How One Conspiracy Theory Group Pushes Anti-U.N. Legislation Around The Country

A John Birch Society-sponsored sign (Credit: Wikimedia)

A fringe conspiracy theory group that believes the United Nations is out to steal the freedoms of the American people has been working with state legislatures around the country to pass a series of laws that reflect their paranoid, isolationist worldview.

The John Birch Society, a nativist organization founded in the 1950s, is famous for opposing the Civil Rights movement and espousing other far-right views, including that President Eisenhower was a communist infiltrator and Nelson Mandela is “a communist terrorist thug.” The John Birch Society’s views are so far right, in fact, that even conservative icon William F. Buckley denounced the group as “idiotic” and “paranoid.”

Their longtime foe, the United Nations, in 1992 passed a series of non-binding recommendations related to developing resources in a way that can be sustained across generations. The phrase that these documents created — sustainable development — has become a code-word for right-wing black helicopter conspiracies.

By targeting these recommendations, the sinister sounding “Agenda 21,” the Birchers have found a way to promote their views under the guise of protecting the American people from the United Nations stealing away their property. Missouri became the latest state to pass just such a law on Wednesday, sending SB265 to Gov. Jay Nixon (D) for his signature. Under the provisions of SB265, the Missouri government is banned from passing any future laws that would fall under the scope of Agenda:

Neither the state of Missouri nor any political subdivision shall adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development or any other international law or ancillary plan of action that contravenes the Constitution of the United States or the Missouri Constitution.

The Missouri draft closely mirrors draft anti-Agenda 21 legislation in Oklahoma that was pulled following a local scandal. ThinkProgress contacted the office of State Sen. Patrick Anderson (R) who sponsored the Oklahoma bill and was told that the language was based almost entirely on a law passed in Alabama. Jerry Bassett, the Director of the Alabama Legislative Reference Service, told ThinkProgress that while he could not tell us who the original drafter of the bill was, the member who brought it forward had the bill completely typed and ready when he did. Bassett also told ThinkProgress the original copy of the bill, still in the LRS’ files, has the words “Tea Party bill” written on it.

The John Birch Society’s anti-U.N. screed has appealed to the Tea Party almost since its founding in 2009, which makes sense given one of the founders of the Society was the father of Tea Party supporters David and Charles Koch. And since Alabama’s bill passed in 2012, a whole slew of copycat legislation popped up around the country. “The Alabama Legislature has passed (and the Governor signed) an excellent, binding anti-Agenda 21 bill, SB477, that is worthy of emulation by the rest of the states in 2013,” the Birch Society’s website says on its page urging its supporters to contact their legislators.

It seems that the Birch society took its own advice. Upon digging deeper, the trail led ThinkProgress to the Birch Society’s Northeast Regional Field Director Hal Shurtleff. In Oct. 2012, Shurtleff posted a collection of model legislation on Agenda 21 for almost every state in the country.

Shurtleff posted these drafts months before the introduction of the bills in their corresponding legislatures. For example, the Missouri version of the anti-Agenda 21 bill didn’t hit the floor in Jefferson City until Feb. 26, 2013. Each of the drafts also contains spaces for the eventual bill number the language would receive. You can see the two versions compared here:

When ThinkProgress reached Shurtleff, he didn’t deny that he was the author of the draft legislation found online. Instead, he confirmed that he had based the many documents on the Alabama bill and placed all of the models online. He also noted that the model language was used directly in legislation introduced in Massachusetts and with slight modifications in Maine and New Hampshire.

Shurtleff appeared at a Tea Party rally in Maine on April 15 to warn of the dangers of Agenda 21. In a video posted on YouTube, Shurtleff can be seen calling a graph of the “triple bottom line” the “swastika of Agenda 21.” He also noted that he’d been giving talks on Agenda 21 around the country, warning about how unelected officials were seeking to limit American freedom. In a 2012 article in Esquire magazine, Shurtleff is quoted warning against the evils of U.S. public transportation and described Mexican immigration as “another kind of environmental disaster.”

In reality, the crux of Agenda 21 isn’t in taking away property rights or, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has previously warned, closing down America’s golf courses. Instead, the entire idea behind Agenda 21 is that the world’s governments should work to make sure that natural resources are used in a way that doesn’t deplete them too quickly.

(Adam Peck contributed graphics for this post.)