Liberty Counsel is a legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.
The Liberty Counsel was founded by conservative activists Mathew (“Mat”) Staver – an attorney and former dean at Liberty University School of Law – and his wife Anita. The Counsel bills itself as a non-profit litigation, education and policy organization that provides legal counsel and pro bono assistance in cases dealing with religious liberty, “the sanctity of human life" and the family. Mat Staver chairs the Counsel; his wife Anita is the president. The Liberty Counsel shares a close affiliation with Liberty University (founded by the late Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.) , especially the university’s school of law. The partnership includes the Washington, D.C.-based Liberty Center for Law and Policy, which conducts legal research and writes about current legislation and policies.
In Its Own Words
“Homosexual conduct can result in significant damage to those involved who engage in such conduct. There is no evidence that a person is born homosexual. And there is evidence that people can change. Our culture is being pressured with demands that our homes welcome, our daycares embrace, our schools indoctrinate, our businesses promote, and our laws reward this harmful sexual behavior.” – Liberty Counsel website, “Resources on the Family,” 2015.
“Now [the group will] allow homosexual young boys in the Scouts and allow homosexual leaders in the Scouts, and what are you going to have? You are going to have all kinds of sexual molestation. This is a playground for pedophiles to go and have all these boys as objects of their lust.” – Mat Staver, “Faith and Freedom Radio,” August 2015.
“If you ultimately promoted same-sex marriage and everyone started to go towards same-sex marriage, what would happen to society? It would just simply cease to exist. Moreover, you’d have rampant increase in diseases. Already, you have rampant increase in diseases among same-sex activities, specifically men having sex with men. Same-sex marriage, same-sex relationships is destructive to individuals and it’s destructive to our very social fabric.”—Mat Staver, “VCY America,” December 2013.
“Every individual engaged in the homosexual lifestyle, who has adopted a homosexual identity, they know intuitively that what they are doing is immoral, unnatural, and self-destructive. Yet they thirst for that affirmation because they've tied their whole identity up in this sexual perversion.”—Matt Barber, “Faith and Freedom Radio,” September 2013.
“When you consider that the life of the average homosexual is not controlled by reason, not controlled by the will, it’s really a life controlled by this lust, this passion, that has kind of overwhelmed them, and so you have kind of the essence of a lack of self control.”—Steve Crampton, Liberty Counsel attorney, “Faith and Freedom Radio,” July 2013.
“Your lifestyle – homosexuality – is always and forever, objectively and demonstrably wrong. It is never good, natural, right or praiseworthy. … In almost every category – disease, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide – those who call themselves ‘gay’ live and die with consequences that have nothing gay, in the true sense of the word, about them.”—Matt Barber writing at WND, June 2012
“We are facing the survival of western values, western civilization. ... One of the most significant threats to our freedom is in the area of sexual anarchy with the agenda of the homosexual movement, the so-called LGBT movement. It does several things, first of all it undermines family and the very first building block of our society, but secondly, it’s a zero sum game as well and it’s a direct assault on our religious freedom and freedom of speech.”—Mat Staver, October 2011, Values Voter Summit
“Statistically, sexual promiscuity is increased among those who engage in homosexual conduct, the result of which is disease found predominantly, if not exclusively, among homosexuals.” –Mat Staver, Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk, 2004
Currently staffed by ten attorneys and some 300 volunteer attorneys nationwide, according to Mat Staver, the current director, the Counsel has garnered attention in recent years for its so-called “religious liberty” litigation, in which it defends Christians who it alleges are having their rights to religious expression trampled by secular society.
With the expansion of equal rights for LGBT people, especially, the Liberty Counsel has come into their own, working to attempt to ensure that Christians can continue to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination in places of business under the guise of “religious liberty.” Through lawsuits and its annual Awakening conference in Orlando, the Counsel attempts to enforce the idea that Christian beliefs and law trump all other law.
Staver has warned about homosexuality, abortion, and the consequences for Christians who oppose homosexuality and marriage equality, saying they will be targeted for their views. He even went so far as to call for a new revolutionary war as marriage equality advanced. In March of 2015, Staver stated that he would personally advocate disobedience to any U.S. Supreme Court ruling that favored marriage equality, and that “collectively, we cannot accept that as the rule of law.” During the 2015 brouhaha over Indiana’s religious freedom law, Staver likened “the homosexual lobby” to terrorists, claiming that “it’s hard to negotiate with people who are irrational and who are inventing things that simply don’t exist.”
He has also supported the criminalization of homosexuality both in the U.S. and in other countries, stating in one instance that Malawi’s anti-homosexuality laws were in its “own best interests” after the U.S. reportedly withheld monetary aid to the country because of its efforts to outlaw homosexuality. In the Counsel’s amicus curiae brief in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas lawsuit in which the Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy, the attorneys writing (including Staver) called for the court to uphold anti-sodomy laws, stating that “This Court again should decline to deprive states of the power to enact statutes that proscribe harmful and immoral conduct.” The Liberty Counsel went on to say that statistical evidence “demonstrates, however, that those who engage in homosexual conduct are at increased risk for numerous diseases as compared to heterosexuals.”
The Liberty Counsel also garnered a reputation for strident pro-Christian rhetoric in its campaigns to ensure that “public displays of religion” are maintained during the Christmas holiday, but it has also adopted broader right-wing views, including the allegation that the Obama Administration has a “socialist liberal agenda.” The organization also has focused heavily on anti-gay activism and lawsuits to uphold so-called “ex-gay” therapy and to protect “religious liberty” of Christians.
Over the years, it has launched other attacks on what it perceives to be threats against Christmas and public morality. In 2000, for example, the Counsel threatened to file a lawsuit against the Jacksonville, Fla., library because staff was handing out certificates in honor of a Harry Potter book release. The certificates stated, “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” a hat-tip to the mythical and magical educational institute that Potter and friends attend in the globally popular series by author J.K. Rowling.
“Witchcraft is a religion,” Staver said, “and the certificate of witchcraft endorsed a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment establishment clause.” Staver’s reasoned that Wicca is considered a religion (the witchcraft practiced in the Harry Potter books is not Wicca and, in fact, is fictional).
In 2005, the Counsel, along with anti-LGBT hate group the American Family Association (AFA), fired off angry press releases regarding Ridgeway Elementary School in Ridgeway, Wis., for allegedly “changing the lyrics” of the Christmas song “Silent Night” for a school play. The Washington Post reported, however, the school didn’t change anything. Rather, the original play, called “The Little Christmas Tree,” features the original lyrics.
The Liberty Counsel has also been active in the battle against same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, which it claimed in a 2007 news release to be “'thought crimes' laws that violate the right to freedom of speech and of conscience" and will "have a chilling effect on people who have moral or religious objections to homosexual behavior." In that same release, the Liberty Counsel falsely claimed that the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., had nothing to do with homosexuality, but instead was “a bungled robbery.”
In 2004, Staver published Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk, an anti-LGBT screed about the perceived threat of homosexuality that includes numerous false claims about LGBT people, including that they’re promiscuous, that homosexuality is caused by a “longing to fill emotional deficits,” and that the goal of the “homosexual agenda” (an anti-LGBT conspiracy theory) is to move from simply being tolerated by heterosexuals to dominating them.
In his book, Staver cited the work of Paul Cameron, a discredited psychologist, and painted LGBT adults as a threat to children. “Homosexuality is a destructive lifestyle both physically and emotionally,” he wrote. “Same-sex marriage cannot be viewed in isolation from homosexual activity and its consequences on those who engage in such practices, and especially on children raised in such an environment.”
The book came one year after the Liberty Counsel launched its "Change is Possible" campaign with Parents and Friends of Ex-gays (PFOX), to protect ex-gays from "discrimination" at the hands of "intolerant homosexuals," who are "using our youth to advance an agenda" as well as to promote so-called “ex-gay” therapy (also called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy). The Liberty Counsel said of the campaign that, "given the health risks associated with homosexual behavior, our youth deserve to know that unwanted same-sex attractions can be overcome.”
Many of the established and reputable major American medical, psychological, psychiatric and counseling associations in the United States have rejected conversion therapy, and noted that homosexual orientation is normal and not a disorder and thus requires no attempts to change it. Nevertheless, the Liberty Counsel promotes conversion therapy and often files lawsuits against its bans so much that in 2013, Staver received the “Ex-Gay Freedom Award” from ex-gay organizations Voice of the Voiceless and Equality and Justice for All.
The Liberty Counsel has also provided a platform for other anti-gay activists, such as attorney and former boxer Matt Barber, who joined the Liberty Counsel in 2009 as Director of Cultural Affairs and then later served as the vice president of Liberty Counsel Action, the group’s lobbying arm. He is also Associate Dean for Online Programs at Liberty University School of Law. Though Barber no longer lists an affiliation with the Liberty Counsel in his biographical information, he still joins Staver frequently on the Counsel’s “Faith and Freedom” radio broadcast as a co-host.
Barber, who founded the virulently anti-LGBT site “Barbwire.com” in early 2014, which he edits, has spent years verbally bashing LGBT people, linking them to pedophilia, calling them dangers to children and at one point saying that gay partnerships involve “one man violently cramming his penis into another man’s lower intestine and calling it ‘love.’” Barber later said those were not public comments, and instead something he had said in a private conversation with anti-LGBT activist Peter LaBarbera, who posted those comments on the Americans for Truth about Homosexuality website.
Liberty Counsel has had its share of controversies, but perhaps none of have been so prominent as its involvement in the ordeal of kidnapped child in 2009. Staver and another Liberty Counsel attorney, Rena Lindevaldsen, represented Lisa Miller.
Miller claimed to have “renounced homosexuality” and began a long custody battle with her partner, Janet Jenkins, over the child. Miller repeatedly denied court-ordered visitations under Liberty Counsel guidance and then fled the country with the couple’s child after legal custody of the child was granted to Jenkins.
Lindevaldsen would later write a book about Miller in which she claimed that people could leave homosexuality and that the “homosexual agenda” is dangerous. In 2012, Jenkins filed a RICO lawsuit against several parties that allegedly played a role in the kidnapping of her daughter. The lawsuit included Liberty School of Law, but it was dismissed from it in 2013 for lack of standing. Also named was Response Unlimited, a company run by Christian businessman Philip Zodhiates, an acquaintance of Staver’s. Zodhiates’s daughter was also named. She was working at Liberty Law School (of which Staver was dean at the time) and is alleged to have sent an email to co-workers at the law school requesting donations for supplies to send to Miller. Philip Zodhiates was indicted in 2014 for conspiracy in the Miller case.
Staver resigned from Liberty School of Law in the fall of 2014 (about two weeks after Zodhiates’ indictment), citing health concerns of his wife and the fact that he had seen the school through its accreditation process. In spite of that, he is busy with the Counsel, which continues to battle same-sex marriage around the country, linking it to the “downfall” of “religious liberty” for Christians.
In 2015, Staver and the Counsel took a leading role in defending Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis who refused to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. Davis claimed that her religion would not allow her to sign such licenses. Davis appealed the ruling with the Supreme Court, which refused to hear her case. She was then found in contempt of court for failing to uphold her duties as an elected official.
The Liberty Counsel made her a cause célebrè for the anti-LGBT right, and aligned itself with the Family Research Council and Coach Dave Daubenmire’s Pass the Salt Ministry (Salt and Light Brigade) in rallies in Rowan County. Southern secessionist and former member of the white nationalist and neo-Confederate League of the South Michael Peroutka spoke at one such rally held in early September 2015 and the antigovernment Oath Keepers, who were present at the Bundy Ranch standoff, have claimed they’re going to “protect” Davis from another arrest (Davis’s legal team declined their “help.”). Not all are on board with the battle, however. A panel of legal experts on Fox News slammed Staver, and one called a statement he made questioning whether the Supreme Court has Constitutional authority “ridiculously stupid.”
For his part, Staver compared Davis to a Jew living under Nazi Germany and complained that Christians are persecuted in America as court after court has ruled that she has to issue same-sex marriage licenses in accordance with her duties and the ruling of law. Staver has made that comparison in the past with regard to marriage equality, claiming that respecting gay marriage laws is no different than handing Jews over to Nazis.
The Liberty Counsel also signed on to defend longtime vitriolic anti-LGBT activist and crusader Scott Lively in 2012, who was sued for human rights violations under the alien tort statute (ATS) by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an LGBT rights group in Uganda and the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
The suit alleged that Lively’s involvement in anti-LGBT efforts in Uganda, which included his active participation in the development of anti-LGBT policies aimed at revoking rights of LGBT people, constituted persecution. The lawsuit was the first known ATS case "seeking accountability for persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity," according to CCR.
Lively allegedly played an instrumental part in the Ugandan parliament’s adoption of a draconian anti-LGBT bill that originally included the death penalty in some instances. The bill was amended to drop the death penalty and passed, but was annulled on a technicality in late 2014.
On June 5, 2017, the lawsuit was dismissed on a narrow jurisdictional ground, and Springfield, Massachusetts District Court Judge Michael Ponsor cited the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Shell, which limited the extraterritorial reach of the ATS under which SMUG sued Lively.
Though the court dismissed the lawsuit, Ponsor’s 25-page ruling acknowledged Lively’s anti-LGBT activities, stating that the “Defendant’s position on LGBTI people range from the ludicrous to the abhorrent,” and that, “he has tried to make gay people scapegoats for practically all of humanity’s ills.” Ponsor continued, “This crackpot bigotry could be brushed aside as pathetic, except for the terrible harm it can cause.”
He went on to note that the record demonstrates that Lively worked with elements in Uganda who share some of his views to repress freedom of expression of LGBTI people in that country, “deprive them of the protection of the law, and render their very existence illegal,” noting that Lively proposed 20-year prison sentences for gay couples in Uganda “who simply lead open, law-abiding lives.” Lively’s actions, Ponsor continued in the ruling, constitute violations of international law.
Despite Ponsor’s finding that Lively’s activities are in violation of international law, Liberty Counsel celebrated the ruling in a press release, claiming that SMUG sued Lively for “sharing his biblical views on homosexuality.” The press release went on to say that CCR receives funding from George Soros, a dogwhistle to those who promulgate a right-wing conspiracy theory in which Soros, a progressive billionaire hedge fund manager, is falsely seen as a nefarious puppetmaster secretly controlling the global economy and politics.
Liberty Counsel also declared that, “the evidence showed that Lively, in a country where homosexuality has been illegal for decades, urged treatment of LGBT people with respect and dignity,” in direct contradiction to Ponsor’s ruling.
Staver addressed that aspect of the ruling by claiming that, “the court’s open display of activism in deriding Lively’s beliefs reminds of the threats American Christians continue to face from a judiciary that is increasingly hostile to any expression of biblical truth to a decaying culture.”
A few days after the case was dismissed, Lively and Liberty Counsel filed an appeal, which asks that the original judgment to dismiss the suit be maintained, but that Ponsor amend his ruling to eliminate "certain extraneous but prejudicial language immaterial to the disposition of the case" and which, the appeal claims, “the district court has no jurisdiction to entertain or enter.”
SMUG is still free to pursue litigation in Massachusetts state court against Lively, who is based there.
Earlier, in April 2017, Liberty Counsel targeted a lesbian math teacher at a Florida high school and sent a five-page complaint to the high school accusing the teacher of intentionally violating or denying students’ legal rights, along with other ethical and moral violations.
On an April 27, 2017 edition of Liberty Counsel’s “Faith and Freedom” radio program, Staver accused the teacher of turning her math class into an “LGBT propaganda bullying class.” Matt Barber, who appeared on this episode with Staver, called the teacher a “child corruption agent.”
Liberty Counsel accused the teacher of banning cross necklaces in her classroom while advocating for LGBT rights. She was cleared of any wrongdoing after a school district investigation, but Liberty Counsel has vowed to continue to target the school, because, Staver alleged to the Tampa Bay Times, “We have other students who have come forward in other classes as well.”
On May 18, Liberty Counsel sent a follow-up letter to the school district regarding what it calls the district’s “pitiful investigation” and “whitewash” and claims that it now represents four students regarding the “classroom political activism and bullying” of the teacher.
Liberty Counsel also filed a lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville, Florida, in March 2017, which passed a human rights ordinance in February that included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. Liberty Counsel claims that the ordinance was adopted in violation of Florida statutes, the Jacksonville Ordinance Code, and City Council rules because it omitted language that intentionally was meant to deceive people.