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ADF, state conventions partner on religious liberty

NASHVILLE (BP) — Partnership with the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was a recurring theme at Baptist state convention annual meetings this fall.

Of the 41 state and regional conventions that maintain cooperative relationships with the Southern Baptist Convention, at least a dozen have forged partnerships with ADF through its Church Alliance program. Additional state conventions are considering such partnerships, which help churches and state ministries protect themselves from infringement of their religious liberty.

ADF partnerships were discussed at state annual meetings from New Mexico to Pennsylvania/South Jersey.

“Churches that hold to traditional, orthodox, evangelical beliefs are increasingly under attack from a variety of different directions, including the government sometimes,” said Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA), a Church Alliance member. “Often, churches can unwittingly get embroiled in legal action or in litigation of some kind because someone claims that they haven’t accommodated their sexual preference for a wedding ceremony or their transgender desire to use both bathrooms.”

Church Alliance helps churches “proactively and preemptively be ready for legal challenges like that,” Adams told Baptist Press.

Established in 2017, Church Alliance includes nearly 3,000 churches to date, 264 of them Southern Baptist, ADF reported. For an annual fee based on church size, Church Alliance affords each congregation:

— Review of its policies and governing documents by an ADF attorney to ensure religious liberty issues are addressed properly;

— Access to an ADF attorney whenever legal questions arise over religious liberty;

— Access to online resources; and

— Legal representation at no additional charge should a case arise involving the church’s religious freedom.

Among issues commonly addressed with churches by ADF attorneys are policies concerning marriage, sexuality and life; employment policies; the use of government facilities or programs; and tax-related concerns, according to ADF.

When a state convention joins Church Alliance, that convention receives the same services local churches receive and cooperating churches each can join Church Alliance at a discounted rate.

Normally, a Church Alliance membership ranges from $250 annually for a church of up to 150 attendees to $4,000 for a church of more than 2,000. State convention discounts vary depending on the particular partnership. Georgia Baptist churches, for example, receive a 20 percent discount through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. In Illinois, where virtually all Southern Baptist churches average 150 or fewer attendees, each IBSA cooperating church pays $125 annually and the state convention pays the remaining $125.

If all 1,000 Illinois Baptist churches signed up, Adams said, “we would find a way” to pay half the fee for each of them “because it’s such a good” program.

In South Carolina, where the state convention is a Church Alliance member, the program has yielded dividends for Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island. Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist congregation filed suit with ADF’s assistance against the town of Edisto Beach, S.C., after rules for the local civic center were changed, allegedly to prevent Redeemer Fellowship from renting space in the center for worship.

The case is pending in federal court.

Erik Stanley, ADF senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries, said ADF has sought partnerships with state conventions “to create a very strong and robust large alliance of churches on the issue of religious liberty.”

“We see that churches are increasingly facing issues regarding religious liberty, and many don’t know where to turn or don’t know what their rights are,” Stanley told BP. ADF wanted to “dig in at the local level with churches and kind of remove the legal burden on the issue of religious liberty.”

Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (GBMB), said Church Alliance “is an amazing gift for our churches and our denomination.” The GBMB was among the first state convention organizations to join Church Alliance. In February 2018, White invited ADF to explain Church Alliance at the annual meeting of state convention executive directors in Galveston, Texas.

The annual fee for Church Alliance, White said, is “less than what you would have to pay an attorney for one hour of his service or her service.” He urged churches and state conventions to take advantage.

Many pastors “have never had any experience of even being in a deposition. I have, and it’s not a picnic. It’s a really difficult thing to go through — legal challenge and litigation,” White said. He underscored ADF’s admonition that churches should not “carry the legal burden alone.”

Along with state conventions, the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also urges churches to join Church Alliance. The ERLC and ADF have partnered on a range of initiatives.

“The team at Alliance Defending Freedom have consistently proven themselves to be the kind of convictional and talented advocates that Christians and churches are in need of today,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in a statement on ADF’s website. “I have no doubt that Church Alliance will benefit ministries across the country by establishing such a partnership between local churches and attorneys committed to safeguarding our most fundamental liberties.”