Are wealthy US foundations paying to suppress religious freedom?

by Veronica Coffin on March 31, 2015

 

 

Paper_money_Credit__Kevin_Dooley_via_Flickr_CC_BY_20_CNA_2_11_15By Kevin J. Jones

Questions are being raised over two U.S. foundations that have poured more than three million dollars into abortion rights, LGBT activist, and legal groups to push the message that exemptions based on religious beliefs are “un-American” and an abuse of liberty.

The Arcus Foundation and the Ford Foundation have spent over $3 million in combined spending against religious liberty exemptions since 2013, according to a CNA review of tax forms and grant listings.

John Lomperis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy – a D.C.-based ecumenical Christian think tank – warned that the grants appear to understand the important role of “rhetorical message and framing” on religious liberty issues.

“The agenda of such groups in opposing basic conscience protections could hardly be more diametrically opposed to our nation’s great traditions of freedom of conscience and of religion,” Lomperis, who serves as United Methodist Director for the institute, told CNA Feb. 10.

He contended that the pattern of grants “serves a fundamentally totalitarian vision these foundations and their allied politicians have of ‘religious liberty.’” This vision is especially opposed to those who value traditional sexual morality and respect for unborn human life, he noted.

“Our society is now facing serious questions about to what extent Christians (as well as, to a lesser extent, followers of other faiths) will be allowed to have the same degree to live in accordance with our values without facing new and powerful coercions,” Lomperis said.

The Arcus Foundation’s website lists a 2014 grant of $100,000 to the American Civil Liberties Foundation supporting “communications strategies to convince conservative Americans that religious exemptions are ‘un-American.’” A two-year Arcus grant to the ACLU in 2013 gave $600,000 to support the ACLU’s Campaign to End the Use of Religion to Discriminate. Arcus Foundation tax forms describe this as a “multi-pronged” effort to combat “the growing trend of institutions and individuals claiming exemptions from anti-discrimination laws because of religious objections.”

The Arcus Foundation is a major funder of LGBT advocacy, including “gay marriage” advocacy. The foundation had almost $170 million in assets in 2013 and gave out $17 million to organizations it considers to be working for social justice.

As part of this effort, the foundation joined with the titanic wealth of the Ford Foundation to back Columbia Law School’s “Public Rights / Private Conscience Project,” run by the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. The Arcus Foundation gave $250,000 to Columbia University’s Board of Trustees to support the project, which the foundation says will “mobilize scholars, attorneys and advocates in order to develop and distribute new methods of framing perceived conflicts between sexual rights and religious liberty.”

Columbia University announced the project in a March 24, 2014 statement that acknowledged funding from both foundations. The announcement mentioned as examples of religious exemptions the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Supreme Court cases objecting to including HHS-mandated abortifacient contraceptives in employee health plans. The announcement also cited efforts to accommodate religious objections to “gay marriage.”

The project criticized the Supreme Court’s June 2014 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby. The project also spearheaded a letter from over 50 legal scholars that called on President Barack Obama to deny a religious exemption clause in a controversial executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Ford Foundation’s 2013 tax forms and website indicate it has committed $650,000 to the same project, which the foundation says will “counteract religious exemption and conscience-based carve-outs to laws securing sexual and reproductive rights.” The grant money also supports “a symposia series on LGBT rights.”

The Ford Foundation has assets of $11 billion and dispenses $500 million in grants each year. The foundation’s president, Darren Walker, sits on the Arcus Foundation’s eight-member board of directors. Walker is a past vice president of foundation initiatives of the Rockefeller Foundation, another titan of non-profit foundations involved in social change.

Lomperis noted many current controversies involving religious liberty: campus ministries have been “kicked off of campus” because of their Christian commitments; Christians in wedding-related industries have been threatened with fines and jail time for declining business that would involve taking part in “gay weddings”; health care professionals face pressure to perform elective abortions against their pro-life beliefs; and parents increasingly face difficulties exempting their children from school programs “intentionally designed to cure children of traditional Christian values around sexual morality.”

“It seems that with such grants, recently and historically, essentially secular liberal funders like those at the Arcus and Ford Foundations are trying their best to undercut the pro-life and pro-traditional marriage movements,” Lomperis added.

The Ford Foundation gave at least one other grant targeting religious liberty. Its 2013 grant of $150,000 to Political Research Associates supported “public education and strategic communications on religious liberties exemptions from nondiscrimination laws,” in addition to what the foundation characterized as education on the “export of homophobia abroad” as portrayed in the Ford Foundation-backed film “God Loves Uganda.”

Funding for efforts to reframe religious liberty extend even further.

In 2014 the Arcus Foundation granted $400,000 to the Center for American Progress to back the center’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative in order to “articulate and disseminate a socially progressive framework of religious liberty as it relates to a range of issues” while working with “a diverse group of faith leaders, partners and allies.” The website of the center and its affiliated political action fund’s publication ThinkProgress criticize efforts to secure legal protections for those with religious objections to the HHS mandate or to the recognition of same-sex relationships.

Lomperis was skeptical of such efforts.

“With the specific battles these foundations are choosing to pick, it seems clear that they are hoping to confuse the public with a few prominently touted and ridiculously unrepresentative spokespeople claiming that not even ‘the religious community’ or ‘Christian leaders’ want these necessary religious-liberty protections being debated,” he said.

The Arcus Foundation has also supported pro-abortion rights groups opposed to religious freedom exemptions. Tax forms indicate it gave $500,000 to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America to “expand monitoring and analysis of organized opposition to rights, information and services related to sexual orientation, gender identity and reproductive health, as well as working to prevent expanded use of religious exemptions in policy.”

Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the U.S. and was responsible for over 325,000 abortions in Fiscal Year 2014.

The Arcus Foundation was created in Kalamazoo, Michigan by Jon Stryker, an heir to the fortune of the Stryker Corporation. The foundation has offices in New York City and Cambridge, England.

Stryker’s foundation has committed strategic funding to combating what it sees as “the abuse of religion to deny protection to LGBT people.” The foundation’s website says it aims to counter “the abuse of religious freedoms through ‘religious exemptions,’ and develop religious and legal strategies to hold exemptions in check.”

The foundation aims to “challenge religious opponents of LGBT people in the U.S. and internationally” and to develop communications strategies to counter “some religious institutions” which it says engage in “the discrimination and dehumanization of LGBT people.” Its grant priorities aim to use “multiple change levers” like “leadership development, alliance-building, policy change, culture change, and resource development.”

The Arcus Foundation’s 2013 grant of $50,000 to the Interfaith Alliance was intended to build “a faith network opposing discriminatory religious freedom exemptions,” which the foundation claims to be “harmful.”  In 2014, the foundation gave $75,000 to Faithful America, a petition and activism website, to support “public campaigns that activate Christian grassroots advocacy networks to present a faith-based challenge to religious institutions and leaders that abuse religious freedom.”

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health received a $100,000 grant in 2013 to build its own capacities and to build a “cross-movement alliance” in order to “combat policies with religious exemptions.” Another $100,000 went to the northwestern U.S.-based Pride Foundation in 2014 to “coordinate messaging” on religious exemptions.

A 2014 grant of $100,000 to the Gill Foundation backed the Movement Advancement Project’s “research and messaging on religious exemptions.” The project is a strategy group that has previously helped the two foundations collaborate to advance LGBT advocacy within U.S. religious denominations, seminaries, clergy coalitions and media to counter religious opposition.

The Colorado-based Gill Foundation was founded by the politically savvy former businessman Tim Gill, a collaborator with Arcus Foundation president Jon Stryker’s sister Pat Stryker. Gill has pursued a long-term political strategy of advancing LGBT causes by targeting small local and statewide political races to train the talent pool of his opponents.

The Arcus Foundation’s current executive director, Kevin Jennings, is a former assistant deputy of the U.S. Department of Education, where he headed the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. Jennings is the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which has advanced LGBT activism in thousands of U.S. secondary schools. Jennings reportedly was a member of the homosexual anti-AIDS group ACT UP in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the group’s notorious anti-Catholic protests in New York City.

Jennings is on the 25-member Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary, a historically prominent mainline Protestant seminary with links to Columbia University.

The Arcus Foundation has backed the Equally Blessed Coalition, an organization of Catholic dissenting groups which have attacked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus for supporting legal marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Through the group Dignity USA, the coalition also received an Arcus grant of $200,000 in 2014 “to support pro-LGBT faith advocates to influence and counter the narrative of the Catholic Church and its ultra-conservative affiliates” as well as to “build advocacy and visibility in connection with two special events, the Synod of the Family and World Youth Day.”

The Arcus Foundation is also a partner of the U.S. State Department’s Global Equality Fund, having pledged $1 million to support U.S. government-backed LGBT activism worldwide.

 

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