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How ADF Is Advocating for Religious Freedom at the U.S. Supreme Court

October 24, 2017
By: James Gottry

Alliance Defending Freedom has long been a presence at the United States Supreme Court. Since its launch in 1994, ADF has played a role in more than 50 victories at the high court. While its initial involvement was primarily limited to strategy and funding, ADF has increasingly cemented itself as a Supreme Court advocate in recent years. In the last seven years alone, ADF has won seven victories at the Supreme Court protecting religious freedom.

This is remarkable when one considers the difficulty in obtaining review by the Supreme Court. More than 7,000 cases are submitted to the Supreme Court each year, but it agrees to hear only about 75 to 80 (about 1 percent). In contrast, and demonstrating the importance of ADF’s work and its status as one of the most respected Supreme Court practices in the country, the Supreme Court has accepted approximately 33 percent of the ADF-supported cases submitted.

This success has not gone unnoticed. As a previous piece discusses in more detail, in a study examining Supreme Court advocacy, ADF was among the top 20 law firms in the country in obtaining friend-of-the-court briefs in support of its Supreme Court petitions. Moreover, between the 2012-2015 terms, ADF was the 10th most successful legal organization in the country at persuading the Court to hear its cases.

While bringing cases before the Supreme Court demonstrates an advocate’s skill and reputation, the Court’s ruling and its resulting impact on society testifies to the importance of the cases themselves.

With that in mind, consider the following summary of our most recent victories at the Supreme Court. Whether our client is a pastor, a faith-based university, an artist, or a preschool, the ultimate goal is the same: to protect Americans’ First Amendment right to freely live out their faith.

ACSTO v. Winn (2011)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ACLU’s clients had no legal standing to challenge an Arizona statute that allows taxpayers to donate private funds to a “school tuition organization” (STO) of their choice, and then claim a credit on their state income tax obligation for the amount donated. The decision created a national precedent that protects school-choice programs from unfounded legal attacks and thereby supports parental rights to choose the best school for their children, including private schools that share their religious beliefs.

Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Town of Greece and upheld its practice of beginning public meetings with prayer, a vibrant, long-standing American tradition. The policy had been challenged by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. By its holding, the Court affirmed that Americans throughout the country remain free to deliver uncensored prayers at public meetings.

Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell (2014)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Obama Administration’s abortion-pill mandate in favor of two family-run businesses, Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). This landmark ruling means that families do not have to surrender their religious freedom in order to remain in business.

Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Town of Gilbert’s sign code was facially unconstitutional and that it discriminated against the content of Good News Community Church’s signs when the town’s regulation allowed political, ideological, and homeowner association signs to be larger in size and remain up longer than the church’s temporary signs inviting others to its services. Congregations throughout the country can now communicate to the public on the same terms as other organizations and political parties.

Geneva College v. Burwell & Southern Nazarene v. Burwell (2016)

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled to send these consolidated abortion-pill mandate cases cases back to the lower courts, stating the courts should allow the parties “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise.” These cases arose when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate that required many employers to include abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee and student health plans, or face crippling penalties.

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program simply because of their religious identity. This ruling set an important precedent: when neutrally available public benefits are offered, people of faith can’t be treated worse than everyone else.

Advocating for freedom’s future – here and abroad

The efforts and success of ADF are not limited to Supreme Court advocacy. Its mission is to “advocate for the rights of people to peacefully and freely speak, live and work according to their faith and conscience without threat of government punishment.” This principled commitment has led ADF to defend people of many backgrounds and walks of life who would otherwise be compelled by the government to lend their artistic talent to celebrate a wedding ceremony that directly violates the teachings of their faith.

And on college and university campuses, where there is ever-increasing hostility to free speech – especially of religious and conservative students and faculty, ADF has achieved nearly 400 victories furthering campus free expression and academic freedom. ADF works to ensure our universities are a true marketplace of ideas, where all students are free to engage in conversation and debate on important issues.

Finally, ADF is active on the international stage through its global partner, ADF International, an alliance-building human rights organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. With headquarters in Vienna, and offices throughout the world, ADF International operates at various key institutions, including the UN, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Organization of American States, among others.

What’s next?

ADF has a case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, currently pending before the Supreme Court. That case arose after two men asked Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, to design a custom wedding cake to celebrate their same-sex marriage. Jack told the men that he would gladly sell them anything in his store or create other cakes for them, but that designing a custom cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage was not something he could do. Jack was compelled to decline that request because of his religious conviction that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.

On December 5, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Jack’s case. Jack is asking the Supreme Court to rule that the government oversteps its authority when it compels artists to help celebrate events or express ideas that they cannot support in good consicence.

This case, like the others described above, is a critical part of our efforts to protect Americans’ First Amendment right to freely live out their faith.

When we protect the right of a church-run preschool to apply for a playground surface grant, we validate and preserve that freedom.

When we protect the right of a religious university to conduct its operations in a way that honors the sanctity of life, we validate and preserve that freedom.

And when we seek justice for Jack Phillips, we do so to validate and preserve that freedom. Not only for him  . . . not only for you  . . . but for everyone.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith


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