opinion

TURN BACK THE CLOCK

Jeff Sessions’ Secret Speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Biggest Christian-Right Group You’ve Never Heard Of

The deep-pocketed organization has led the nationwide fight to redefine ‘religious liberty’ as the right to harm others.

The Justice Department has so far declined to release the transcript of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ secret speech Tuesday night to the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, but Sessions has already drawn criticism for speaking to the organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed an “anti-LGBT hate group.”

But the ADF is no fringe hate group—it is something much worse, a $35 million organization with a global footprint. It has enormous influence within the Trump-Pence inner circle. And together with Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, and the National Organization for Marriage, the ADF is leading the movement to redefine “religious liberty” as including the right to discriminate against other people.

Turn over any rock on that path, and you’ll find the ADF crawling there. The repeal of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, successfully branded as a “bathroom bill.” Hobby Lobby.  Religious Freedom Restoration Acts around the country. All of these efforts, and many more like them, were led by individuals with ties to ADF.

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, ADF has lost as many battles as it has won. And its overall crusade—to turn back the clock on LGBT and women’s equality and to integrate its version of fundamentalist Christianity into American politics—is certain to be lost sooner or later. White Protestants today comprise just 34 percent of the U.S. population, down from 51 percent in 1993. Meanwhile, one-third of Americans under 30 define themselves as having no particular religious affiliation (i.e., as “Nones”), compared with only 9 percent of those over 65.

So in the long run, it is undeniable that ADF are, to quote our president, losers. But in the meantime, they are making life miserable for millions of people. In both 2015 and 2016, over 100 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country, with high-profile successes in North Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, and elsewhere.

Most importantly, with the Republican party controlling Congress and the executive branch, ADF has moved from a defensive posture—carving out exemptions to same-sex marriage or Obamacare, for example—to an offensive one, aimed at overturning the underlying rights themselves. This has already borne fruit, with two justices of the Supreme Court agreeing that same-sex marriage need not be legally equivalent to opposite-sex marriage, and religious conservatives rapidly rolling back the ACA’s contraception requirements (if not the entire law itself).

It is in this context that Sessions’ speech is so troubling, for three primary reasons.

First, Sessions is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, speaking to a hard-right legal group in a closed-door session—not only closed-door, but stealth. Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at the left-leaning People for the American Way, has been tracking ADF for years. And he says the secretive nature of the so-called “religious freedom summit” is “really odd.”

“ADF is not shy about bragging about their work,” said Montgomery, “but there is nothing on their website about this summit. Nothing on Facebook, Twitter—there is just nothing.”

That is uncharacteristic for the organization, and suggests that the gathering where Sessions spoke was for “insiders” only. Based on the ADF staff members organizing the conference, Montgomery said that “I’m guessing this is a training session for new lawyers who want to be affiliated with ADF.”  

What did Sessions say? To whom? Requests Wednesday to the Department of Justice for a transcript and to the Alliance Defending Freedom for comment on the event went unanswered.

Second, the ADF is not just the largest religious right organization in America, but one whose leaders have been extremists for decades.

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“Their endgame,” said Montgomery, “is to have the law and the culture reflect their religious worldview. In a concrete way, that means criminalization of abortion nationwide, an end to equal recognition and protections for LGBT people and their relationships, and the weakening of the separation of church and state.”

ADF’s longtime executive director, Alan Sears, wrote in his 2003 book The Homosexual Agenda that the LGBT movement has “the goal of unbridled sexual behavior and silencing of the church.” Before leading ADF, he headed the infamous Meese Commission on pornography, which proposed widespread censorship. And ADF’s incoming director, Mike Farris, worked for Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell before essentially founding the contemporary homeschooling movement.  Farris has said that non-discrimination laws are turning America into Nazi Germany.

The third reason to be concerned about the Sessions speech is the particular way in which ADF is pursuing its goals. Their primary strategy has been litigation—they boast of delivering $136 million of “pro bono” legal services, and they are the lead lawyers on the upcoming Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, in which a bakery seeks the right to refuse to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. ADF also promotes model legislation—it is believed that ADF authored the majority of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts recently introduced in states around the country.

Both of these strategies are starting to pay off. On the legislative side, the pace of anti-LGBT “religious freedom” laws has only increased so far in 2017. And on the litigation side, thanks to Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees, Trump entered office with a record number of vacancies.

“They’re counting on the courts to help them not only roll back not only Obama administration laws,” said Montgomery. “They’re looking to roll back everything since the New Deal and progressive eras… And with 500 judicial slots to be filled around the country [over the next eight years], the kinds of cases that ADF brings to roll back gay rights, choice, separation of church and state will have much friendlier audiences.”

In short, said Montgomery, “the election of Trump and a Republican Senate has made ADF’s strategy of using the courts a lot more of a threat.” As the hashtag says, #courtsmatter.

The ADF isn’t going away. It has expanded internationally—in 2014, its representatives met with the lead authors of Russia’s anti-homosexuality law, and it sent anti-gay activists to Uganda to support its “Kill the Gays” bill. And it has raised millions from a fundamentalist-right-wing funder network that now gives out over $1 billion per year in grants. These numbers dwarf those of progressive funders—the leading LGBT-funding foundation, for example, gives out $16 million per year.

That’s why Sessions’ visit is so alarming: not because he met with some fringe hate group, but because he met with his close friends and colleagues, armed with more resources than ever before, and determined to fight their fundamentalist crusade to the last drop of someone else’s blood.