Bringing the Church to the Courtroom
Monday, July 10, 2006
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A 29-foot war memorial shaped like a cross should be allowed to remain on public land. A teacher should be able to emphasize references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Protesters should be permitted to approach women near the doors of an abortion clinic.
These courtroom fights and dozens of others pending across the country belong to the portfolio of the ambitious Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium. It spends $20 million a year seeking to protect what it regards as the place of religion -- and especially Christianity -- in public life.
Considering itself the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottsdale-based organization has used money and moxie to become the leading player in a movement to tug the nation to the right by challenging decades of legal precedent. By stepping into the nation's most impassioned debates about religion in the public sphere, the group aims to bring law and society into alignment with conservative Christianity.
The group successfully challenged the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in California and Oregon, and worked on statewide ballot initiatives prohibiting such unions. Its attorneys helped the Boy Scouts win approval of a policy barring gay Scout leaders.
The group has been battling embryonic stem cell research in Missouri and won a Supreme Court stay preventing the removal of California's 29-foot Mount Soledad cross. In Florida, where saving the life of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo became a crusade, the group supported efforts to nourish her.
"What we are really trying to protect are the things this country was founded on," said D. James Kennedy, leader of Florida's Coral Ridge Ministries and one of the prominent Christian conservatives who fashioned the alliance in 1993 as a sharp stick in the national culture debate.
That is not how opponents see the organization. While crediting the ADF with training troops for battles once fought by a haphazard assortment of government lawyers and often ill-prepared volunteers, critics question the alliance's commitment to tolerance and the Constitution.
"They're not for some form of generic religious freedom. They're for Christian superiority, that Christians take over the courts," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "They are living in this fantasy world where the majority religion, Christianity, is claimed to be literally under attack."
Gary S. McCaleb directs the ADF's litigation team from a file-filled office in a nondescript Scottsdale office park. He said the 16 staff lawyers are in such demand that the ADF created separate divisions for marriage issues and for university free-speech questions.
The ADF underwrites legal fights and increasingly handles litigation itself. Groups receiving significant funding include the American Center for Law & Justice, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, and Liberty Counsel, backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"We're certainly stretched. I feel I could put a hundred attorneys to work tomorrow," said McCaleb, who said the ADF files one to two cases a week and is deeply involved in 80 to 100 open cases at any one time. He calls this a "pivotal time" in U.S. history.
"What we see is an overarching agenda from the left wing and the pro-homosexual groups," said McCaleb, who perceives "clear hostility to Christian thought." He described the stakes as "the fundamental ability of Christians to speak their minds on the issues of the day."