Who is Alliance Defending Freedom? Christian Legal Powerhouse Behind Supreme Court Abortion Victory

They have represented cake shop owners in Colorado, florists in Washington and preschools in Missouri as they’ve won eight cases in the past seven years before the Supreme Court.

Now, the Alliance Defending Freedom was handed another win in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, which focused on whether crisis pregnancy centers can be obligated to disclose their anti-abortion stance. But just who is the ADF?

The ADF is a conservative, Christian nonprofit that fights against what it sees as growing threats to religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the traditional family. And with over 3,200 attorneys networked across the country and some $48 million in funding, the group seems well prepared for the battle.

“Across the United States, Christians are being punished for living by their convictions,” the organization says on its website. It claims to be victorious in 80 percent of cases.

The ADF was founded in the mid-1990s by a group of Christian-right heavyweights. The group's chief executive officer and president until 2017 was Alan Sears, a lawyer who had held positions in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential administrations.

Sears shaped the ADF to be the conservative equivalent of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Other founders of the ADF include James Dobson, the founder of conservative group Focus on the Family, and evangelical James Kennedy, who was a megachurch pastor and founder of the religious empire Evangelical Explosion.

Before its Tuesday victory, the ADF made headlines for winning controversial Supreme Court cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission earlier this month. The ADF defended Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because it went against his religious beliefs. The court voted in Phillips’s favor on narrow grounds, reversing the Colorado Civil Rights Commission's decision but avoiding ruling on the broader issues at play.

During these cases, the ADF has been slammed as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Amazon even blocked the organization from using its charitable AmazonSmile donation system.

Jennifer Pizer, the law and policy director at Lambda Legal, told Newsweek that the ADF isn’t just targeting the LGBTQ community and that it has a much larger goal in mind.

“They clearly have a long-term plan to try to change the law,” Pizer said, adding that the ADF’s cases harness religion and speech safeguards to “pop big holes in civil rights protections.”

Pizer has engaged with the ADF for the past 15 years and is fighting against it in a case involving a lesbian couple denied accommodation at a Hawaii commercial business establishment. She described its tactics as "dangerous" and a plan for “winning the constitutional right to discriminate.”

But Mark Rienzi, president of the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which fights for religious freedom for all faith denominations, sees the situation differently. Analyzing the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, Rienzi told Newsweek that the Supreme Court made a clear-cut decision that it would not tell private citizens what they have to think.

“The government can't be in the business of punishing individual citizens for having ‘wrong views,’” he said. “That’s why the justices haven’t had a terribly hard time with these cases, because they know they can’t force individuals to change their beliefs.”

These court cases are about figuring out how the American people are going to live in a free society that allows its citizens to hold different points of view, Rienzi added.

Rienzi said he's seen a rising trend of using the court system to attack people who disagree with your point of view, and he disagrees with claims that the ADF is seeking to punish people who disagree with its religious views.

“If we are going to be a tolerant country and if we’re all going to be able to live together in a free society, then we have to get out of this bad cycle,” Rienzi said.

ADF senior counsel Jim Campbell echoed those claims in a statement emailed to Newsweek.

“Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in both Obergefell v. Hodges (the court’s decision requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages) and Masterpiece Cakeshop, determined that government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society and that the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward [the cake shop owner's] religious beliefs about marriage,” he said.

“Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a pluralistic society like ours," Campbell added. "They enable us to peacefully coexist with one another.” 

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