Dirty Money

Though roundly defeated in the last election, the National Organization for Marriage is still committed to blocking marriage equality. Some evidence suggests that it’s turning to harsher speech, hiding donations, and rolling back campaign disclosure laws to accomplish its goals.



Screenshots from the four campaigns backed by NOM: From top, Washington, Minnesota, Maryland, and Maine


Brown’s explanation of this difference, of course, is not the same as Karger’s. Brown says the fact that NOM has just a couple of major donors whose gifts dominate the group’s budget “doesn’t mean anything, other than that we’re a new organization heavily reliant on major donors.” NOM wasn’t chartered until 2007, and in 2011, the most recent year for which tax documents were available, its income was $7.2 million and expenses $6.7 million. Freedom to Marry, which was founded in 2003, had 2011 revenues of about $2.7 million and spent roughly the same amount. Still, Brown contends that he’s overmatched by the LGBT side and likes to compare NOM with HRC, which was founded in 1980 and had a budget of over $30 million in its 2011 fiscal year. HRC’s actual counterparts are the Family Research Council, founded in 1983, with a 2011 budget of $13 million, and the American Family Association, founded in 1977, which spent $20 million in 2011.

As a result of NOM’s youth, Brown explains, it is still trying to grow its circle of donors — and is proud of its success in doing so in just six years. “I think we’re up to nearly 50,000 small donors,” he said. “So while in a given year we may have raised 10 million, and one and a half million has come from small donors, that keeps growing…so we’re very proud of our grassroots support.”

As noted above, Brown says that by raising money for NOM’s general purpose and spending it in state campaigns, NOM is doing exactly what Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign are doing: raising money for a larger goal and then spending that money wherever the most critical marriage fights might be. While he sits on state campaign executive committees, HRC and FTM also have representatives on the counterpart state executive committees. “Obviously, like the Human Rights Campaign or Freedom to Marry, we’re going to make a substantial investment from our funds,” he said, “and given the successes we’ve had, and the knowledge we’ve had, I’m going to ask to serve on the executive committee and partner with state groups.” The reason Brown is always the one who sits on those committees, he explains, is that NOM is outmatched: it’s younger, has a smaller staff, and less money than does the LGBT side, so the duties fall to him. This view requires ignoring FRC and the AFA, which have not gotten directly involved with the marriage fights. HRC came to the marriage issue later but is now fully signed on.

“Of course [donors] know that we give to state campaigns,” Brown says. But raising money for a larger goal and then spending it in the states violates neither the letter nor the spirit of any law. “Just because donors know that Freedom to Marry is going to contribute to or has contributed to these state campaigns, do you now say that Freedom to Marry should be treated in the same way you’re asking NOM to be treated? No!”

Seeking to Change Disclosure Laws
And yet NOM isn’t merely abiding by campaign finance laws in keeping its donors to itself; it actively challenges disclosure laws in state after state. James Bopp, the lawyer who brought the Citizens United lawsuit that hollowed out campaign finance laws in this country, has brought a series of lawsuits on NOM’s behalf challenging the laws that regulate political action groups and require them to report on their finances, donors, petition-signers, or anything at all, really; Bopp’s lawsuits allege that any regulation at all is an unconstitutional burden on the fundamental right to free speech. What he advocates, however, is not the right to free speech but the right to opaque speech, analogous to the ability to comment anonymously online. NOM has launched lawsuits against campaign finance disclosure laws in California, Florida, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Washington — even though those challenges have been slapped back by federal district court judges and upheld by appeals courts and the Supreme Court.

When asked why so many more people were willing to be listed as donors to the marriage equality campaigns than to the other side, Brown was impatient and exploded with anger at how LGBT extremists — condoned, in his view, by the marriage equality movement at large — attacked his side with “a campaign of intimidation, hatred, and attacking donors.” Gay extremists, he said, are attempting to “punish people…for exercising their First Amendment rights to speak up and stand for what they believe in, to donate to what they believe in…. They want to hurt people. They want to hurt people! Put that in the article! They want to hurt people!”

When questioned on this, Brown became ever more emphatic. “I don’t think you understand the reality that donors on our side get death threats, I don’t think you understand the reality that it’s not a joke when a guy [Floyd Lee Corkins] comes into the Family Research Council with a gun, I don’t think you understand that creating an environment in which it’s OK to demean human beings because of their views is wrong. I can respect people and I support their constitutional right to give and to support their position to advance gay marriage. What we are asking for is the same respect. And at this point we are not getting it.”