SKETCHY

10.05.15 5:27 AM ET

The Shady Group That Played Pope Francis

The pontiff found his reformer image tarnished when it was announced he met with Kim Davis. The group behind the political coup? The Liberty Counsel.

Around 8 p.m. on September 29, the Liberty Counsel, Kim Davis’s legal representation, tweeted a report from Inside the Vatican that Pope Francis had a secret meeting with their client. Robert Moynihan, the writer who broke the story, had gotten his information exclusively from the Liberty Counsel.

What started out as a rumor about a closed-door meeting quickly evolved into something much bigger—the claim that Pope Francis, for all of his kindness toward LGBT people, was really on the side of the Religious Right.

You can imagine how the secret meeting might have gone, said the Liberty Counsel: Pope Francis embracing a humbled Kim Davis, encouraging her to “stay strong,” and validating her fight against gay marriage. And then mere hours later, with poor, sweet Kim fresh in his memory, telling journalists that government officials—why, just like that Kentucky gal!—have the right to conscientious objection.

But many journalists with connections inside the Vatican, myself included, were having difficulty figuring out exactly what transpired between Francis and Davis because the Liberty Counsel’s story was so incredibly vague. Who, for instance, initiated the meeting—and why?

According to Davis’s lawyer, Mat Staver, the meeting came “from the Vatican itself”—which reads as his deceptive way of saying, “Pope Francis didn’t actually invite Davis to the embassy, but someone with Vatican connections did, so we’re going to keep saying Vatican over and over until enough people think the Holy Father actually invited our client to meet him.”

Though many pressed Staver to release the name of the Vatican official, he held out as long as he could until eventually the secret broke. The meeting was initiated by Archbishop Vigano, Vatican ambassador to the U.S., who is a strong opponent of same-sex marriage.

Last spring, for example, Vigano attended an anti-gay rally organized by the National Organization for Marriage. In a press release, NOM called Vigano the “official representative of Pope Francis,” which—as is implied by the designation—they took as a papal seal of approval for their fight against gay marriage. (This is why Vigano has won himself the ire of many Catholics—he should’ve known that when he wades into a culture war, he drags Francis unwittingly with him.)

The inconsistencies with the Liberty Counsel’s story were infuriatingly apparent from go. For example, Staver told CBS that Francis definitely knew who Kim Davis was, before their meeting: “Pope Francis,” he said, “has been following the story of Kim Davis and obviously is very concerned about religious liberty, not just in the United States, but worldwide.” But in an interview with Time, Staver said that he didn't know if Francis knew who his client was, but he assumed the pope had heard of her because “her story has been published worldwide.”

The Vatican quickly realized they had to weigh in. Admitting that Francis had some brief encounter with Davis, the statement from the Holy See’s press office made clear that the meeting “should not be considered a form of support” for Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moreover, the Vatican didn’t even consider Davis a “real audience,” saying she was just one of dozens paraded in front of the pontiff at the Vatican embassy.

That sounds like a diplomatic way of saying this: Francis met Davis, but he probably had no idea who she was. And regardless, as James Martin, the Jesuit priest and author, notes in America Magazine, “despite what Ms. Davis said, a meeting with the pope does not ‘kind of validate everything.’”

The Liberty Counsel didn’t back down at all. They argued that Pope Francis made clear in an interview that he does in fact support their client by virtue of the fact that he supports conscientious objection.

Staver argued that whether or not his story was factually accurate, it was symbolically accurate: Pope Francis supports conscientious objection, and since the Liberty Counsel sees Davis as a conscientious objector (many disagree with that assessment, by the way), then they don’t think it’s a lie to present Francis and Kim’s meeting the way they have.

To put it in theological terms, the Liberty Counsel expects us to ignore the letter of what they say and pay attention to the spirit of what they say. This explanation is an odd strategy for, you know, attorneys. “Your honor, you’re getting tripped up here on the evidence! Look at the big metaphorical picture!”

This kind of deceptive wordplay isn’t a new game to the Liberty Counsel. Just last month they pulled something similar.

Imagine this, they said. Tens of thousands of Christian opponents of gay marriage filling a field in Peru, for the sole purpose of lifting up Kim Davis, their sister in Christ, in prayer as she wages war on gay pagans. You can, in fact, imagine this because the Liberty Counsel, Davis’s legal representation promised that it happened. There are even pictures to prove it, they said.

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Except, that story wasn’t true either.

The picture of a 100,000-strong rally in Peru that the Liberty Counsel tweeted out to prove that there was global support for their client was actually from a prayer rally from May 2014. It had absolutely nothing to do with Davis.

It now appears, a statement from the Liberty Counsel read, “the photograph presented to [Davis’s attorney] Mat Staver was an honest mistake.” What’s not a mistake, however, the Liberty Counsel said, is that “there is widespread support for Kim Davis. Last week she was recognized by many people as she walked through the Philadelphia, New York LaGuardia, and Washington, D.C. Reagan airports.”

Again, he argued, his lie was symbolically true. Spirit, not letter, and whatnot.

Founded in 1989 by husband and wife attorneys Mathew Staver and Anita Staver, the nonprofit’s goal is to provide legal services to those causes they feel are “dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family,” according to the group’s website. In other words, they provide pro bono legal representation to people who are fighting on their side of the culture war.

The group is notorious for opposing homosexuality and abortion, and fighting for its version of religious freedom. It’s also been extremely critical of President Obama. “I know for a fact salvation is not arriving on Air Force One,” Mat Staver once said.

Ahead of the Obergefell decision, Staver co-authored a Marriage Pledge, in which he “respectfully warned” the judges not to “cross the line” on God-ordained marriage.

“Make no mistake about our resolve. While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”

Staver organizes and is a key speaker at an annual conference called The Awakening, which bills itself as “an in-depth Prayer and Patriotism event where people are united by love for our country’s freedom and our faith in Christ.” According to a conference schedule from 2012, topics of discussion include Israel, Islam, the LGBTQ agenda, and abortion.

The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Liberty Counsel as a hate group. Importantly, the SPLC does not classify religious groups as hate groups simply because they believe or preach that homosexuality is sinful (religious groups have a protected right to that belief) but because they propagate known falsehoods, and often employ “groundless name-calling.”

For example, despite the fact that reparative therapy has been discredited by science, in 2006 the LC launched its “Change is Possible” campaign, to educate youth that “unwanted same-sex attractions can be overcome.” Railing against society-threatening values like diversity and tolerance, the LC encouraged students to start Gay to Straight Clubs on their campuses, and to ask faculty to include “the ex-gay viewpoint” in all discussions of homosexuality. These initiatives, they suggest, are life-saving: “Former homosexuals have lost their jobs and been physically assaulted because they dared to tell others that people can and do overcome same-sex attractions.”

Multiple requests for comment from the Liberty Counsel went unreturned, but last month Staver told the Orlando Sentinel he rejects the hate label, claiming that “critics have misconstrued his comments and maligned his motivations in service of their own agenda to smear anyone who doesn’t condone homosexuality.”

Staver is the author of the 2004 book Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk, which argued that “sanctioning same-sex marriage would have a profound destabilizing effect on the health, welfare, education, and morals of the country.” The book is full of pithy, confusing Staverisms, like: “We should not play Russian roulette with marriage.”

“When it comes to anti-LGBT hate groups,” said a representative of the Human Rights Campaign, the Liberty Counsel is “in a class of their own.” The HRC has long followed the Liberty Counsel, noting that the group supports “despicable anti-LGBT criminalization laws abroad, compares being LGBT to drug addiction, and defends the abusive and scientifically discredited practice of ‘so-called’ conversion therapy.”

The Counsel’s involvement with Davis, said the spokesperson, is “merely the latest in a deplorable, decades-long record of attacking LGBT people, their dignity, and their rights.”

A well-researched article on the HRC’s website documents dozens of cases the Liberty Counsel has been involved with. Notably, the group represented the evangelical Scott Lively against charges of “crimes against humanity” for his alleged involvement in the creation of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. “This lawsuit against Pastor Lively,” wrote Staver on the Liberty Counsel’s website, “is a terrifying attempt to use vague international law to silence, and eventually criminalize, speech by U.S. citizens on homosexuality and moral issues.”

The suit against Lively should scare everyone, he continued, “because it is a direct threat against every American’s freedom of speech and free exercise of religion by the use of international law.”

Staver is an expert in peddling fear. For instance, an advertisement for one of his Awakening conferences warned, “A war is raging against our shared values. Our faith and freedom are under attack.”

This is a theme of many Liberty Counsel press releases. In a writeup on Kim Davis, Staver warns, “The PURGE of Christians in America has begun.” (The word “purge” is used five times in the release.) Staver warns, “If this judge’s decision is allowed to stand, then every American Christian will be at risk of facing the PURGING of their faith and ultimately the loss of their jobs.”

He then asked Concerned Christians Everywhere for—what else?—their money.

Staver’s fear-mongering tactics have certainly paid off, as Bethany Rodgers explains in the Orlando Sentinel. Since its creation, she writes, “the nonprofit has ballooned from a tiny venture collecting less than $200,000 in yearly donations to a multipronged organization that hauled in more than $4 million in the 2013 tax year.” The group employs 10 attorneys, and has several offices in the U.S., and another one in Israel.

To be clear: This is not some fringe right-wing group enjoying little to no influence in the world. Whenever there’s a fight to be had over gay marriage, abortion, or religious freedom, you can almost count on someone from the Liberty Counsel showing up. That’s why Staver’s stunt with the pope, though maddeningly unfortunate, is business as usual for the culture warrior.

The most glaring irony here is that evangelicals are notorious for their negative views of Catholicism, and in particular the pope. Some evangelicals believe the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelation. Those beliefs may be limited to a few denominations on the fringes, but it is absolutely the case that evangelicalism holds that Catholicism is doctrinally in error on several major points, including purgatory, prayers to saints, and its veneration of Mary. Indeed, the Liberty Counsel even responded to a few tweets from apparent evangelicals angry that the group would even mingle with the pontiff.

It’s certainly bemusing, then, to hear Davis talk about how humbled she was by Francis’s visit, and how encouraging it was to hear he was “on track” with her marriage crusade. It’s equally bemusing to hear Staver heap praise on Francis’s theological positions.

The Liberty Counsel’s intentions with Francis weren’t spiritual or religious. They were merely political. Everything about that meeting was calculated to further Staver’s anti-gay agenda.

Sadly, for Davis, Staver’s intentions with her also seem to be political. For all of his talk about how much his client loves Jesus, it’s tough to imagine Staver even thinks his client is a Christian. Staver is a Southern Baptist, and adheres to a statement of faith that is markedly different from the one Davis’s church believes. A big difference, and one that is an issue of orthodoxy for any Southern Baptist, is that Davis’s church doesn’t believe in the doctrine of the trinity.

At the end of the day, the Liberty Counsel is after political expediency. They play people, they use their clients like pawns to accomplish their agendas without so much as an afterthought about how they are hurting their clients’ lives. No one from the Liberty Counsel, for instance, spent six days in jail. Nor are any of them wanted by the FBI or Interpol.

True to form, the Liberty Counsel tried to play Francis. They knew that the Vatican, even if they wanted to, couldn’t throw Davis under the bus. First, Francis is a pastor, and he wouldn’t do that. Second, Francis already won himself the ire of plenty of American conservatives for what they consider to be his weak, not-loud-enough stance against homosexuality. Did Francis really want to risk driving those conservatives even further away from the church? It was as if the Liberty Counsel drove Francis into a corner, and dared him to call their bluff.

Unfortunately for the Liberty Counsel, he did. And he did it gloriously.

Remember how the Vatican’s official statement said Davis wasn’t a “real audience” for the pope because he only had one of those?

Well, that audience was with none other than Francis’s former student, who is gay, and his partner of 19 years. CNN broke the news in an exclusive interview with Yayo Grassi, the gay student.

While there’s no video took back up Davis’s story—which will no doubt change several more times, as it already has—there’s video of the Pope embracing his real audience. He knew both men were gay, and partnered. He didn’t use the moment to pray for their conversion to heterosexuality, or to give them a brochure on the ex-gay movement, or to lecture them on church teaching about sexuality. He welcomed them. He embraced them. He kissed them on the cheek. He smiled with them.

Is that meeting proof that Francis wants to change church teaching on homosexuality? No. But it is evidence of Pope Francis’s character—that in spite of his institution’s historical mistreatment of LGBT people, the judgment stops with him.

That’s who Pope Francis is.

Good luck spinning that, Mat Staver.