By Kevin Jones | A leader in LGBT grant-making has told business leaders that he wants to shut down the political fight for religious freedom exemptions in the U.S. within three years.
And these words are not empty rhetoric. A CNA investigation has found that millions of dollars have been poured into efforts to combat religious freedom exemptions in the United States.
“We are at a crossroads where the choices we make will mean we will fight religious exemptions for two to three years or have a protracted twenty year struggle on our hands,” Tim Sweeney told leading business executives and others attending the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates executive forum, held in San Francisco in late March 2015.
Sweeney is a former program director of the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and a former president and CEO of the Gill Foundation, which he left in 2013.
Both non-profit foundations are involved in funding LGBT advocacy, including gay marriage, and have begun to target religious freedom. A CNA examination of public grant listings and tax forms has found at least six foundations and funds have made grants totaling about $4.8 million to target religious freedom, especially as it is exercised by objectors to gay marriage.
The San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund is one of the major funders. It is a private family foundation with half a billion dollars in assets. It has made at least $685,000 in grants opposed to a broad understanding of religious liberty, the fund’s grant database shows.
In 2014 the fund made two separate grants totaling $150,000 to the northwestern U.S.-based Pride Foundation in order to “lead a project to ensure that ‘religious liberty’ claims do not erode gains in marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections.” In 2015 it made another $200,000 grant for the same purpose.
The Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacific School of Religion received a $125,000 grant to support the Umoja project. The fund’s grant listing said the grant was intended to “engage African American clergy in preventing ‘religious liberty’ claims from eroding gains in marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections.” A $60,000 grant with the same aim went to the D.C.-based organization Many Voices.
A 2015 grant of $50,000 helped fund the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation to target religious liberty claims.
The Haas Jr. fund’s grant listings also show a $100,000 grant to the Gill Foundation in 2014 to support the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT advocacy think tank. The grant funded work including “research to develop messaging around gay rights and ‘religious liberty’ issues.”
The Colorado-based Gill Foundation is both a recipient of grants and a maker of grants that target religious freedom. The foundation’s tax forms show it made a $100,000 grant in 2013 to give general support to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and to support a “religious exemptions project” at the foundation.
The Gill Foundation had over $234 million in assets at the close of 2013. It was founded by the politically savvy former businessman Tim Gill. He has worked to increase the number of funders of LGBT advocacy. He has also pursued a long-term political strategy of advancing LGBT causes by targeting donations to local and statewide political campaigns to stop his political opponents at the start of their careers.
Another grant maker involved against religious freedom protections is the Massachusetts-based Proteus Fund. It has dedicated at least $825,000 to support “special litigation efforts and work on use of religious exemptions to attempt to justify the undermining of full marriage.” This litigation and work is part of its Civil Marriage Collaborative project, which backs “gay marriage.”
Its funding on religious exemptions work, as listed on its website, includes a $200,000 grant in 2014 and $75,000 in 2015 to the Oregon-based Basic Rights Education Fund to work on “religious exemptions public education work.” The fund is the political action fund of Basic Rights Oregon, which led opposition to a proposed religious freedom law in the state.
Other 2015 grants related to countering religious liberty exemptions include $300,000 in separate grants to ACLU groups in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas; and four grants totaling to $250,000 to other organizations in Arizona, California North Carolina and Texas.
A fourth foundation involved in the grant making is the David Bohnett Foundation, whose website lists a May 2014 grant of $150,000 over two years to the Columbia Law School’s Public Rights / Private Conscience Project, run by the law school’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.
The project gathers together scholars to oppose religious exemptions. It has been particularly critical of versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), including the legislation originally passed by the Indiana legislature in March 2015. After vocal opposition from LGBT activists and pressure from large businesses, the Indiana legislature changed the law in a way that drew harsh criticism from many religious freedom advocates.
The Columbia Law School project has also criticized legal efforts to protect employers with objections to mandated insurance coverage for contraception and efforts to protect individuals with religious objections to recognizing same-sex unions as marriages.
While the David Bohnett Foundation’s grant listing described the project as the “Public Value / Private Conscience Project,” Katherine Franke, director of the law school’s Center For Gender & Sexuality Law, confirmed to CNA May 22 that the grant went to the Public Rights / Private Conscience Project. The project’s backers include the Ford and Arcus foundations, which have given at least $900,000 to support it.
Bohnett has been an outspoken critic of religious groups who are not aligned with LGBT advocacy. In an Oct. 9, 2009 acceptance speech for the GLSEN Lifetime Achievement Award, he characterized Catholic, evangelical and Mormon leaders as “among our greatest adversaries” and said that “evangelical and fundamentalist groups that teach homosexuality is a sin” are those who “stand in the way of fairness and equality.”
The new discoveries add to CNA’s February 13, 2015 report that the Ford Foundation and the Arcus Foundation have committed over $3 million in combined spending to target religious exemptions and other protections for religious freedom. That spending has supported LGBT activist groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Progress and Planned Parenthood, among others.
Sweeney’s March 2015 remarks to the Out & Equal Executive Forum contended that LGBT advocates “face a new set of threats around religious exemptions to laws that protect us and our families.”
Sweeney contended that laws like Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and decisions like the 2014 Hobby Lobby case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) are “all about using ‘religious liberty’ as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and others.”
At one point in his remarks, Sweeney said he appreciated “that many people on the other side sincerely believe that their religious freedom is under attack – but if I believed that I would definitely be on the other side of the table because safeguarding religious liberties is a core value of mine and many of us.”
He called on his allies to set up a national narrative that “questions the notion of an ‘attack’ on religious freedom” and “clarifies how discrimination affects gay people, women, religious minorities and other communities.”
Sweeney praised the failure of legislatures to pass religious freedom laws, saying “We exposed the discriminatory intention behind the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA laws, and limited some of the damage in these unnecessary and harmful measures.”
In an announcement released before the executive forum, Out & Equal said the forum would be attended by 50 “high-ranking and emerging” LGBT corporate leaders at business giants like Bain & Company, Comcast, Dell, Freddie Mac, Hilton Worldwide, Oracle, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The event’s presenting sponsors were the Walt Disney Company and Wells Fargo, while other leading sponsors included Deloitte, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit and the media company Thomson Reuters.
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