Mackenzie Scott donates millions to controversial group outspoken on Catholic issues, religious freedom

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Several million dollars from the Amazon fortune of Jeff Bezos’ former wife Mackenzie Scott have funded a controversial multi-religious advocacy group, Faith in Public Life. 

Faith in Public Life combines a vision of progressive politics with criticism of the Catholic bishops’ debate on the Eucharist and Catholic public figures. It has also advocated against efforts to secure strong religious freedom protections for Catholic adoption agencies and the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are fighting pro-LGBT and pro-contraception government mandates.

Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life, told Religion News Service that the donation from Scott and her husband Dan Jewett was a “significant multimillion-dollar gift.” Butler, an ordained Presbyterian minister, chaired the Obama White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2015-2016.

Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was an early leader at the company. She and Bezos divorced in 2019, and she received a stake in the company worth about $38 billion at the time, the newspaper The Scotsman reports. The value of Scott’s share in the company rose to $66.4 billion when Amazon became a dominant provider of goods and services during the coronavirus pandemic. According to financial news site Bloomberg’s analysis, she was at that point the richest woman in the world.

Scott and Jewett are now giving away billions of dollars.

“Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities has been deepening, so we assessed organizations bridging divides through interfaith support and collaboration,” said Scott’s June 15 announcement.

The announcement did not say why Faith in Public Life was chosen as a recipient. While some donors target specific programs, it is reported that Scott’s donations have no preconditions.

Faith in Public Life’s June 15 announcement of the donation said it was “transformational.” It would help build the “progressive faith movement” and “fight for racial equity,” the group said.

The organization said that in recent years it has tripled its staff, quadrupled its annual budget, and established permanent offices in “several battleground states” in order “to fight Christian nationalism and the religious right.”

Though the organization’s leadership and staff are predominantly non-Catholic, Faith in Public Life has weighed in on Catholic controversies, often siding against Catholic institutions in religious freedom debates. It has criticized the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ debate on “Eucharistic coherence,” concerning prominent Catholic figures such as President Joe Biden who receive Holy Communion while also advocating for major breaks with Catholic teaching like taxpayer-funded abortion. “Tell bishops: Eucharist isn’t a weapon,” reads one of the recent petitions by Faith in Public Life.

Faith in Public Life was also critical of the unanimous 9-0 Supreme Court decision Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which ruled that the Philadelphia wrongfully refused to contract with the longtime foster and adoption provider Catholic Social Services unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. The city’s decision violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the court found.

For her part, Butler said the Fulton decision is a “reminder of the countless ways that LGBTQ Americans, people of color, women, people of minority faiths and others still face discrimination across our country.”

John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, said “It’s wrong that LGBTQ families in Philadelphia remain vulnerable to discrimination by a taxpayer-funded, church-affiliated agency, but it’s important that other nondiscrimination policies across the country remain standing.”

In 2012, Gehring spread talking points against the U.S. bishops’ objections to the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate; the policy required employers to provide coverage of sterilizations and contraception, including drugs that can cause abortion.

The mandate forced the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have cared for the elderly poor for over a century, to engage in legal action for years until they secured religious exemptions to the mandate, which were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020. 

As for the billions of dollars in Amazon money, Ms. Scott and Mr. Jewett appear to be consulting with the Bridgespan Group. The group’s philanthropic clients include wealthy titans like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, according to the New York Times. These foundations have been major donors to population control causes, abortion advocacy or both. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations have also funded the pro-abortion front group Catholics for Choice.

CNA sought comment from the Bridgespan group, which declined comment, and from Faith in Public Life, which did not respond by deadline.

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“We are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change.” Scott said June 15, adding it would be better “if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands.”

“Though we still have a lot to learn about how to act on these beliefs without contradicting and subverting them, we can begin by acknowledging that people working to build power from within communities are the agents of change,” she said. 

As of June 16, Faith and Public Life claimed 800 “Catholic advocates and theologians” had signed its open letter to the bishops regarding the debate on Holy Communion and public figures.

“Instead of playing single-issue politics with Communion, church leaders should stay out of the culture wars, navigate disagreement with civility and find common ground with a Catholic president who can be an ally on many issues,” Gehring said June 16, depicting the bishops as avoiding discussion of other issues such as economic inequality, racism and “brazen partisan attacks on voting rights.”

“The real scandal is the fact that some bishops are engaging in political stunts that undermine the moral teaching of the church while crudely abusing a precious sacrament,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, in the group’s statement.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, the influential billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations funded Faith in Public Life in an effort to use Pope Francis’ September 2015 visit to the United States to influence the elections and cultivate influence within the Catholic Church, as CNA previously reported.

The documents said $650,000 in funds were committed to Faith in Public Life and PICO Network to respond to the papal visit. The foundations said they “placed a bet” in early 2015 that the grantees would “be able to make the most of his trip,” with an eye towards engaging the pope on “economic and racial justice issues.”

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PICO Network, now known as Faith in Action, was also a recipient of recent grantmaking from Scott and Jewett, as was the Seattle-based Pride Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group that has at times backed religious freedom restrictions

Homeboy Industries, a prominent Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded by a Catholic priest to help rehabilitate gang members, received $20 million from Scott and Jewett’s recent grantmaking.

There are no Catholic clergy or religious on Faith in Public Life’s board of directors, though there is at least one Catholic laywoman. Clergy on the board of directors include Rabbi Peter Berg of the Atlanta-based Reform Jewish congregation The Temple; Rev. James Gerteman, a retired United Church of Christ minister; and Pastor Jason Ridley, youth director for the Seventh Day Adventists’ Allegheny West Conference, based in Columbus, Ohio.

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