When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed right-to-work legislation on March 9—establishing that workers could not be forced to join or pay dues to a union—the media approached the story from conventional angles. They talked about a conflict between business and labor, and Walker’s history of conflicts with unions, which bitterly oppose his policies.

Legitimate news angles? Sure. But the press missed another important one—the role of social conservatives and Christians in supporting the right-to-work law, which had passed the state Senate with one vote to spare.

Lorri Pickens, the executive director of Wisconsin Right to Work, knows full well the value of those Christians—in particular, of Wisconsin Family Action (WFA), the state’s public-policy partner of Focus on the Family.

“When they got involved in lobbying for the bill, that made it a cause that was win-win for conservatives in office—one that was backed by social conservatives as well as the business community,” Pickens tells Citizen. “They got their grassroots people calling offices at the state Capitol, and it created a high level of comfort for the legislators to support right to work.”

But what got a group involved that was better known for dealing with other issues—pro-life, pro-family, pro-religious liberty?

Actually, says WFA President Julaine Appling, the bill was right up their alley.

“When right to work came up, our organization—as we always do on big bills like that—took a look and said, ‘Is there in our mission statement room for us to take a position, for or against?’ And there definitely was,” she tells Citizen.

Appling remembered what happened in 2006, when WFA campaigned for an amendment to protect the definition of marriage in the Wisconsin Constitution. That year, the amendment—which ultimately passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote—was loudly opposed by the state chapter of the AFL-CIO.

“We got a lot of calls in our office from people saying, ‘Hey, I’m a member of that union. They’re using my money and acting as if I’m in agreement with that. They don’t speak for me. How do I get out of the union?’ ” Appling says.

Back then, she was forced to answer: “You can’t—not if you want to keep your job.” But this time, she saw a chance to change that.

‘A Dog in This Fight’

It wasn’t just the marriage amendment experience that bothered Appling. It was the way unions frequently work to recruit candidates with positions on abortion and other issues that fly in the face of many members’ convictions. (See “Conscientious Objection,” May 2015 Citizen.)

“I thought, ‘Wow. If I have to join a union to work in a particular place, my freedom of conscience is being violated,’ ” she says. “I’m being forced to pay dues to an organization whose political ideology and activity is directly opposite of mine. I should have freedom of conscience in the workplace as well as anywhere else in Wisconsin.’

“Some people call that right-to-work. But we’re going to call it freedom of conscience in the workplace.”

That’s the message she brought to the 50-plus legislators she lobbied in sit-down meetings this January and February. And as she did, she found it resonated.

“I never said the words ‘right to work’ when I explained why we support the bill,” Appling says. “I just explained the reasons for our position. But as I went on, I’d see a grin starting on many of their faces as they realized what I was talking about. And they’d say, ‘You know, I totally agree with you about that.’ ”

But while most of the legislators she lobbied were receptive, some came from heavily unionized districts. That left little margin for error in the Senate, where Republicans held a much smaller edge (18-14) than in the Assembly (63-36).

Pickens, for one, was feeling some suspense. “I knew we were losing one (Republican) vote in the Senate, and that’s all we could afford to lose,” she says. “There were a couple members out there where we just weren’t sure what they were going to do.”

All the groups supporting the bill worked with a sense of urgency—including WFA. “When we engaged with our constituents, we made sure they knew they had a dog in this fight over conscience,” Appling says. “We took an approach that made some of them say, ‘I never thought of it that way.’ ”

When the bill moved, it moved quickly. With unions preparing to launch an expensive ad campaign against it, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) fast-tracked the measure. It squeaked through the Senate 17-15 on Feb. 25, handily passed the Assembly on March 6, and was signed into law by Walker on March 9—with Pickens and Appling, among others, attending the ceremony.

“Everybody had a role to play and everybody played their role,” Appling says. “We did what was naturally suited to our organization. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion walk hand in hand. Our state Constitution actually combines both of them in exactly the same place— Article 1, Section 18. And especially with those freedoms being impinged on around the country, it’s a very important victory to secure them in the workplace.”

Fighting on Multiple Fronts

Protecting workers’ rights of conscience is just the latest battle for WFA. Appling has been through a lot of them since she came on board in 1997: Wisconsin is a political swing state, split between conservative areas and left-leaning locales like the capital city, Madison.

Since the 2010 elections, though—when Walker and GOP legislative majorities took power—she’s seen some noteworthy wins.

In 2012, Wisconsin repealed a law mandating that schools teach “comprehensive” sex education in favor of one that frees schools to emphasize abstinence. “The very first thing we wanted to do (after the 2010 elections) was to undo that (previous) law,” Appling says. “We’re very proud of the current law. Now local school districts can come up with a program that reflects their community values instead of Madison’s values.”

In 2013, the state passed a requirement for girls and women seeking abortion to get an ultrasound of their child, as well as requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. While the latter part of that law is suspended while going through the courts, the former portion is having an impact. “We know when women see the sonograms and see that it’s not just a mass of tissue, it makes a difference,” Appling says. “Since the law passed, we’ve already heard stories of lives being saved.”

And this January, Walker decided not to approve a casino in Kenosha. “We were very active on that one,” Appling says. “We bought radio time across the state, did robo-calls, mailings and email blasts, did a petition and phone-surveyed a million people. We weren’t the only factor in the decision”—Walker publicly cited issues with a Native American tribe—”but all those letters and emails and phone calls to the governor’s office definitely had an impact.”

At the local level, WFA has been busy fighting transgender policies in schools and city ordinances. In the town of Sparta, for example, the school board has twice tabled such a policy after meeting strong public resistance. WFA sent the board legal arguments from the Alliance Defending Freedom, and helped equip area citizens like Clare Craven, a grandfather who organized grassroots opposition efforts.

“My 13-year-old granddaughter goes out for sports in that school system,” he tells Citizen. “Thinking about the possibility of a 17- or 18-year-old biological male using the same shower was something I couldn’t get my mind around.”

Craven speaks highly of the help WFA has provided—and continues to provide.

“I’ve never been involved in politics at all,” he says. “I don’t consider myself right-wing or left-wing; I’m kind of a middle-of-the-road person. So it was good to be brought up to speed on what’s going on statewide, the operations of the people pushing that agenda, what their next moves were going to be.

“Julaine has just been great to work with. She’s on top of what’s going on across the state, and we’re just in a small corner of it.”

All Credit Where It’s Due

Appling is still thrilled when she sees pro-family crowds pack local-government meetings in places like Sparta and Fond du Lac, where the city council backed away from incorporating transgenderism into city policies.

“I tell people across the state, ‘(WFA) cannot own your community, but you can own your community,’ ” she says. ” ‘We can provide resources and help you do the work on the ground, but you have to own it.’

“It’s always a delight to see the crowds show up. Those kinds of victories are irreplaceable. You walk away thinking, ‘Wow. By God’s grace, something good is happening and this community is being spared.’ ”

Appling hastens to credit all the people God is using to work for the same goals, from national groups (“I don’t see how it’s possible to do this kind of work without partners like CitizenLink, Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Research Council,” she says) to other state pro-life and pro-family groups. But she reserves special praise for the other five staffers she works with daily at WFA.

“I can’t brag enough about the people God has blessed us with here,” she says. “It’s a one-for-all, all-for-one operation. When we host major events, everybody pitches in. When one of us is discouraged, the others pick them up. They’re selfless people who work long hours and give of themselves time and time again.”

Those who’ve worked with Appling—like Pickens, who also worked with WFA in passing the 2006 marriage-protection ballot proposal—return the compliments.

“Julaine is not only a really good friend, she’s a moral compass,” she says. “I use her as a measure for my personal morality. I’m a better person with her in my life. I’ve seen her grow tremendously over the years in this job. There’s no rest in her soul. She’s tireless. I’m not sure she sleeps, to be honest.”

Appling says she sleeps, all right. She also goes through periods of feeling down. But she’s got a motivation that overcomes those burdens.

“There are times when this work can be profoundly sad,” she says, “but the fight is of such a nature that you say, ‘We are going to stand, in the face of it all. We are going to stand.’

“We all go through the agony of thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. How in the world can this be happening? What can we do to stop it? Is it worth it?’ But as John Quincy Adams said, ‘Duty is ours; results are God’s.’ I’m responsible to be faithful, not successful. I get up in the morning and do whatever it takes every single day to be faithful to the Lord and His truth in the arena where I’ve been called.”

© 2015 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the June, 2015 issue of Citizen magazine.