Twenty-eight U.S. Christian right groups have spent millions of dollars pursuing conservative agendas that threaten LGBTQ and women’s rights in Europe, a new investigation by British news website openDemocracy found Tuesday.
The investigation by openDemocracy found that more than two dozen organizations have been involved in legal battles across Europe opposing same-sex adoption, defending legislation against same-sex couples and restricting access to contraception and abortion. According to the report, the majority of the money spent by these groups in Europe came from two Christian legal advocacy groups, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the latter of which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a designated hate group for its support of anti-LGBTQ legislation both in the U.S. and abroad. ADF did not respond to request to comment prior to publication. In a statement sent to TIME Tuesday, Jeremy D. Tedesco, ADF Senior Counsel, SVP of U.S. Communications rejected the SPLC characterization of the group and said “Alliance Defending Freedom is among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans. Our record includes 11 Supreme Court victories since 2011 and over 400 victories in court protecting the free speech rights of students on college campuses.”
Together, both the ACLJ and the ADF spent more than $3.7 million in Europe in 2018, according to openDemocracy’s findings based on publicly available non-profit tax filings. The 28 organizations surveyed by openDemocracy spent more than $88 million in Europe between 2007 and 2018—an amount greater than anywhere else outside of the United States, followed by Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The findings come ahead of the U.S. presidential elections on Nov. 3 and amid what activists say is a worrying rollback of women’s and LGBTQ rights in central and eastern Europe.
Both the ACLJ and the ADF have intervened in dozens of European court cases over the past 10 years. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who served as counsel for the president’s impeachment trial, has been the chief counsel for the ACLJ since 1991. The organization has backed the Polish government several times on its stances on abortion and LGBTQ rights, including submitting arguments earlier this month in favour of the conservative government’s most recent abortion restrictions that have sparked international protests. Earlier this year, the European arm of the ACLJ also criticized the European Commission’s decision to cut funding to Poland’s regions and towns that declared themselves homophobic “LGBT-free zones.” OpenDemocracy says the ACLJ did not respond to its requests for comment.
The ADF also has links to the Trump Administration as former staffers, allies and supporters of the organization have been appointed to roles in government, and has significantly increased its funding in Europe, spending more than $2.5 million in 2018 compared to $1.4 million in 2014. According to its website, the organization’s international arm “provides funding for cases with high potential to set major international legal precedents.” According to E.U. records obtained by openDemocracy, the organization spends up to €300,000 a year on E.U. lobbying, although it is unclear what causes they are lobbying for or against.
In 2017, one of the ADF’s legal counsel based in Europe said that the organization was committed to fighting for “religious liberty” abroad, “so that bad European precedents don’t spread further in Europe, then across the sea to America.”
“ADF routinely works with many prestigious law firms,” the organization told openDemocracy in response to Tuesday’s investigation. It added that it works with groups “across the ideological spectrum,” who have “have joined amicus briefs with ADF or filed amicus briefs supporting ADF positions.”
The exact sources of donations to these organizations, as well as what activities they are spending their money on, remains obscure. While the usual practice of non-profits is to disclose such information, Claire Provost, global investigations editor at openDemocracy, says the types of organizations investigated often don’t operate under common transparency standards. “The intention of these conservative civil society groups is not to further human rights, but rather to dismantle them,” she says.
In Poland, where the government has been backed by ACLJ on its anti-abortion stance and cracking down on LGBTQ rights, a new ruling by the country’s top court on Thursday that declared ending the life of a deformed fetus is unconstitutional has sparked several days of nationwide and international protests. Poland’s abortion laws were already among the strictest in Europe, and the new ruling now means means abortion is only valid in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the mother’s life. The ruling drew immediate condemnation from human rights and women’s rights groups, including the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. signed an anti-abortion declaration emphasizing “the preservation of human life,” and the “strengthening of family as the foundational unit of society” with a group of about 30 largely illiberal or authoritarian governments, including Poland, Hungary and Belarus in Europe. The Geneva Consensus Declaration, as the U.S. has called the agreement, has come under criticism from abortion access groups. Yet the fact that these Christian right groups have been operating around the world since 2007 and have increased their funding and interventions in legal battles in recent years, indicates that their activities will continue regardless of the U.S. election result on Nov. 3, says Provost. “Unless these groups and their activities are appropriately scrutinized internationally, they’re going to continue to wreak havoc on the lives and wellbeing of women and LGBT people.”