Religious Right groups and right-wing media outlets are waging an intensified campaign against the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that monitors and challenges extremist groups and hateful rhetoric. The latest salvo comes in the form of an open letter to the media written by the Family Research Council and Media Research Center and signed by 47 right-wing leaders and organizations. The letter characterizes the SPLC as “an attack dog of the political left” and urges media outlets to stop using SPLC data, lists and maps.
Religious Right groups have been furious at the SPLC since the organization decided several years ago to begin listing some of them as anti-LGBTQ hate groups. Religious Right groups rallied around the Family Research Council when the SPLC labeled it a hate group in 2010. Religious Right leaders complain that they are designated as hate groups simply for upholding “traditional” Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality, which the SPLC has repeatedly explained is not true.
“Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups,” the SPLC has explained, saying groups receive the designation for spreading “demonstrably false information” and “disparaging, emotion-provoking stereotypes.” SPLC notes that many Religious Right leaders “have disseminated disparaging ‘facts’ about gay that are simply untrue—assertions that are remarkably reminiscent of the way white intellectuals and scientists once wrote about the ‘bestial’ black man and his supposedly threatening sexuality.”
Two years ago, for example, SPLC’s Mark Potok told a reporter profiling Liberty Counsel, “A group that regularly portrays gay people as perverse diseased pedophiles putting Western civilization at risk are way, way over the line.”
The most recent concerted campaign against the SPLC seems to have been triggered when GuideStar, an online resource that compiles financial and other information about nonprofit organizations, began flagging organizations categorized by the SPLC as hate groups. More than 40 right-wing leaders, including representatives of anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim groups, complained and asked GuideStar to stop using SPLC information. GuideStar reported that its staff members had received death threats over the designations. After a torrent of right-wing complaints, GuideStar removed the banners, but in June Liberty Counsel sued them anyway.
Then in July, right-wing groups, led by the Family Research Council, launched a renewed coordinated campaign targeting the SPLC, which has been amplified by the right-wing media. Even white nationalists have gotten in on the act, with VDARE calling it the “Southern Poverty Lie Center.”
As part of the new campaign, D. James Kennedy Ministries produced an anti-SPLC video called “Profit$ of Hate.” Among the Religious Right figures featured in the nearly 30-minute video are FRC’s Tony Perkins, Jerry Boykin, Peter Sprigg and Ken Blackwell and Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver. A spokesperson for the group told the Christian Post they made the film because the SPLC poses “significant existential threats to religious freedom and to Christian ministries like ours.”
Then in August, D. James Kennedy Ministries filed its own lawsuit against the SPLC, GuideStar and Amazon, which has not included the ministry in its Amazon Smile fundraising program. The lawsuit charges defamation, trafficking in false or misleading information, and religious discrimination. Here’s how the complaint explains the religious discrimination charge:
Because the ministry’s position on ‘LGBTQ’ issues is inextricably intertwined and connected to the ministry’s religious theology, and because SPLC and GuideStar have declared the ministry to be a hate group due to the ministry’s stand on LGBTQ issues, what occurred here is that SPLC and GuideStar have discriminated against the ministry because of its theology and its religious beliefs.
Lawsuits over the SPLC’s “hate group” designation have been accompanied by a media and messaging barrage, enlisting participation from evangelist Franklin Graham, Fox News Radio personality Todd Starnes, Breitbart, PJ Media, the Drudge Report, Alex Jones, and Western Journalism, which published a piece calling the SPLC a hate group that “burns crosses in its own way.”
SPLC’s detractors also complained when media outlets turned to the group for its widely acknowledged expertise on extremist groups in the U.S. after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, which resulted in high-profile gifts to the SPLC from corporations like Apple and individuals like George Clooney. Anti-LGBTQ activist Peter LaBarbera, for example, slammed CNN for using the SPLC’s “hate map” in a story; so did the American Family Association’s Tim Wildmon.
Earlier in the summer, the Alliance Defending Freedom complained that ABC and NBC had used SPLC “hate group” criteria in news stories about Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking to the group. When, in the wake of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the Arizona Republic and a Phoenix television station noted ADF’s inclusion on the SPLC’s list, ADF accused the outlets of “journalistic malpractice.”
The campaign also targets corporations that have donated to the SPLC. The right-wing platform 2ndVote calls the Kennedy Ministries’ lawsuit “a first step to defunding SPLC” and suggests that consumers could take action against SPLC funders. Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver even said the SPLC labeling his organization a hate group is part of a persecution of Christians in America reminiscent of the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.
The Right’s anti-SPLC campaign is not marked by intellectual consistency; right-wing leaders have frequently charged that the “hate” label recklessly incites hatred and invites violence. But then they apply the very same label to the SPLC, as the American Family Association did on August 25, calling the SPLC “the most dangerous hate group in America.” Western Journalism’s article warned that if your policy positions don’t match with the SPLC’s, “you are sued, silenced and threatened,” which of course is exactly what the Right is doing, or trying to do, to the SPLC.
The Family Research Council has included a stream of anti-SPLC criticism in its Twitter feed and email alerts, along with criticism of companies that donated to the group in the wake of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. FRC’s Jerry Boykin cheered the Kennedy Ministries lawsuit, saying the SPLC is guilty of “inciting hatred against Christians.” Boykin went on Liberty Counsel’s radio show and told people to demand that their members of Congress “get engaged in stopping the reckless behavior of the SPLC.” It’s not clear what Boykin thinks Congress can or should do to the group.
Anti-immigration organizations have been waging their own campaign against the SPLC since last November. FAIR, an anti-immigration group with historical ties to white nationalists, has joined with other anti-immigration groups to launch a website under the name Stop Politicizing Legitimate Causes adopting the Southern Poverty Law Center’s acronym. The fake “SPLC” appears to have placed search-term ads designed to ensnare people seeking information on hate groups. It also mimicked the Center’s Hatewatch and Hate Map projects with its own “Greatwatch” and “Great Map,” which includes a few natural and historical sites, along with FAIR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. The site asks people to report a “mislabeled organization or a hate incident.”
SPLC’s opponents blame the group for a 2012 shooting at the Family Research Council that was carried out by a man who said he had chosen the group based on its designation as an anti-gay hate group. Gay rights activists and other progressive leaders immediately and unequivocally denounced the violence, which FRC quickly moved to exploit in an effort to damage the SPLC. Right-wing groups have also blamed the SPLC for this year’s shooting at a congressional softball team practice because the shooter had reportedly liked the SPLC’s Facebook page.
The SPLC initially made a name for itself targeting violent racist groups like the KKK and anti-government “patriot” and “militia” groups. Even some right-wing groups acknowledge the value of the SPLC’s work on those fronts, but they say the SPLC’s focus on them unfairly equates their organizations with groups like the KKK.
Some fair-minded people may disagree with the criteria the SPLC uses or the decisions it makes about categorizing individual organizations and leaders. But as RWW’s own reporting on many of the organizations now attacking the SPLC makes clear, there is no question that groups on its list do, in fact, promote harmful stereotypes and inflammatory falsehoods about targeted groups, including LGBTQ people, immigrants, and Muslims. In addition to false and damaging rhetoric at home, Religious Right leaders are making life more difficult and dangerous for LGBTQ people around the globe by supporting laws that criminalize homosexuality and resisting international efforts to recognize and protect the human rights of LGBTQ people and their families.
Right-wing groups have been invigorated by the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump, and they are apparently feeling emboldened by the most favorable political climate they have enjoyed in years. Now they’re taking a page from the Trump playbook and aggressively attacking those who criticize and report on them.
Signers of the anti-SPLC letter released today include a who’s who among Religious Right peddlers of division and bigotry. Among the signers: the MRC’s Brent Bozell; the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Jerry Boykin; the American Family Association’s Tim Wildmon and Sandy Rios; anti-Islam activists Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer; Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver; ADF’s Michael Farris; WND’s Joseph Farah; C-FAM’s Austin Ruse; and more.