The Group Behind Prop 8

In her October column on ballot initiatives, Dana Goldstein points out conservatives' tendency to employ language in their initiatives that is antithetical to their intended goal. Ward Connerly's "civil-rights initiatives," for example, seek to quash affirmative-action programs. But perhaps no group has demonstrated greater dissonance between rhetoric and reality as the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). The ADF is a primary player in the push to pass the California Protection of Marriage Act (Proposition 8), which calls for the explicit revocation, not protection, of the gay community's new-found right to marry.

Following the ADF's defeat in California's In re Marriage Cases in May, when the court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, the ADF found reinforcements in other conservative groups such as ProtectMarriage, the National Organization for Marriage and Focus on the Family. In the following months, this conservative conglomeration successfully garnered over one million signatures to place Prop 8 on the ballot with hopes of overturning the court's ruling. The ADF's role in the case was to "defend" its position on the legal definition of marriage -- that it is exclusively between a man and a woman -- under the aegis of traditional Christian family structures.

The ADF is a Christian conservative consortium of lawyers, founded in 1994 as an answer to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Its stated purpose -- to "defend the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation" -- reflects an underlying paranoid worldview entirely antithetical to reality: that Christians in America are persecuted by the government and secular society. Given the ADF's incessant litigiousness and efforts at national ubiquity, this puts their defensive posturing somewhere between farcical and downright mendacious. The reality is that the ADF is a legal powerhouse that spends over $20 million a year to project its paranoid argument into courtrooms across the nation.

The ADF's main prerogative is to defend the Christian majority's "right" to suppress respective minorities' liberties. Glen Lavy the group's head of marriage litigation, claimed in May that the ADF was not challenging same-sex couples' right to marry, but rather "defending" the traditional Christian notion of marriage as a necessary condition for children's healthy development. Following the court's decision to allow same-sex couples to marry, he told reporters that "the government should not, by design, deny a child both a mother and father." Thus, the ADF spins its efforts as defensive in the interests of children rather than offensive against the interests of the minority gay community.

This, of course, is a compelling argument for those who share the ADF's traditional Christian values, and maybe even for some moderate voters. However, the "we're defending children" rhetoric is quite obviously an obfuscation of the initiative's true intent. In fact, in an April 20, 2007 memo to Congress, Lavy provides valuable insight into his actual beliefs by expressing his support for groups and individuals who consider homosexuality to be "physically and psychologically harmful" as well as "immoral."

Having lost its legal battle in May, the ADF has since redirected its efforts to guaranteeing Prop 8's passage in November. Specifically, the group has attempted to finagle the initiative's language, controlling how it will be read by voters at the ballot box. In early August, ADF lawyers filed an appeal with the court to reverse state Attorney General Jerry Brown's decision that changed the words "limit on marriage" to "eliminates right of same-sex couples to marry" in Prop 8's title. While the modification is much clearer as to the initiative's true intent, ADF Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco seemed to realize that such clearly worded language would turn off moderate voters. By arguing that "election ballot titles should be neutral and not intentionally prejudice voters," while at the same time advocating for vaguer language, Infranco perhaps revealed his own suspicion that Prop 8 must be misrepresented in order to pass. However, the court denied the appeal, affirming Brown's new wording.

California's judiciary has thus far demonstrated immunity to the ADF's rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, the organization does not limit itself to waging just one war at a time. Elsewhere, beyond California's same-sex marriage debate, the ADF held an event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday on September 28, under the banner of Free Speech, to brazenly violate the federal tax code that prohibits such political activism by tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, or the Pulpit Initiative, fulfilled the ADF's goal of recruiting pastors to explicitly discuss partisan politics. All told, 100 pastors were willing to participate, and the ADF selected a third of them. With each pastor endorsing a presidential candidate "on the basis of Scripture," abortion and same-sex marriage were elevated from marginal culture-war issues of this election to the paramount concern. One need not have been in each of the 33 congregations on Pulpit Freedom Sunday to guess in which direction the partisan winds blew.

Furthermore, the ADF intends to send the IRS a copy of each sermon transcript as a direct instigation. As of this writing, the IRS has not revealed its course of punitive action, which will determine if the ADF wins its day in court or not. The ADF's ultimate objective is to spur a U.S. Supreme Court battle over what it considers to be a pastor's prerogative to determine "the proper role of church in society" and to have the law thrown out for good.

In a September 9 press release, ADF President and CEO Alan Sears goes as far as to suggest that such tax-exempt demagogy is not only a First Amendment right, but also the historical foundation for "many Americans' attitudes and actions toward slavery, child labor, civil rights, and even the American Revolution."

Like "protection of marriage" and "civil-rights" ballot initiatives, the ADF's rhetoric here is basically opposite its intent. The end of slavery, child labor laws, the civil rights movement, and the American Revolution were driven by Enlightenment calls for democracy, human equality, and liberalism -- not the exploitation of an organization's charitable status to endorse its favorite politician.

However, mirroring the campaign in California, the ADF's disingenuous representation of its true motives has drawn skepticism, if not outright condemnation, from others in the legal community as well as religious leaders. Notably, Reverend Eric Williams from the United Church of Christ in Ohio, partnered with former IRS lawyer Marcus S. Owens, regard the ADF's actions as ethically questionable and doubt that the Supreme Court will sympathize with its retrograde position.

The Pulpit Initiative appears to be more extreme than past actions and may be the beginning of the end as the organization loses clout, and possibly its tax-exempt status, from its unbridled ambition. While 33 pastors participated in the event, more than 180 are participating in an Interfaith Alliance pledge that seeks the exact opposite -- to uphold the separation of church and state by promising not to discuss partisan politics in their sermons.

So far, this election cycle has shown that the ADF's deceptive rhetoric may not be as effective as it's been in the past, mirroring Ward Connerly's recent failures to pass anti-affirmative-action measures (only two of the five target states have chosen to participate in his "Super Tuesday for Civil Rights"). With a larger trend of dubious claims from the right this election season, it is reassuring to see indicators that the public and judiciaries are growing wiser to dishonest political charades. One can only hope this response will continue through November 4.