Meet the Hate Group Using Cake to Push Gay Discrimination, Trans Sterilization

ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner
ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner

The Alliance Defending Freedom, the far-right legal group that argued in the Supreme Court Tuesday for a Colorado baker who refused service to a gay couple, has a deceptive name. It’s more like the Alliance Defending Oppression.

The ADF has a long record of anti-LGBT activism, in addition to opposition to abortion rights and support for other religious right causes. The Advocate has covered the group’s activities over the years, and it’s also been the subject of recent reports from GLAAD, Media Matters for America, and The Nation. It has justifiably been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here’s a look at the ADF’s history and some of its most egregious deeds.

Christian right activists including Alan Sears, James Dobson, and D. James Kennedy founded the organization in 1993, “in the midst of a conservative panic over a gay-rights movement that was just beginning to score some legal victories,” The Nation’s Sarah Posner writes in her piece, “The Christian Legal Army Behind ‘Masterpiece Cakeshop.’”

The movement had just endured a setback, though, in Colorado voters’ 1992 passage of Amendment 2, a ballot measure that prohibited the state or its municipalities from enacting or enforcing laws that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lawsuit brought by gay rights supporters kept Amendment 2 from going into effect, however, and the discriminatory measure was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1996 in Romer v. Evans, its first-ever pro-gay ruling. Colorado now has a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other areas — the very law that Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips was found to have violated by refusing to create a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Sears has remained bitter about the Amendment 2 battle, Posner reports. “The campaign marshaled to oppose Amendment 2, Sears wrote in his 2003 book, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, was proof that ‘radical homosexual activists and their allies are looking for any opportunity to attack and silence any church that takes a biblical stand with regard to homosexual behavior,’” she writes.

That antigay rhetoric is mild compared to some of what ADF has engaged in. “In a 2006 case in Maryland, ADF maintained that ‘sexual fidelity is rare among homosexual men’ and that ‘the average homosexual relationship is short,’” Posner writes. “In a 2009 case in West Virginia, arguing against a lesbian couple’s adoption of a baby they had fostered, ADF noted that the couple had insisted that the court be ‘forced to treat their home as just as good as any other.’ But, ADF wrote, ‘this cannot be.’ Although the organization had long opposed allowing same-sex couples to marry, in another parenting case, this one in Arkansas in 2010, it used the fact that the couple could not marry as an argument against allowing them to adopt. ‘It is logical to prevent children’s exposure to the illicit sexual conduct and revolving-door of adult sexual partners that often accompany cohabitation,’ ADF argued.”

The organization has only recently toned down this rhetoric, portraying itself more as a defender of “religious freedom” against government interference. For instance, in oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case Tuesday, ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner contended that requiring Phillips to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding would be “compelled speech.” She said Phillips objected not to who his customers are, but to the message the cake would be sending, which went against his Christian beliefs.

ADF’s view of religion is an almost exclusively Christian one — almost all of its cases over the years have involved Christians, conservative Christians in particular. The ADF maintains that these Christians are losing their freedom and “has made it clear that their ultimate goal is to overturn all nondiscrimination laws applying to sexual orientation and gender identity,” GLAAD writes in a press release.

GLAAD points to a June post on ADF’s blog, in which ADF contends that “these laws have been used to trample religious freedom by forcing individuals and business owners to promote messages, ideas, and events that violate their deeply held religious convictions.”

ADF has represented many of these businesses and individuals, including not only Phillips but New Mexico photographers Jonathan and Elaine Hugenin, who were found to have violated that state’s nondiscrimination law by refusing to take pictures at a lesbian couple’s wedding, and Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington State florist who was found in violation of her state’s law by declining to provide flowers for a gay male couple’s wedding, even though one of the men was a longtime friend and customer of hers. ADF appealed the Hugenins’ case to the Supreme Court and was turned down, so the New Mexico decision stood; it has asked the court to review Stutzman’s case.

More recently, the group has been co-counsel in the defense of a statewide “license to discriminate” law, Mississippi’s House Bill 1523. The legislation, formally known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, states that the government cannot penalize an individual, organization, or business for acting according to the following "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions": that "marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman"; that "sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage"; and that "male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth." It lays the basis for broad discrimination against LGBT people, single parents, and more. A federal district judge blocked the 2016 legislation from going into effect, but this year an appeals court ruled that those challenging it did not have the legal standing to do so, letting the act become law. This case may end up in the Supreme Court as well.

ADF’s involvement with HB 1523, however, goes beyond defending it in court. The group actually helped write and promote the bill, notes Media Matters, citing a 2016 Washington Post story and legal filings. A 2015 email from ADF lawyer Austin Nimocks offered a lawyer for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to “model [an] executive order that would prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views or actions concerning marriage,” according to the Post story. HB 1523 incorporated much of the language verbatim.

ADF further advised Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the national “license to discriminate” policy he announced in October, according to the Media Matters report. The “religious freedom” guidance he issued allows federal employees and contractors to discriminate against those who offend their religious sensibilities and not face repercussions. The guidance means federal agencies, contractors, and more "can discriminate at will and the government will do nothing to stop it," Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, told The Advocate at the time it was issued.

Sessions had given a closed-door speech to the group in July promising the guidance, and he “met with the group during a series of so-called ‘listening sessions’ convened by the Attorney General, who says he was ‘seeking suggestions regarding the areas of federal protection for religious liberty most in need of clarification or guidance,’” ABC News reported in October.

ADF has also helped craft anti-transgender “bathroom bills” and school district policies, which would prevent trans people from using the restrooms and other single-sex facilities that comport with their gender identity. “ADF sent a model ‘Physical Privacy Policy’ to ‘public school districts nationwide’ advocating for anti-trans bathroom policies in schools and sent targeted letters to multiple school districts,” Media Matters reports. At least 10 proposed bills that were introduced or active this year had language resembling the policy, and so did a few school policies, according to Media Matters.

Additionally, ADF worked on federal legislation that would have banned payment for transgender military members’ transition-related health care, notes Media Matters. The bill was narrowly rejected shortly before Donald Trump announced his trans military ban, which is now temporarily blocked by federal courts.

ADF is now working to export its bigotry overseas, as detailed in the Media Matters report. This year it has lobbied against an LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination bill in Spain and supported an anti-marriage equality ballot measure in Romania. A few years ago it unsuccessfully defended laws in some European countries mandating sterilization of transgender people. And this fall it hosted a speech in the U.S. by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an opponent of marriage equality, as his nation was conducting its mail-in survey on the matter. The survey ended up showing that a majority of Australians want Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage — but Abbott expressed hope that the anti-equality campaign could form the foundation of a new conservative movement in Australia. That’s undoubtedly what ADF wants — but on a global basis.

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