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News analysis

The Alliance Defense Fund has been in the news a lot in recent weeks.

Midweek, the ADF, a nonprofit legal foundation created in 1994 by prominent Christian conservatives, was on the losing side of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling where the justices said states can withhold scholarship money from students preparing for the ministry.

The ADF also weighed in on the debate over homosexual marriage in San Francisco, suing the city for allowing gay marriages in violation of California state law.

And finally, ADF officially became part of the debate over a new science policy recently approved by the Darby School Board. At a Tuesday night meeting, the board retained by a 3-2 vote a Lincoln attorney whose fees and costs will be paid by ADF in the event the school district is sued over the science policy.

The policy is called "objective origins," and the three board members who voted for it say it will improve the district's science instruction by encouraging teachers to help students challenge theories such as evolution. The district has yet to develop a curriculum to teach "objective origins," and it remains unclear precisely what students will be taught.

Critics of the policy say it is little more than another effort to teach Christian creation stories in science class. Creation science has been drubbed in court cases, and although no one has sued the district over the origins policy, a lawsuit would hardly come as a surprise.

With that in mind, the board retained Lincoln's Bridgett Erickson, who has a private practice and who has affiliated herself with ADF.

The board is generally represented by an attorney for the Montana School Boards Association, but that attorney, Elizabeth Kaleva, had urged the board not to pass the science policy. Kaleva, who has no interest in representing the board in a science-related suit, also told the board it should be extremely careful in allying itself with ADF because of the group's Christian mission.

The board moved ahead, despite Kaleva's advice.

Darby now finds itself allied with a very conservative organization that is often at the legal forefront of fights over gay rights, abortion and other issues the center says represent the core of traditional family values.

Although the country is currently under both a Republican administration and Congress, ADF claims religious freedoms have never been more threatened.

"However, the right to freely exercise one's faith has never been more threatened in our nation than it is today," ADF states on its Web site. "And the rights of Christians are especially vulnerable."

In fact, Erickson on Tuesday portrayed the essence of the Darby debate as a struggle over religious freedom. In doing so, she staked out a position that the board has not yet taken; board members claim their policy is about science. To the extent the policy is controversial, trustees say the controversy is over science, not religion.

That may be splitting hairs, in that almost all origins science appears to have some supernatural element to it. Even so, that's been the board's position thus far.

ADF, however, isn't really in the hair-splitting business. The organization has staked out concrete positions that leave little wiggle room.

For instance, the U.S. Constitution, ADF maintains, contains nothing about a separation of church and state, only a prohibition on establishment of a national religion.

Religious groups, ADF says, are denied equal access rights not because of the law, but because "leftist advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and its allies, have waged a war of misunderstanding and confusion to deny religious organizations their constitutional right to equal access."

Gays and lesbians are a threat to the American way of life, and efforts to mainstream homosexuality are a strike to traditional families, ADF believes.

"Weakening the family and undermining the values that support it will ultimately destroy our society and dramatically impact religious civil liberties," the ADF Web site states.

At its core, the ADF is working to pave the way for the Gospel, a goal set forth clearly in its mission statement: "The Alliance Defense Fund is a servant organization that provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values."

To that end, the ADF has been involved with more than 125 ministries and organizations in filing suits that support its goals.

"God has granted us wins in almost three out of four cases," ADF's site states.

ADF claims involvement in 23 victories in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court since 1994. That figure does not necessarily mean that ADF-affiliated attorneys played the lead role in each case, but it does mean the group took part in some way, such as providing friend-of-the court briefs.

One of ADF's most prominent cases involved the Boy Scouts of America, which sought to keeps gays from its leadership ranks. The New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled against the Scouts, determining that the Scouts constituted a "public accommodation" because they use schools and other public sites as meeting places and thus violated New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion, reversed the New Jersey court. The high court said the New Jersey law wrongly intruded into the Scouts' business and essentially forced the organization to accept members it did not want.

"The Boy Scouts asserts that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values embodied in the Scout Oath and Law … and that the organization does not want to promote homosexual conduct as a legitimate form of behavior," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote. "The Court gives deference to the Boy Scouts' assertions regarding the nature of its expression."

More recently, ADF took part in Scheidler v. National Organization of Women, a case in which the high court reversed a lower court ruling that anti-abortion activists had violated the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act. The case took 17 years to resolve, but the court voted 8-1 that because the activists had not technically "obtained" the property of clinics providing abortions, they could not violate the RICO act.

ADF was not lead counsel in that case - the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center had that role - but ADF did take part in the case. The case was considered critical to anti-abortion activists, who had been blocked from some protest activities by a court injunction.

ADF also was involved in the court's 1997 Schenck vs. Pro-Choice Network, which struck down an injunction that imposed 15-foot "floating buffer zones" where anti-abortion activists could not approach people entering clinics. However, the same case affirmed the injunction's use of fixed buffer zones around clinics where activists cannot tread.

ADF also has been heavily involved in assisted-suicide cases, working against legalization of such laws. ADF took part in two 1997 high court cases, Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg.

In both cases, doctors with terminally ill patients came forward to challenge laws that made assisted suicide illegal. Although the cases made different constitutional arguments - Vacco focused on equal protection, while Washington dealt with due process - the court in both cases sided with the states, New York and Washington.

ADF supported the states, arguing that all life is sacred. The group states its clear intention in both abortion and assisted-suicide cases in its literature.

"Our goal is to reform American law so that all human life will be respected and protected from conception to natural death through the power of an alliance," the ADF Web site states.

ADF has been very active in cases it believes involve pornography, including National Endowment of the Arts v. Finley, the controversial case where the NEA refused to award grants to several artists whose work was deemed unacceptable. The case involved performance artist Karen Finley, who angered conservatives with a performance that involved smearing chocolate over her naked body.

At issue was whether a law requiring the NEA to consider "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" before awarding grants to artistic projects was impermissibly viewpoint-based and unconstitutionally vague. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of the NEA and against the artists.

ADF has been active in supporting the rights of communities to regulate adult-oriented businesses, and also weighed in on a case that dealt with Internet access in public libraries. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could require libraries receiving federal technology money to provide Internet filtering devices on computers.

Obviously, most cases involving ADF don't make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The group recently took on representation of Tom Vail, a Grand Canyon river guide and evangelical Christian. Vail put together a book that combines pictures of the canyon with essays written by creation scientists who believe the canyon was created over a short period of time rather than the millions of years that mainstream scientists maintain.

The book has been popular at the National Park Service's canyon bookstores, but scientists and others have objected to putting a book that promotes a religious viewpoint in the stores' science section.

The Grand Canyon controversy, like the debate over origins science in Darby, is ongoing, with the Alliance Defense Fund waiting in the wings to defend its version of religious liberty.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or 370-3330, or by e-mail at

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