Republished with permission from Documented
In May 2021, the Christian-right legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) began meeting in secret with a group of allied megadonors to develop a legal strategy to dismantle the public education system.
Around the country, right-wing activists were targeting school board meetings, whipped into a frenzy by allies of ADF around the teaching of race and LGBTQ+ rights in public schools. The judiciary has shifted sharply to the right with a new Supreme Court supermajority and hundreds of Trump-nominated federal judges expressing openness to extreme legal theories that advance far-right policy goals.
ADF and the donor group, known as Ziklag, hoped to seize the moment to push for a Supreme Court decision mandating school vouchers across the country. Their strategy was aimed at bleeding $238 billion each year from public schools, a third of the total annual spending.
“Our goal is not to just throw stones. Our goal is to take down the education system as we know it today,” said Peter Bolinger, one of Ziklag’s leaders, at a retreat the following month.
Documented has obtained internal recordings, planning documents, emails and other materials from this project, which we first shared with the Washington Post for a story published in August, and with More Perfect Union for a video produced in partnership with Documented. These materials provide a rare fly-on-the-wall look at the development of a legal strategy with huge potential consequences for public schools.
ADF planned to argue that “[p]ublic schools were indoctrinating children with a secular worldview that amounted to a godless religion,” as the Post put it, “leading to a Supreme Court decision that would mandate the right of parents to claim billions of tax dollars for private education or home schooling.”
ADF and its executives have long been critical of secular public education. But the “indoctrination” of students with lessons on racism and LGBTQ rights, they believed, created a new opportunity. A written funding proposal from ADF to Ziklag, dated May 25, 2021, asserted that “…due to CRT, LGBTQ and BLM indoctrination, ADF wants the Supreme Court to rule that it is unconstitutional to solely support state schools that exclusively indoctrinate in one system of thought.”
Michael Farris, then the President of ADF, further outlined the strategy on a July 2021 call with the donor group, Ziklag. “What we see going on in the public schools has an uncanny parallel to the Third Reich,” Farris told the donors. By filing multiple cases across the country, ADF was looking for a “circuit split” that would aid their chances of getting a case heard by the Supreme Court. To achieve this, their strategy included filing both in places where they believed they would get favorable judges, including the Eighth Circuit, as well as in either the Fourth or Ninth Circuit where they might reasonably expect to lose.
“We’ll have to litigate in some areas that are not so favorable in order to get the split in the circuit,” Farris told the donors. “Judicial selection is a big, a big part of the strategy,” Farris explained.
ADF was setting up a new parental rights litigation team to bring these cases, and it wanted Ziklag donors to fund it. Backed by $500,000 in matching funds, Ziklag provided ADF an additional $444,249 in 2021, followed by $514,491 in 2022, according to the group’s tax filings. By late 2022 it had provided $1,559,500 against a stated budget of $3,000,000, according to materials obtained by Documented.
Lawsuits began being filed in 2021, in both federal and state courts.
ADF brought the case Ibañez v. Albemarle County School Board in Virginia, concerning the school district’s teaching of anti-racist curriculum. That case is currently awaiting a decision from the Virginia Court of Appeals.
In May 2023, the group filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Indiana, McCord v. South Madison Community School Corporation, concerning the school district’s policy allowing students to be called by their preferred name and pronouns.
ADF recently succeeded in state court in Wisconsin in a related lawsuit, T.F. and B.F. v. Kettle Moraine School District, challenging the right of students to be known by their preferred name and pronouns.
Numerous other cases have been filed concerning the teaching of LGBTQ rights and race in public school since 2021. The full extent of ADF’s work remains unclear as additional cases may have been filed by its non-staff “Allied Attorneys” network. ADF suggested this as part of its strategy in the written funding proposal to Ziklag, describing how it might “hold seminars for other attorneys to teach them how to file proper lawsuits that will help this cause.”
ADF’S LONG SHOT LEGAL STRATEGIES HAVE SUCCEEDED BEFORE
ADF’s plan for dismantling public education is ambitious, but the legal group has a history of successfully fighting uphill battles.
The group talks often, both publicly and privately, about focusing its work on “generational wins,” which it describes as changing both law and culture for generations to come. On the ADF website it describes five areas of focus for these big projects, one of which is so-called “parental rights.”
ADF boasts of an impressive 15 victories at the Supreme Court since 2011, and it was central to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization lawsuit that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion. The organization drafted the Mississippi law that was challenged in the courts, and ADF lawyers served on the legal team that defended the law at the Supreme Court, leading to Roe vs. Wade being reversed. It is currently litigating the high profile Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) case in an effort to overturn FDA approval of Mifepristone, the most commonly used medication for early term abortions. This case is currently awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court as to whether they will hear the case this term.
In the previous Supreme Court term, ADF was victorious in 303 Creative v. Elenis, which argued that a Colorado web designer shouldn’t have to provide equal services to LGBTQ couples.
“This decision by the Supreme Court is a dangerous step backward, giving some businesses the power to discriminate against people simply because of who we are,” said Human Rights Campaign President (HRC) Kelley Robinson in a statement following the ruling. “Make no mistake, this case was manufactured by the Alliance for Defending Freedom to create a new license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.”
In 2017, ADF helped propel the waves of anti-trans legislation introduced across the country. Many of these so called “bathroom bills” were based on model legislation written directly by ADF. The group currently has a case pending before the Supreme Court, Tingley vs. Ferguson, challenging a Washington state law which bans “conversion therapy” on minors. ADF is arguing that the state law restricts its client’s first amendment rights.
All this success has brought additional financial support. ADF’s revenue has doubled in the past 5 years up to $104M in 2022. It is aided by a network of thousands of outside “allied attorneys,” including many at top law firms who carry out pro-bono work to advance ADF’s mission. This makes tracking the full picture of ADF’s work challenging since ADF’s affiliation is not always identified.
The right-wing anger, which at times turned in to physical violence at school board meetings, was fueled in-part by groups that ADF works in coalition with as part of its parental rights project, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). These include Moms for Liberty, Moms for America, No Left Turn in Education, and Parents Defending Education. These four groups and others participate in a coalition that ADF launched in July 2022. All four were added to the SPLC list of U.S. extremist groups in 2022. “Schools, especially, have been on the receiving end of ramped-up and coordinated hard-right attacks, frequently through the guise of “parents’ rights” groups,” wrote SPLC in its 2022 annual report announcing the addition of these groups to its list. ADF itself has been designated by SPLC as an anti-LGBTQ hate group since 2016.
LEGAL STRATEGY FINANCED BY SECRETIVE GROUP OF CHRISTIAN MILLIONAIRES
The education legal strategy is a partnership between ADF and Ziklag, a funding group which channels money from its wealthy donor network to partner organizations on projects that it believes will advance its objectives. In materials obtained by Documented, it describes itself as a “private, confidential, invitation-only community of high-net-worth families.”
According to membership criteria obtained by Documented, participants in Ziklag must be able to demonstrate “success in business,” and have “significant financial means” of at least $25 million. They are also expected to be “influencers within our society.”
Ziklag organizes its work around so-called “Seven Mountain Dominionism,” the idea that Christians need to focus their energy on and capture seven “mountains” in our culture. They are closely aligned with self-described Christian-Nationalists. The seven mountains are religion, family, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. Lance Wallnau, a self-described “Christian-Nationalist,” is probably the best known proponent of this belief. Wallnau, who is often referred to as a “prophet,” is a leading figure within Ziklag, and a frequent speaker at its events. Wallnau appears on three of the recordings obtained by Documented where the groups discuss this legal strategy.
Rolling Stone did a profile of Wallnau in September 2022, just as he was becoming increasingly active in the election cycle, in particular with his support of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. According to Rolling Stone:
“Wallnau is a leading figure in the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR, whose followers believe that we are living in an age of new apostles and prophets, who receive direct revelations from God. NAR believers hold that the second coming of Jesus is fast approaching, and that it is the destiny of Christians is to accelerate the End Times by exerting “dominion” over the world.”
The Ziklag education mountain is chaired by Peter Bohlinger, a wealthy real estate developer from California.
Ziklag is itself a project of the evangelical group United in Purpose (UIP). According to reporting by Lee Fang for The Intercept in 2020, UIP was an important player in helping to drive evangelical support for Trump in 2016 and 2020. “UIP, though not a well known group, has emerged in recent years as the essential conduit connecting the religious right to the Trump administration,” wrote Fang.
From 2017 to 2019, Ginni Thomas, the spouse of Justice Clarence Thomas, worked with UIP to run an annual “impact awards” luncheon at the Trump International Hotel. Ginni Thomas handed out awards to conservative luminaries including Leonard Leo, Mark Meadows and James O’Keefe.
A PLAN HATCHED AT THE COUNCIL FOR NATIONAL POLICY
The strategy to dismantle public education came together following a speech by Trump’s former attorney general at a secretive gathering of far-right leaders.
On May 20, 2021, former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr spoke at a Council for National Policy (CNP) meeting in Naples, Florida. Barr was there to receive the ADF Edwin Meese III Award for Originalism and Religious Liberty from ADF’s President, Farris, but also came prepared to deliver a major policy speech.
CNP has been described by the New York Times as “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” Documented has previously published dozens of internal CNP meeting recordings, directories and other materials, resulting in numerous national stories. Despite the normal level of secrecy at CNP meetings, this particular recording was published on YouTube by ADF.
“I want to take a few moments and talk about what I think is the greatest threat to religious liberty in America today, and that’s the increasingly militant and extreme secular progressive climate in our state run educational system,” said Barr, in his remarks accepting the award. “The time has come to admit that the approach of giving militantly secularist government schools a monopoly over publicly funded education has become a disaster.”
Barr had a solution: school vouchers.
“The alternative is to have public funds travel with each student, allowing the student and the parents to choose the school. In this environment, vouchers may be the only workable and the only constitutional solution, and they would promote diversity in education,” Barr said.
“I think we have to confront the reality that it may no longer be fair, practical or even constitutional to provide publicly funded education solely through the vehicle of state operated schools,” he concluded.
After his speech, Ziklag’s Peter Bohlinger hatched a plan with William Barr and ADF’s Michael Farris.
So I went up to Michael Farris. I said, ‘Hey, Michael, we just listened to Attorney General Bill Barr and I spoke to him and he felt that this was an effort worth pursuing from a legal point of view. What are your thoughts?’ And Michael Farris said, ‘Yeah, I do. I think this is really worthwhile. An uphill battle, but a potentially winnable battle.’ So, so I said, ‘Michael, we are having an event in Dallas about three weeks from now. Would you please come and present, put together a program, an effort, a game plan, a business plan on how to tackle this, and we would love to support you in it.’ And so we did.—Peter Bohlinger speaking on Ziklag Zoom call, August 31, 2021. Recording obtained by DOCUMENTED.
On a Ziklag Zoom call with Lance Wallnau in August 2021, a recording of which was obtained by Documented, Bohlinger described what happened:
Michael Farris stepped down as ADF President in October 2022, replaced by Kristen Waggoner.
Waggoner, who argued the 303 Creative Case for ADF at the Supreme Court, is already being vetted by some on the right as a potential future Supreme Court Justice, according to recent reporting by Right Wing Watch. Despite Farris’ departure, it appears that the ADF/Ziklag project has continued. According to an agenda obtained by Documented, Waggoner was a speaker at a recent Ziklag retreat in June 2023, presenting alongside Peter Bohlinger on a panel called “Restoring Parental Rights in Education: A Legal Response to the Rising Tide of Radical Ideology in Schools.”
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