The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and its conservative allies were thrilled earlier this month when Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the legal organization and assured them that they are not a hate group, contrary to their designation as such by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The large body of evidence rests in favor of the SPLC though, and a survey of their current and recent cases clearly demonstrates how they are advancing an agenda of stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ people.
ADF was founded in the early 1990s to defend “religious liberty issues” and “fend-off” the ACLU’s efforts to “immobilize Christians.” Since then, the group has grown into one of the most powerful conservative organizations in the country, worth tens of millions of dollars. It has an army of “allied” attorneys across the country ready to take on cases and a massive PR network eager to highlight their work — including placing puff pieces in national newspapers.
When the SPLC designated ADF an anti-LGBTQ hate group, it published a thoroughly researched document outlining the many reasons it had earned that designation, notably including its support for criminalizing homosexuality in the U.S. and abroad. Last month, Media Matters released an even more comprehensive report cataloging ADF’s history of extreme, demonizing rhetoric directed towards the LGBTQ community.
But ADF’s work also speaks for itself. ThinkProgress surveyed approximately 30 of the group’s current and most recent court cases and found a desire to shut LGBTQ people out of almost every aspect of public life.
The next case ADF is attempting to get before the Supreme Court epitomizes its prejudice. ADF represents Michigan’s R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, who fired employee Aimee Stephens for being transgender. Stephens sued, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Stephens’ favor this spring, concluding that Title VII’s nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sex must recognize transgender people for their gender identity.
But ADF wants the Supreme Court to overturn that opinion. In their cert petition, they argue that a ruling in Stephens’ favor will somehow “change what it means to be male and female,” which will have “widespread consequences.” This includes the wild claim that respecting trans people for who they are somehow “forbids employers and public schools from administering sex-specific policies like dress codes, living facilities, locker rooms, and restrooms based on sex.” Recognizing trans women as women also “impedes women’s advancement,” they argue, because opportunities for women (like playing in the WNBA) “must be opened to males who identify as women.” Perhaps unbeknownst to ADF, the WNBA already allows trans women to play.
ADF demonizes Stephens, suggesting that allowing her to follow the women’s dress code will “disrupt the healing process of grieving families.” The funeral home owner was also “concerned that female clients and staff would be forced to share restroom facilities with Stephens,” as if she’s somehow a threat just because she’s transgender.
If ADF convinces a conservative-majority court with their fear-mongering — which might not be that difficult given the current makeup of the bench — there will be nothing protecting transgender people from discrimination in the 30 states that have no explicit employment protections on the basis of gender identity. The inevitable legal interpretation of such a decision will likewise trample on similar efforts to protect transgender students under Title IX. It could set back LGBTQ rights by decades.
A right to discriminate
ADF has quite a litany of cases specifically designed to allow Christian business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ people. These cases can be broken up into two groups: businesses who already stand accused of discrimination, and businesses who want to discriminate and are challenging the laws that prevent them from doing so.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision is the most famous case from the first group, involving Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to sell a same-sex couple a wedding cake. The Supreme Court ruled in Phillips’ favor, but only on narrow grounds specific to his case. Phillips now stands accused of not selling a birthday cake to a transgender customer, and ADF has launched a new suit, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Elenis, to defend him.
Other recent cases in the first group include:
- Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, about Washington florist Baronnelle Stutzman, who refused to sell flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding. The U.S. Supreme Court sent this case back to the Washington Supreme Court for consideration after Masterpiece Cakeshop.
- Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals, about a Kentucky print company that refused to make t-shirts for an LGBTQ pride festival. A Kentucky appeals court ruled in the printer’s favor, but the case has been appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
- Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, about a Michigan farmer who refuses to host same-sex weddings but still believes he deserves a stall at a farmer’s market. A court ordered last September that the farmer be allowed to return to the market.
- Cervelli v. Aloha Bed & Breakfast, about a Hawaii bed and breakfast that refused to host a same-sex couple. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled against the owners this summer.
Previously, ADF also represented a New York farm that refused to host same-sex weddings (Gifford v. Erwin), a for-profit Idaho wedding chapel that refused to host same-sex weddings (Knapp v. City of Coeur d’Alene), and a New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph same-sex weddings (Elane Photography v. Willock). The organization’s success in defending these discriminating clients has been limited at best.
The second group of cases involve would-be wedding vendors that ADF worked closely with to carefully craft business models designed to challenge laws that protect against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. These business owners want to profit off weddings without having to serve same-sex couples, and they argue that the laws preventing them from doing so violate their “religious freedom.” Through these “pre-enforcement challenges,” ADF hopes to dismantle basic LGBTQ protections across the country.
These cases include:
- Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix, about a pair of calligraphers challenging Phoenix, Arizona’s nondiscrimination ordinance. An Arizona appeals court ruled against ADF this summer, and ADF is appealing.
- Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, about a pair of videographers challenging Minnesota’s nondiscrimination law. A federal district court ruled against ADF, and the case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
- 303 Creative v. Elenis, about a website designer challenging Colorado’s nondiscrimination law. A federal district court ruled against ADF and it filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
- Amy Lynn Photography Studio v. City of Madison, about a photographer who challenged the city’s and Wisconsin’s nondiscrimination laws. ADF claimed a rather meaningless victory last year when a county circuit court ruled that neither the state nor local law even applied to her as a freelancer.
There’s nothing covert about ADF’s tactics with these cases. They’re trying to convince the courts that granting LGBTQ people equality under the law somehow infringes on the “religious liberty” of those inclined to discriminate against them. Fortunately, even in the wake of Masterpiece Cakeshop, they have not been successful.
One of ADF’s other top priorities is segregating transgender students at school. This has involved challenging schools with inclusive policies that recognize transgender students according to their gender identity, and defending schools that have policies that do the opposite.
An ADF attorney represented Texas and a handful of other states when they challenged guidance issued by the Obama administration that transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX. A conservative judge enjoined the policy from being enforced, and the Trump administration subsquently rescinded that guidance.
Likewise, when the Obama Justice Department sued North Carolina for enforcing its discriminatory HB2 law, ADF countersued on behalf an anonymous coalition of parents and students called “North Carolinians for Privacy.” They argued that the courts should rule against the federal government because “the female University Students are deeply concerned that allowing biological male students into their private facilities increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted or otherwise victimized.”
This fear-mongering — that trans kids are inherently a threat to their peers — has been at the core of their other cases:
- Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, where ADF represented a group of parents and students challenging a Pennsylvania school’s transgender-inclusive policy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against ADF this summer.
- Maday v. Township High School District 211 and Students and Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, a pair of cases in which ADF represented a group of parents challenging an Illinois school’s policy respecting transgender students. A federal judge denied ADF a preliminary injunction in December and the case is ongoing.
- Board of Education of the Highland Local School District v. United States Department of Education, in which ADF represented an Ohio school that refused to accommodate a transgender student. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with a federal judge to protect the transgender student, the case was later dismissed after mediation.
- Privacy Matters v. United States Department of Education, in which ADF represented parents who objected to a transgender student at their Minnesota school. Curiously, ADF dropped the case after the Trump administration rescinded the guidance protecting transgender students, even though the school’s policies didn’t change.
These cases do not account for the work ADF does spreading anti-trans propaganda in local church communities, peddling an anti-trans model policy to schools, drafting state legislation similar to HB2 to impose such policies writ large, and sending schools legal threats for having inclusive policies or disciplining anti-trans teachers.
ADF also has a whole separate litany of cases challenging free speech policies at universities, often on behalf of conservative students who wish to distribute anti-LGBTQ propaganda or bring virulently anti-LGBTQ speakers like Ben Shapiro to campus.
Friend of the Court
Even when ADF isn’t the lead counsel on a case related to LGBTQ issues, it often finds a way to shoehorn in by representing groups who file amicus briefs (“friend of the court” briefs) in these cases. This gives ADF another opportunity to advocate against LGBTQ legal equality, and they even list these cases on their website as if they’re actually a party to them:
- Dumont v. Lyon is a case in which the ACLU is challenging Michigan’s law permitting adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples while receiving state funding. ADF filed a brief on behalf of 53 state lawmakers — all Republicans — which claimed that allowing agencies to discriminate somehow “places children first and tries to maximize their chance to receive the love and care they deserve.”
- In several cases related to transgender students, ADF has filed briefs on its own behalf arguing against recognizing the students according to their gender identity, including G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board (Virginia), R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District (Missouri), and Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District (Wisconsin).
- Obergefell v. Hodges: Though ADF didn’t argue the Supreme Court case that resulted in nationwide marriage equality, they filed a brief on behalf of the state of Alabama that argued that a ruling overturning state bans on same-sex marriage would erode democracy.
- Lawrence v. Texas: In the 2003 Supreme Court case that overturned laws criminalizing homosexuality, ADF filed two different amicus briefs arguing against lifting Texas’ sodomy laws. One brief argued that “gay bowel syndrome” is a public health menace and the other compared homosexuality to adultery, prostitution, polygamy, and fornication. Most of the lawyers who drafted those briefs still work for the organization, including its now-president Michael Farris. The organization was still defending the positions it took in this case as recently as last year.
Discrimination at every turn
In addition to all the cases listed here, ADF has also defended:
- Mississippi’s law granting a religious license to discriminate against LGBTQ people (Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant).
- Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired from his job after distributing self-published anti-gay religious propaganda to subordinates (Cochran v. City of Atlanta).
- Wyoming Judge Ruth Neely, who was censured for violating the judicial conduct code when she refused to officiate same-sex couples’ marriages (Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics).
- A group of pastors in Houstons who were challenging subpoenas related to their involvement in organizing a referendum to repeal the city’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections (Woodfill v. Parker).
Though it has not yet taken a related case, ADF has also been on the forefront of lobbying against AB 2943, a bill in California to protect people of all ages from the harmful fraud that is anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy. Based on guidance ADF published, conservatives have insisted the legislation will somehow ban the sale of the Bible. The state Senate advanced the bill this week.
Separate from its anti-LGBTQ work, ADF has another collection of cases representing organizations that do not want to cover the costs of contraception or abortion. They also defend crisis pregnancy centers that deceive women with misinformation about abortion, including during the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates’ recent Supreme Court case.
Rather than approach their anti-LGBTQ positions with any intellectual honesty by acknowledging they work to advance discrimination, the ADF — along with other organizations deemed hate groups — has simply mounted a campaign to undermine the SPLC’s reputation.
But ADF’s record speaks for itself.