NYTimes leans to the right in Christian legal profile?

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No, the “socially liberal” New York Times didn’t lean all the way to the right.

But it’s difficult to imagine a conservative Christian legal organization receiving fairer, more serious coverage than the Alliance Defending Freedom did in Monday’s newspaper.

With the headline “Legal Alliance Gains Host of Court Victories for Conservative Christian Movement,” the Times used the group’s major Supreme Court victory last week in the Town of Greece, N.Y., prayer case as a timely news peg:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Alan Sears, who has run the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom since its founding 20 years ago, turned to a picture of Abraham Lincoln in his office here and noted the decades of blood and tears it took to abolish slavery.

“I think there is no question that one day, this country will again recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Sears, a former top official in the Reagan Justice Department.

The comparison may or may not prove apt, but these are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.

A meaty section of the story highlights the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Christian roots:

Alliance Defending Freedom was created by Christian leaders including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James C. Dobson Jr., the founder of Focus on the Family. In the early 1990s the groups had watched with growing dismay as secular groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used the courts to ban school prayer and advance abortion rights even as an emerging gay-rights movement threatened, in their view, to upend the country’s social values.

“People of faith were being outgunned in court,” said Mr. Sears, 62, a Roman Catholic in an organization populated with evangelical Protestants. So the group — then called the Alliance Defense Fund — was founded to foster Christian legal firepower.

The new Christian lawyers have proved to be sophisticated litigants in court, wielding constitutional arguments without invoking religion. But outside the courtroom, the group has provoked the enmity of gay-rights advocates, in particular, by expressing harsh views such as those in a book Mr. Sears co-wrote in 2003, “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” It describes gay people as “trapped” and gay-rights advocates as bent on creating a nation of “broken families and broken lives.”

I was pleased that the Times contrasted Sears’ Catholic background with the prevalence of evangelical attorneys. That detail intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about that dynamic and how, if at all, it plays into the group’s culture and approach. Alas, the Times story ran only 1,200 words. Granted, that’s a full-length novel by concerning new Associated Press standards, but it’s hardly enough space to cover every angle or conceivable question.

Later in the piece, the Times provides more interesting background:

But the alliance soon expanded its own legal team, joining a cluster of like-minded, nonprofit law firms including Liberty Institute, which is devoted entirely to “religious liberty” issues; the American Center for Law and Justice; the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Liberty Counsel; and the Pacific Justice Institute. Alliance Defending Freedom, which changed its name in 2012, relies on private donors, whom it does not disclose.

“A.D.F. and the other groups wanted to counter more liberal legal forces, and they have largely achieved that goal,” said Douglas Laycock, an expert on law and religion at the University of Virginia Law School. “On the whole, they work at pretty high levels, and they’ve got a lot of boots on the ground.”

Along the way, the alliance has sometimes ruffled the feathers of sister organizations. When California state officials declined to defend Proposition 8, the amendment banning same-sex marriage, the alliance took up the cudgel. But when it lost in federal court in 2010 in the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, Liberty Counsel complained publicly that Alliance Defending Freedom had excluded it and had performed poorly.

Concerning that section, did you notice the scare quotes around “religious liberty” in that first paragraph? And did you chuckle at the note that the organization does not disclose its private donors? As one GetReligion reader asked, “Honestly, what nonprofit group would ever release its donor list?”

Laycock, the law and religion expert quoted, is a respected attorney whose name I recognized and who has the credentials to offer an independent assessment of the Alliance Defending Freedom. Nice choice of sources.

Meanwhile, I wish the Times had given the Liberty Counsel — or one of the other like-minded firms — an opportunity to respond to the cliche about the alliance ruffling feathers. I mean, I complained about a bunch of people in 2010 (and vice versa), but a lot has happened since then. If that element of the story is relevant, it seems important to allow those accused of being critics to voice their 2014 perspective, right?

Similarly, the story portrays the alliance as anti-gay without allowing Sears — in his own words — to speak to the contention:

But the alliance has gained a reputation as a hard-line opponent of gay rights, and critics say the principles in its legal briefs mask prejudice, a contention that Mr. Sears denies.

Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, said, “They are easily the most active antigay legal group.”

Yes, Sears denies the claim. That’s good to know. But what exactly did he say about the accusation? That seems highly relevant.

But overall, give the Times credit for its professional, responsible and (mostly) evenhanded coverage of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jane Dunn

    Good see you all praise the NYT from time to time.

    I don’t think the quotation marks around “religious liberty” were true scare quotes. Rather, I think they were being used to mean “as they define it” as in the ADF devotes its time to what it sees as religious liberty issues even though others may disagree with that classification. For example, your colleague Mattingly was clear on the podcast posted today that both sides in the Town of Greece decision sincerely believed they were advancing religious liberty.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, Jane. Appreciate your perspective.


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