Fox News helped turn a bogus story about subpoenas sent to a handful of Houston pastors into a national rallying cry for religious liberty. Now the network is helping promote an event that will pit some of the country's most extreme anti-LGBT voices against the city's nondiscrimination ordinance.
In May, the city of Houston made history by enacting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and several other categories. The ordinance was championed by the city's first openly gay mayor, Democrat Annise Parker.
Opponents of HERO -- led by the Houston Area Pastor Council -- responded by launching an effort to put a repeal of the ordinance on the ballot in November. Their campaign peddled the myth that HERO would allow men and sexual predators to enter women's restrooms -- a myth that was widely circulated by local media. Though opponents submitted the required number of signatures to put the repeal on the ballot, City Attorney Dave Feldman determined that many of the signatures were collected improperly, and the city announced that not enough valid signatures had been collected.
Opponents quickly filed a lawsuit to have the signatures reviewed, prompting the city to respond by issuing subpoenas to five local pastors for a broad range of documents -- including sermons and personal communications -- related to their opposition to HERO.
On October 14, Fox News reporter and serial misinformer Todd Starnes broke the news of the subpoenas, misleadingly characterizing them as an "attempt to deconstruct religious liberty" and describing HERO as a "bathroom bill." Starnes' report relied heavily on spin from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the extreme right-wing legal group representing the pastors in their effort to quash the subpoenas. ADF attorney Christina Holcomb called the subpoenas "an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of [the city's] actions."
Before long, Starnes' report made the jump to Fox News' airwaves. On October 15, Starnes appeared on The Kelly File to discuss the story, describing HERO as a measure that would let "men who identify as women" to use women's restrooms:
Starnes' appearance was followed by a barrage of misleading segments about the story, all of which depicted the subpoenas as an attack on religious liberty. Multiple Fox personalities incorrectly described the subpoenas as part of the enforcement of HERO, suggesting that the ordinance might criminalize anti-gay speech. Others repeated Starnes' lie that HERO would allow men to use women's restrooms. By the end of the week, in just three days of coverage, Fox had spent nearly thirty minutes of airtime peddling its Houston horror story*.
Fox's panicked coverage was grossly misleading and left out crucial details about the anti-HERO lawsuit. But it worked perfectly as a right-wing horror story about Christians being victimized by a city's attempt to protect LGBT people.
Soon, Houston had become -- as one Fox anchor put it -- "ground zero for religious liberty." Conservative media outlets quickly regurgitated the victimization spin from Starnes and ADF. Conservative groups -- led by the notorious anti-gay hate group the Family Research Council (FRC) -- began organizing "I Stand Sunday," a November 2 rally in Houston to support the pastors who had been "unduly intimidated by the city's Mayor."
From the October 29 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Just days after suggesting that some southern states should secede from the U.S. to form a new country that is based on "traditional values" and less tolerant of the LGBT community, columnist Douglas MacKinnon has left his job at the Tampa Tribune, according to the paper's publisher.
MacKinnon, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, recently published The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country...Now. According to Right Wing Watch, during a recent interview with conservative radio host Janet Mefferd promoting the book, MacKinnon "specifically cited advances in gay rights as a reason for Southern states to leave the U.S. and create a new country." His proposal -- including floating "Reagan" as an "interim name" for the new country -- received widespread ridicule.
Citing unnamed sources, Tampa outlet Creative Loafing reported Monday that MacKinnon had been fired, speculating that it was "because of the embarrassment to the paper." Tampa Tribune publisher Brian Burns confirmed to Media Matters today that MacKinnon was indeed leaving the paper, but declined to give a reason. According to Burns, "at this point, no he is not employed."
Asked by Media Matters to clarify if MacKinnon had been fired or quit, Burns said, "I really can't comment on it, it's a personnel issue so we gotta keep that internal."
MacKinnon could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
MacKinnon's secession proposal follows an incident in August when the columnist sparked controversy for a piece that claimed the Walt Disney Company had a "pro-gay agenda" and was trying to "indoctrinate" children.
The Tribune later pulled that column from its website.
An attorney for anti-LGBT extremist group the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) peddled the myth that the story of Matthew Shepard's brutal anti-gay murder was fabricated in order to advance the "homosexual agenda."
On October 27, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission held its annual national conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The conference, "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage," featured a presentation led by attorneys from the notoriously anti-LGBT legal group ADF.
During the presentation, ADF attorney Erik Stanley told the audience that "the end game of the homosexual legal agenda is unfettered sexual liberty and the silencing of all dissent." After lamenting the fact that television shows like Modern Family had "normalized homosexual behavior," Stanley went on to claim that the "narrative" of Matthew Shepard's brutal murder had been "debunked":
The Guardian helped peddle a thoroughly discredited book alleging that Matthew Shepard was murdered in a drug-related incident, even though lawyers and investigators involved in the case have denounced the book as "fictional."
On October 25, The Guardian published an article by columnist Julie Bindel titled "The truth behind America's most famous gay-hate murder." The report focuses on the widely discredited 2013 book The Book of Matt, in which author Stephen Jimenez attempts to make the case that Matthew Shepard's brutal murder in 1998 was drug-related and not, as it is widely believed, motivated by anti-gay hate.
The book has been criticized for relying on shoddy sources and omitting key facts about the case, prompting the Matthew Shepard Foundation to condemn the book for being based on rumors and innuendo.
Jimenez's book has been described as "fictional" by the lead detective in the case. People familiar with the murder - including one of the killer's appellate attorneys, Albany County Sheriff Dave O'Malley, and Albany County Undersheriff Robert Debree - have condemned the book as factually challenged.
But Bindel didn't include those criticisms in her piece. Instead, she portrayed Jimenez as a victim of gay activists' blind desire to hide the truth about Shepard's murder:
Jimenez has faced a barrage of criticism since the publication of his book and has had readings to promote the book boycotted. Jimenez claims, however, that many of his critics have not actually read it.
"People object to the idea of the book, rather than what is in the book," says Jimenez. "The anger directed at me has been pretty extreme."
[T]he mystery remains - not so much why Matthew died, but why the gay community, after almost five decades of campaigning for equal rights, relies so fundamentally on the image of the perfect martyr to represent the cause.
From the October 23 edition of MSNBC's Now with Alex Wagner:
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Conservative media outlets are promoting the cause of an Idaho wedding chapel suing so it can deny services to gay couples, inaccurately portraying the chapel as a religious institution rather than as a for-profit business.
On October 17, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit against the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on behalf of the chapel, which is called the Hitching Post. The lawsuit alleges that the city's non-discrimination ordinance would force owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp to violate their religious beliefs by performing same-sex weddings, despite the fact they had previously offered to officiate non-religious ceremonies without complaint.
ADF is using the lawsuit to revive the right-wing horror story that churches and clergy members will be forced to perform gay weddings. ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco stated in a news release, "Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that's what is happening here."
Right-wing media, led by Fox News reporter Todd Starnes, have echoed ADF's spin. Starnes was the first to misrepresent the case, writing:
What in heaven's name is happening to our country, folks? I was under the assumption that churches and pastors would not be impacted by same-sex marriage.
But conservative reports about the Hitching Post lawsuit have omitted important facts about the case:
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat apologized for appearing at a fundraising event for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an extreme anti-gay legal group working to criminalize homosexuality.
On October 16, Douthat spoke at "The Price of Citizenship: Losing Religious Freedom in America," an event held by ADF and aimed at drawing attention to a number of popular right-wing horror stories about the threat LGBT equality poses to religious liberty. Douthat spoke alongside radio host Hugh Hewitt and the Benham brothers, who are notorious for their history of extreme anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The event ended with explicit solicitations for donations to support ADF's legal work.
As Media Matters noted, ADF is one of the most extreme anti-gay legal groups in the country, fighting against even basic legal protections for LGBT people and working internationally to repress LGBT human rights, including supporting Belize's draconian law criminalizing gay sex.
On Wednesday, Douthat explained that he did not know ADF's event was a fundraiser and said he plans to decline the honorarium he received from the event.
"I was not aware in advance that this event was a fundraiser and had I known, I would not have agreed to participate," he said in a statement issued to Media Matters through the Times Wednesday. "I was invited by an events organizing group, not by ADF directly. I understood this to be a public conversation about religious liberty. This is my fault for not doing my due diligence, and I will be declining the honorarium."
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at a fundraising event for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a right-wing legal group that works to defend anti-LGBT discrimination and supported the criminalization of homosexuality.
On October 16, ADF held an event titled "The Price of Citizenship: Losing Religious Freedom in America" in Denton, Texas. The event, which focused primarily on highlighting the alleged tension between LGBT equality and religious liberty, featured a conversation between radio show host Hugh Hewitt and Douthat.
The event also featured an appearance from the Benham brothers, the right-wing activists who lost their HGTV reality show because of their history of extreme anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Muslim rhetoric:
The event touched on a number of popular right-wing horror stories about LGBT equality, from the plight of anti-gay bakers and florists, to the outrage over the recent subpoenaing of several Houston pastors. David Benham, who has previously warned that the gay "agenda" is "attacking the nation," urged the audience to take "dominion" of the media and legal system back from the "sexual anarchy agenda":
DAVID BENHAM: Unfortunately, the church, now that we have the keys to authority that Christ gives the Christian church, we give that dominion back through our silence. And so what we see now is the struggle for dominion. And one of the ways that we've lost dominion is because Christians, unfortunately, don't believe in the sovereignty of God. God is sovereign over all things. The Bible says in Psalm 24 "the Earth is the Lord's and everything in it," including government, entertainment, media, education, the legal system, everything. My finances, my sexuality, everything is under God. ... Does this agenda, this sexual anarchy agenda, does it want dominion? Take a look. Has it got dominion in government? Has it got dominion in entertainment? Has it got dominion, I mean, you name it, in the marketplace? Yes. Absolutely it does. How does God get dominion back? ... The government exists for the punishment of evildoers and for the reward of those who do good. The problem is, is when we switch good and evil and evil and good. There's only one institution that can fight that dominion battle, and that's the church. [emphasis added]
From the October 20 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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From the October 20 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Fox News peddled a new lie about Houston, TX's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance, blaming the measure for unrelated subpoenas issued against a number of local anti-gay pastors.
On October 10, the city of Houston subpoenaed documents related its recently-passed Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) from five local pastors who had opposed the law. The subpoenas are part of the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by opponents of the ordinance who allege that the city wrongly disqualified petition signatures supporting a repeal referendum. Conservative media outlets, led by Fox News, have inaccurately accused the city of attempting to "harass" and "bully" the anti-gay pastors, depicting the subpoenas as an assault on religious liberty.
During the October 17 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Anna Kooiman falsely stated that the subpoenas were actually "part" of the non-discrimination ordinance:
KOOIMAN: The city now being accused of ordering its pastors to "show us your sermons" or be held in contempt of court. The move, part of an ordinance aimed at ending discrimination against the LGBT community but critics say it actually stifles religious liberty. [emphasis added]
Kooiman's lie was echoed during the same day's edition of Fox News' Outnumbered. Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers attacked the ordinance, accusing the measure of trying to "legislate speech":
POWERS: This is such a blatant violation of the First Amendment. It's so chilling. And these anti-discrimination statutes, the way that they're being implemented is very scary and very chilling as well because it's basically, they're deciding what your views are supposed to be on certain things and they're now trying to legislate it. And they're trying to legislate speech. [emphasis added]
The conservative media's meltdown over a Nebraska school district's effort to train teachers about gender diversity demonstrates how conservative misinformation threatens even basic efforts to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.
In late September, administrators from the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district in Nebraska began providing teachers with informational materials aimed at better equipping them to accommodate and protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included handouts from the group Gender Spectrum, which works to help develop "a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens."
One of those handouts, "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness," listed recommendations to help teachers make their classrooms more gender-inclusive, including asking teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid the use of gender-specific terms like "ladies and gentlemen." Instead, Gender Spectrum recommended teachers use terms like "readers," "campers," or classroom nicknames like "purple penguins."
The school district's distribution of Gender Spectrum's materials sparked controversy when the conservative group Nebraska Watchdog published a report on the handout on October 2. The report was picked up by National Review Online and The Daily Caller before eventually making the jump to Fox News. The network ran multiple segments falsely accusing LPS of "banning" terms like "boys and girls" as part of a "political agenda."
In an interview with Equality Matters, Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum criticized the "disingenuous" reporting on his organization's training materials. "They're sharing information about work that's occurring in a school and not being accurate about ... the overall purpose of the work," he said. "[B]y taking various things out of context - like "purple penguins" - they completely trivialize something that's really, really important and misrepresent our work."
Fox's misleading coverage of Gender Spectrum's handouts eventually prompted LPS Superintendent Steve Joel to call a press conference to dispel the network's misinformation. Joel criticized conservative media outlets for peddling falsehoods about the educational materials, calling it "regrettable" and "truly unfortunate" that the school was forced to waste time and resources responding to calls and questions about the handouts.
Conservative media outlets, led by Fox News, are attacking the city of Houston for subpoenaing a number of local pastors who were part of the right-wing opposition to the city's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance that is suing the city now that the anti-discrimination law is in effect. But their claims that religious liberty should keep the pastors' public addresses secret ignores the fact that subpoenas of parties relevant to a lawsuit are a typical part of the legal discovery process.
Conservative media reacted with outrage to reports that the city of Houston had subpoenaed five local pastors requesting a variety of documents related to their involvement in the legal battle over the city's recently passed Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents. The subpoenas included a request for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity."
On October 13, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, calling them "overbroad" and "unduly burdensome." The motion was reported by Fox News' Todd Starnes, who accused the city of Houston of trying to "silence American pastors" and "deconstruct religious liberty":
I predicted that the government would one day try to silence American pastors. I warned that under the guise of "tolerance and diversity" elected officials would attempt to deconstruct religious liberty.
Sadly, that day arrived sooner than even I expected.
Now is the time for pastors and people of faith to take a stand. We must rise up and reject this despicable strong-arm attack on religious liberty. We cannot allow ministers to be intimidated by government thugs.
Starnes' apoplectic report triggered a wave of conservative misinformation about the subpoenas, with commentators accusing the city government of engaging in unconstitutional bullying and anti-religious harassment. Fox News has covered the story in similarly misleading segments on Fox & Friends, Hannity, and The Kelly File:
But the facts of the case - and normal legal procedure -- don't support right-wing claims of religious persecution:
Fox News entirely ignored a Vatican report described as "stunning" by religious leaders which suggested that the Catholic Church should welcome and appreciate gay people, despite the network's track record of using religion as an excuse for discriminating against gays and lesbians.
On October 13, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican released a preliminary document suggesting that the church should be more welcoming and accepting of gay people, stating that gay people have "gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community":
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
The document has been described as a "pastoral earthquake" and a "stunning" change in tone for the Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality. Both CNN and MSNBC devoted significant airtime in the 48 hours following the document's release, discussing its implications for the Catholic Church, the legacy of Pope Francis, and even domestic GOP politics.
But on Fox News, the "pastoral earthquake" went completely unnoticed. According to an Equality Matters analysis, Fox News didn't report on the story once on either October 13 or 14: