50.50: Investigation

Trump’s top lawyer in ‘crusade’ against women’s and LGBT rights across Europe

Exclusive: Jay Sekulow among US Christian right activists who backed Poland’s ‘draconian’ new abortion restrictions – and have spent $90m fighting ‘fundamental European values’

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Claire Provost Lou Ferreira Claudia Torrisi
27 October 2020
Trump lawyer Jay Seklow (centre) runs a US Christian right group that has spent millions of dollars in Europe.
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Graphic: Inge Snip.

Monika* in Warsaw began 2020 pregnant and excited about starting a family. Then she was diagnosed with triploidy, a rare chromosome disorder. Most foetuses with triploidy do not survive to birth; others are stillborn or die shortly. She was devastated.

“As soon as I received the results, I knew I had to terminate the pregnancy,” she said.

Alessia Crocini, in Rome, decided to start a family six years ago with her partner, and travelled to Spain for IVF. The two women later separated, but continued to co-parent.

Then the COVID-19 lockdown came and for weeks she was not allowed to see her son, “because I am not his parent under the law”. Her name isn’t on any of his documents. “How can I explain this to a six-year-old child? For him, I am his mother.”

Helina Lundestad, in Norway, was denied contraception at the age of 16. Even though it had long been legal, she says her doctor refused her on religious grounds. “To me it felt like some kind of indirect slut shaming.”

What connects the stories of Monika in Poland, Alessia in Italy and Helina in Norway is not only their denial of rights in Europe, often considered the world’s most progressive continent. Their rights have also come into the crosshairs of powerful US Christian right groups – many with close links to the Trump administration.

Today openDemocracy reveals how 28 US Christian right organisations have spent at least $280 million around the world since 2007. More of this money was spent in Europe than in any other region ($90 million), followed by Africa, Asia and Latin America.

None of these groups reveals the identities of their donors or details of how they use their money overseas. However they have intervened in major court cases – including Poland’s landmark anti-abortion ruling last week.

One of these groups is the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose chief counsel is Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow. Along with Rudy Giuliani, Sekulow will be coordinating any legal challenges brought by Trump against the results of the US election on 3 November. The pair also led Trump’s impeachment defence in 2019.

Another group is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is also closely linked to the Trump administration through former staffers and frequent meetings.

Between them, the European offices of Sekulow’s ACLJ and ADF have intervened in dozens of European court cases over the past decade. They have opposed same-sex adoption, backed doctors and businesses who refuse to provide services to women and LGBT people, and, in at least seven separate cases, have submitted ‘friend of the court’ amicus briefs to European courts on the side of Poland’s conservative government.

Some of these cases have had a major impact. If Monika was facing her pregnancy crisis today, she may no longer have access to a safe, legal termination. Last week, Poland’s constitutional court voted to ban abortion in cases of foetal defects. Sekulow’s group submitted arguments in favour of the new restrictions, which were condemned by the Council of Europe as a grave “human rights violation”.

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“I think many people, including decision makers, should be very alarmed that US Christian right organisations are exporting their outdated views to Europe and are trying to influence European courts,” Neil Datta, head of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), told openDemocracy.

European institutions including courts, he said, need to do more to guard against such groups, which “are trying to undermine democracy, liberalism and human rights”. Datta described these US groups’ activities as “crusades against women’s and LGBT rights”.

War on women

Monika says that, had Poland’s new restrictions on abortion been in place earlier, she “would have been in a tragic situation.”

“Access to abortion in cases like mine is a matter of women’s mental and physical health,” she says. “Continuing the pregnancy meant placing a huge burden on my body. As I’d like to have more children, I’d like my body to allow me to give life again in the future.”

She fears that the “terrible consequences” of the new restrictions will include “the broken hearts of mothers who are forced to continue such pregnancies and watch their children die”.

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Women’s rights activists protest in Poland during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto/PA Images

The European activities of Jay Sekulow’s ACLJ, and of ADF, often mirror their work in the United States. Both groups have filed numerous briefs to the US Supreme Court, and are expected to play a role in fresh challenges to abortion rights with Trump’s most recent Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett, on the bench.

Along with intervening in Poland’s latest constitutional abortion case, Sekulow’s European organisation (the European Centre for Law and Justice, ECLJ) is backing the Polish government in a separate but related case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In that case, Poland is being sued by a woman who was not allowed to have an abortion after finding out that the foetus had serious anomalies. She says she was forced to give birth and watch her son suffer and die.

ADF International, meanwhile, said in its 2019 annual report that it has had “18 wins” at the ECHR since 2010, though it gave no details about the specific cases.

Opposing contraception

On its website, ADF International also says it successfully supported its allies in Norway to defend a doctor who refused to provide women with IUDs (intrauterine devices, a form of long-acting birth control), because of her religious beliefs.

Helina Lundestad, now 25, said she fears that one result of doctors refusing contraception – as she experienced aged 16 – could be more unwanted teen pregnancies.

“When you’re young, it can be embarrassing to talk about contraception,” she explained. “If you take the courage and ask a doctor for it, but then get rejected, it becomes something scary. Like you are doing something wrong.”

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Helina Lundestad was 16 when she was denied contraception by her doctor. | Photo courtesy of Helina Lundestad.

War on families

The European Union’s stated “fundamental values” forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. All EU member states are supposed to follow these values.

Poland has recently come into conflict with European officials after a large number of its municipalities declared themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones” – in what was already considered the EU’s most homophobic country.

Sekulow’s ECLJ has publicly defended these municipalities, saying there’s nothing discriminatory “in considering that pro-LGBT+ social pressure is the vector of an ideology, and in refusing to promote it among children”.

According to its US financial filings, Sekulow’s US group has spent more than $14 million in Europe since 2007. ADF has spent $15 million in Europe – but almost all of this since 2015, the year that same-sex marriage was legalised across the US.

In the UK, ADF says it has prepared legal briefings in several cases, including that of Lee v Ashers Baking Company, where the high court ruled in 2018 in favour of Northern Irish bakers who refused to decorate a cake with a marriage equality message.

At the time, ADF was defending bakers at the US Supreme Court in a similar case, in which bakers had refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

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Protest in support of LGBT rights in Italy, where same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are still illegal. | NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

Both the ECLJ and ADF International have intervened in defence of Italy in challenges at the ECHR against the country’s exclusion of same-sex couples from marriages and civil unions. The first of these cases ended in 2016.

Its verdict – that Italy had to grant these couples some form of legal recognition – was impactful: shortly afterwards, Italy introduced same-sex civil unions. However, lawmakers did not grant full marriage equality, which means that many LGBT couples still struggle to legally form families. Thanks to pressure from right-wing groups and politicians, one spouse can adopt the other’s child only if they are married.

This has meant for Alessia Crocini, in Rome, that her son has only one legal mother: her former partner. During the COVID-19 lockdown she says this meant “I could not leave the house to pick him up because I was not the parent of that child legally”.

On the offensive

According to the EU’s lobbying register, ADF International has seven lobbyists in Brussels and spends up to €300,000 a year on EU lobbying. It is unclear exactly how this money has been spent and what impact it has had.

However, ADF lawyers have previously said they’re working to ensure “that bad European precedents don’t spread further in Europe, then across the sea to America”.

This appears to be a key goal of Sekulow’s group too. The brief that his ECLJ filed in the Polish constitutional court case last week was partly copy-and-pasted from a previous anti-abortion submission the group made, in 2017, to a United Nations human rights working group.

Effie Fokas, senior fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, has seen this before. She says many US groups have been clear about their ambitions to thwart progressive precedents in Europe before they reach the United States.

Robert Wintemute, a law professor at King’s College London, says he first encountered the ECLJ in 2010 at a Council of Europe meeting, where he said it was representing the Vatican and opposing any recognition of same-sex couples.

Wintemute says that a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling – which cited an ECHR verdict in overturning the criminalisation of gay sex in Texas – “would have been an additional motivation” for US groups to get more involved in trying to influence outcomes in Strasbourg.

‘Ringing the alarm bell’ globally

Katarzyna Kotula, a centre-left MP in Poland, said that last week’s abortion court ruling could have international consequences, and “fuel fundamentalist organisations across Europe who will try to make their countries follow the same path”.

Neil Datta at EPF in Brussels said: “We’ve been ringing the alarm bells for years now, yet the scale and impact of these groups seems to be falling on deaf ears in Europe. What we are witnessing is US Christian right groups using staggering amounts of dark money and expert legal groups who infiltrate our democratic institutions.”

Petra Bayr, chair of the equality committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said: “We should put in place strict mechanisms on accreditation and screening before allowing them access to influence the democratic processes.”

Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld said that rather than “engaging in public debate” these groups are “operating like a secret army... They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using human rights language in order to get access to democratic institutions.”

“These forces are making the fullest possible use of EU structures, including our courts and parliaments, to push their agenda,” the MEP added. “Europe can not hesitate and dither any longer. It has to rise up and defend our European way of life.”

Meanwhile, Gianfranco Goretti, president of Italian LGBT family association Famiglie Arcobaleno, noted the irony that “the fiercest enemies [of same-sex parents] are those who speak of the family as the foundation of society.”

“Perhaps,” he speculates, “our families annoy them because we undermine gender roles. Two autonomous women without a man to protect them is inconceivable, as is a man who devotes himself to the care of children.”

The ACLJ did not respond to repeated openDemocracy requests for comment.

ADF did not answer openDemocracy’s questions, but sent a statement from one of its lawyers, Jeremy Tedesco, stating that it is “among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organisations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans – including 11 Supreme Court victories since 2011”.

Tedesco said ADF “routinely works with many prestigious law firms” and that “groups across the ideological spectrum” including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “have joined amicus briefs with ADF or filed amicus briefs supporting ADF positions”.

FAQ

Who are the US Christian right ‘legal armies’ expanding in Europe?

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) was founded in 1990 by Pat Robertson – a fiery Southern Baptist ex-minister who made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. It was intended to be a right-wing response to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He hired Jay Sekulow as chief counsel in 1992.

Sekulow is also chief counsel of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), which says that it’s a “Christian-inspired” NGO “dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights”. Its website accepts donations in US dollars only (saying “your gift is given to the ACLJ” whose grants provide “100% of support for the ECLJ”).

Based in a small town in Arizona, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is also closely linked to the Trump administration through the organisation’s former staffers and partners. Noel Francisco, US solicitor general until earlier this year, was one of the thousands of “allied attorneys” that ADF says it has around the world.

The two groups are connected to each other through senior staff members. ADF’s former chief counsel was also the ECLJ’s founding executive director, for example.

ADF’s few known funders include the family foundations of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. ADF’s president was among attendees at the recent White House event where Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee.

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*Additional reporting by Nandini Archer, Lidia Kurasinska and Elida Høeg.

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