Bench Memos

An Ecumenical Fight for Religious Liberty

Alan Sears talks about the Alliance Defense Fund:

How did the formation of the Alliance Defense Fund come about?

In the early ’90s, a number of people of different faith backgrounds began to talk to each other about grave concerns with the loss of religious liberty in the court system. And they basically discovered that the community of faith — the body of Christ, the Christians, however you want to describe it — was AWOL.

And, so, they said, “Well, what we ought to do is form a response.” The idea was: Let’s get as many people as we can across faith lines to stand together and defend the things we can agree on. In their conversations that came to be three things: our religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the preservation of marriage and the traditional family. Those were the three things everybody could agree on, and they asked me if I’d be the first leader of the organization.

What were the Alliance Defense Fund’s first cases?

The mission of the ADF from the outset was three things: strategy, training and funding, all to further litigation. As we were launched, we did not have any attorneys on the staff other than myself, and so we began to fund a number of cases as we raised money. There were two Supreme Court cases that came within our first year: The Rosenberger case and the Boston parade case, which is called Hurley.

Hurley involved veterans in Boston who held an annual parade to celebrate America and American values. A group of homosexual advocates came to that group and said, “Hey, you’re marching on public streets. We demand to march in your parade.”  The veterans said, “No way; we will not allow you to march in our parade because your message is not consistent with ours. This is a privately funded and privately run parade, even though it’s on public streets.” And they found a volunteer lawyer who would help them, and they began to fight. They lost the case in every court, every human-rights body, and they lost even in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Much of this was going on before the ADF existed.

They were out of funds, they needed help, and we agreed to fund their volunteer attorney, Chester Darling, who had literally gotten to the point he was cashing in his IRAs to help these people because he was so committed to their cause. We loved Chester. We brought him down to Washington, we did a moot court from some of the brightest Supreme Court practitioners in the country, and we helped put together the court briefs. And by the grace of God, it was a 9-0 win before the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision was later part of the precedent to win the Boy Scouts case when they were challenged in Dale.

In the same session of the court was the case of Ron Rosenberger. Ron was a student at the University of Virginia who had started a little Christian newspaper called Wide Awake. He raised money for a while, got it out, then he ran out of money and wanted to continue his paper. And he looked around and he said, “How come all these other campus newspapers and student groups have student fees’ funding, but I don’t?” So he applied for the money, and, basically, they told him that Christianity is not part of the culture, that the other entities that are being funded are cultural groups.

Ron didn’t take too well to that, and he found a volunteer lawyer. They went through the courts. They lost in federal district court; they lost in the Fourth Circuit. And then we came along. We raised money, and we funded the petition for certiorari that asked the Supreme Court to hear their case. When the court agreed, we funded the costs of the case and a number of amicus briefs. And we won that one, 5-4, holding out the principle that you can’t discriminate on viewpoints just because it’s a religious entity. That case has been cited more than 1,500 times now in federal-court decisions.

So those were a couple of very important first cases.

When Father Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson and other prominent leaders formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1997, they declared in their foundational statement that “we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God and must be protected also in civil law.” That sounds very close to the Alliance Defense Fund’s philosophy.

Absolutely. Earlier, John Paul II had provided a document to the Helsinki Commission very early in his papacy, where he talked about basic premises from natural law relating to religious freedom for individuals and communities. I have now distributed copies of that document to hundreds of evangelicals and Protestants, and we’ve found almost a 100% unity in terms of using the definitions that John Paul II laid out there. When we go back and talk about first principles, on the areas where the Alliance Defense Fund is called to serve, there is absolutely no significant distinction.

One other principle that I’ve found out is very important and that I’ve talked to all the other leaders about is John Paul II’s concept of ecumenism. In the world today, there’s this touchy-feely idea of ecumenism. A bunch of people get together in a room, they ignore the elephants, and they basically pretend that everything is wonderful and nobody disagrees on anything. And they come out with these little feathery statements that go nowhere.

John Paul II had almost the opposite view: He said that the best ecumenism is when you acknowledge your differences. And so we go into that room, we talk about what you can agree on, and when you leave the room, you leave in absolute unity on those things that draw you together.


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