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Anti-LGBTQ+ groups have ties to International Religious Freedom Summit

The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit that ended earlier this month in Washington, D.C., has been praised for bringing together a diverse, seemingly incompatible group of politicians, activists and dignitaries in furtherance of a common goal: the promotion of international religious freedom, a concept deeply embedded in our nation’s ideals and a sign of a healthy and open democracy.

But make no mistake: The presence and deep influence of virulently anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and other far-right extremists – some of whom have used religious rhetoric to advocate for the criminalization of and even the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people – cannot be ignored.

To many of these extremists, religious freedom means, simply, the right to discriminate – particularly against the LGBTQ+ community.

The IRF Summit is a production of the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. According to its website, the summit is used to “raise the profile of international religious freedom on a wide variety of issues using an array of mechanisms best suited for each circumstance.” Summit co-chairs Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett have said this third iteration of the event was meant “to bring together experts, lawmakers, activists, survivors, advocates and leaders to educate, elevate and advance the cause of religious freedom in every corner of the world.”

Summit leaders, including Brownback, have claimed that religious freedom means “the profound right of all people to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience” and that IRF “advocates are as robust in their defense of the rights of humanists and atheists in Iran or Saudi Arabia as they are in advocating for persecuted Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Muslim Uyghurs and all others who face discrimination for their beliefs.”

Brownback’s history suggests otherwise – as does that of many of the summit sponsors. For example, last year, Brownback published an op-ed with anti-LGBTQ+ hate group leader Tony Perkins that included white and Christian supremacist dog whistles about threats to “Western culture” and took aim at the growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people by claiming, “Western culture is growing increasingly hostile to foundational Christian beliefs about marriage, sexuality, and ethical behavior.”

Brownback, the former governor of Kansas, whom former President Donald Trump appointed as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, previously banned state assistance to Syrian refugees in an order so broad that legal activists worried it could be used to deny assistance because of a refugee’s religion. And, in a nod to prominent anti-Muslim extremists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller who lauded the move, Brownback also signed a bill that banned the state from using “Sharia law.” Brownback’s appointment as a U.S. ambassador was supported by people like Frank Gaffney who are part of a network of far-right extremists who spread anti-Muslim propaganda.

Brownback also issued an executive order in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage that purportedly allowed religious groups, cities, counties and school districts in Kansas to continue to legally discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. He also signed a bill allowing religious groups at state universities to exclude LGBTQ+ people while retaining state funding. 

Mainstreaming extremism

In addition to a co-chair who has perpetuated the false assumption that LGBTQ+ rights and “religious freedom” cannot coexist, the IRF Summit provided a platform for multiple anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and personalities who cloak their hate in religious rhetoric. Hate groups like the Family Research Council (FRC) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have both sought and found acceptance within mainstream conservative politics and become fixtures in global right-wing political movements. Their embrace by IRF summit organizers represents a validation of their strategy to mainstream and normalize their extremism. 

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who spoke at the summit, previously addressed a gathering of the Council of Concerned Citizens – a white nationalist hate group. He frequently attacks LGBTQ+ people with false and dangerous rhetoric – equating them with pedophiles; advocating Biblical “punishment”; promoting the pseudoscientific and dangerous practice of conversion therapy; and espousing the idea that LGBTQ+ rights come at the expense of “religious freedom.”

The FRC also promotes the notion that “religious freedom” includes a right to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.

Lest its intentions be misunderstood, the day the summit opened, the FRC distributed an email to its members in which Perkins once again accused LGBTQ+ people of “targeting” children and “mutilating” their bodies, concluding that “gender identity ideology” is “an assault on the image of God in every child.” Notably, Perkins is also a member of the national advisory board for Brownback’s own political organization, the National Committee for Religious Freedom.

The ADF, an organization with international reach, was listed on the summit website as a partner organization. The SPLC has previously documented how the ADF advocates for the criminalization of homosexuality in Central America. In Europe, it has argued for countries to sterilize transgender people.

‘Wicked and evil’

Additional speakers and sponsors at the summit that have ties to extremism and promote extremist ideologies include the Religious Freedom Institute, an organization that promotes “license to discriminate” legislation in the U.S. that would allow doctors to refuse to treat transgender people or provide abortion care. One of its representatives at the summit has also claimed that religious people face “real discrimination” as opposed to LGBTQ+ people, who should be criminalized.

Other summit sponsors include Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, both led by Franklin Graham. Notably, Graham has called Islam “wicked” and “evil” and regularly demonizes LGBTQ+ people.

Liberty University School of Law contributed enough money to be a “convening partner” of the summit. Liberty University was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, the conservative televangelist who once called AIDS “God’s punishment for homosexuals.” The law school’s former dean, Mat Staver of the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Liberty Counsel, used to teach the case of Lisa Miller – whom the Liberty Counsel defended after she kidnapped her child to Nicaragua rather than share custody with her same-sex former partner – in his law classes. Staver encouraged “civil disobedience” to laws that promote LGBTQ+ equality and noted Miller’s case as an example of counseling a client “that they have an obligation to ignore the law and engage in ‘civil disobedience’ in order to uphold God’s law.”

A relatively new group, Advancing American Freedom, led by former Vice President Mike Pence, is another summit sponsor. The group claims as members of its advisory board people like Pastor Robert Jeffress, who has said Islam promotes pedophilia, has likened LGBTQ+ people to murderers, said they are prone to disease and dangerous to children, and in a sermon about homosexuality said although God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked … there is a point when God’s patience will end, and His judgment will come.”

Although summit co-chairs have said that religious freedom means “the profound right of all people to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience,” the extremists sponsoring and participating in the summit define religious freedom as the legal privilege of white, straight, cisgender, conservative Christians to discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. We reject that definition.

Religious freedom should be a shield against targeted discrimination – not a sword to thwart the rights and liberties of LGBTQ+ persons and religious minorities.

R.G. Cravens is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Picture at top: Speakers at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington included Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC), seen in a photo from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. In an email to FRC members the day the summit opened, Perkins accused LGBTQ+ people of “targeting” children and “mutilating” their bodies. (Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)