$280M spent by U.S. Christian Right groups

A massive protest was held Oct. 30 in Warsaw, Poland, against the country’s anti-abortion law. Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow runs a group that submitted arguments in favor of the abortion restrictions.
(Shutterstock photo by Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski)

This article first appeared on opendemocracy.net on Oct. 27 and is reprinted with permission.

By Claire Provost and Nandini Archer

U.S. Christian Right groups, many with close links to the Trump administration, have spent at least $280 million in “dark money,” fueling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTQ people across five continents, openDemocracy revealed.

Organizations led by some of President Trump’s most vocal allies and supporters have spent increasing amounts of money globally to influence foreign laws, policies and public opinion in order “to stir a backlash” against sexual and reproductive rights.

On Oct. 27, openDemocracy released the first dataset detailing the global scale of this spending. Human rights advocates and transparency campaigners from around the world have called it “alarming” and a “wake-up call” for democracies.

None of the Christian Right groups we studied reveals who its donors are or discloses details of how exactly it spends its money overseas.

“This is a form of interference in our political and judicial system which is as harmful to human rights as Russian meddling in democratic elections,” said Neil Datta, head of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF).

Irene Donadio at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) said there has been a clear increase in campaigns against reproductive and sexual rights across the region, and described the scale of the funding revealed by openDemocracy as “staggering.”

“It is outrageous that groups that are playing with women’s lives and safety are allowed to operate in the darkness,” Donadio said. “They should be forced to comply with the basic principles of transparency and accountability.”

Trump-linked dark money

Each of the U.S. groups openDemocracy examined is registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit and as such is barred from participating in partisan political activity.

However, several of them, including the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) — which is run by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow — have vocally supported Trump’s administration and his Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett.

Last year, openDemocracy uncovered how a dozen U.S. Christian Right fundamentalist groups, many with links to the Trump administration and to Steve Bannon, had poured at least $50 million of dark money into Europe over a decade.

The latest dataset from openDemocracy is the most comprehensive yet, following examination of thousands of pages of financial records since 2007 from 28 U.S. groups. According to this data, these organizations spent more money in Europe (almost $90 million) than anywhere else outside the U.S., followed by Africa and Asia.

This European spending has been led mainly by two groups that focus their fights on the courts. One of these is the ACLJ organization headed by Sekulow, who, along with Rudy Giuliani, has coordinated the legal challenges brought by Trump over the results of the U.S. election.

Another half-dozen ACLJ lawyers were also part of Trump’s defense team in impeachment proceedings earlier this year.

The ACLJ’s European branch (the ECLJ) has intervened in two cases to defend Italy’s position against gay marriage. It has also intervened in at least seven cases involving Poland, including at the European Court of Human Rights, to defend that country’s conservative policies including against divorce and abortion.

In October, Poland’s constitutional court voted to restrict access to abortion in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Sekulow’s group submitted arguments in favor of the new restrictions.

A second U.S. conservative legal group involved in such cases is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Based in a small town in Arizona, it is also closely linked to the Trump administration through former staffers and frequent meetings.

ADF went to the U.S. Supreme Court last year to defend nonprofit donor secrecy. The case is still ongoing. Its few known funders include the family foundations of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which are also major Republican party donors.

Financial secrecy

The full extent of U.S. Religious Right funding for global activities is hidden, given that many Christian conservative groups are registered as church organizations that do not have to disclose any of this information.

For some groups in openDemocracy’s data — notably the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — U.S. financial filings are only available for a small number of years. This group re-registered as an association of churches in 2015.

Sekulow has come under scrutiny over his financial practices since the 1980s, when he was a tax lawyer specialized in creating tax shelters for Atlanta’s elite.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that Sekulow’s groups, including the ACLJ, had paid more than $65 million in charitable funds to Sekulow, his family members and corporations they own, fueling a well-documented opulent lifestyle including expensive cars and high-end real estate.

In 2018 alone, the ACLJ spent $6 million on legal services provided by the CLA Group, a for-profit law firm in which Sekulow holds a 50 percent stake. This is the same firm that is understood to be contracted by Trump. It only has a mailbox address, however, and Sekulow is believed to do his work for Trump from the ACLJ’s offices.

American Institute of Philanthropy president Daniel Borochoff has said: “Regulators should investigate whether or not charitable resources, such as office, labor, equipment, etc., are being wrongly utilized to benefit Sekulow’s for-profit law firm.”

The U.S. website Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits, has attached an orange “moderate concern” label to its entry for the ACLJ because of “atypical financial reporting issues.” These include millions of dollars that the ACLJ has paid over the years to Sekulow’s for-profit legal firm.

Global outcry

Several of these U.S. Christian Right groups have also been linked to COVID-19 misinformation. The anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI), for example, is led by an ultraconservative activist who claims COVID-19 was man-made in a Chinese lab, and who also sits on an anti-China lobby group with Steve Bannon.

Another group, Family Watch International (FWI), has been training African politicians, religious and civil society leaders for years to oppose comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and LGBT rights across the African continent.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, from Uganda, told openDemocracy that “CSE is an integral part of the right to education and to health. It is not optional. It is not negotiable.”

South African gender rights group The Other Foundation also said that it has witnessed how U.S. Religious Right funding has been used to “stir a backlash to the pursuits for freedom, dignity and equality of LGBTIQ people.”

It said, “the government has a duty to frown upon and act against any agenda that undermines its country’s constitution,” which in South Africa forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Alejandra Cárdenas, director of global legal strategies at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said openDemocracy’s findings “prove a manipulation we’ve been seeing for years by the U.S. Christian Right in Latin America and Africa, meant to break the social fabric and human rights protections that popular movements fought for.”

The EPF’s Neil Datta said: “As Europeans, we cannot sit back and watch what’s happening in the United States with distance, thinking that the erosion of democratic norms and human rights cannot happen here. The same U.S. Christian groups pushing for this in the United States are now spending millions in Europe trying to achieve the same over here.”

Croatian MP Bojan Glavasevic, a member of EPF’s executive committee, said openDemocracy’s revelations show “that action needs to be taken by member states to ensure full protection of EU citizens against predatory organizations. This isn’t a question of ideology. This is a question of security, the health of our citizens and transparency.”

“It’s time for the world to wake up. Do not stumble into our mistakes and do not think it could not happen where you live,” said Quinn McKew, director of Article 19 (an NGO focused on freedom of expression and information), about the rising influence of dark money in U.S. politics. She attributed this to “a long- standing process to erode accountability and transparency.”

“It was inevitable that these individuals, powering these organizations, would seek to internationalize their influence,” she added. Action is now needed to increase “financial transparency, shining light on these groups’ sources of funding.”

“It is the duty of governments to ensure that women’s rights are not eroded through misinformation and ideologically motivated campaigns,” said Melissa Upreti, member of the U.N. working group on tackling discrimination against women. “There are real-life and often dangerous consequences for women as a result.”

Neither the ACLJ, PRI or FWI responded to requests for comment.

ADF did not answer openDemocracy’s questions about its spending, but said that it is “among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans.”