In March 2017, before Doug Wardlow had won the Republican primary for a shot at becoming Minnesota’s Attorney General, he sat in on a meeting of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.
When his name was announced, Wardlow rose to the podium and bid the board members “good evening.” He told them he was there as a member of Alliance Defending Freedom, “a nonprofit legal organization that litigates in defense of free speech and religious liberty” in Minnesota and beyond.
He went on to say he was representing parents who were concerned that the district would start letting transgender students use the bathrooms that matched their gender identities. "Boys" should go to the boys’ facilities, he said, and "girls" to the girls’ room. Anyone who “professed” to be transgender could go use a single-stall restroom.
“I urge the District to act in accord with the simple reality that there are boys, and there are girls, and boys and girls are fundamentally different in ways that really do matter,” he said.
This was just one scene from Wardlow’s career litigating for Alliance. The legal group formed in 1994 with a solemn vow to protect “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” according to its website. It’s now one of the most powerful conservative Christian legal organizations in the country.
So far, the vast majority of press coverage—good or bad—on the campaign to replace Lori Swanson as Minnesota Attorney General has gone to Wardlow's DFL opponent, Keith Ellison. Ellison and his backers are trying to keep recently surfaced and messy personal accusations from hobbling his campaign. In Wardlow's case, the potentially embarrassing facts are all professional, and a matter of public record.
The former one-term Republican legislator representing the Eagan area started working for the Alliance Defending Freedom in 2014; on LinkedIn, he still lists the Alliance as his employer to this day.
And to this day, it remains, by the definition of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-LGBT hate group, supporting “the recriminalization of homosexuality of the U.S. and criminalization abroad,” defending “state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad” and “claim[ing] that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”
Wardlow didn’t respond to City Pages' interview requests, but he’s far from apologetic for his involvement with Alliance. In an interview on the radio show Justice and Drew, he described his meeting with the Star Tribune and the editorial staff’s questions about his past.
Wardlow claims the Star Tribune wanted to believe what he said "about rebuilding the criminal law division and enforcing the law" as attorney general, but asked how could they trust him, given his work for the Alliance?
Alliance isn’t a hate group, Wardlow replied. “We fight for free speech.”
He laughed, as if bemused by the whole thing.
But even before he was telling the Anoka-Hennepin School Board the difference between boys and girls—which was almost exclusively based on the genitalia of high-school students—he was praising a fellow member of the Alliance for defending a funeral home’s right to fire one of its directors for being openly transgender.
Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who ran a funeral home in Michigan, told her boss she planned to transition in 2013, and wanted to wear feminine clothes to work. He fired her two weeks later, saying “a person’s sex is an immutable God-given fit.”
The Alliance took up the case, arguing that firing Stephens was a matter of dress code, not gender identity. U.S. District Judge Sean Cox ruled in their favor. Wardlow, the spokesperson for the case, called the ruling “a big victory for religious freedom.”
It was fine if Stephens—whom Wardlow consistently referred to as “he”—wanted to dress like a woman when she wasn’t on the clock. But if she wanted to do it at work? In front of grieving families? That was too much for a man of the owner’s faith.
"The government doesn't have the ability to force business owners to violate their religious beliefs about human sexuality, or anything else for that matter,” he said.
Before that, on Alliance’s behalf, Wardlow was bemoaning the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex couples the same right to marriage already given to heterosexual couples -- a move he called a “totalitarian impulse.” He said it effectively stripped away Christians’ rights to a belief that marriage could only exist between one man and one woman: a right, it seems, that supercedes the rights of others to believe anything else.
“Once you have the government coming in and telling people what they have to believe, we’re not many steps from tyranny,” he said.
This is the factor Wardlow’s claim to be an apolitical politician leaves out of the equation. You can talk about fighting for "individual liberties" all you want. But which ones? When you consistently place one individual liberty over another—when a religious view of the world is more important than peoples’ right to marry, dress in a way that reflects who they are, use a bathroom without fear of becoming the subject bullying—that is a political view. That is an agenda.
If Wardlow hasn't moved past, he could at least admit it's why he wanted his name on the ballot this year.