US Christian right-wing groups financed anti-rights campaigns in Europe

Attorney for US President Donald J. Trump Jay Sekulow during the impeachment trial in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 24 January 2020. [EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW]

US Christian rights groups linked to US President Donald Trump’s administration have spent millions pushing ultra-conservative anti-rights agendas in Europe, a new investigation by openDemocracy, an independent UK-based global media platform, revealed on Tuesday (27 October).

In Europe, the 28 Christian groups investigated have been involved in at least 50 court cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), including numerous occasions when they have acted against “sexual and reproductive rights”.

The findings come ahead of highly polarised US Presidential election on 3 November, and amid what activists say is a worrying rollback of women’s and LGBTQ rights in Eastern Europe.

For its report, openDemocracy had scrutinised thousands of pages of US financial records since 2007, which revealed the investigated groups had spent more money in Europe (at least $88 million) than anywhere else outside of the US, followed by Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“None of the Christian right groups we studied reveals who its donors are, or discloses details of how exactly it spends its money overseas,” the authors of the report said.

However, they point to the fact that each US group is registered as a tax-exempt non-profit and as such should be barred from participating in partisan political activity

According to the research, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) spent by far the most, including more than $23 million in Europe between 2007 and 2014.

The group is led by the famous US evangelical preacher’s son, Franklin Graham, who has called Satan the architect of same-sex marriage and Islam “evil and very wicked”.

He is an outspoken supporter of Trump and, according to openDemocracy, was in Russia last year, meeting Kremlin officials who are under US sanctions, on a trip he said was personally approved by Vice-President Mike Pence.

BGEA has taken legal action against UK entertainment venues that cancelled Graham’s appearances.

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), which together spent more than $3.7 million in Europe in 2018.

The ADF has become one of the most influential groups behind the administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights and was designated a ‘hate group’ by human rights organisations.

Both the ACLJ and the ADF have intervened in dozens of European court cases over the past 10 years.

One of those groups, the ACLJ, is led by Trump’s top lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who has defended Trump against impeachment and represented him in the investigation of his ties with Russia.

According to the research, ACLJ has filed court briefs backing the Polish government’s controversial abortion restrictions, including those introduced in a landmark ruling last week.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Poland on Monday for a fifth straight day of protests against a constitutional court ruling that would impose a near-total ban on abortion in the still predominantly Catholic country.

Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU and many women travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies.

The country’s constitutional court last week ruled in favour of further restrictions, stating that an existing law allowing the abortion of damaged foetuses was “incompatible” with the constitution. The new ruling now means abortion is only valid in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the mother’s life.

ACLJ also publicly supported Poland in its ongoing dispute with the European Commission over ‘LGBT ideology-free’ zones, researchers found.

“This investigative report reaffirms the existence of an organised and well-funded attempt to fuel the backlash against women’s rights,” said Melissa Upreti, a human rights lawyer and member of the UN working group on tackling discrimination against women.

Other groups listed in the research also backed contraception, divorce, abortion, same-sex adoption, and trans rights restrictions across Europe, from Italy to Austria, Norway, and France, and spread misinformation, including about coronavirus.

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, backing ‘armies’ of ultra-conservative lawyers and political activists, as well as ‘family values’ campaigns against LGBT rights, sex education and abortion.

Most of them were closely linked to the World Congress of Families, a controversial Rome-based ‘institute’ backed by Steve Bannon and made up of a network of ultra-conservative activists, with links to far-right politicians and movements in several European countries, including Italy, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Serbia.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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