Evangelical Law Firm at Front of Culture War
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer; Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
In a modern brick building just off the highway here, a small team of evangelical lawyers is trying to elevate conservative Christian values in U.S. society.
This up-and-coming advocacy group, known formally as the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), is increasingly challenging progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union on issues such as school prayer, gay rights and abortion.
Republicans in the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Statehouse recently asked the ADF to intervene on behalf of the Legislature to oppose a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in April on behalf of six lesbian state employees who want the state to provide employee benefits for their partners.
The Wisconsin case is one sign of the growing political influence of the U.S. Christian conservative movement. No longer politically passive, groups such as ADF are well-funded and well-equipped to push their agenda.
"The Alliance Defense Fund has been very effective at finding local conflicts that symbolize a bigger fight and using those local conflicts as an opportunity to make a larger statement," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar for the First Amendment Center , a nonpartisan education group with offices at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and in Arlington, Va. They have become the "go-to organization" for religious conservative activists, Haynes said.
In the Wisconsin case, the state -- not the Legislature -- is the defendant in the lawsuit, and the state attorney general is responsible for defending state policies in court.
But Republican Assembly Speaker John Gard said the political leanings of state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager , a Democrat, would conflict with the state's interests because she had voiced support for the ACLU and for same-sex couples to form civil unions.
"The attorney general and governor have made it clear where their position is on this issue. But more than anything else, the Legislature is charged with forming public policy, and that's why we should be involved in this case," said Gard's spokesperson, Bob Delaporte.
Earlier this year, the Legislature rejected Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle 's proposal to set aside $1 million to provide health benefits to same-sex couples at the University of Wisconsin, the only college in the Big 10 Conference that does not provide such benefits.
Lautenschlager declined comment on ADF involvement in the Wisconsin case, but she has filed for dismissal of the lesbian state workers' lawsuit. In a legal brief filed June 8, Lautenschlager said there is no guarantee of equal rights to same-sex couples in the Wisconsin Constitution. She based her argument on a 1992 appeals court ruling that rejected a similar suit.
ADF's participation in the case is not assured; Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan, who is trying the case, must decide whether ADF can intervene on behalf of the Legislature. If allowed to intervene, ADF also will argue that the 1992 ruling nixes state employee benefits for domestic partners, Glen Lavy, ADF's lead attorney in the case, said in an interview.
ADF was invited into the case on a 6-3 party-line vote in a legislative committee last month. The move raised the ire of state Rep. Marc Pocan , an openly gay Democrat representing Madison. "It's a sad day in Wisconsin when a fringe, extremist organization from outside the state purports to represent the people's duly-elected body of government," Pocan said.
Fighting gay rights is a high priority for ADF; its lawyers helped defeat legal challenges to constitutional same-sex marriage bans in Louisiana and Kentucky, and successfully sued to invalidate marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in San Francisco and Portland, Ore. It supported the Boy Scouts of America in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2000 that upheld the right of the youth organization to exclude openly gay leaders.
To ADF officials, the Wisconsin case simply affirms their belief that the group speaks for the majority of Americans when it goes to court. "The views we are representing are the mainstream," Lavy said. "We are not representing an extremist position that a few people support."
Based in this upper-middle-class suburb of Phoenix, ADF was founded in 1993 by James Dobson's Focus on the Family and about 30 other conservative evangelical ministries. With an annual budget exceeding $17 million, the group describes itself as a defender of "religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, marriage, and the traditional family."
It is one of the foremost pro-religion, anti-gay rights litigators to emerge from the "religious liberty" movement of the 1990s, said attorney Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the conservative Florida-based law firm Liberty Counsel , which shares ADF's ties to evangelical Christian groups.
In an attempt to counter the progressive influence of groups such as the ACLU, which was founded in 1920 and handles nearly 6,000 civil rights-related lawsuits per year, conservative Christian groups began creating pro-religion law firms in the 1990s. These groups also include the American Center for Law and Justice , founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson; The Rutherford Institute ; the Thomas More Law Center ; The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy .
ADF is one of the largest of these organizations; its annual fund-raising rose from $4.7 million in 1997 to nearly $18 million in 2003, according to tax documents.
In addition to its legal team of 23 full-time attorneys, ADF says it has about 750 lawyers nationwide committed to doing 450 hours of pro bono work annually in exchange for legal training, primarily in constitutional law. ADF claims to have funded or litigated more than 1,300 cases since its founding.
ADF and other conservative Christian law firms now wield enormous legal clout, said Frank Ravitch, constitutional law professor at Michigan State University College of Law.
"One of the huge mistakes that the (political) left has made in dealing with these groups over the years is … to think these are a bunch of fanatics and to stereotype and characterize them that way. They may be zealots, but they're very smart, well-organized and well-funded," said Ravitch, author of the book, "School Prayer and Discrimination: The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters."
Separately, ADF and other Christian law firms are a fraction of the size of the ACLU, which has chapters in every state and is reported to have a $100 million annual budget. But combined, they are an increasingly powerful rival, Staver of Liberty Counsel asserted.
"For decades, there was this moving train, pushed primarily by the ACLU, to curb religious freedoms, and nobody was trying to slow it down or resist it. ... But collectively, we've been able to make a huge difference in a short time frame," he said.