Jack Phillips, a baker from Colorado, found himself at the center of a controversy in 2012 when two men requested that he create a custom wedding cake for their same-sex marriage celebration. Phillips, a devout Christian, politely declined the request, citing his religious beliefs about marriage being between one man and one woman. While he offered to sell the couple any pre-made items in his store, he explained that designing a custom cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his beliefs. The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ultimately found that Phillips had violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, was taken on pro bono by Alliance Defending Freedom, the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, marriage and family, and the sanctity of life. In a landmark 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in Phillip’s favor, finding that the government was wrong to punish him for peacefully living out his beliefs in the marketplace and holding that the free exercise clause forbids hostility toward religion.
In 1971, Lewis Powell, a future Supreme Court Justice, wrote a confidential memo to the US Chamber of Commerce suggesting the need for a conservative legal counter-mobilization. Titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” Powell argued that the country’s economic system was under attack not only from left-wing and socialist groups but also from various institutions like colleges, media, and politics.
Powell warned the Chamber that the liberal and far-left groups were more “astute” in recognizing the judiciary’s importance as an instrument for social, economic, and political change and recommended ways businesses could counterattack, such as hiring “highly competent” staff attorneys and “lawyers of national standing and reputation” to file amicus briefs in the Supreme Court or to participate in lawsuits sponsored by the Chamber.
Beginning with the initiatives of the Olin Foundation and the network of conservative faculty and students created by the Federalist Society, and in response to activist judges and legal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund used by the political left, a counteroffensive movement began to emerge as conservative interests eventually recognized the value of legal advocacy and established their own organizations.
The ’80s and ’90s saw the rise of Christian and Conservative legal organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and First Liberty Institute. Other organizations included Liberty Counsel, the Thomas More Society, The Pacific Justice Institute, and Institute for Justice.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)
- Year Founded: 1994
- Revenue (2020): $65.2 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 14
Founded in 1994 by thirty-five Christian ministry leaders, including Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Dr. James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Ministries), and Dr. Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ), Alliance Defending Freedom is the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights. ADF has represented parties in 14 (and played a role in 72) wins at the US Supreme Court, secured over 2,000 legal victories, and has been recognized as the top-performing firm in the nation litigating First Amendment cases, winning nearly 80% of their cases.
ADF’s Supreme Court wins include the landmark Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer — a case involving the exclusion of churches from otherwise neutral and secular aid programs, and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court, which led to the overturning Roe v. Wade and upheld Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act protecting unborn children and their mothers.
As an alliance-building organization, ADF directly litigates strategic cases and also works in partnership with experienced litigators with more than 4700 network attorneys and 2500 allied attorneys in the US and worldwide.
At the end of 2020, Alliance Defending Freedom showed a revenue of $65,200,000.
Internationally, Alliance Defending Freedom is responsible for over 1600 wins (26 at the European Court of Human Rights) and is engaged in 78 countries with offices in New York, New York (United Nations); Vienna, Austria; Brussels, Belgium; Geneva, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France; London, England; Mexico City, Mexico and ADF India, Delhi, India.
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
- Year Founded: 1994
- Revenue (2020): $ 7.5 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 9
Founded in 1994 by Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, a top DC lawyer, the Becket Fund is a public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty for all faiths.
While not the largest conservative legal organization, Becket has grown into a powerful law firm primarily on the national level. The organization takes a non-partisan approach to its work and has been involved in numerous high-profile cases.
Becket has won 9 cases at the Supreme Court, including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a case involving the religious liberty of business owners, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, which protected Catholic nuns from having to provide potentially life-ending abortion drugs through their healthcare plans, and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which protected faith-based foster care.
Unlike some other leading Conservative legal organizations on this list, Becket Fund focuses solely on cases related to the religious liberty of people of all faiths.
At the end of 2020, Becket showed a total revenue of $7,500,000.
American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)
- Year Founded: 1990
- Revenue (2020): $23.6 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 8
Founded in 1990 by law school graduate and evangelical minister Pat Robertson, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is a pro-life, Christian Conservative legal organization focusing on constitutional and human rights law. Its primary objective is to protect religious and constitutional freedoms by utilizing a strategic approach involving advocacy, education, and litigation in the US and abroad.
In addition to its religious liberties work, the ACLJ also focuses on constitutional law involving the issues of national security, human life, judicial nominations, and protecting patriotic expression.
ACLJ’s Supreme Court wins include Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a case involving the display of a privately donated religious monument in a public park.
At the end of 2020, the American Center for Law and Justice showed a revenue of $23,600,000.
Internationally, ACLJ has offices in Israel, Russia, France, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.
Institute for Justice
- Year Founded: 1991
- Revenue (2020): $35.2 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 7
Institute for Justice was founded in 1991 by Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick and former Deputy General Counsel for Legislation and Regulations in the United States Department of Energy William Mellor. Institute for Justice is a libertarian public interest law firm that advocates for individual rights, economic liberty, and free speech. The organization has been involved in numerous high-profile cases, including defending property rights and challenging occupational licensing laws.
The Institute for Justice has argued eight cases before the United States Supreme Court and won seven, including Timbs v. Indiana — a case about the excessive fines and fees often imposed by governments, and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris — upholding school choice.
At the end of 2020, Institute for Justice showed a revenue of $35,200,000.
First Liberty Institute
- Year Founded: 1972
- Revenue (2020): $14.8 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 5
Originally founded as a division of the Free Market Foundation in 1972, First Liberty Institute is dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans. The organization has been involved in numerous high-profile cases, including defending the religious rights of military service members and veterans.
First Liberty has had five Supreme Court wins, including Carson v. Makin, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District — a case about religious liberty, including praying in public, and The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, which reaffirmed that the First Amendment allows people to use religious symbols and images in public.
At the end of 2020, First Liberty Institute showed a revenue of $14,800,000.
Thomas More Society
- Year Founded: 1997
- Revenue (2020): $17.4 million
- Supreme Court Wins: 2
Thomas More Society was established in 1997 by former Army captain and accomplished business litigator Tom Brejcha as a result of the intense courtroom battles that defined the landmark federal antitrust and RICO lawsuit known as NOW v. Scheidler. This exhaustive case spanned a staggering 28 years and required three appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. The not-for-profit, national public-interest law firm is committed to restoring respect in the realm of law for the core values of life, family, and religious liberty.
Thomas More Society has represented several prominent pro-life and religious leaders, including Abby Johnson and her organization And Then There Were None, Lila Rose and Live Action, and Sidewalk Advocates for Life.
At the end of 2020, Thomas More Foundation showed a revenue of $17,400,000
Pacific Justice Institute
- Year Founded: 1997
- Revenue (2020): $3.0 million
Founded in 1997, the Pacific Justice Institute is a non-profit legal defense organization that focuses on religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties. The organization has been involved in numerous high-profile cases, including defending the rights of parents to homeschool their children.
At the end of 2020, Pacific Justice Institute showed a revenue of $3,000,000.
- Year Founded: 1989
- Revenue (2015): $5.5 million
Founded in 1989 by attorneys Matthew and Anita Staver, Liberty Counsel is a conservative Christian legal organization that advances religious freedom and the sanctity of human life and the family through strategic litigation. The organization has been involved in numerous high-profile cases, including defending the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Liberty Counsel’s Supreme Court wins include Mountain Right to Life v Becerra, which involved three pro-life pregnancy centers that California had forced to promote abortion, and Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, Inc, involving buffer zones around abortion clinics.
At the end of 2015,* Liberty Council showed a revenue of $5,500,000.
Despite criticism from opposing quarters, Christian and Conservative legal organizations have emerged as a formidable force, defending religious freedom, free speech, and traditional values in the face of ongoing social and legal challenges and achieving generationally sustainable victories in cases concerning these and other contentious issues. As the country continues to navigate complex and divisive social and religious issues, these organizations are poised to remain a powerful factor in shaping the legal terrain of the nation and an influential advocate for religious freedom around the world.
*Last available extracted data
Revenue rounded to the nearest hundred thousand
Revenue amounts courtesy of ProPublica