The ostensible headliners of the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on June 8 and 9 were embattled Trump cabinet members Attorney General Jeff Sessions (still under fire from the president for not recusing himself from the Russia investigation) and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (under fire from everyone but the president for having government aides and his Secret Service detail run embarrassing personal errands for him).
Sessions and Pruitt may have been the highest-ranking administration officials at the annual Christian conservative confab, but they weren’t the stars of the show.
That honor went to Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012. The Supreme Court decision in Phillips’ case against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which had ruled his action violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, was announced on Monday of last week, just days before the conference.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the underlying First Amendment question of whether Phillips, as a “cake artist,” was exercising his free speech, but only that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to give Phillips’ beliefs “neutral and respectful consideration,” violating his right to free exercise of religion. The decision was celebrated as a conservative victory throughout the conference.
On Saturday morning, Phillips appeared onstage to a standing ovation from the crowd, telling them, “it was shocking to me that the government would try to take away my freedoms and force me to make something that went against my faith,” before introducing the head of the organization that provided his legal representation, Michael Farris of the anti-LGBT hate group Alliance Defending Freedom.
Farris asserted that “America was on trial” in the Masterpiece case, “because if Jack Phillips doesn’t have the freedom to decide which messages he wants to deliver, then America cannot call itself a free nation.” But again, that’s not the issue the Supreme Court decided, as Farris later briefly acknowledged.
Interestingly, Farris repeatedly referred to the “totalitarian impulse” of the left throughout his speech, yet as reported by Hatewatch, ADF International is pushing overseas for a rewrite of the Romanian constitution to redefine families as the product of marriage between a man and a woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage.
The previous afternoon, ADF senior counsel Erik Stanley spoke at a workshop titled “Why Religious Liberty?” Stanley was attempting to explain why it’s inaccurate to call religion a “disguise for bigotry or animus,” but since the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, “religious liberty” has been a common call to arms for anti-LGBT groups. The narrative behind “religious liberty” portrays Christians who object to homosexuality on biblical grounds as victims of religious persecution.
This concept of Christian persecution was pushed by main stage speaker Kelly Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute on Friday morning, who declared Christians have “never seen anything like the attacks” on them. Shackelford’s organization, a legal firm similar to ADF, works against antidiscrimination ordinances, and he’s known to peddle alleged anti-Christian incidents which prove untrue.
ADF’s Farris, in summing up the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision, stated that “when you treat people with hostility because of religion, that’s unconstitutional.” But that perspective was entirely pre-empted by the speech earlier in the day by Frank Gaffney, Jr., of the anti-Muslim hate group Center for Security Policy .
Gaffney asserted that “Sharia is at the core of Islam, but it is a very special part of what is described as a religion. Indeed, only about 10 percent by some estimates has anything to do with religion, the rest of it is pretty much a totalitarian political, military and legal doctrine.” Occasionally Gaffney acknowledged that “a lot of Muslims… aren’t actually Sharia adherents… but many millions of Muslims do embrace Sharia.”
While repeatedly reminding the crowd that “they will use violence where they can,” he focused on what he called “refujihad,” the migration of Muslims from war-torn countries to western countries, and “demographic jihad,” which he defined as “outbreeding non-Muslims.”
Included in Gaffney’s anti-Muslim fear-mongering was this gem: “The leading edge of civilization jihad in America and worldwide is to try to silence people like me, and for that matter, anybody else who dares to raise an alarm about this.” The accompanying graphic projected on immense screens showed the logos for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League along with those of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and the European Union.
Gaffney specifically called out SPLC for objecting to the appointment of the Center for Security Policy’s vice president, Fred Fleitz, to be chief of staff to National Security Adviser John Bolton.
The anti-immigrant faction of the Republican Party was represented at the WCS by Representative Steve King of Iowa, who once compared illegal immigration to the holocaust. King’s penchant for hyperbole was on full display Saturday morning, after he declared, “I’m the one who actually has my hands on the data for DACA now.” (DACA is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration policy that lets undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to have deportation deferred; the Trump administration has been working to undo DACA.)
King announced that “there are 135,000 out of the 817,000 [DACA recipients] that are prime, gang-age recruitment. If they expand DACA out from [age] 16 to 18 you can add another 66,000, so you’ve got 200,000 young people right in the heart of prime gang-age recruitment coming into America, dropping them into ethnic enclaves where MS13 is as powerful as they are anywhere in the world.”
The final session Saturday night included a presentation by the conservative college and high school group Turning Point USA’s founder Charlie Kirk and communications director (and the YouTube vlogger behind “Red Pill Black”) Candace Owens, which was a symphony of racist dog-whistles.
Owens, in the news lately for being Kanye West’s far-right drill instructor, talked about how she, an African-American, converted to conservatism during the 2016 election with this startling declaration: “I was watching the election cycle go on and I kept hearing the word ‘racism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘sexism,’ and it started to look a lot to me like racism was being used as a theme to guarantee black votes, and it was no longer something that was actually a threat in our society.”
Owens and Kirk were full of quotable nuggets pandering to the extreme right.
“If you go to Harvard and you’re black, you’re not oppressed, you’re like the luckiest person in the world,” Kirk exclaimed. “These black politicians have had their pockets lined to keep black people dependent,” Owens asserted. “When there were less black politicians in office, black people were doing better in America — when there was only 1,500. Today we have over 10,000 black politicians in office and we had a black president for two terms and the black community is worse off.” Kirk opined. “This president has done more in 18 months for black America than Obama did in eight years.”
The audience at the Western Conservative Summit, almost completely devoid of people of color, sounded like it wholeheartedly agreed with Kirk’s assessment of the current president, who saw “very fine people on both sides” after the racist and violent “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, some time after Owens had concluded that racism is no longer a threat to our society.