The multimillion-dollar Christian group attacking LGBTQ+ rights

Jessica Glenza in New York
Photograph: Pat Eaton-Robb/AP

A group of about two dozen people, mostly women, stood on the steps of the Connecticut capitol on a New England winter day with signs reading “Protect Women’s Sports” and “#FairPlay”.

In front stood Christiana Holcomb, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian legal group representing three cis teen girls in a lawsuit filed this month demanding two transgender teen girls be barred from competing in the female high school sports division.

“Girls deserve to compete on a level playing field and the Connecticut policy now allows males to compete in the girls category if they identify as female,” Holcomb later told the Guardian. “No amount of hormone therapy can ever fully undo those physiological advantages.”

But the lawsuit is just one arrow in ADF’s quiver, a conservative Christian powerhouse working internationally to remake laws governing family, sex and marriage in a vision which “keeps the doors open for the Gospel”.

ADF, which reportedly received more than $55m in contributions in 2018, claims to have more than 3,400 affiliated attorneys and judges worldwide. In the 25 years since it was founded, it has brought 10 cases before the US supreme court, including some of the most consequential cases of the last decade on contraceptive and gay rights.

ADF is, “an aggressive, strategic legal group that is about Christian supremacy and hegemony in the US and in the world,” said Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst with Political Research Associates. “It’s the world under God’s law.”

The group’s work against LGBTQ+ people has led experts on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center to label them a hate group. ADF rejects that label.

One of its most famous recent cases was of a baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The group argued baking was his form of artistic expression, and won. In another, the group successfully argued the arts and crafts company Hobby Lobby should not be required to pay for birth control included in private insurance plans, because of the owner’s Christian faith.

ADF counts the former Trump-appointed US attorney general Jeff Sessions as an ally, and its founders are a who’s-who list of opponents of gay rights. And this American group is busy abroad too.

As recently as last month, ADF was working actively with students in the United Kingdom, defending anti-abortion protesters whose graphic signs concerned the University of Cardiff.

ADF defended Baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Photograph: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

In the last decade, ADF attorneys argued in favor of state-sanctioned sterilization for trans people at the European Court of Human Rights. Their brief argued, “equal dignity does not mean that every sexual orientation warrants equal respect”.

In Belize, the group sided with another organization pushing to criminalize gay sex. In India, the executive director applauded a supreme court decision ruling gay sex illegal (that was struck down in 2018). In Romania, ADF pushed for a referendum to oppose same-sex civil unions. In Jamaica, ADF attorneys defended anti-sodomy laws.

Meanwhile, in US states, the group has worked to craft legislation and defend “religious freedom” laws. These laws often give secular, public-facing businesses the right to refuse customers or perform services.

Now, in the years since public sentiment and the law has swung in favor of same-sex marriage, groups who once opposed legal unions have worked on to curtail trans rights. Many have honed in on trans girls in particular, and alleged dangers they cause to cis women.

People who have transitioned often have gender dysphoria, a recognized medical condition in which sex assigned at birth is incongruant with a person’s gender identity. ADF’s Connecticut lawsuit claims three cis female high school runners are being unfairly outcompeted by two trans sprinters, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood.

“The essence of this argument is if you protect transgender people, this violates the rights of other people,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice at the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is representing the trans girls named in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks to establish a chromosomal standard for girls’ high school sports – that only people with XX chromosomes should be able to compete, Strangio said.

“The starting premise is that trans girls are not girls, and the second premise is that boys are always better, stronger, faster than girls,” said Strangio.

Yearwood and Miller issued statements vehemently defending their right to run in girls’ events. “I have faced discrimination in every aspect of my life and I no longer want to remain silent,” Miller said. “I am a girl and I am a runner.”

“Connecticut has had plenty of trans athletes who are good or fine or bad,” said Strangio. “What’s rare is having two examples of transgender girls who are good – and that’s what bothers people.”

The ADF was founded in 1995 by a who’s who of white, anti-gay, Christian men. Among them are men like D James Kennedy, the late pastor of a Florida megachurch who played a critical role in the rise of conservative Christianity in the US.

The group’s “800lb gorilla”, in Clarkson’s words, is James Dobson. His large and influential organization Focus on the Family has opposed same-sex marriage for decades. Fellow founder Alan Sears wrote the 2003 book: The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.

ADF’s legal work has earned the group glowing reviews from friendly media, such as Fox News, where host Laura Ingraham recently included Holcomb on her high-profile show.

But ADF’s Connecticut lawsuit is, in part, an acknowledgement that earlier tactics have failed.

Just a few years ago, Christian legal groups were pushing “bathroom bills” across the country. The laws would have banned trans people from using the public toilet of their choice, arguing that woman would be in danger from other trans women. There is no evidence to support the claim.

Bathroom bill referendums failed in Massachusetts, California and Alaska, and legislative efforts tanked in many more, including conservative states like Alabama and Arkansas. In place of the bathroom bills, ADF’s new Connecticut lawsuit has put faces and names to those who it alleges are victimized by inclusive policies.

Demonstrators react to hearing the supreme court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby birth control case in 2014. ADF successfully argued the store should not be required to pay for birth control included in private insurance plans. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

Other groups, such as the American Principles Project, are testing the electoral success of this message in states like Kentucky. The group is running adverts which argue trans girls will destroy women’s sports, in an effort to re-elect the Republican incumbent governor.

The group’s president, Frank Cannon, told the New York Times last year that polling showed that messaging emphasizing sports, especially children in sports, was more likely to move the needle with voters. It gives people “the idea that you are taking something away from people. And that’s where they don’t like it”.

One of the three cis runners at the center of the lawsuit, Chelsea Mitchell, recently won against Miller in a 55m race. So far, ADF has refused to take a position on trans men competing in cis men’s sports.

“I’m not going to take a position on that at this point,” said Holcomb said. “What we are really clear on, is it not fair for males to compete in the female category.”

The largest-ever study of how trans athletes perform after transitioning is still being conducted in the UK, but only includes 20 people.

“Until we have several of these larger-scale studies done worldwide, it’s hard to be truly definitive on anything,” the medical physicist Joanna Harper told the CBC. Harper is a trans woman, a long-distance runner and an advisor to the International Olympic Committee. She said she saw her own performance drop off after hormone therapy, and that such could be the case with other trans athletes.

No openly trans person has ever competed in the Olympics, although it has been allowed since 2004, under guidelines laying out how much testosterone an athlete can have in their body. But that rule too is being challenged – not by a trans athlete or a Christian group, but by a South African intersex running star. Intersex people are born with anatomy that doesn’t easily fall into male or female.

“We get down to micro-details of this abortion case or that LGBTQ+ case or prayer in the schools, but those are details,” Clarkson said. “It may use nationalist ideas when you’re working within a specific culture and legal code, but their religious and political vision is global, and needs to be understood in that context.”