Last month a notorious pro-religion, anti-gay legal group called Liberty Counsel filed a motion to intervene in Pareto v. Ruvin, the Florida lawsuit via which six same-sex couples are fighting for marriage equality. The motion wasn’t a surprise—no one expected anti-gay activists to take the lawsuit sitting down. But a look at the three groups named as interveners reveals something interesting.
Two of the three groups—People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (P.U.L.S.E) and Florida Democratic League—sound an awful lot like the types of organizations that would be more likely to support same-sex marriage than fight marriage equality.
That is no accident. A look inside the strategy behind the fight against equality for LGBTs reveals an organized, connected network that increasingly relies on deceptive tactics to reach their goals, while at the same time releasing statements and sound bites intended to give the impression that anti-gay legislation and court battles are a natural uprising, sprung from the voting public.
A group by any other name
Misleading names—and many times, names that are precisely the opposite of the group’s actual purpose—are an increasingly common tactic.
“It happens all the time and particularly in Florida politics,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at University of Central Florida (UCF). “They come up with names that are extremely misleading. They try to come up with a name that is positive and general, so you don’t really get a good idea from the name what they’re doing.”
Jewett said the tactic isn’t limited to anti-gay groups and is especially prevalent among groups trying to raise money. But there has been a rise in groups using misleading names to fight LGBT equality for the past couple of decades.
“It’s probably more prevalent on some issues—for instance anti-gay legislation—because in some ways these groups are going against the popular tide right now,” he says. “Some business groups wouldn’t necessarily give support if they knew exactly what [the anti-gay] groups were doing.”
The Florida Democratic League, one of the groups listed as an intervener against Florida’s marriage equality lawsuit, is in hot water with the state’s Democratic Party regarding its deceptive name.
“They’re not democratic in any way whatsoever,” says Joshua Karp, communications director of the Florida Democratic Party.
The party’s attorneys sent the Florida Democratic League a cease-and-desist order regarding the name.
“Under Florida law, it’s illegal for them to represent themselves as Democrats when they’re not,” Karp says. “It’d actually be illegal for any organization to represent themselves as affiliated with a political party if they’re not.”
He’s referring to Florida Statutes Section 103.081, which states: “No person or group of persons shall use the name, abbreviation, or symbol of any political party, the name, abbreviation, or symbol of which is filed with the Department of State, in connection with any club, group, association, or organization of any kind unless approval and permission have been given in writing by the state executive committee of such party.”
Karp said as of press time, the Florida Democratic Party hadn’t heard a response to the letter. But if the Florida Democratic League doesn’t comply with the cease-and-desist request, “further steps will be taken.”
He agrees that groups using misleading names aren’t unusual.
“Every now and then a conservative or Republican organization will adopt a democratic name in the hopes of misleading voters,” Karp says. “This is just one of those tactics that we have to stay vigilant on. It’s dishonorable. It’s a disreputable tactic.”
Jewett says that even in the current age of technology, where information is spread on the internet more rapidly than ever before, groups continue to use this tactic for a simple reason—even if the true identity is exposed, the group will likely get away with it in the eyes of the public.
“The unfortunate fact is the average person, the average Floridian is not that interested in politics. Most people are not paying that much attention,” Jewett says. “Even if exposes are run, for most people, it’ll never hit their radar screen. That’s why these groups continue to do it, come up with names that are generic at best, misleading at worst.”
The Florida Democratic League did not respond to requests for comment.
Misleading purpose, on purpose
It’s not just monikers that are deceptive—some groups claim to be focused on one pro-LGBT goal publicly while privately fighting LGBT equality.
P.U.L.S.E, also an intervener in Florida’s marriage equality lawsuit, is ostensibly focused on advocating on behalf of Miami’s poor minorities. Its website describes a number of civil rights successes, community safety initiatives and outreach efforts on behalf of Miami’s more impoverished, crumbling neighborhoods. Nowhere on P.U.L.S.E’s website is LGBT equality discussed. But a simple phone call to Nathanial Wilcox, the group’s executive director, reveals a long history of working against LGBT equality, dating back to the group’s involvement in the movement to add Amendment 2 to Florida’s constitution back in 2008. Amendment 2 established marriage in Florida as solely between one man and one woman, effectively banning the recognition of same-sex marriages statewide.
Wilcox argued that fighting LGBT equality is not out of line with P.U.L.S.E’s mission because the organization deals with communities in disarray, and “when you have families that aren’t headed by strong men, they’re in disarray,” he explains.
He admits that his ties to the Liberty Counsel and the other groups named as interveners dates back to 2008, but when asked how, specifically, P.U.L.S.E came to be named in the motion to intervene, Wilcox would only say, “We’re working. Just put that down—we’re working.”
Like misleading names, Jewett says misleading missions are a common tactic among Florida political groups.
“It’s a strategy a lot of groups use; a little more often when talking about anti-gay legislation, or an anti-gay court battle,” he says.
Jewett explains it’s not something that just happens at the state and local levels, either, and cited American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as an example. According to that group’s website, ALEC is a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”
Jewett says initially, the group presented itself as being focused on pro-business initiatives and legislation, but took a hard right when it expanded into conservative social issues and became a driving force behind the controversial Stand Your Ground Laws, which gives individuals the right to use deadly force with no requirement to run away when defending themselves.
Florida was the first state to adopt Stand Your Ground in 2005.
Instant bills, just add legislator and stir
In January and February of 2014, more than a dozen states—most famously, Arizona—introduced very similar bills that allegedly aimed to protect citizens’ religious freedom, but actually gave citizens and businesses the right to discriminate against LGBTs on the basis of religion. While Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s bill and most of the other bills are dead in the water (see sidebar), it’s no coincidence that all of those states had the same idea at the same time.
Conservatives may try to present anti-gay bills as a natural reflection of public opinion, but in actuality, they are the result of carefully orchestrated campaigns that target state legislators.
Again, Jewett emphasizes that it’s not just conservatives who use subterfuge to push through their desired legislation, but he says they are more successful at it.
“For the gay rights movement, gay legislation, there are social conservatives groups or traditional religious groups that operate across state lines,” Jewett says. “Over the last decade or two, the conservative groups seem to do a better job of pushing their agendas into a number of state legislatures than progressive groups.”
He adds these tactics have been especially fruitful in Florida for the past 15 years, while the Republicans have controlled the state legislature.
“Definitely in Florida they’ve been more successful, there’s no doubt about that,” he says.
Where is the evidence that all these bills are connected? The answer lies in the bills themselves. The religious freedom bills in Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Ohio all contained either this exact language: “’Exercise of religion’ means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief” or something extremely similar, with only two or three words changed.
“It’s like plug and play,” Jewett says, noting that any like-minded legislator in any state could use the provided language, with very little editing, to propose a bill.
“From the groups’ perspective, they’re trying to make it easy for the legislators,” he says.
Who are the people behind these coordinated legislative efforts that cross state lines? That answer is harder to pin down.
A name that frequently comes up regarding these controversial bills is the American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP). Brian Walsh, who heads up that organization, admitted to CNN that his group “probably consulted on 12 to 15 different types of legislation in states over the past couple years.” But Walsh is one of the few who will own up to involvement in legislation.
“While there are laws requiring that campaign donations be tracked and donors and recipients be identified, there is no such requirement for suggesting legislation to lawmakers,” Jewett said. “And most likely, attempts to require such identification would probably be struck down on first amendment grounds.”
He’s referring to freedom of speech and the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, two amendments which generally protect lobbying.
“So if groups want to provide suggested legislation to legislators to introduce in their legislatures they may do so,” Jewett says. “And if they don’t want to be identified they probably will not be unless the legislator decides to announce who provided the legislation.”
Dangerous global reach
While it may be difficult to determine who exactly pens suddenly-trendy anti-gay legislation, it’s clear that many of the anti-gay groups are connected, and many of the connections can be traced to Demoss Group, an Atlanta-based PR agency that represents ARFP.
Remember Liberty Counsel, the legal group representing the interveners in the fight against Florida’s lawsuit for marriage equality? They’re in a close partnership with Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s law school, which happens to be a Demoss client. So are a number of other notorious anti-gay organizations, including Focus on the Family, Southern Baptist Convention and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Why should LGBTs care that these groups are connected? Because those connections create a global network that can be dangerous—or even deadly—to LGBTs around the world, giving anti-gay activists access and influence they likely would not have if they were working alone.
In June of 2013, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage traveled to Russia and presented to officials arguments in favor of anti-gay laws. Five days later, the Russian legislative body approved a law banning adoption by gay couples.
Matt Barber, a dean at Liberty University and Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founding member, have not only publicly praised laws in other countries punishing gays as criminals, but they’ve openly expressed a desire for those types of laws to be implemented in the United States.
“This is a very dangerous lifestyle that countries like Russia are – in addition to reestablishing and saying no, marriage is what it’s always been – they’re saying additionally we are going to stop this homosexual activist propaganda from corrupting children in our nation and we need to see that right here in the United States,” Barber said in January during a “Faith and Freedom” broadcast during which they praised harsh anti-gay laws in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria. They called the laws “encouraging.”
To be clear—these men who praise laws that allow accused gays in Nigeria to be publicly whipped are key members of the sole legal group fighting Florida’s lawsuit for marriage equality. If LGBT activists expect to win the battle for equality, they must be aware of the underhanded tactics and deep networks that are used commonly and successfully to leverage the anti-gay agenda.
From our media partner Watermark