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Christian Legal Group ADF Increasingly Backs Secular Conservative Political Groups

Editor’s Note:  This article has been revised to clarify the relationship between Young America’s Foundation and Young Americans for Freedom.

Shortly after Charlie Kirk, co-founder of the conservative political youth organization Turning Point USA, announced that he was “sending 80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight” for President Trump on January 6, a high school student in Arizona sought to start a Turning Point club at her school.

Some students, teachers, and administrators at Williams Field High School expressed their disdain for the idea. Some worked to keep the club from getting off the ground, but it finally happened in March.

Now, Alliance Defending Freedom, the biggest of the nation’s 10 major Christian legal groups, is defending the student and Turning Point, demanding changes from the school, and threatening legal action unless it implements the changes by this Friday, July 23.

ADF’s letterhead reads, “FOR FAITH, FOR JUSTICE.” But this intervention has nothing to do with faith, at least not faith in Christ. Turning Point is not a Christian group, and ADF says it has no idea about the beliefs held by the student, Erin Remfrey.

It’s all part of efforts to support the free speech right of conservative political groups through the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, which was founded in 2006 and has successfully pursued claims against hundreds of public schools and colleges.

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Growing Support for Conservative Political Groups

It’s not the first time ADF has defended Turning Point, which raised $40 million in 2019, bills itself as America’s largest youth movement, and claims “a presence on over 2,500 campuses.” The group enjoyed a brief partnership with Liberty University through the Falkirk Center, which closed after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s resignation following a sex scandal. Many Liberty students had protested the school’s embrace of a group that one student said promoted a “lust” for culture war.

Turning Point, which says it plans to launch a new initiative called Turning Point Faith this fall, has promoted its efforts through often raucous rallies, some featuring babes in bikinis and money cannons blasting cash into the crowd — antics that led conservative writer Rod Dreher to bemoan “Charlie Kirk’s Hooters Conservatism.”

ADF previously supported Turning Point at both the University of Wisconsin and Arkansas State University.

ADF has also worked to defend these conservative groups:

Young Americans for Freedom is a conservative/libertarian group that was founded in 1960 in William F. Buckley’s Connecticut home, and which provided early support for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. ADF defended it against the University of Alabama, University of Florida, Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and California State University in Los Angeles.

Young America’s Foundation was founded in 1969 to promote individual freedom, national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values. Its current president is former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and popular speakers include Michelle Malkin, though YAF says it no longer associates with Malkin. ADF defended the group against the University of Mississippi and the University of Minnesota.

Young Americans for Freedom and Young America’s Foundation merged in 2011.  According to a spokesperson for the organization, “YAFreedom is now a project of Young America’s Foundation, which is a 501c3 non-profit organization. YA Freedom is Young America’s Foundation’s high school and college chapter affiliate and individual student membership program.”

Young Americans for Liberty is an Austin, Texas-based group founded in 1998 that sponsors the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Notable alumni include two men behind  President Trump anti-immigration efforts: Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller. ADF has defended the group against Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota, Kellogg Community College in Michigan, and University of California-Berkeley.

ADF has also defended members of Young Conservatives of Texas, the College Republicans group at Southern Illinois University, and the Bruin Republicans at UCLA.

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom says it “is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas,” and it says, “All students should be protected to freely speak and engage” about various issues.

But ADF acknowledged the Center doesn’t apply its commitment to free speech evenly. In its secular free speech work, ADF doesn’t defend liberals or progressives, only conservative students and conservative groups.

Why Christian Groups Pursue Secular Cases

ADF is both large (its 2020 income was $69 million, up from $65 million in 2019) and influential, claiming a role in 61 Supreme Court victories. The bulk of its work still focuses on its core concerns of religious liberty and expression, abortion, and traditional family values and marriage.

But it is devoting increasing resources to secular political speech battles.

Ministry Watch asked Mathew Hoffman, legal counsel at ADF, whether the secular political cases represented  “mission creep” or loss of focus from its founding in 1994 by James Dobson and more than 30 other conservative Christian leaders as “a ministry that would defend religious liberty and keep the doors open for the Gospel.”

“I don’t think so,” said Hoffman in a phone interview. “Our mission is still to keep the door open for the Gospel. Our advocacy for First Amendment principles in general can help establish First Amendment legal precedents that can then be used to defend religious speech. In advocating for free speech for all, we’re helping advance religious speech and advancing the marketplace of ideas.”

ADF’s support of Turning Point and the Arizona student was first reported by Focus on the Family’s Daily Citizen, which aims to provide news from a biblical worldview and a “faith-based perspective to counter the mainstream media’s anti-Christian bias.”

In the article, Bruce Hausknecht, Focus’s judicial analyst, praised ADF’s intervention, writing,

“Parents should always be concerned when their local public schools attempt to censor unpopular viewpoints. Such censorship can be directed at values and biblical teachings that parents want their children to publicly live out and defend where necessary.”

But ADF’s Hoffman said there were no biblical principles at play in the Turning Point case.

Scholars who study Christian legal groups say such secular political work can be a “win-win.”

“I think Hoffman is right in believing that a supportive speech jurisprudence will benefit ADF’s  primary clientele, which is Christians,” said Daniel Bennett, an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Brown University and author of the 2017 book, “Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement.” “And, I imagine the work for conservative groups helps with fundraising from big donors.”

Two other scholars, Amanda Hollis-Brusky of Pomona College and Joshua C. Wilson of the University of Denver, researched Christian legal groups for their 2020 book, “Separate but Faithful: The Christian Right’s Radical Struggle to Transform Law and Legal Culture.”

These two scholars focused on the groups’ secular cases in their 2017 paper for the journal Law & Policy: “Playing for the Rules: How and Why New Christian Right Public Interest Law Firms Invest in Secular Litigation.”

“At first glance, these cases seem unrelated” to the Christian legal groups’ core missions, write the authors. But both ADF and Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice are becoming increasingly involved in such secular free speech cases for three primary reasons:

  • The desire for policy influence, including precedents that may prove helpful to believers later;
  • Organizational maintenance, including fundraising, press coverage, and greater public name recognition;
  • And “coalition building and maintenance,” which means creating and sustaining relationships between like-minded groups to increase coordination and heighten their impact on shared objectives.

ADF’s website says it works “closely with hundreds of like-minded organizations that share our core commitment to religious freedom. Together, we multiply our impact in courtrooms, classrooms, and the culture.” But a media spokesperson declined to name any of ADF’s “Allied Organizations” other than some three dozen state family policy councils, a network of state groups that was created by James Dobson.

In addition to its work defending political groups supporting the former President, ADF’s “Stand for Freedom” campaign is fundraising based on fears about the current President.

“The Biden administration has made its intentions clear: your freedom is at risk. Over the last few years, a storm has been gathering for people of faith who seek to speak, live, and work consistent with their convictions, for parents who want to raise their children according to their values, and for babies in the womb. Alliance Defending Freedom is equipped to stand for your God-given and constitutionally protected freedoms for such a time as this.”

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.