Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ latest assault on LGBTQ Americans didn’t come from nowhere. His Friday memo on “religious freedom” was crafted with guidance from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a once-fringe advocacy group for the Christian conservative right that today is a legal powerhouse with about $48 million to push its agenda.
The sweeping 25-page memo directs all federal and executive agencies to vigorously enforce federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom, including the “right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s beliefs.” The memo triggered alarm bells among civil rights groups, who say it essentially makes it legal for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone for being gay if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
During a call on Friday, Michael Farris, the CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, told reporters that Sessions had convened “listening sessions” with the group because he was “seeking suggestions regarding the areas of federal protection for religious liberty most in need of clarification or guidance.” The memo was issued the same day the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations on birth control, clearing the way for businesses not to cover contraception under company insurance plans if the employer has religious objections.
In July, the attorney general was lambasted by civil and human rights groups after news broke that he’d made remarks at a closed-door ADF meeting. A transcript of the remarks were ultimately published by the Federalist. Sessions promised that new federal guidance to protect religious liberty was on its way “soon.” “Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed,” he said.
So what is the Alliance Defending Freedom, commonly known by its acronym ADF?
The group, founded in 1994, is headquartered in Arizona and have more than 3,000 attorneys fanned out across the globe. They’re deep-pocketed, with an approximately $48 million in annual revenue, amassed largely through generous contributions, including from foundations associated with the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
With its stated goal of advocating, training, and funding on the issues of “religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” ADF has weighed in on almost every major sociological debate since its inception over the last three decades. And it has made no secret of its views on LGBTQ rights — or its mission to turn the clock back to a time when gay rights didn’t exist.
“I think there is no question that one day this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Alan Sears, former ADF president and a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department, told the New York Times in 2014.
In 2012, Sears, then-president of the ADF (called “Alliance Defense Fund” at the time) delivered remarks at a U.S-led conservative conference called the World Congress of Families in Madrid. “In the course of the now hundreds of cases the Alliance Defense Fund has now fought involving this homosexual agenda, one thing is certain,” said Sears at a session titled “The Homosexual Agenda.” “There is no room for compromise with those who would call evil ‘good’.”
They’ve backed businesses that don’t want their healthcare plans to cover contraception, teenagers who resent their high school’s policies accommodating transgender students, and photographers who were sued after refusing to shoot a gay couple’s civil ceremony. They represented the Boy Scouts of America in their legal showdown with a former assistant scoutmaster whose membership they revoked after discovering he was gay. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Boy Scouts, with the help of ADF, prevailed. They’ve also been instrumental in drafting model “bathroom bill” legislation for states seeking to force transgender people to use bathrooms of the gender they were assigned at birth.
Most recently, the ADF — now with additional muscle from the DOJ, which filed supporting documents in September — has championed a Christian bakery owner in Colorado who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. The Supreme Court will hear the case this session.
The DOJ’s decision to weigh in on the Christian baker case wasn’t the first time that Sessions’ name had showed up in conjunction with ADF. The ADF is also backing an evangelical student at a Georgia college who says the school’s free speech policy restricts his ability to freely evangelize on campus. In late September, the DOJ — signaling its intent to defend free speech on campus — filed a statement of interest in the case.