On a sunny morning in September, Representative Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican, held a press conference with four of her congressional colleagues to announce their support for Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker. The conservative Christian and “cake artist” had been found in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Phillips is now the plaintiff in one of the most closely watched cases on the Supreme Court’s docket this term, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Hartzler had just spent a good part of her summer pressing for a ban on transgender people in the military because she believes they constitute a “domestic threat.” She was one of 86 Republican lawmakers who had just signed onto an amicus brief supporting Phillips’s novel claim that baking and decorating a wedding cake is constitutionally protected artistic expression. Phillips has also argued that he should not be required to deploy his creative talents on behalf of a same-sex couple, because doing so would violate his religious beliefs.
“A government that tells you what you must say and what you must do, and punishes you if you don’t, is frightening,” Hartzler said. “That kind of state power should scare all of us.”
Nearby, Phillips stood quietly with his attorney, Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has mushroomed over the past few years into a Christian-right powerhouse. Founded 24 years ago because, as its longtime president Alan Sears once put it, “the homosexual agenda threatens religious freedom,” ADF now rivals some of the nation’s top private law firms in Supreme Court activity. It has trained thousands of lawyers, many of whom have gone on to government service at the federal, state, and local levels. The organization has helped shape “religious freedom” legislation; provides grants to other Christian-right organizations; and presses school districts to adopt its model policies on issues like transgender facility access. ADF now exerts far more influence than other legal organizations that litigate religious-freedom cases, such as the American Center for Law and Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Liberty Counsel. As the courts have ruled in favor of marriage equality over the past decade, ADF has positioned itself at the very center of the efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights under the guise of religious freedom.
The preparation of the congressional amicus brief was led by Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and former GOP presidential contender; Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican once rumored to be under consideration by Donald Trump for a Supreme Court seat; and Representative Mike Johnson, a freshman Republican from Louisiana and a rising conservative star. Johnson is one of dozens of former ADF attorneys around the country who were trained in the organization’s “Christ-centered” legal principles and now serve in government or the judiciary. As an ADF staff attorney, he led many of its legal fights against marriage equality.