The Southern Poverty Law Center is an organization with deep roots in the civil rights movement. Its ingenious lawsuits helped break the back of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist factions, and in recent years, it has joined the Anti-Defamation League as a reliable monitor of hate groups.
The Family Research Council is an influential Washington-based advocacy group with deep roots in the religious right. Its annual political forum, the Values Voter Summit, has become a nearly obligatory stop for ambitious Republican office-seekers hoping to win the support of so-called values voters. In recent years, the council has given an increasing share of its attention to opposing marriage equality and open military service by gays and lesbians.
Now, the two groups are locked in a sharp confrontation that raises crucial questions about where the expression of religiously based views on social issues ends and hate speech begins.
Last week, the law center added the Family Research Council to its list of more than 930 active hate groups, citing the anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders and researchers, which have included calls to re-criminalize consensual sex between individuals of the same gender. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as one with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."
The council's president, former Louisiana lawmaker Tony Perkins, reacted angrily to the designation, calling it "slanderous" and demanding an apology. "The left is losing the debate over ideas and the direction of public policy, so all that is left for them is character assassination," Perkins said, insisting that his group "will continue to champion marriage and family as the foundation of our society and will not acquiesce to those seeking to silence the Judeo-Christian views held by millions of Americans."
Other conservative commentators also have assailed listing the council as a hate group, calling it an affront to protected speech. That is a superficially compelling argument, but it won't withstand scrutiny. It is perfectly possible for a church or an organization associated with a denomination or religious tendency — as the Family Research Council is with evangelical Protestantism — to oppose, say, marriage equality as a departure from tradition and traditional notions of civic virtue without defaming gays and lesbians as a group.
But the council goes well beyond that. Over the years, it has published statistical compendiums purporting to quantify the "evils" of homosexuality. One of its pamphlets is entitled, "Dark Obsession: The Tragedy and Threat of the Homosexual Lifestyle." At various times, its spokesmen have spuriously alleged that the gay rights movement's goal "is to go after children" and that child molestation is more likely to occur in households with gay parents. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Peter Sprigg, told reporters on a conference call concerning repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that "homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers."
Such rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of that with which religiously affiliated opponents of African American equality once defended segregation. It wasn't all that long ago that some of them argued against school integration because, they alleged, black adolescents were uniquely unable to control sexual impulses and, therefore, would assault white schoolgirls. Exhortations against "race mixing" were commonplace pulpit messages short decades ago, though we now recognize them as hate speech. It's past time to do the same with rhetoric that denigrates gays and lesbians.
So long as even the most objectionable religious dogma stays under the church roof, it's a constitutionally protected view. People's religious beliefs — even when noxious — are a private matter. Our churches are free to order their internal affairs as they will — to set the terms of sacramental marriage as they see fit, to discriminate in the selection of their clergy, to racially segregate their membership or to separate the sexes in their schools or places of worship.
However, when a group sets out to impose its views on the rest of society by lobbying for public policies or laws, it can no longer claim special protections or an exemption from the norms of civil discourse simply because its views are formed by religious beliefs. This is precisely the dodge the Family Research Council has been running.