Religious Freedom Org Sticking By Trump Clinging to SCOTUS Nominations

Image credit: Evan Derkacz.
Image credit: Evan Derkacz.

As growing numbers of career politicians and conservative pundits scramble to distance themselves from the ever-imploding presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, the foul-mouthed businessman still has a few reliable allies going to bat for him. And although Trump has seemed, at best, lukewarm about defending against the supposed “attack” on “Judeo-Christian values” in this nation, evangelicals and self-appointed religious freedom fighters continue to overwhelmingly support Trump.

But those allies, like Trump’s TV surrogates, are increasingly required to twist themselves into rhetorical pretzels to justify their candidate’s behavior, policies (or lack thereof) and unabashed disregard for the U.S. Constitution. Among those ready to contort themselves into Trump promotion machines at any cost is the right-wing Liberty Counsel, which describes itself as a Christian legal nonprofit, “dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Liberty Counsel is an anti-LGBT hate group, and a quick scan of the organization’s client roster reads like a who’s-who of elected officials, business-owners, and “ministries” that cite religious liberty to deny services (and basic dignity) to LGBT people.

In a “special message” sent to evangelical supporters via email on Saturday, Liberty Counsel Action director Anita Staver cautioned voters that a candidate’s rhetoric (no matter how crude or vulgar) “will never matter as much as their Supreme Court nominations.” The message does not mention either candidate by name, but the text makes clear that Staver isn’t talking about Hillary Clinton.

“The selection of future Supreme Court justices is the most critical issue of this election,” she continued. “One justice can drastically alter years of American legal jurisprudence.”

She’s not wrong, of course. Partisans on both sides of the aisle have been beating the “Supreme Court is at stake”-drum loudly and consistently throughout this election. And given the Senate leadership’s unprecedented refusal to even consider a vote on President Obama’s nomination of judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court appointments by a future President Clinton or President Trump are all-but a foregone conclusion.

Staver, who is married to Liberty Counsel’s (notably more infamous) founder and chairman, Mat Staver, is a licensed attorney and a member of the Florida and Washington, D.C. bars. Her Liberty Counsel bio touts that she is “admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme and 12 federal courts of appeal.”

So her urgency in warning supporters about what’s at risk at the Supreme Court could reasonably be considered sincere. Until one continues reading the message—which, of course, doubles as a fundraising pitch for Liberty Counsel’s doomsday fund, “Operation Save America.” Several major cases have been decided by a single vote at the nation’s high court, Staver explains, pointing to recent 5-4 decisions in Citizens United (regarding campaign financing), Gonzales v. Carhart (which Staver positions as approving the “gruesome process” of “partial-birth abortions”), and the marriage equality decision in Obergefell.

(It’s worth noting that in each of these cases, Staver mischaracterizes the holding of the court. For example, according to Liberty Counsel, the court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges merely determined that states cannot deny same-sex couples marriage licenses. In reality, the ruling proactively affirmed that all Americans have a constitutional right to marry the consenting adult of their choice, regardless of gender).

After a nondescript dig at the Affordable Care Act, Staver gets down to the nitty-gritty:

Many other important issues that impact Americans—including religious freedom, self-defense, marriage, bathroom privacy, equal access for Bible clubs, forced funding of abortion, ObamaCare exemptions, school vouchers, online child pornography, and the public acknowledgement of God—all hang by one vote.

Among that laundry list of liberties supposedly under siege, roughly a third have to do with LGBT people. “Religious freedom” has become a code-word for those looking to stymie LGBT equality. Any “threat” to marriage always seems to come from those hoping to access the institution, but never from heterosexuals (despite escalating rates of divorce, domestic violence, and infidelity in such unions). Defending “bathroom privacy” is a thinly veiled (and well-documented) scare-tactic used to demonize transgender people who simply want to use the restroom in peace.

It’s that last “threat” which Staver, and Liberty Counsel in general, have been tirelessly “defending” against since it became clear that the so-called culture wars had been lost over legal marriage equality. The organization has invested substantial resources in battling each incremental step toward a more trans-inclusive society.

When big-box retailer Target in April reaffirmed its longstanding policy that customers and employees were free to use the restroom and changing room that best matched their gender identity, Staver responded by pledging to carry her Glock .45 pistol into the women’s bathrooms. Her gun, she quipped on Twitter, “identifies as my bodyguard.” Less than two months later, someone detonated a homemade bomb inside a Chicago-area Target bathroom. But even after Staver herself admitted on Fox News that the “bathroom predator” myth is a lie, Liberty Counsel continues to peddle the repeatedly debunked scare-tactic.

The transphobic dog-whistle contained in Liberty Counsel’s complaints about “bathroom privacy” seems designed to reach out to the right-wing group’s base, and continues the organization’s long pattern of attempting to portray itself as a major player in the national fight for so-called “religious freedom.” Whether providing pro-bono legal representation for defiant anti-gay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, or bemoaning the unconscionability of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s (second) suspension for faith-related judicial ethics violations, Liberty Counsel’s livelihood relies  on playing the victim.

If that particular battle hymn sounds familiar, it may be because the Alliance Defending Freedom runs a strikingly similar operation. Although ADF is less prone to primetime TV showboating than Liberty Counsel, both groups exist in a murky world of legal nonprofits that claim to be faith-based, while actively working to influence legislation on the local, state, and national level. And both have a decidedly anti-LGBT agenda.

The Orlando-based organization might not have the massive financial backing of the ADF, but it’s clear the two groups share an ideological mission, and it’s hard not to see that Liberty Counsel hopes to grow up to be as influential as ADF. In fact, Liberty Counsel has proudly taken credit for the proliferation of transphobic “bathroom bills” in legislatures across the country, despite the fact that many of the bills feature language that is pulled verbatim from ADF’s “model legislation” template. All the while, Liberty Counsel leadership—including the Stavers—continue to deny any connections between the two organizations.