The Alliance Defending Freedom has been busy this year. Its senior legal council, Matt Sharp, has been on the move, parachuting into different state courthouses to testify or voice support for some of the record-shattering 501 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in legislatures this year — more than 70 of which have passed into law.
In February, Sharp showed up in support of an Indiana bill that would forbid the Department of Child Services from removing trans kids from homes where their parents reject their child’s gender identity. In March, he testified in Arkansas in favor of a bill that would forbid teachers to refer to their students by their pronouns of choice, before popping up to Montana to support a bill that would ban transgender kids from accessing health care related to their transition. And in July, he provided written testimony in favor of a Kansas bill that would ban trans girls from competing in high school sports.
The bills, which share many of the same themes and in some cases the exact same language, have been described as part of a coordinated effort by Republican lawmakers to intensify LGBTQ issues as a key wedge in the culture war ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Sharp and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have played a key role in this effort, which isn’t likely to abate any time soon considering Mike Johnson, a former attorney and spokesperson for the ADF, was just elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Johnson comes with quite a resume. He defended Donald Trump at both of his impeachment hearings, helped plot the Jan. 6 attempted coup, and holds hardline positions on everything from abortion to LGBTQ rights. He worked for the ADF from 2002 until 2010, penning op-eds against marriage equality and endorsing briefs filed by the ADF meant to criminalize sexual activity between consenting adults. He now controls the business of the House of Representatives, including which members chair congressional committees and which bills receive floor votes. He’s also second in line for the presidency.
It’s unclear to what extent Johnson’s elevation could impact the ADF’s efforts, but the group was already thriving. To understand how the ADF came to be and why their power is increasing in 2023, Rolling Stone combed through reports and interviewed experts who investigate anti-LGBTQ extremism. We found that while the ADF presents itself as a benevolent Christian legal group aiming to protect religious freedom, they are in essence an organization that litigates in favor of bills, laws, and policies that work to undermine LGBTQ rights domestically and around the world.
The ADF’s power is perhaps most evident when considering their track record in the Supreme Court. Since 2011, they have won 15 cases. Some of the cases have focused on abortion, including last year when the group helped draft and defend legislation that helped overturn Roe v. Wade. Others focus on rolling back LGBTQ rights. The group is currently trying to get SCOTUS to take a case where Christian therapist Brian Tingley is challenging a law that disciplines health care providers for practicing conversion therapy. On June 30 — the last day of Pride Month — the ADF celebrated a 6-3 victory after all six conservative justices ruled that a Colorado website designer, represented by ADF CEO Kristen Waggoner, could refuse to make websites for same-sex couples because it conflicts with her religious beliefs.
“ADF zooms into courtrooms domestically and around the world, provides the testimony, and then they spill their talking points, perpetuating false narratives and citing junk science around trans healthcare. The dangerous part is it works and it gives these bills a legislative credibility they don’t deserve,” says a spokesperson for Accountable for Equality, a nonprofit aiming to educate the public about the efforts of anti-LGBTQ extremists.
The ADF consists of nearly 400 staff members and over 3,200 allied attorneys. “The whole point is to have a Christian takeover of the government,” says Paul Southwick, a lawyer who litigates, often against the ADF, on behalf of queer students who have experienced discrimination at religious colleges. “In ADF’s eyes, God has dominion over the church, but he also has dominion over the state.”
Southwick was part of the ADF’s Blackstone Fellowship — a summer internship program for Christian law students with the aim of training them to become lawyers that influence American society and culture — but after coming out as gay, he cut ties with the organization. “For a closeted queer person it was a mindfuck but I was very committed to protecting traditional marriage,” says Southwick, who grew up in a rural Christian community and went through two years of conversion therapy prior to his time at the ADF.
During the Fellowship, Southwick remembers having conversations with colleagues in the program about how gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt or have domestic partnerships, and that they were “betraying God.”
The homophobia got so bad that Southwick started to have suicidal thoughts and realized he needed to get out. He told ADF senior leadership that he was experiencing “same-sex attraction,” and they made the “mutual decision” that he would not graduate from the fellowship.
Southwick says undermining LGBTQ rights through litigation has been central to the ADFs mission since its inception in 1993. The organization was founded by a group of mostly white, evangelical Christian men who believe that homosexuality is a sin. The men founded the group with a primary purpose: to defend what they perceived as threats to religious freedom in the U.S.
For the first 24 years, ADF’s president was Alan Sears, who had previously served as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney general’s office for Western Kentucky. He was also the executive director of the Reagan administration’s Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography.
Sears has co-authored two books: The ACLU vs. America: Exposing the Agenda to Redefine Moral Values and “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” In The Homosexual Agenda, he writes that homosexuality is the biggest threat to religious freedom and evangelism and says that if it continues to go unchecked, it will silence Christians. He also falsely claims that there is an “alarming” link between pedophilia and homosexuality and that “the current sexual problem in the Catholic Church is primarily a homosexual behavior problem.”
In 2017, Sears retired from the ADF and Michael Farris took over. Farris has a predictably troubling track record with LGBTQ rights. In 1993, he helped draft the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ folks if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. The act was eventually signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton and has since been used to argue in favor of other cases that would allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Farris also wrote an amicus brief in 2003 where he defended the criminalization of gay sex in Lawrence v. Texas.
Last year, Farris left the group and Kristen Waggoner took his place. Waggoner, the daughter of a minister, grew up in rural Washington in a devoutly Christian household and said in an interview that — at 13 years old — she prayed at summer camp and discovered that her calling was to defend religious freedom. Waggoner was chosen to head up the ADF after she served as lead counsel for the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop case, successfully defending a baker who didn’t want to make cakes for same-sex couples.
The ADF declined an interview request for this story, and also declined to comment on a detailed list of questions.
“For all ADF leadership, the idea is that if we continue to move towards LGBTQ rights, we’re betraying God. So the way to get God to favor America again is to restore the U.S. as a Christian nation,” says Southwick.
“They believe that Christianity will always trump human rights. It doesn’t matter how many gay people kill themselves. It doesn’t matter how many trans people are beat up or brutalized,” says Southwick, who believes this ideology is a key reason the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the ADF an anti-LGBTQ hate group in 2016. (They have disputed the designation.)
“Their main goal is to instill biblical and anti-LGBTQ values in government. And that’s extremely dangerous when you believe theology is more important than democracy.”
According to an investigation by Media Matters for America, the ADF is accomplishing that goal. The investigation found over 100 current and former staff members who have worked or are currently working in the U.S. government. Christopher Schandeval, who works for the Virginia attorney general’s office, was an ADF fellow in 2012. Thomas W. Stack, a senior attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, previously worked as ADF’s Director of Litigation Projects. And J.D. Mesnard is concurrently serving as a state senator in Arizona and as the regional director for ADF’s Church Alliance.
As of this week, newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson is perhaps the most notorious former member of the ADF. While he was at ADF for over a decade in the 2000s, he was involved in writing an amicus brief that aimed to criminalize gay sex. He also helped organize “Day of Truth,” a counterprotest to a successful nationwide student project aimed to fight back against homophobia. Johnson worked with the ADF to hand out T-shirts to participating students with the slogan “The Truth Cannot be Silenced” and described homosexuality as “sinful and destructive.”
In 2004, Johnson wrote in an op-ed that homosexual relationships are “inherently unnatural” and that society should not give a rubber stamp on such a “dangerous lifestyle.” He also wrote that if we give gay people the right to marry, “pedophiles and others [would] be next in line to claim equal protection,” and that gay marriage was “the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”
“They are injecting an anti-LGBTQ and anti-woman agenda at every level of government. By having influence over policy in these positions, that can result in further erosion to the rights of this community,” says Heidi Beirich, the CEO of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, a group that investigates extremist movements in the U.S. and Europe. “They sound innocuous when they throw out terms like ‘pro-family,’ et cetera. But that’s not what this is. And most Americans don’t know that. They’re wolves in sheeps clothing when it comes to human rights.”
Beirich says the ADF has had more of a damaging effect on the LGBTQ community than almost any other social conservative organization. “They’ve become more powerful in the last few years as the Republican Party has moved further to the right with Trump,” she says. “As this has happened, they’ve had more influence in terms of the policy agenda. They’ve had more cases heard at all levels of government and they have been winning. That’s the difference with ADF and other groups. They get shit done. They win. They directly impact the rights LGBTQ folks have and don’t have in this country.”
Beirich says as the 2024 election approaches, it’s critical to pay attention to the moves the ADF makes. She points to The 2025 Presidential Transition Project, a 920-page document that outlines the conservative movement’s unified effort to “be ready for the next conservative Administration to govern at 12:00 noon, January 20, 2025.” The ADF is part of the advisory board of the project.
The document outlines various ways the next conservative administration should gut LGBTQ protections, including by dismantling diversity and inclusion offices; reversing the Biden administration’s focus on LGBTQ equity; and doing something about “the toxic normalization of transgenderism with drag queens and pornography invading their school libraries.” The project also calls for the State Department to abandon pro-LGBTQ initiatives in Africa, where abhorrent laws against the community have been enacted. For example, Uganda recently passed a law that criminalizes same-sex conduct, including the death penalty for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”
“For Project 2025, LGBTQ rights are not human rights,” says Beirich.
As the ADF’s impact has intensified on U.S. soil, their global arm — ADF international — has become increasingly active. The organization has set up shop in Europe’s hubs for international human rights institutions. They have offices in Brussels close to the European Union’s headquarters; in Geneva and Vienna near their respective United Nations offices; and in Strasbourg near the European Court of Human Rights.
“A lot of people would think that if you’re going to open up an office in Europe, you may go somewhere like Paris,” says Neil Datta, the executive director for the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, who investigates the ADF’s international orbit. “Whereas these guys, they rented space beside international human rights institutions, where they can interact with and influence major players.”
The ADF sends their lawyers around the world to countries that are notorious for pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation. In 2012, the ADF’s former senior legal counsel Piero A. Tozzi spoke at a conference in Jamaica advocating for maintaining a law that criminalizes gay sex, which remains in effect today. In 2013, members of the ADF were in Belize, where the group worked to defend a statute stating that “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” — LGBTQ sex — could be punishable by up to ten years in prison. The ADF has also litigated dozens of cases in front of the European Court of Human Rights, including one that would force transgender people to physically transition in order for their gender identity to be legally recognized.
One reason the ADF is successful abroad is because they are embedded in some of the biggest global human rights organizations. Since 2010, they have held Special Consultative Status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which gives the group unique access to the U.N. and its subsidiary bodies, to the various human rights mechanisms of the organization, and to special events organized by the president of the General Assembly.
“We have a group of actors inside the U.N. who are actively trying to undermine the human rights of others in society,” says Datta, who believes people who vet these applications likely mistook ADF as a benevolent Christian legal organization. “Unfortunately, their members are highly intelligent and well educated. They are able to blend into the decision making and policymaking field because they look like they belong there.”
“It’s really urgent that the U.N. revokes the ADFs special status,” he says. “When you have this category of actors, who don’t share the basic ground rules as everyone else, it creates a problem. And decision makers inside the U.N. haven’t picked up on this. They simply think that ‘this is a different point of view,’ they don’t realize it’s more than that.” (The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.)
Just like their presence within international human rights organizations, the ADFs financial power has increased dramatically over the last few years. The group is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity. And on its most recent publicly available 990 tax form for fiscal year 2022, the ADF reported a revenue of nearly $104 million compared to about $79 million in the prior year, marking a nearly 33 percent increase in funding. In addition, the annual contributions and grants to ADF have nearly doubled since 2017.
While it’s hard to track the source of the ADF’s funding, an arm of the National Christian Foundation — one of the largest charities in the United States — has donated nearly $66 million dollars to the organization since 2018. Organizations like the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and The Charles Koch Institute have also donated to the group.
“They have the financing and resources to push this anti-LGBTQ agenda,” says Heidi Beirich. “They’re in this for the long game and aren’t going anywhere. So any of us who are concerned about a vibrant, diverse democracy should be concerned about this group and where their money is coming from because they represent a democratic backsliding. And with the 2024 election fast approaching, it’s even more important to stay vigilant.”
As the ADF’s financial, political, and legal power has increased, the progress and safety of LGBTQ folks in the U.S. have suffered. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people are rising dramatically. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security warned of domestic terror threats to the LGBTQ community. Businesses and churches have received bomb threats for signaling allyship toward the community and far-right extremists like The Proud Boys have turned up at pro-LGBTQ schools to protest and intimidate.
All of this led to the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, to issue a national state of emergency for the community at the beginning of Pride month.
While the ADF contends they are working to protect parental rights and to keep kids safe, Datta says the organization is only hurting children and making them more susceptible to hate crimes, terror attacks, and mental health issues. “The last thing on the minds of people in ADF is the welfare of queer kids,” he says.
He points to a Trevor Project study that found 41 percent of LGBTQ kids in the U.S. seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year. “No matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is, being a teenager can be hard. And then figuring out that you’re a very small minority makes it that much harder. But the icing on the cake is having these grown adults perpetuate an environment where you believe you aren’t equal, and where the hostility that may surround you in your hometown is legitimated by the legal and political power players in American society,” he says.
Datta worries that if the ADF continues to operate in the highest courts relatively unchecked, LGBTQ rights will continue to erode and other groups will also be impacted. “LGTBQ rights are the canary in the coalmine. If you’re able to erode gay and trans rights on the basis of freedom of religion, women, other minority groups, and anyone who happens to have a life that doesn’t end up in a heterosexual, monogamous, nuclear family will be next.”
Because the ADF works to undermine human rights, Datta says, they intentionally try to operate under the radar. “That’s why it’s so important to shed light on what they do and proactively monitor their actions,” he says. “They’re transforming religion from a shield into a weapon. We need to keep our eyes wide open on this group.”
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