Wealthy donors pour millions into anti-religious freedom efforts, as Catholic adoption agency ruling looms

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Grant listings from wealthy philanthropies and strategic political donor networks show that millions of dollars continue to pour into advocacy groups and other NGOs opposed to broad religious freedom protections. 

The funding comes as the Supreme Court is set to decide whether local anti-discrimination ordinances can effectively close Catholic adoption agencies, and as Congress considers a far-reaching LGBT anti-discrimination bill.


A CNA review of grant listings shows some of the funding behind various groups that depict religious freedom protections as harmful or too broad when they conflict with LGBT causes or abortion and contraception access. Both the grant makers and grant recipients tend to depict religious exemptions as too broad or even discriminatory and “harmful.”


Some of this funding appears to target the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case, set to be decided this June at the U.S. Supreme Court.


The Massachusetts-based Proteus Fund’s Rights, Faith and Democracy Collaborative, launched in 2017, is a central hub for funding for those who say religious freedom conflicts with their vision of reproductive health or LGBT causes. Since 2018, the collaborative has given $3.8 million in grants to advance a narrow understanding of religious freedom, mainly for groups in Georgia, Minnesota, and New Mexico.


“We believe that protecting the democratic rights and ensuring the health and well-being of women and LGBTQ people requires a shift in the way that the public and policymakers understand religious liberty and the delicate but critical balance between it and many other equally important rights that protect against discrimination,” the collaborative said on the Proteus Fund website


One part of this donor network is the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a San Francisco-based family foundation with some $460 million in assets. Since 2016, the Haas Jr. Fund has given a total of $900,000 to the Proteus Fund collaborative, including two grants of $150,000 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.


As CNA reported in 2018, the Haas Jr. Fund committed some $500,000 to groups involved in advocacy and public relations campaigns related to the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case. The court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Christian baker who declined to bake a same-sex wedding cake on religious grounds and faced a discrimination complaint. The decision did not address broad constitutional questions, but said some Colorado civil rights commissioners showed “a clear and impermissible hostility” towards his beliefs.


Fulton v. City of Philadelphia could be another pivotal decision. The case concerns the city of Philadelphia’s 2018 decision to notify Catholic Social Services in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that its policy not to place foster care children with same-sex couples was discriminatory. The city stopped contracting with the agency services. The Catholic agency has worked with foster children since it was founded in 1917.


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In 2020 the Haas Jr. Fund gave a $195,000 grant to the Movement Advancement Project for the stated purpose of both “messaging research to promote voting by Black Californians” and “to address issues presented in the Fulton v. Philadelphia Supreme Court case.”


The Movement Advancement Project is a strategic communications and development LGBT advocacy organization founded by the influential Colorado millionaire Tim Gill, whose Gill Foundation is also an important donor for LGBT causes.


In August 2020, the Movement Advancement Project published a report on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, said in an announcement for the report, “if taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies can pick and choose parents and families based on the agency’s religious beliefs—rather than whether or not children are placed in qualified, loving homes—it puts children at risk.” 


“Nearly every religiously affiliated social service agency that receives government funding—such as job training programs, emergency shelters, and more—might claim a right to discriminate,” the report claimed, contending this could be used to deny people “essential government services.”

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Partners in the report included Children's Rights, a group with roots in the ACLU; the LGBT advocacy group Family Equality; the Lambda Legal LGBT legal group; the National Center on Adoption and Permanency; the North American Council on Adoptable Children; and Voice for Adoption.


For Catholics, this case could be pivotal for decades to come. In a November 2020 essay for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia said that the city’s intransigence was excluding Catholics from living out a vocation of service, and leaving the most vulnerable children without a loving home.


“Essentially, we are being told that the Catholic Church must leave its faith at the door if it wants to serve those in need,” he said. “But our faith compels us to do this work, and we have a right to conduct ourselves according to the tenets of our faith.”


Before the controversy, Catholic Social Services was serving about 120 foster children in about 100 homes at any one time. It certifies married couples and single people for foster care, but does not certify cohabiting unmarried couples and considers same-sex couples to be unmarried.


Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, two women who have fostered more than 40 children and who partnered with Catholic Social Services, brought the case against the city that is currently before the Supreme Court.


Anti-religious freedom advocacy at the state level is also traceable through grant listings. Since 2018, the Proteus Fund anti-religious freedom collaborative has spread $1.6 million across several Georgia groups including the Equality Foundation of Georgia, Sister Song, Atlanta Jobs with Justice and Alternate Roots / Women Engaged.


New Mexico also appears to be a target. Since 2018, about $1.5 million went from the Proteus Fund collaborative to groups in the state: spread the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Center for Civic Policy, the ACLU of New Mexico Foundation, Bold Futures New Mexico, and Young Women United.


In Minnesota, since 2019 some $800,000 went to the groups Jewish Community Action, Gender Justice, OutFront Minnesota Community Services, and TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund.


The grant listings on the Proteus Fund website indicate groundwork for action in other states. A $5,000 grant to Gender Justice includes Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota.


Four $5,000 grants to Colorado-based groups in 2018 also targeted religious exemptions. These groups are the pro-abortion group Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, the LGBT advocacy group One Colorado Education Fund, and Soul 2 Soul.


In 2018, CNA reported that the Proteus collaborative was funding groups in Florida and Texas.


Tracing the donors to the Proteus Fund’s Rights, Faith and Democracy Collaborative helps map the patronage network of religious freedom opponents. Other funding partners of the collaborative, previously listed on the Proteus Fund website, have included the Alki Fund of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Gill Foundation, the Groundswell Fund, the Irving Harris Foundation, the Moriah Fund, and anonymous donors, 


The Arcus Foundation has given $1.1 million to the collaborative since 2018.


In its other work, the foundation made a $100,000 grant to Faith in Public Life in 2019 “to help change the narrative about the role of faith in American politics.” It further described the group: “As one of the only national religious organizing networks publicly supporting LGBTQ equality, it brings its expertise to the effort of defeating discriminatory religious exemption policies in targeted states.” On July 2, 2020, the Arcus Foundation said Faith in Public Life’s advocacy was “key to blocking discriminatory policies based on ‘religious exemption’ in Georgia.”


Besides targeting religious freedom, the Arcus Foundation has helped fund pro-LGBT factions in various ecclesial communities, including some groups that helped split the global Anglican Communion and the Methodist Church. The foundation has also funded Dignity USA, a dissenting Catholic group, to support the Equally Blessed Coalition Project’s advocacy for what it describes as “LGBTQ acceptance and for an end to harmful religious exemption policies within Catholic communities.” 


The founder and main funder of the Arcus Foundation is Jon Stryker, a billionaire heir to the Stryker medical manufacturer fortune. In March 2021 the ACLU announced that it received the largest LGBT-focused grant in its history, $15 million, from Stryker and his same-sex spouse Slobodan Randjelovic. The organization renamed its LGBTQ & HIV Project for the two men.


Since 2018, the Overbrook Foundation, a family foundation with links to the prominent Altschul investment banker family of New York, has given over $525,000 to the Proteus Fund anti-religious freedom collaborative. In a grant separate from its Proteus Fund support, the foundation has given Lambda Legal a three-year grant totaling $180,000 to combat “overly broad” religious exemptions.


The Haas Jr. Fund’s patronage extends beyond the Proteus Fund. Since 2017 it has given about $140,000 in grants to the Columbia University Law School’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project, formerly known as the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, “to help shape public debates around the importance of safeguarding religious liberties and other fundamental rights.” The project says its mission aims to ensure that the right to free exercise of religion as a right that “must be balanced against other liberty and equality rights where they are in conflict.” The Arcus Foundation and the Ford Foundation have been major funders of this project.


Further, the Haas Jr. Fund and other donors have given scores of five- and six-figure grants to groups for the purposes of securing “LGBT equality” or opposing “anti-LGBT discrimination” at the federal and state levels. Though these grants are not explicitly earmarked for religious freedom projects, many grantees echo claims that religious freedom claims or religious exemptions should not limit anti-discrimination law.


Among the largest of the Haas Jr. Fund grantees is the Freedom for All Americans Education Fund, which has received over $3.4 million since 2017, including a $1.25 million two-year grant in 2020. The Gill Foundation’s annual reports indicate it gave $800k to Freedom for All Americans in 2019 and $1.125 million in 2018.


The Freedom for All Americans Education Fund backs educational, organizing and advocacy strategies for LGBT anti-discrimination causes and is the companion to the 501c4 lobbying group Freedom for All Americans. According to its website, Freedom for All Americans seeks strong federal LGBT anti-discrimination laws “without allowing overly broad and harmful religious exemptions that will encourage employers, business owners or others to choose to disregard those protections.”


These laws would include the proposed Equality Act, which would recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes while stripping religious freedom protections.


In a Feb. 23 letter to Congress, leaders with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that the act would enact policy “dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting ‘gender’ as only a social construct.” What’s more, it would “punish” religious groups opposed to these beliefs.


They warned that the bill could force church halls to “host functions that violate their beliefs.” Women would have to share shelters, sports, and locker rooms with males identifying as transgender females. Religious adoption agencies would have to match children with same-sex couples or possibly face closure.


Previously the Proteus Fund hosted the Civil Marriage Collaborative, which worked to recognize same-sex unions as marriages. The collaborative closed in 2015 after spending more than $153 million over 11 years on various U.S. groups, projects, and campaigns.

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