The Trump administration has officially enlisted in the Religious Right’s war on the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has decades of experience in monitoring, exposing and challenging extremism. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Religious Right legal giant, to denounce the SPLC’s designation of ADF as a hate group. “You are not a hate group,” Sessions told ADF, which he said endeavors “to affirm the Constitution and American values.”
The American Family Association, also considered a hate group by the SPLC, celebrated Sessions’ speech with a coffee-room video denouncing the SPLC as part of what Sessions has called a “dangerous movement” that he said is eroding religious liberty in America. AFA radio host Bryan Fischer was positively giddy about Sessions’ speech at ADF, saying the attorney general “eviscerated” the SPLC and “brought the hammer down.”
But if ADF wanted to demonstrate that it is not a hate group, it was a strange choice to have senior counsel Matt Sharp appear on Fischer’s show, which is a torrent of anti–gay bigotry as well as religious bigotry toward non-Christians. Sharp joined Fischer in celebrating what they said was the Trump administration’s defense of religious liberty, which is remarkable given that Fischer has repeatedly said that the First Amendment’s religious liberty provisions apply only to Christians.
There is a long history of collaboration between the SPLC and law enforcement officials who have tapped the group’s expertise on, for example, violent anti-government militia groups. But, said Sessions on Wednesday, “We will not partner with groups that unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or their faith.”
Like Sessions, Religious Right groups frequently mischaracterize the SPLC’s hate group designation, saying it is applied to groups that simply have policy disagreements with the organization. On Fischer’s show, Sharp said the SPLC “defame[s] hard-working good Americans that believe in the Constitution.”
But in fact, the SPLC is clear that viewing homosexuality as unbiblical or opposing marriage equality is not enough for an organization to be listed as a hate group. And the SPLC is quite transparent about how groups like ADF “earn” that designation. It notes, for example, that ADF has:
- Supported the recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. and criminalization abroad
- Defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad
- Linked homosexuality to pedophilia
- Claims that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy Christianity and society
As we have previously reported, Religious Right groups outraged that SPLC has designated some of them as hate groups are collaborating in a sustained attack on the organization. Last fall, 47 right-wing leaders and organizations signed an open leader urging the media to stop using SPLC data. The first act of the Christian Civil Rights Watch organization, founded late last year by anti-gay Religious Right activists Matt Barber and Gordon Klingenschmitt, was to petition President Trump to denounce the SPLC and cut all ties between the group and executive branch agencies.