History, Leadership, and Goals
Conservative activist Maggie Gallagher and Princeton professor Robert George launched the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in 2007. NOM’s mission is to defeat same-sex marriage at the polls, in the legislature, and in the courts, from state to state and across the country. The group functions as an organized infrastructure that coordinates state and federal initiatives into a national movement to ban same-sex marriage.
For its first project, NOM worked in tandem with the Mormon Church to funnel money into California’s Proposition 8 campaign, which led to suspicions that NOM is a front group for the Mormon Church. NOM has since incurred suspicion that it is also a front for the Catholic Church, due to close ties with—and funding from—Catholic groups. Catholic conservative Brian Brown took over as president in 2010 from co-founder Maggie Gallagher, who now serves as president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a conservative anti-marriage equality think tank.
Gallagher previously worked for other antigay groups such as the Institute for American Values and the Marriage Law Foundation. In her book The Abolition of Marriage, Gallagher equates same-sex marriage with polygamy, stating that “for all its ugly defects, [polygamy] is an attempt to secure stable mother-father families for children… [and] there is no principled reason why you don’t have polygamy if you have gay marriage.” Current board chair Dr. John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor, has vocally defended the Boy Scouts’ antigay discrimination and referred to homosexuality as a form of “barbarism.”
Despite the economic recession, NOM’s revenue increased exponentially in its first few years, starting out with a modest half million dollars in 2007 and rising to $7.4 million in 2009, 14 times its 2007 income. Three-quarters of its 2009 revenue came from 14 big donors (minimum $5000) who together contributed $5.5 million, the largest donor contributing $2.5 million. Thus, a small group of extremely wealthy donors is responsible for NOM’s funding, giving this handful of privileged individuals an exaggerated influence on the same-sex marriage debate and public policy. However, in 2011, after pledging to spend $20 million, NOM’s upward trend in fundraising changed, reporting only $7.2 million in revenue (mostly from two donors), down more than $2 million from 2010. Upon losing marriage equality ballot initiatives in all four 2012 state contests–Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, and Washington–NOM President Brian Brown blamed the defeats on being “greatly outspent” and claimed “same-sex marriage is not inevitable.”
Flouting financial disclosure laws, NOM fiercely protects the anonymity of its donors and thereby encourages them to continue giving large sums of money. The largest known donor is the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal society based in New Haven, CT, that contributed $500,000 in 2008 and $1.4 million in 2009. Many suspect that the largest donations are coming from the Mormon and Catholic Churches because of their connections to NOM founders and board members. “You’ve got this really interesting funnel of tax-free money coming from the Dioceses and the Council of Bishops and the Knights of Columbus directly to these campaigns,” noted Phil Attey, executive director of the pro-gay marriage Catholics for Equality.
NOM leaders claim they maintain this secrecy to protect donors from persecution by gay rights supporters. They even use this policy of anonymity as a fundraising tool, with Brian Brown promising prospective donors that their identities will remain secret: “And unlike in California, every dollar you give to NOM’s Northeast Action Plan today is private, with no risk of harassment from gay marriage protesters.” Furthermore, NOM defends its non-disclosure by suing states such as California and Maine, challenging their financial disclosure requirements as unconstitutional. In response to a 2010 ethics investigation from the state of Maine, NOM committed millions for litigation to delay disclosure in the courts as long as possible.
One of NOM’s chief strategies involves campaigning for antigay legislators and working to unseat legislators and judges who support marriage equality, particularly Republicans and moderate Democrats who support pro-LGBTQ legislation and court cases. In 2011, it vowed to spend $1 million on these goals in Maryland alone. The group successfully implemented this strategy in 2010 to unseat three State Supreme Court judges in Iowa who ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. In 2012, the group pledged $100,000 to unseat a fourth Iowan judge who supported marriage equality.
With fiery rhetoric, NOM demonizes so-called “traitors” against marriage through extensive mailings, robo-calls, and e-newsletters. Prone to fear mongering and hyperbole, NOM’s leaders rally their ultra-conservative base to vote the “traitors” out of office and donate to anti-same-sex marriage candidates. For instance, in a July 2011 newsletter, NOM president Brian Brown declared that with Senate hearings on repealing DOMA, “President Obama and the hard-left core of the Democratic Party in Washington declared war on marriage, on federalism, on democracy and on religious liberty.” NOM wields hyperbolic rhetoric to distort the pro-same-sex marriage campaign into an all-out war on traditional American principles. Framing same-sex marriage as an insidious threat to such universally accepted American values, it galvanizes its target audience and makes it difficult for supporters of equality to argue against them. With their seemingly innocuous claim that they are “protecting families,” NOM’s leaders hope to confound and silence opponents.
Another fear mongering argument that NOM employs is the notion that redefining marriage would result in religious persecution by the government. Its leaders argue that such “persecution” would include: forcing pro-gay views on children in public schools, forcing churches to perform same-sex marriages, and denying tax breaks to religious institutions that fail to recognize same-sex marriage. For instance, Maggie Gallagher has argued that she and Robert George founded NOM because “if nothing changes, state legislatures are going to begin to pass laws to redefine marriage and…our churches, charities, schools and other organizations were going to be persecuted by state governments as a result.”
In March 2012, LGBTQ advocates got a detailed look into NOM’s campaigning and messaging strategies following a lawsuit related to the group’s Maine activities. Documents from the case reveal NOM’s efforts to develop anti-LGBTQ media to directly appeal to racial minorities, using it to drive a “wedge between blacks and gays.” At the end of August 2012, NOM launched a radio ad campaign in swing state North Carolina’s Raleigh media market, home to 40 percent of the state’s African-American population. The advertisement features Dr. Patrick Wooden, a prominent African-American pastor, and urges listeners to say “no more” to President Barack Obama based on his endorsement of marriage equality. The same documents showed that NOM hoped to inflame tensions among those in the African-American community who take issue with equating LGBTQ equality with civil rights, and to target the Latino community by making support for “traditional marriage” a “key badge of Latino culture” and recruiting “glamorous” Latino spokespeople to help further the cause.
In the summer and fall of 2010, NOM sponsored two bus tours to promote its anti-LGBTQ message, which generated little publicity and small turnouts. Undeterred, the group embarked on another bus tour in August 2011, aiming to sway Iowan voters to select an anti-gay marriage presidential candidate. On the state level, NOM also promotes ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage, heavily funding referendums such as California’s Prop 8 and Maine’s Question 1. In states such as New York that lack a ballot initiative procedure, NOM focuses on lobbying legislators to oppose gay marriage through laws or constitutional amendments. The group spent $2 million to target three Republicans in the New York State Senate who voted in June of 2011 to legalize marriage rights for LGBTQ couples, helping to defeat one in a GOP primary. Another Republican who voted for the measure, Jim Alesi, opted not to seek a ninth term in the State Senate, fearing intense negative campaigning on the part of NOM and its allies.
This profile is the first in a series on key anti-LGBTQ opponents adapted from Political Research Associates’ Resisting the Rainbow report, with research from PRA’s 2012 The Right’s Marriage Message. Particular thanks also to Human Rights Campaign’s NOM Exposed project.