On Tuesday, after decades allying himself with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, President Joe Biden proclaimed his first Pride Month as president, “marking a time of hope, progress, and promise for LGBTQ+ Americans across the country,” in the words of the White House. But on Capitol Hill, the president’s biggest commitment to LGBTQ Americans continues to languish, a likely casualty of the Senate filibuster, renewed conservative hostility to transgender people—and a slow-motion, under-the-radar dark money campaign to kill a bill nearly half a century in the making.
The Equality Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in most settings, is supported by more than two-thirds of Americans. It passed the House of Representatives in February with a bipartisan majority, and Biden has promised to sign the final bill. But instead of becoming law more than four decades after it was first introduced, it’s falling victim to what one LGBTQ movement leader called one of “the most sophisticated dark money operations” they’ve ever seen.
The source of much of that money, according to a review of tax filings by allied non-profits and some accidental public disclosures provided to The Daily Beast, is the National Christian Charitable Foundation (NCF), the nation’s sixth-largest charity and one of the biggest bankrollers of organizations currently on the front lines in the fight against the Equality Act. The NCF’s list of high-dollar donors includes some of the country’s richest and most powerful families. Among them: Betsy DeVos’ eponymous family foundation, as well as the private foundations of the Anschutz oil dynasty, the late Republican megadonor Foster Friess, Hobby Lobby, and Dan Cathy, the billionaire owner of Chick-fil-A, the six-days-a-week fast-food chain, which promised to stop donating to anti-LGBT causes last year.
The NCF functions as a donor-advised fund, which theoretically means that a donor allocates funds and then recommends where those funds are allocated. For tax reasons, those recommendations are not supposed to be determinative, but often are.
“The whole point of the donor-advised fund structure is that the donor can’t make the decision—that they can only suggest,” one person who analyzed the tax disclosures said, “but they certainly sell it to donors as, we do what you want with this money.”
But more revealing is an extensive network of supporting organizations, which are opaque foundations that list NCF staffers as chairpersons but are often fronts for outside donors that want a more hands-on approach to where their funding goes.
“That’s the super-dark money element,” the analyst said, “versus that kind of standard run-of-the-mill dark money.”
According to the NCF’s Form 990, in 2018 it granted $6,585,923 to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal interest group, one of its largest grants to a single political organization that year. With that cash in hand, ADF has crafted a vast network of more than 3,300 affiliated “allied attorneys.” A Media Matters for America report on ADF included a list of about 300 of those, noting that the cadre includes multiple state attorneys general and state lawmakers.
Terry Parker, co-founder of NCF, served as director or treasurer for more than half a dozen such foundations, many of which have anodyne names like “The Jesus Fund Foundation” or the “Christian Heritage Foundation of Steamboat Springs.” But LGBTQ movement leaders say that the structure is deliberate in order to keep fingerprints of some of the nation’s richest families off of some of the more unseemly activities of NCF’s grantees.
“You’re actually funding organizations that in Europe are advocating for the forced sterilization of transgender people,” the analyst said. “They’re doing hardcore extreme stuff, but they make it seem like it’s a bunch of soup kitchens.”
The same reverse-lookup process connects more than a dozen members of the Heritage Foundation’s board of directors with supporting organizations that fund the NCF, from Amway billionaire Barb Van Andel-Gaby and conservative superfunder Rebekah Mercer to Steve Forbes.
Steve Chapman, a spokesperson for the NCF, told The Daily Beast that the organization is “honored” to have served more than 25,000 donors through its donor-advised funds, and noted that among the beneficiaries of more than $13 billion in grants include charities “providing clean water to the thirsty, rescuing victims of human trafficking, translating the Bible into new languages, and much more.”
“NCF does not develop or implement strategies about which charities or causes to support,” Chapman said. “All grants are initiated by the recommendations of our givers.”
The NCF’s reach is broad, with more than 63,000 non-profits receiving grants since its founding in the early 1980s. But in addition to granting funds to Christian ministries and colleges, as well as larger non-governmental organizations like World Vision, the NCF is also a major grantor of many of the biggest players in the push to defeat the Equality Act. In particular, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and Alliance Defending Freedom have been major players in the fight over expanded rights for LGBTQ people since the wars over same-sex marriage.
ADF is known for its funding of legal cases for anti-LGBT businesses and organizations, from arguing in court for the criminalization of homosexuality in a pair of briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas to representing “conversion therapy” practitioners in lawsuits. Now, they are at the forefront of campaigns to beat the Equality Act.
Compared to the wars over same-sex marriage, the battle over the Equality Act has been relatively subdued: few organizations on either side of the legislation have aired flashy-slash-cringey advertisements, and most Americans believe it’s already against federal law to discriminate against people over their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But that quiet campaign, focused on deluges of phone calls to the offices of fence-sitting senators and on state legislation singling out transgender youth in sports, has already netted key victories for the Equality Act’s opponents.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who promised in 2019 to help forge “a viable path forward” for anti-discrimination legislation despite personal reservations over some of the bill’s provisions, has privately indicated that he can’t support the Equality Act this time around. Manchin told one co-sponsor of the act that the flood of phone calls asking him to vote against the Equality Act was “a thousand to one.” (Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment about that remark, nor would they comment on his current stance on the legislation.)
The Equality Act’s difficult position can’t be pinned entirely on the efforts of NCF-backed political organizations, of course. In his first joint address before Congress in April, Biden expressed “hope” that Congress “can get to my desk the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ Americans.” But with an unclear chain of custody for the bill in the Office of Legislative Affairs, and with Biden having blown his self-imposed deadline to sign the bill into law within his first hundred days, outside advisers are increasingly concerned Biden’s use of passive voice wasn’t just a rhetorical flub—but an indication that the administration is leaving the heavy lifting of passing the Equality Act to them.
Outside groups like PFLAG, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, and the National Center for Transgender Equality have expressed shared confusion about the identity of the administration’s point person on the bill, which would bar discrimination against LGBTQ people in most areas of public life. Reggie Greer, who ran the Biden campaign’s get-out-the-LGBTQ-vote efforts, was named the White House’s senior adviser on LGBTQ issues in March, but Greer, whose background is in constituent engagement, has no traditional legislative experience—and the White House has kept mum about who in legislative affairs has been specifically tasked with minding the Equality Act.
Requests by pro-Equality Act groups for their West Wing point of contact have been met with shrugs, according to two movement leaders familiar with the stymied strategy sessions.
Rather than wait another half-century—the Equality Act, or some version thereof, has been in the works since Bella Abzug and Ed Koch first introduced it in the 1970s—groups have begun quietly coordinating outreach to Republicans on the fence without the White House’s involvement. According to an internal memo outlining the current status of those efforts, the Equality Act has the private support of a smattering of Republican senators.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio’s legislative team has privately indicated that he doesn’t believe LGBTQ people should be denied medical services on account of their status and that he “wouldn’t support any religious exemption on that,” per the memo, while Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has “shared concerns” about religious liberties and the potential impact on religious adoption agencies, but has also suggested that “there is room to get to yes.” Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, too, is privately supportive but wants to see a lifeboat full of fellow Republicans before he dives in. “Don’t put me out on an island,” the memo quotes Sullivan as telling one pro-Equality Act lobbyist. “Don’t put me in a box by myself.”
None of the senators’ offices returned a request for comment on the memo.
It would have to be a pretty roomy lifeboat: Without ten Republicans on board to beat the filibuster—eleven, if Manchin indeed holds out—the Equality Act is likely doomed for its 25th Congress in a row.
A movement that has been fighting the same battle for nearly five decades is, of course, defined by its optimism, and the president’s outspoken public support, at least, still has some holding out hope that the Equality Act will be snatched from the jaws of defeat for the first time since the 1970s.
“We’ve always known that anti-LGBTQ extremists and hate groups would do anything they could to stop our march to full equality and acceptance, but the LGBTQ community and our allies are investing what it takes to ensure the success of the Equality Act,” said Zeke Stokes, chief program officer at GLAAD. “The president has our back and so do the American people.”