Masterpiece Cakeshop: Meet the Christian Legal Group Behind the High-Profile Court Case

By Daniel Bennett | September 19, 2017

(AP Photo/Mike Groll) An attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom argues before justices in the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division in 2015.

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. The court held that Missouri had violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause in denying funding to a private school solely because of its religious identity; in his opinion for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts blasted Missouri’s actions as “odious to our Constitution.” Just days later, the justices announced they would review Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Here, a baker declined a same-sex couple’s request to make a cake for their wedding. This is one of several cases exposing tensions between First Amendment protections for free exercise and free speech on the one hand, and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equal protection on the other.

Both Trinity Lutheran and Masterpiece Cakeshop involve big questions tied to the First Amendment’s treatment of religion. They are also connected by the legal interest group representing each petitioner: Alliance Defending Freedom. Headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, in a nondescript office building, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) regularly reports annual revenue in the tens of millions of dollars, boasts a team of several dozen attorneys along with a vast network of affiliated attorneys, funds training programs for law students and established lawyers, and operates a sophisticated media outreach strategy. In addition to Scottsdale, it maintains offices in Washington, D.C., and Vienna, Austria, and has a presence on all six inhabitable continents. All of this has enabled ADF to do its job—in its words, to “Advocate for Your Right to Freely Live out Your Faith”—very effectively.

As a result of its advocacy, ADF has garnered its fair share of both praise and criticism from actors on both sides of the culture wars. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has lauded ADF’s work in remarks to the organization, while the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled ADF an extremist group for its work opposing same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. No matter the perspective, this much is clear: In little more than two decades, ADF has become one of the most influential legal interest groups in the United States. And if the past few years are any indication, this influence should continue for the foreseeable future.

Founded in 1994 as Alliance Defense Fund, ADF was established and supported by a broad group of evangelical leaders, including James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright. While a handful of other legal interest groups with missions similar to ADF already existed, the leaders behind ADF envisioned a broader role for the new organization. It was to be centered on building coalitions within the Christian community and, just as importantly, contributing financial resources to legal advocacy and engagement supportive of ADF’s broad mission. Just as interest groups had successfully used grassroots lobbying to advance the interests of Christian conservatives at the ballot box, so too would groups like ADF advance these interests through the courts.

As its original name suggests, ADF was initially organized to help fund the Christian legal movement. ADF would send financial support to legal interest groups dedicated to the issues central to this movement—like religious liberty, religion in the public square, traditional marriage and family, and opposition to abortion. The group would also fund lawyers who were taking on these types of cases independent of their typical work in family law, contracts, and criminal defense. Over time, ADF came to contribute millions of dollars to small law firms and large legal interest groups alike, acting as a sort of central bank for Christian legal advocacy. Beneficiaries included stalwarts of the Christian legal movement—like the American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty Counsel, and the Christian Legal Society—as well as the movement’s allies, like Americans United for Life and Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. Under the leadership of Alan Sears, a Reagan administration veteran who served as president and chief counsel of the group until earlier this year, ADF was an essential player in the earliest days of the Christian legal movement.

By 2002, ADF had started to evolve in its mission. Rather than focus exclusively on funding the Christian legal movement, ADF began to hire attorneys and to sponsor cases of its own, taking charge of litigation for the first time. This evolution led to some strained relationships with others in the movement, and divisions over legal strategy and tactics. Tensions peaked when ADF and Liberty Counsel sparred over defending California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage in the state as between one man and one woman. When ADF lost the case in federal district court, Liberty Counsel’s press release condemned both the judge’s decision and ADF’s handling of the case. While several attorneys in the movement told me this dispute was not atypical of behind-the-scenes turf wars over cases and clients, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver later told me, “Hopefully it’s water under the bridge.”

Over time, ADF has grown to house more than 40 full-time attorneys and a handful of dedicated legal centers, such as the Center for Academic Freedom, Center for Conscience Initiatives, and Center for Cultural Engagement and Scholarship. Its current general counsel is Michael Farris, the architect of the legal defense of homeschooling in the United States and founder of Patrick Henry College, the motto of which is “For Christ and for Liberty.” Since its foray into direct litigation, ADF cites a winning percentage of more than 80 percent in the courts and a handful of Supreme Court victories, including Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Town of Greece v. Galloway, and the aforementioned Trinity Lutheran.

As I show in Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement, ADF is the most balanced of any Christian legal interest group in its attention to the movement’s agenda. Religious liberty makes up most of ADF’s advocacy, but cases pertaining to marriage and life also make up a sizeable portion of its portfolio—45 percent of the group’s press releases focus on its work for religious liberty, while 22 and 21 percent of its releases highlight its advocacy against abortion and for traditional marriage, respectively. Moreover, while other organizations in the movement often spend time and resources on issues beyond the main issues of the Christian legal movement, ADF tends to avoid these ancillary controversies. For example, while the American Center for Law and Justice has continually highlighted—indeed, continues to highlight—its opposition to the Obama administration, ADF has tended to stay focused on the issues referenced above.

According to IRS documents, ADF’s annual revenue climbed from $15.1 million in 2002 to $43.6 million in 2014. These resources—rivaled only by the American Center for Law and Justice in the Christian legal movement—allow ADF to do much more than sponsor cases and file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs. Its attorney network, consisting of sympathetic attorneys from around the globe, has grown to number more than 3,000. Many of these allied attorneys have been instructed at one of ADF’s various training programs, of which the Blackstone Legal Fellowship is the most noteworthy. Blackstone targets the nation’s most promising law students for in-depth training consistent with ADF’s vision, ideally to cultivate the next generation of influence in the legal profession. Blackstone advisors and faculty include Princeton’s Robert George, Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Notre Dame’s Amy Coney Barrett, one of President Trump’s nominees to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Just as the Federalist Society has proved to be a pipeline for a conservative vision in the courts and legal academy, ADF hopes that Blackstone and its other programs can replicate this success, but for Christian lawyers and jurists.

Given its position of prominence in the evolving culture wars, ADF is not without its critics. The liberal publication ThinkProgress suggests ADF “wants to take America back to the 3rd century.” And in characterizing the group’s agenda, the Southern Poverty Law Center writes, “The ADF works with policymakers and other organizations to outlaw abortion, deny equality and marriage to LGBT people worldwide, and continue to push for a hard-right Christian theocratic worldview that is reflected in legislation and policies.” ADF naturally rejects these characterizations, criticizing the SPLC as “committed to slinging mud rather than discussing the issues.” But the label has had consequences: When Jeff Sessions spoke behind closed doors at ADF’s Summit on Religious Liberty this summer, ABC News included the SPLC’s moniker in their reporting on his remarks (ADF requested an apology from the network, but did not receive one).

ADF is also critical of so-called “fairness for all” legislation, which would grant legal protections to LGBT Americans while simultaneously carving out certain exemptions for those with religious objections. Utah passed legislation of this sort in 2015, with crucial support from Mormon leaders in the state. But such compromises do not satisfy ADF: It calls such proposals a “tactical retreat,” and laments that they may not go far enough in securing conscience exemptions from anti-discrimination measures. This response is not without its critics among those advocating for a robust conception of religious liberty. Douglas Laycock, one of the most respected religious liberty litigators in the country, has questioned ADF’s approach to the tensions between religious liberty and LGBT rights: “I think that many of these organizations do overreach, do make implausible claims, and do discredit the cause (of religious freedom) when they do so,” he told the Deseret News. With the scales of political power weighted in ADF’s favor for now—especially with Republican control over the White House and Congress—only time will tell whether the group’s opposition to “fairness for all” is strategically wise in the long term.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy authored a majority opinion protecting same-sex marriage, while also nodding to those who opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds. “The First Amendment ensures,” Kennedy wrote, “that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” The four dissenting justices were comforted little by this declaration. “Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “People of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

When the Supreme Court hears Masterpiece Cakeshop in the next few months—less than three years after Obergefell—it will be confronting some of the hard questions Chief Justice Roberts alluded to. The court’s decision will have implications for a number of business owners who have declined to lend their services to same-sex weddings, and are facing legal trouble because of it. These include the cinematographers from Minnesota, the printer from Kentucky, the florist from Washington, and, of course, the baker from Colorado. Notably, all of these people are represented by ADF.

In any conversation regarding the future of religious liberty in the United States, one would be remiss not to include ADF. Not only does the group frequent the Supreme Court—after Masterpiece Cakeshop, it will have been to the court four times in four years—it is at the epicenter of one of the most contentious constitutional conversations in years. And because of its funding, scope, and strategic choices, ADF is poised to continue expanding its influence around these debates. If its supporters get their way, ADF will be shaping American culture for decades to come.


Daniel Bennett is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University. He is the author of Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement, now available from the University Press of Kansas.

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