The Christian Right Does Not Want Us to Celebrate this Day

In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see. The Christian Right has made religious freedom the ideological phalanx of its current campaigns in the culture wars. Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people. But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right.

The first national Day of the New Year will be one that most of us have never heard of. Authorized by Congress in 1992, Religious Freedom Day has been recognized every January 16th by an annual presidential proclamation commemorating the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

This seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation is so integral to our history that Thomas Jefferson asked that his tombstone recognize that he was the author of the bill, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia as one of the three things for which he wished to be remembered.

It is worth taking a moment to understand why Jefferson thought it was that important.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777 but it took a decade to be finally pushed by the then-member of the House of Delegates, James Madison. It is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written. The bill not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” As the founding documents were developed it became ever clearer that the right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press – and that this is what religious freedom is all about.

Following the dramatic passage of the Statute in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787. As a Member of Congress in 1789 he was also a principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.

Jefferson knew that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration. So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant.

The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”  So with this clear and powerful statement Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refutes the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom insist that the U.S. was not only founded as a Christian nation, but according to their understanding of Christianity. Jefferson further explained that the legislature had rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom does not fit the Christian Right’s narrative of history. Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision. Indeed, Religious Freedom Day has got to be a dark day for the likes of Tony Perkins, who argues that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what it is really about — and instead used the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.

Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for us to think dynamically about the meaning of religious freedom in our time – even as the Christian Right seeks to redefine it beyond recognition.

Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for us to think dynamically about the meaning of religious freedom in our time – even as the Christian Right seeks to redefine it beyond recognition. The web site that comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day adds to the misinformation. The group behind is a small evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education that treats the Day as an opportunity to evangelize. They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.’” Gateways is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to evangelize children. (This is detailed in a book by Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.)

Nevertheless, in his 2015 proclamation, President Obama declared that religious freedom “protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”

“The Coalition for Liberty & Justice is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.”

That’s why it was so significant that in 2015, progressives took a big, bold step to reclaim this progressive legacy of the revolutionary, founding era. The 60 organizational members of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice (including PRA) decided to seize the day. We took to the op-ed pages and social media and launched the conversation that has continued to this day.

More than two dozen organizational members of the Coalition contributed op-eds, blog posts, and a storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter. The Coalition’s “Twitter Storm” reached some 590,000 Twitter accounts and more than six million impressions. In two hours on January 16th alone, there were more than 1,500 tweets and 552 individual contributors. Among the Coalition members that participated were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, National LGBTQ Taskforce, Secular Coalition for America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Bloggers at Daily Kos contributed a wide variety of thoughts about religious freedom and the Day. The Center for American Progress suggested three ways to celebrate.

The executive director of the Joint Baptist Committee on Public Affairs, J. Brent Walker, took to The Huffington Post to discuss how “Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance.”

It is, he said, up to religious communities to persuade others of their views, and to “count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.”

It would be an understatement to say that the outpouring was broad, diverse, and enthusiastic.

Let’s do it again in 2016.


Using the “War on Drugs” to Arrest Pregnant Women

The War On Drugs, launched in 1971 by Richard Nixon, has been repeatedly exposed as a failure. Yet, the same failed tactics used to fight drugs continue to be used to retain control over women’s reproduction. Drug laws are increasingly being implemented on the state level as a roundabout method to limit women’s bodily autonomy and carry out anti-choice agendas. Last year, Tennessee passed SB 1391, and became the first state in the U.S. to specifically criminalize drug use during pregnancy. The legislation states that women with babies who test positive for narcotics can be charged and prosecuted for assault. Those women would face up to 15 years of prison time.

Tennessee State Rep Terri Lynn Weaver (R). image via Flickr

Tennessee State Rep Terri Lynn Weaver’s (R) new law specifically criminalizes pregnant women who use drugs, threatening them with massive jail sentences if their doctors find out. image via Flickr

Proponents of the bill claimed it was a necessary step towards combating the increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in Tennessee. However, the medical community took issue with the legislation on a number of points, with obstetric and drug specialists stating that risks to newborns have been exaggerated. An investigative article in the American Prospect found that not only is there “no evidence that NAS has long-term consequences for infants,” but that some doctors agree there is a trend of over-treating NAS and that in actuality, close contact with the mother, not isolation, is important for alleviating symptoms. Medical authorities also say that NAS symptoms are temporary, predictable, and treatable—a far cry from State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver’s (R) assertion that “these babies are born and their lives are totally destroyed.” Furthermore, using the term “drug addicted” to describe such babies has been declared inaccurate by medical professionals, yet Republican politicians, conservative prosecutors, and media continue to frame the issue as such in a way that stigmatizes women.

Pregnant women will be likely to avoid seeking prenatal or open medical care for fear that their physician’s knowledge of substance abuse could result in a jail sentence rather than proper medical treatment.

The Tennessee Department of Health’s FAQ sheet on the statute claims it does not “change care or medical treatment provided to pregnant women.” While it may not explicitly do so, the bill can have the detrimental effect of discouraging pregnant women from seeking vital prenatal care and treatment for fear of arrest and prosecution. The context and implications of medical treatment are indeed changed, and as a result there is widespread consensus in the medical community in opposition to the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women. This is not a recent development: as early as 1990, the American Medical Association stated, “Pregnant women will be likely to avoid seeking prenatal or open medical care for fear that their physician’s knowledge of substance abuse or other potentially harmful behavior could result in a jail sentence rather than proper medical treatment.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concurred in a statement on the harms of using punitive measures to combat addiction, asserting that “Drug enforcement policies that deter women from seeking prenatal care are contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus. Incarceration and the threat of incarceration have proved to be ineffective in reducing the incidence of alcohol or drug abuse.”

Not only is the science behind SB 1391 faulty, but the stereotypes and discourses remain consistent: the manufactured “crack baby” hysteria is mirrored, along with the moral condemnation of these mothers.

Female drug users have always been stigmatized, but the criminalization of female users reached a new high when conservative policymakers, led by President Ronald Reagan and faithfully echoed by the media, fabricated a trope of inner-city “crack babies” doomed by their supposedly incompetent mothers: poor women of color. Tennessee’s recently passed legislation shows this framework is far from retired. Representative Weaver, one of the bill’s sponsors, was quoted in a comment calling pregnant drug users “the worst of the worst.” The media storm surrounding the legislation, featuring mug shots of women arrested under the statute on local TV news and on the Internet, has driven pregnant women into hiding to escape public ridicule. According to an investigation by The Nation, 24-year-old Brittany Hudson gave birth in a car instead of the hospital out of fear of arrest and media exposure. In the previous weeks, Hudson had been turned away from two rehab centers already at capacity. As she feared, her mug shot was plastered over the news after she was charged with assault. Tennessee’s law reflects the detrimental view of addiction as a moral failure, rather than the medical disorder research has proven it to be. Just as the “crack problem” was used in the 80s as a vehicle for scapegoating supposedly “deviant” urban citizens experiencing the problems caused by Reagan’s social and economic policies, Tennessee’s statute and its conservative supporters ignore broader structural issues such as poverty, systemic racism, and insufficient health care. The conservative “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice consistently focuses on social control and punishment rather than social justice and access to resources.

Tennessee’s law reflects the detrimental view of addiction as a moral failure, rather than the medical disorder research has proven it to be.

In line with the War On Drugs, this legislation disproportionately harms poor people of color, despite conservatives’ colorblind claim that drug policy has nothing to do with race or poverty. The normalization of controlling Black and Brown bodies through institutional apparatuses continues with this expansion of an already overburdened criminal justice system. This trend, illuminated in Lynn Paltrow (whose article on fetal genocide laws can be found in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine) and Jeanne Flavin’s study published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, follows a long-term strategy to unite the War On Drugs and the anti-abortion movement, which results in a disproportionate impact upon low-income Black pregnant women. The study systematically identified and analyzed over 400 cases in which a woman’s pregnancy was the basis for the deprivation of her liberty. Black women comprised over half of the cases, as they were found to be reported to the police by health care providers and arrested at higher rates. As a racist project, the justice system’s latest efforts to criminalize drug users will subject pregnant Black women to higher rates of arrests and incarceration based on systemic racial biases and racial stereotypes of African-American mothers, an issue perhaps most notably elucidated in Dorothy Robert’s seminal book Killing the Black Body.

Tennessee’s law exempts women who enter drug addiction programs while pregnant and complete them post-birth. This addition, included to temper opponents, simply furthers the disparate implementation of the measure and creates a catch-22 for addicted, low-income women who cannot get treatment. Women in rural areas and women struggling financially are threatened with a higher risk of incarceration due to limited access to drug addiction programs (as well as limited access to other options, with 96% of Tennessee counties lacking an abortion clinic). The law does not specify the legal ramifications for a woman who seeks treatment but can’t access one or get into a program, leaving many in a vulnerable position. Nor does the law provide increased funding or opportunities for treatment for pregnant women.

And Tennessee isn’t alone. Since passing the bill last year, conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma and North Carolina have proposed similar legislation.

Tennessee’s prenatal drug use law is a continuation of the “personhood” campaign. Both sponsors of the bill, Sen. Reginald Tate (D) & Rep Weaver, were endorsed by Tennessee Right to Life PAC, one of the foremost anti-choice organizations in the state.

The Tennessee law is merely one component of a wider, more subtle—and thus perhaps more dangerous—trend. Although Tennessee is the only state that explicitly criminalizes prenatal drug use as an assault, other states are utilizing different drug-related methods to control women’s reproduction. 18 states label drug usage by pregnant women as child abuse under child-welfare statutes. In the case Ex Parte Sarah Janie Hicks in April 2014, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that a 2006 child abuse chemical endangerment statute’s reference to “child” includes an “unborn” child, upholding Hicks’ conviction for having a baby that later tested positive for cocaine, despite being healthy. The original purpose of the statute was to prohibit individuals from exposing children to narcotics production and distribution areas, but right-wing organizations, such as Liberty Counsel, and conservative political actors have since pushed for a wider interpretation of the law: one in which a fetus is considered a child and a womb is considered an environment where drugs are produced or distributed. Court decisions such as Hicks function to create precedent for convicting pregnant women for drug use.

Tennessee’s legislation, in conjunction with other drug-related strategies like the expansion of Alabama’s child endangerment statute under Ex Parte Hicks, applies the punitive approach of the War On Drugs to reproductive rights, limiting women’s bodily autonomy and perpetuating the legacy of the our racist carceral system. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, has consistently highlighted how Tennessee’s prenatal drug use law is a continuation of the anti-abortion “personhood” campaign. Notably, both sponsors of the bill, State Senator Reginald Tate (D) and Representative Weaver, were endorsed by Tennessee Right to Life PAC, one of the foremost anti-choice organizations in the state. These legislative encroachments are but one tactic in a state-by-state approach by conservative activists to control reproduction and insert the concept of “personhood” into the legal code in various arenas.

The prosecution of prenatal drug use stigmatizes and locates the blame on individual mothers, distracting attention from poverty, institutionalized racism, a broken carceral system, insufficient health care, and other structural causes. In a coming together of two controversial issues, drug policy and reproduction, conservatives have found an effective strategy to further their agenda through the targeting of pregnant drug users.

When Anti-Abortion Propaganda is Accepted as Investigative Journalism

One of the underreported aspects of the current smear campaign against Planned Parenthood is the coarsening and polarizing of our civil discourse that usually accompanies discussions of the culture wars.  This has been especially glaring because the ongoing barrage of false and inflammatory language directed at Planned Parenthood and its staff by anti-abortion groups; and the remarkable disconnect between what is passing for evidence and investigative journalism, and the charges being leveled.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and various staff and affiliates stand accused of “selling” or “trafficking in baby parts.”  They are said to be “profiteering” in a “black market.”  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has gone so far as to call Planned Parenthood “an ongoing criminal enterprise.”

David Daleiden

David Daleiden, founder of Center for Medical Progress and former staff member of Live Action.

These serious, but hyperbolically-stated, charges are based largely on short, manipulatively edited videos produced from hidden camera conversations by the anti-abortion group, Center for Medical Progress (CMP), led by founder David Daleiden who previously served as Director of Research for similar group, Live Action. The videos are being used to justify official investigations by Congress and efforts to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving state and federal funds for routine health care services such as breast cancer screenings, pap smears, contraception, and prenatal care.  Federal funds are not used to provide abortion care (except via Medicaid in the cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother), and many Planned Parenthood affiliates do not even provide abortions. Among those that do, not all are involved in the donation of fetal tissue and organs.  This is the case in New Hampshire, where, in response to the CMP’s videos, the state recently decided not to continue contracting with Planned Parenthood to provide health care services, even though PP is not engaged in fetal tissue research donations and the state Attorney General had already decided that there was no basis for an investigation.

“We do not launch investigations in the state of New Hampshire on rumor,” said Governor Maggie Hassan. “We do not launch criminal investigations in the state of New Hampshire because somebody edits a tape.”

The videos claiming to demonstrate that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue and organs for profit actually only show exactly what PPFA says it does. The organization is reimbursed for the costs associated with transporting tissue for purposes of medical and scientific research. Medical ethicists say that the reimbursement rates discussed in the videos are well within the standard range for non-profits. (For-profit medical enterprises get more.)  This is all legal under federal law. And it is worth noting that no one is proposing changing the laws, or investigating anyone other than Planned Parenthood—likely because the research is life-saving and has led to breakthroughs in cancer treatments and other medical advancements.

This isn’t the first time anti-choice groups have used the same methods to smear Planned Parenthood and pressure public officials into investigating the women’s health care provider in search of a justification to make PPFA ineligible to receive federal funds on the same basis as everyone else.  (They call it “defunding Planned Parenthood.”) David Daleiden himself served as Director of Research for Live Action during the big smear campaign against PPFA in 2011.

Vickie Saporta of the National Abortion Federation (the professional association of abortion providers, whose membership includes providers in both the non-profit and for-profit medical community), further connected the dots to a similar effort in the 1990s. She recently wrote in The Washington Examiner that

“In 1999, another anti-abortion group, Life Dynamics, released an ‘undercover’ video claiming that abortion providers were profiting from fetal tissue donation. The allegations led to a congressional hearing in which the star witness confessed to having been paid over $20,000 by Life Dynamics.

He recanted his story, saying under oath that he had lied and that he had no personal knowledge of any instances in which tissue donation programs had violated federal law. Even legislators who opposed abortion doubted his story and credibility. Then Representative — now Senator — Richard Burr, R-N.C., told the witness: ‘I found there to be so many inconsistencies in your testimony … your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot.’

The head of Life Dynamics, Mark Crutcher, admitted that the hearing was a train wreck. It’s no surprise that Crutcher has also been consulting with CMP. Further investigations this time around will find the same thing as last time: That the anti-abortion group and its agents are the ones who acted fraudulently, and that abortion providers have not broken the law.”

The swirl of charges and countercharges can make your head spin, so here is one simple example of the way CMP handles evidence.

Daleiden was recently interviewed by Alisyn Camerota on CNN’s “New Day” show. He said a brochure for StemExpress, a small company that procures human tissues for researchers, proved that Planned Parenthood harvests fetal parts for profit. He urged viewers to visit the CMP web site to see it.

So I did.

What CMP posted is a generic corporate promotional brochure aimed at a wide audience in the medical field. A PPFA official’s endorsement on the brochure is for the professionalism of the company and makes no mention of pecuniary interests.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the current controversy is that few journalists and public officials are seriously scrutinizing this crude propaganda, and are largely allowing an obscure, militant anti-abortion group to cast themselves as investigative journalists rather than highlighting their agenda and dishonest tactics. Daleiden claims to produce investigative journalism and his lawyers (the Christian Right’s American Center for Law and Justice) characterize Daleiden and his CMP colleague Troy Newman (who also leads the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue) as “investigative journalists.”  Christianity Today, the major magazine of evangelical Christianity, called Daleiden a “filmmaker.”  These are very generous descriptions of who these men are, and what they do.

Recently the National Abortion Federation obtained a temporary injunction against the Center for Medical Progress, preventing it from publishing confidential material obtained under false pretenses. Among the reasons the injunction was granted are the harassment and death threats against the PPFA staffers who appeared in the videos. In his ruling, Judge William H. Orrick said:

“Critically, the parties do not disagree about NAF’s central allegations: defendants assumed false identities, created a fake company, and lied to NAF in order to obtain access to NAF’s annual meetings and gain private information about its members….[The defendants] unquestionably breached their agreements with NAF…The evidence presented by NAF, including that defendants’ recent dissemination of videos of and conversations with NAF affiliates has led to harassment and death threats for the individuals in those videos, is sufficient to show irreparable injury for the purposes of the temporary restraining order.”

Center for Medical Progress responded:

“The National Abortion Federation is a criminal organization that has spent years conspiring with Planned Parenthood on how to violate federal laws on partial-birth abortion and fetal tissue sales.”

The evidence for this series of charges from CMP? None.

Catholic Democrats & the Group Behind the Anti-Planned Parenthood Videos

Anti-abortion Catholic Democrats have long sought to cast their cause as progressive, but their actions have taken them into common cause with the Religious Right.  This tendency has been on display during the brouhaha over the publication of the first of what promises to be a series of misleading propaganda videos published by an obscure antiabortion group.

The Center for Medical Progress (a Catholic Right group with no relation to the liberal Washington DC think tank, Center for American Progress) has made news for its tabloid claim that Planned Parenthood Federation of America engages in the potentially criminal harvesting of fetal tissue and organs for profit. But the documentation does not substantiate the charges.  In fact, the unedited version of the covertly recorded video and the transcript supports PPFA’s statements that they only engage in the lawful practice of—and with the woman’s consent—donating fetal tissue for medical and research purposes.

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG).

Epitomizing the tendency of anti-choice Democrats to become entangled with religious and political elements who are neither progressive or Democratic, is Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) – whose devotion to the cause has been clear since its founding in 2004.

Two days after the release of the first video, Christopher J. Hale (executive director of CACG) published a provocative op-ed in the religion section of The Washington Post online.  He called for progressive and Democratic leaders to join him in denouncing Planned Parenthood, citing the Center for Medical Progress’s crude work of propaganda as the justification for his call to moral action.

“Who will say no,” Hale asked, framing his accusation in the form of a question, “to this growing indifference towards others’ invisible sufferings, toward unseen violence, and toward hidden injustices that has metastasized in our national conscience? Who will speak truth to the rich and powerful and denounce Planned Parenthood’s participation and leadership in this throwaway culture and an economy that debases, excludes, and kills?”

Juxtapose Hale’s accusations with journalists like Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times and Robin Marty at Cosmopolitan, who quickly saw that the video does not support the charges. So did the editorial board of The New York Times, which concluded that “the video campaign is a dishonest attempt to make legal, voluntary and potentially lifesaving tissue donations appear nefarious and illegal.”

It did not take long for Hale’s piece to be seen as an outrageous rush to judgement. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, writing at The Huffington Post, observed that Hale did not let the facts get in the way of the story he wanted to tell. CACG, said O’Brien, “is so hell-bent on making abortion illegal that they went so far as to equate a woman’s abortion decision with torture and war.”

Nevertheless, Hale is often cited in major media as a representative of liberal Christianity, and is a regular contributor to Time magazine.

Who Is Center for Medical Progress?

If Hale and other anti-abortion Democrats had bothered to look, they would have learned that the Center for Medical Progress has only existed since 2013, and has no record of doing much of anything prior to their release of the propaganda video which prompted Hale’s op-ed.  Hale would also have found out that one of the three founders is Troy Newman, longtime president of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue (see PRA’s profile here).  What’s more, Robin Marty reported that the tactic of making sensationalized, highly edited undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood was popularized by Live Action, founded and led by Lila Rose (see PRA’s profile here), and that Daleiden had worked for her.  “David Daleiden” Marty wrote of Center for Medical Progress’s founder, “is the former director of research for Live Action, and according to Breitbart News, he held that position for five years and ‘is no stranger to undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood.’”

Rose, who says her work is driven by her faith, was catechized by the secretive, conservative order Opus Dei while she was in college. She is a popular speaker at Christian Right events, such as the annual Values Voters political conference hosted by the Family Research Council. Rose claimed that the Daleiden video reveals “the unimaginable horror that is Planned Parenthood” including the “exploitation of human life, the cover-up, and the black market profiteering by America’s largest abortion chain” as well as “their contempt for rule of law and human life.”

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good itself has a curious recent history.  The organization lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and all of its prominent supporters inexplicably disappeared from its web site last year.  It is unclear where its money currently comes from, but CACG now appears to be an unincorporated project of a Washington, DC political PR firm, Matz, Blancato & Associates  – with which it shares a mailing address, and where longtime CACG board member and current chairman Alfred Rotondaro has worked in recent years.  (Blancato also chairs the Italian American Democratic Council, a political action committee of which Rotondaro is treasurer.)  Rotondaro, who has also been a Senior Fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is no longer listed on the organization’s web site.  (The Center for American Progress’s publication Think Progress has, however, posted a detailed exposé of what’s wrong with the Daleiden videos and links it to similar video smear products intended to damage Planned Parenthood.) 

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates the legal and ethical standards regarding donation of tissue and organs for purposes of medical and scientific research. The full transcript of the video, which was released by CMP, shows PPFA’s Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola explaining how patients are not coerced but are informed about the option of donating tissue, and also making it very clear that there is no profit motive.

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates legal and ethical standards.

Subsequent statements issued by PPFA are consistent with what Nucatola told her undercover interviewers. PPFA states, “[W]e do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.  There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.  In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”

Indeed, the charges being exploited by anti-abortion groups and opportunistic politicians are based exclusively on a method of employing terms like “selling,” “trafficking,” “haggling,”  “profiteering,” and “black market” to make inflammatory charges that are not supported by the facts.  

Recent reporting suggests that the videos may have been released in collusion with Republican Members of Congress—at least two of whom had seen the first video weeks before its release—and who say they will  initiate an investigation into the allegations.

It was one thing for the ostensibly liberal and Democratic Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to advocate for their views. But there has always been more to it. “To the untrained eye,” Catholics for Choice explained in a 2009 report on the group, “CACG may just seem like another Catholic social justice organization, focusing solely on traditional Catholic social teaching such as care of the poor, environmental sustainability and economic justice. However, a closer look reveals that a key aim of CACG is to oppose the availability of legal abortion.”

But beyond even this, it is quite another thing for CACG executive director Christopher J. Hale to treat as fact a work of crude political propaganda from a sketchy organization, alleging potentially criminal activity on the part of a respected health care provider – and then to call on Democratic and progressive leaders to  join him in this recklessness.  Hale and others of his ilk may actually believe this video smear job, or, worse, may be willing to employ the lies of a militant, right-wing agency to accomplish their ends – no matter who among their supposed allies may be harmed.

U.S. “Army of God” Operative Plasters Kenya with Anti-LGBTQI Posters

Jonathan O’Toole—an American anti-choice activist based in Nakuru, Kenya—makes no secret of his opinions about President Obama. “I hate Obama, I hate his guts,” he told me in a recent interview. “I’m against him. I’m his enemy.”

Jonathan O'Toole

Jonathan O’Toole

Indeed, in the struggle for human rights—including the rights of women and LGBTQI people—Jonathan O’Toole stands in stark opposition to the president’s pro-choice, pro-LGBTQI efforts. And in Kenya, O’Toole isn’t alone. East Africa has proven to be fertile territory for his Christian Right agenda.

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding President Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya, where he will be attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. While some Kenyans are eagerly anticipating the long-promised visit (the president’s first trip to his father’s homeland since 2006), others are already organizing protests, threatening acts of defiance if Obama dares speak out for LGBTQI equality while in the country.

At a press conference on July 6, Kenyan lawmakers and religious leaders, including National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, said the president risks opening “floodgates of evil” by promoting LGBTQI rights, adding “we have a responsibility to protect our children.” One of the speakers, MP Charles Njagagua, warned that if President Obama spoke in favor of LGBTQI rights during his speech to the National Assembly, he would be ejected from the House.

Another Kenyan leader, Samuel Thuita, a senior member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, threatened to throw eggs at Obama if he speaks out about LGBTQI rights during his time in Kenya, correlating the act with historic resistance to British imperialism:

“The founding father of the nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was pelted with rotten eggs in Britain for only agitating for our independence. I will mobilise and lead every member of the council, including women and the youth, and Kenyans in general to throw rotten eggs at Obama if he dares introduce the gay and lesbian debate.”

And Obama isn’t the only one being threatened. Denis Nzioka, a Kenyan LGBTQI rights activist, reported to the International Business Times that homophobia is on the rise. “There have been more beatings, evictions and attacks when public discourse focuses on the [LGBTQI] community,” he explained. “It gets heightened and it will only increase momentum as Obama’s visit gets closer.”

In Kenya, those found guilty of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison.

By contrast to the United States, where the White House was recently awash with the colors of the rainbow following the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, in Kenya, those found guilty of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison.

According to local reporting, “Thuita urged Kenyans and Africans to uphold their customs and not fall prey to neocolonialism being introduced through the back door.”

This tactic of coopting  and twisting the language of neocolonialism to suggest that homosexuality—rather than homophobia—is the foreign [ideological] agent is increasingly employed by Christian Right-influenced African leaders, who have found that scapegoating LGBTQI people is a highly effective way of distracting constituents from economic deficits and political corruption, and thus maintaining power.

As PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has observed, this self-serving twist on colonialism and neocolonialism is far from accurate:

“[I]t is not LGBTQ people who are foreign to Africa, but rather the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that is being used against them. […] It is true that Western nations have not always acted in the interest of Africa (to put it mildly), but to use the West as an excuse to persecute and imprison innocent persons is appalling. Politicians like [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe and [The Gambia President Yahya] Jammeh, who have robbed their respective nations of billions of dollars, are also responsible for their countries’ dire economic states. These African leaders condemn the West and scapegoat gays to distract from real issues facing their nations and to hide their own incompetence, corruption, and despotism.”

Meanwhile, the real neocolonial narrative is being scripted and directed by right-wing Christian culture warriors from the United States. Sharon Slater of Family Watch International and John Eastman of the National Organization for Marriage were featured speakers at Kenya’s “National Family Conference” this past May (an event sponsored by the U.S.-based culture war-exporting group World Congress of Families). Rick Warren of Saddleback Church announced during a 2014 visit to Kenya that he intends on expanding his ministry into East Africa (this element of Warren’s dominionist agenda will assuredly gain momentum during his “All-Africa Purpose Driven Conference,” set to be convened in Rwanda next year). The American Center for Law & Justice—which advocates against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality—established their East Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya in 2011.

And then there are the less familiar faces—people like Jonathan O’Toole—who are amplifying the U.S. Christian Right’s global attack on LGBTQI equality and reproductive justice.

Some may recall O’Toole from Soldiers in the Army of God, an HBO documentary released in 2000 that featured interviews with several high-profile anti-choice extremists. O’Toole—then just 19-years-old—became the focal point of the film as he traveled the country seeking the most “radical” and “terroristic” anti-choice group he could find.

Despite the violent outcomes of this sort of propaganda, in O’Toole’s mind, his work comes from a place of love.

Today, O’Toole’s main culture war weapon is, an acronym for “Stop Exporting Evil.” O’Toole, who first visited Kenya in 2007, uses the website to warn Africans about the “satanic” culture of the West.

One section of the website is modeled after the Nuremberg Files website, a project established by the late Neal Horsley, who was a close friend and mentor to O’Toole.1 The Nuremberg Files served as an online database of American abortion service providers, including their names, pictures, and contact information. As Dahlia Lithwick at the Slate reported in 2002, “The ‘wanted’ program was pretty effective at dissuading abortion doctors. After his name appeared on a poster in 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed entering a Florida abortion clinic. Five months later and after his name appeared on a wanted poster, Dr. George Patterson was shot and killed. In 1994, after his name appeared on a poster, Dr. John Britton was killed by Paul Hill.”

After a lengthy legal battle, the courts ultimately found Horsley’s Nuremberg Files to be unlawful and the site was subsequently shut down.

O’Toole, however, has revived the idea with printer-friendly “not wanted” posters on the ProjectSEE website, including one for David Kuria Mbote – former director of the Gay & Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and Kenya’s first openly gay man to run for political office. O’Toole told me he has no way of tracking how many posters have been distributed independent of his own group’s efforts, but boasted that thousands have been posted around Nakuru (the fourth largest city in Kenya), and about a thousand more have been put up in Nairobi.

This "Not Wanted" poster of the first openly-gay man to run for office was created by O'Toole and sent all over Kenya.  The original included the Mr. Mbote's contact information, which has been blacked out here.

This “Not Wanted” poster of the first openly-gay man to run for office was created by O’Toole and sent all over Kenya. The poster includes a quote from Leviticus 20:13, which has been translated into Swahili. Mr. Kuria’s contact information appeared in the original, but has been blacked out here.

The poster for Kuria includes a picture of his face and his contact information, along with the label “Nairobi Shoga” (shoga is a derogatory term for a gay man in Swahili). Local LGBTQI rights activists have submitted complaints to Kenya’s Communications Commission (in charge of regulating internet content in the country), but were told that Kenya had no authority over the site since it’s registered in the United States (under O’Toole’s name).

The tactic spark memories of the Rolling Stone case in Uganda, where the tabloid newspaper (no relation to the U.S. publication) published the names and pictures of 100 of the country’s “top homos,” and called for their execution with a banner reading “hang them.” David Kato, a prominent LGBTQI activist who was included on the list, was murdered just three months later.

After Kuria’s name was added to O’Toole’s “not wanted” list, he received threats by phone and e-mail, and odd dents appeared on his car when he left it parked in the lot outside his home at night. Kuria was ultimately forced to move after a man came to his house and threatened him.

“The implication was that I would die,” said Kuria.

Despite the violent outcomes of this sort of propaganda, in O’Toole’s mind, his work comes from a place of love. Paul Nevin, an independent journalist who recently traveled to Kenya on a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, explained that O’Toole “believes that many of those in the Middle Ages who were burning people at the stake to save them from hell, were doing it out of love.”

Following the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision on June 26, President Obama tweeted, “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins”

What it would mean for love to win in Kenya is a frightening thing to contemplate, given the growing influence of American culture warriors in Africa. Those who have fought against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality here in the States, continue to wreak havoc abroad, and until we work to expose, confront, and hold them accountable, O’Toole’s version of “love” will keep gaining ground.


[1] Horsley once boasted, “Jonathan [O’Toole] might well be more dangerous to the homosexual outlaws of the world than me. After all, Project SEE is not merely about holding one rich and famous homosexual like Elton John accountable; it’s about stopping the legalization of homosexuality throughout the world.”

Latin America in the Crosshairs: Alliance Defending Freedom Takes Aim

Click here to print the magazine version

Click here to print the magazine version

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

The annual meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which the United States is a member, are generally staid affairs. Heads of state and their representatives get together to talk shop about trade, territorial disputes, poverty, indigenous issues, and health, among other concerns. Then they leave, having signed agreements to promote peace, equity, and human rights. In 2013, during the 43rd OAS General Assembly in Guatemala, this quiet forum for regional negotiation suffered what amounted to a major diplomatic faux pas when demonstrators disrupted the public sessions and rallied outside the hotel where the Assembly was taking place.1 At issue were two seemingly uncontroversial treaties: the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, and the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance.

Protesting loudest were conservative Catholic and evangelical churches and their civil society partners. They were incensed that both conventions included protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As they saw it, this was a gateway to marriage equality. And on a personal level, they claimed, it was tantamount to religious persecution that infringed on their right to religious freedom.

OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights meeting in Washington, D.C., 2012. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS.

OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights meeting in Washington, D.C., 2012. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS.

Others echoed these themes, but more quietly, and to greater effect. Neydy Casillas Padrón, with the conservative U.S. organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly Alliance Defense Fund), played a behind the scenes role in Guatemala, working the delegates in the room rather than lifting placards on the protest front lines.i As she later commented in an interview with Catholic News Agency affiliate ACI Prensa, “Thanks to God we did enormous work here and were able to prevent many countries from signing this convention.”2

Casillas Padrón’s participation in the regional meeting should come as no surprise. ADF, an Arizona-based, right-wing religious legal organization, has, in the last decade, made a dedicated push to grow its international portfolio. Having made significant inroads domestically, they moved into Europe, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. This year, ADF announced their southern expansion into Latin America.3


Alliance Defending Freedom is an enormous enterprise. Founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians,4 ADF morphed from a modest outfit5 to the $40 million behemoth it is today.6 It was created out of concern that “the Body of Christ in America was in big trouble” because the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was out to clamp down on religious expression.7 An “effective battle plan” was needed to respond to the crisis; ADF was to be the legal army.

ADF is first and foremost a litigation operation. They have a roster of over 2,400 affiliated lawyers across 31 countries,and enough pro bono attorneys to generate volunteer services worth over $146 million. No case is too small, or too big.

Today, ADF is one of the largest conservative legal organizations in the United States, with a budget dwarfing those of sister groups like the Becket Fund and Liberty Counsel. Indeed, one might argue that it is chiefly responsible for the rightward jurisprudential shift on religion in the public sphere. ADF engages the question of religious freedom broadly. They are best known for litigating on the role of religion in public life, a category encompassing abortion, LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression—including the right to religious free speech in public schools—homeschooling, parental rights, and family, among other issues. Ultimately, all of this feeds into ADF’s fundamental mission: “transforming the legal system through Christian witness.”8

ADF is first and foremost a litigation operation. They have a roster of over 2,400 affiliated lawyers across 31 countries,9 and enough pro bono attorneys to generate volunteer services worth over $146 million.10 No case is too small, or too big. The organization has covered lower profile cases, including representing a British Airways employee who was asked to cover up a cross necklace, and they have been involved—either by directly litigating, funding lawyers, or filing amicus briefs—in major cases such as Citizens United v. FEC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the legal struggles around Terri Schiavo. ADF claims to have been involved in over 500 cases, not just in U.S. courts, but also in six continents and 41 countries,11 including Argentina, Belize, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Slovakia, and India.12

ADF’s commitment to the next generation is similarly impressive. They run many well-funded youth and law student training projects as part of their long-term strategy to grow and strengthen their cadre of right-wing lawyers and advocates. The Alliance Defending Freedom Academy targets a wide range of individuals around the globe for training on the promotion of the right to freedom of worship. This includes not just lawyers, but also the media and clergy. The Alliance Defending Freedom Collegiate Academy and the Blackstone Legal Fellowship reach students domestically. At the international level, ADF runs the Areté Academy, a weeklong Christian law students’ training project. 13

Global Initiative

ADF’s ambition is boundless; they work not only in national courts, but are also vigorously inserting themselves in regional courts and at the United Nations. In 2010, ADF launched their Global Initiative, ramping up the “international fight for religious liberty for Christians and establishing a larger ADF footprint to accomplish this mission.”14 That same year, ADF was granted United Nations ECOSOC15 special consultative status.ii This status is significant because it gives them virtually unfettered access to U.N. missions during key convention and treaty-drafting meetings. They advocate face-to-face with delegates and help them develop rights-limiting language for inclusion in U.N. documents.16

ADF’s ambition is boundless.

In 2012, ADF opened their first international office in Vienna, Austria, which enabled them to easily toggle between the various European courts, including the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.17 They have also inserted themselves at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna, the European Parliament in Brussels, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.18 In all these regional bodies they have focused their efforts on issues like abortion, euthanasia, registration of churches, and homeschooling, wielding their influence across countries such as Sweden, Turkey, Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria.19

One of the reasons ADF is so active abroad is that U.S. courts are increasingly citing international jurisprudence in their decisions.20 Accordingly, ADF’s global interventions are aimed at creating foreign rulings that serve their domestic objectives. Piero A. Tozzi, ADF’s former senior legal counsel for the Global Initiative and a current congressional staffer for the indefatigable anti-choice U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ),21 admits that their overseas work is more U.S.-centric than it first appears. He says, “It’s intrinsically good to be helping people in their countries fight the Culture of Death, but an additional factor is that what happens abroad impacts the U.S.”22

Latin American expansion

Recently, ADF has become active at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the judicial OAS agency responsible for monitoring human rights accountability in Latin America. Unlike Western Europe, which tends to be fairly progressive on issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights and LGBTQ equality, the panorama in Latin America is more complicated. Many countries in the region are headed by progressives, including some who self-identify as leftists or are former revolutionaries, such as Dilma Rousseff, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, to name a few. However, there is often a disconnect between their liberal posturing and their policies on abortion and LGBTQ rights. Latin American leftists don’t automatically support progressive positions on these issues. In fact, many of their policies are downright repressive.

On the issue of abortion, the region has some of the most restrictive laws in the world: three out of the four countries with total abortion bans—bans prohibiting even life-saving abortions—are in Latin America.iii There is seemingly more leniency on the issue of LGBTQ rights. Three countries in the region allow same-sex marriage, and several others permit same-sex civil unions.iv Still, governments tend to legislate on social issues guided less by human rights concerns and more by the moral legacy of European colonization and pressure from conservative Catholic and evangelical hierarchies.

Chilean pro-choice march, 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of The Santiago Times.

Chilean pro-choice march, 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of The Santiago Times.

Despite this, the women’s and LGBTQ rights movements are strong, and there has been a recent trend toward legislative reform on abortion in countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. Moreover, regional bodies like the Inter-American Court and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have been issuing positive decisions and statements on abortion and LGBTQ rights.

This is most likely why ADF has developed such a keen interest in Latin America. Mirta Moragas Mereles, of the Campaign for an Inter-American Convention on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, is a Paraguayan activist with many years’ experience at the OAS. She points out that “ADF is late to the game. Women’s rights and gay rights groups have been active in the inter-American systems for years. Now, all of a sudden, since 2013, we see them aggressively engaging. And their politics are reactive and obstructionist.”23

ADF’s first Latin American office was in Mexico, headed by the attorney Sofia Martinez.v They have since been steadily growing their operation. ADF has a dedicated focus on the Organization of American States, and they are planning, over the next three years, to open offices in Chile and Costa Rica.24 ADF’s work with the OAS is bifurcated between the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights and their Washington, D.C., office, where the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is ADF quickly established themselves in the system, even managing to meet with the new OAS secretary general the month before he was elected.25 It should be noted that as this issue was going to press, the inter-American system was holding elections for new commissioners and judges,26 opening the possibility for a reconstitution of the Court and Commission with conservative leanings.

Chile is in some ways an odd choice for ADF. The country is solidly conservative on social issues and doesn’t necessarily wield the same regional influence as countries like Brazil or Argentina. Still, Chile is undergoing a fraught legislative debate on abortion, so perhaps they are hoping to establish an operational beachhead in a country where they can claim to have staved off abortion reform.

ADF takes an opportunistic approach to its Latin American advocacy. In 2011, they submitted an amicus brief before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of a Chilean father embroiled in a child custody battle with his ex-wife. The Chilean courts originally denied the mother, who is gay, custodial rights because of her sexual orientation. The mother took the case to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which sided with her. The case was then bumped up to the Inter-American Court, which has the authority to issue a binding decision. It was at that point that ADF submitted its brief. According to a translation by the conservative advocacy group C-Fam, ADF contemptuously argued that the Commission’s punishing the judges who ruled against the mother “indicates that the Commission must have been overcome by a reckless ideological impulse, in service of which all other principles must be cast aside.”27

But perhaps the most significant action with which they were involved at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was the 2012 landmark case Artavia Murillo et al v. Costa Rica. This case was brought to the Inter-American Court on behalf of nine infertile Costa Rican couples. The claim argued that when Costa Rica declared in vitro fertilization (IVF) unconstitutional in 2000, the state was violating the couples’ rights to privacy and family by denying them alternative means to have children. The government’s prohibition of IVF was predicated on the country’s constitutional protection of life from conception.

ADF was involved in this case even before it reached the Inter-American Court. In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued recommendations to Costa Rica that the country lift its IVF prohibition. By the following year, in July 2011, Costa Rica had made no progress toward IVF legal reform, so the IACHR sent the case to the Inter-American Court. That same month, ADF sent a letter to every congress member, urging them to uphold the ban based on the protection of life from conception.28 Interestingly, ADF also argued that the heart of this case was really an issue of national sovereignty and a country’s right to self-determination. One year later, ADF submitted an amicus curiae29 to the Inter-American Court. This brief followed the same reasoning as the letter to Costa Rican congress members, again arguing for a “margin of appreciation” for the state to best decide how to protect “the life of a developing human being.”

Even though ADF has effectively inserted itself in various OAS processes, it seems intent on casting itself as marginalized by the very system it seeks to conquer.

In 2012, the Court ruled that the “right to life should not be understood as an absolute right, the alleged protection of which can justify the total negation of other rights.”30 This progressive ruling is very significant, and not just on the issue of IVF. It provides the grounds for challenging laws in countries that criminalize access to safe and legal abortions based on a constitutional protection of life from conception. This was a solid defeat for ADF.

A strong future in Latin America

Nevertheless, ADF is uncowed and continues making long-term investments in the inter-American human rights systems. Neydy Casillas Padrón, ADF’s legal advisor to Latin America, is also their permanent representative to the OAS.31 While delegates were debating ratifying the Convention Against Racism during the 2013 OAS Guatemala meeting, Casillas Padrón, an aggressive advocate, was reportedly lobbying delegates not to sign, claiming the Convention would violate their religious freedom because it “treats homosexuals like VIPs, and relegates the rest of us to second class citizenship.”32

Casillas Padrón’s 2013 OAS interventions bore fruit the following year at the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Asunción, Paraguay. Casillas Padrón reported that around 60 anti-choice activists from 10 countries in the region lobbied then-OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to create “family-friendly” policies, including protection of life from conception, for implementation at the national level.33 Apparently demand was so great that the OAS was forced to create a separate space for conservative anti-rights groups. All of this, according to Casillas Padrón, led the different organizations to come together as a cohesive coalition: “a voice that has become active, a voice that participates, a voice that opposes the pro-abortion and homosexual agenda, a voice that will be silenced no more.”34 Others in her camp go further, crediting Casillas Padrón as the leader of the movement to “stop the gay agenda,” and lauding her activism in the year leading up to the Paraguay meeting.35

Even though ADF has effectively inserted itself in various OAS processes, it seems intent on casting itself as marginalized by the very system it seeks to conquer. In April, at a press conference during the Summit of the Americas, Casillas Padrón joined a crowded table of conservatives decrying their exclusion from the event. Casillas Padrón, ever prone to hyperbole, claimed that the OAS, and the Summit in particular, were promoting “a new kind of ideological dictatorship intent on eliminating the very values that define Latin Americans.”36

Moving forward, it is clear that Latin America is in the crosshairs for ADF. The more the OAS, the Inter-American Court, and the Inter-American Commission issue positive decisions and recommendations, the more ADF has a vested interest in ensuring this does not become a pattern for the region. As they are always keen to point out, being active in these legal circles helps “head off dangerous legal precedents before they impact American courtrooms.”37 It’s a strategy that progressives would do well to recognize.

Gillian Kane is a senior policy advisor for Ipas, an international women’s reproductive health and rights organization.
She served on the editorial board for The Public Eye magazine from 2008 to 2012.


[i] Casillas Padrón is a Mexican lawyer currently living in Washington, D.C. In addition to attending the General Assemblies of the Organization of American States (OAS) meetings in Guatemala (2013) and Paraguay (2014), she makes regular speaking tours in Latin America, presenting at both Catholic and evangelical events on behalf of ADF. Of special interest is her recent trip to Guatemala; it is clear, following the 2013 OAS General Assembly, that Guatemala is emerging as a regional leader in the fight against LBGTQ and abortion rights.

[ii] This greatly enhanced their ability to influence U.N. treaties and conventions. It also supported one of their main objectives: keeping an eye on the domestic prize of preventing adverse international policies from affecting U.S. law. In addition, ADF uses its time at the U.N. to strengthen its collaboration with conservative states and NGOs, especially countries and organizations in Latin America. They have hosted events with the Mission of Nicaragua, and are chummy with the Missions of Mexico, Chile, and Guatemala. The list of ADF’s international NGO partners on U.N. CSO statements is extensive, and overwhelmingly populated by groups from Latin America, many of which ostensibly work with vulnerable populations. (Alliance Defending Freedom, “Address to Member States on International Conference on Populations and Development [ICPD],” United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, 2014,; Alliance Defending Freedom, “ADF Increases Global Impact with New Status at the United Nations,” Alliance Defending Freedom, July 28, 2010,

[iii] Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have total abortion bans. An Ipas study on the enforcement of criminal abortion law in Latin America finds that a host of additional human rights violations can occur when people are incarcerated for receiving illegal abortions. In countries like El Salvador, there are many cases of wrongful convictions of defendants who have miscarried a pregnancy and were then sentenced to prison, sometimes for up to 30 years, for having an illegal abortion. (Ipas, When Abortion Is a Crime: The threat to vulnerable women in Latin America, 2014, When-abortion-is-a-crime–the-threat-to-vulnerable-women-in-Latin-America.aspx)

[iv] Same-sex marriage is legal in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and some states in Mexico. Several countries, including Colombia and Ecuador, allow same-sex civil unions.

[v] Martinez was previously their counsel for the U.N. and was particularly active at last year’s U.N. meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, where ADF has maintained an active presence the past three years. It was reported that she was a member of the official Mexican delegation.

[vi] The IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are the two primary OAS bodies for promoting and protecting human rights. The Commission is responsible for adjudicating on specific cases of human rights violations, while the Court is responsible for issuing opinions and legal interpretations on cases brought by the IACHR or other OAS member states.


[1] AFP, “Protestan contra aborto y matrimonio gay previo asamblea OEA,” La Hora, June 4, 2013, My translation.

[2] ACI/EWTN News, “Convención pro gay de OEA atenta contra libertad de expresión, advierten,” ACI Prensa, June 12, 2013, My translation.

[3] World Congress of Families, “Alliance Defending Freedom Engaged in Major International Expansion,” November 2014,

[4] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Frequently Asked Questions,”; Of the original founders, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Larry Burkett of Crown Financial Ministries, Marlin Maddoux of the Point of View radio program, and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries are now deceased; only James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, is still alive.

[5] Sara Diamond, “The religious right goes to court,” The Humanist, May 1, 1994,; In 1994, Sarah Diamond wrote that ADF’s president, Alan Sears, “is a slick talker who refused to answer any of my questions about how the ADF plans to raise $1 million in 1994, $6 million in 1995, and $25 million by 1997.”

[6] United States Dept. of the Treasury Internal Revenue Service, “Form 990, Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax: Alliance Defending Freedom,” Washington, D.C., 2012,; Josh Israel, “The 800-Pound Gorilla of the Christian Right,” Think Progress, May 1, 2014,

[7] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Defending Freedom Since 1994,”

[8] Tom McFeely, “ADF’s Global Initiative Champions Life, Family and Religious Liberty,” September 14, 2011,

[9] Alliance Defending Freedom, “About Us,”

[10] Organization of American States Department of International Affairs/Secretariat for External Relations, Application for Registration Presented Pursuant to Item 6 of the Guidelines for Participation by Civil Society Organizations in OAS Activities. Washington, D.C., 2014.

[11] Organization of American States Department, Application for Registration, 2014.

[12] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Address to Member States on International Conference on Populations and Development (ICPD),” United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, 2014,

[13] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Areté Academy, United States,”; Alliance Defending Freedom “Areté Academy, Latin America,”; The Areté Academy – Latin America focuses on “the foundations of law and justice, natural law principles, and biblical worldview training,” and how these can be applied to “some of the most pressing issues facing society today, including religious freedom, intellectual tolerance and academic diversity, marriage and family, as well as the right of conscience and the sanctity of life.” This year’s Areté Academy – Latin America is taking place in October in the beachside resort town of Cancún, Mexico.

[14] World Congress of Families, “Alliance Defending Freedom Engaged in Major International Expansion.”

[15] United Nations Economic and Social Council, “List of non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council as of 1 September 2014,” NGO Branch Department of Economic and Social Affairs, December 3, 2014,

[16] Alliance Defending Freedom, “ADF Increases Global Impact with New Status at United Nations,” July 28, 2010,; As they say, to “help craft language that affirms religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.”

[17] Alliance Defending Freedom, “A History of Success,”

[18] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Defending Religious Freedom, the Sanctity of Life, and Marriage and Family…Around the Globe,”

[19] Alliance Defending Freedom, “10 Important ADF European Cases,” November 13, 2014,

[20] Robert J. Delahunty and John Yoo, “Against Foreign Law,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 29. 2005,; While conservative jurists may argue that foreign law should not be referenced, many are in fact doing just that. (Jeffrey Toobin,, “Swing Shift,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2005,

[21] Inside Gov, “Piero A. Tozzi,” 2015,; Piero Tozzi, former ADF senior counsel is explicitly partisan in his work, and has profited greatly. In 2014 Tozzi earned almost $120,000 as Counsel for New Jersey congressman Chris Smith. According to, this was almost three times more than the median income for other staffers in Smith’s office.

[22] Tom McFeely, “ADF’s Global Initiative Champions Life, Family and Religious Liberty,” Center for Family and Human Rights, September 14, 2011,

[23] Mirta Moragas Mereles, interview by the author, April 2015.

[24] World Congress of Families, “Alliance Defending Freedom Engaged in Major International Expansion.”

[25] La Nación Dominicana, “Candidato para Secretario General y Canciller de Uruguay dialoga con sociedad civil en la OEA,” February 19, 2015, My translation.

[26] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “IACHR Composition,” At the June 2015 OAS General Assembly, which will be held in Washington, D.C., member states elect eight new members from 11 candidates.  Candidates are proposed by the governments of member states. An independent panel has been set up to oversee the election, which will include electing four commissioners for the IACHR and four judges for the Inter-American Court. Commission members are elected to a four-year term.

[27] Thomas McFeely, “Legal Brief Details Flaws in Pro-Lesbian Custody Ruling,” Center for Family & Human Rights, September 8, 2011,

[28] Piero Tozzi, “Alliance Defense Fund to Costa Rican congress members,” Alliance Defending Freedom, June 1, 2011,

[29] Brief of Amici Curiae, Artavia Murillo et al. v Costa Rica, Inter-American Court of Human Rights case no. 12,361 (Filed May 7, 2012).

[30] Artavia Murillo et al. v. Costa et al. v Costa Rica, Preliminary objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H. R., November 28, 2012, My translation.

[31] Susana Joma, “Neydy Casillas: Existe una confusión generalizada sobre el aborto como ‘derecho’,” El Salvador, February 15, 2015, My translation.

[32] ACI Prensa Central Office, “Convención pro gay de OEA atenta contra libertad de expresión, advierten,” ACI Prensa, June 12, 2013, My translation.

[33]  Sofia Martinez and Neydy Casillas, “Life and Family No Longer Silenced at the Organization of American States,” Zenit, June 18, 2014,

[34] Sofia Martinez and Neydy Casillas, “Life and Family No Longer Silenced.”

[35] Luis E. Molina and Tamoa A. Vivas, “Asistencia a la Asamblea General de la OEA,” Alerta Puerto Rico, May 20, 2015,!topic/redhispanoamericana/lDJoMKac7XA.

[36] El Siglo Office, “ONGs catalogan diálogo en la Cumbre como una ‘farsa’,” El Siglo, April 10, 2015, My translation.

[37] Alliance Defending Freedom, “A Vast Future,” 2014,

When the Exception Is the Rule: Christianity in the Religious Freedom Debates

When historians recount the history of separation of church and state in our time, one of the signature events may be a federal court case that didn’t even make it to the Supreme Court. It didn’t need to.

PE cover Summer 2015

Click here to print the magazine version

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The 2014 case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper was a landmark event because, although the case was ostensibly about opposition to marriage equality, the decision upheld foundational notions of religious equality and equal protection under the law that bind this diverse and often fractious nation. It at once affirmed the equal standing under the law of all religious and non-religious points of view and showed that the Christian Right does not represent all of Christianity.

At issue was a 2012 amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that provided that same-sex marriages were invalid. Together with the state’s General Statutes, this amendment effectively criminalized the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. The upshot of the subsequent legal fight was that the million-member United Church of Christ (UCC), an historic Protestant denomination with roots dating back to the Plymouth Colony and more than 5,000 local churches, won a clear victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty.

Protesters gather in Washington, D.C., for the Stand Up For Religious Freedom rally. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of the American Life League

Protesters gather in Washington, D.C., for the Stand Up For Religious Freedom rally. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of the American Life League

“By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry,” the UCC complaint read in part, “North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs.” The complainants also argued that the law relegated same-sex couples “to second-class status.” Along with same-sex couples, the plaintiffs included religious denominations and clergy from several traditions, including the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The complaint continued:

The laws forbidding same-sex marriage tell Plaintiffs that their religious views are invalid and same-sex relationships are less worthy, thus humiliating each Plaintiff and denigrating the integrity and closeness of families and religious organizations, depriving Plaintiffs of the inclusive religious community of family units they wish to establish.1

As a result, clergy in the UCC and fellow complainants,2 who routinely perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, could have been subject to criminal prosecution. “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs,” UCC general counsel Donald C. Clark, Jr. told The New York Times, “but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.”3

The case had a complicated legal trajectory, but the final decision came from U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr., who, after the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the State of North Carolina in another case, declared in his written decision: “It is clear…that North Carolina laws…threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”

This case did not fit the culture war narrative as promulgated by the Christian Right, wherein religious liberty debates simply pit secularism against Christianity.4 It demonstrated that religious freedom is neither owned, nor entirely defined, by the Christian Right.

Many religious freedom cases turn on claims by conservative religious groups or individuals—or corporations—that various public policies and the rights of others, with which they disagree, violate their constitutional rights. Most famously, such claims have been made regarding businesses providing services such as cakes and flowers for same-sex marriages or providing contraception through insurance packages.

Religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism.

But Cogburn’s ruling, in addition to finding for the right to perform same-sex marriages, also underscored an idea that transcends the issues of the day: that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism. By undermining the Christian Right’s narrative about how Christianity is under attack due to the advance of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, it also cast into sharp relief what Christian Right leaders usually mean when they talk about religious liberty: not a broad understanding of religious freedom for all believers, but rather a narrowly-defined, theocratic religious supremacism.

The implications of the ruling weren’t lost on the Right. A caller to the Washington Watch radio program hosted by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), asked him about the “Christian organization” that he heard had filed the suit. “I would use that term ‘Christian’ very loosely,” Perkins replied. “Here’s a test of what is a true religious freedom: a freedom that’s based on orthodox religious viewpoints. It has to have a track record; it has to come forth from religious orthodoxy.”5 In April 2015, Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, similarly told a group of ministers participating in an FRC-organized conference call that supporting marriage equality meant opposing Christianity. Raising the stakes, he further warned that trends to legalize same-sex marriage across the country would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity.”6

The UCC case highlighted the rise of a distinctly theocratic politics at the highest levels of government and indeed, constitutional law, in which theocratic elements are reframing so called culture war issues involving homosexuality and reproductive justice as issues of religious liberty. It might be hard to see, given the nature of press coverage, but the culture wars have always been about more than abortion and the definition of marriage. Recent legal battles over religious liberty help to illuminate how that’s so.

The Ministry of Truth

Though you might not know it to read the news about religious freedom debates, not all Christian—let alone all religious—leaders share the same concerns as Huckabee and Perkins. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a longtime leading proponent of religious liberty in Washington, D.C., represents much of the Baptist world beyond the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The BJC does not have a formal position on marriage equality, but the organization disagrees with the conflation of religious freedom with anti-marriage equality activism. Religious liberty in the U.S., Walker wrote in the Joint Committee’s monthly newsletter, is protected “like no other place in the world.” Providing LGBTQ people with “goods and services in the marketplace is an act of hospitality,” he continued, that need not “indicate approval of their nuptial decisions or their sexual orientation.”7

In a stark contrast to Walker, Perkins’s and Huckabee’s talk about religious freedom echoes the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony, one of the most influential evangelical thinkers of the 20th Century. “In the name of toleration,” Rushdoony objected in his 1973 opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, “the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal and the adherents of other religions.”8 Many other recent leaders of the Christian Right do not in fact believe in civic equality for those with whom they religiously disagree or otherwise do not approve. And they usually ignore those who represent major religious institutions that hold different views, like Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, who, along with other Reform rabbis, declared in a statement regarding marriage equality, “There is no more central tenet to our faith than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, [are] entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity.”9

As complicated as these issues can be, what is clear is that when we talk about religious freedom, we do not all mean the same thing. The United States, which led the way on Enlightenment-era approaches to the rights of individual conscience and separation of church and state in a pluralist society, is still trying to get it right. While civil liberties and civil rights need not be seen as mutually exclusive, navigating the conflicting interests of personal conscience and the public interest is fraught even in the best of times. This task is made more difficult when not everyone shares the values and vision of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and indeed may see those values as obstacles to their own ends.

The idea of religious exemptions is not new. While they have a longer history than the last 100 years, in the 20th Century, exemption debates famously included issues like how to deal with conscientious objection to military service; requirements for safety features on horse-drawn Amish buggies driven on public roads; and even legal requirements to seek medical treatment for children instead of relying on prayer. In more recent years, lawyers have litigated church zoning laws, regulations regarding religious homeschools and “troubled teen” group homes, vaccination requirements, and more.10

One of the guiding principles in weighing these decisions has been Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, sex, and national origin. But even the Civil Rights Act created what are called “ministerial exceptions” for religious groups.11

SIDEBAR: A Christian Root of Religious Exemption (click to expand)

George W. Bush’s first major action in what would become his signature faith-based programming and policy development came when he was governor of Texas in the mid-1990s, when he championed claims of religious exemption from state regulation.1 Bush was influenced in this by author and WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky, a man whose political vision originates from the dynamic school of modern Christian theocratic thought called Christian Reconstructionism.2

The vehicle for this newfound religious exemption from standard state regulation was a newly created entity: the Texas Association of Christian Child Care Agencies, the board of which comprised members of the very organizations it was supposed to oversee. The entity was not a broad coalition of religious child-care agencies but rather a narrow group of explicitly Christian facilities and programs.3

Although an evangelical addiction program called Teen Challenge originally brought the matter of state regulation of Christian social services to the fore, the political hot potato was the Corpus Christi-based Rebekah Home for Girls, headed by fundamentalist Baptist radio evangelist Lester Roloff. His Rebekah Home had become notorious for its abusive disciplinary practices. An investigative report in the Texas Monthly found that Roloff’s girls were “often subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where [Roloff’s] sermons played in an endless loop.” They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. “Better a pink bottom than a black soul,” Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing. But the abuse was both pervasive and profound. Texas Attorney General John Hill submitted affidavits from sixteen girls who, the Texas Monthly reported, “said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells.”4

The situation eventually led to a standoff that pitted against each other the interests of those who believe in the necessary role of government in protecting people from the likes of Roloff, and those who adhered to a flinty fundamentalist suspicion of government. The 1979 event, which Roloff called “the Christian Alamo,” featured hundreds of supporters and barricades to keep state officials off his compound. Roloff died in 1982, and the Rebekah Home moved out of state, but later returned, following Bush’s deregulation of Christian social services.5

The case is additionally important because Roloff’s lawyer was David Gibbs III, whose legal work—along with that of his father, David Gibbs, Jr., and the Christian Law Association—is one of the first Christian Right legal organizations to use religious liberty as an argument for exemption from government regulation. Gibbs was also the lead attorney in the Terri Schiavo case, where a family conflict over Schiavo’s long dependency on life support became a celebrated cause among Christian anti-abortion activists.6

One contemporary window into this difference of worldview, and the related difference in interpretations of religious freedom, is a 2015 manifesto by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Since 1994, the influential group has fostered dialogues among an evolving cast of leading American Catholics and evangelicals, agreeing on some things, disagreeing on others, and seeking ways to move forward as a joint activist body. Via its periodic manifestos, the conversation has arguably been one of the formative ideological engines of the contemporary Christian Right.

The 2015 manifesto was apparently written in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s consideration of marriage equality in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The authors, including prominent Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren and Catholic neo-conservative strategist Robert P. George, declared that “Genuine freedom is found in ¬obedience to God’s order.” They place marriage equality under the rubric of “false freedom” that they say inevitably leads to “coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage.” They claim their speech is already being “policed” and that their “dissent” is being “assiduously suppressed.”7

Elements of the Christian Right are now seeking to expand the definition of a religious organization, and the extent to which religious exemptions extend to individual beliefs and religious institutions. The contemporary Christian Right’s notion that individuals and institutions should have the right to choose which laws they will respect and which ones they won’t is arguably one of the more extraordinary developments in American legal history. They are not only claiming the right to be selective about complying with the law, but are also claiming the right to determine the criteria by which such decisions are made.

In recent years this notion has dramatically influenced U.S. political and legal discourse. Those who embrace what theocratic evangelicals call a biblical worldview or what Catholics call the magisterium of the Church see their particular religious traditions as the sources of law to which all law must conform. Despite their many differences, these conservative believers have adopted a common platform regarding issues—as they define them—of life, marriage, and religious liberty.12 But there are deep repercussions to each of these major coalitional tenets that are not always well reflected in public discourse.

The current wave of state legislation allegedly seeking to protect the rights of conscience of people opposed to homosexuality generally and marriage equality in particular, may be best understood as abuses of the historic idea of religious freedom.

On a wide range of matters—from abortion and contraception to LGBTQ civil rights and federal labor laws—the Christian Right, in both its evangelical and Catholic expressions, is seeking to find new approaches to ensuring that the law does not apply to them.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), for example, offered an amendment to the 2015 congressional budget that sought to apply the broad framing of the Christian Right’s political agenda to the relationship between the federal government and private contractors. “Federal agencies,” Inhofe’s amendment read in part, “do not discriminate against an individual, business, or organization with sincerely-held religious beliefs against abortion or that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.”13 The amendment was unsuccessful, but it epitomizes the contemporary thinking of the Christian Right.

The current wave of state legislation allegedly seeking to protect the rights of conscience of people opposed to homosexuality generally and marriage equality in particular, may be best understood as abuses of the historic idea of religious freedom. Or, as it’s often put, it’s conservatives using the idea of religious freedom to justify discrimination.

Inhofe’s amendment, for example, would not have protected the religious beliefs of those individuals and institutions whose conscience compels them to respect reproductive rights and moral consciences, or those who honor and celebrate same-sex marriages. In fact, major, historic religious traditions and institutions support the very rights opposed by the Christian Right. Thus when the Christian Right (and the politicians who pander to it) invoke religious freedom, often they’re using it as an excuse to deny religious freedom to others.

It’s also worth underscoring that, as a practical matter, the “religious” in “religious freedom” genericizes what is almost exclusively an initiative of conservative Christian institutions.

Religious Justifications for the Indefensible

Some of the most widely publicized contemporary religious freedom conflicts involve individual florists and bakers refusing to provide flowers or cakes for same-sex weddings. The notion that these private businesses’ denial of service amounts to a religious freedom battleground is based on the claim that the proprietors’ faith forbids them from supporting something contrary to their particular beliefs about God. Almost exclusively, this has meant their particular notion of Christianity.

Such claims may not ultimately prevail, but within living memory, religious justifications have often been successfully used to justify discrimination of many kinds. Politicians and preachers alike cited Christianity and the Bible to support generations of racial segregation in the U.S. But while the argument that religious beliefs should protect racial discrimination has lost its standing, the broader idea that faith merits exemptions from other anti-discrimination measures lives on.

In the 1983 landmark Supreme Court case of Bob Jones University v. United States, the federal government took the view that the Christian fundamentalist school was not entitled to its federal tax exemption if it maintained its policy against interracial dating. The case became a cause célèbre among the then-budding Christian Right, and was credited by New Right strategist Paul Weyrich and historian Randall Balmer, among others, as the catalyst that politicized conservative evangelicals.14 The case, which began during the Nixon administration, was used as a political cudgel against Democratic President Jimmy Carter, turning many evangelicals against one of their own.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone a the Marriage March in Washington, D.C., 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of American Life League

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone a the Marriage March in Washington, D.C., 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of American Life League

Bob Jones University argued that to censure an institution over this issue was a violation of religious freedom under the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court ultimately decided against them, declaring: “Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education…[which] substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the University’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.” The Court made clear, however, that its verdict dealt “only with religious schools—not with churches or other purely religious institutions.”15

Expanding the Definition of Ministry

A more recent Supreme Court case involved the expansion of the definition of religious ministry in ways that serve to broaden the set of institutions that qualify for exemptions from federal laws and regulations. Whereas these exemptions historically applied to a few highly specific cases, now a great range of religiously owned institutions is able to invoke them. There is a distinct trend in this regard, away from individual rights of conscience, and toward the rights of religious institutions.

This was on vivid display in 2015, when the Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco (following Catholic prelates in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Honolulu, and Oakland), declared that teachers—and perhaps all employees—in the Archdiocese’s schools would be required to conform to Catholic teaching in their personal lives.16 Cordileone wanted unionized employees to accept contract and faculty handbook language that condemned homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and artificial insemination. He also said that Catholic school employees must not publicly contradict Church teachings.17 Union leaders were concerned that the Archbishop was attempting to reclassify not only teachers but all employees of the school as part of the church’s ministry.18

Liberty Institute called for organizations to “religify” their organizational documents in order to fall under the definition of a ministry so they can circumvent civil rights laws.

As chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cordileone is a leading culture warrior in the church. He was one of at least 50 prelates who signed the Manhattan Declaration, the historic 2009 manifesto which formally aligned Catholic and evangelical leaders on a shared 21st Century culture war agenda.19

The underlying legal justification for Catholic bishops to impose religious doctrine on school employees was the unanimous 2012 decision of the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In that case, a mainline Lutheran school had fired a kindergarten teacher over issues arising because of a disability, leading to a discrimination claim by the dismissed teacher. The church argued that the government had no right to intervene in its employment decisions because the teacher served in a ministry capacity. The Court agreed, and in so doing, expanded the definition of which employees are covered by the term—and who would then be exempt from normal employment protections.

Religious institutions themselves have long enjoyed a “ministerial exemption” from certain labor laws. Hosanna-Tabor expanded that and opened the door to further expansion. Catholic and evangelical colleges and universities may be among the first to walk through that door, as they are increasingly claiming creeping violations of institutional religious liberty—from concerns about the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” (which may apply to church-related colleges and universities, the Hobby Lobby decision notwithstanding) to a 2014 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that permits unionization of employees at religious and other private universities.20

The reasons for religious freedom exemptions in churches’ employment practices are understandable. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion, “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision…By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

However, calling a kindergarten teacher of numerous subjects, including math and social studies, a minister was a significant stretch. The teacher in question spent only a few minutes each day leading students in prayer or teaching religion for short intervals across the week. Nevertheless, this was sufficient in the view of the court, which decided not to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”21

Advocates for expanded exemptions for religious institutions in this area, such as the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, saw the decision as a “stunning victory” and a departure from “the usual focus on the religious rights of individuals.”22

Still, much was left unresolved. Although the decision drew a bright line—that government may not interfere with personnel decisions regarding persons in ministry—the extent to which religiously-affiliated institutions such as schools, charities, hospitals, and perhaps even for-profit businesses can define employees as ministers is now a fair question. And it’s one that’s certain to be tested as conservative religious movement leaders seek to carve out zones of exemption from the advance of secular law. leaders certainly see many opportunities in broadening the legal definition of ministry.

Dr. C. Peter Wagner, founder of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation and a longtime professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary,23 observed that “not only churches, but ministries supported by the church are included in [the Hosanna-Tabor] ruling. Schools are specifically mentioned, but how about a number of other kinds of ministries attached to our churches and apostolic networks? I would think they would fall under the same umbrella.”24

Mormon Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, said he found “comfort” in Hosanna-Tabor, against thethreat” of governmental actions that he believes “are overshadowing the free exercise of religion by making it subordinate to other newly found ‘civil rights.’”25

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York came to a similar conclusion when he discussed the core issue in the landmark case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (discussed below) a few years later. The so-called contraception mandate, he declared, was primarily about “the raw presumption of a bureau of the federal government to define a church’s minister, ministry, message and meaning.”26

This year, Jeff Mateer of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal advocacy group, began preparing manuals for what the Institute suggested is an inevitable wave of anti-religious legal attacks against everything from churches to frat houses to for-profit corporations.27 They called for organizations to “religify” their organizational documents, from bylaws to employee job descriptions, to specifically reflect doctrine so that they may fall under the definition of ministry. This, they suggested, would be part of an inoculation against civil lawsuits and government regulation.28

We have become familiar with how, when the goals of the Christian Right conflict with the rights of others, the conflict is framed as an attack on Christianity or, more broadly, religion. Seen from their perspective, there’s logic to this argument. Conservative Christians have long understood that the origins and trajectory of religious freedom in America run against the hegemony of conservative Christian churches that enjoy a close relationship with the state and its leaders.

Turning Phrases

Many of the contemporary legal struggles rest on the definition of particular terms and phrases originating in federal legislation or Supreme Court decisions. In addition to ministry, one of the key terms on which religious exemptions to state and federal laws now turn is the phrase “sincerely held religious belief.” The current use of the phrase is rooted in the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),29 which enjoyed overwhelming support in Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. RFRA was an answer to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which had upheld the right of the State of Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to Native American employees fired for using peyote in a religious ritual. Here Congress sought to restore the rights of Native Americans for whom peyote was part of their religious practice. More broadly, Congress wanted to reaffirm that a person’s sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government can justify the law with a compelling state interest, and show that the law is narrowly crafted to protect that interest via the “least restrictive means” possible.30

A later Supreme Court decision limited the scope of the law to the federal government, leading some states to pass state-level versions of RFRA.31 Most of these laws were simply intended to replace the loss of the federal RFRA, but in the past few years, modified state RFRAs have been introduced with the obvious intention of justifying discrimination against same-sex couples by businesses and even government agencies.

Concepts that meant one thing in the federal RFRA have come to take on new meanings when applied at the state level in the wake of the 2014 Hobby Lobby case.

Concepts that meant one thing in the federal RFRA have come to take on new meanings when applied at the state level in the wake of the 2014 Hobby Lobby case (and the related Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Burwell). That Supreme Court decision extended, for the first time, religious rights to a “closely held” private corporation, stating that the company—not a church, or school, but a chain of craft stores—did not have to offer certain contraceptives via the company health plan because the owners of the company believed these contraceptives to be abortifacients (a position contradicted by every major medical organization in the country). The Court held that Hobby Lobby was exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance packages cover these contraceptive options because, as Justice Samuel Alito put it in the majority opinion, requiring the corporation to provide this contraceptive coverage imposed a “substantial burden” on companies’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

The four dissenting justices said the majority opinion expanded the federal RFRA to protect companies in ways unintended by Congress. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” She said, for example, that a company could decide that covering vaccinations or paying the minimum wage violates their religious beliefs. She also noted a past religious freedom challenge from a restaurant chain that didn’t want to serve African-Americans, and that of a photography studio that didn’t want to take pictures at a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Ginsberg’s concerns are being realized in the efforts to insert “Hobby Lobbyized” provisions into state RFRAs. Conservative supporters of these bills have claimed that the state and federal RFRAs are all the same. This is not only false, but transparently so. The shorthand in the Indiana legislature for the state RFRA was “the Hobby Lobby bill.”32 The fact is that the federal RFRA—and until recently, most state RFRAs—applies only to government actions. The Hobby Lobbyized state RFRAs added language—at the behest of Alliance Defending Freedom, The Becket Fund, the Mormon Church, and allies at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—that sought to extend exemptions to third parties, such as corporations and individuals, on the grounds that providing services to LGBTQ people violates their consciences. In some cases the language may be broad enough to claim religious exemptions from standing civil rights laws in the manner that concerned Justice Ginsberg.

Indiana conservatives were open about their goals: they intended the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act to provide a faith-based defense against discrimination claims, should a business decline to provide services on account of their beliefs.33 But, faced with widespread public outcry, the state’s governor and legislature were compelled to amend the law to explicitly state that their RFRA did not provide a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. This in turn led to loud objections from Christian Right leaders, who correctly understood that the original bill would do just that. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said the clarification made matters worse by forcing “religious businesses and even nonprofits deemed ‘not religious enough’ to participate in wedding ceremonies contrary to their owners’ beliefs. If the government punishes people for living their faith, there are no limits to what government can control.”34

A New Era for Religious Exemptions

Tony Perkins speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Tony Perkins speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore

As this article was going to press, the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality as a “fundamental right” in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court was silent on the matter of exemptions, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, emphasized that religious institutions and individuals “may continue to advocate” in opposition.

“The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths,” he wrote, “and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”35 The question of what constitutes “proper protection” may well lead to a continuation of the Christian Right’s approach to advocacy for many kinds of religious exemptions, albeit on a vastly altered playing field.

Perkins shed light on this strategy in a column in The Patriot Post:

The clash between religious liberty and same-sex “marriage” continues to explode in businesses across America, where shop owners, B&Bs, and other vendors try to come to grips with the government’s twisted definition of “tolerance.” Faced with losing their jobs, businesses, and life savings, most Christians want to know: isn’t there anything we can do?

There is. In at least 10 states, conservatives are fighting back with a string of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), [which] give men and women of all faiths a powerful tool to stop the government from walking all over their beliefs on issues like marriage and sexuality.36

There will always be tensions in reconciling religious beliefs with the rights of others, but there will also always be people who will exploit the normal strains of a religiously plural society for their own political ends. The issues of the so-called culture wars have been recast as a battle over the definition of religious liberty. There is a deep, dominionist agenda in play here, with the battle over religious liberty at its cutting edge, and it is not limited to matters before the courts.

We live in theocratic times. Not in the sense that the United States has become a theocracy, but in that the uneasy theocratic coalition we refer to as the Christian Right remains one of the most powerful and dynamic religious and political movements in American history. Like any other large coalition, the interests of the main players are sometimes in conflict. But they remain bound together by a shared opposition to religious pluralism, the rights of individual conscience, and the separation of church and state.

Historian and Christian Right theorist Gary North argues that the ratification of the Constitution signified a clean “judicial break from Christian America.” He was referring to the proscription of “religious tests for public office” in Article VI, which he correctly observed erected a “legal barrier to Christian theocracy” that led “directly to the rise of religious pluralism.”37 Article VI is, of course, not the only codified barrier to Christian theocracy. But the theocratic activists of modern America are patient revolutionaries. For the rest of us, learning how to recognize, anticipate, and respond to the Christian Right’s theocratic agenda remains one of the central tasks of our time.

Frederick Clarkson is Senior Fellow for Religious Liberty at Political Research Associates. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997). 


[1] General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, 760 F.3d 352 (4th Cir. 2014),

[2] Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Joins Federal Lawsuit Challenging North Carolina’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban,” June 4, 2014,

[3] Michael Paulson, “North Carolina’s Gay-Marriage Ban Is Challenged by Church,” New York Times, April 28, 2014,

[4] Frederick Clarkson, “The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!,” The Public Eye, 2008,

[5] Brian Tashman, “Tony Perkins, Arbiter Of Christianity, Says Pro-Gay Christians Don’t Have Same Religious Rights As Conservatives,” Right Wing Watch, May 8, 2014,

[6] Nick Gass, “Mike Huckabee: U.S. moving toward ‘criminalization of Christianity’,” Politico, April 24, 2015,

[7] J. Brent Walker, “Reflections: Do states need religious freedom legislation?,” Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, February 19, 2015,

[8] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), 294.

[9] Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, “Reform Movement Welcomes Ruling in Marriage Equality Cases,” June 26, 2013,

[10] Dr. Jay Michaelson, “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” Political Research Associates, March 21, 2013,; see Brief Amici Curiae of Julian Bond, The American Civil Liberties Union et al. at 32, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, No. 13-354 (Jan. 28, 2014).

[11] Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “The Religious Exemption to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,”, August 1, 2001,

[12] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” The Public Eye, 2013,

[13] Zack Ford, “Senator proposes Budget Amendment That Would Force The Government To Hire Anti-Gay Employers, ThinkProgress, March 25, 2015.

[14] Book excerpt: Linda Wertheimer, “Evangelical: Religious Right Has Distorted the Faith,” NPR, June 23, 2006,; Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America, (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

[15] Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1982).

[16] LGBTQ Nation, “Catholic archdiocese of Cincinnati to tweak teacher contract morality clauses,” March 10, 2015,; Victoria Colliver, Hundreds march against S.F. archbishop’s ‘morality clauses,’ San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2015.

[17] Lisa Leff, “San Francisco archbishop wants teachers to not contradict church,” CBS News, February 6, 2015,

[18] Julia Carrie Wong, “‘I want education, not indoctrination’: Catholic Teachers and Students Protest Archdiocese,” SF Weekly, April 27, 2015,

[19] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.”

[20] Scott Jaschik, “Big Union Win,” Inside Higher Ed, January 2, 2015,; Adelle M. Banks, “Religious college presidents agree on ‘calling’ and common threats to their schools,” Religion News Service, February 3, 2015,

[21] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., 565 U.S. ___ (2012).;  See also, Frederick Clarkson, “Papering Over the Differences, The Political Alliance Between Evangelicals and the Catholic Right,” Conscience, Vol. XXXIII – No. 2, 2012,

[22] Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, “Hosanna-Tabor: A Big Victory for Religious Freedom,” January 20, 2012.   The IRFA became a project of the Center for Public Justice in September 2014. The CPJ is a self-described “Christian-democratic” and “principled pluralist” organization.

[23] Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, March 22, 2013,

[24] C. Peter Wagner, “Can the Government Tell the Church What to Do?,” Communion With God Ministries, February 14, 2012,

[25] Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Hope for the Years Ahead,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, April 16, 2014,

[26] Timothy Dolan, “Let Freedom Ring…!,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 10, 2012,

[27] Liberty Institute, “Religious Liberty Audits,

[28] Jeff Mateer, “A Ready Defense: How to Protect Your Ministry or Faith-Based Business from Legal Attack and Ruin,” Liberty Institute, May 14, 2015,; Liberty Institute, “Religious Protections Guide,”; for discussion, see Frederick Clarkson, “When in Doubt, Religify! Fear Mongering About Religious Liberty,” Political Research Associates, May 29, 2015,

[29] Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (1993).

[30] Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[31] Richard Fausset and Alan Blinder, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” New York Times, March 5, 2015,

[32] Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans, “How Indiana’s RFRA differs from federal version,”, April 2, 2015,; Public Rights / Private Conscience Project, “RFRA FAQ,” Columbia Law School,

[33] Zack Ford, “Conservatives Admit the Truth on Indiana ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill,” ThinkProgress, January 6, 2015,

[34] Family Research Council, “Religious Freedom Should Not Be Held Hostage to Big Business, Family Research Council Urges Veto,” April 2, 2015,

[35] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S.__ (2015).

[36] Tony Perkins, “Georgia Peaches a Fit Over Senate Bill,” The Patriot Post, February 23, 2015,

[37] Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997), 84-85.

Sidebar Endnotes

[1] John Gibeaut, “‘Welcome to Hell’: How allegations of child abuse at a Texas church home for problem kids could threaten a major part of President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” ABA Journal, August 2001.

[2] Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: Norton, 2006), 109-114.

[3] Pamela Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo,” Texas Monthly, December 2001,

[4] Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo.”

[5] Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo.”

[6] Frederick Clarkson, “Tragedy on the national stage: conservative intervention into the Terri Schiavo case was a disservice to everybody,” Conscience XXVIII, no. 3 (2007); Frederick Clarkson, “Papering Over the Differences, The Political Alliance Between Evangelicals and the Catholic Right,” Conscience XXXIII, no. 2 (2012), Gibbs III now has his own legal organization, the Texas-based National Center for Life and Liberty, which describes itself as “a ministry organization that defends life and liberty freedoms nationwide.” (National Center for Life and Liberty, “About,”

[7] Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” First Things, March 2015,; see Frederick Clarkson, “Previewing the next anti-marriage equality manifesto,” LGBTQ Nation, Febraury 15, 2015,

Religious Right Leaders Strategize: Who Needs SCOTUS When You Can Control Everything Else?

Last week, hundreds of “God fearing, freedom loving Americans” gathered at Skyline Wesleyan Church—a conservative megachurch in the San Diego area—for the “Future Conference: What You Thought Was Coming … Is Here Now.”

Michael Brown, author of Navigating as a Christian in an LGBT Dominated World," speaks at the 2015 Future Conference.

Michael Brown, author of “Can You Be Gay and Christian?,” gives a speech called Navigating as a Christian in an LGBT Dominated World at the 2015 Future Conference.

For four days, Skyline’s $12 million “worship center” served as host to some of the Religious Right’s leading voices as they outlined the impending doom brought on by “secular totalitarianism,” “homosexual fascists,” and other “evil, anti-family” elements of society. Major themes of the conference included religious liberty, “militant Islam,” abortion, pornography, marriage, and “biblical economics.”

Spend a day listening to right-wing news outlets, and you would likely hear many of the same inflammatory talking points covered by the 50+ speakers featured at the conference. Terrorism “experts” reported on the threat of ISIS, Christian educators discussed the encroachment of civil rights legislation on their freedom to discriminate, anti-LGBTQ activists outlined strategies for moving forward after the Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, communications and media professionals offered tips for more effective promotion of right-wing rhetoric… it was a seemingly endless stream of dire warnings, grave threats, and galvanizing calls to action.

The content, though substantive, was not the most compelling feature of the gathering; rather, it was the diverse cast of characters, representing a vast array of institutions and organizations, all coming together in one place for a singular event and openly associating themselves with an event put on by the U.S. Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (USCAL), the American organizing body of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR).

NAR disciples seek to take dominion over the “Seven Mountains” of society:

  1. Arts and Entertainment
  2. Business
  3. Education
  4. Family
  5. Government
  6. Media
  7. Religion

NAR is a hierarchical network of “apostles” that seeks to “remake the theology and structure of Christianity in a theocratic mold.” (See PRA’s profile of NAR.) Just four years ago, Religious Right leaders were reluctant to openly affiliate themselves with this extremely controversial movement, but it seems that NAR’s dominionist agenda is no longer a thing seen to be shameful.

USCAL is part of the U.S.-based International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (ICAL), which was conceived in 1999 and initially led by C. Peter Wagner. ICAL’s mission is to “connect apostles’ wisdom and resources in order that each member can function more strategically, combine their efforts globally, and effectively accelerate the advancement of the Kingdom of God into every sphere of society.”

To clarify, this “advancement of the Kingdom of God” is a theocratic mandate to exert authority over what they see as the power sources of society. Specifically, NAR disciples refer to the various spheres of society as the “Seven Mountains,” consisting of arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, media, and religion. You can be sure that each of these spheres was well represented at the Future Conference.

USCAL was officially launched in November 2014. Joe Mattera—who declares that his mission is to “influence leaders who influence nations”—currently serves as the national convener. Mattera boasts that through his books, weekly writings, and regular mainstream media appearances, he reaches “thousands of leaders in more than 130 nations.”

This new American division of ICAL already claims approximately 300 “significant leaders” as dues-paying members from both religious and corporate realms (the annual fee for regular members is $450). Among them is Jim Garlow, senior pastor of Skyline Church.

Garlow, who was a key leader on the anti-LGBTQ side of California’s 2008 Prop. 8 marriage equality battle, served as the principal organizer of the Future Conference—USCAL’s first large-scale national event. He has been a prominent apostle in the NAR movement for many years, and stacked last week’s line-up (56 speakers in all) with his fellow NAR comrades. The program included some of the most infamous NAR leaders in the world: Joe Mattera, Lou Engle, Dennis Peacocke, Harry Jackson, and Lance Wallnau.

Wallnau—a business consultant, leadership coach, and “growth strategist” based in Dallas, Texas—functions as one of the leading Seven Mountains promotional speakers, and has referred to the concept as a template for warfare. His presentation on the final evening was the Future Conference’s culminating event.

With the enthusiasm of a high school football coach trying to rally his underdog team to victory, he delighted the crowd with sloppy dry erase board diagrams, self-aggrandizing stories, a candid sense of humor, and a fiery passion. He began his speech by reviewing the doom and gloom that previous speakers had covered—“We’ve got people being martyred, killed… homosexuals are taking over… Muslims are attacking… the economy is collapsing… what’s left to traumatize you with?!”

The intention of this design, however, became increasingly evident as Wallnau laid out the Seven Mountains strategy—a plan to ultimately gain control over all realms of society. This was a long-awaited salve for an audience filled with fearful, demoralized individuals. If they weren’t already convinced upon arrival, by day four, conference participants seemed thoroughly persuaded of the fact that their country, their families, and their faith was under attack. Wallnau had a solution, and the crowd of several hundred (plus countless more watching the livestream remotely) laughed, cheered, applauded, and amened with enthusiasm and relief.

“We are losing the battle of culture!” Wallnau shouted as he paced the stage. He then proceeded to make his case for the New Apostolic Reformation: Christians, he explained, have been too disconnected, pursuing their own paths and ministries. “We are in need of a centralized hub,” he declared.

During a 2008 interview on Pat King’s Extreme Prophetic TV broadcast, Wallnau claimed that it would only take 3-5% of people aggressively working in any given location to create a tipping point and gain control over the Seven Mountains. That small group of leaders, however, must be unified.

According to Wallnau, the LGBTQ community’s success has come because they have been more connected and unified than Christians in their efforts to create societal change.[1] But contrary to what some might believe, Wallnau’s unifying strategy isn’t dependent on top-down domination; instead, he promotes domination from within. “Our people should be sitting at the gates [of influence],” he explained, “and we should be ruling—not instead of, but in the midst of.”

“We need be getting our people up those mountains,” and through the establishment of what he calls “micro churches”—small strategic prayer groups within institutions of power across all Seven Mountains—Wallnau asserts that those leaders will be able to “hear from heaven and legislate what God wants them to do.”

“Proximity is power,” he explained. Indeed, a member of Skyline Church’s pastoral team is currently based full time in Washington, DC, where he facilitates a weekly prayer group for Congressional staff members. The Jefferson Gathering, as it’s called, is convenes every Wednesday night in the Capitol.

“This is a whole different level of strategic alignments,” Wallnau asserted.

And these alignments aren’t limited to the United States. NAR’s relational networks, and the movement’s emphasis on “taking dominion” over society, are deeply influential throughout the world. In Uganda, for example, Lou Engle, an NAR apostle and featured speaker at the Future Conference, staged TheCall Uganda in 2010 to promote the Anti-Homosexuality Bill amidst heated debate over its death-penalty provision. And in Singapore, Lawrence Khong—one of the country’s leading anti-LGBTQ activists and part of the original group of apostles responsible for the formulation of ICAL—has hosted Jim Garlow at his megachurch on multiple occasions to further advance his efforts against LGBTQ equality.

As increasing numbers of Religious Right leaders (many of them affiliated with highly influential organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, and National Organization for Marriage) continue to align themselves with NAR’s Dominionist agenda, unifying themselves around this “centralized hub,” we can anticipate that the future—much like the present—will be marked by the continued oppression of LGBTQ people, women, Muslims, and countless others.


[1] As well as being unified, Wallnau declared that LGBTQ activists are like Nazis, who will just keep coming at you (no matter “what you offer as a sacrifice out of love”) because they’re motivated to “annihilate the opposition.” This association was especially poignant given the number of comparisons made throughout the conference between the atrocities inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust and the current experience of Christians in the Middle East.

Who Speaks for Conservative Women?

“Feminisms” for Life, Liberty, and Politics

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

When the planned vote on a harsh new 20-week abortion ban went off the rails in January, liberal news outlets gloated while conservative commentators fumed over what they respectively called a Republican congresswomen “revolt” or “mutiny.”

At the beginning of the year, GOP leadership scheduled a high-profile vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” to coincide with the 2015 March for Life, the annual protest of Roe v. Wade. They had a Congressional majority and expected smooth passage of the bill. But, to their surprise, female House representatives balked at the bill’s draconian rape and incest exemption, which would have forced survivors to file a police report before they could access an abortion. The Republican dissenters—primarily women, joined by a couple of moderate male allies—thought the provision was tone-deaf and would turn off women and millennial voters.1 The memory of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe loomed in the background. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) chastised her party, arguing that Republicans could no longer afford to appear “harsh and judgmental” now that they control both the House and Senate.2 Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the legislation’s lead co-sponsor, passionately criticized her party for yet again letting insensitivity about rape derail Republicans’ agenda.3

Most strikingly, the female opposition was led by anti-abortion stalwarts with strong right-wing credentials, namely Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN). None of the dissenting congresswomen identify as pro-choice; all had received approval from the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) and Concerned Women for America (CWA)—two powerful and well-funded right-wing organizations—for their solid track records on limiting abortion rights; and Ellmers and Blackburn had received honors from the libertarian Independent Women’s Forum in 2014.

As an Indiana state legislator, Walorski killed a hate crimes bill by adding fetuses as a protected class, and called for an investigation of Planned Parenthood for allegedly covering up rape.4 Ellmers joined Congress in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, endorsed by Sarah Palin, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Koch-backed attack on healthcare reform.5 Blackburn boasts an unblemished record of over a decade of anti-abortion votes in Congress. And they all appeared untroubled by voting for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” the bill Republicans instead passed for the Roe anniversary. In other words, these women were not the RINOs—Republicans In Name Only— whom you might expect to block an anti- abortion bill.

The controversy’s significance lies in pitting Republican congresswomen not only against the majority of their male colleagues—who, as Abby Scher writes in The Progressive, rely on them as “front- women to sell [the party’s] regressive policies”6—but also against the major conservative women’s movement organizations and female anti-abortion advocates who backed the reporting requirement. And it was not the only incident in the last year that put female politicians and advocacy leaders from organizations such as CWA and SBA at odds, as part of a legitimacy contest over who speaks for conservative women.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.


In 1979, the rise of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment motivated conservative evangelical Beverly LaHaye to found Concerned Women for America, established as an overtly anti-feminist female voice. Yet CWA has clung to relevance over the years, better than infamous anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, by demonstrating its adaptability in toning down strident anti-feminist language and laying claim to pro-life feminist arguments when convenient, as when a CWA publication asserted in 2003, “Today’s feminists wrongly claim kinship to feminism’s founders, thereby cloaking their radicalism in the early movement’s popularity and moral authority.”7 In Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, religious studies professor Leslie Dorrough Smith explains the shifting rhetoric was spurred by the need “to appear progressive and yet simultaneously traditional, a move perhaps motivated by its need to recruit and maintain younger members as well as to prove its political relevance” in a society which likes what feminism has accomplished even if it doesn’t always accept the movement itself.8

Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential candidacy and membership in the organization Feminists for Life brought increased attention in recent years to “conservative feminism,” a movement that says it represents the true legacy of “the original feminists,” claiming for itself the banner of the women’s suffragists—rather than that of the conservative women who fought voting rights. Importantly for Republicans, whose base trends older and male, the brand was seen as resonating with youth and women.9 The appeal of conservative feminism neither began nor ended with Palin’s failed campaign. For decades, there have been two streams of conservative movement “feminism”— one for life, and one for liberty. Feminists for Life (FFL), founded in 1972, was the original “pro-life feminist” group, touting its history of supporting women’s rights initiatives such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). FFL never achieved the prominence of better-funded Christian Right organization that took over the “protect women” frame as a convenient (albeit substance-free) marketing strategy as Schlafly’s brand of traditional anti-feminism lost appeal. The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) has pushed a brand of free market feminism, also known as equity feminism, since 1992.10 For the Right Wing to appear legitimate, women’s and women-led organizations must be at the forefront of opposition to abortion rights and other policies affecting women.11


“Since 1973, it’s been the same thing: One side of the abortion wars yells, ‘What about the woman?’ Instead of yelling back, ‘What about the baby?’ Feminists for Life answers the question,” FFL president Serrin Foster explains, insisting that their feminism is not a “strategy” or “ploy.”12 But the anti-abortion movement’s pervasive “abortion as harm to women” frame looks very much like a ploy when deployed by organizations like CWA or SBA. Political Research Associates’ Defending Reproductive Justice Activist Resource Kit describes how Christian Right organizations like CWA, the National Right to Life Committee (founded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Family Research Council, and the extensive crisis pregnancy center network market themselves as concerned for women—not just fetuses—through extensive misrepresentations of the medical hazards of abortion and a fabricated “post-abortion syndrome.”13 (The Christian Right deployed a similar strategy in co-opting the ex-gay movement in the 1990s to put a more compassionate face on their homophobic agenda.14)

FFL’s $300,000 budget—far greater than other small feminist pro-life groups, such as the tiny coalition of secular and Democratic anti-abortion organizations that rallied at the margins of the 2015 March for Life15—is negligible compared to the five or six million dollars in the coffers of Christian Right organizations like CWA (which has millions more in its PAC), SBA, and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and American Life League (single-issue anti-abortion organizations both led by women). Anti-abortion advocates point to their marginalized pro-life feminist groups as evidence of the movement’s pro-woman nature, while actually giving most funding to organizations where concern for women is no more than a marketing device.16 Even though Palin’s FFL membership brought attention to the phenomenon of conservative feminism, organizations like SBA and CWA swiftly coopted both the brand and the cash. (This includes donations from the Koch brothers, who fund Christian Right movement organizations with the mobilization capacity and willingness to support “free enterprise” along with their culture wars agenda.)

The Susan B. Anthony List—named for one of conservatives’ favorite “reclaimed” historical feminists—illustrates the financial rewards of using feminism as a brand rather than an ideology. In 1992, FFL leadership founded SBA as a bipartisan, anti-abortion counterpart to EMILY’s List, which helps elect women politicians. But after former FFL president and SBA co-founder Rachel MacNair left for graduate school in the mid-1990s, she says, “Republicans took over.”17 Co-founder Marjorie Dannenfelser, a former Heritage Foundation employee, assumed the SBA presidency and aligned the organization with a network of well-funded Christian Right organizations.18 SBA almost completely stopped backing Democrats and began diverting funds to male candidates running against pro-choice women, prioritizing a hard-right stance over the founding mission of cultivating female candidates.19

In 2013, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Bridge Project published a joint report on SBA, finding an extensive anti-woman track record. The organization backs candidates who oppose legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest, who support criminalizing women for obtaining abortions, and who voted against equal pay legislation and VAWA. SBA supported candidate Todd Akin after he stated that “legitimate rape” cannot lead to pregnancy, as well as Indiana Tea Party senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock when he called pregnancies that result from rape a “gift from God.” Then SBA launched a training program to prevent Republican men from continuing to make these public gaffes—a far cry from their founding goal of electing women representatives to fight for women’s interests.20 In Righting Feminism, Ronnee Schreiber suggests that one reason right-wing women’s organizations like CWA and SBA eschew “the strategy of getting more women into public office is that empirical studies suggest that women elected officials tend to be more liberal than their male counterparts within the same party.”21 In order to successfully pursue a hardline agenda against women’s bodily integrity, SBA abandoned its woman-centered founding purpose and updated its mission to include electing “pro-life men” who “oppose pro-abortion women”—a policy that would inevitably decrease the total number of women elected representatives.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

FFL lost control not only over its child organization, SBA, but the entire “pro- life feminist” brand. Today, CWA and SBA have spawned a new generation of young pro-life “feminists,” beloved by the anti-abortion movement, like Lila Rose, who published an opinion piece in Politico in 2012 titled “Battle Hymn of the Anti-Abortion Feminist.”22 Her organization, Live Action, exploits concern for women and girls to promote its Planned Parenthood sting videos, accusing the clinics of enabling “gendercide,” rape, and human trafficking.23 Rose capitalized on the tragic death of a 24-year-old following an abortion procedure, calling her “the true face of the ‘War on Woman.’”24 Her hardline positions on abortion and contraception belie her claims to care about women, as she blithely opposes even life-saving abortions as “never medically necessary.”25 In its few years of existence, Live Action already has more than double the budget of FFL, with 2013 revenues of nearly a million dollars. In the world of pro-life feminism, FFL demonstrates, it doesn’t pay to live up to the label.


In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers applauds the achievements of women suffragists as “classically liberal” feminists, but argues that now U.S. women have achieved equality of opportunity. Equity feminists—Sommers’ term for a form of free market or libertarian feminism—support legal rights for women but deny the existence of structural forces constricting women’s advancement. They chalk present-day disparities in the U.S. up to intrinsic sex differences, condemn “war on women” rhetoric as infantilizing, and argue that valid feminism must focus on “real” oppression in less developed countries.26 Equity feminists accuse “gender feminists”—by which they mean mainstream feminists—of lying about statistics on violence against women and exaggerating rape culture as part of a victimhood narrative. They imply that female students often lie about being raped when they regret “hooking up,” attracting media attention by offering dissident women’s critiques of the rapidly growing movement against campus rape.27

On the other hand, equity feminists suggest that American boys and men suffer at the hands of gender feminists. In 2013, concern over boys’ educational achievements brought Sommers’ message to mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, TIME, and The Atlantic. Their hostility toward gender feminists and skepticism of rape survivors dovetails alarmingly with—and gives the legitimacy of women’s voices to—the misogynist ideology of the Men’s Rights Movement.28

The free market feminist belief in individual empowerment shares ideological similarities with neoliberal feminism, exemplified by works such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and some adherents (including Sommers herself) identify as Democrats,29 although the movement organizations all sit within the conservative network. An American Enterprise Institute (AEI) article, reposted by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), argues, “Feminists hate Lean In because, as Republican Party activist Ann Stone commented from the audience, Sandberg ‘stuck a knife in the breast of [female] victimhood big-time.’” One of the largest groups in the movement, the IWF— of which Sommers is the advisory board chair—developed out of a group formed to help defend Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.30

Today organized free market feminism is a small and closely interlinked network that, thanks to its economic conservatism, reaps support from right-wing groups like the massive AEI and substantial donations from the Koch family foundations or through Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, which Andy Kroll at Mother Jones calls “the dark-money ATM of the right.”31 IWF received $1.8 million from Donors Trust/Capital in 2012 and also receives funding from the well-known conservative Bradley and Scaife foundations. In March 2015, IWF demonstrated support for another infamous Koch-funded organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in honoring CEO Lisa B. Nelson in its “Modern Feminist” feature.32

Like those who claim “pro-life feminism,” free market feminist organizations recognize the value of reaching a younger generation. Sommers’ caricature of gender feminism—as exaggerating the oppression of U.S. women—continues to attract female students 20 years later, while the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute ($1.5 million budget) trains young women to “take back feminism.” The small Network of enlightened Women (NeW), whose president is an IWF fellow, also works on campuses. And in 2013, AEI refreshed the equity brand by publishing Sommers’ new book, Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, as part of a Values & Capitalism series for Christian college students.

IWF avoids culture war issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, though it defends gun rights and opposes education on climate change, which can encourage restrictions on the free market. Though primarily affiliated with conservative organizations, equity feminists include individuals who identify as pro-choice, secular or atheist, or Democratic.33 This keeps them from playing with—and receiving funding from—the larger and more powerful Christian Right operations like CWA. But they at times follow different paths to the same position. For instance, On the Issues summarizes the vehement opposition to VAWA as falling into “two broadly ideological areas—that the law is an unnecessary overreach by the federal government [free market feminism], and that it represents a ‘feminist’ attack on family values [pro-life feminism].”34 CWA also draws on the equity feminist justification for opposing equal pay legislation—that wage disparities result from women’s “choices,” and government regulations that address the income gap would thus interfere with women’s exercise of choice—demonstrating the shared free market influence that helps Christian Right organizations win the Koch brothers’ largesse and protects equity feminism from total isolation.35


When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) first introduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2013, he modeled the legislation after the NRLC’s proposed bill, which lacked any rape and incest exemption. Defending this, Franks asserted that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” triggering swift comparisons to Todd Akin’s famous faux pas in 2012. Republican House leadership went into damage control mode, putting their female colleagues in charge of the floor debate to deflect criticism, with Blackburn as lead co-sponsor.36 They also added a rape and incest exemption, modified with the police-reporting requirement to satisfy anti-abortion organizations including SBA and CWA (which, an Ellmers aide told a constituent on tape, insisted on its inclusion).37

But compromise came with a cost. Though NRLC accepted the weakening of their model bill, its Georgia chapter was outraged by the deal and broke away to form the even more hardline National Personhood Alliance.38 This loss of face likely contributed to the NRLC’s refusal to compromise further and risk denunciation from their right flank. NRLC president Carol Tobias vehemently condemned the congresswomen and men “who metaphorically stabbed a knife in the back of all the pro-lifers who voted for them.”39 Some abortion opponents advocated returning to the original bill, suggesting that the reporting requirement would not be a problem if they removed the exemption altogether.

Despite a meeting between the male Republican leadership and the group of concerned congresswomen—it’s rare for women legislators to rate so much time with the leadership—the impasse between these two influential bodies of conservative women, the elected officials, and the organizational leaders, thwarted compromise.40

The January upset came within a year of another schism that pitted Republican congresswomen against Christian Right women’s organizations. In May 2014, Blackburn, Ellmers, Walorski, and all but two of the Republican women then in Congress ended up on the opposite side of CWA and SBA over legislation for a National Women’s History Museum. (One of the museum’s two female opponents was Tea Party favorite and then representative Michele Bachmann, who herself appears in an exhibit.) Along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council, and Heritage Action, the conservative women’s organizations denounced the proposed museum as a biased “national shrine to abortion” that would “fuel the radical feminist movement for decades to come.” Blackburn, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the bi-partisan bill, offered CWA president Peggy Nance a seat on the museum’s board to attempt to win the conservative organization’s support. Nance refused unless she or another right-wing leader could serve as chair.41 IWF and its sister organizations stayed out of the fight, but a couple of connections suggested a measure of support for the museum: IWF has praised as a “modern feminist” one of the museum’s three founders, Ann Stone, who still sits on the museum’s board along with a Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute board member.42

When the museum bill passed with an overwhelming majority, Sarah Mimms at the National Journal summarized the moral: “The message from the Republican majority to the outside groups opposing the bill is clear: You’re not helping.” She warned that, given the widening gender gap between the parties, “Republican opposition to a bipartisan legislation for a museum celebrating the accomplishments of women” would backfire at the polls.43

Despite the conflict over the museum, Ellmers, Walorski, and Blackburn looked like they followed the Palin brand until this January, when the battle over Franks’ abortion bill took the underlying conflicts to a new level. While Christian Right women’s organizations reacted to the Republican congresswomen’s actions as a betrayal, and free market feminist organizations steered clear of the debate, that doesn’t mean the dissident GOP congresswomen are simply more closely aligned with free market feminism. While the less-funded free market or equity feminist network might benefit from embracing the congresswomen’s position, they were founded on and continue to promote a dismissive approach to sexual harassment, rape culture, and violence against women. Contrast that with congresswomen like Ellmers, who has gone against the conservative grain to co-sponsor proposed legislation addressing campus sexual assault. Even on VAWA, while Blackburn, Ellmers, and eight other Republican congresswomen voted no on reauthorization, Walorski and the majority of female GOP representatives (including all female senators) bucked their party and both conservative movement feminisms to vote yes.

The divide among conservative women seems to speak to a larger sense among GOP congresswomen of what their party must do to appeal to women—a serious concern given that “polls showed women tend to see Republicans as ‘intolerant, lacking in compassion and stuck in the past.’”44 In December 2014, Blackburn joined Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) and then Rep.-elect Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in a panel at Politico’s Women Rule Summit (co-sponsored by the Tory Burch Foundation and Google), titled “Conservative Feminists: Why It’s Not an Oxymoron.” During the discussion, Brooks, who hails from the same state as candidate Richard Mourdock, was asked to comment on his remarks on rape. “We took a stand as Republican women, and said, ‘This is not our party,’” Brooks said, adding that Republicans shouldn’t allow the GOP to be branded by such remarks.45 This was a marked departure from SBA’s decision to stand behind Mourdock despite his offensive comments.

A conservative women’s movement prioritizing bipartisan work to promote women’s accomplishments and taking a more positive approach to sexual violence—whether motivated by branding or substance—would significantly break with the existing right-wing base, even if it otherwise retains stringently anti-choice and free market positions.

Since Christian Right women’s organizations cater to a male-dominated movement in holding a hardline stance, their position is unlikely to soften. The Republican congresswomen testing out this third way risk incurring the wrath of influential female Christian Right leaders (and their male backers) who stand for ever more extreme right-wing policies. When the Franks bill ultimately failed, anti-abortion blogger Jill Stanek and Students for Life America president Kristan Hawkins promptly organized young women to protest at Ellmers’ office during the March for Life, countering Ellmers’ stated concerns about losing millennial votes with a “new poll,” from right-wing Catholic group Knights of Columbus, purporting to show that millennials are “a pro-life generation.”46 Asked whether Ellmers would face a primary challenge, SBA president Dannenfelser responded decisively: “That tidal wave has already begun….That’s going to happen, and she deserves it.”47

Alex DiBranco studies social movements and nonprofit organizations as a sociology Ph.D. student at Yale, analyzing the U.S. Christian Right and reproductive rights and justice movements. She is a Public Eye editorial board member and has been published in outlets including The Nation, Alternet and RH Reality Check.


1. Paige Winfield Cunningham. (2015). “Renee Ellmers explains stance against abortion bill.” Washington Examiner. Online at ellmers-explains-stance-against- abortion-bill/article/2559085.

2. Ibid.

3. Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox. (2015). “GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates.” National Journal. Online at http://www. leaders-pull-abortion-bill-after-revolt- by-women-moderates-20150121.

4. Bill Browning. (2009). “The nexus: Abortion zealot Jackie Walorski and Indiana’s hate crimes legislation.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www. nexus-abortion-zealot_b_157628.html.

5. “The Ten Scariest Republicans Heading to Congress.” People for the American Way. Online at http:// ten-scariest-republicans-heading-to- congress#ellmers.

6. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at news/2015/03/188022/new-face- republican-women-congress.

7. Leslie Dorrough Smith. (2014).Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 121.

8. Ibid.

9. Abby Scher. (2008). “Post-Palin Feminism.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www. post-palin-feminism/.

10. Ibid.

11. Lisa Miller. (2011). “A feminine face for the antiabortion movement.” The Washington Post. Online at http:// on-faith/a-feminine-face-for-the-anti- abortion-movement/2011/11/02/ gIQAwd7kiM_story.html.

12. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

13. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at reproductive-justice-activist-resource-kit-2/.

14. (1998). “Challenging the Ex-Gay Movement: An Information Packet.” Political Research Associates. Online at content/uploads/downloads/2012/11/ ChallengingExGay.pdf.

15. Robin Marty. (2015). “Joining the other side.” Contributoria. Online at https://www. 02/5489c05855f1bf033400004b.

16. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

17. Kate Sheppard. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony List Founder: Republicans Hijacked My PAC!” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2012/02/susan-b-anthony-list- sharp-right-turn-rachel-macnair.

18. Monica Potts. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony’s Hit List.” The American Prospect. Online at article/susan-b-anthonys-hit-list.

19. Valerie Richardson. (1992). “Feminist launches PAC for pro-lifers.” The Washington Times. Online at https:// usenet/americast/twt/news/596.

20. “Susan B. Anthony List’s Anti- Choice Machine.” NARAL Pro-Choice America. (2014). Online at http://www. list-report/.

21. Ronnee Schreiber. (2008). Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 52.

22. Lila Rose. (2012). “Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist.” Politico. Online at news/stories/0412/74739.html.

23. Remington Shepard and Kevin Zieber. (2012). “Right-Wing Media Hype Discredited Activist’s Latest Bogus Planned Parenthood Attack.” Media Matters. Online at http://mediamatters. org/research/2012/05/29/right-wing- media-hype-discredited-activists- lat/185033.

24. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at kit-2/.

25. Laura Bassett. (2013). “Lila Rose: Beatriz Doesn’t Need A Life-Saving Abortion.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2013/05/31/lila-rose-beatriz- abortion_n_3367595.html.

26. Christina Hoff Sommers. (2015). “The Buckley Program at Yale Lecture Series Jan. 22, 2015.” Online at t701RfOEM.

27. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “Caroline Kitchens.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at modern-feminist/2796105/ CAROLINE-KITCHENS.

28. Arthur Goldwag. (2012). “Leader’s Suicide Brings Attention to Men’s Rights Movement.” Southern Poverty Law Center.Online at http://www.splcenter. org/get-informed/intelligence-report/ browse-all-issues/2012/spring/a-war- on-women.

29. Alex DiBranco. (2015). “Letter to the Editor.” The Public Eye, Winter 2015. Online at resources/magazine.

30. “Independent Women’s Forum.” Online at http:// Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

31. Andy Kroll. (2013). “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor- capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley- devos.

32. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “ALEC CEO Lisa B. Nelson.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at modern-feminist/2796644/ALEC-CEO- LISA-B.-NELSON.

33. “Independent Women’s Forum.” Online at http:// Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

34. (2010). “Renee Ellmers on Civil Rights.” On the Issues. Online at http:// Ellmers_Civil_Rights.htm.

35. Concerned Women for America staff. (2014). “Paycheck Fairness Act (S.2199) Opposition Letter.” Concerned Women for America. Online at http:// s-2199-opposition-letter/.

36. Kathryn Smith and Ginger Gibson. (2013). “Trent Franks: ‘Incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.’” Politico. Online at http://www. franks-incidence-of-rape-resulting- in-pregnancy-are-very-low-92650. html#ixzz3QRMIwJQA.

37. Miranda Blue. (2015). “Anti-Choice Women’s Groups Reportedly Pushed For Rape Reporting Requirement In Abortion Ban.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/anti-choice-womens- groups-reportedly-pushed-rape- reporting-requirement-abortion-ban.

38. Miranda Blue. (2014). “Spurned Georgia Group Launching Even More Extreme Rival To National Right To Life Committee.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/spurned-georgia-group- launching-even-more-extreme-rival- national-right-life-committee.

39. (2015). “Elected Officials Who Betray Unborn Babies Have to Go.” National Right to Life News Today. Online at http://www.nationalrighttolifenews. org/news/2015/01/elected-officials- who-betray-unborn-babies-have-to- go/.

40. Ed O’Keefe. (2015). “Abortion bill dropped amid concerns of female GOP lawmakers.” The Washington Post. Online at http://www. politics/wp/2015/01/21/abortion-bill- in-flux-as-female-gop-lawmakers-raise- concerns/.

41. Miranda Blue. (2014). “After Complaining Women’s Museum Will ‘Indoctrinate’ Visitors Into Feminism, CWA’s Nance Demands To Chair Museum’s Board.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/after-complaining- women-s-museum-will-indoctrinate- visitors-feminism-cwas-nance- demands-chai.

42. Charlotte Hays. (2013). “Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Ann Stone.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at feminist/2791521/Portrait-of-a- Modern-Feminist:-Ann-Stone.

43. Sarah Mimms. (2014). “Conservative Groups Urge Republicans to Oppose Women’s Museum, Republicans Don’t Listen.” National Journal. Online at congress/conservative-groups-urge- republicans-to-oppose-women- s-museum-republicans-don-t- listen-20140507.

44. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at new-face-republican-women-congress.

45. “Conservative Feminism: Why it’s not an oxymoron.” Politico. (2014). Online at watch?v=p6V9GhIb0so.

46. Lauretta Brown. (2015). “Millenni- als Protest Ellmers’ Efforts to Delay and Dilute Pro-Life Bill.” Online at

47. Austin Ruse. (2015). “Exclusive: Pro-Life Leaders Call for Ellmers’ Oust- er.” Online at ment/2015/01/22/exclusive-pro-life-leaders-call-for-ellmers-ouster-from-congress/.

How the Right is Co-Opting #BlackLivesMatter to Roll Back Repro Rights

The Right Wing’s success in reframing and co-opting social justice movements for the advancement of its own agenda has derailed more than one progressive campaign. With skillfully manipulative messaging, improved healthcare access and reproductive freedom have been redefined as murderous, genocidal crusades; LGBTQ people have been twisted into dangerous, perverse threats to women and children; economic justice efforts are distorted as handouts for lazy, work-averse people.

The Right’s new target? Black Lives Matter.

With the Black Lives Matter movement sparking actions, demonstrations, and conversations around the country, the Right is carefully plotting strategies to divert energy and attention away from racial justice, seeking to preserve the status quo at all costs, and—if they’re crafty enough—gain ground on their own conservative agenda.

As protesters marched and demonstrated from coast to coast following the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson—the man responsible for the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager—the Right hastily put forward alternative narratives. Among them is an emerging effort to convert the “Black Lives Matter” rallying cry into an anti-abortion campaign.

In December, the Illinois Family Institute—one of many state-based conservative “family policy councils” working to implement a right-wing social and political agenda at the state level—published a blog post entitled, “’Black Lives Matter’ … or do they?” The author, Fran Eaton (a White woman), argued that “the real threat to America’s Black community are abortionists much more than law enforcement officers.” Eaton claims that since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, “16 million tiny Black lives have perished in abortion clinics.”

too many aborted billboardTo back up her reframing of the Black Lives Matter movement, she turns to two of the anti-abortion camp’s favorite Black surrogates: Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of the Radiance Foundation, and Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and director of African American Outreach at the anti-choice Catholic organization Priests for Life.

Bomberger’s organization is infamous for its controversial “Too Many Aborted” billboard campaigns, which began cropping up around the country in 2010. Signs proclaiming “Black Children are an Endangered Species” and “Abortion Makes Three-Fifths Human Seem Overly Generous” were placed in predominantly Black neighborhoods, making no secret of their strategy to target Black women.

bomberger graph

Infographic from the Radiance Foundation


As Dorothy Roberts outlined in her seminal 1998 book, Killing the Black Body, there is indeed a long and devastating history of women’s fertility and reproduction being controlled by the state, particularly among communities of color. In some cases, these attacks on reproductive freedom have been furthered not just by conservative White legislators, but also by Black spokespeople.

Sadly, this multi-pronged, insider/outsider assault continues still today, as exemplified by Bomberger and King’s efforts to further restrict access to safe and healthy abortions that are free from shame and condemnation. Increasingly, these ongoing attacks are taking shape in the form of “race and sex-selective abortion bans”—laws that would prevent healthcare providers from performing abortions if they suspect the person seeking care is doing so based on the anticipated race or sex of the fetus.

Race & Sex-Selective Abortion Bans—Stealing the Civil Rights Act

Prior to 2010, only two states banned sex-selective abortions: Illinois passed a ban in 1979, and Pennsylvania passed a similar law in 1982. Beginning in 2008, however, leaders in the anti-choice movement began mobilizing constituents behind this new tactic.

In 2008, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), proposed H.R. 7016, the Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA). In a press conference, Franks claimed his strategy was to simply extend standard civil rights protections, encapsulated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to unborn Americans. “Sex and race discrimination are already forbidden,” he said. “We took everything applicable from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and applied it to the unborn.”

Franks was joined by Alveda King and several other anti-choice spokespeople, including Steven Mosher, head of the right-wing Population Research Institute. In an article published shortly after H.R. 7016’s introduction, Mosher wrote:

I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex- and race-selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex.

This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists, the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters. How can they, who so oppose patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sex, consent to [the] ultimate form of patriarchy and discrimination, namely, the elimination of baby girls solely on account of their sex? Many, it is safe to predict, will be silent, while others will raise their voices, but with less conviction.

While the pro-aborts are stammering and stuttering, we pro-lifers will be advancing new moral and logical arguments against the exercise of the “right” to an abortion solely on the grounds of sex or race. For those who are immune to moral arguments, we can also use the examples of China and India, where sex-selective abortion is creating enormous societal problems. The debate over sex- and race-selective abortion will also help to focus the public’s attention on how unregulated the abortion industry is. In these and other ways, the debate over this legislation will not subtract from, but add to, the larger goal of reversing Roe v. Wade and, ultimately, passing a Human Life Amendment. – “A New Front in the Abortion Wars

Franks, considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, has persisted in his efforts, reintroducing the bill in 2008, ’09, ’11, ’12, and ’13. In 2013, Franks also proposed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks based on the medically-disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain at that point. That bill, which still lacked sufficient support when it was re-introduced in January of this year, will likely be back up for consideration soon.

Franks’ home state of Arizona is the only state to have passed a race-selective abortion ban. This legislation is currently being contested by the ACLU on behalf of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As NAPAWF explains:

These bills are part of a deceptive attempt to slip anti-choice measures under the radar. They claim to promote racial and gender equity, when in reality they aim to chip away at reproductive rights by exploiting negative stereotypes about women of color. Using the language of equality, anti-choice conservatives hope to foster nontraditional alliances with true advocates for women and people of color, in order to gain broad support for their agenda.

As in Illinois, Arizona has its own family policy organization, the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP). CAP was originally known as the Arizona Family Research Institute, and from 1988-1993, Franks served as the organization’s executive director. Now one of the most influential political groups in the state, CAP is a member of CitizenLink, a nationwide network of right-wing state level lobbying groups and the policy arm of Focus on the Family. CitizenLink currently lists “fully associated” groups in 38 states.

With the exception of Oklahoma, every other state to have successfully passed sex-selective abortion bans thus far (Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) has one of these CitizenLink-affiliated groups working hard to derail movements toward social justice and advance the Right’s fundamentalist Christian agenda.

The Right’s media-messaging machine is well resourced and ready to co-opt and distort all struggles for social justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. With high-profile Black surrogates like Bomberger and King out in front, and national support from organizations like Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, Radiance Foundation, and Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion movement is gaining ground—already this year, state lawmakers have introduced more than 300 bills designed to chip away at civil liberties and reproductive freedom.

It can be difficult to translate truth from the Right’s manipulative reframing, but Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, offers an easy litmus test: “If those who oppose abortion truly believed that black lives matter, they would be standing beside reproductive justice activists, and join our unequivocal assertion that the right to choose an abortion is just as important as the right to have children and parent them in healthy, thriving communities. Equality and justice can never be rooted in stigma, shaming, or violence, and it’s time the anti-choice movement recognized that.”