Bringing the Church to the Courtroom

Christian Group Becomes Force in Major Legal Battles

Washington Post/July 10, 2006
By Peter Slevin

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."

The day McCaleb said this, lawyers were preparing to intervene in the dispute over the Mount Soledad cross, a war memorial erected in 1954 in La Jolla, Calif., and challenged by an atheist veteran. Federal judges ordered the cross to be removed from government land, but Justice Anthony M. Kennedy granted a temporary stay on July 3.

"For private citizens to be told they can't memorialize their dead is an outrage," said McCaleb, noting similar cases elsewhere. "It's not a matter of these crosses radiating secret Christian rays that will convert people."

Federal courts have said in the Mount Soledad case and other disputes that private land, including church property, is the appropriate place for such religious displays. They cite the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits the government from sanctioning or favoring one religion over another.

What motivated D. James Kennedy and other conservatives -- including James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and William Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ -- to form the ADF was the impression that Christians were losing too many such battles.

"It was just years of seeing the ACLU and its cronies attacking religious organizations or religious exercise," Kennedy said. "And, very frequently, there was nobody that even showed up to defend the Christian position."

To change the equation, the alliance hired Reagan-era prosecutor Alan Sears. He later brought in corporate lawyer Jeffery Ventrella. Mostly under Ventrella's watch, the ADF has schooled more than 800 outside lawyers, each promising to donate 450 hours to the cause.

Ventrella runs an annual summer seminar, which this year brought 100 law students to Scottsdale. The idea, according to ADF documents, is to train them in "a distinctly Christian worldview of law" before they head to clerkships and other influential posts, "perhaps even Supreme Court justices."

Some of them met recently at a training session in Chicago. Lawyers and preachers jotted tips as ADF speakers explained that prayer is not always enough: Protecting the faith sometimes demands lawsuits and clamor.

"I was looking for a way to reconcile my faith and my professional life. The ADF helped me be not a Christian and a lawyer but a Christian lawyer," said Chicago litigator Melanie Jo Triebel, who says that the "Christian side of the debate" has not been effective enough.

The ADF's rising profile in churches and the media attracts an average of 300 inquiries a month. One recent day, a call came from a government employee disappointed by a diversity training video because it did not portray homosexuality negatively. A graduating high school senior called to say he had been told not to use Jesus's name in a speech.

"It's definitely an affirmation of our fallen state as humans," Renee Bergmen said of her work evaluating such complaints. "But it's a blessing to provide an answer, and that answer being faith in Jesus Christ."

Every December, the ADF monitors the expression of Christmas, fearful that the encouragement of greetings such as "Happy Holidays" and other steps taken in the name of cultural sensitivity are costing the day its religious identity. Last year, the organization received 434 calls.

A recent case, now pending, focuses on a Pittsburgh ordinance that requires protesters to remain 15 feet from an abortion clinic door. ADF lawyer Elizabeth Murray sued, saying she represented "a compassionate, professional nurse who has devoted much of her life to kindly and gently counseling women during a difficult time in life."

The ADF took up the cause of Stephen Williams, a fifth-grade teacher in Cupertino, Calif. School authorities, wary of proselytizing, said he was overemphasizing religious excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and other documents.

When Williams sued in November 2004, asserting religious discrimination as a Christian, the alliance attracted enormous attention -- particularly from the religious right and conservative media outlets -- when it announced, "Declaration of Independence Banned From Classroom."

Authorities at Stevens Creek Elementary School said the Declaration continued to be taught. They pointed out textbook references and said it hung on school walls. Williams, they said, chose materials so narrow that they were forced to act. Williams agreed to withdraw his suit in August 2005.

Outsiders questioned the ADF's motives and legal reasoning.

"They know that a teacher who has a pattern of proselytizing has crossed the line," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, asserting that the ADF went too far. "When they do that, it may raise money, it may raise their profile, but it undermines their credibility."

"They seem to have an ACLU-envy problem. They distort the position of the ACLU to justify themselves," said Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. He said the ADF favors a "Walt Disney version of American history."

"There's no mugging of their free speech," Gunn said. "They talk about freedom and liberty. What they really want is the government to endorse their version."

Alliance executives say they are on solid ground when it comes to history and the law, and they insist that the pendulum is beginning to swing their way. Sears said the group, "by grace," expects to grow 20 percent a year.

"Over and over, there's a search-and-destroy mission for religious expression," Ventrella told the trainees in Chicago. "Do we want to forget our religious heritage? When we abandon God, we will forget man. So what's God got to do with it? Everything."

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