Before Jay Sekulow became the face of President Donald Trump’s legal team, his group’s Russian branch boosted a cause very close to Vladimir Putin’s heart: a law banning “gay propaganda.”
Sekulow heads the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group focused on religious liberty and free speech. It has branches around the world: one in Europe, one in Zimbabwe, one in Kenya, and one in Moscow, called the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice (SCLJ). And while the SCLJ spars with Putin’s government over Christians’ rights to talk about their faith, it has publicly praised anti-blasphemy laws and laws banning “gay propaganda” targeted at minors.
Tax filings show the ACLJ provided more than $1.5 million in funding to its Russia affiliate from 2011 to 2015, the most recent years with available data.
The co-chair of the SCLJ, Anatoly Pchelintsev, told Voice of America in 2012 that “homosexual propaganda” exists in “both direct and hidden forms,” and that legislation to bar it would be good, as the Human Rights Campaign has detailed. And he praised the passage of a regional law banning the so-called propaganda.
“The key will be that it works and guarantees some kind of punishment,” he said that same year. “In my view, citation for an administrative offense is sufficient, violations like this do not fall under the purview of criminal law.”
Putin signed a law banning so-called propaganda nationwide in 2013. Advocates say it has fueled increasing hostility to LGBTQ people in Russia, and that its vague language chills speech.
“No violation is too small or silly to escape notice of the anti-LGBTQ crusaders, and targets for investigation have included children’s books, a ninth grade girl and video games,” a 2015 report from the Human Rights Campaign found.
“Before the gay propaganda law, LGBT people would not have been openly attacked in broad daylight ... but now they don't feel safe on the streets or even talking to people online,” Tanya Cooper of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera two years after the law was passed.
Ty Cobb, who heads global programs at the Human Rights Campaign, told The Daily Beast that the anti-propaganda law, along with legislation significantly limiting how foreign funding of non-profit groups, has significantly hampered LGBTQ activists’ efforts there.
“The law has really closed down space for organizations and advocates to be outspoken around human rights for LGBTQ people, because folks try to implement the law where any public speech about LGBTQ rights is in violation of that law, whether there are children or not in the area,” he said. “It’s had a bit of a chilling effect on free speech across the country, where folks don’t know if they’re in violation of the law or not.”
In the year after the law’s passage, the Human Rights Campaign found that there was a significant increase in violent attacks on LGTBQ people, that police rarely investigated the attacks, and that when they did, the perpetrators received little punishment.
The SCLJ––whose work is often highlighted on the ACLJ’s American site––also released a statement a few days after Pussy Riot members crashed a church service to protest Putin. The statement, flagged by People for the American Way, called for tighter laws against speech that could hurt the feelings of religious people and incite violence––the kind of content-based speech crackdown that conservatives profess to oppose.
“SCLJ recently raised the issue of the danger of dissemination through social networks of blasphemous information that insults the religious feelings of the faithful, at times openly inciting interreligious conflicts,” the statement said. “Today we see that this concern is becoming even more acute and urgent. Criticism of certain religious views and beliefs is undoubtedly possible; however, insult and humiliation of the dignity of individuals who hold them or profess any religion is simply unacceptable.”
In the years since, growing violence against LGBTQ Russians has drawn increased international attention. Notably, two journalists were killed in two months, in what many believed were anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. And last year, the Russian parliament considered legislation that would ban same-sex couples from kissing or holding hands in public.
To be sure, Sekulow has been open about criticizing Russia for its foreign policy decisions and cooperation with Iran.
“Today, a new unholy alliance of Iranians, Russians, and jihadists, is waging a war against the United States and the western way of life,” he said in a promo video for his newest book. “If we are to survive this increasing threat, we must act now.”
But when it comes to Putin’s crackdown on the very Western values of free speech, Sekulow’s Russia affiliate is more cagey.
Sekulow himself once said legalizing homosexuality in the U.S. would have dire consequences.
“By providing constitutional protection to same-sex sodomy, the Supreme Court strikes a damaging blow for the traditional family that will only intensify the legal battle to protect marriage and the traditional family,” he said in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a law banning same-sex couples from having sex.
On the campaign trail, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for the fact that the Clinton Foundation took contributions from Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with miserable human rights records. But as president, he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have expressed little interest in advancing human rights around the world. And Sekulow’s record indicates he, too, is uninterested in protecting the speech rights of LGBT people.