News & Politics

DOJ's New Religious Liberty Arm Set to Investigate the SPLC?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to make a statement on issues related to visas and travel, Monday, March 6, 2017, at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new religious liberty task force in the Department of Justice (DOJ) to defend religious freedom as laid out in last October’s memorandum. In his remarks, Sessions referenced the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a threat to religious liberty, suggesting the new task force may investigate or target the left-wing smear group.

“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” Sessions declared, adding that this movement “must be confronted and defeated.” He also lamented that “one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a ‘hate group’ on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Sessions emphasized that the new religious liberty task force represents a sea change from the Obama administration, under which federal agencies often used the SPLC “hate group” markings. His direct reference to the SPLC in his remarks suggested that the new task force may investigate the left-wing smear group.

According to the DOJ, the task force will “develop new strategies, involving litigation, policy, and legislation, to protect and promote religious liberty.” The DOJ did not respond to PJ Media requests for comment about whether or not this new task force would investigate the SPLC, but Christian leaders insisted Sessions’ remarks bode ill for the left-wing smear group.

“I think that by the attorney general making this statement today, warning against this dangerous movement, we can predict that the attorney general and the DOJ will take active steps regarding the SPLC,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Christian legal nonprofit Liberty Counsel, told PJ Media Monday. Liberty Counsel is suing the charity navigator website GuideStar after it adopted the SPLC “hate group” labels, smearing Liberty Counsel and many others.

“My guess is that Sessions is setting the FBI or some outlet of the Justice Department to take an objective look at this whole concept of hate labeling, its impact, its origins, and its legitimacy,” Lt. Gen. (Ret.) “Jerry” Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC), told PJ Media. He suggested the task force itself might investigate the SPLC.

“The SPLC has targeted religious groups particularly — not exclusively, but particularly Christian groups and Christian individuals — that’s why we at FRC were targeted,” Boykin explained. The SPLC has marked FRC a “hate group” because the organization supports traditional Christian sexual morality. This marking inspired a terrorist attack against the FRC in 2012.

“When you’ve got an organization in the United States that is illegitimately targeting groups because of their Christian views and you have agencies in the federal government that are legitimizing that data, that is a recipe for disaster,” Boykin said, referring to the troubled history of federal agencies relying on SPLC data. On Friday, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson reported that the FBI has an “ongoing” relationship with the SPLC.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has got to get to the bottom of that problem,” Boykin declared.

John Rabe, director of creative production at D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM), called Sessions’ remarks “heartening.” The SPLC first attacked DJKM in 2006. The organization, which produces television programs, is suing Amazon and the SPLC after Amazon refused it access to the Amazon Smile charity program due to the SPLC “hate group” marker.

Rabe told PJ Media that “the SPLC’s deceit has actually resulted in an act of anti-Christian terrorism at the Family Research Council, and may have possibly played a role in the shooting of a U.S. congressman last year.” (James Hodgkinson, the man who shot Steve Scalise, “liked” the SPLC on Facebook, and the SPLC had repeatedly attacked Scalise.)

“Perhaps the DOJ is turning from the partisan political maneuvering on behalf of the Left that it became known for during the Obama Administration and instead taking a renewed interest in the rule of law and the Constitution, opening its eyes to the abuses of a group that has doled out misinformation to the government while raising hundreds of millions of dollars by fear-mongering and falsely smearing Christian believers,” Rabe added.

Boykin, the FRC VP, also emphasized the SPLC’s wealth. “They’re reaching about a half billion dollars in their coffers,” he noted. “They have made that money by fleecing people, by running scams.”

“This whole hate labeling is a scam,” Boykin argued. “They’ve demonstrated that it was a scam when they listed Ben Carson on it. When they settled for $3.375 million with [Muslim reformer Maajid] Nawaz. That demonstrates that this is illegitimate, but they’ve made a lot of money doing it and they don’t want to stop.”

Indeed, the SPLC has a long track record of embarrassing mistakes. The group insists that it does not label people “haters” for believing that marriage should be between one man and one woman, but that is exactly the reason why it marked Ben Carson an “extremist,” even though it later apologized to him. Similarly, the organization cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church — a religious document binding on 1 billion people — in marking the Ruth Institute a “hate group.”

The SPLC blasted Nawaz — a Muslim reformer who risks his neck condemning jihadists — an “anti-Muslim extremist,” even going so far as to defend this smear by noting his visit to a strip club for his bachelor party.

Staver, the Liberty Counsel founder, told PJ Media he would ask the Department of Justice to take two actions against the SPLC. First, Staver urged the DOJ to demand “that federal agencies disavow association and reliance upon the SPLC, because during the Obama administration a number of agencies relied on the SPLC,” even though the DOJ chastised it.

Second, he called on the DOJ and Congress to “investigate the SPLC because they are encouraging violence by falsely labeling peaceful, law-abiding citizens and organizations as haters and hate groups.”

“I would encourage the DOJ to disavow reliance upon and use of the SPLC and secondly for the DOJ to investigate the SPLC’s actions, not only with regard to their false labeling but their non-profit status as well,” Staver insisted. “They are storing hundreds of millions of dollars in their coffers and millions in secret offshore accounts. That’s not the typical practice of a nonprofit.”

In June, after the Nawaz settlement, Staver told PJ Media that “about 60 organizations” are considering a lawsuit against the SPLC for defamation. On Monday, Boykin insisted that these considerations are ongoing. “We’re considering all options. We’re in the process right now of going through what all those options are,” Boykin said.

“We’re aware of quite a number of those organizations that have shown an interest in a lawsuit,” the FRC VP added. Even so, he insisted that legal action is serious and requires a great deal of thought and preparation.

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