Two years ago, a longtime customer walked into Barronelle Stutzman’s flower shop with a request: the customer—who is gay—asked Stutzman to provide flowers for his wedding. Stutzman declined, citing her Christian faith’s objections to same-sex marriage, and was eventually charged with violating Washington’s state anti-discrimination statute. With Stutzman facing thousands of dollars in fines, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in to defend her in court. Today, the case is under review at the Washington Supreme Court, where Stutzman’s attorneys are hoping for a reversal of a lower court’s ruling against her.
“Barronelle and numerous others like her around the country have been more than willing to serve any and all customers, but they are understandably not willing to promote any and all messages,” Kristen Waggoner, one of Stutzman’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No one should be faced with a choice between their freedom of speech and conscience on one hand and personal and professional ruin on the other.”
Alliance Defending Freedom—a legal organization with a multi-million budget, several regional offices, and more than three dozen staff attorneys—has specialized in taking on these types of cases. But it’s not alone. ADF is just one of many Christian conservative legal organizations, or CCLOs, that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. These groups promote and defend the interests of the Christian conservative community in the legal arena, with activities ranging from filing legal briefs and arguing at the Supreme Court to educating public school officials on the legality of after-school Bible clubs. Included in their ranks are the Liberty Counsel, which is tied to the law school of Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, and the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by Pat Robertson as the Christian Right’s response to the American Civil Liberties Union.
But who exactly are these organizations? What do they do? How do they differ from one another? And what does the future hold for the Christian legal movement? Examining CCLOs not only sheds light on an influential legal community in the United States—it shows how a broader political movement has tried to adapt to new challenges in a changing society.
Although many Christian Conservative legal groups dot the current American legal landscape, it has not always been this way. For decades, legal advocacy—that is, marshaling legal tactics in support of broader policy goals—was a tool of the political left in the United States, dominated by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Traditional outlets of political engagement were generally unsuccessful for these groups, due to the unpopular nature of their beliefs or the lack of political support for their goals. Legal advocacy gave these marginalized peoples victories unavailable to them otherwise.
Eventually more established, conservative interests saw the value of legal advocacy. The Federalist Society, organized at various law schools in 1982, provided an outlet for conservative legal ideas in an environment traditionally dominated by liberals. Today it is arguably the most influential conservative legal community in the United States, supporting libertarian, business, and socially conservative legal interests.
The 1980s also saw the emergence of expressly Christian legal interest groups. John Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute was one of the earliest of these, focusing mainly on defending religious freedom and opposing abortion. And though its mission has since evolved beyond the Christian legal movement, Rutherford’s successes helped set the stage for the CCLOs active today.
Just as the Federalist Society spurred and lent credibility to the conservative legal movement, the Christian Right did the same for CCLOs. Specifically, elites in the Christian Right, sensing the promise of legal advocacy for their causes, lent organizational support and resources to new legal interest groups: Pat Robertson founded both the National Legal Foundation and the American Center for Law and Justice; James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright (among others) were instrumental in organizing Alliance Defending Freedom; and Jerry Falwell lent Liberty Counsel institutional support. Without this early assistance from the Christian Right, many CCLOs would not exist as we now know them.
Today, CCLOs generally focus on three major issues: strengthening religious liberty, supporting the traditional family, and defending the sanctity of life. CCLOs uniformly take the position that religious liberty is crucial in a thriving society, even when exercised in ways the broader culture deems unpopular—as is the case with Barronelle Stutzman. Likewise, most CCLOs take an accommodationist approach to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, arguing that public displays of religion—such as crèches and displays of the 10 Commandments—are consistent with the Judeo-Christian roots of the country. CCLOs’ work on religious liberty and establishment illustrates the flexibility of legal advocacy, emphasizing that lawsuits are not necessary for success: Sometimes the mere threat of a lawsuit may be enough for victory, as is often the case when dealing with public schools and local governmental agencies.
For CCLOs, marriage is more than a legal contract: it is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God with enormous cultural significance. Thus, these groups uniformly oppose expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples. Their past arguments have included appeals to the religious foundations of marriage, but more recently they have relied on controversial and largely debunked research suggesting children are raised better by a mother and father than parents of the same sex. They have also emphasized the importance of the democratic process in defining what marriage is, taking jabs at “unelected judges” redefining the institution. Opposing abortion also remains a critical element of their advocacy—and one where they have been making gains at the state level in creating more abortion restrictions, most notably through supporting “personhood” amendments to state constitutions. CCLOs have also defended pro-life protesters and supported “conscience clause” protections for doctors and pharmacists opposed to abortion and contraception. Here, attorneys appeal to broad rights like free speech and religious exercise, downplaying the content of the activity—namely, opposition to abortion—and focusing on the activity itself. In doing so, CCLOs highlight their clients’ expressive freedom, a value familiar and popular among most Americans.
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