50.50: Investigation

US Christian anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ spent more than $20m in Europe

Lawsuits against COVID-hit UK councils and venues could set ‘menacing’ precedents for US-style ‘religious freedom’ arguments, rights groups fear

Nandini Archer
27 October 2020, 8.00am
Franklin Graham greets attendees while on tour in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2016
Matt A.J./Flickr CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved

A major US religious group opposed to LGBT rights has poured tens of millions of dollars of ‘dark money’ into Europe, openDemocracy can reveal. The group, which has ties to the Trump administration, is suing numerous British event venues and city councils that cancelled its events because of its president’s homophobic and Islamophobic comments.

According to new openDemocracy research, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) spent more than $23m in Europe between 2007 and 2014.

BGEA did not answer openDemocracy’s questions about its European spending since 2014, but if it continued to spend at the same rate as before, it would have poured at least $50m into the region by 2020.

It does not disclose details of its donors or its spending but it has offices internationally and is well known for putting on Christian conservative mega-festivals.

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openDemocracy confirmed via public court records that BGEA is currently a claimant in at least two ongoing ‘breach of contract’ court cases in the UK. The first involves venues in both Manchester and Birmingham and the second is against venues in the city of Sheffield and the country of Wales as well as Sheffield city council and the Welsh government.

It is understood that these cases are moving slowly because courts have been shut down due to COVID-19, and local authorities have been overstretched. openDemocracy asked local council officials and the venues to comment, but they refused, citing fear of further legal action.

Observers have accused the US group of “demanding religious impunity for their hate-filled words” with its British lawsuits and warned that they could set new precedents for US-style “religious liberty” arguments to overrule anti-discrimination policies in Europe.

British tour

BGEA had planned to visit eight UK cities between May and October this year. COVID-19 restrictions would probably have prevented its events in any case, but the venues pulled out amid outcry over comments by BGEA president Franklin Graham, son of the famous televangelist Billy Graham, which included descriptions of Islam as “evil” and same-sex marriage as orchestrated by Satan.

BGEA said in March that it had filed suits against venues in Sheffield, Glasgow and Wales, as well as against city councils in all three places. It said the venues broke contracts to host events but that “ultimately” the issue was about whether venues can “discriminate against the religious beliefs of Christians”.

This summer, the group also threatened another suit against Newcastle city council, one of the UK’s most LGBTIQ-inclusive employers according to rights group Stonewall.

Rights advocates said these legal challenges are alarming. Peter Tatchell, a prominent British LGBTIQ rights campaigner, said: “US evangelicals, funded by secret donors, are exporting homophobia around the world. This Christian imperialism is menacing the well-being and human rights of millions of LGBT+ people.”

Tatchell said that “religious freedom” arguments are relatively new in European courts and public debates but that they have seen a recent surge, ‘imported’ from the US.

“When they say they are defending religious freedom, what they are really defending is the right of religious people to discriminate against LGBTs. These are basically hate groups who use religion to hide and excuse their attacks on human rights.”

We cannot allow hatred and intolerance to go unchallenged

Earlier this year, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson explained on Twitter that BGEA was unwelcome in that city because of Franklin’s vocal opposition to gay rights. “We cannot allow hatred and intolerance to go unchallenged by anyone,” he said.

Evangelicals from across the UK also wrote an open letter saying: “At this time when the political polarisation in the UK is intense […] we fear that [Franklin Graham’s] activities in the UK will widen divides in churches and communities.”

After the venues cancelled the bookings, Franklin Graham said: “As Americans, we should be concerned about the rise of secularism and the suppression of religious freedom and freedom of speech in the UK […] What happens there often makes its way to the United States.”

Free speech and gay cakes

BGEA has previously opposed hate speech laws in Europe, claiming that “secular progressive activists […] are running amok”. It has also quoted a senior lawyer from the global wing of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the US Christian Right ‘legal army’, warning: “Europe’s free speech situation grows worse by the year.”

ADF’s global wing has spent at least $12m in Europe since 2007 – and particularly since 2015, the year that same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in the US. Since then it has intervened in numerous cases at European courts, often pitting religious freedom against sexual and reproductive rights.

An ADF lawyer said: “There is a real possibility that these venues are acting unlawfully by cancelling the bookings on the basis of Graham’s beliefs… [they] are free to clarify that they do not endorse the views or beliefs of those hosting events, but they cannot legally say that someone’s religious beliefs disqualify them from using the venue.”

Both ADF and BGEA have been accused of supporting discrimination themselves in other cases. In 2018, after the British Supreme Court ruled in favour of Christian bakers in Northern Ireland who refused to decorate a cake with the message “Support Gay Marriage”, Franklin Graham celebrated: “This is a huge win for religious liberty and free speech!”

ADF’s international wing intervened in this case through its London office with legal arguments on the side of the bakers. At the same time, it was defending Christian bakers in a similar case at the US Supreme Court. In both cases, the bakers’ lawyers presented freedom-of-speech arguments and the courts sided with them.

At the time a spokesperson for the LGBTIQ rights group Stonewall called the UK ruling “a backward step for equality” that could be used “to justify even more discrimination at a time when LGBT people still face exclusion, abuse and discrimination every day”.

Boycotts and bans

Graham previously said he would boycott companies that promote LGBT rights. He also called for a boycott of Disney over its planned inclusion of a gay character in a film.

The BGEA is one of 28 US Christian Right groups, many with links to the Trump administration, that openDemocracy has found have spent at least $280m around the world since 2007 – and more in Europe (almost $90m) than anywhere else outside the US, followed by Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In 2015 BGEA re-registered as a ‘church association’ in the US and has not been required to disclose information about its spending since.

Franklin Graham is an outspoken supporter of Trump’s administration. Recently, he was among the audience at the White House Rose Garden event where Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

In 2017, BGEA organised an invite-only World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians at the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC (costing it $400,000) where Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence was among the speakers.

BGEA has intervened in numerous US court cases, including with ‘friend of the court’ amicus briefs in favour of a florist who refused to sell customers flowers for a same-sex wedding and bed-and-breakfast owners who refused to let a lesbian couple stay with them.

This year, Graham compared LGBT medical workers to drunks and drug users, defending requirements that workers at a field hospital run by Samaritan’s Purse, another organisation he runs, sign an anti-LGBT statement of faith.

Religious impunity

Neil Datta at the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights said the amount of US Christian Right spending internationally that openDemocracy has documented is “staggering” and cause for serious concern.

In the UK, he said, “BGEA is not just asserting its religious freedom, it is in fact demanding religious impunity for their hate-filled words […] Thankfully, no such right to impunity exists and they should be judged by the words their leaders speak while others may have the right to decide whether the BGEA is welcome in their community.”

John Mann in the British House of Lords said: “The help that we need in Europe from people within the US is help in combating prejudice and upholding rights and freedoms, not encouragement for those seeking to diminish them.”

Lindsay Ackers from the SEC venue in Glasgow said: “As a business we remain impartial to the individual beliefs of both our clients and visitors.” In this case, she said it was “aware of the recent adverse publicity surrounding this tour” and after “a request from our principal shareholder […]  a decision made that we should not host this event”. 

In response to openDemocracy’s questions, BGEA said the cancellation of its venue bookings in the UK “were the result of pressure on the venues by groups with a bias against Christians who hold traditional, historical Biblical views”. 

“Although we have continually sought constructive resolution of our concerns, in some cases we are being forced to pursue legal remedies. To do otherwise would suggest that Christians who hold traditional Biblical beliefs do not enjoy the same protections against discrimination, or the same rights of free speech and religious free exercise, as those with other views. BGEA supports freedom of speech and religion for everyone, and we hope the courts in the UK will recognise the inequities present in our cases.”

The Graham Tour UK was scheduled to take place in eight cities: Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Sheffield.

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