Alan Sears and Alliance Defending Freedom are changing America’s legal landscape . . .
Alan Sears found his calling in 1993 when a group of Evangelical Christians asked him to help found a legal organization to defend religious liberty in America. The fact that Sears, a member of Legatus’ Phoenix Chapter, was Catholic didn’t matter to them. They were willing to cross denominational lines to defend one of the fundamental pillars of America’s founding.
For the past 20 years, Alliance Defending Freedom — or ADF — has defended religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, marriage, and parental rights all the way to the Supreme Court. In the process, it has become the most influential network of Christian lawyers in the country.
Alan Sears first learned his faith from his Baptist parents.
“I had wonderful, faithful Christian parents,” he said. “They led me to have a love for my faith and respect for God.”
As he grew older, Sears became involved with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the SBC had an identity crisis regarding social and biblical issues. Sears held two SBC executive positions during that time. Eventually, the more conservative faction won out.
“While I was involved in this fight, I began to read the Church Fathers,” he explained. “Then I came across the writings of Pope John Paul II.”
Around that time, Sears met and married his wife Paula, a devout Roman Catholic. At one point, Sears’ father-in-law asked him why he wasn’t Catholic. Sears remembers saying that he would never convert because of the Catholic Church’s “unbiblical positions.”
Time and study would prove his position wrong. Before long Sears was enrolled at the Kino Institute, a Catholic catechetical school in Phoenix where he studied one-on-one with a priest.
“First, there would be one hour of teaching and studying of Fr. Hardon’s catechism,” Sears explained, “then one hour of argument. At some point, I realized that there was nothing left to fight about.”
Sears entered the Catholic Church in the summer of 1988.
Building a coalition
Besides his personal journey into the Church, Sears was working hard on his legal career. He served the Reagan administration in several positions. Notably, he was staff executive director of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography during the Reagan administration.
“We were on our way to wiping out hard-core pornography in the nation, but then the administration changed,” said Sears, referring to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term as president.
After his work in government, Sears worked for 10 years in Arizona’s largest law firm. By the time ADF’s founders came looking for him, he had experience in all areas of law, including private practice, public policy and media work.
“The whole idea for ADF was not about dominance of one group,” he explained. “It was 35 Evangelical groups who came together. The founders understood that we are in a time when we must stand together to fight for things that matter most.”
Today, ADF has over 170 full-time employees and over 2,500 allied lawyers working in every U.S. state and 40 foreign countries.
Every summer, ADF runs its Blackstone Legal Fellowship Program — a nine-week program that takes about 150 of the country’s best law students who go deeper into natural law, government, philosophy and key legal doctrines. That includes six weeks of “field work.”
“I think ADF is doing outstanding work,” said Bernard Dobranski, founding dean of Ave Maria School of Law. “They get students from the best law schools across the country, and the students are paid well. ADF gives them instruction that is often neglected in law school.”
Dobranski credits Sears for helping build a new generation of well-equipped Christian attorneys who can defend religious and personal liberty in and out of the courtroom.
Wesley Hodges, who graduated from Baylor in May, participated in ADF’s Collegiate Academy in mid-July. The program provides upperclassmen an opportunity to learn from renowned Christian experts in legal and policy fields.
“The program transformed the way I act and see myself as a Christian in the public square,” he explained. “It allowed me to break through the worldly notion of barriers between a person’s private beliefs and public actions — and be trained to craft excellent moral arguments in the public square as a Christian.”
Sears said he believes that ADF’s biggest accomplishment has been to “show up” in court on a large scale. From the post-World War II era until the 1980s, he said, people of faith became silent in public policy.
“We didn’t show up,” he said. “The body of Christ forfeited. We weren’t looking at the big picture.”
One of the things that ADF’s founders realized early on was that little cases no one was paying attention to became big cases. Today, ADF takes small cases very seriously. For example, Barronelle Stutzman, a florist from Washington state, had a customer ask her to provide flowers for his same-sex wedding.
“He had been her customer for nine years,” said Kristen Waggoner, ADF’s senior vice president of legal services. “She respectfully declined because of her Christian beliefs. She got sued by the state, which was unprecedented, by the ACLU, and by the homosexual customer.”
Stutzman’s cases are being litigated in state and federal courts.
Cathy DeCarlo was a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. At the beginning of her tenure, she told the administration she would not participate in abortions. DeCarlo was assured that her conscience rights would be respected. One day, a patient was wheeled in for a 22-week abortion. DeCarlo was told that if she refused to participate in the abortion, her career would be over.
“Our legal efforts led to a rewrite of the case,” Sears said.
In light of all the cases ADF handles, Sears says the No. 1 fight in America today is for the right of conscience. Although Catholics experienced religious persecution at various times in U.S. history, today’s battle is unprecedented.
“We really haven’t seen, in a modern sense, the deliberate and direct attack on the practice of the faith as we have now,” said Sears.
One of the most obvious attacks has been the Health and Human Services mandate, an Obama administration directive that most employers pay for contraception, abortifacients and sterilizations — regardless of the employer’s religious convictions.
“Never before has there been a time when you’ve had to choose between your conscience and your business,” said Sears. “We represented a Montana pharmacist who didn’t want to administer contraceptives. He was threatened with the loss of his license despite the fact there were other pharmacies in the area that provided contraceptives. We’ve won all these cases, but we shouldn’t have to fight these cases to begin with.”
Changing the culture
ADF and its allied attorneys are hopeful for the future. They’ve played various roles in 45 cases that have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court, and they’ve won 75% of them.
“We are about building alliances and changing the culture,” said Waggoner. “I don’t know of any other organization that does this with the spirit of unity we have. To be able to do what we do with our training and strategy component — this is Alan Sears’ greatest accomplishment.”
One common observation from those who work with Sears is his humility.
“I have been in private practice for 17 years,” Waggoner explained. “And with very accomplished people, you inevitably see very big egos. What really drew me to work with Alan Sears was his genuine humility and his love for God and people. He is always telling us that we have to make ‘stars’ of people, that we must build other people up.”
Not only is ADF building people up, but they are changing the culture of the legal profession from within. Perhaps one of the biggest changes ADF has wrought is for the lawyers themselves, Dobranski said. It’s not taboo anymore to talk about faith and defend it in court.
“People have been influenced and are more willing to make arguments on behalf of religious freedom,” he said.
And for people of faith, that is a welcome change.
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.