This week, the Associated Press profiled the Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal group representing Kim Davis, but was far from charitable. It opened with a recent incident where their chairman, Mat Staver, falsely claimed that 100,000 people rallied in Peru to support his most famous client. It then cast doubt on the group’s account of a meeting between Davis and Pope Francis. The title of the piece referred to Liberty Counsel’s designation as a “hate group,” a label the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) first gave it over a year ago.
The new “hate group” press prompted swift outcry from both the Liberty Counsel and other anti-LGBT groups that share the designation. In a press release on its website, the Liberty Counsel attacked the SPLC and claimed that it only called them a hate group for their political positions on same-sex marriage, hate crimes laws, and ex-gay therapy. “The SPLC’s false labeling of people or organizations would mean that every civilization and its people and every major religious denomination would be similarly labeled by the SPLC as a hater or hate group,” the group wrote. “It is SPLC that demonizes good people and organizations and spews false accusations against those with whom it disagrees. The SPLC is reckless and its false labels are dangerous.”
The Family Research Council (FRC), itself a hate group, also came to Liberty Counsel’s defense. FRC has long blamed the SPLC’s “hate group” labeling for the actions of a shooter who targeted FRC because of its anti-LGBT rhetoric, an accusation the Liberty Counsel repeated. FRC insists that SPLC “inspired” the shooting, and this week claimed that “despite the SPLC’s agenda of intimidation, the media is using the organization to bludgeon Liberty Counsel and Kim Davis. But instead of exposing any wrongdoing on their part, the media is only exposing its own hostility toward Christians. Which sadly, only furthers the extremism that’s silencing religious freedom in the first place.”
But these groups’ strategy of downplaying the SPLC’s “hate group” criteria — while implying that all Christians share their radically anti-LGBT beliefs — requires ignoring exactly what evidence the SPLC uses. Indeed, it is an attempt to completely whitewash the dangerous rhetoric these groups promote, false information that fuels discrimination and often deadly violence against the LGBT community.
What a “hate group” label really signifies.
In the AP article about the Liberty Counsel, SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok explained that “a group that regularly portrays gay people as perverse, diseased pedophiles putting Western civilization at risk are way, way over the line.” The SPLC notes on its page about anti-LGBT groups that these organizations have “disseminated disparaging ‘facts’ about gays that are simply untrue — assertions that are remarkably reminiscent of the way white intellectuals and scientists once wrote about the ‘bestial’ black man and his supposedly threatening sexuality.”
Speaking to ThinkProgress, Potok clarified that the “hate group” label has a very specific approach. It has nothing to do with whether the group promotes violence or criminality, but addresses whether an organization espouses defaming ideology. “Does a group, in its platform statements, say that an entire group is somehow less?” This could be about any group with an inherent characteristic, like “all white people,” “all Jewish people,” etc. SPLC first started looking at what was being said about “all gay people” after a spate of teenage suicides in 2010 suggested that young people and their families were receiving too many anti-LGBT messages.
“We were very explicit and said that the listing has nothing to do with opposition to same-sex marriage or to believing that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin,” Potok explained. “We decided that many years ago that we’re not going to get in the business of arguing what anybody’s Scripture says. We’re not going to pretend we’re theologians. What we came to was that what really made these anti-LGBT groups hate groups was the propagation of known falsehoods. As a practical matter, that has turned out to be, in most cases, the myth that gay men are, at vastly disproportionate rates, child molesters.”
Constantly broadcasting such ideas translates into anti-LGBT violence. “There are not a lot of worse things you can call a person than a pedophile, a child molester. This gives permission to hate criminals to beat people up with baseball bats. They are giving permission to the kind of people who want to attack gay people to do so. They’re giving them moral authorization.” As an example of this, Potok highlighted the two Boston men who recently beat up a 58-year-old homeless Latino man because they were “inspired in part” by Donald Trump’s racist, anti-immigration rhetoric.
As another example, Potok pointed out how in 2010, anti-Muslim hate crimes skyrocketed by 50 percent. “There was no Charlie Hebdo or ISIS activity” in 2010, he explained. “It was a quiet year for Jihadist violence.” But it was the year that Pamela Geller ginned up controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” project in New York City. Karl Rove said on Fox News that building the mosque was like Neo-Nazis holding a meeting at a Jewish hotel. Newt Gingrich suggested it’d be like Nazis putting up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum or the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. This kind of rhetoric had an impact.
“We’ve seen time and time again how statements made in the public square demonizing certain minorities ultimately turn into criminal hate violence,” Potok said. “When these kinds of statements are made, especially by people who are very much in the public eye, they do ultimately translate into violence.”
“These kinds of statements make real demons out of their targets.” That demonization then serves as justification for violence, he explained. “Our experience with hate criminals is that an awful lot of them don’t think of themselves as street thugs; they think they are brave young men defending their communities. If you think that you’re attacking someone who is a child molester, an immoral pervert, someone who’s putting Western civilization at risk, it’s very easy to think of yourself as a hero, not a hate criminal.”
LGBT activists have long been successful at pointing out that the polished talking points anti-LGBT groups deliver to mainstream press outlets often doesn’t match the more incendiary rhetoric that they use in their own circles and to their own supporters. When journalists use the “hate group” label, it breaks down the public relations walls that these groups have set up for themselves, as is obvious from their attempts to downplay the designation. Indeed, the evidence against groups like the Liberty Counsel and Family Research Council in no way matches what they claim informs SPLC’s criteria.
How Liberty Counsel has earned its “hate group” stripes.
Liberty Counsel’s record of demonizing the LGBT community is storied, but here are a few highlights that extend far beyond opposing same-sex marriage, hate crime laws, and bans on ex-gay therapy:
- Defending the practice of ex-gay therapy, the Liberty Counsel has repeatedly claimed that young people’s same-sex “confusion” is “caused by the likes of a Jerry Sandusky abuser.”
- In 2014, the Liberty Counsel argued that same-sex marriage should remain banned in Michigan because of the impact of “homosexual-specific health problems.”
- Two years prior, Liberty Counsel circulated a meme image that claimed, “Just like smoking or drug addition, [homosexual] behavior should not be encouraged or promoted by our government.”
- Matt Barber, formerly part of the Liberty Counsel, once wrote a letter to gay teens telling them that if they’re depressed, it’s not because they face homophobia, but because they’re sinners.
- Barber has also claimed that affirming a transgender child’s identity is “nothing short of child abuse.”
- The Liberty Counsel long opposed ending the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay Scouts and leaders because it helps “protect young boys from homosexual pressures and predators.”
- Liberty Counsel has long supported laws that criminalize homosexuality. Most notably, they filed an amicus brief in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas urging the court to uphold sodomy laws as constitutional: “This Court again should decline to deprive states of the power to enact statutes that proscribe harmful and immoral conduct.”
This handful of examples doesn’t include all the evidence the SPLC includes on its own site laying out why Liberty Counsel is a hate group, nor the countless other examples that have been catalogued by RightWingWatch. The Family Research Council has its own similarly lengthy record of caustic and demonizing anti-LGBT rhetoric.
When Liberty Counsel defends clients like Kim Davis, ex-gay groups, or Scott Lively, they are not simply defending religious liberty. They are taking advantage of an opportunity to further demonize and discriminate against LGBT people in the public eye, and that is precisely why they are deserving of the “hate group” label.