reporting discrepancies further underscore the opacity surrounding ADF’s networks. Posner’s report in The Nation identified Noel Francisco, the Trump-Pence administration's solicitor general, as an ADF allied attorney, citing two different ADF press releases explicitly stating that Francisco is one of “more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF.” After publication, however, ADF “contacted The Nation, claiming that Francisco has never been an allied attorney.” According to the attached editor’s note, ADF called the press releases “our mistake” and claimed that its “media dept. got it wrong.” ADF promptly rewrote its press releases but did not issue corrections on either of them.
In another instance, Media Matters identified an attorney at a major law firm as an allied attorney based on another ADF press release, but his law firm reached out to say that was incorrect and due to a typo in the ADF press release that named him as such.
Though ADF makes it clear that government employees can join its allied attorney program, it does not publicly specify which positions might make participants ineligible to remain in the network. However, it does appear that judges may have to cut ties with the group. For example, after Jamie Anderson was appointed as a county judge in Minnesota, ADF wrote that she will “no longer participate as an Allied Attorney for obvious reasons.” Additionally, Steve Christopher’s LinkedIn profile says that he stopped being an ADF allied attorney in March 2013, the same month he became a judge in Hardin County, Ohio.
Understanding ADF’s influential and opaque network is key to knowing how it shapes anti-LGBTQ policy
Between its Blackstone Legal Fellowship and allied attorney program, ADF’s network could include more than 5,000 lawyers. A 2017 Media Matters review of just a few hundred of those attorneys found that at least 55 had government positions, and the number in 2018 was at least twice that.
In addition to its role in promoting anti-LGBTQ policies through the courts, ADF also directly shapes legislation at the state level, such as anti-trans “bathroom bills” and sweeping religious exemptions laws that make it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Its allies sit in federal agencies and on federal courts, among other influential places, and have countless ways to affect policy. Many journalists do not have the information they need to draw the connections between these decision makers and the national group driving much of the anti-LGBTQ policies in the country.
In Wisconsin, journalists and advocates have published several articles about a state Supreme Court justice-elect who received thousands of dollars for speeches to ADF and was a Blackstone Legal Fellow. Journalists, policymakers, and the public need to know about ADF’s network of allies in government in order to ask them how these associations affect their decision making and whether they stand by the extreme anti-LGBTQ beliefs of the group. Understanding ADF’s programs and network is crucial to knowing the full scope of its influence on LGBTQ-related policies at every level of governance.
This is the first part of a two-part investigation into ADF's network of allies in the government.
Additional research by Brennan Suen