How An Extreme Anti-LGBT Legal Powerhouse Is Working To Enact “Religious Freedom” Laws

The current push for expanded state “religious freedom” laws is thanks in large part to the work of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extreme right-wing legal group that's worked to criminalize gay sex across the globe. 

A $39 million non-profit Christian legal group, ADF bills itself as an organization that works for the “right of people to freely live out their faith.” The group has laid the groundwork for “religious freedom” laws across the country, using their legal work to peddle the myth that Christians are under attack by the “homosexual agenda.” But behind this religious freedom rhetoric, the group promotes an extreme anti-LGBT agenda, namely working internationally to criminalize gay sex.

A Legal Powerhouse Working To Criminalize Gay Sex Abroad

Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal organization that works with 2,400 allied attorneys nationally on a $39 million (as of 2013) annual budget. ADF was founded in 1994 by several of the country's largest national evangelical Christian ministries to “press the case for religious liberty issues in the nation's courts” and “fend-off growing efforts by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which seek to immobilize Christians.” Today, it has become the country's best-funded and most powerful right-wing Christian group working against what the organization calls the “myth of the so-called 'separation of church and state.'” 

As the "800-pound gorilla of the Christian right," the group has become a fixture on Fox News in stories about “Christian persecution,” where the group is perhaps best known for defending anti-gay business owners who refuse to serve gay customers. But ADF's agenda is far more extreme than defending discriminatory florists and bakers in court.

While the group prefers to talk about its “religious liberty” work when in the media spotlight, ADF also actively works internationally to promote and defend laws that criminalize gay sex. ADF's formal support for anti-sodomy legislation dates to at least 2003, before the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas. ADF, which was at the time still known as the Alliance Defense Fund, filed an amicus brief in the case, defending state laws criminalizing gay sex. In its brief, ADF spent nearly 30 pages arguing that gay sex is unhealthy, harmful, and a public health risk.

Since the Lawrence decision declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, ADF has taken its extremist agenda abroad, working in Jamaica, Belize, and India to support laws that imprison gay people for having sex. The organization annually expands its network of international (and domestic) lawyers at its Legal Academy, a week-long lawyer training event that, among other things, teaches attendees how to "battle the radical homosexual legal agenda." In exchange, the trainees are obligated to provide 450 hours of free legal services over a three-year period to ADF or other organizations “that forward the mission of the alliance.” According to ADF, nearly 1,800 lawyers have participated in its training program.

The group also has rich history of extremist ant-LGBT positions, including opposing anti-bullying efforts in public schools and labeling the hate crime that led to the murder of Matthew Shepard -- a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and tortured to death -- a hoax to advance the "homosexual agenda." The organization's media kit explicitly supports this radical position, and instructs media to call violent attacks against LGBT people “so-called 'hate' crimes,” to refer to the LGBT rights movement as the “homosexual agenda,” and to call trans people “cross-dressing” and “sexually confused.”

ADF partners with more than 300 like-minded institutions, including the rabidly anti-LGBT Pacific Justice Institute, the Thomas More Law Center,  the Family Research Council (a hate group),  the Heritage Foundation, and the now-defunct “ex-gay” organization Exodus International. ADF's relentless legal campaign against LGBT equality led the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to describe the organization as “virulently anti-gay.” Unsurprisingly, the group has been at the forefront of the fight against same-sex marriage -- ADF attorneys represented the defendants in the Proposition 8 case before the Supreme Court in 2013, and have defended same-sex marriage bans in over 25 states.

ADF President, CEO, and General Counsel Alan Sears has his own personal history of extreme homophobia. In 2003, Sears co-authored the book The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, which compares the gay “propaganda” movement to what “Hitler did so masterfully in Nazi Germany, to get the American public on their side.” In another chapter, Sears claims that homosexuality and pedophilia are “intrinsically linked.” 

Sears' book echoes ADF's larger strategy of painting Christians as victims in a supposed war against Christianity, a position which depicts LGBT rights and religious freedom as mutually exclusive, writing:

The efforts of homosexual activists to convince Americans to tolerate homosexual behavior tramples religious freedom and leaves a trail of broken bodies in the dust. 

His radical anti-LGBT conspiracy theories haven't stopped Sears from enjoying an influential career -- by his own count, Sears has persuaded legislators in 20 states to adopt his legislative recommendations. He's also “helped fashion the language for numerous state and federal laws and has testified before committees of the U.S. House and Senate, state legislatures, and many local governments, and commissions.”

Furthering the “Christian Persecution” Narrative

ADF has been peddling the myth of “Christian persecution” since its inception in 1994, when the newly formed “Alliance Defense Fund” solicited donations on Christian radio by claiming:

Pro-life demonstrations may soon be illegal. ... Religious broadcasting may soon be censored. Hiring homosexuals in Christian schools, churches, and even as Sunday School teachers may soon become the law of the land. ... Don't let Christianity become a crime.

Today, ADF lists “religious liberty” as one of the organization's “key issues.” According to ADF's website, “religious liberty [is] under attack in America” and “those who believe in God are increasingly threatened, punished, and silenced.”

This narrative is part of the broader misinformation campaign orchestrated by a network of conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic organizations to frame Christians as “victims” of discrimination. As Dr. Jay Michaelson, a religious liberty fellow at Political Research Associates, noted in a recent report, these organizations are (emphasis added):

Waging a vigorous challenge to LGBTQ and reproductive rights by charging that both threaten their right-wing definition of “religious liberty.”


Religious conservatives have succeeded in reframing the debate, inverting the victim-oppressor dynamic, and broadening support for their agenda.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Rob Boston, director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said of ADF's religious persecution rhetoric, “if you read their emails, their magazines, go to events, you hear a constant message of 'we're under attack, under siege, being persecuted. It works, motivates people to give, makes them afraid, causes them to reach for checkbooks or credit card.”

To further their myth of Christian persecution, ADF frequently provides legal representation to Christian business owners who refuse to serve LGBT customers and are then sued for violating local non-discrimination ordinances. ADF frequently seizes these cases -- which it almost always loses -- to rally conservatives around these highly publicized examples of “persecuted” Christians. 

This past fall, ADF attorney's filed a lawsuit against the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on behalf of a chapel owned by a Christian couple, both ordained ministers, who ADF alleged were being forced to perform same-sex marriages after the city passed an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. This turned out to be a patently false tale and baseless lawsuit -- the “chapel” owned by the couple was a for-profit business, and the city had not taken any legal action against the business, which, if it were registered as a religious nonprofit, would be exempt from the non-discrimination ordinance.

But that didn't matter to ADF. The goal in taking up these types of cases is to create publicity for their cause. And ADF succeeded -- right-wing media seized on the story of the chapel, which quickly spread across Fox and other conservative outlets.

In similar cases, ADF has represented a florist who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, two sets of couples who refused to host same-sex marriages at their for-profit, secular venues, and a New Mexico photographer who refused to work a same-sex wedding.

ADF's clients, who are allegedly “discriminated” against because of their religious beliefs, act as the horror stories that have become the primary argument behind the national push for expanded “religious freedom” laws, also known as Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA). As the Indianapolis Star pointed out in the controversy surrounding Indiana's recently passed RFRA, there is a “pervasive perception that many argue is not a misconception: that Indiana's RFRA is -- and always has been -- a way to allow those who oppose same-sex marriage to deny providing wedding-related services on religious grounds.”

The Center for Arizona Policy, which co-wrote Arizona's failed RFRA, crystallized the link between religious freedom laws and “protecting” wedding businesses, writing that “the critical need for [SB 1062] came to light” after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against the photographer, represented by ADF, who declined to provide services to a same-sex wedding.

In a recent blog defending Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco seized the case as an opportunity to encourage states to adopt their own RFRAs:

States should adopt religious freedom laws that protect their citizens' fundamental right to religious liberty so the government has to prove a compelling reason before it can force someone like Jack to violate his faith.

On their page dedicated to RFRA, ADF cites their own client, Barronelle Stutzman,  a Washington state florist who violated the state's non-discrimination law by refusing to serve a same-sex couple, as an example of “what can happen when religious freedom is not protected.”

ADF doesn't rely solely on their own mailing list and social media to spread the Christian discrimination narrative -- Fox News frequently provides ADF a national platform to bring these cases to national attention and simultaneously defend RFRA legislation. Recently, Fox hosted an ADF attorney to rally viewers behind Stutzman, depicting her as a victim who risked losing her home and livelihood because of the state's non-discrimination law. ADF's cozy relationship with Fox is mutually beneficial: ADF relies on Fox for publicity, and Fox relies on ADF for a steady stream of stories riling up its audience about Christians being under attack, allowing the network to campaign for anti-LGBT RFRAs under the guise of protecting religious liberty. 

How ADF Helps Enact State RFRAs

While ADF has worked publicly to make the national case for expanded RFRAs, the group is quieter about their coordinated legal and lobbying efforts to pass “religious freedom” laws. ADF first emerged as the driving force behind RFRAs in 2014, when the organization helped write Arizona's SB 1062. The bill, which sparked national controversy and was ultimately vetoed, would have expanded legal protections for businesses refusing service to gay customers. At the time, CNN's Anderson Cooper noted that ADF was behind the "genetic code" of SB 1062 and similar religious freedom laws across the country. MSNBC's Chris Hayes similarly documented ADF's involvement in writing the law, while also noting the group's support for criminalizing gay sex abroad.

ADF has had a hand in helping craft a number of similar RFRAs across the country. Gregg Scott, vice president for ADF, has characterized enacting RFRAs as “a legislator's most important duty.” Last year, ADF senior counsel Joel Oster testified in favor of Kansas's RFRA, which was signed into law in April 2013. ADF recently pushed for a RFRA in Colorado, where on March 9 ADF senior counsel Michael J. Norton testified in defense of a “State Freedom of Conscience Protection Act,” another license to discriminate “religious freedom” bill that was killed in the Colorado House. ADF also had a hand in writing Georgia's recently tabled RFRA. 

The organization also promoted a RFRA in Arkansas, a law they claimed would be "destructive" if it included explicit LGBT protections.

Most recently, ADF helped "advise" Indiana lawmakers during the debate over the state's controversial RFRA. ADF's litigation counsel, Kellie Fiedorek, even stood behind Indiana Gov. Mike Pence during the private ceremony signing the bill into law:

After they helped pass the law, ADF representatives jumped to defend the controversial measure in columns, on the radio, and on national cable news.

ADF's reach extends all the way to state legislators where ADF alums and even currently allied attorneys introduce and sponsor “religious freedom” legislation. One of the sponsors of a recently introduced RFRA in North Carolina is House Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R), who proudly boasts her “continu[ed] involvement in promoting religious freedom” as “an Allied Attorney” with ADF. Similarly, in Louisiana, House Rep. Mike Johnson (R) has introduced the "Marriage and Conscience Act," a virulently anti-LGBT bill that explicitly allows discrimination against same-sex couples. Johnson previously served as a senior attorney and media spokesman for ADF.  

Working under the guise of a “religious freedom” organization, ADF's efforts to curtail LGBT rights have been largely successful. Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said in an interview with The Daily Beast:

In the last two years, there have been 35 bills introduced around the country to establish or expand a RFRA. And there have been over 80 bills filed that specifically allow for discrimination against gay and trans communities. 

These RFRAs are more than just a legal shield for anti-gay business owners -- they're a product of ADF's mission to eliminate legal protections for gays and lesbians. Their intent is to make it easier to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. When Indiana considered adding an LGBT non-discrimination amendment to its RFRA, ADF senior counsel Kristen Waggoner told media outlets:

The new proposal unjustly deprives citizens their day in court, denies freedom a fair hearing, and rigs the system in advance. It gives the government a new weapon against individual citizens who are merely exercising freedoms that Americans were guaranteed from the founding of this country.

As constitutional law scholar Marci Hamilton explained in her book God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty, the anti-gay groups behind state RFRAs reveal the laws' "true colors." Media stories about RFRA are not complete until they acknowledge the extreme anti-LGBT group that has worked to lay the groundwork, both legally and in the media, for expanded “religious freedom” legislation.