Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, December 2019 Issue.
Nestled in an innocuous office park just off the 101 is the headquarters of an international hate group. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is dedicated to restricting the rights of LGBT+ people under the guise of religious liberty. An annual budget of over $50 million and small army of lawyers allows it to exert undue influence over politics, courtrooms and even schools in Arizona and beyond. On Tuesday, October 8, they defended the right of employers to discriminate based on gender identity in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the past, it has defended state bans on gay sex, lobbied for constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, sued to prevent transgender students from using bathrooms and pushed to restrict women’s access to healthcare. Parents, local residents, activists, researchers and a series of viral commercials are exposing the hateful campaign masterminded from the ADF’s north Scottsdale nerve center.
The ADF changed its name from the Alliance Defense Fund in 2012, but its hateful mission hasn’t wavered since its establishment. The Christian Right was galvanized by cases like Roe v. Wade in 1973, which protected women’s right to abortion, and the lesser known Runyon v. McCrary in 1976. The latter forced the integration of private Christian schools established in response to federal desegregation in 1954. That case demonstrates the historic links between segregationists and the Christian Right. Despite the growing political power of such bible thumpers throughout the 1980s, their reactionary vision for society continued to be thwarted in courts.
Keen to rectify this, James Dobson, Bill Bright, Larry Burkett and over two dozen other Christian Right leaders established the ADF on January 31, 1994. Meant to offset secular organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, its vision was far grander than serving as a counterweight. “I think whenever you look at the foundation of organizations like the ADF, you have to really take them seriously in their strategic thinking,” explained Teddy Wilson, a research analyst for Political Research Associates. “Coupled with organizations like the Federal Society, you see the beginnings of how they created both the litigation arm of the Christian Right and also a vehicle for creating a pipeline for lawyers and eventually judges who would bring this Christian rightwing view.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designated the ADF as a hate group in 2016. Groups receive the label based on whether their statements, activities and principles vilify people because of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion and ethnicity. Three of the main reasons the SPLC gave for the ADF’s listing were its support for the criminalization or recriminalization of homosexuality, defense of trans people being forcibly sterilized and connecting homosexuality to pedophilia. A fourth reason relates to the belief that homosexuality, according to the ADF’s own website, “will ultimately destroy our society.”
Both founders and current ADF leadership have a history of making hateful remarks about the LGBT+ community. This is another point cited in the SPLC’s decision. Alan Sears, who led the ADF until retiring in 2017, exposed his beliefs in writing. He has compared LGBT+ activists to Nazis, and claimed they are part of a vast conspiracy to indoctrinate youth and made other clearly bigoted statements. “We mention the new promotion of pedophilia in the context of talking about the influence of homosexual behavior on college campuses, because, despite all objections to the contrary, the two are often intrinsically linked,” Sears and co-author Craig Osten wrote in a 2003 book, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.
One of the ADF’s most successful endeavors is its Blackstone Legal Fellowship (BLF). Started 19 year ago with an initial troop of 24 interns, the program has now served over 2,000 law students, according to its website. These crusading youth attend intensive training camps pushing the ADF’s Christian fundamentalist legal philosophy. They also receive prestigious internships and other professional development opportunities. At least four individuals who were part of the program have worked or currently work in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, including Josh Whitaker, Bradley Pollock, David Rosenthal and Jessica Kemper. A revealing quote from the BLF’s website in 2014 — which has subsequently been removed — read, “Alliance Defending Freedom seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. This is catholic, universal orthodoxy and it is desperately crucial for cultural renewal.”
The ADF’s Allied Attorney’s program claims to have more than 3,000 practicing lawyers at its disposal. In combination with interns, staff attorneys and deep pocketbooks, the ADF has been very successful in exploiting courts to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and attack women’s reproductive rights. They also fish for test cases across the country. If you’ve heard of a law attacking homosexuals or attempts to exclude them from businesses open to the public, odds are the ADF is behind it. The ADF provided funding and lawyers for the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, where a baker refused service to a homosexual couple. They’ve defended many other businesses that discriminate against LGBT+ people, including photographers, florists, web designers and a Phoenix-based stationary company. The ADF has also defended government officials denying service to homosexuals, such as refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It works to erode the separation of church and state by diverting public funding from schools to religious organizations. Other notable cases include the ADF’s unsuccessful defense of a ballot proposition in California that banned gay marriage and successfully restricting women’s reproductive rights while allowing corporate entities to discriminate based on religious dogma.
Closer to home, the ADF uses courts to attack the civil liberties of Arizonans and wastes the money of taxpayers defending against frivolous lawsuits. As mentioned earlier, it teamed up with a local stationary company, Brush and Nib, to deny services to same-sex couples. Despite never receiving a single request for services from a same-sex couple, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, owners of Brush and Nib, and the ADF launched a legal assault on Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinance. The Arizona Supreme Court preserved the ordinance generally but did grant Duka and Koski a limited exemption. Adding insult to injury, the City of Phoenix’s taxpayers will likely have to foot the bill for the legal services the ADF “donated” to Brush and Nib. The ADF’s attacks on Arizonans aren’t limited to courtrooms. It often helps write anti-LGBT+ bills, such as SB 1062, which would have allowed businesses in Arizona to discriminate against homosexuals. Though vetoed by the governor in 2014, it could have lost Arizona large sporting events such as the Super Bowl and hurt the state’s attempts to get businesses to relocate or expand operations.
Even more alarming is the ADF’s influence over Arizona’s education policy and schools. As in other states, the group has pushed to restrict the right of students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. It has bullied schools and districts with the threat of expensive lawsuits. The group has defended and helped write anti-transgender policies for schools. Great Heart Academies, one of Arizona’s largest charter school networks, adopted the kind of anti-transgender policy the ADF advocates for in 2016.
The oldest daughter of Robert Chevaleau, a Scottsdale resident, attended a Great Hearts school for first, second and part of third grade. She did well there. Then, the anti-transgender policy was announced. Chevaleau, whose youngest daughter is transgender, and other parents pressed the school to reverse its decision. He ultimately decided to withdraw his oldest daughter. During his interactions with the administration, he became concerned with its relationship to the ADF. He recalled school officials telling him they retained the ADF and to “watch out.” Chevaleau recalled attending a meeting when Great Hearts was attempting to construct a sport’s facility on public land in Scottsdale. “I tried to ask them why and how the ADF got involved. Why were they engaged? Erik Twist [the Arizona President of Great Hearts Academies] went so far as to admit that the ADF was involved, but he denied telling how they got involved or why,” Chevaleau said. “It’s not clear to me whether they’re tied directly to the school or through community organizations, but the more you look at it, the deeper and more complex the web gets.”
The web doesn’t end at national borders. LGBT+ people in other countries can face harsh legal discrimination and even state-sanctioned violence. The ADF advocates internationally for legal prohibitions against LGBT+ people. They’ve supported the criminalization of homosexuality in India, Jamaica, and Belize. Constitutional bans against same-sex marriage in Romania and other countries have also been backed by the ADF. According to tax filings for 2018, it spent over $3.5 million on activities outside the U.S. The ADF filed briefs opposing Chilean Judge Karen Atala’s claim before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. That case addressed when a court in Chile revoked her custody rights because of her sexual orientation. The country eventually admitted wrongdoing and paid her restitution. “What they’re basically engaged in is exporting from the U.S. into all these places their agenda, which is not just anti-LGBT but it’s a bigger thing than that,” said SPLC Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich. “We focus on that because that’s our area of research, but they also work on issue affecting families, abortion and so on. They’re trying to influence state polices all around the world.”
A group of Scottsdale residents have finally had enough of their city playing host to the ADF, according to their spokesperson Geoff Esposito of Creosote Partners, a progressive lobbying group. On Monday, October 7, they premiered a series of commercials that are part of their Scottsdale Discriminates campaign. Aimed at bringing attention to the ADF’s base of operations, which is kitty-corner from a Target parking lot in North Scottsdale, the videos feature fictional Scottsdale residents thanking the ADF for defending their “freedom to discriminate.” The ADF is still extremely powerful. It exerts a strong influence over President Trump’s judicial nominees and executive agency appointees, according to Wilson. Still, thanks to the growing chorus of concerned citizens, the ADF’s work is being exposed for the hate speech that it is through both careful research and even a little humor.