CitizenLink Prepares to “Muscle Up” for [One-Man-One-Woman] Marriage

About Cole Parke

The new president of one of the most powerful conservative organizations in the country is well-steeped in the Christian Right’s scheme to redefine the meaning of religious freedom into a weapon designed to roll-back LGBTQ rights and attack reproductive justice. And as the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision looms, he’s readying a massive response.

CitizenLink announced last week that after nearly 30 years at the helm, Tom Minnery will be stepping down as president, transitioning leadership of the right-wing political advocacy group to Paul Weber, who previously served as vice president of communications and development for one of the Right’s most prominent legal advocacy groups, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), from 2000-2013.

Outgoing CitizenLink president Tom Minnery (left) and incoming president Paul Weber (right)

Outgoing CitizenLink president Tom Minnery (left) and incoming president Paul Weber (right)

Founded in 2004, CitizenLink is the public policy arm of Focus on the Family, operating out of the same building and under the same executive leadership team. Its mission is to “equip citizens to make their voices heard on critical social policy issues involving the sanctity of human life, the preservation of religious liberties and the well-being of the family as the building block of society.” Essentially, CitizenLink endeavors to insert—and enforce—a conservative biblical worldview into government and civil society.

Weber, who says he was originally recruited into the conservative movement through New Jersey’s CitizenLink affiliate, the Family Policy Council, is excited to “muscle up” CitizenLink’s work, focusing especially on the development and expansion of the nationwide network of Family Policy Councils.

Similar to the national network of conservative State Policy Network groups, there are currently 38 state-based Family Policy Councils formally associated with CitizenLink. Through these affiliates, CitizenLink works to “advance Christian values in laws, elections and our culture.” In the 2014 midterm elections alone, CitizenLink mobilized a huge nationwide effort targeting 21 state and federal races with an aggressive and well-funded field campaign that included nearly 5 million phone calls, 11,000 door knocks, and 2.3 million mailers.

CitizenLink’s campaign efforts include defunding Planned Parenthood, restricting abortion access, enforcing abstinence-only sex ed, resisting marriage equality efforts, countering attempts to curb global warming, and promoting creationism in schools.

In a recent fundraising appeal, outgoing president Tom Minnery conceded that despite the Right’s valiant efforts to restrict the benefits and privileges of marriage to the one-man-one-woman Christian Right model, the Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of marriage equality when they issue their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges later this month. “We need to be prepared for this devastating setback,” he wrote, going on to say, “Despite the court’s ruling, we must look to the future and get ready for the inevitable battles to come.”

Minnery also recommends looking to the past. In CitizenLink’s Spring 2015 newsletter, he reflected on the success of the anti-choice movement in the 40-plus years since Roe v. Wade. The veteran conservative explains that instead of falling into despair and giving up, anti-choice activists “began chipping away at Roe, by supporting smaller bills that limit abortions in many ways. Today, hundreds of those laws are in place around the country.”

In the last four years alone, over 200 laws restricting abortion access have passed in state legislatures (at least one in every state except Oregon), and more than 300 additional regulations have already been proposed in 45 different states this year.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality later this month, Minnery warns that what he calls the “radical Left” will next seek to “shut down the free religious expression of millions of pro-family Americans.” By this, he means that Christian business owners won’t be allowed to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will, indeed, be expected to accommodate the needs of LGBTQ customers in the same way that they serve their heterosexual clientele.

The strategy to use the progressive value of religious freedom to mask discriminatory laws is largely being authored by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the former workplace of new CitizenLink president Paul Weber—and other Christian Right  groups.  While the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) promoted the progressive values of religious pluralism, respect for all beliefs and non-beliefs, and tolerance, the RFRA bills being proposed and promoted by the Christian Right in state legislatures all over the country are designed to legalize religious authoritarianism—in direct contradiction to the original definition of religious freedom.

The strategy to use the progressive value of religious freedom to mask discriminatory laws is largely being authored by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the former workplace of new CitizenLink president Paul Weber—and other Christian Right groups. While the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) promoted the progressive values of religious pluralism, respect for all beliefs and non-beliefs, and tolerance, the RFRA bills being proposed and promoted by the Christian Right in state legislatures all over the country are designed to legalize religious authoritarianism—in direct contradiction to the original definition of religious freedom.

Though many on the Left may scoff, the narrative that “good, God-fearing Christians” are being persecuted by laws that prevent them from discriminating against LGBTQ people is gaining strength and momentum. CitizenLink has played a key role in the effort to redefine religious liberty and oppress LGBTQ people and women across the country by working to advance more repressive, state-level laws essentially granting licenses to discriminate, all under the same name as the more progressive federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). Simultaneously, through their on-the-ground network of Family Policy Councils, CitizenLink is also fighting legislation that would expand civil rights protections to LGBTQ people, including laws that would prevent employment and/or housing discrimination. The organization was an active part of the RFRA fights in Indiana and Arkansas, and claims credit for the defeat of laws in Idaho and North Dakota that would have provided critical protections to LGBTQ people.

Elliot Mincberg, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, explains, “These [state “religious freedom” bills] are, in part, a component of the far right’s efforts to reframe their decades-long war against every advance in societal acceptance and legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans into a noble effort to protect ‘religious liberty.’”

They are also an echo of the anti-abortion movement’s state-by-state chip away strategy—a nod to the lesson that no defeat is ever final.

Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court gives same-sex couples the stamp of approval, the Right won’t stop fighting. Paul Weber has already pledged to expand the network of CitizenLink-affiliated Family Policy Councils to all 50 states, and we can anticipate that wherever they are, they’ll be hard at work weakening whatever rights and protections might be gained.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.