It was just over three years ago that Alliance Defending Freedom presented oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips.
A lot can change in three years.
Justice for Jack
That December morning in 2017, ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner stood before the Supreme Court bench, looking up at the nine justices. Behind her, the courtroom was packed with spectators—many of whom had stood in line for several nights to get a seat.
At 10:03 a.m., Chief Justice John Roberts spoke: “We'll hear argument this morning in Case 16-111, Masterpiece Cakeshop versus Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Ms. Waggoner.”
She took a breath: “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that violate religious convictions.”
Kristen spoke only one more sentence before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg jumped in with a question. After that, they just kept coming. Over a hundred of them were posed to all of the advocates.
By 11:31 a.m., oral arguments were over.
Fast forward to this year.
Justice for Chike
On January 12, 2021, ADF was once again arguing before the Supreme Court—this time on behalf of former Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam, whose college officials silenced him from sharing the Gospel twice.
But this time around, things looked a bit different—to say the least.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court has held oral arguments telephonically since March 2020.
Instead of a courtroom, Kristen stood behind her desk in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instead of looking at nine Supreme Court justices, she was looking at a conference phone. Instead of being surrounded by hundreds of spectators, she was surrounded by the three lawyers who served as legal counsel with her.
When she presented arguments, Kristen had time for a two-minute uninterrupted opening statement, then each of the justices had about three minutes to ask questions in turn. She also had a full uninterrupted three minutes for rebuttal at the end of the argument.
Rather than an atmosphere of formality, Kristen was in one of familiarity.
The Supreme Court surroundings of mahogany and marble are reminiscent of how significant it is to argue before the Supreme Court. After all, the Court only hears about two percent of the cases that it is asked to hear.
But Kristen’s surroundings in January still reminded her of the significance of her work. On her desk sits a mug that reminds her of the Stormans family—whom she served as lead counsel for in a 10-year legal battle against a state mandate forcing them to provide the Plan B pill at their family-owned grocery stores in violation of their beliefs. There’s also the picture of a preschool age boy—whom Kristen represented in a custody trial, successfully placing him in a better home situation. Other meaningful items include a small picture her client Barronelle Stutzman gave her along with a picture of the Supreme Court her mother-in-law gifted her the day she was sworn into the court nearly 20 years ago. On her shelf sits a plaque that reads, “If not now, when?”—a reminder to the entire ADF team: Now is the time to stand up for our God-given freedoms.
Some Things Stay the Same
While it’s easy to see the differences between the oral arguments in Masterpiece and Uzuegbunam, the similarities shouldn’t be understated.
Many things remained the same: The immense amount of work and coordination that goes into preparing for Supreme Court oral arguments. The admirable courage of our clients, many of whom have faced years-long court battles to stand up for the rights of all Americans. The strength of the alliance. While one person presents arguments before the Supreme Court, a huge number stand behind her: team members, friends, and allies who are committed to advocating for our freedoms.
And most importantly, whether in person or over the telephone, the stakes of Supreme Court oral arguments are just as high. Supreme Court precedent impacts the law and culture for years to come.
In Masterpiece, ADF advocated for the right of all Americans to freely live and work consistently with our beliefs. And thankfully, the Supreme Court affirmed 7-2 that the government can’t discriminate against people of faith by targeting them with hostility.
In Uzuegbunam, ADF argued that the government shouldn’t be able to avoid legal consequences when it violates someone’s constitutional rights. If it can, then governments will continue to do so. And we pray that the Supreme Court will make this clear.
ADF has achieved 11 Supreme Court victories since 2011. While each oral argument has looked a little different (and this one a lot different!), you can be sure that with God’s blessing, ADF will continue to advocate for religious liberty, free speech, the sanctity of human life, and parental rights in courtrooms across the nation—and all the way to the Supreme Court when necessary.
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