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."
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:
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:
The Human Rights Commission in Lexington, Kentucky dismissed the argument that a business could refuse to serve gay customers on First Amendment grounds, ending a years-long conservative campaign to disguise anti-gay discrimination as free speech.
In March of 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington (GLSO) filed a complaint against Hands-On Originals, a T-shirt company that refused to print GLSO's shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival celebration. GLSO argued that the company had violated the city's fairness ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Conservative media outlets rallied to the T-shirt company's defense, accusing GLSO of trying to "ruin" a Christian business by forcing Hands-On Originals to promote a message it doesn't agree with. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the legal group representing Hand-On Originals, similarly framed the dispute as a free speech issue, stating that "the Constitution prohibits the government from forcing business owners to promote messages they disagree with."
On October 6, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission released its recommended ruling in the dispute, concluding that Hands-On Originals had violated the city's ordinance. The decision roundly dismissed ADF's "free speech" arguments:
The Respondent argues that Mr. Adamson's objection to the printing of the t-shirt was not because of the sexual orientation of the members of the GLSO, but because of the Pride Festival's advocacy of pride in being homosexual. Acceptance of the Respondent's argument would allow a public accommodation to refuse service to an individual or group of individuals who hold and/or express pride in their status. This would have the absurd result of including person with disabilities who openly and proudly display their disabilities in the Special Olympics, persons of race or color, who are not only of differing race and color, but express pride in being so, and persons of differing religious who express pride in their religious beliefs.
The Fairness Ordinance does not require the Respondent to display any message, and does not require the Respondent to print promotional items including t-shirts. The Fairness only mandates that if the Respondent operates a business as a public accommodation, it cannot discriminate against potential customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. [emphasis added]
The annual Values Voter Summit will take place from September 26 through September 28 in Washington, DC. The convention is sponsored by hate groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, and regularly features extreme rhetoric and hate from politicians and conservative media members. In 2013, Ben Carson said that Obamacare is "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." Here is some of what you can expect at the 2014 event:
Media figures speaking at the event are scheduled to include: Lt. General William Boykin, Fox News contributor Oliver North, Rick Santorum, Fox News contributor Sarah Palin, David Limbaugh, Fox News host Mike Huckabee, Fox News contributor and Redstate.com Editor-in-chief Erick Erickson, Fox News contributor Sandy Rios, Mat Staver, Mark Levin, Star Parker, Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes, Brigitte Gabriel, and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
Media personalities rushed to scandalize President Obama for saluting Marines while simultaneously holding a coffee cup, criticizing the move as disrespectful -- forgetting former President George W. Bush's habit of saluting service members while holding his dog.
Fox radio host Todd Starnes accused President Obama of "orchestrating the Michael Brown tragedy" and claimed the administration is "in cahoots" with Al Sharpton.
In an August 18 Facebook post, Starnes asserted that the Department of Justice's (DOJ) investigation into Michael Brown's death was proof that "the Obama Administration may be orchestrating the Michael Brown tragedy." Starnes also accused the administration of being "in cahoots" with Al Sharpton, who he called "a bona fide race hustler" (emphasis added):
The uncivil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri continues -- and it appears the Obama Administration may be orchestrating the Michael Brown tragedy.
NBC News is reporting that Attorney General Eric Holder and Valerie Jarrett are the administration's point persons going so far as to arrange a federal autopsy.
It was Holder who tried to convince the Ferguson Police Department not to release the video purportedly showing Brown involved in a strong-arm robbery.
He also ordered local authorities to stop using armored tanks -- even though officers were fending off Molotov cocktail bombs. It was a decision that in essence led to government sanctioned lawlessness.
The LA Times reports Jarrett and Holder have been discussing their game plan with the likes of Al Sharpton.
So while President Obama whacks golf balls and dances the two-step in tony Martha's Vineyard, his administration is in cahoots with a bona fide race hustler.
In the wake of the tragic shooting death of unarmed Missouri teenager Michael Brown, right-wing media outlets attacked President Obama's uncontroversial statement of condolences and suggested the president was to blame for the state of race relations in the United States.
Fox News correspondent Todd Starnes attacked an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, accusing the Obama administration of being "hell-bent on forcing Christians to assimilate to the militant LGBT agenda."
On July 21, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating LGBT employees. The order amends existing non-discrimination executive orders to include sexual orientation and gender identity. As BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner reported, the order "contains no additional religious exemptions ... beyond those already contained in existing executive orders."
Fox's Starnes attacked the executive order in a July 21 post on FoxNews.com, accusing the Obama administration of endangering religious liberty and "bullying religious groups that hold viewpoints it deems inappropriate":
The executive order would prevent Christian and other religious organizations with federal contracts from requiring workers to adhere to the tenets of their religious beliefs. And that includes religious Christian colleges and universities that provide financial aid to students.
"If religious organizations cannot require that their employees conduct themselves in ways consistent with the teachings of their faith - then, essentially, those organizations are unable to operate in accordance with their faith," Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council, told me.
"The mask is coming off of the homosexual movement's agenda. They really do not believe in religious liberty. They want forced affirmation of homosexual and transgender conduct to trump every other consideration in the workplace - including religious liberty."
The Obama administration seems hell-bent on forcing Christians to assimilate to the militant LGBT agenda. Resistance is futile.
Starnes' commentary is typical of the Fox News personality, who's made a career acting as the network's mouthpiece for some of the country's most extreme anti-LGBT hate groups. The Family Research Council's (FRC) Sprigg, for example, has called for the exporting of gay people out of the U.S. and endorsed the criminalization of homosexuality. Pastor Robert Jeffress, another critic cited in Starnes' post, is notorious for his extreme comments about LGBT people and Muslims.
Starnes' fear-mongering about the executive order's lack of religious exemptions grossly mischaracterizes the scope of the directive, which merely extends existing non-discrimination protections to include LGBT employees of federal contractors. As the New York Times editorial board recently explained:
This is not a question of religious freedom. It is a question of whether to allow religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate in employment against a particular group of people... [T]he presidential order ... would extend those rules to companies that receive federal contracts in states without those kinds of anti-bias laws, protecting millions more people.
Mr. Obama's resolve is being tested. There is no good reason to give religious employers a special privilege to inflict undeserved pain by, for example, refusing to hire someone to work on a government-backed project just because she happens to be a lesbian, or firing a capable employee who marries someone of the same sex.
Fox News host Greta Van Susteren sharply criticized Fox News correspondent Todd Starnes for "very bad taste" over tweeting petty attacks on the president in response to the deadly crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Starnes has tweeted that Obama isn't "interested" in the crash because it doesn't involve "beer or golf," "Russia bracing for a severe hash tag from the Obama Administration," and "Obama won't comment on Malaysian jetliner crash until he's had a chance to read tomorrow's paper."
In a post on her blog headlined, "NOTE TO FNC's TODD STARNES: THIS IS VERY BAD TASTE, 295 PEOPLE DIED," Van Susteren wrote: "I was just sent a Mediaite article with these tweets on it. I don't know Todd Starnes (he works in NYC), but I do know he works at Fox News Channel and so do I. I don't like his tweets. They are very bad taste. This is not the time to be snarky or some pathetic attempt at humor. Let me repeat... 295 people died."
A Texas charity has abandoned a plan to help house child migrants after conservative media outlets used misleading images to suggest displaced children would be living there in luxury conditions. In fact, the same charity operates other no-frills facilities and had planned to convert a hotel in a similar style.
Conservative media have promoted multiple conspiracy theories connected to the humanitarian migration crisis, including the accusation that President Obama "planned" the recent surge of child migrants across the border for political reasons, that migrant children are infecting Americans with rare diseases, and that Obama is allowing violent gang members to cross the border.
Right-wing media personalities took victory laps following the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in which the Court ruled that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide health coverage for employees that includes contraception if the employer has a religious objection.
Fox News is witnessing the nasty byproducts of its endless campaign to depict extreme, virulent homophobia as a normal part of mainstream Christianity.
It's long been standard practice at Fox News to conflate anti-gay bigotry with Christianity. Last December, for instance, the network rushed to defend Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson after he compared homosexuality with bestiality and equated gay people with "drunks" and "terrorists," with Megyn Kelly referring to Robertson as "[t]his Christian guy," Sean Hannity describing his comments as "old fashioned traditional Christian sentiment and values," and Fox News commentator Todd Starnes defending Robertson as upholding "the teachings of the Bible."
Meanwhile, Fox has repeatedly touted business owners who refuse service to gay couples, taking up their mantle in regular "Fight for Faith" segments. The network has championed some of the country's most extreme anti-gay hate groups as mainstream Christian organizations. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to attend he city's St. Patrick's Day Parade over its ban on LGBT groups, Fox News attacked him as a "religious bigot." And the network regularly describes even basic legal protections for LGBT people as anti-Christian.
Now, a new anti-gay controversy has once again provided fodder for Fox to depict extreme anti-gay bigotry as grounded in mainstream Christianity. Earlier this month, HGTV cancelled a forthcoming reality show slated to be hosted by brothers Jason and David Benham. The cancellation came after Right Wing Watch unearthed the brothers' history of extreme anti-gay and Islamophobic activism, including condemning homosexuality as "demonic" and "destructive."
Anchor Megyn Kelly responded to HGTV's move by asserting on the May 8 edition of The Kelly File that while "gay rights are more and more protected in this country," the same didn't hold for "Christian beliefs and Christian rights."
During the May 16 edition of Kelly's show, guest host Martha MacCallum invited right-wing radio commentator Dana Loesch and Democratic strategist Jessica Ehrlich to discuss the controversy engulfing the Benham brothers. Perfectly encapsulating the right's bogus homophobia-as-Christianity narrative, Loesch dubbed Ehrlich an "anti-Christian bigot" for deigning to criticize the brothers' extreme anti-gay views: