You could say Liberty Counsel had a bad September.
When Mat Staver, founder of the Religious Right legal group, announced that Pope Francis secretly met with his client, Kim Davis, during the recent U.S. papal tour, it should have been a moment of glory for the organization.
Francis, after all, had been crowned a liberal darling by many for statements that exhorted Catholic clergy to show more compassion to LGBT people. And Davis was known primarily for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Ky. A Vatican endorsement for her religious-freedom claim would have represented a public relations coup for the Orlando, Fla.,-based group, even though Staver and Davis are Protestants.
“He [Francis] held out his hand, and she clasped his hands and held them,” Staver told The Washington Post. In a statement on the Liberty Counsel’s website, he also insisted the pope encouraged her to “stay strong.”
But many journalists refused to believe the meeting had even happened.
That’s arguably Staver’s fault. Just two days prior to his papal announcement, he’d been forced to retract a very public claim about international support for Davis’ case.
During a brief appearance at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., Staver displayed a photo that purportedly showed roughly 100,000 Peruvian Christians gathered at a prayer meeting on Davis’ behalf.
“That, my friends, is happening around the world,” a beaming Staver announced to the rapturous crowd. “When one person stands it has an impact, and Kim Davis will continue to stand for her lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Except that isn’t what the photo showed at all.
The progressive site ThinkProgress investigated the photo and discovered that it showed a Peruvian prayer rally that had taken place in 2014. Obviously the event hadn’t been organized for Davis, who was a non-entity then. Staver doubled down on the claim before finally issuing a retraction. It didn’t do much for his reputation, which was already tarnished for his virulent anti-gay politics.
If Staver misled people about the prayer meeting, observers reasoned, maybe he’d fib about the pope, too.
The Vatican eventually delivered him from disgrace – to a certain extent. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Frederico Lombardi confirmed the meeting to The New York Times but refused to provide any further information about what Francis may have said to Davis. Later, Lombardi told press the meeting should not be construed as support for the clerk’s religious freedom claims. (See more on this in “People & Events.”)
What did Liberty Counsel hope to gain from the meeting? If the group hoped the pope would issue a more specific endorsement of its work, Staver and company were disappointed. And Francis has no authority to influence the outcome of Davis’ case, even if he’d wanted to.
To Liberty Counsel’s critics, the claim of a papal endorsement was simply the latest in a long line of desperate stunts.
There’s little debate that the organization, founded in 1989, is indeed desperate. Staver recently failed to convince a series of federal courts Davis deserved a religious exemption from authorizing marriage licenses. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant him so much as a hearing.
Now Davis has nearly exhausted her legal options, and legal experts say there’s not much Staver and his group can do to give her a victory in court. The case is considered difficult even by many in the Religious Right, since Davis is an elected official who has used her legal authority to completely block her deputy clerks from issuing marriage licenses to anyone.
It’s unclear whether Staver genuinely believed he could win a religious exemption for Davis. Some gay-rights activists have theorized that his group is actually manipulating the clerk to further an extreme agenda and oversold her chances of legal victory. If that’s true, it wouldn’t be the first time Liberty Counsel has prioritized anti-gay animus over rational legal strategy.
In 2012, Staver and his firm signed up to represent Scott Lively, an anti-gay preacher who’s facing a lawsuit for his activities in Uganda. In his book The Pink Swastika and other materials, Lively argues that LGBT activists orchestrated the Holocaust. He has traveled frequently to promote that view and to encourage the restriction of civil rights for LGBT people.
The suit, filed by Sexual Minorities Uganda with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights, traced rising rates of vigilante violence against LGBT people, and the country’s repeated attempts to punish homosexuality with jail and even death, to Lively’s missionary work there. It’s considered a novel test of the Alien Torts Statute.
Staver and his team have repeatedly failed to convince a Massachusetts court to toss the case. Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Scott Lively is ongoing.
Staver is fond of extreme positions. He has long predicted a near apocalypse for the United States if the high court legalized same-sex marriage. For years, he railed against the prospect of marriage equality and frequently implied it would result in the persecution of pastors and other clergy.
“This is something that I believe is the beginning of the end of Western Civilization.You can’t simply redefine and pretend that ontological differences between men and women do not exist. This will have consequences,” Staver told WorldNetDaily Radio last year.
He had a solution, though, one that Staver repeatedly emphasized both in interviews and in the classes he once taught as dean of Liberty University’s law school: Christians should be prepared to commit civil disobedience.
In June, the Christian Post reported that Staver appeared at a pastors’ conference to warn audience members of “ideologues” who would “override” their religious-freedom rights.
“This is not a call for lone believers to fall on their swords,” he added. “It is a call for us to speak for each other and stand together and even to suffer together. Like Esther facing the unjust laws of the Persian Empire, we must pray, then we must stiffen our spines. May God help us remain faithful, whatever the cost.”
That’s extreme rhetoric, but Staver’s capable of much worse. Right Wing Watch reports that at the Reclaiming America for Christ conference this year, he warned that marriage equality would “lead America into the pit of hell.” In a recent editorial for BarbWire, a conservative site, he lamented the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Staver’s unconventional legal strategy and obsessive anti-gay stance also embroiled his former employer in a lawsuit.
During his tenure as dean of Liberty University’s law school, Staver represented self-proclaimed “ex-lesbian” Lisa Miller in her fight to win custody of her daughter from her former partner, Janet Jenkins. When she lost her legal battle, Miller fled to Nicaragua with the child. One individual – Pastor Kenneth Miller, a Mennonite – has already been convicted for his role in the kidnapping. (The two Millers are not related.)
Lisa Miller also has strong ties to the Liberty University community. After her split from Jenkins, she moved to Lynchburg, Va., and began to attend Thomas Road Baptist Church on Liberty’s campus. There’s strong evidence that church elders helped her flee.
In a 2012 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act lawsuit, Jenkins accused the elders of working with members of Kenneth Miller’s anti-gay Beachy Amish-Mennonite Brotherhood to smuggle Lisa Miller to Nicaragua. Liberty University’s anti-gay stance, she argues, makes it and Thomas Road liable.
The lawsuit directly implicates Staver.
The allegations hinge on calls made by Philip Zodhiates, a Thomas Road member who drove Miller to the Canadian border and to a cell phone and landline registered to Liberty Counsel. (His daughter also works at the law school.) Staver insists he never received the calls and didn’t know that Zodhiates had decided to help Miller leave the country.
The suit also alleges that law school employees “were too intimidated to come forward to law enforcement for fear of angering Dean Staver and losing their jobs” and that Staver and his co-counsel, Rena Lindevaldsen, had long taught the case at the law school as an example of justified civil disobedience.
These claims appear to be based on a 2011 Religion Dispatches report by Sarah Posner. Posner interviewed several Liberty law students for the account.
“One student said, ‘The idea was when you are confronted with a particular situation, for instance, if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law, essentially… civil disobedience was the answer,’” Posner reported.
Another student stated that there was “not a lot of shock” about the case and added, “Everybody semi-suspected that Liberty Counsel had something to do with her disappearance.”
That lawsuit is ongoing.
Staver resigned from his role as dean last year. In public statements, he claimed he’d decided to step down to care for his wife Anita, who had been injured in a car accident, but some speculate he hadn’t left the school of his own free will.
The school struggled after Staver became its dean in 2006. A mere 50 percent of its graduates passed the Virginia bar in July 2014; the state average was 68 percent. Liberty University officials have stated that they are looking for a candidate who can improve those numbers.
Without a role at Liberty’s law school, Staver’s only source of fame – and income – is now Liberty Counsel, but its long-term sustainability may be in doubt. He was almost entirely absent from this year’s Values Voter Summit, appearing only once to introduce Kim Davis as she received the Family Research Council’s “Cost of Discipleship” award.
A review of Liberty Counsel’s Form 990, a financial statement that non-profit groups are required to file annually with the Internal Revenue Service and make available to the public, shows that it pulls in about $4.2 million annual, barely half the income of Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute, its next smallest direct competitor. Both groups are dwarfed by Alliance Defending Freedom, with an annual budget approaching $40 million.
(Actually, it’s remarkable that financial information about Liberty Counsel is even available. For several years, the group claimed to be a church auxiliary and refused to file the Form 990.)
In the wake of the Kim Davis flap, Liberty Counsel found itself under closer scrutiny. An Associated Press story about the group published last month noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Liberty Counsel a hate group for its anti-LGBT rhetoric.
Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, told the AP that he is underwhelmed by Liberty Counsel’s legal strategy.
“There is an enormous amount of bluster amid his legal arguments,” Lynn observed. “It looks to me like he’s making claims that will get his clients great publicity, but not necessarily get them victories.”
Indeed, AU and other critics charge that much of Liberty Counsel’s work is driven by fund-raising. The organization has relentlessly attacked the religious neutrality of public schools, sometimes showing a reckless disregard for the facts.
In 2005, for example, Liberty Counsel assailed a public school in Dodgeville, Wisc., and accused officials of rewriting the song “Silent Night” to remove religious references in a school play. Soon, the Fox News Channel was portraying the school as Exhibit A in the “war on Christmas.”
In fact, the school had merely presented a popular play titled “The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift.” Written in 1988 by a church choir director, the play centers on a scrawny Christmas tree that wants a home for the holidays. The play uses several familiar Christmas carols with different lyrics to fit its theme of homelessness.
Education officials in Dodgeville had to deal with a flood of hate mail and calls. In 2006, school attorney Eileen A. Brownlee wrote to Staver and requested $23,899.48 in compensation for costs that the district incurred in refuting Liberty Counsel’s lies.
“Your dissemination of false and misleading information and your threats of specious and frivolous litigation resulted in enormous cost to the district,” wrote Brownlee. “You have yet to present the facts either through a press release, one of your ‘alerts’ or through any other means. You used this red herring to attempt to collect money through the form of donations.”
The school system never got a dime, of course.
Liberty Counsel has stretched the truth in other instances. In 2012, the group released a DVD imploring pastors to jump into partisan politics. Liberty Counsel falsely claimed that no house of worship had ever lost its tax-exempt status for politicking, a claim that would surprise the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., which was stripped of this status after it ran newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992.
In 2010, the group issued baseball-style trading cards attacking “liberals” who oppose its work. A card for AU’s Lynn called him the “founder” of Americans United, even though Lynn hadn’t been born when AU was founded in 1947. It also falsely accused AU of harassing “Christian groups and churches in an attempt to question their tax-exempt status.”
The list goes on: Earlier this year, Liberty Counsel tried to intimidate a Montana school district that cancelled a trip to a creationist museum following an Americans United complaint. Liberty Counsel argued that the school’s decision to cancel amounted to “viewpoint discrimination,” an absurd assertion that no court has ever adopted.
In 2012, the group tried to persuade officials in Santa Monica, Calif., to adopt a holiday display policy that would have had the effect of favoring religious groups. AU said the proposal would have landed the city in court.
For many years, Liberty Counsel – which declined comment for this story – labored in the shadow of larger Religious Right legal groups like TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice and Alliance Defending Freedom.
In this crowded field, Liberty Counsel seems to have found its niche: taking on quixotic cases involving people like Davis who make good copy for the far right but can’t win in court.
It’s an odd place for a law firm, but Liberty Counsel occupies it well.