A recent open records request revealed that the state of Arizona has quietly given extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) more than $1 million over the last 6 years through sales of the state’s “In God We Trust” specialty license plates.
The plates were created in 2008 to fund state highways and road maintenance, but state legislators amended the original law in 2011 to send donations to the then-unnamed nonprofit that paid to design the specialty plate -- which newly released public records revealed to be ADF. Two of the legislators who sponsored bills amending the law were previously represented by ADF in court.
Local and national media have shined a spotlight on the funding after advocacy organizations uncovered the story, but ADF went to right-wing PJ Media to defend itself without explaining the lack of transparency around the practice.
Open records request reveals that ADF has raised over $1 million dollars from the sale of “In God We Trust” license plates in Arizona
According to a PinkNews report, a public records request found that ADF has received over $1 million from the sale of nearly 60,000 “In God We Trust” license plates “without being disclosed to people who buy the license plates.”
The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) lists the specific recipient or cause for dozens of specialty license plates available to Arizona drivers, but it does not disclose ADF as the recipient for donations from the “In God We Trust” plates. Instead, ADOT’s ServiceArizona website states that donations from the sale of the specialty plates go “to promote the national motto ‘In God We Trust,’ 1st amendment rights and the heritage of this state and nation.” But data obtained through an open records request by the Secular Coalition for Arizona and American Atheists indicate that ADF has been the recipient for the last six years. These groups have launched a campaign to raise awareness of ADF’s involvement and to give Arizonans the opportunity to report if they have inadvertently donated to ADF.
Arizona is one of at least 20 states with the option to purchase a specialty license plate with the motto “In God We Trust,” and Mississippi included the motto on the state’s regular license plates beginning last month. This is part of a broader state-level strategy known as “Project Blitz” that seeks to advance anti-LGBTQ policies by introducing dozens of seemingly innocuous state-level bills, such as those that publicize the “In God We Trust” motto, alongside more extreme measures.
Other states also donate a portion of the fees from sales of “In God We Trust” license plates to nonprofit organizations, but unlike Arizona, those states do note the specific beneficiaries. For example, Texas license plate donations go to the Texas Veterans Commission, and Florida plate sales benefit the In God We Trust Foundation. However, even these seemingly transparent donation policies can hide ties to extreme anti-LGBTQ groups -- the advisory council of the In God We Trust Foundation includes the Florida Family Policy Council, which is headed by ADF allied attorney John Stemberger.
ADF is one of the largest and most powerful anti-LGBTQ groups in the nation. The legal powerhouse has taken dozens of extreme anti-LGBTQ positions, such as supporting Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, defending the discredited and dangerous practice of conversion therapy, advocating against adoption and foster care by LGBTQ people, and supporting policies that ban trans people from using facilities that align with their gender identity. The group operates with an extreme lack of transparency, particularly regarding its network of over 3,300 allied attorneys, who often do not publicly identify their affiliation with ADF. ADF also has alumni and allies in influential government positions across the country, including state attorneys general and their staffs.
Two Arizona legislators who sponsored bills amending the law to benefit ADF were also previously represented in court by ADF
When Arizona created “In God We Trust” plates in 2008, the legislation specified that $17 from sales of each plate that did not go to administrative fees “would go not to a particular group but to the state highway fund to build and maintain roads,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun. In 2011, however, the state legislature passed three bills that included amendments to the law that allow the plate’s financial sponsor to receive those donations instead of the state highway fund. As the recently released documents revealed, that beneficiary is ADF.
Arizona state Sen. Linda Gray sponsored two of the bills including language amending the previous law to direct funds to ADF, and Rep. Nancy Barto was listed as a sponsor of the third. Before sponsoring these bills, both Republican legislators were ADF clients in lawsuits involving a 2009 law that made it harder to receive an abortion in the state.
ADF turned to right-wing outlet PJ Media to claim it welcomes transparency despite accepting these hidden donations for over 6 years
In response to media coverage of Arizonans unwittingly donating to ADF through license plate sales, the group turned to right-wing outlet PJ Media to present its side of the controversy. PJ Media’s coverage has been friendly to ADF in the past, and ADF has given the outlet exclusive quotes on other issues as well.
PJ Media claimed that “ADF may welcome the transparency” but is opposed to legislation that would prevent ADF from receiving donations from the plate. Additionally, ADF’s remarks to PJ Media seemed to focus on its designation as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center rather than addressing any of the group’s discriminatory anti-LGBTQ positions or why it was never publicly listed as the beneficiary of donations from the plates. ADF did not appear open to transparency during the six years it was secretly receiving money from the program.
Right-wing evangelical outlet CBN News used the story to push the false premise that LGBTQ people and Christians are at odds with one another, calling it “the latest salvo of the culture wars pitting the LGBTQ community against Christians.” The post described ADF as “a group that advocates for religious freedom in the courts, and Christians are frequently the targets of LGBTQ activists in those cases.”
Pitting religious people against LGBTQ folk is a false dichotomy, as a majority of religious groups believe that homosexuality “should be accepted.” Similarly, many religious Arizonans who have bought an “In God We Trust” license plate likely would not support ADF’s extreme anti-LGBTQ agenda. In fact, nearly 1,300 individual leaders from various faiths signed on to an amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission against ADF’s client Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The brief argued that public accommodation laws should protect LGBTQ people and “be applied on the basis of religiously neutral principles of equal protection under the law.
Some religious leaders in Arizona have already started speaking out after learning that ADF benefited from sales of the license plates, including David Felten, a pastor at Fountain Hill United Methodist Church:
This is not just an abstract violation of church-state separation. It’s a very real rejection of Arizona’s LGBTQ people by the very government that is supposed to impartially support and protect all of its citizens.
As part of the campaign by Secular Coalition for Arizona and American Atheists, Arizonans can report if they inadvertently donated to ADF through the program but do not support its agenda. Additionally, Democratic state Sen. Juan Mendez has proposed one bill that would “require ADOT to more fully disclose where the money from specialty plates goes” and another bill that would “eliminate the ADF plate.”
Additional research by Brennan Suen