- Author: Amanda Kippert
- Category: Valley News
- Issue: Jun 2013
A powerful but low-profile Christian advocacy group in Scottsdale quietly works to transform the American legal system.
T his past March, hundreds of journalists, activists and pundits packed into 1 First Street in Washington, D.C. to watch the Supreme Court consider arguments on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Among the throng of witnesses was Doug Napier, senior vice president of legal affairs for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Scottsdale-based Christian advocacy group. Though Napier didn’t testify at the proceedings, he was hardly a casual observer. For two decades, ADF has vigorously fought for traditional marriages and adoptions, religious expression in schools, pro-life issues, and other social-conservative concerns in courtrooms across the United States – sending 40 of those cases to the Supreme Court, according to ADF literature. They are, almost certainly, the most influential Valley-based assembly of Gospel-spreading legal
ninjas you’ve never heard of.
“Certainly no need to draw additional attention to ourselves here,” Napier says to a visitor, explaining ADF’s unmarked offices, buzz-in security system and appointment-only visitation policy.
Launched in 1994 by a who’s-who of evangelical Christian ministry leaders, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright and late International Christian Media President Marlin Maddoux, ADF was conceived as a foil to the American Civil Liberties Union – that famously litigious bugaboo of social conservatives. The ADF’s goal: to train and fund a small army of Christian attorneys “to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system,” according to ADF’s website. Napier says ADF’s founders based their offices in Scottsdale “to avoid undue Beltway influence.”
With 40 full-time attorneys on staff and 2,200 allied attorneys on call in 31 countries, ADF is no toothless think tank. Though its agenda does overlap with Arizona’s signature conservative lobby, Center for Arizona Policy – which Napier says ADF is “proud to have a close relationship with” – the organization prefers to wage its social crusade on a case by case basis. In 2009, ADF fought and won a case for Pastor Joe Sutherland of Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert. City officials asked Sutherland to cease holding Bible study in the homes of the church’s seven members. Zoning laws prohibited religious assembly in single-family homes, laws which ADF appealed to the zoning board and got overturned.
Napier cites 12 wins against “Obamacare” healthcare laws he says force employers to pay for morning-after pills. The latest such victory came out of Colorado. Owners of a heating ventilation company ran their business “according to Biblical principles,” Napier says, and didn’t want to be required to fund anything having to do with abortion. “The Obama administration says if you are in business, you don’t have any religious rights; you are in a secular realm, and therefore you abandon all those rights.”
And, of course, there’s same-sex marriage, which the ADF adamantly opposes. CEO and general counsel Alan Sears even wrote a book to that effect, titled The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. Napier says ADF represented clients as co-counsel in Hollingsworth v. Perry, aka the “Prop 8 case.” Days after the March Supreme Court hearings on Prop 8 and DOMA, the opening page of ADF’s website declared, “How Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Threatens You,” the headline overlapping a photo of a family holding each other, heads bowed, braced for said threat. The post asked readers to pray for God’s favor in the Supreme Court.
Napier – a third-generation lawyer from Iowa corn country whose smooth, open-mannered mien hardly reflects the guarded feel of his offices – prefers to cast ADF as a defender of free speech than as a political action group. Its website reads: “For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union and other radical anti-Christian groups have been on a mission to eliminate public expression of our nation’s faith and heritage.”
Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, hotly debates such language, saying the ACLU has long defended religious expression, including Christian street preachers, pro-life organizations and students’ right to wear rosaries. “I think they attack us because we’re pretty consistent. For us, it’s the principle and not the person. We can’t pick and choose who we represent to promote a particular agenda.”
According to Soler, ADF is a major if misguided player in the arena of civil rights, supporting legislation and litigation that has been found unconstitutional, often in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“The ACLU will continue to challenge and oppose [ADF’s] legal efforts because we strongly believe in the importance of keeping government out of the business of religion and ensuring fairness and equality for all,” Soler says.
Polls confirm most Americans remain uneasy with the blending of religion and government. In a 2011 survey by the First Amendment Center, 67 percent of respondents said they believed in the separation of church and state, up from 59 percent who believed the same thing 10 years ago. In 2006, a Pew Research Center poll asked 2,000 participants “Which should be the more important influence on the laws of the Untied States – the Bible or the will of the American people, even when it conflicts with the Bible?” Sixty-three percent answered “the will of the American people,” while 32 percent chose the Bible.
Currently, the ADF’s biggest church-state battle pertains to gay marriage. Advocates of same-sex marriage base their argument on the idea that modern marriage has no direct ties to religion. After all, atheists manage to obtain marriage licenses without protest. Napier counters with the idea that marriage has no ties to government: “To say that marriage is a civil right is not a correct understanding of what marriage is and has been. Marriage was instituted by God and preceded government.”
Napier continues, “From the very beginning of time, there was never any fundamental right in our Constitution… for same-sex couples to enter into a union that has always been defined as one man, one woman. So, those aren’t rights that are being taken away; those are rights that have never existed until someone imagined them and created these legal fictions.”
Lauren Youngblood is the communications manager for the Secular Coalition of America, a nonprofit advocacy organization that lobbies for the separation of religion and government. She says that while the First Amendment allows people to believe what they want to believe, the 14th Amendment extends equal protection under the law to all citizens. “What the laws are doing is treating same-sex couples unequally. Gay couples who are unable to marry lose out on more than 1,100 federal protections.” According to the Human Rights Campaign, even same-sex couples who are legally married in a state that recognizes such unions are denied 1,134 federal benefits and protections.
“Things that are not the same are not equal to each other,” Napier counters. “Same-sex relationships are not the same as heterosexual relationships. Just as a brother/sister relationship is different, this is not the same. You cannot say just because we want to be treated equal, we have that right. If they’re not equal, then they don’t deserve to be treated equally. I think they have a very false notion of what is equal.”
Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona, a nonprofit that aims to protect the rights of the state’s LGBT community, says ADF’s opposition to gay marriage – and gay couples adopting children – is tantamount to bigotry. “Christ taught his disciples to love one another and not to judge,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re perverting the very nature of the thing they’re trying to uphold.”
Napier – who is married and has two children – sees ADF’s fight not as bigotry but as preservation. If gay marriage becomes legal nationwide, he says, “I don’t think America is what anyone will want it to be. We will wake up one day and say… we have destroyed this beautiful country because we were so short-sighted and so self-centered that we didn’t have the sense to do what was right.”
The Supreme Court will decide both the Prop 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases by the end of June.
ADF’s Greatest Hits
Some of the most influential cases taken up by Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom.
Planned Parenthood. In April, ADF presented a report to Congress alleging $108 million in “waste, abuse and potential fraud.” In part, the claim accuses PP of taking reimbursement dollars from Title XIX, a federal grant program under the Social Security Act, for services connected with abortion, allegedly illegal under federal law. ADF urged an investigation and fines.
Indian Prairie School District. In 2011, ADF argued – and won – on behalf of high school students in Chicago who were forbidden by school officials from wearing T-shirts that read “Be Happy, Not Gay.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the school district’s argument that it could forbid free speech in order to spare other students’ feelings.
Missouri State University. In 2006, ADF represented Missouri State University social work student Emily Brooker, who was allegedly forced by her professor to write a letter to the Missouri Legislature expressing her support of same-sex adoption despite, she says, her Christian beliefs not allowing her to. The ADF and Brooker won, and the university vowed to conduct a study into their program’s shortcomings.
University of Virginia. In 1995, ADF went up against the college after a Christian newspaper at the school was denied access to student funding. The University claimed funding the paper would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled against the university.