The future of safe schools may have just been decided by a few skinned knees on a Missouri playground.
The playground in question belongs to Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, where the rough gravel surface was hurting children when they fell. In 2012, the church applied for a state grant to replace the rocky surface with soft rubber mats.
The state rejected the church's grant application, though, due to a constitutional provision that bars the distribution of taxpayer funds to religious organizations. Lawsuits followed, and this week, the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that the state cannot withhold taxpayer funding from churches.
A major force behind the case—and indeed, behind much of the country's recent anti-LGBTQ activism—is a little-known group called The Alliance Defending Freedom. Over the last few years, ADF has been stealthily seizing power in the nation's public school systems, with queer youth squarely in their crosshairs.
The Trinity Lutheran ruling could have a huge impact on educational funding in America. Now that the Supreme Court has found Missouri's amendment unconstitutional, other states may overturn their own limits on private religious organizations—including schools, which have long clamored for taxpayer cash—receiving public funds. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has frequently expressed interest in shifting funding from public schools, said the ruling was cause for celebration.
That funding shift, however, presents a significant risk for LGBTQ youth. Though the Trump administration has dealt blows to LGBTQ student rights, public schools are still required by some states to provide limited nondiscrimination policies for queer students. Private schools run by religious organizations are often exempt from those requirements. With the Trinity ruling, LGBTQ students could potentially find resources drained from schools that protect their access to education, and redirected to schools where they face discriminatory policies.
"It's really strange that there's a hate group out there affecting school policy," said Angelo Carusone, president of the research center Media Matters for America. "They're able to hide behind the fact that they have a so-called Christian identification. So their policies are viewed in the context of their religion instead of something more insidious than that."
The ADF was founded as the Alliance Defense Fund in 1994 by a rogue's gallery of anti-gay activists, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, one of the country's best-funded anti-LGBTQ organizations, and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, a massive organization that spreads homophobic propaganda around the world.
The organization's primary mission is to train lawyers and litigate cases that expand religion in the public sphere. With an army of over 2,600 private attorneys and assets of around $40 million, they've had a hand in cases that restricted access to abortion, preserved Boy Scout bans on gay members, blocked marriage equality, and funneled taxpayer money to religious publications. The organization's media guide purports they have won almost 80 percent of their cases. (The ADF did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)
The organization was designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, citing the group's decades of attacking LGBTQ citizens. When ADF filed briefs in Lawrence v. Texas supporting the criminalization of homosexuality, ADF attorney Glen Lavy wrote, "same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem." The ADF was also active in efforts to criminalize homosexuality in Jamaica, Belize, and India, and in a slew of legal fights against marriage equality.
By opening the door to public funding of religious schools, the Trinity case will facilitate a further reduction in protection for queer students. In recent years, the ADF has increasingly focused on making public schools adopt anti-LGBTQ measures. Whenever education officials confront bullying, bathrooms, and sex education, the ADF never seems to be far off.
"We're really concerned," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "We have an extremist well-funded law firm that is many times our size—in fact many times the size of the trans movement—turning their sights on trans children."
A close look at the ADF's priorities over the last few years reveals an unmistakable effort to make schools hostile to queer students. Just witness Ken Fletcher, senior director of strategic relations at ADF, explaining why the Board of Education of Fannin County, Georgia should allow the ADF to help them craft a bathroom policy that excludes trans students: "What the media and what hollywood is throwing at our kids, we are going to see more people with gender dysphoria, gender confusion in years to come," he told them. "This is something public schools will have to deal with. Alliance Defending Freedom has created a model bathroom policy, and we want to offer services free of charge to help you as you're going through this difficult decision." He goes on to cite a medical organization called "The American College of Pediatricians" that advocates for ex-gay therapy.
The ADF has also taken to against schools that create trans-inclusive policies, and they've offered legal assistance to schools that restrict trans access.
ADF lawsuits against schools that accommodate trans students are pending in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Illinois, often on behalf of local organizations called "Privacy Matters" or "Students and Parents for Privacy." And in Missouri, the ADF was able to get one of their attorneys appointed to replace school board members who resigned over bathroom policies.
Why has the organization dedicated so much attention to schools in recent years? According to Carusone at Media Matters, maintaining control of the country's education system is part of ADF's long view of the fight to control public policy.
"They see this as a generational fight, and you target kids when you're fighting a generational war," he said. "They think they can turn the tides of culture, and they're willing to fight this for decades... They're not fighting individual skirmishes over individual policies. They see this as a battle in a decades-long, multi-generational effort to make sure every member of the LGBT community is not just pushed back into the closet, but put in jail."
That the ADF has taken such an active role in manipulating educational policy has not gone unnoticed by LGBTQ organizations. Recently, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups launched a campaign called "Eliminate Hate," dedicated to exposing ADF interference in school districts and bringing attention to other anti-LGBTQ hate groups.
"It's bad enough when you're not accepted at home," said Sara Grossman, communications manager at the Matthew Shepard Foundation (MSF), which advocates for an end to violence against LGBTQ people. "Sometimes school is your safe space. To take that away is atrocious. They're just kids."
Besides media outreach, coalition partners are also placing op-eds in major news outlets, and working to connect supportive parents with school officials so that their voices can't be ignored.
But it's going to be difficult to counter the ADF's vast legal and financial resources, particularly now that they've been successful in the Trinity case. With a sympathetic administration in the White House, it'll be easier than ever for states to reduce funding for public schools and increase funding for discriminatory private schools.
As a result, LGBTQ students could face mounting challenges to their ability to obtain an education. "This isn't about choosing what bathroom you want," said Keisling. "This is about whether trans students can be in schools. If you can't use the bathroom at school, you can't be a student."
"With Obama we were on offense," said MSF's Grossman. "And now we've switched to defense. It's jarring to say the least."
It's a bit strange that ADF's Trinity case, which was ostensibly about school safety, could eventually be used to make schools across the country less safe. But as much as ADF considers their fight to be generational, so too do advocates for queer youth. The Matthew Shepard Foundation and its partners in the Eliminate Hate campaign are optimistic that their engagement at the local level can shield ADF's victims from harm in the long run.
"We know that activism starts with youth, with GSAs, with safe spaces," said Grossman. "It's our hope that many years from now when this is finally behind us, those we have protected will continue to protect others."