Behind the “religious freedom” movement that burst onto the national scene last week, thanks to the controversial Arizona bill that finally died by Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto pen, are — perhaps unsurprisingly — several conservative groups with deep pockets and a national reach.
They quickly deny that there’s any vast right-wing conspiracy in play, and they’re probably right. The societal forces in motion here go beyond the control of any specific interest groups, and there is evidence that the movement is, at least in part, spreading organically. But the bills that have now brought the issue into the national consciousness do have some common origins.
In the wake of the Arizona’s bill’s defeat and the simultaneous death of other legislation across the country, these groups appear to be distancing themselves from that defeat. They consult with lawmakers nationwide, they say, on a variety of issues. Nothing sinister in that.
“This whole implication that there’s conspiracy going on behind the scenes is really laughable,” Greg Scott, vice president at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which consulted on the Arizona bill and a similar Ohio bill introduced a month earlier, told TPM in a phone interview. Another group, the American Religious Freedom Project, told TPM that it had advised Kansas lawmakers on their bill.
Between those two groups, along with certain state affiliates of Focus on the Family, whose members have spoken in favor of ‘religious freedom’ bills in at least four states, the foundation for this year’s “religious freedom” push can be discerned.
Here’s the timeline that demonstrates their influence — and the resulting organic spread of these bills.
Ohio (introduced Dec. 4, 2013) and Arizona (Jan. 14, 2014) bills were the first introduced in this cycle, according to TPM’s research. The Alliance Defending Freedom consulted on both bills, Scott said. Their language, based in part on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was passed in 1993, doesn’t explicitly name homosexuality, but gay rights advocates have said that they would effectively legitimized LGBT discrimination and their proponents have acknowledged that they are a reaction to the court rulings favorable to the gays rights movement.
Similar legislation has followed in Mississippi (Jan. 20), Georgia (Feb. 11) and Missouri (Feb. 24). Missouri Sen. Wayne Wallingford, who introduced his state’s bill, acknowledged it was a copycat of the Arizona’s proposal — evidence that, rather than need any prodding from outside groups, lawmakers in some of the latter states simply followed that was publicly being done by their peers. It is unclear if the Alliance Defending Freedom consulted on the bills in Mississippi and Georgia.
The American Religious Freedom Project advised Kansas lawmakers with their bill, which was harsher: It explicitly allowed discrimination against same-sex couples. It was introduced on Jan. 16, and similar legislation popped up in South Dakota (Jan. 30) and Tennessee (Feb. 5).
Despite their presence at the beginning of this current legislative cycle, the organizations stressed that they have a very broad reach and downplayed their involvement in the apparent proliferation of the last two months.
“We’ve testified on bills across the country, provided advice in many states on many different issues related to religious freedom,” the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Scott said. “I’ve seen all the coverage that there’s some big hidden thing going on, but the fact is, you know, it’s really unremarkable for an organization like us to provide advice of this sort.”
TPM received a similar line from the American Religious Freedom Project.
“Our view in Kansas as in every other state is that the only right model is the one that the legislators themselves decide on based on their understanding of what the faith communities and other Kansans think best,” Brian Walsh, president of the project, said in a statement. “We were one of the numerous religious freedom organizations and faith communities that consulted on the Kansas bill, but we think the focus in Kansas should not be on any person or organization but on Kansans themselves having a civil discussion about the proper protections for religious freedom in marriage and every other context.”
Focus on the Family, the organization founded by psychologist James Dobson, enters the picture via state affiliates of its public policy partner, CitizenLink, who have advocating for the new laws. In Arizona, the affiliate Center for Arizona Policy was a key proponent of the bill. “It’s when it crosses the line into a wedding where someone feels like that they are participating in the wedding, they are supporting the wedding, they are in a sense using their creative artistic talent to service the wedding,” Cathi Herrod, the center’s president, told Business Insider. “That’s where for many people of faith it crosses the line and they believe that their religious principles withhold that they should not be supporting a wedding.”
While Focus on the Family has a high national profile for its advocacy for conservative causes, its partners on the religious freedom front are less well known.
The Alliance Defending Freedom consulted in Arizona and Ohio. This group was co-founded by Dobson, along with other evangelical leaders, including Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. It’s self-described as “a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alliance Defending Freedom president, Alan Sears, authored a book called “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom” in 2003. Its senior counsel is working to criminalize gay sex in Belize, according to SPLC.
The American Religious Freedom Project, which is housed in the Ethics and Public Policy Center, advised the lawmakers in Kansas. The center was founded in 1976 and describes itself as “Washington, D.C.’s premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”
The center’s founder, Ernest Lefever, was forced to withdraw his nomination to join the State Department under Ronald Reagan for, among other reasons, his reported support for the belief that blacks are genetically inferior, charges he vehemently denied. Its current president is M. Edward Whelan III, who served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, and, until his 2012 presidential campaign, Rick Santorum served as senior fellow.
The high-profile nature of the Arizona fight is likely to bring more scrutiny to the groups, but its officials were steadfast that effectively the right-wing version of the ACLU, offering advice when asked, with no vast conspiracy taking hold in legislatures across the country.
“It’s really that simple,” the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Scott said. “There’s really nothing more to it.”