When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

In late 2005, back in my Washington Times days, I visited the Scottsdale, Ariz., offices of Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm that is best known today for litigating Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and a wave of other important religious-liberty cases before the Supreme Court.

I was very much aware of them, as they were beginning to outdo other stalwarts  -- such as the Rutherford Institute and Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice -- in the Christian legal arena. I was researching a piece on ways legal groups were mounting annual campaigns to “defend Christmas,” which ran here. (My byline has been removed, but that is my piece. At the time, the ADF was known as the Alliance Defense Fund.)

It took other media nearly a decade to wake up and discover the ADF. There’s Think Progress’s 2014 piece on the “800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right;" a similar piece, also in 2014, by the New York Times; a 2016 mention by Politico, a 2017 piece by The Nation on “the Christian legal army” behind the Masterpiece case and more.

So I was interested to see yet another profile on the group; this time a spotlight on Kristin Waggoner, who has litigated ADF’s most high-profile cases this year, by Washington Post feature writer Jessica Contrera.

There were delicious details but major gaps. For example, try to find any specific, factual information about this woman's faith. Some excerpts:

Two days before the announcement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement, a woman who stood to gain from it was on the steps of the Supreme Court once again. Kristen Waggoner’s blond bob was perfectly styled with humidity-fighting paste she’d slicked onto it that morning at the Trump hotel. Her 5-foot frame was heightened by a pair of nude pumps, despite a months-old ankle fracture in need of surgery. On her wrist was a silver bracelet she’d worn nonstop since Dec. 5, 2017, the day she marched up these iconic steps, stood before the justices and argued that a Christian baker could legally refuse to create a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.
Her job was to be the legal mind and public face of Alliance Defending Freedom., an Arizona-based Christian conservative legal nonprofit better known as ADF. ...

Then follows some back story, then a pivot to Waggoner’s personal life.

This work had long been a family affair for the 45-year-old attorney, who grew up in Longview, Wash., as the daughter of a Christian school superintendent. She credits her father with instilling the values and views that populate the 121 active cases she oversees at ADF, where there are 63 lawyers operating on a budget of more than $50 million…
Asked whether she believes it is possible for a person to be transgender, Waggoner said she believes “it is possible to be confused about your gender.” Waggoner answers all questions about her work, even on the most contentious of issues, with a smile. Her colleagues say she is always, always smiling. Her incessant pleasantness can come off as strategic, a way of dismantling those trying to paint her as cruel or intolerant. She says joy is just the mark of a person of faith.

I expected the next paragraph to tell us which faith but no, the piece skittered back to ADF’s history, then switches to Waggoner’s advocacy for Baronelle Stutzman, the Washington state florist who refused to do an arrangement for the wedding of two gay men. That case, Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, was also before the high court.

The only hint we get is this paragraph:

Her silver bracelet dangled on her wrist. It was engraved with a line from the Bible’s Book of Esther: “For such a time as this.” Nine Supreme Court cases in seven years and ADF had won them all. She was hoping it was such a time that God would grant them another.

OK -- she could be Jewish or Christian from the sound of it.

Constantly putting Stutzman before the media is Waggoner’s strategy, which became ADF’s strategy when she was put in charge of their legal division in 2014. Each big case -- the printer who won’t make shirts for a pride parade, the teen girl who feels unsafe with “a man” in her school bathroom, the pregnancy centers accused of misleading women -- gets a mini-documentary about their personal journeys and dedication to their faith.

The article supplies some wonderful background details about Waggoner but tantalizes with unanswered questions. Why was Waggoner put in charge of ADF’s legal division in 2014? What about her impressed the folks in Scottsdale? And how does she maintain any sort of family life?

Near the end:

The next day, a great week got better. At the news of Kennedy’s retirement, Waggoner whooped, loudly, in the middle of the law office. ADF quickly put out a press release: It looked forward to a justice who would uphold “the original public meaning of the Constitution.” That night, Waggoner and her daughter went to dinner and a movie in celebration of a week -- a year, really -- that had gone in their favor. Then, back in her room in the Trump hotel, she returned to her work.

Note that last sentence: So, ADF can afford to put her up at the pricey Trump International Hotel? Click here for what a basic guest room costs. 

There’s so much good in this story, as the details are the result of hours of observation by a keen-eyed reporter. It’s the stuff that got left out that drives me batty.

The story talks a lot about Waggoner’s friendship with Stutzman but doesn’t mention how Waggoner honed her craft through years of working in a law firm here in Seattle, where she got her fill of the liberal politics in this ultra-blue state.

I learned the details of her religious upbringing in Ken McIntyre’s Daily Signal piece where we learn Waggoner is the daughter of an Assemblies of God minister, Clint Behrends, who is on staff of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, a Seattle suburb. She attended an Assemblies of God college in nearby Kirkland; clerked for a Washington Supreme Court judge, then spent 15 years with Ellis, Li & ­­­­­McKinstry, a Seattle law firm that includes many Christian lawyers. And ever since moving to Arizona to work with ADF in 2014, her star has gone straight up.

We also learn her husband is a lawyer and that they have three kids. Most importantly, she is a Pentecostal Christian. That's what growing up in the rather moderate Assemblies of God means. Thinking back to 2008, when another female Pentecostal, Sarah Palin, climbed onto the national stage as the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate, reporters hadn't a clue how to cover her church. Not much has changed.

I don’t know whether the Post reporter didn’t grasp Waggoner’s beliefs enough to ask her about them or whether she did include those details but an editor took them out. But if this woman’s faith renders her unflappable amidst some tough high-profile cases, not to mention the personal toll of overseeing dozens of lawyers working on similar cases while staying married with three kids, then we should know more about it.

Once again, what is the logic -- in terms of journalism basics -- for omitting this kind of core information?


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