TonyPerkinsThe Family Research Council is the icon for the mix of evangelical Christian conservatism and politics.  According to Wikipedia:

The Family Research Council (FRC) is a conservative, Christian right group and lobbying organization. It was formed in the United States by James Dobson in 1981 and incorporated in 1983 with George Alan Rekers and Armand Nicholi, Jr.  The group was designed to be a lobbying force for conservative legislation on Capitol Hill. In the late 1980s, the group officially became a division of Dobson’s main organization, Focus on the Family, but after an administrative separation, FRC officially became an independent entity in 1992. Its function is to promote what it considers to be traditional family values. It contains a 501(c)(4) lobbying PAC known as FRC Action. Tony Perkins is the current president.

For anyone who pays attention to such matters, the names of Dobson and Perkins are well-known.

SPLC logoMeanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a similarly well-known civil rights group.  Here is their Wiki entry:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an American “nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society”.  The SPLC is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists, and its tracking of hate groups, militias, and extremist organizations. The SPLC classifies as hate groups those organizations that it has determined “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, was founded in 1971 by Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin Jr. as a civil rights law firm.  Later, civil rights leader Julian Bond became its president.  In addition to free legal service to the victims of discrimination and hate crimes, the Center publishes a quarterly Intelligence Report that investigates extremism and hate crimes in the United States.

Recently, these two organizations have collided over the decision of the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate the Family Research Council as a “hate organization” because of the recurring anti-gay rhetoric that spews from the Council.  Does the unabashed resistance of the Council to gay rights, including marriage equality and the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, constitute hate speech?  Here’s the take from an op-ed piece in the LA Times by Tim Rutten (emphasis mine):

It is perfectly possible for a church or an organization associated with a denomination or religious tendency — as the Family Research Council is with evangelical Protestantism — to oppose, say, marriage equality as a departure from tradition and traditional notions of civic virtue without defaming gays and lesbians as a group.

In other words, mere resistance to such policy measures does not constitute hate speech, but mean-spirited, hyperbolic falsehoods cross the line.  Rutten continues:

But the council goes well beyond that. Over the years, it has published statistical compendiums purporting to quantify the “evils” of homosexuality. One of its pamphlets is entitled, “Dark Obsession: The Tragedy and Threat of the Homosexual Lifestyle.” At various times, its spokesmen have spuriously alleged that the gay rights movement’s goal “is to go after children” and that child molestation is more likely to occur in households with gay parents. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Peter Sprigg, told reporters on a conference call concerning repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that “homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers.”

A blog that I have not previously encountered, entitled, comments about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s expansion of its efforts beyond race-based issues into the arena of discrimination based upon sexual orientation:

[W]hile plenty of African-Americans support gay rights, it is not a powerful movement within the black community, and there is some resentment when concepts and terms that successfully shifted the balance of power in the 1960s struggle against racial discrimination are applied to this new campaign.

On the other hand, the issues are parallel. Nobody asked to be black, and nobody asked to be gay. Both groups have faced prejudice and discrimination, both groups fought back against powerful opposition. African-Americans got there sooner and tipped the scales fifty years ago, while the revolution among LGBT citizens is largely considered to have begun for real after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. While the fight for racial justice is not finished, with racism having learned to disguise itself, principles countering racism are now embedded in our legal system and in the nation’s belief structures — everybody knows what is not acceptable.

Gays and lesbians lag far behind, “that’s so gay” is still common playground talk, and homophobia is still evident and open, requiring very little in the way of apology or justification in the public eye. 

The SPLC may have made its name in the fight for racial equality, but the fight against prejudice and discrimination extends beyond any particular feature that distinguishes groups.

Not surprisingly, Perkins and other leading conservative religionists have responded forcefully to the addition of the Family Research Council to the list of hate groups.  Perkins wrongly whines that the free speech rights of those of his ilk are threatened, but his organization “will not acquiesce to those seeking to silence the Judeo-Christian views held by millions of Americans”.  The 1920’s quote of Sinclair Lewis sounds an apt response, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”  Other Family Research Council responders continue to spread malicious falsehoods, such as the aforementioned lie that “homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers.”  Teach the Facts blog has quite a bit of factual information debunking this lie and others uttered by Perkins.  The familiar adage, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is apropos.

The last word goes to Rutten:

Such rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of that with which religiously affiliated opponents of African American equality once defended segregation. It wasn’t all that long ago that some of them argued against school integration because, they alleged, black adolescents were uniquely unable to control sexual impulses and, therefore, would assault white schoolgirls. Exhortations against “race mixing” were commonplace pulpit messages short decades ago, though we now recognize them as hate speech. It’s past time to do the same with rhetoric that denigrates gays and lesbians.

So long as even the most objectionable religious dogma stays under the church roof, it’s a constitutionally protected view. People’s religious beliefs — even when noxious — are a private matter. Our churches are free to order their internal affairs as they will — to set the terms of sacramental marriage as they see fit, to discriminate in the selection of their clergy, to racially segregate their membership or to separate the sexes in their schools or places of worship.

However, when a group sets out to impose its views on the rest of society by lobbying for public policies or laws, it can no longer claim special protections or an exemption from the norms of civil discourse simply because its views are formed by religious beliefs. This is precisely the dodge the Family Research Council has been running.