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In Wake of Ballot Initiatives, Questions About the National Organization for Marriage’s Funding


People protest extending marriage rights to gay couples in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Fibonnaci Blue)

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal society founded in New Haven in 1881, does a lot of good work. In a report detailing its charitable giving during 2009, the organization noted that while the “Knights and their families are hardly immune to the economic downturn,” they had once again furthered their proud 128-year tradition of service — a tradition including “helping the widows and orphans of the late 19th century” and “providing coats to poor, cold children.”

[Congress1] Add to that list a donation of a whopping $1.4 million in 2009 to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage through the ballot initiative system in California, Maine and other states. While NOM hasn’t yet made public its 2009 fundraising numbers, the amount of charitable contributions it received in 2008 totaled approximately $2.9 million.

The NOM donation eclipses what the Knights’ Supreme Council spent on some of its own charitable programs — such as its new effort supporting food banks or its total spending on education initiatives — in the same year, much to the outrage of some observers, including Catholic groups.

“It was a fairly simple, straightforward decision,” says Patrick Korten, vice president for communications for the Knights. “We are pro-family, and believe strongly in the defense of marriage. NOM is the single most important group engaged in defending marriage.”

Less straightforward is the fact that NOM has adopted a policy of refusing to disclose its donors to state election boards, and has sued in the courts rather than complying with existing law — thereby prompting much speculation as to the organization’s sources of funding. (NOM did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) The Knights of Columbus, however, freely disclosed its donation in its August 3 report. The amount was enough to have funded most of NOM’s successful $1.9 million effort to repeal Maine’s same sex marriage law in 2009.

Gay-rights activists have long speculated that the Mormon Church was the primary benefactor behind NOM. But the Knights of Columbus disclosure shows the Catholic group played a pivotal role in funding NOM’s efforts to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

Since its founding in 2007 and after its banner moment in 2008 — the passage of Proposition 8 in California, defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman — NOM has fought vigorously against requests from various states to disclose its donor rolls. After some donors to NOM’s Prop 8 campaign received nasty emails from political opponents, the group sued the state of California, comparing itself to the NAACP in the 1950s South. It argued that the state’s disclosure laws had prompted harassment of Prop 8 donors and thereby curbed their constitutional right to free speech.

The case in California is still awaiting a trial date next year, but in the intervening months gay rights activists have openly speculated that NOM was used in the state as a front group for the Mormon Church. The allegation, put forth most prominently by activist Fred Karger, has been vehemently denied by NOM.

Karger, however, did manage to prove through public records that Mormon families contributed a large amount of the $40 million raised for the California ProtectMarriage.com campaign, and that the LDS Church, despite making extensive non-monetary contributions to the cause, had failed to report anywhere near the full amount of its efforts to the state of California. At Karger’s insistence, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) investigated the case and found the Mormon Church guilty of 13 counts of late reporting, fining them more than $5,000.

Negative press prompted NOM to dive further underground. In fundraising endeavors following Prop 8, the group’s president Brian Brown encouraged supporters of efforts to ban gay marriage to donate to NOM as a means of keeping their names undisclosed. The group would act as a middle man of sorts, raising funds from individuals and turning them over to state-based campaigns in lump sums, all the while pledging to keep its donor names a secret.

“And unlike in California, every dollar you give to NOM’s Northeast Action Plan today is private, with no risk of harassment from gay marriage protesters,” Brown wrote in one fundraising appeal. “Donations to NOM are not tax-deductible and they are NOT public information, either,” another one read.

As promised, NOM ran political campaigns in Maine and Iowa in 2009 without disclosing its donors, promptly suing the state of Maine after it opened an ethics investigation against the group and challenging the state’s campaign finance laws as unconstitutional. (That case, too, is awaiting a final verdict.)

NOM continues to spend millions on its legal challenges in Maine, its deep pockets apparently dictating a strategy to challenge and delay disclosing its donors’ names in the courts as long as possible. But the Knights of Columbus’s role in funding NOM — as well as more overt forms of support for Maine’s Amendment 1 initiative from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine – are prompting Catholics opposed to the Church’s involvement in marriage equality issues to organize and speak out.

“You’ve got this really interesting funnel of tax-free money coming from the Dioceses and the Council of Bishops and the Knights of Columbus directly to these campaigns,” notes Phil Attey, executive director of the newly launched organization, Catholics for Equality. “Why are groups like NOM hiding where they’re getting their money? If it turns out to be a front group for the conservative side of the church, Catholics have the right to know because the majority of American Catholics, and we can show you heaps of polls, don’t support that [kind of spending].”

Knights’ spokesman Patrick Korten sees NOM’s noncompliance with disclosure laws in a different light. “The fact of the matter is that those who favor same sex marriage are working hard to intimidate individuals and groups that support our cause, but [the Knights] are big enough that intimidation doesn’t work on us.”

In addition to the opacity of NOM’s funding, some Catholic activists have also taken offense to the fact that, in an economic downturn, the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council’s funding for anti-gay marriage causes has outstripped the amount of funds it supplied for several deserving charitable programs it highlights in its 2010 report.

“As the recession has continued to make it difficult for people who have become unemployed or underemployed, or otherwise get by on lower incomes, the Knights of Columbus has stepped in to help,” notes the Knights’ 2010 report. It highlights a $1 million fund set up by the Supreme Council to supplement the efforts of local councils to support food banks through its new “Food For Families” program, and it touts its Coats for Kids program, which distributed coats to needy children.

But the Supreme Council’s spending on the two programs together still represents less than the $1.4 million it donated to NOM’s anti-gay marriage efforts in 2009. And the Council also donated an additional half million to NOM and $1.15 million to the California ProtectMarriage.com campaign the year prior. The Supreme Council’s total spending on community projects in 2009 (which include soup kitchens, homeless shelters, well drilling projects, and other forms of relief worldwide) totals approximately $3.5 million — an amount that exceeds its giving to anti-gay marriage proposition campaigns, but not by much. The Council’s spending on educational programs in 2009 totaled barely more than $1 million.

Korten nonetheless contends that the Supreme Council’s donations do not paint a full picture of the Knights of Columbus’ annual giving, calling its donations to organizations like NOM “a very small percentage” of the group’s charitable donations. “The vast majority of our charitable work is raised by local councils and that’s always been the case,” he adds.

But other Catholic activists predict that such spending on conservative causes will provoke a backlash among the faithful. “Do you think someone in New Mexico thought their donation was going to this effort in Maine, as opposed to aiding the sick and feeding the hungry?” asks George Burns, an attorney in Maine who fought NOM’s campaign to pass Amendment 1.

“If Catholics find out that while their parishes are closing, and charity work is being underfunded, that our church hierarchy is playing political games with their money, we believe that they’ll be as concerned as we are,” argues Attey.

The Knights, meanwhile, have come a long way from a lone fraternal council in New Haven to governing over 13,000 councils and 1.8 million members worldwide. “Their heritage was as an insurance company because Catholics were discriminated against and couldn’t get insurance,” observes Rev. Dr. Joseph Palacios, founding board member of Catholics for Equality. These days, however, they’re better known for fighting against the marriage rights of gays and lesbian citizens.

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