Alliance Defending Freedom president also discusses assaults on religious liberty.
As president, CEO, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, Alan Sears has long been on the front lines in fighting for religious freedom — and no less so now as it comes under increasing assault from legislators.
An international group of thousands of attorneys and like-minded organizations, ADF strives to advocate for the right of people to freely live out their faith in America and around the world.
In this recent interview with Aleteia in Rome, Sears excoriates the Obama administration’s efforts to rid the military of pastoral care for the troops, discusses a large Vatican-organized, but interreligious, conference on upholding traditional marriage and the complementarity of man and woman, and describes what he calls today’s “imperialist colonialists” who demand developing nations to adopt the “catechism” of the US State Department that advocates contraception and sterilization and imposes them on the poor.
Sears also tells Aleteia he feels confident that the world is on the “cusp of a tipping point” on pro-life issues. “There will be a turn around,” he says.“I don’t know if it will be during my career, but within the next generation we’ll see Roe v. Wade overturned in the United States.”
You attended the Humanum conference in November. What was your impression?
Thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. The positive expression across the cultural lines, across the faith lines, across the nationality lines, about the understanding of the complementarity of man and woman exceeded every expectation. What was so absolutely delightful about the whole event was the joy that this is about. One of the things we want for our own children is the ideal best: the best education, the best opportunities, the safest environment, and what overwhelmingly came through is how good marriage between men and women is for children, for culture, for elimination of poverty, for so many other things. I knew a lot of these things, but at the colloquium we had people from China, people from sub-Sahara Africa, from the Middle East, and again, across the faith lines: we had the Muslims, we had the Sikhs, the Buddhists, of course the Catholics, the Protestants, the Evangelicals, the Anglicans, the Jewish brothers and sisters — incredible universality and positive testimony.
What in your view was the significance of the conference being held in the Vatican?
There is probably nobody that can convene this audience other than the Holy Father. I am incredibly grateful for him and for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and for the other Councils that participated in making this possible, because there is something about the letterhead.
Make no mistake about it, there are radical differences in these faiths: how they view the most basic questions of our origin, how the divinity interrelates, who the divinity is, even such concepts that we as Christians we call heaven and hell aren’t present in some of these other faiths. But what we clearly saw was people coming together who want to address a common problem. The breakdown of marriage is a universal area of concern. So many of us in our lives have experienced firsthand what the breakdown of marriage means. We’ve seen the suffering. There are so many people that are caught up in circumstances that are beyond their control, that are not from their sin but are from the sins of others. We have children who are impacted, and single mothers who through no fault of their own, through a death or a separation. What this was about was looking at how we can have the best circumstance for the most number of people at all times and in all places.
What are your hopes for the conference given the work Alliance Defending Freedom does?
I hope that more and more people understand that marriage is about joy, goodness, and that wanting the ideal best for everyone is really based on love and care and concern. It’s about being a good neighbor. A specific thing in the United States is that several of the court decisions that have related to marriage and related to underlying matters of marriage have been predicated on an assumption of animus. Animus in its simplest form is hatred. Marriage is not predicated on hatred.
The love of marriage is what this is all about, the seeking of the ideal best, wanting the best for our brothers and sisters, wanting the best even for those with whom we disagree the most. As an example, I was talking to someone about safe environments, and I asked him a challenge question: What would be a safer environment for all people, including those who most vehemently disagree with Christianity, than a truly Christian environment? It’s the safest of all environments for everyone.
How does the work you do in the international advocacy arena and in the domestic advocacy arena complement each other?
We’re an international work. Anyone that would like to go back and pretend that we’re not there are probably not following the law in its development. In the United States, the US Supreme Court on quite a number of occasions recently has looked beyond the borders of the United States to international law, to interpret the Constitution. Actually, for those who understand Constitutional regionalism, this is probably not proper for the court to do it. Actually, it became a series of questions in some of the confirmations of the recent Supreme Court Justices. For example, Justice Roberts, now Chief Justice, was asked a number of questions about this during the confirmation proceedings for him.
But when we look to the European Union, we have a whole new set of law being developed here. How the various statements of rights are being developed. When we go back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the United Nations, in some ways it was written on natural law principles. There was a recognition that all individuals have an inalienable, a pre-existent right to certain things that are not dependent on a government’s largesse. Because of the mere existence of that person — even if you don’t believe that person had a Creator — because of their mere existence as a human being, there are certain things that cannot be taken away from them, and certain things to which they have a right or are entitled to.
Those relate to the dignity of the human person. As Christians we would know that this is because we’re imago dei — we are created in the image and likeness of God — but what we’re watching now with the international bodies and the courts in various parts of the world are efforts to redefine those most basic understandings. When the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was written, there was no one that did not understand that marriage was between a man and a woman, and that a family unit was ideally that which involved a man and a woman who came together and produced children. Now we have people who act like what happened in the 1940’s in drafting that charter was from some interplanetary spaceship.
To simplify it: Courts in the US are looking to what Europe and other places are doing. Courts in Europe is looking to the US and what courts in other parts of the world are doing. Courts in Asia are looking elsewhere, so we all have to be involved.
Do you think we are seeing a new kind of colonial imperialism occurring in developing nations, especially in Africa?
One of the things that one of the speakers at the colloquium specifically talked about was what she called a “colonialism of the mind”. I have been alarmed with a number of the friends that I have been blessed to get to know in Latin and South America and in the Caribbean, and in Africa, with the impositions of the current United States government administration. The State Department under the last two Secretaries of State and under this President have engaged in unprecedented attempts to pressure these governments to redefine marriage, to look at different social arrangements, to deal with laws that have been in place to protect society, to protect health, to protect children, and then of course these relate to marriage laws and to laws on abortion, things relating to the euphemism “birth control”. We’re at the point now where apparently there’s some hostage-taking, some blackmail — to use strong words — that if governments in some of these regions don’t do specific things the United States wants done to further abortion, to further weaken marriage, they will have financial consequences.
Ironic given the claims made of being for the poor?
There are several ironies here. I was in college, in law school, primarily in the 1970’s, and during that time there was a huge, huge discussion among those who identified themselves as being on the left, or liberal, against colonialism, the idea that the West would impose any values or any sense of democratic government. I even had professors in my university that thought it was imperialistic for the United States to oppose communism.
Understand the strangeness of what I’m about to say. I had a professor who one day said that if a people chose to have a communist government like that of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, that the West had no right to create pressures to weaken the communist government. It seemed to be a little odd in light of the history of the way that several of these Eastern European countries became communist.
And in so many other areas they said the West should not impose. In particular — as many of the readers will remember — in the area of Christian missionaries, there was a thought that if Western religious organizations were funding or supporting missionaries, even medical missionaries, education missionaries, to go into South America, to sub-Sahara Africa, that they were imperialist colonialists. But now we have the imperialist colonialists demanding that we adopt the catechism of the State Department and impose that catechism by force on people that otherwise would be parents. This isn’t just about so-called “birth control”. This is about sterilization — permanently eliminating the capacity of a family to produce children.
Will the civil rights framing of same-sex marriage, i.e. to be against same-sex marriage is bigotry against a class of people, inevitably erode free speech and the free exercise of religion?
Nothing’s inevitable. As people of faith we know that only a couple of things are inevitable, and one of those things is that God’s plan for the universe and for mankind will succeed.
But in terms of temporal things, the future of free speech, of religious freedom, of the ability to live and follow one’s conscience, is absolutely dependent on what we do at this pivot-point in history.
In Western culture, it is becoming absolutely unacceptable to dissent from the church of political correctness, and to disagree with the catechism of that church. And the catechism of that church of political correctness currently is saying that one who upholds this ideal view of marriage as between a man and a woman is somehow limited in their brain, they’re uneducated, they’re a bigot, etc. and that all those that oppose this agenda must be silenced, they must be punished.
We represent an array of clients, both in the European Union and in the United States, who are people involved with artistic professions, creative persons who may or may not have been targeted deliberately, perhaps to create examples, to punish them for dissenting.
We have represented florists, photographers, cake artists — I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a cake artist until my daughter had me watch a Food Channel presentation and found out it’s a pretty large world out there. We have these people who come to these folks and say, “You may not refuse to provide these things”. This isn’t generic services. The florist we represented in Washington state of the United States, is a very dear and loving great grandmother. She runs a floral business that she acquired from her mother. She’s being sued, and it’s placing at risk everything that she has accumulated in her life.
Her offense if that after 10 years of loving service to a man who engages in homosexual behavior, when he came to her and said he wanted her to do her best work to design and to create the floral arrangements to set the environment to set the tone for his so-called “same-sex wedding”, she after prayer, after reflecting on conscience, after consulting, explained that she couldn’t do this. She could sell him any of the generic products that he wanted. But when it involved using her creative talents, her heart, her mind, her soul, to uphold an expression of an activity that was contrary to her faith, that would seek to redefine one of the most basic concepts of humanity, i.e marriage, meant, she could not do that.
She did it with grace, with kindness and with love, but that’s not enough. She is now facing two series of legal actions brought against her by the attorney general of the state and by the so-called American Civil Liberties Union. She is probably one of the most loving people to move on this planet, but that isn’t enough.
So they’re going after the great grandmothers and the nuns?
This is the opposite of the wedding feast of Cana. It’s "do whatever we tell you to do", or you will be punished. You are not allowed to dissent from the church of the politically correct.
In line with that, how can someone like the Houston mayor not understand the principle of free speech, much less the principle of freedom of religion?
For your readers, let me explain the underlying story and try to summarize that case. There’s a lot on the internet that’s inaccurate in this case. The Alliance Defending Freedom website has some pretty deep background for those who want to go further.
The citizens of Houston were outraged when the mayor, interestingly a mayor who after being elected entered into what they call a “marriage” in another jurisdiction, with another person of the same gender, a woman. But the mayor, with the city council’s backing, adopted a bathroom ordinance, a legal requirement that people allow people of the opposite gender to use bathrooms. To get to the bottom line: if a 19 year-old boy wants to go into a restroom filled with 18 year-old women and girls, that’s what he can do and nobody’s supposed to be able to do anything about it.
This ordinance was passed. The citizen’s protested but it was passed over their protest . So a group of citizens following the democratic process took out petitions and sought signatures. They gained more than three times the numbers of signatures necessary on the ballot for a popular vote. The petitions were certified as having the basic number of signatures, but the mayor and city council declined to let the citizens vote.
So another group — one of the subgroups of citizens who had worked on this — sued the mayor demanding that they be allowed to follow the democratic process. The mayor obviously doesn’t like that lawsuit and among the things she has done to respond, her counsel have issued subpoenas against 5 pastors of 5 churches that were not parties to the lawsuit.
The first thing she did was to identify a form of retaliation against pastors that oppose the ordinance publicly but who weren’t part of this lawsuit. She demanded 17 different items from these pastors. Among the items she demanded were communications between the pastors and their parishioners on various topics. There was a whole list of things: anything you’ve said about gender, about homosexual behavior, that you’ve said about me the mayor, about the city council members, and among that list was the pastor’s sermons. That was the least disturbing part of the subpoena. The pastors gave their sermons in public. Some had been on the radio. Some were on the internet. Some were even on television. They didn’t worry so much about it except for the principle that no government agent should ever be subpoenaing a pastor’s sermons. It was the 16 other items that ought to raise a lot of eyebrows. And anyone of any faith and of no faith should be radically concerned that any public official would be subpoenaing these kinds of private communications from pastors, from people who politically disagree with them.
I’m thankful to say that as we resisted the subpoena — we represented the 5 pastors — Senator Cruz of Texas came home to Houston where he lived, there was a press conference, and there was an incredible coming together of people across faith lines. A press conference held at the first baptist church. To use secular terms, people who were in strong competition with each other united in their understanding. Even some of the most traditionally leftist groups that would not agree with any of the underlying issues, were united in the agreed that this was an outrage and an overreach.
I’m delighted to say that the mayor has now withdrawn the subpoena. The law suit continues that we’re not part of, and we hope the people of Houston get a chance to vote. This is a real example of where we’re at now, of the overreach that we have to be on guard about.
The mayor, or at least her lawyers, surely know the law. What so emboldens them to attempt this?
As I said earlier, the future depends on what we do now. One of the things that everyone always depends on when they move against liberty and constitutional freedoms is that everyone else will sit in silence.
Think of the analogy of the pro-life movement. I entered law school the year after Roe v. Wade came down. And every professor with no exception that had anything to do with any of the Roe v. Wade type decisions called this the greatest moment in Western jurisprudence. This tremendous freedom was no available to women that was previously unavailable, and the Constitution was being reshaped in these glorious and wondrous ways.
And essentially most of the Body of Christ, most people of faith, sat back in complete silence. Well, now we’re mission one out of 6 children. It didn’t work out quite so well. It didn’t liberate any women, or those 26 million baby girls who were never born.
Our culture and society is missing incredible talent, incredible resources. Even on issues of social security and pensions, missing one out of 6 Americans is kind of costly.
So the pro-life movement began slowly. There were small numbers of people who spoke out, particularly some of the Catholics bishops, but even there, a small number of Catholic bishops. But we’re on the cusp of a tipping point in life. There will be a turn around. I don’t know if it will be during my career but within the next generation we’ll see Roe v. Wade overturned in the United States.
And that’s where we’ve got to be on the marriage issue, and issues relating to the right of conscience. The cause is not lost. The cause is only lost if we allow it to be lost.
What can you say about the Obama administration’s efforts to rid the military of Christian expressions and even pastoral care of the troops?
There are two things that we’ve been involved with in this area. One is helping a group that has now grown to be around 1000, of former chaplains — The Chaplain’s Alliance for Religious Liberty. The organization includes retired generals, admirals, people of all different ranks who served in the chaplain corps of the different branches of service. And then we’ve also worked with the Archdiocese of the Military. We’re very thankful for Archbishop Broglio.
We’ve seen several very specific attempts to limit this. The Archbishop himself was subject to an attempted censorship. When he wrote a letter that he asked to be read by all the priests throughout the military chaplaincy, there was a government official who attempted to select certain words of the Archbishop’s letter that were not to be delivered. Thankfully, again, after public outcry as a response, that censorship decision was reversed. And most recently, the Air Force has reissued some clarification recognizing more religious freedom for chaplains. Again, a response to public outcry and concern.
But sadly, we have a huge conflict on the horizon that is inevitable, and that is the clash over the demands of this administration to allegedly redefine marriage and to redefine what is proper and improper sexual behavior for military readiness issues, and related things, and the duty of chaplains to help form the souls and to represent and to provide pastoral care for those within the military to which they are assigned as priest or pastor.
Obviously, when Scripture’s teaching is clear that there are things that are the ideal best, and there are certain things that prohibited and those conflict with attempts to redefine the learning of thousands of years of culture and that of all world religious traditions over time, there’s inevitable conflict. And we’re prepared. We’ve already been involved in some of these, but again, the public is the best force. Congress funds the military. The executive branch is obviously subject to the will of the American people, and we cannot be silent.
There are many people who look on the military as an easy slice to take off, to basically shut up and to punish those members of the clergy who will follow the uncategorical teachings of the Gospel, of Scripture. So stay in it, stay alert. It’s far from lost.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.