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ADF a Force Behind Conservative Court Victories

Religious conservatives have claimed several key victories in the U.S. Supreme Court over the last 25 years.
David Banks, NPR
Religious conservatives have claimed several key victories in the U.S. Supreme Court over the last 25 years.

The Alliance Defense Fund is one of the leading Christian public-interest law firms fighting hot-button social issues in the courtrooms. It is part of a rapidly growing army of Christian law firms that have stormed onto the legal scene in the past few years, a group that includes Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel and Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

ADF was started 11 years ago. Since then, ADF says it has funded more than 1,300 cases, including the successful effort to invalidate same-sex marriage licenses in Oregon. ADF also provided funding in the Terri Schiavo case years before she became a topic of national conversation.

ADF also provides lawyers with legal arguments and manpower. It has trained more than 800 allied lawyers nationwide, each of whom is expected to repay the firm with 450 hours of pro-bono work. ADF President Alan Sears says he dreams of having 2,000 allied attorneys around the country to match the number of attorneys affiliated with the ACLU.

A Look at Key Legal Victories for Religious Conservatives

Researched by Tal Barak.

Widmar v. Vincent (1981): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that public universities which permit student-led groups to use campus buildings for meetings could not simultaneously deny equal privileges to religious student groups.

Equal Access Act of 1984: The act was a joint effort by conservative organizations to offer protection to clubs in public high schools. Passed by Congress in August 1984, the law requires most schools to permit clubs of all religions.

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens(1990): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Equal Access Act constitutional in an 8-1 decision. The case involved the Westside Community Schools of Omaha, Neb., which maintained several non-curriculum clubs. A group of Christian students was prohibited from forming its own extracurricular club, which was to include Bible study, prayer and fellowship.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bible club, stating that the Equal Access Act did not violate the establishment clause in the First Amendment, and that all student groups qualifying under the act are to be treated equally by school boards.

Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (1993): The Center Moriches Union Free School District allowed groups to use school facilities after hours for various social and civic purposes. However, it would not allow a religious group to use the school to show a film about family issues and child rearing because it portrayed a religious point of view, and the district did not allow the facilities to be used for religious purposes.

The Supreme Court ruled that access to a nonpublic forum is allowed when the subject matter or speaker identity represent a neutral viewpoint. After-hours use of property should be permitted for all groups as long as their purpose is not a religious meeting. Since the film focused on childrearing and family issues, these were considered to be of a neutral viewpoint.

Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995): In 1990, Ron Rosenberger, a student at the University of Virginia, started a magazine called Wide Awake to promote Christian views. The next year, he applied for aid from the university, which helped finance dozens of student groups. His request for $5,862 was denied, because the publication was deemed a religious organization.

In a 5-4 decision that reversed the rulings of lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court approved direct funding of a religious student newspaper in a public university because nonreligious school programs also received funding. It ruled that all newspapers, putting aside their viewpoints, should equally be eligible for the funding. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the opinion of the majority, explained that the state may not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint.

Hurley v. Irish-American Gay Group of Boston (1995): In 1993, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which organizes Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade with the city's authorization, refused to let the Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) participate in it.

The group wanted to express its members' pride in their Irish heritage as openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered the Veterans' Council to include GLIB under a state law prohibiting discrimination on account of sexual orientation in public accommodations.

The Veterans' Council appealed; it claimed that forcing it to include GLIB members in its privately organized parade violated its free speech. In a 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Massachusetts Supreme Court's ruling violated the First Amendment, because it required private citizens organizing a parade to include a group expressing a message that the organizers did not wish to convey.

Agostini v. Felton (1997): In the 1985 decision Aguilar v. Felton, the Supreme Court ruled that public school teachers could not teach in parochial schools. More than a decade later, in Agostini v. Felton, a New York parochial school board challenged a district court's upholding of the decision.

New York City had offered to help needy students in private schools by sending public school teachers to tutor them after school. Parochial school students were also eligible for the assistance. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision, ruling that public school teachers can tutor private school students, even if the schools are primarily religious in nature.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that the court had already effectively overruled the 1985 Aguilar case, citing previous court decisions such as Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993). In Zobrest, the court had ruled that the establishment clause did not bar a school district from providing a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student attending a Catholic school. Since there is little difference between providing a sign-language interpreter, which the court had already allowed, and a tutor, the high court found that this interaction between church and state was allowable.

Mitchell et al. v. Helms et al. (2000):

Mitchell vs. Helms was originally filed in 1985 by a group of Louisiana parents who claimed that a federal program, Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, violated the Constitution because it provided direct aid to religious schools through educational and instructional materials, including film strips, textbooks and slide projectors. In an average year, about 30 percent of Chapter 2 funds spent in Jefferson Parish, La., were allocated for private schools, most of which were Catholic or otherwise religious. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that resources can be given to religious groups, so long as they further some legitimate secular purpose and are granted in the same manner to non-religious groups.

Boy Scouts of Americas v. Dale (2000): James Dale was removed as an assistant scoutmaster for a New Jersey troop after the Boy Scouts learned that he was openly homosexual and a gay rights activist. Dale sued the Boy Scouts for breach of New Jersey's law against discrimination, which includes sexual orientation in its protected categories. Dale claimed that the Scouts had violated the law by discriminating against him in a place of public accommodation.

The Scouts claimed that as a private not-for-profit group, they had a right of "expressive association" when instilling a system of values in young people. Dale's presence, the Scouts argued, would be in conflict with values in the Scout Oath and Law that promote behavior that is "morally straight" and "clean."

In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Boy Scouts had a right to exclude James Dale from leadership in the Monmouth Council, because his homosexuality would "significantly burden the organization's right to oppose or disfavor homosexual conduct."

Good News Club v. Milford Central School District (2001):

Stephen and Darleen Fournier, sponsors of the Good News Club, a private Christian organization for children ages 6 to 12, wanted to use a public school's facilities for their organization. They submitted a request to hold the club's weekly after-school meetings in the school building, according to the policy of the Milford Central School District of New York.

The school district denied the request because it believed that the Good News Club would use the facilities to sing religious songs, hear Bible lessons, memorize scripture and pray. This type of religious worship was banned by the district's usage policy.

The petitioners filed suit, alleging that the denial of the club's application violated its free speech rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments. The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, held that by denying the club access to the school's limited public forum on the ground that the club was religious in nature, Milford discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint, thus violating its free speech rights.

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.