When it comes to pushing for legislation legitimizing discrimination against the LGBT community, all politics is not local. National organizations work hand in glove with local groups to craft and enact so-called “religious freedom” laws. A new report by my organization, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), documents coordination in Arizona, Texas, and Kentucky between national groups and their state partners to pass anti-LBGT laws ranging from Religious Freedom Restoration Acts to the newly minted “bathroom laws,” mandating that people may only use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth.
But there also are more subtle ways these anti-LGBT groups insinuate themselves into government. In Kentucky, Liberty Counsel – a national organization that promotes laws discriminating against LGBT individuals under the mantra of “religious freedom” – swooped in to represent Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis on a pro bono basis when she was sued for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Far less publicly, Liberty Counsel stepped into what is typically the realm of government lawyers and responded to open records requests made to the clerk’s office.
When CfA sought records to learn more about the nature of the relationship between Ms. Davis and Liberty Counsel, including just who Liberty Counsel was representing – Ms. Davis personally or the Rowan County Clerk’s office – Liberty Counsel – not the Clerk’s office or a government lawyer – responded, refusing to produce a single document and raising a laundry list of objections. Months of contentious wrangling ended only after CfA asked Kentucky Attorney General Andy Bashear to intercede. He did so, making clear that Liberty Counsel had offered no grounds to withhold the records.
The records Liberty Counsel fought so hard to withhold consisted mostly of innocuous emails from producers requesting Ms. Davis appear on various news programs. There was, however, one noteworthy exception: the legal representation agreement between Ms. Davis and Liberty Counsel. That agreement contains an unusual provision that would leave Ms. Davis on the hook for Liberty Counsel’s attorney fees if she ever retains other counsel. The implication of this provision is clear: Liberty Counsel is ensuring it maintains control over Ms. Davis and, therefore, the agenda promoted. Far from protecting Ms. Davis’s rights, this paragraph indicates Liberty Counsel is more concerned with advancing and protecting its own standing as a go-to organization in the national war on LGBT rights.
Liberty Counsel has competition. First Liberty, for example, based in Plano, Texas, also offers pro bono legal representation to those who claim their religious freedom has been threatened by laws prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community. Playing the same role as Liberty Counsel in Kentucky, First Liberty rushed in to represent Texas Hood County Clerk Katie Lang when she was sued for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Also like Liberty Counsel, First Liberty injected itself when CfA filed an open records request with the Hood County Clerk, seeking a decision from the Texas attorney general that the requested records were exempt from disclosure.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision upholding same-sex marriage, anti-LGBT groups have been forced to recognize their waning influence at the federal level and regroup. They are now focused on state and local governments where they can have greater sway, often without being subject to public scrutiny. Apparently not content with simply representing like-minded local officials sued for failing to comply with laws prohibiting discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender citizens, groups like Liberty Counsel and First Liberty are attempting to take over state administrative functions. Even those who sympathize with their missions should be suspect about whether non-governmental organizations should be allowed to make governmental decisions.
The documents CfA received can be viewed below.
Anne Weismann is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C..