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American anti-LGBT groups battling same-sex marriage in Romania

On Sept. 11, 2018, an overwhelming majority of Romanian senators voted to rewrite the constitutional definition of a family in a move that will potentially prohibit the legalization of same-sex marriage (107-13, with seven abstentions).

The question will now be put to the Romanian people in an October 6-7 referendum that proposes to rewrite the constitution’s existing definition of the family to one specifically based on marriage between a “man and woman” as opposed to simply the marriage of “partners.”

If passed, the change would likely make same-sex marriage in the country illegal, as well as potentially remove constitutional protections for families that do not fit this restrictive definition.

The referendum would not have been possible without the heavy involvement of at least four wealthy American anti-LGBT groups — ADF International, Liberty Counsel, the World Congress of Families (WCF) and the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) — who filed legal briefs, lobbied or campaigned in favor of the change.

After the two houses of Parliament overwhelmingly approved the initiative, the Romanian Constitutional Court allowed the referendum to proceed on Sept. 18 after a legal challenge from European LGBT rights groups. On Sept. 18, the government also extended the voting period for the referendum from one day to two in an emergency ordinance to ensure as many people as possible go to the polls.

Members of the opposition are calling for a boycott of the referendum and for people to stay at home, as the referendum requires a minimum of 30 percent of popular participation to be valid.

Though the initiative is popular with Romanians and pushed by the Romanian Orthodox Church, the referendum is also the product of activism in the country by some American Christian evangelical groups.

At least three American anti-LGBT groups submitted briefs at the Constitutional Court of Romania (CCR) in support of the referendum: the international arm of the American anti-LGBT legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom, ADF International, which has been active in opposing same-sex marriage legislation in Romania since at least May 2015; the European Center for Law and Justice, the European branch of the American Center for Law and Justice that takes up anti-LGBT causes; and the anti-LGBT hate group Liberty Counsel, whose chief Litigation Counsel, Horatio Mihet, is Romanian.

In their briefs to the CCR, the American groups took up familiar anti-LGBT themes on the American Christian Right. Liberty Counsel, for example, described same-sex marriage as “grounded in fraudulent ‘research’ based on skewed demographics and the sexual abuse of hundreds of infants and children” (emphasis theirs).

Similarly, in its brief pushing for the referendum in July 2016, ADF International promoted a myth popular among Christian evangelical anti-LGBT groups. Organizing a referendum on marriage, ADF International wrote , “would create a public debate to find the best solution to the current demographic decline.”

The attempt to tie same-sex marriage to demographic decline — and then advocate for the “natural family” (a cisgender heterosexual married couple with biological children) as the solution — is in part an American myth pushed by the U.S.-based anti-LGBT network World Congress of Families (WCF).

A networking platform where anti-LGBT activism and legislation is organized and discussed, the WCF also had a role in Romania. They submitted a petition in favor of the constitutional amendment, which they claim they did at the request of a nebulous umbrella group of local rightwing organizations, the Coalition for the Family (Coaliția pentru Familie, CPF).

The WCF petition was signed by 100 conservative activists from 22 countries, including a plethora of American anti-LGBT activists such as Austin Ruse, president of anti-LGBT hate group C-Fam, Sharon Slater, president of anti-LGBT hate group Family Watch International, and Gary Bauer, president of the right-wing American Values. It noted Europe’s “below replacement birthrates” and claimed that “equating same-sex couples with families can only weaken the natural family — which does society’s vital work of procreation and childrearing.”

The call to redefine the family as rooted in marriage between one cisgender man and one cisgender woman eventually culminated in a petition signed by three million citizens (which, in a country of 20 million, was six times the number required to call for a constitutional change). The petition was submitted by the CPF in 2016. The CPF also has links to an American group, namely the WCF.

Though the CPF presents itself as a local coalition of concerned and moderate religious groups and citizens, its leadership demonstrates otherwise.

One of its co-founders, Bogdan Stanciu of the Romanian pro-life group Pro Vita, previously administered Romanian Altermedia, a consortium of white nationalist newsletters, websites and radio stations affiliated with white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Stanciu also headed a far-right, ultranationalist Christian group that is both antisemitic and anti-Roma, Noua Dreapta . Stanciu has attended at least four official WCF congresses, and was also the one to deliver the WCF petition to the Romanian parliament.

CPF’s president Mihai Gheorghiu, was also accused by the U.S. embassy of organizing an anti-LGBT Christian nationalist protest at the Romanian Peasant Museum in February 2013, where attendees wielded signs reading “Die F------” and made Nazi salutes.

American anti-LGBT groups also campaigned in the country to drum up support for the initiative.

In October 2017, Liberty Counsel’s Horatio Mihet toured Romania with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who made headlines when she refused to process same-sex marriage licenses in 2015 after same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. Davis was sued by a gay couple and Liberty Counsel took her on as a client, presenting her as a victim of religious persecution. Davis was held in contempt of court for her refusal and spent five days in jail. Liberty Counsel used her case to push a message that “religious persecution” could become Romania’s fate if marriage equality was passed.

In addition, ADF International organized a conference in Romania to push for the referendum in April 2017. In March 2018, when 40 members of the European Parliament penned a letter to high-ranking Romanian officials to encourage them to allow the referendum on marriage to go forward, ADF International published the letter on their website. ADF International also advocated for the referendum to go through in Romania at the Human Rights Council by submitting a paper advising for the referendum should go through to one of the Council’s working groups last January.

ADF International has framed the issue of same-sex marriage in Romania as one of national sovereignty, in which the European Union should not be able to intervene. But their narrative of sovereignty only kicks in when convenient.

According to a report by Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, two of the top members of ADF International (Robert Clarke and Paul Coleman), two top members of WCF (Brian Brown, Alexey Komov) and one of their close allies (Ignacio Arsuaga from HazteOir) and the president of the European Center for Law and Justice (Grégor Puppinck) are part of a secretive coalition called Agenda Europe whose objective is to pass legislation opposing LGBT and reproductive rights across the European continent. The Romanian referendum may be one of their coordinated initiatives.

After the referendum was approved, ADF International’s director of European Advocacy, Robert Clarke, declared in a press release: “Given its overwhelming democratic support, the referendum on marriage is a litmus test for democracy in Romania.”

Still, the legislation, language and activism behind the constitutional amendment would have been hard to achieve without the activism of members of the American Christian Right. If the referendum is a test of anything, it’s a test of anti-LGBT American hate groups’ efficiency at pushing policies that will serve to further marginalize not only LGBT people, but anyone who doesn’t fit the restrictive definitions of “family” they push.

Photo Illustration by SPLC

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