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Until last week, most gays, like most straight people in Australia, had never heard of the religious sect the Exclusive Brethren.
And this was something the Exclusive Brethren were quite happy about.
However, thanks to intense media scrutiny, that's all changed -- and now we know more than we ever wished to about this strange but often wealthy group of people who like to call themselves "the chosen ones."
Last week in New Zealand, two private investigators confirmed that they were paid by the Exclusive Brethren to dig up dirt on New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, her husband and senior Labour Party lawmakers, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. A story claiming the prime minister's husband was gay surfaced in a right-wing magazine, forcing her to hold a news conference to tell the world it wasn't so.
Most of the Brethren's beliefs are so ridiculous (mobile phones and electronic transit tolls are a tool of the devil, God chooses the government; universities are not good for education) they're laughable. However, it's their hatred and condemnation of gays that has been the focus of much of the media attention.
What has emerged is the frightening reality that the Exclusive Brethren have both money and power -- and even though the sect forbids its members to vote, it has every intention of influencing the outcome of elections all over the world, this time in the Australian state of Victoria.
The Brethren, whose Web site says they "do not live in countries that do not have a Christian Government," dislike Australia's Green Party because it supports equal rights for same-sex couples in the way of civil unions or marriage. They hope to eradicate Greens' hope of being elected or re-elected via a difficult-to-trace smear campaign.
Their strategy for the Victoria election, coming up Nov. 25, is to purge the Greens from the Upper House and encourage voters to support the conservative anti-civil union stance of the Nationals. (They dislike Liberal leader Ted Baillieu for his socially progressive policies, and have met with shadow minister Victoria Philip Davis, an accused homophobe in Victoria's gay press.)
A wealthy group numbering about 18,000 throughout Australia, the Brethren take full advantage of federal disclosure laws that allow anonymous political donations of up to $90,000.
They used some of this money to print anti-gay pamphlets informing households that if the Greens get in, then gays will be allowed to marry -- a strategy that was particularly successful in scaring the bejeesus out of voters in March elections in Tasmania.
The Exclusive Brethren have been big cash donors to conservative Australian candidates since the 2004 federal election, in which their horse, Prime Minister John Howard, came home in spectacular style (albeit on the world's shortest odds).
Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, pro-Howard and anti-Green political ads by Stephen Hales, the brother of Bruce Hales, a Sydney businessman and world leader of the Brethren's 70,000 followers, were traced to one of the sect's schools -- for which it receives AUS$2.4 million in annual public subsidies.
During the 2004 U.S. election season, the St. Petersburg Times reported, Brethren gave roughly U.S. $500,000 to buy ads in the New York Times supporting President Bush and in two Florida newspapers backing Republican U.S. Senate contender Mel Martinez -- the latter because of his support for traditional marriage. Both campaigns denied knowing anything about the committee or its members.
The placing of the political ads was "the first time I've known this to happen in the history" of the Brethren, Ian Markham, professor of theology and ethics and dean of the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, told the St. Petersburg Times. Markham was born into the Brethren -- sometimes known in the States as the Plymouth Brethren -- but said his father pulled his family from the sect about 30 years ago. (Cath Pope, Gay.com/UK)