Anti-religious freedom grants target Georgia, Florida, N.M., Texas

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Four states, including Texas and Florida, are in the crosshairs of an anti-religious freedom funders' network that coordinated the successful effort to recognize gay marriage in law.

The Proteus Fund's Religion, Faith and Democracy Collaborative, launched last year, has dedicated at least $900,000 to efforts in Georgia and New Mexico, its 2017 grant listings show. At the same time, it is funding like-minded groups in Texas and Florida to develop grant proposals, apparently laying the groundwork for activist coalitions in those states.

"Together with progressive faith leaders and communities, we fight against discrimination under the false guise of religious liberty," the funding collaborative said on its website.

Saying that success for LGBTQ and "reproductive justice" movements advance one another, the collaborative said it aims to unite leaders and organizations from diverse coalitions to maximize impact.

"We believe in the right of every individual to control their sexual and reproductive health and to live freely and with dignity in their gender identity and sexual orientation. We believe that these unalienable human rights should never be undermined by discrimination, whether justified by law, social norms, or religion," the group said.

Regarding Texas, the Proteus Fund collaborative made small four-figure grants to develop proposals from four groups: the ACLU Foundation of Texas; the Equality Texas Foundation; the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Texas.

Jonathan Saenz, president of the group Texas Values, is among the critics of this collaborative's goals.

"Some of the same people that are aggressively supporting abortion on demand and taxpayer-funded abortion are the same ones teaming up to use the government to attack religious freedom on issues related to marriage and sexuality," he told CNA in a statement. "Texas Values is well aware of these organizations, and they have a long history of opposing common-sense religious freedom protections in Texas."

Saenz's organization, a self-described backer of family values, engages in policy research, public education, and voter mobilization in service of religious freedom and of "biblical, Judeo-Christian values." He said there has been a "significant increase" in groups lobbying against religious freedom in recent years.

"They are misleading members of the public and business to serve their own political interests," he said, charging that these groups have attracted support from those Saenz has called "fake Republicans."

The Proteus Fund declined comment for this story. Its 2017 grant listings show $500,000 to four advocacy groups in Georgia. Four grants of $125,000 each went to Alternate Roots, Atlanta Jobs with Justice, SisterSong, and the Equality Foundation of Georgia.

According to Georgia grant listings, these grants were intended to help build "a long-term cross-movement public-education campaign rooted in reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights that uses a values-based messaging framework to reclaim religious freedom as a progressive value, center reproductive justice and change the environment in Georgia to support a comprehensive approach to civil rights." This approach "includes religious freedom protections that are inclusive and unifying, rather than based in fear, hatred or discrimination against women and LGBTQ people."

The Alternate Roots grant aimed to support the Georgia-based group Women Engaged's work with this coalition. The group, a self-described social justice non-profit, aims to advance civil leadership of "women and young people of color living in the U.S. and global south interested in health equity, racial, and reproductive justice." According to the Women Engaged website, it provides training in organizing, fundraising, and civic engagement, and creates policy recommendations and messaging campaigns.

The Proteus collaborative gave $400,000 to four New Mexico groups. Grants of $100,000 each went to the ACLU of New Mexico; the Center for Civic Policy; the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; and Young Women United, a policy change, social change, and community organizing project "by and for women and people of color" in the state.

Their grants, as listed on the Proteus website, aim to support a state coalition to build "a cross-sector, place-based movement with faith leaders, immigrants, LGBTQ youth and communities of color that challenges the discriminatory effects of religious refusals in New Mexico through public education, research, documentation, faith leader mobilization and place-based and intersectional organization and training."

The Center for Civic Policy grant included support for the work of the New Mexico Dream Team, a group whose website described itself as "a statewide network committed to create power for multigenerational, undocumented, LGBTQ+, and mixed status families towards liberation." The group engages in leadership training and development, community engagement, organizing and advocacy for "policy change fighting to dismantle systematic oppression."

For Florida, the Proteus Fund made a $5,000 grant in 2017 to the Equality Florida Institute to work with Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida and also Proyecto Somos Orlando, a support group for those affected by the 2016 Pulse Orlando nightclub shooting, to develop proposals for the Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative.

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Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, was critical of the Proteus Fund collaborative's advocacy of these causes as a way to advance the separation of church and state.

"Groups that aim to promote separation of church and state seem to be taking advantage of and are perpetuating a misperception of the proper role of religion in civil society," Sheedy told CNA. "Religious persons have long been engaged in the public square, and religious entities have been a tremendous impetus for good in our society. Faith calls us to our better selves to serve those in need. We need more people engaged in promoting the common good – not fewer."

There are various religious freedom concerns in Florida, he said. Adoption agency conscience protections were debated and failed to pass in the legislature, though unlike some other states there are no requirements for an agency to violate its faith in making a child placement.

Many Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close because they cannot place children with same-sex couples, and so violated new regulations governing agency licensing or funding rules.

Florida law has conscience protections regarding participation in executions and regarding some end-of-life issues, Sheedy said. There are also protections related to abortion and family planning, though bills have been filed to limit this.

He did say there are some conflicts beginning to emerge between "Christian anthropology" and various LGBT issues.

Lobbying in Florida, said Sheedy, primarily focuses on local-level "conversion therapy bans" and state and local level advocacy for "housing and employment policies that relate to typically ill-defined concepts of 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity'."

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Saenz seemed optimistic that the efforts to restrict religious freedom will fail.

"With such important elections on the line, and recent victories for religious freedoms on the court many of the organizations that have been getting away for many years with suppressing religious freedom now know their days could be numbered," Saenz added, citing the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in a which a Colorado bakery owner successfully fought an anti-discrimination complaint for declining to make a cake celebrating a same-sex union due to his Christian beliefs.

"If we stand united we can win, particularly in Texas," he said.

The Proteus Fund collaborative said the change it envisions 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."

State-based advocates need "significant additional resources" to test and implement "new public education, advocacy, organizing, and messaging strategies" and to build "organizational and collaborative capacity" while sharing knowledge across different states and issues.

The collaborative's funding partners, listed on the Proteus Fund website, included the Alki Fund of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Arcus Foundation, the Gill Foundation, the Groundswell Fund, the Irving Harris Foundation, the Moriah Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and anonymous donors, as CNA reported in 2017.

According to CNA's running count, various foundations have dedicated nearly $10 million in earmarked anti-religious freedom grants. Grants from the Rights, Faith and Democracy Collaborative are counted separately to prevent double-counting of funds.

Foes of the Masterpiece Cakeshop's Supreme Court case received $500,000 from the San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, which is also a donor to the Proteus anti-religious freedom collaborative.

A previous Proteus Fund project, the Civil Marriage Collaborative, dedicated at least $825,000 to support "special litigation efforts and work on use of religious exemptions to attempt to justify the undermining of full marriage." This grantmaking included funds to groups in Arizona, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas, including ACLU affiliates.

This marriage collaborative, which ended in 2015, was a leader in the push for legal recognition of gay marriage. Paul Di Donato was director of this project, and in 2016 became the president and CEO of the Proteus Fund. The marriage collaborative itself awarded over $20 million in grants "strategically targeted to support a cultural sea change on the issue of marriage equality and LGBTQ justice at the state and national levels," the Proteus Fund website reports.

The marriage collaborative's "Hearts & Minds" report, analyzing the project's work at its close, says that its funding partners altogether invested $153 million over 11 years in many states and at the national level in gay marriage-related advocacy.

"By aligning all their marriage-related grantmaking behind this shared game plan, the partners were able to exponentially increase the impact of the $153 million they put into the effort, including the $20 million invested in the CMC," the report said.

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