The far-right Christian legal group whose work you’re almost certainly familiar with is in the news today for an incredibly befuddling reason: a Trump-appointed judge in Texas ordered lawyers with Southwest Airlines to attend eight hours of “religious-liberty training” courses with the group, Alliance Defending Freedom.
U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr issued the order as part of court-ordered sanctions against the airline and three of its lawyers for supposed religious discrimination against a flight attendant. The flight attendant had sued Southwest in 2017 after she was fired, which came about after she sent anti-abortion notes to her union’s former president. She sued arguing religious discrimination was involved in her dismissal and Starr sided with her.
Back in December the judge ordered that Carter not only be reinstated but also that the airline send out a statement to employees that informed them that Southwest “may not” discriminate against employees on the basis of religion. The company put out the statement, but said Southwest “does not” instead of “may not,” which led to the additional sanctions from Starr this week. (This case came to our attention thanks to legal reporter Chris Geidner’s newsletter, Law Dork.)
In the order Starr described the extremist group, ADF, as an “esteemed non-profit organizations that are dedicated to preserving free speech and religious freedom” — an eyebrow-raising description for anyone familiar with its huge body of recent work.
ADF most recently attracted attention as the group that represented the plaintiff in 303 Creative v. Elenis, in which the Supreme Court sided with the plaintiff arguing the First Amendment allows businesses to discriminate for religious reasons if the business offers “expressive” services. The ruling, and the dispute, ignores the fact that it appears the underlying facts that prompted the plaintiff to bring the lawsuit were completely made up.
ADF also was part of the team defending Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban before the Supreme Court in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade. After helping dismantle the federal right to an abortion in the U.S., ADF brought its legal might to the next front in the anti-abortion crusade: suing to remove mifepristone from the market.
The group, which counts Erin Hawley, insurrection-friendly Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) wife, as one of its lead lawyers, has had a hand in rolling back civil liberties since its founding in 1993 by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and other evangelical leaders. The group was created to serve as a sort of Christian right legal counter to the ACLU.
As reporter and writer Sarah Posner outlined in this 2019 piece for TPM, before its recent legal work on the anti-abortion front, the group played a substantial role in the Trump administration’s various efforts to erode the separation of Church and State throughout his four years in office. She describes the groups successes and ideological purpose eloquently here:
Twenty-five years after its formal launch, the not-for-profit ADF boasts a role in 54 Supreme Court victories, a $55 million annual budget, and more than 60 staff attorneys. ADF also estimates that an army of some 3,000 allied attorneys have contributed the equivalent of $212 million in pro bono services, and that it has trained at least 2,000 law students through its Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a prestigious summer training program for aspiring conservative Christian lawyers. There, students have heard lectures from prominent lawyers and legal thinkers, including Hawley, who served on the Blackstone faculty while he was a law professor at the University of Missouri.
Within the world of legal organizations that are influential on the Christian right — others include the American Center for Law and Justice, whose chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, is a top legal advisor to Trump, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — ADF’s reach and relentlessness is unparalleled. ADF’s annual revenue dwarfs the others, and these superior resources, backing its nationwide networks of attorneys, has enabled it to successfully press legal claims across the country that once seemed too far outside the legal mainstream to succeed. In one of ADF’s earliest Supreme Court victories, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, decided in 1995, the Court held that it did not violate the separation of church and state for a public university to fund religious student groups with the same student activity fees used for secular groups — and, more critically, that a failure to fund them both would constitute “viewpoint discrimination.” Advancing that last finding, and embedding it into law and policy, has become the bedrock of ADF’s legal strategy over the ensuing decades. In the intervening years, ADF’s ever-growing army of lawyers have fanned out across America’s courtrooms, working towards bringing once peripheral legal theories into the mainstream and advancing the idea that church-state separation is not only illegitimate, but tantamount to discrimination against religion.
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