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Legal organization representing UNL Christian student group has track record of success
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Legal organization representing UNL Christian student group has track record of success

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When a Christian student group brought a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it turned to a legal organization known for taking — and often winning — cases that align with religious and conservative causes.

Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit against UNL in October on behalf of Ratio Christi, the Christian student group. ADF describes itself as “an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”

Among its clients: a student whose speech was curtailed by his university in Georgia; an elementary school teacher in Virginia who was suspended for raising his religious objections to a district policy requiring teachers to address students with their chosen pronoun; and multiple business owners who, due to personal and religious beliefs, have declined to provide services to gay individuals.

Recently, ADF helped bring lawsuits opposing President Joe Biden’s vaccine/testing mandate for larger employers, which ADF describes as “a vast and unlawful power grab by the executive branch.”

According to its website, the legal organization has won 13 cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court since 2011.

That success has won it some fans in conservative and religious circles.

At ADF’s Summit on Religious Liberty in 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama who served as former President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, noted that ADF had a 9-0 record for cases in front of the Supreme Court over the previous seven years.

Sessions further noted that ADF notched large margins of victory in four of those cases, including two 7-2 decisions, a 9-0 decision and one per curium — a collective opinion of the court that is generally, but not always, unanimous — decision.

“That’s an impressive record. These are not fringe beliefs that you’re defending,” Sessions said, according to a transcript on the U.S. Department of Justice website.

ADF said that it has also secured more than 400 victories related to students’ rights to free speech on college campuses.

The organization will attempt to add another victory to its tally with a UNL case that centers on the University Program Council’s reported denial of funding to Ratio Christi. The University Program Council is a student organization that, according to its mission statement, aims to fund “diverse, educational and entertaining programs to enhance the UNL community.”

Ratio Christi sought $1,500 from the fund to bring former UNL professor and current University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Robert Audi to speak on campus last spring. Ratio Christi ultimately paid to bring Audi to campus after he reduced his fee.

The lawsuit, filed in October, claims the university failed to distribute money in a fair, viewpoint-neutral manner and ultimately discriminated against Ratio Christi.

UNL is reviewing the lawsuit, according to spokesperson Leslie Reed. The university has yet to file a response.

“All viewpoints are welcome at the university, and multiple sources of funds are available at UNL to host speakers from across ideological, religious and political spectrums,” Reed said in an email. “Since it was established on campus in 2018, Ratio Christi twice received money from the University Program Council to bring speakers to campus.”

UNL and the other defendants, which include the Board of Regents and other university officials, named in the lawsuit have until Jan. 7 to respond to the complaint.

ADF’s previous wins in court have contributed to what the legal group said is a nearly 80% winning percentage of its cases.

Tracing its origins to 1994, Alliance Defending Freedom was known as Alliance Defense Fund until 2012. Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel and senior vice president of corporate engagement of the organization, said ADF changed its name to more clearly reflect its mission.

“It was really important to put the word ‘freedom’ in our name because that’s ultimately what we’re here to do: Protect people’s fundamental freedoms at the highest levels of the courts,” Tedesco said

ADF’s lawyers have been involved in some of the nation’s highest profile court cases in the last few years. Take the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case as an example.

In that case, Jack Phillips was sued by a same-sex couple over his refusal to design a custom wedding cake, citing his religious beliefs. With Tedesco and other ADF attorneys representing Phillips, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Phillips in a 7-2 decision on June 4, 2018, with Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining the conservative majority.

“That was an important victory,” Tedesco said. “Essentially, the court said the government cannot act hostile to people of faith. That’s a really important baseline freedom that is under threat in our country.”

That decision came three years after the Obergefell v. Hodges case — a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. In that case, ADF filed an amicus brief supporting states that sought to keep marriage between a man and a woman.

In an email, Tedesco said that position is consistent with ADF’s beliefs.

“ADF advocates for free speech and religious freedom for all — whether you support same-sex marriage or not — and the work we do protects everyone’s freedom,” he said.

ADF has attracted criticism, including from national organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign. Both organizations cite ADF’s involvement in cases and legislation that they say discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated ADF as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, a designation ADF vehemently disagrees with.

“The SPLC views us as one of their political opponents or one of their ideological opponents,” Tedesco said, contending the designation is being used to smear ADF. “The whole idea behind the label is to drive division and to drive enmity against people that are on that list. The reality is that we just have differences of opinion about really consequential issues.”

ADF denies being against the LGBTQ community.

“We are not anti-anyone. We’re pro-freedom,” Tedesco said. “We want a society where no one has to live in fear of being censored or punished by their government simply because they want to live with their religious convictions.”

ADF’s mission can bring it into conflict with those representing various groups, including the LGBTQ community, said Rick Duncan, a University of Nebraska law professor who is personal friends with some ADF attorneys.

“They’re for free speech and religious liberty. Sometimes that conflicts with positions that allies of the LGBT community are taking,” Duncan said, adding that both sides are “pursuing different visions of civil rights and civil liberties.”

Historically, public officials and bodies have not had success in court when it comes to regulating speech as it pertains to religion, said Creighton University law professor R. Collin Mangrum.

“You can’t target religion,” he said.

In Nebraska, Mangrum cited Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens (1990) and Marsh v. Chambers (1983) as examples where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious practices.

In Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling that said the state was not in violation of the First Amendment by paying a chaplain to open each legislative day with a prayer. The case was brought when former State Sen. Ernie Chambers filed a lawsuit claiming that practice violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In the Westside case, the court ruled 8-1 that the Omaha-based school district violated the Equal Access Act when officials did not allow a student to form a Christian club without a faculty member’s sponsorship.

Given those and other precedent-setting cases, Mangrum theorized that the defendants will need to present a defense where religion did not play a role in the reported denial of Ratio Christi’s funding request. (Mangrum said he has not been following the lawsuit.)

“The university will … have to work hard to show that they didn’t treat this group differently than other people,” he said.

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