Any way you slice it, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has gotten big. Very big.
The legal group has more than 3,000 allied attorneys in 41 nations protecting religious liberty—attorneys who’ve provided more than a million hours of pro bono work worth nearly $200 million. ADF has granted more than $44 million in funding for 2,900 cases. It’s been involved in 47 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court so far—either arguing in or funding them—and had four cases pending before the Court at press time.
But Alan Sears can tell you that when ADF started up in 1994, it was small. Very small.
“Today, the Lord’s blessed us to have offices in several cities in the United States and in seven nations,” says Sears, ADF’s president, CEO and general counsel. “But it started with me and a month-to-month lease on an office that measured about 12 by 12, a laptop computer and a printer bought on my credit card.”
And when evangelical leaders first approached Sears with an idea—to start a unique group that would not only stand up to the American Civil Liberties Union, but grow to rival it in size and impact—he candidly said he didn’t expect much to come of it.
“I remember my reaction very, very well,” he tells Citizen. “I wasn’t very excited at all, because I’d seen so many ideas like that which hadn’t gone anywhere. There’d been many attempts—by some really great people—but in the end, the resources just weren’t there.”
Obviously, those leaders changed his mind. But we’re getting ahead of our story.
Finding His Path
If we told you that Alan Sears’ career started with Goldwater and Chase, you might assume we were talking about a law firm. In his case, though, we’re going back much further.
“As a child, I was always interested in the news, in what was going on in public life,” Sears says. “In 1964, as an eighth grader, I did door-to-door work for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, where someone gave me a pair of black, horn-rimmed glasses like Goldwater wore. I still have those glasses.”
In high school, Sears found a valuable philosophical mentor—and as it happened, he wore black, horn-rimmed glasses too.
“I had a fantastic government teacher for a couple of classes named Harold Chase,” Sears says. “He’d been a fan of Goldwater and talked to us about old-fashioned concepts like duty to our country. He had a quote in Latin on the classroom wall: ‘Nothing should be more dear to you than the love of your country.’ That stuck with me.”
Chase taught his class about the Founders, the Federalist Papers and the ideas behind the Constitution, taking ample time to talk with students one-on-one when they were interested—as young Alan definitely was.
“He started me down a path of reading that I’ve never stopped,” Sears says, citing the thousands of books ADF now holds in the library of its Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters. “He really gave me the beginnings of an intellectual framework for the values and beliefs my parents had instilled in me—beliefs consistent with faith and support of our country.”
Those beliefs came under heavy fire at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, which Sears entered in 1974—the year after the Supreme Court handed down its landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade.
“I was amazed by the impact Roe had on my education,” Sears says.
“I’d be in classes that had nothing to do with that ruling, and teachers would bring it up to hail the great direction American law was going. I knew instinctively that it wasn’t consistent with the Constitution. But I didn’t know how to deal with it, how to debate it. I didn’t really know where to go to find out.”
That experience spurred Sears’ interest in constitutional originalism—his desire to learn what the Founders meant in their own words, not the meaning preferred by modern, progressive judges. It also spurred his urge to get involved in public policy, rather than abandoning that realm to the Left.
Which led him to the Reagan administration.
The Only Choice
In early 1985, Sears was a federal prosecutor—chief of the Criminal Section for the Western District of Kentucky, in fact. He dealt with a range of cases, from narcotics to public corruption to white-collar fraud. But it was his prosecution of obscenity and child pornography that drew the attention of his superiors in Washington, D.C.: They tapped him to head the new Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, whose members included Focus on the Family Founder Dr. James Dobson.
In that role, Sears found himself working under Attorney General Edwin Meese—a man who made a strong impression on Sears, and taught him lessons that have stayed with him to this day.
“Ed had qualities which really impacted me as a young lawyer in my 30s,” Sears says. “He had absolute integrity. This guy was more unjustly maligned than anyone, and he never took it personally. He understood that this is part of life when you decide to engage in the battle, and never spoke ill of those who were attacking him.”
Meanwhile, Sears was making a strong impression himself.
“Alan was extraordinarily hard working,” says Tom Minnery, who was Focus on the Family’s vice president for public policy at the time. “He made sure that a full-fledged account of the harms of pornography made it into the Commission’s final report. There were some members who were not interested in a complete look. Alan was. Only by dint of his efforts was that report as successful as it was.”
So in late 1993, when the organizers of what would become ADF were looking for a leader, they were pretty sure they had the man for the job.
“Alan not only had the legal background, he had wide respect across denominations for his work on the pornography issue,” Minnery says. “He was a natural choice, and the only choice—the only person we considered for the role.”
As noted before, Sears—by then having served as an attorney in private practice at Arizona’s largest law firm, Snell & Wilmer—wasn’t so sure. But the stature of the evangelical leaders behind this project was encouraging: Dobson, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, Marlin Maddoux of the USA Radio Network and Larry Burkett of Crown Financial Ministries, to name a few. So was their commitment to use their resources to publicize the group’s work: It would not lapse into obscurity.
Most important, however, was an even more basic commitment.
“I asked them, ‘Are we here to win—not just to put a finger in the dike, but to win?’ ” Sears recalls. “And Bill Bright said, ‘Alan, I want you to keep the door open for the Gospel.’
“That’s when I began to get excited.”
‘Are You Kidding?’
Although ADF—originally known as the Alliance Defense Fund—was intended to subsidize religious-liberty legal work through strategy, training, funding and advocacy, it wasn’t exactly flush with funding at first.
“We had very little money when we launched,” Sears says. “We struggled for every dime we had. It took a long time before that changed.”
Sears had to hit the road to raise money. And he was feeling the stress—especially the day he visited Focus on the Family and H.B. London, then Focus’ vice president of church and clergy outreach, asked him what theme verse he’d selected for the fledgling group.
“I looked at him,” Sears recalls, “and I said, ‘With respect, are you kidding? I’m just trying to find a dollar to keep this place open. I haven’t had time to think about it.’ And he said, gently, ‘You know, if you don’t have time to find a theme verse, you might have a lot of spare time to do other things soon.’ “
Later, London suggested John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without Me, you can do nothing.” The words resonated with Sears—and everyone else involved.
“I presented it to the board of directors and it was unanimous,” he says. “There wasn’t even much discussion: It was so clear that what we were taking on was so impossible to do in our own strength. We wanted to acknowledge that it’s all Him. Without Him, we can do nothing. Anything we’ve accomplished is by His grace.”
Brad Keirnes—a current and original ADF board member—says the verse fits the man at the helm of organization.
“That’s an expression of Alan’s character and his spirituality,” Keirnes says. “He lives in ongoing dependency on our heavenly Father, and he inspires others to do so as well. It’s contagious.
“He’s very genuine. At the core of his being, he’s a humble man of God—incredibly talented, but really blind to his giftedness. That’s helped make him the leader he is.”
So does the model of calm, faithful reasoning that Sears brings to often-heated controversies.
“Alan is a logic warrior,” says Focus on the Family President Jim Daly. “He doesn’t fight with emotion; he fights with reason. He deeply believes that biblical truth comes out through rational discussion. I’ve always appreciated that about Alan.”
A Heart for the Job
Long story short, ADF grew. To the point where it not only takes on vast numbers of legal cases every year, but also has trained 1,800 attorneys and 1,600 law students—building the ranks of qualified defenders of both the Constitution in general and religious liberty in particular, and linking them into networks of other attorneys and public-policy advocates who care deeply about those issues.
It’s the sort of thing Sears wishes he’d had when he was in law school. And it’s an effort he expects to multiply in impact for many years to come.
“Our experience is when you get a man or woman to do their first (religious-liberty) cases, they’re there for life,” Sears says. “It encourages them so much to help others.”
And helping others is the core of the mission for Sears.
“This work is all about the relationships and the people,” he says. “It’s seeing individuals protected, their rights restored—in some cases, you’d even say their lives restored.
“We don’t pick and choose and just take the cases that are likely to get a favorable outcome. We’ve been blessed to win close to 80 percent of them. But the ones we lose and the people we’re unable to help—those bother me far more than the gratification I get out of the victories.”
That’s the mark of a man who, after more than two decades at ADF, still has his heart in his work. And on the days when the work goes badly, as much or more than on the days when it goes well, Sears reminds himself of the words Bill Bright spoke to him right at the start.
“What are we trying to achieve at the end of the day?” he asks rhetorically. “To keep the door open for the Gospel—to protect religious liberty and the rights of conscience. That’s our mission, and it’s not going to change.”
For More Information:
To learn more about the Alliance Defending Freedom and how you can get involved, visit adflegal.org.
Originally published in the April 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.