In what might be the most scathing federal ruling ever handed down in favor of a defendant, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor on Monday granted Scott Lively’s request for summary judgment in the years-long case alleging Lively committed crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting deadly anti-LGBT rhetoric and legislation in Uganda, often referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill. But while Ponsor was compelled to dismiss the case on what is essentially a technicality, he made no secret that Lively “has aided and abetted a vicious and frightening campaign of repression against LGBTI persons in Uganda.”
“Anyone reading this memorandum should make no mistake,” continued Ponsor. “The question before the court is not whether Defendant’s actions in aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI people in Uganda constitute violations of international law. They do.”
The case may have been complicated but what it exposes about the American religious right is not. Crucially, this narrow victory is already being claimed as a powerful turning point in the “culture wars” by the likes of Liberty Counsel, which represented Lively. As a refresher, Liberty Counsel is the far-right legal nonprofit founded by Mat Staver (the former Dean of Liberty University School of Law), which is perhaps best remembered for representing anti-gay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis (though Liberty Counsel’s client roster goes much deeper and further right than a single headline-grabbing “religious objector”).
In a press release announcing Monday’s ruling, Liberty Counsel attacked the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the case on behalf of Ugandan LGBTI advocacy organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (bizarrely noting that CCR’s New York offices are located at 666 Broadway), then turned its ire to Judge Ponsor, claiming that he “let his personal bias against pro-family values and support of the LGBT agenda slip into what should otherwise have been a straight legal opinion.”
In that same release, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver (who, as recently as 2015, was a headliner at the annual GOP glad-handing event known as the Values Voters Summit and was the recipient of a 2012 “Champions of Justice” award from Samuel Rodriguez’s NHCLC) claimed that the jurisdictional dismissal of the complaint against Lively was a “victory for the Constitution and the rule of law,” and suggested that “all Christians should celebrate the end of a lawsuit intended only to intimidate an innocent pastor into silence.”
But “innocent pastor” may be a stretch. As Judge Ponsor wrote, Lively’s “positions on LGBTI people range from the ludicrous to the abhorrent,” ultimately using LGBT people as scapegoats for every major social ill that has arisen in the past century. And sure, Lively’s book-length claims that Nazism was “an outgrowth of the German homosexual movement” seem like the standard whackadoodle rantings of a religious zealot easily dismissed as “fringe” or a “bad apple” among otherwise decent, if conservative, Christians.
But Lively’s hateful rhetoric is not, in fact, an outlier among his peers. Originally from the supposedly liberal bastion of Massachusetts, Lively made a name for himself peddling anti-LGBT animus as “the word of God” in Oregon and California, where he served as the state director for the American Family Association. (That’s the SPLC-certified anti-LGBT hate group helmed by fellow wingnut Bryan Fischer.) Lively still operates a pair of ministries out of Springfield, Mass., in addition to several right-wing ministry groups that focus on demonizing LGBT people in places as far-flung as Latvia, Moldova, and (shocker!) Russia and Ukraine.
So while Lively is spreading his hateful brand of Christianity abroad, Liberty Counsel and its contemporaries are working tirelessly to make sure this exclusionary model of faith remains at the forefront of American conversations about Christianity. Liberty Counsel—and, to a more insidious extent, more sophisticated groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket—are enabling the continued relevance of right-wing ideologues that should be banished to the fringe.