On Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, Republicans and Democrats, atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others gathered to address the right to live out their faiths at the third annual International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. The event demonstrated the broad appeal of religious freedom advocacy—an issue that should unite all Americans.
Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning litigation nonprofit known for branding mainstream conservative and Christian organizations as “hate groups” and placing them on a map with chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, spoke out against the summit because organizers dared to include the SPLC’s ideological opponents.
R.G. Cravens, a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, accused the summit of “mainstreaming extremism” and condemned it for including “the presence and deep influence of virulently anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and other far-right extremists.”
Cravens claimed that “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.”
Apparently speaking for the SPLC, Cravens added, “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.”
This attack inspired a response from Katrina Lantos Swett, a lifelong Democrat and summit co-chair.
“While I appreciate much of the important work done by the Southern Poverty Law Center in past years, I think SPLC sometimes misses the mark in its critique of important advocacy work that does not fully align with its views. This is clearly one such instance,” Lantos Swett told The Daily Signal. She emphasized the summit’s ability to unite people around “the fundamental right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.”
That right should protect Americans of every creed, including the “white, straight, cisgender, conservative Christians” whom Cravens so distrusts.
Cravens’ charge that Christians aim to “discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs” appears to refer to churches that seek to implement the Bible’s teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Cravens attacked former Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the summit’s other co-chair, for issuing an executive order preventing Kansas’ government from punishing ministers for opposing same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). Cravens framed such a move as allowing “religious groups” to “legally discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.”
Cravens also attacked Brownback for signing a bill “allowing religious groups at state universities to exclude LGBTQ+ people while retaining state funding.” This law allows Christian groups to require leaders to abide by biblical sexual morality. Attacking such a freedom entails suggesting that Muslim groups should be forced admit members who reject the Quran or that Orthodox Jewish groups must admit members who celebrate eating bacon.
Cravens appears to favor a system in which a church must solemnize weddings for same-sex couples, even if the church defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This kind of “discrimination” is vital to a church’s integrity—the government should not be able to force a pastor to bless sin.
Yet this is far from the first time the SPLC has targeted Christians who oppose same-sex marriage.
My book, “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” explains how the once-noble civil rights organization became a threat to America’s free speech culture, branding its ideological opponents with a hate label to silence them and raise money.
In 2019, amid a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal that led the SPLC to fire its co-founder, former employee Bob Moser called the SPLC’s “hate” labeling a “highly profitable scam” aimed at “bilking northern liberals.” The SPLC has an endowment of over $500 million, along with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
The SPLC claims it does not consider “opposition to same-sex marriage or the belief that being LGBTQ+ is a sin as the sole basis for the hate group label,” but it has continued to malign Christian groups as “anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups” even when they debunk the SPLC’s claims against them.
While the SPLC claims that the Family Research Council demonizes LGBT people and has “linked being gay with pedophilia,” FRC adopts the classic Christian position of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and the organization “has never said, and does not believe, that most homosexuals are child molesters.”
The SPLC claims that Alliance Defending Freedom supports the recriminalization of homosexual activity, a claim ADF repeatedly denied. The SPLC also claims that ADF supported mandatory sterilization for transgender people in Europe, while ADF merely backed France’s ability to make its own laws on the issue.
The hate accusation carries real-world consequences. In 2012, a terrorist targeted FRC, entering the group’s lobby with a semiautomatic pistol and then shooting a guard. The man told the FBI he found FRC on the SPLC’s “hate map” and intended to kill everyone in the building. He pleaded guilty to terrorism and received a 25-year prison sentence.
Former SPLC spokesman Mark Potok said in 2007, “Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate groups, I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.” Those are his own words.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the SPLC attacked the religious freedom summit in large part because its sponsors and guests included members of “hate groups” such as FRC and ADF. Cravens also got in a few jabs at Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham and even former Vice President Mike Pence’s Advancing American Freedom, but attacks on FRC took up a large section of the piece, which featured a picture of FRC President Tony Perkins.
The SPLC’s attack on this important summit reveals far more about the SPLC than it does about religious freedom advocacy in America. It should serve as another reminder of why government, the media, and Big Tech should not rely on a discredited smear factory as the arbiter of “hate” in America.
This piece originally appeared in WORLD Magazine