Revealed: $280m ‘dark money’ spent by US Christian right groups globally
Lawmakers say scale of spending – particularly by Trump’s lawyers and allies – is ‘alarming,' and call for urgent action to increase transparency.
US Christian right groups, many with close links to the Trump administration, have spent at least $280m in ‘dark money’ fuelling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTIQ people across five continents, openDemocracy can reveal today.
Organisations led by some of Donald Trump’s most vocal allies and supporters have spent increasing amounts of money globally to influence foreign laws, policies and public opinion in order “to stir a backlash” against sexual and reproductive rights.
Today openDemocracy has released the first-ever dataset detailing the global scale of this spending. Human rights advocates and transparency campaigners from around the world have called it “alarming”, and a “wake-up call” for democracies.
None of the Christian right groups we studied reveals who its donors are, or discloses details of how exactly it spends its money overseas.
After a six-month openDemocracy investigation, major aid donors and NGOs have said they will investigate anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ at health facilities run by groups they fund.
But unlike the other aid donors, US aid agency PEPFAR has not responded at all.
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“This is a form of interference in our political and judicial system which is as harmful to human rights as Russian meddling in democratic elections,” said Neil Datta, head of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), which includes dozens of MEPs and national MPs from across Europe.
Irene Donadio at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) said there has been a clear increase in campaigns against reproductive and sexual rights across the region, and described the scale of the funding revealed by openDemocracy today as “staggering”.
She added: “It is outrageous that groups that are playing with women's lives and safety are allowed to operate in the darkness. They should be forced to comply with the basic principles of transparency and accountability.”
Trump-linked dark money
Each of the US groups openDemocracy examined is registered as a tax-exempt non-profit and as such is barred from participating in partisan political activity.
However, several of them, including the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) – which is run by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow – have vocally supported Trump’s administration and his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Last year, openDemocracy uncovered how a dozen US Christian right ‘fundamentalist’ groups, many with links to the Trump administration and to Steve Bannon, had poured at least $50 million of dark money into Europe over a decade.
openDemocracy’s latest dataset is the most comprehensive yet, following examination of thousands of pages of financial records since 2007 from 28 US groups. According to this data, these organisations spent more money in Europe (almost $90 million) than anywhere else outside the US, followed by Africa and Asia.
This European spending has been led mainly by two groups that focus their fights on the courts. One of these is the ACLJ organisation headed by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow who, along with Rudy Giuliani, will be coordinating any legal challenges brought by Trump to the result of the US election on 3 November.
Another half-dozen ACLJ lawyers were also part of Trump’s defence team in impeachment proceedings earlier this year.
The ACLJ’s European branch (the ECLJ) has intervened in two cases to defend Italy’s position against gay marriage. It has also intervened in at least seven cases involving Poland, including at the European Court of Human Rights, to defend that country’s conservative policies including against divorce and abortion.
A second US conservative legal group involved in such cases is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Based in a small town in Arizona, it is also closely linked to the Trump administration through former staffers and frequent meetings.
ADF went to the US Supreme Court last year to defend non-profit donor secrecy. The case is still ongoing. Its few known funders include the family foundations of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos, which are also major Republican party donors.
The full extent of US religious right funding for global activities is hidden, given that many Christian conservative organisations are registered as church organisations that do not have to disclose any of this information.
For some groups in openDemocracy’s data – notably the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – US financial filings are only available for a small number of years. This group re-registered as an association of churches in 2015.
Sekulow has come under scrutiny over his financial practices since the 1980s when he was a tax lawyer specialised in creating tax shelters for Atlanta’s elite.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that Sekulow’s groups, including the ACLJ, had paid more than $65 million in charitable funds to Sekulow, his family members and corporations they own, fuelling a well-documented opulent lifestyle including expensive cars and high-end real estate.
In 2018 alone, the ACLJ spent $6 million on legal services provided by the CLA Group, a for-profit law firm in which Sekulow holds a 50% stake. This is the same firm that is understood to be contracted by Trump. It only has a mailbox address, however, and Sekulow is believed to do his work for Trump from the ACLJ’s offices.
American Institute of Philanthropy president Daniel Borochoff has said: “Regulators should investigate whether or not charitable resources, such as office, labor, equipment, etc, are being wrongly utilised to benefit Sekulow's for-profit law firm.”
The US website Charity Navigator, which rates non-profits, has attached an orange “moderate concern” label to its entry for the ACLJ because of “atypical financial reporting issues”. These include millions of dollars that the ACLJ has paid over the years to Sekulow's for-profit legal firm.
Several of these US Christian right groups have also been linked to COVID-19 misinformation. The anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI), for example, is led by an ultra-conservative activist who claims COVID-19 was man-made in a Chinese lab, and also sits on an anti-China lobby group with Steve Bannon.
Another group, Family Watch International (FWI), has been training African politicians, religious and civil society leaders for years to oppose comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and LGBT rights across the African continent.
UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima, from Uganda, told openDemocracy that “CSE is an integral part of the right to education and to health. It is not optional. It is not negotiable.”
South African gender rights group The Other Foundation also said that it has witnessed how US religious right funding has been used to “stir a backlash to the pursuits for freedom, dignity and equality of LGBTIQ people”.
It said, “the government has a duty to frown upon and act against any agenda that undermines its country’s constitution”, which in South Africa forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Alejandra Cárdenas, director of global legal strategies at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said openDemocracy’s findings “prove a manipulation we’ve been seeing for years by the US Christian right in Latin America and Africa, meant to break the social fabric and human rights protections that popular movements fought for”.
The EPF’s Neil Datta said: “As Europeans, we cannot sit back and watch what’s happening in the US with distance, thinking that the erosion of democratic norms and human rights cannot happen here. The same US Christian groups pushing for this in the US are now spending millions in Europe trying to achieve the same over here.”
Croatian MP Bojan Glavasevic, a member of EPF’s executive committee, said openDemocracy’s revelations show “that action needs to be taken by member states to ensure full protection of EU citizens against predatory organisations. This isn't a question of ideology. This is a question of security, the health of our citizens and transparency”.
“It's time for the world to wake up. Do not stumble into our mistakes and do not think it could not happen where you live,” said Quinn Mckew, director of Article 19 (an NGO focused on freedom on expression and information), about the rising influence of dark money in US politics. She attributed this to “a long-standing process to erode accountability and transparency”.
“It was inevitable that these individuals, powering these organisations, would seek to internationalise their influence,” she added. Action is now needed to increase “financial transparency, shining light on these groups’ sources of funding”.
“It is the duty of governments to ensure that women’s rights are not eroded through misinformation and ideologically motivated campaigns,” said Melissa Upreti, member of the UN working group on tackling discrimination against women. “There are real-life and often dangerous consequences for women as a result.”
Neither the ACLJ, PRI or FWI responded to openDemocracy requests for comment.
ADF did not answer openDemocracy’s questions about its spending, but said 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”.
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