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IRF Summit Panel Features Hate Groups, Links “Religious Freedom” Advocacy and Anti-LGBTQ+ Politics

The International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF Summit) held annually in Washington, D.C., is a gathering of advocates and policymakers concerned with freedom of religion or belief (FORB). According to the IRF Summit website, part of the conference mission is to “highlight the personal testimonies of survivors of religious persecution and restrictions on religious freedom.”

One panel at the 2024 IRF Summit, which featured representatives from two anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups, convened to discuss FORB restrictions in Western democracies. The panelists took aim at a U.K. evangelical Christian college’s response to a homophobic tweet by a former professor, citing the professor’s dismissal as a threat to FORB. The panel is illustrative of the far right’s strategy to make anti-LGBTQ+ politics intrinsic to FORB advocacy. In addition, the panel seemed to articulate a definition of FORB that would weaken the separation of church and state and subvert religious pluralism by requiring governments to take sides in internal denominational disputes, imposing ultra-conservative theologies on co-religionists who conscientiously object.

The FORB “Violations in Western Democracies” panelists were introduced by a representative of the group International Christian Concern (ICC), and the panel was moderated by a staff member of the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Family Research Council (FRC). In 2011, ICC President Jeff King published a book featuring a chapter attributed to anti-Muslim extremist Robert Spencer, who falsely claims on the book’s back cover, “There is no mainstream sect of Islam or school of Islamic jurisprudence that doesn’t teach warfare against unbelievers.”

Former Cliff College lecturer Aaron Edwards opened the panel with a discussion and presentation featuring a February 2023 tweet in which he claimed, “Homosexuality is invading the Church.” In the tweet, Edwards also said, “Evangelicals no longer see the severity of this b/c they're busy apologising for their apparently barbaric homophobia.” The tweet ended by equating homosexuality with sin, saying, “If sin is no longer sin, we no longer need a Saviour.”

In a statement after the post, Cliff College, a Methodist Bible College in the United Kingdom, called the tweet “unacceptable” and said the college and Methodist Church in Britain is “committed to being a safe and hospitable place” and that they “aim to do this with mutual respect and a generosity of spirit that springs from our biblical and evangelical conviction of God’s love for each and for all.” The college held a disciplinary hearing and suspended Edwards.

Although anti-LGBTQ+ groups often couch demonizing language about LGBTQ+ people in religious rhetoric, far-right anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes are out of touch with the views of most religious people in the U.S. and U.K., according to data from the Pew Research Center and European Values Study. Without majority support for their anti-LGBTQ+ political positions, since the early 2000s, the far right has increasingly claimed religious persecution for holding anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, used events like IRF Summit to attach those claims to broader narratives of anti-Christian persecution and genocide, and pursued a legal strategy to encode their anti-LGBTQ+ and even theocratic beliefs in American and international law as the views of a persecuted religious minority.

Edwards sued Cliff College with the help of the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), a group whose litigious tactics have been likened to the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) by the Guardian newspaper. CLC says Edwards will argue “unfair dismissal” on the grounds of “harassment” and “discrimination” by citing “Article 9 and/or Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR),” which protects freedom of “thought, conscience and religion” and expression, respectively. Such arguments seem to suggest that, at least in part, Edwards’ anti-LGBTQ+ religious beliefs trump his former employer’s more affirming religious beliefs and that the state should be responsible for enforcing sanctions on the school for upholding their own, more inclusive, religious values.

Many in the audience applauded Edwards’ presentation. Some members of the panel also took aim at “woke progressive” and “Marxist” values which were cited as causes for faltering FORB protections and rising antisemitism in the west. Both terms have become bywords among conservatives to signal opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, especially within the private sector. Panelists also opposed DEI programs in colleges and seminaries.

Along with Edwards, the panel featured Elizabeth Francis, legal counsel for ADF in the U.K. ADF unsuccessfully defended a European law requiring the sterilization of transgender people seeking to update state-issued identity documents in 2017 and was instrumental to overturning Roe v. Wade in the United States. Francis pointed to “hate speech” and non-discrimination laws as threats to FORB in the West, suggesting states are potentially implementing criminal punishments for “misgendering” someone or for their “private thoughts” outside abortion clinics. Many Western democracies, excluding the United States, have laws against hate speech, which are generally understood as prohibitions of incitement to discrimination and violence within international law, according to the United Nations.

Conspiracies about the weaponization of hate speech laws to punish religious conservatives who oppose LGBTQ+ rights and abortion are a common strategy among the far right. The religious right attempts to compel others to comply with ultra-conservative Christian theology largely by demanding exemptions for conservative Christians from broadly applicable non-discrimination laws.

In the U.S., for example, ADF’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception provisions was heard with Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and resulted in a religious exemption that frees corporations from providing birth control coverage through their employee health care plans. Similarly, ADF has pursued cases challenging state laws barring discrimination against LGBTQ+ people on behalf of multiple businesses in the wedding industry.

Hatewatch previously reported on the connections between 2024 IRF Summit sponsors and anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups. In response to that report, IRF Summit co-chair Katrina Lantos Swett told the far-right publication Daily Signal that summit organizers do not “vet” partner organizations “based on other causes they have funded or advocated for.”

Photo illustration by SPLC

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