Liberty Counsel, a prominent right-wing legal organization, has been much in the news in the past year for its defense of Kim Davis, the notorious Kentucky county clerk who was sued over her refusal to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the antigay and antichoice group has a long list of extremist clients, including ministers who praise the homophobic policies of Uganda and Russia and “health” centers that provide misinformation to women with unwanted pregnancies. Click through to find out about some of them. Pictured: Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver with Davis.
Scott Lively has to make any list of the world’s leading homophobes. The Massachusetts-based minister has spread antigay hatred in Uganda, written approvingly of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law and even taken a little credit for it, and claimed that many of Adolf Hitler’s top enforcers were gay. A Ugandan LGBT group has sued Lively in a U.S. court, accusing him of crimes against humanity for contributing to the deadly climate of hatred in the African nation. Defending him is none other than Liberty Counsel, which contends that on a 2009 visit to Uganda, Lively was simply “sharing his Biblical views on homosexuality.”
Right up there with opposing any advances for LGBT people, another of Liberty Counsel’s pet causes is stopping abortion. Most reasonable people, even those who have reservations about abortion, would likely agree that women considering the legal and constitutionally protected procedure deserve to obtain factual information about it. Liberty Counsel apparently doesn’t agree. In January it filed suit on behalf of three anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” in California, challenging a new state law that requires them to provide clients with the following information: “California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women.” Mat Staver has called this a “pro-abortion message” and said it means Big Brother is watching you: “This is reminiscent of the government-mandated messages in George Orwell’s 1984.”
Andrea Lafferty, president of the far-right Traditional Values Coalition, was none too happy when the school board in Fairfax County, Va., where she lives, added gender identity and expression to its nondiscrimination policy in 2014. This move, she claims, is “jeopardizing our children” and is illegal because it’s broader than the state’s antidiscrimination law. Lafferty and an anonymous student sued in December of last year in hopes of forcing the district to rescind the policy, with representation by Liberty Counsel. The Traditional Values Coalition, founded by Lafferty’s father, Rev. Lou Sheldon, has a long history of outrageously anti-LGBT statements and actions. Here’s one from Sheldon: “As homosexuals continue to make inroads into public schools, more children will be molested and indoctrinated into the world of homosexuality. Many of them will die in that world.” This and other big lies have earned the organization a spot on the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.
Liberty Counsel has also defended government displays of the Ten Commandments, arguing that they are not an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The group represented Kentucky’s McCreary and Pulaski counties when the American Civil Liberties Union sued to remove the display. Staver argued the counties’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 — and lost. “This battle is far from over,” he vowed. “The court should recognize the Ten Commandments are more than an historical relic. The founders would be outraged that we are even debating the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments.”
Last year Liberty Counsel didn’t even sue to stop the reading of I Am Jazz, a children’s book by and about transgender teen Jazz Jennings, at a Wisconsin public school; it just threatened to do so, and Mount Horeb Primary Center canceled the event. “The District is not free to override parental rights and religious beliefs by subjecting impressionable children to confusion about something as important as gender and sexuality,” Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast wrote in a letter to the school board president, in which he also dubbed the reading a “propaganda session.” And a press release from Liberty Counsel called being transgender “a harmful delusion.” Happily, some parents stepped up to the plate and organized a reading at the local library, attended by 600 people, and Jennings’s coauthor, Jessica Herthel, flew in from California to offer support. The school board then adopted policies to accommodate transgender students.
When a federal judge struck down Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage a year ago, some county probate judges (including Nick Williams, pictured), the officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses in the state, refused to serve same-sex couples. Liberty Counsel was there to defend them, siding with antigay Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in claiming that any ruling for equal marriage rights was an effort “to strike down marriage.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June for nationwide marriage equality should have settled the question, but some Alabama probate judges are still resisting.
Liberty Counsel loves “ex-gay” therapy. It has represented practitioners of this harmful junk science in challenging California and New Jersey laws barring state-licensed professionals from subjecting minors to such counseling. The infamous National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality was among the clients in the California challenge. “Driven by ideology and not science, this law banning change counseling will seriously harm children and their parents,” Staver said in 2014. But federal courts upheld both states’ laws, and Oregon and Illinois have enacted similar measures.
In another of its efforts against abortion, Liberty Counsel helped a group called Personhood Mississippi get an initiative on the state ballot in 2011 that would amend the Mississippi constitution to classify the unborn as persons, from the moment of fertilization. Opponents of the amendment said it “could have criminalized birth control, affected in vitro fertilization practices and even forced doctors to decline to provide pregnant cancer patients with chemotherapy for fear of legal repercussions,” The Washington Post reported. Voters rejected it by a wide margin.
Liberty Counsel grew out of Liberty University, the ultraconservative Christian school founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell; in addition to running Liberty Counsel, Staver is vice president of the university and a professor at its law school. So it’s no surprise that Liberty Counsel represented the university in its challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers cover contraception in their group insurance policies. Staver called the mandate a “most egregious trampling of the free exercise of religion,” and the university was the first employer to challenge it in court, back in 2010. A federal appeals court rejected the university’s suit, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it. The high court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling allowed some for-profit corporations to opt out of the contraceptive mandate, but its implications for religiously affiliated nonprofits like the university is unclear; after all, the federal government has already given those institutions an accommodation by having the insurer, not the employer, fund the contraceptive coverage. For some religious groups, which either consider certain types of contraception a form of abortion or others oppose contraception altogether, that accommodation isn’t good enough. Just last month Liberty Counsel filed a friend of the court brief in the challenge to the mandate by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order that employs many laypeople, including non-Catholics, at the elder-care homes it runs. “Little Sisters of the Poor and many other religious, nonprofit organizations cannot and will not be complicit in killing the unborn,” Staver said.
Liberty Counsel has been fighting marriage equality for years, including a challenge in Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. It represented Robert Largess, a Boston resident and vice president of the Catholic Action League, in a lawsuit trying to stop the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling from going into effect in 2004. The court “usurped the power of the governor and the legislature when it impermissibly redefined marriage to include same-sex couples,” Staver said at the time. And the league’s executive director, C.J. Doyle (pictured), said the ruling “made a mockery of separation of powers.” The suit failed, same-sex couples began marrying in Massachusetts, and the world did not end.
One of the highest-profile cases involving Liberty Counsel was that of Lisa Miller, an “ex-lesbian” who fled the U.S. with her daughter as the result of a custody battle with her former partner, Janet Jenkins. Staver, in defending Miller, contended that same-sex unions are bad for children because they “deprive children of the opportunity for both a mother and a father.” Miller and the child, Isabella, left the U.S. in 2009 and may be in Nicaragua.
Long before Proposition 8, Liberty Counsel was trying to prevent marriage equality from coming to California. The group represented antigay activist Randy Thomasson and his Campaign for California Families when they challenged San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004 and argued in favor of the California law limiting marriage to opposite-sex pairs. “Marriage as one man and one woman predates government and is the foundation of society,” Staver said in 2008, as he was about to argue before the California Supreme Court. “To preserve it is essential. To rename or abolish it would be foolish.” The court struck down the law, but anti-equality forces responded with Prop. 8, an amendment to the state constitution, but now it’s been consigned to the dustbin of history too.
The Christian Action Network, a group that is virulently anti-Muslim as well as antigay, has graced Liberty Counsel’s client list. In 2009 Liberty Counsel represented the group in a suit against the state of Maine, which had barred it from fundraising there because of a letter that not only contained inflammatory anti-Muslim language but made it appear that the letter came from then-Gov. John Baldacci — which it did not. A Maine court dismissed the suit.
Liberty Counsel represented Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, a.k.a. PFOX, and a local citizens’ group in a lawsuit challenging a gay-inclusive sex education curriculum adopted by schools in Montgomery County, Md., in 2005. To Liberty Counsel and its clients, language such as “It is no more abnormal or sick to be homosexual than to be left-handed” was objectionable. “The school board has been captured by radical homosexual advocacy groups whose only agenda is to promote their political goals without respect to the consequence,” Staver said. Liberty Counsel scored a win here; a judge blocked the curriculum from coming into use, and a settlement with the school board provided for additional parent oversight of educational materials.
And Liberty Counsel also has defended the man who might be considered its godfather, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. A group called the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that Falwell and his nonprofit organizations violated election law by sending out a letter in 2004 advocating for the reelection of President George W. Bush; the nonprofit groups were barred from endorsing specific candidates. However, Staver argued that since Falwell also owned media outlets, he qualified for the law’s “press exemption.” The FEC agreed and dismissed the complaint in 2005. Falwell, who among other things blamed gays for 9/11, continued his antigay activism until his death in 2007. Son Jerry Falwell Jr. is carrying on his legacy.