In 2014, almost no one knew who Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was. She wasn't even an elected official of Rowan County, Kentucky — the county clerk position Davis holds today was then held by her mother, Jean Bailey.
But in her first year of office, Davis turned into a national figure. She brought her tiny Kentucky county of just 24,000 people into the national battle over LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite multiple legal orders. She attracted the support of presidential contenders like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. She was even involved in a bit of a controversy with the Catholic Church, which distanced itself from Davis after she and her lawyers alleged that she privately met with Pope Francis. And she was partially credited with helping bring down the Democrat running for governor in Kentucky.
Now, she's attending the State of the Union on Tuesday night.
How did this happen? How did this minor government official in an obscure Kentucky county skyrocket to national fame — or infamy, depending on your perspective?
RelatedKentucky clerk Kim Davis, explained
Behind Davis is a prominent conservative, religious legal firm that has actually been involved in many of these LGBTQ rights battles over the decades: Liberty Counsel. It was the group that insisted Davis had met with Pope Francis, and that Francis had shown support for her cause. The group claimed (wrongly) that there had been a rally of 100,000 in Peru showing support for Davis. And it was Liberty Counsel that released Davis's first public statement after she denied a gay couple a marriage license, citing "God's authority."
But even before Davis, Liberty Counsel was already a powerful force in conservative and religious circles. With 10 attorneys on staff and about 300 volunteer attorneys around the country, the group has taken part in all sorts of LGBTQ-related lawsuits — not just marriage battles but cases over "conversion therapy" and custody battles involving same-sex parents. In one of its most bizarre cases, Liberty Counsel even defended a woman who broke off with her same-sex partner and eventually kidnapped their daughter before fleeing to Central America. (More on that later.)
Mat Staver, the attorney who co-founded and leads Liberty Counsel, explains this cause through the eyes of a victim. In his mind, it's not his religious views that have been used to oppress and discriminate against gay people for thousands of years — it's the LGBTQ movement that is trying to stop Christians from peacefully practicing their faith.
In the same vein, to Staver, it's not that Davis is trying to deny same-sex couples their rights. It's Davis who's facing persecution and discrimination, because she's being forced to let her office issue marriage licenses — one of county clerks' legal duties in Kentucky — to same-sex couples despite her religious opposition to marriage equality.
Staver, of course, frames this with the reasonable tact of a trained lawyer. As he told me in a recent interview, "The real question is how do you accommodate somebody's deeply held religious conviction? Historically, we've always sought ways to do that if there are reasonable alternatives."
In interviews with outlets that are friendly to his cause, he has taken an even grimmer outlook. He once said that "same-sex marriage is the beginning of the end of Western civilization." And he claimed that the Supreme Court's decision to acknowledge same-sex couples' right to marry "would be the thing that revolutions are made of. This could split the country right in two. This could cause another civil war."
These might seem like outlandish comments. But they're par for the course for Staver, whose inflammatory statements have led the Southern Poverty Law Center to classify the Liberty Counsel as a "hate group." And they're a particularly important piece of context for a conservative group that not only helped elevate Davis to the national stage but has also played a major role in shaping the conservative legal movement against LGBTQ rights over the past couple of decades.
The Liberty Counsel is an explicitly religious group
Staver, 59, founded the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel with his wife, Anita, in 1989. The group is intrinsically religious, calling itself a "Christian ministry." Its purpose, according to the group's website, is to fight for religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family — a reflection of Staver's Southern Baptist roots.
The fight for the sanctity of human life is actually what launched the group. Driven by his opposition to abortion, Staver began to study the intersection of religion, law, and policy. After he graduated with a law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1987, Staver moved to Florida, where he started his own private practice. Then in 1989, he started Liberty Counsel to connect his practice in law with his religious beliefs, with a focus, at first, on abortion issues.
Staver, though, wasn't always opposed to abortion rights. In 1982, he watched an anti-abortion video that transformed his views on the issue, setting him on the path to launching Liberty Counsel. "When I was a pastor, some people wanted to show the group a video about abortion," Staver told me. "I didn't have any background in the issue. Had you asked me, I probably would have said I'm in favor of abortion. But when I saw this video, it showed a developing child in the womb from conception to the third trimester, actual abortions, and the US Supreme Court decision and talked about it. After that, I was shocked."
"I hadn't given it that much thought until then," Staver added. "My understanding of abortion at the time was that [the fetus] was not human — it was like a miscarriage, a part of the menstrual cycle. I had no idea. I was completely misinformed."
So Liberty Counsel, started seven years after Staver watched the anti-abortion video, focused first on fighting abortion rights. The organization's reputation skyrocketed in the early 1990s when Staver defended anti-abortion protesters in Madsen v. Women's Health Center, Inc., in which the US Supreme Court struck down some, but not all, restrictions on protests outside of abortion clinics in Florida.
The case helped transform Liberty Counsel into one of the most prominent Christian conservative legal organizations in the country. With this greater respect came more support: At one point, Jerry Falwell, a prominent anti-gay pastor and founder of Liberty University, who died in 2007, extended his support to the organization — aligning it with a university that plays a big role in shaping conservative religious thought in the US.
But Liberty Counsel's growing reputation led more religious conservatives to call on the group for help, pushing the group to expand its scope. That eventually led to the organization's first LGBTQ cases in the 1990s, when the group embraced marriage and the family as its third major mission, alongside religious freedom and the sanctity of human life.
Liberty Counsel grew into one of the nation's leading anti-LGBTQ groups in the 1990s and 2000s
As Liberty Counsel's reputation grew, so did its client base. And increasingly, clients began calling the firm to help deal with LGBTQ rights issues.
Liberty Counsel's early anti-LGBTQ battles weren't about same-sex marriage, but about limiting and even denying child custody rights to parents in same-sex relationships.
"Around 1993, 1994, 1995, it wasn't so much same-sex marriage, but it was divorces in which spouses ended up in same-sex relations, and they wanted custody of the children," Staver said. "We were contacted to help with those situations. But it wasn't our focus, so we referred those people to individuals who practice domestic law, and we began training people on constitutional law."
But in 1995, Liberty Counsel began putting serious resources toward fighting same-sex marriage rights. This was after the Hawaii Supreme Court — in a high-profile case — suggested that the state couldn't prohibit same-sex couples from marrying, elevating the issue to the national stage, and eventually leading to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage that passed in 1996.
"That's when we added the third prong — marriage and family — to Liberty Counsel," Staver said. "And then in 2004, that's when it became a major aspect of what we do, … when Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and we got involved in that litigation [against Newsom]."
Staver cautioned that these cases over LGBTQ rights aren't all the Liberty Counsel does. He mentioned that the group also takes part in international humanitarian efforts to help Christians persecuted because of their faith, like Iraqi Yazidis.
But opposition to marriage equality is definitely a big part of his organization's work now. Staver estimated that Liberty Counsel is involved in as many as 60 cases around the country, including the Kim Davis case.
One of the group's most prominent — and bizarre — cases in the LGBTQ rights arena came in the early 2000s. As the New York Times's Erik Eckholm reported in 2012, Lisa Miller left her civil union partner, Janet Jenkins, in 2003, claimed she was no longer a lesbian, and took their daughter with her. A years-long custody battle ensued, during which Miller — a born-again Christian — repeatedly refused to obey court orders to allow Jenkins to see their daughter. Liberty Counsel took up the case, turning Miller into a national icon for religious conservatives and arguing that the courts were trying to force Miller and her daughter to recognize a lesbian relationship as legitimate.
But in 2010, when Miller was ordered to hand over custody to Jenkins, she instead abducted the child and fled to Central America, where she and her daughter allegedly remain. Until then, Liberty Counsel and Staver trotted out Miller as a star client. But following the abduction, the group largely went silent about the case, and denied any involvement in the dramatic escape.
The Southern Poverty Law Center drew a parallel between the Miller case and the Kim Davis case in Kentucky, noting that "Liberty Counsel has a history of advising clients to defy the law": "Kim Davis isn't the first person the Counsel has encouraged to defy the law and disobey a court's orders because of that pesky homosexuality. And, in the process, drum up a bit of publicity for all parties concerned."
Indeed, the Miller case was representative of the kind of work Liberty Counsel would take as conservatives lost same-sex marriage battles and marriage equality swept the country. Today, Staver said his group's work is meant to address a void left by the Supreme Court's marriage equality decisions: whether people religiously opposed to same-sex marriage have to abide by it. In the Kentucky case, for example, he said Davis should be allowed to refuse to participate in granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, while other staff in her office can take the role. (This is essentially what the federal court offered Davis, but she didn't accept the terms until after she was jailed.)
But it understates Staver and the Liberty Counsel's work to say they're interested only in gaining religious accommodations for clients.
The group now says it wants religious accommodations, but its history suggests it wants much more than that
It's no secret that Staver and Liberty Counsel oppose marriage equality. Before the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision, Staver told radio host Janet Parshall that recognizing same-sex marriages "has a catastrophic consequence for our religious freedom, for the very function of the family, for marriage, for our human existence, for civil society, and for any area of our liberty."
But with the loss at the Supreme Court, the group has shifted its work and rhetoric — to now focus much more on battles over religious accommodations.
This is the kind of shift the group has gone through time and time again as it's lost LGBTQ battles and moved on to the next one. The group presents itself as a reasonable arbiter of religious liberties in these fights, citing discredited scientific research and supposed experts. But a theme runs through all of these battles: Stop LGBTQ rights — even basic ones, like legally allowing consensual same-sex relationships — at any cost.
Here are just a few examples of Staver and Liberty Counsel's past work and comments, largely gathered from Right Wing Watch's archives:
In 2003, Liberty Counsel submitted a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the court should not strike down states' anti-sodomy laws, which banned gay sex. The brief stated, "Statistical evidence concerning the medical and social harms resulting from 'private, consensual' same-sex sexual conduct, together with recent legislative and judicial battles, underscore the long-term, devastating consequences of a decision declaring a fundamental right to engage in private consensual same-sex sodomy."
In 2004, Staver argued in Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk, "Homosexuality is a destructive lifestyle both physically and emotionally. Same-sex marriage cannot be viewed in isolation from homosexual activity and its consequences on those who engage in such practices, and especially on children raised in such an environment." He was citing the now-discredited work of psychologist Paul Cameron.
In 2011, Staver defended Malawi's attempts to ban homosexuality: "More than 60 countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality, and virtually every country in the world has laws that criminalize pedophilia and child incest. Malawi was doing what it was doing in its own best interest, and America should not be trying to make that country act in an immoral way."
In 2012, Staver criticized a federal bill that would prohibit employment discrimination against LGBTQ people. He said the bill "would hijack every employer to conscript them to join the sexual anarchist agenda so favored by the Obama administration." He also said it will "ultimately result in significant damage and even death of some individuals" by letting people "go into these restrooms or changing rooms, if you're a man, and want to go in and molest, or watch, or sexually assault young girls." (This is a common myth among religious conservatives about nondiscrimination laws.)
Staver criticized laws that prohibit parents from putting children through "conversion therapy" programs that are, according to medical organizations and the scientific research, ineffective and harmful. Staver said, "Homosexual activists have attempted to enact laws throughout the country that would silence mental health professionals from expressing the truth that an individual can successfully reduce or eliminate unwanted same-sex attractions, behavior, or identity. These efforts are nothing more than an attempt to censor any viewpoint concerning scriptural teaching on human sexuality. They represent one of the greatest assaults on children and families that has risen in recent times."
In April, Staver suggested homosexuality has cost the US government more than $225 billion. "Studies repeatedly show that homosexual conduct can result in significant costs to the community that encourages it," he said. "Same-sex marriage leads to the devaluation of both a mother and a father, who each provide a unique contribution to the family. Studies estimate that over the course of 26 years our government spent more than $225 billion that could be directly attributed to the breakdown of the family culture and its resulting social consequences. Homosexuals need to feel God's love for them, while also understanding that their actions have costly consequences to the community that surrounds them and to themselves."
In August, Staver said the Boy Scouts' decision to lift a ban on gay Scout leaders would lead to sexual abuse: "Now [they'll] allow homosexual young boys in the Scouts and allow homosexual leaders in the Scouts, and what are you going to have? You are going to have all kinds of sexual molestation. This is a playground for pedophiles to go and have all these boys as objects of their lust. This is insane and we need to literally abandon the Scouts because the Scouts, unfortunately, have abandoned us."
Staver also stated, "This issue of homosexuality is becoming insane, and it is the culture battle of our time. Whether it's this Boy Scouts' abdication of its role and changing of the policies or so-called same-sex marriage, this is a time that our Judeo-Christian values are attacked, being challenged, and this is a time for you to stand up and be true to the Scriptures and be true to our Lord."
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me that the long history of anti-LGBTQ activism and incendiary comments is what led his organization to classify Liberty Counsel as a hate group. "We do not list groups on the basis of opposition to same-sex marriage or the belief that homosexuality is a sin," Potok said. "We base it on the propagation of known falsehoods and, to a lesser extent, repetitive name-calling."
Staver denies that Liberty Counsel is a hate group, saying his comments have been taken out of context and noting that his group strictly advocates for nonviolent protest. But looking at the collection of all these statements, an obvious pattern emerges — one that is clearly demeaning to LGBTQ people.
But as offensive as these comments are, they're not even the most bizarre aspect of Liberty Counsel's recent anti-LGBTQ work. In the past month, Staver and the group have also been caught repeatedly lying — in what seem to be two failed attempts to appear as if the group and its anti-LGBTQ crusades are still a major, well-supported force in the world.
Liberty Counsel has been caught lying several times
One of the more interesting problems faced by Liberty Counsel in recent months, as BuzzFeed's Dominic Holden reported, is the group's increasing troubles with honesty.
In September, the group claimed there had been a 100,000-person rally for Kim Davis in Peru, showing off a picture of the supposed event at the Values Voter Summit. It later turned out the picture was from an entirely different event in 2014, a year before Davis's fight captured the national spotlight, and there was absolutely no proof that 100,000 people in a Latin American country had rallied for an anti-LGBTQ activist who's little known outside of the US.
Later in September, Liberty Counsel also claimed that Pope Francis had privately met with Davis, and that the Vatican would publicize photos of the event. But while Liberty Counsel later produced pictures of Davis and her husband in the Vatican Embassy, neither the group nor the Vatican ever released pictures of a private meeting between Davis and Francis. As the media inquired into the meeting, Vatican officials began distancing themselves from Davis and the Liberty Counsel, stating that the meeting was no more than a brief greeting and that Davis was one of several dozen people the pope saw at the embassy that day. And an anonymous Vatican source told Reuters's Philip Pullella that the pope had a "sense of regret" over meeting with Davis.
To someone unfamiliar with Liberty Counsel, these examples of dishonesty might just seem bizarre. But they're fitting with what the group has tried to do as its anti-LGBTQ cause has become less and less accepted in the US: They're part of an attempt to claim legitimacy by showing that there are a lot of people — and even supposedly progressive world leaders — out there that do not treat Liberty Counsel as a hate group, and in fact see the group's attempts to combat LGBTQ rights as a good effort.
But even if Liberty Counsel faces increasing resistance around the world, its work with Davis shows it can still play a powerful role in global politics. It drew the attention of presidential candidates, the pope, and international media. And it will almost certainly continue to appear in the news and behind the scenes as culture battles over LGBTQ rights rage on around the world.
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