How NOM frames its donation solicitation while justifying a promise of secrecy

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm

For the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the battle to restrict marriage to straight couples has often been waged at the same pace as the battle to remain an opaque organization whose funders shall remain anonymous.

NOM’s most recent defeat on this front was in Minnesota, a state where the organization recently helped pass a proposed constitutional amendment to appear on the ballot in 2012 that defines “marriage” as being only between one man and one woman. On June 30, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled that NOM and faith-based policy group the Minnesota Family Council must disclose their corporate donations.

The ruling forced NOM leaders to roll back on a promise they have been making to donors since the group formed in 2007: Their identities would never be revealed. And while the arguments made before campaign-finance boards in various states have remained consistent — to protect donors from violence and harassment — the arguments made to supporters and donors have been much more complex and carefully crafted. Over the past four years, NOM has carved out a narrative that its movement is one of religious integrity, grassroots nobility and subject to intense persecution from violent radicals.

The American Independent has analyzed redacted fundraising emails (PDF, large) from the early years of NOM’s anti-marriage-equality campaign collected and archived by the University of California – Los Angeles Department of Statistics. NOM has used different rhetorical tactics to solicit donations while simultaneously making the case for opacity, among them: painting NOM supporters as persecuted victims and marriage-equality advocates as violent perpetrators, and telling donors their livelihoods would be at risk were their names to be revealed.

NOM President Brian Brown’s emails through 2008 and 2009, and even today, often end in similar ways, with a postscript below his signature. From Nov. 14, 2008:

P.S.: Can you help us continue to fight? Donations to the National Organization for Marriage are not tax-deductible–but they are also not public record. Given the attacks on donors, I’m pleased to tell you: You can help us continue the fight without fearing for your family in these troubled times.

And from Jan. 30, 2009:

Help us defend Prop 8 now and in the future: Can you give $100, $500, or even $5,000 to support marriage? Donations to National Organization for Marriage are NOT tax-deductible but they are also NOT public information. So you can fight back against the bullying in good conscience without any anxieties.

Reason to donate and donate privately: Religious persecution

Once speculation began to buzz around LGBT-rights groups that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was heavily involved in pushing Proposition 8 in California in 2008 by donating money, time and volunteers to the campaign, NOM rushed to vilify the backlash spilling out from the gay community. Repeated in email after email are supposed threats faced by “traditional marriage” supporters “to people’s property, to their persons, to their livelihoods, and to their place of worship.”

In early November 2008, envelopes containing white powder were mailed to two LDS temples, in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, and to the headquarters of Knights of Columbus (which donated $1.4 million to NOM in 2009, as The Washington Independent previously reported) in New Haven, Conn. On Nov. 15, 2008, the Associated Pressreported that the packages — anticipated to be anthrax or another bioterrorist substance — tested nontoxic by the FBI. The source of the white powder mailings was never determined, and several LGBT advocacy groups condemned the threats, but the LDS and NOM blamed gay-rights groups and used these incidences as evidence that marriage-equality supporters were harassing anti-same-sex-marriage activists.

In an email dated Nov. 20, 2008, three weeks after Californians voted to strip homosexuals of their newly-received marriage rights, NOM President Brown announced the launch of AbovetheHate.com, a website (which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2008) run by NOM and erected in response to the purported anger members of the Mormon church were facing for investing millions of dollars into the amendment to ban gay marriage in California. The main feature on the site is a letter addressed to Thomas S. Monson, president of the LDS church, and co-signed by 5,583 Evangelical, Catholic and Mormon leaders. The letter essentially defended the Mormon church’s extensive monetary contributions that went to defeating same-sex marriage in California and Arizona.

“In the wake of our Prop 8 victory, gay marriage activists have singled out the LDS Church for protests, hate mail, petitions to remove tax-exempt status, a lawsuit alleging election reporting violations, and even an anthrax hoax,” Brown wrote in the Nov. 20 email. “Reading some gay marriage blogs over the past few days, I was shocked by the venomous anti-religious bigotry being leveled against the LDS Church.”

The “anti-religious bigotry” Brown refers to partly exemplified by a Daily Kos blog postlinked on the AbovetheHate homepage (no other blogs are cited). The post, written by Dante Atkins, is dated Oct. 20, 2008, before the California marriage amendment vote:

“[T]he No on Prop 8 folks told me recently that the “Protect Marriage” campaign has raised $30 million dollars–over half of it from the Mormon Church. Now, I have nothing personally against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They most certainly have the constitutional right to worship in their own way. They have the right to minister in whatever way they see fit and to marry whomever they see fit in their churches. … But when the church and its members invest millions of dollars in an attempt to write discrimination into my state’s constitution and divorce my friend Brian against his will, there will be hell to pay.

In the post, Atkins included a spreadsheet of donors to anti-gay-marriage campaigns in Arizona and California, which revealed their names, cities, amount donated and affiliation to the Mormon church. Atkins then asked marriage-equality supporters to research top donors’ backgrounds to find evidence of support for “less than honorable causes,” in the name of creating negative publicity for the Mormon church. Atkins encouraged readers to use “any LEGAL tool at your disposal.”

Brown wrote in reply:

This sort of targeted harassment against a minority religious community – simply because they have chosen to exercise their constitutional rights to vote, organize, and donate in support of a cause they believe in – has no place in American politics.

On Dec. 12, 2008, Brown updated his email subscribers, writing, “We have 5000 courageous signers so far. (Can you sacrifice $5 a month to help us keep the message going? For the price of a Big Mac you can counter the campaign of hate directed at religious people across this country.)”

television ad from October 2008 — again, before the Prop 8 vote — produced byCourage Campaign depicted Mormon missionaries invading a lesbian couple’s home and stealing their wedding rings, ripping their marriage licenses. The ad was repeatedly excoriated by Brown, who on Nov. 14, 2008, wrote:

“A TV ad campaign viciously attacking a religious minority has been followed by a week of public intimidations, threats, calls for retribution, and attacks on people’s livelihoods, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And this unprecedented flood of sheer hatred against Americans who think marriage is the union of husband and wife has been applauded and encouraged by mainstream, powerful politicians and organizations.”

Reason to donate and donate privately: If outed, donors could lose revenue/jobs

NOM launched another website on Dec. 10, 2008, the now-defunct BustTheBlacklist.com, a response to gay-marriage advocates launching boycotts against select California businesses that donated (or whose employees donated) to reverse marriage equality. Brown’s December 2008 emails focus on the small-amount donors attacked by anti-Prop 8 protesters, one being a Pollo Loco franchise employee from Lakewood, Calif., who, according to Brown, donated $100 to the Prop 8 campaign as an individual, not a representative of the restaurant chain.

Around this time, NOM and California-based coalition ProtectMarriage.com filed a jointlawsuit (PDF) against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen — in an effort to conceal the identities of their donors– and California campaign finance law, specifically the part that requires those who donate $100 or less to reveal their personal information. The lawsuit also challenged state campaign-finance policy that required reporting donations after a proposition had been voted on.

“Some people who supported Proposition 8 had their home and churches vandalized, were forced to resign their jobs, and were even threatened with violence and death,” Brown wrote in a December email defending the lawsuit.

NOM accused gay advocates of driving down A-1 Self  Storage’s Yelp ratings because the storage company donated to the Prop 8 campaign. In an email on Feb. 6, 2009, Brown asked supporters to go Yelp and write positive ratings for the business.

In an attempt to demonstrate that businesses were being harmed by the gay-marriage advocacy, in November 2008, the NOM team brought up the dating service eHarmony, which had been ruled by New Jersey’s attorney general to open up its online matchmaking services to same-sex couples. In fact, the ruling was the result of a 2005 lawsuit.

On Nov. 21, 2008, Brown wrote:

That New Jersey’s attorney general wanted to do so is just weird, given the large number of online dating (and, er, other) services available. Forcing eHarmony to provide a gay dating service makes sense only when you recognize what the architects of this movement really have in mind: using the law as a club to reshape the culture totally, so that people who believe in marriage – and the rest of traditional sexual morality – are forced out of the public eye altogether.

Reason to donate and donate privately: Protecting African Americans

Another oft-used NOM strategy has been to pit two minority groups — African Americans and the LGBT community — against each other, claiming gay-marriage advocates in California were specifically targeting African Americans by protesting Prop 8. NOM has also suggested that, generally, gay marriage threatens the black community.

In an email dated Nov. 21, 2008, Brown wrote:

Religious minorities (Mormons and African-Americans) are bearing the brunt of a new wall of licensed hatred, approved and encouraged by formerly responsible voices. No Americans, and especially not a religious minority, should face these kind of ugly threats because they have exercised their core civil rights to vote, to speak, or to donate in support of an idea like: marriage is the union of husband and wife.

In an email dated Nov. 14, 2008, Brown attempted to draw a correlation between former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt to repeal Prop 8 and racism:

“What is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a white Republican, doing calling on courts to invalidate the votes of the 70 percent of African-Americans who voted to uphold marriage as one man and one woman?”

Another email, dated Aug. 26, 2009, discussed a Netroots Nation conference and picked out pieces of LGBT activists discussing their strategies to fight proposed state amendments banning same-sex marriage. Brown noted that a New Jersey woman making a documentary said she was having trouble finding members of the “minority” community who would speak in favor of same-sex marriage in the film.

“Maybe New Jersey minority community members understand that the ideal for children is a husband and wife working together in marriage, and that gay marriage will change what all our kids are taught by our own government,” Brown wrote in response. “Maybe they do not want to see the moral education of New Jersey’s black or Latino children co-opted to serve the interests of wealthy donors to the Democratic Party. Maybe they understand that there is something wrong when ‘civil rights’ is taken over to mean the right of two men to insist that we all view their relationship as a marriage, whether we like it or not.”

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