Washington D.C., Jul 27, 2016 / 12:07 am (CNA).- Leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee show efforts to arrange a meeting with a key NGO working to end religious liberty protections. The emails were among thousands that surfaced on the website WikiLeaks July 22. The leak included emails to and from several DNC lead staffers during the period from January 2015 to May 25, 2016.
Two May 16 emails from DNC lead staffers, titled “Who do you want at the religious exemption research meeting?”, discuss a presentation from the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT advocacy group which has challenged religious freedom protections as harmful.
The emails follow up on an April 11 email from Mike Gehrke, vice president of the Benenson Strategy Group consulting firm, to DNC communications director Luis Miranda and Mark Paustenbach, the DNC’s deputy communications director and national press secretary.
Gehrke said his colleague Amy Levin has been working with the Movement Advancement Project “over the past couple years” to develop “messaging and creative executions around religious exemptions laws” such as Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and other provisions have provided key protections for Catholics and other religious organizations against laws that would otherwise require them to violate their religious and moral beliefs.
The broad email leak resulted in the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz following controversy over revelations of apparent collusion against Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). The leak has also revealed the influence of other political actors.
Gehrke’s email to the DNC communications officers said the Movement Advancement Project’s research on religious freedom messaging has “some interesting findings on talking about the issue.” The project “would very much like to share it with you all and anyone you think would find it useful,” he said. He added that Levin would be “making the rounds” in the District of Columbia and would like to set up a time “for a briefing with those who might benefit from this messaging work.”
Miranda responded April 11: “Hi Mike, that sounds interesting and helpful.” He copied DNC press assistant Rachel Palermo “to help coordinate and include others from our political and community engagement teams.”
The Movement Advancement Project plays a role in a multi-million dollar effort to counter religious freedom protections. The project has close links with Tim Gill, a wealthy Colorado-based businessman who for decades has organized and funded a politically savvy LGBT activism campaign through his Gill Foundation.
CNA research into foundation grant listing and tax forms has found a massive effort using at least $5 million in strategic spending to target religious freedom protections. The funding comes from several influential foundations including the Gill Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Arcus Foundation. The Movement Advancement Project has received specific grants targeting religious exemptions.
In 2014, the Arcus Foundation gave $100,000 to the Gill Foundation to support the project’s “research and messaging on religious exemptions.” The Evelyn & Walter Hass Haas Jr. Fund made $100,000 grant to the Gill Foundation in 2014 to support the project’s work, including “research to develop messaging around gay rights and ‘religious liberty’ issues.” That messaging research may also influence Democratic Party leaders, the leaked emails suggest.
Levin followed up in an April 12 message to Miranda, the DNC’s communication director: “glad to hear you are interested. We’ve been able to do a really deep dive with this research which, once all synthesized [and] boiled down, led to very clear (if sometimes surprising!) message and target imperatives.”
On May 16, Palermo asked Miranda who he wanted at the religious exemption research meeting. Miranda replied “Mark, Tom, and Marilyn Davis.” Davis is the DNC’s director of community engagement, while Mark Paustenbach was copied on Palermo’s email. Gehrke’s April 11 message said that the research to be presented to the DNC leaders was a 501c3 project “independent of any of the message work we have done on campaigns.” He said no candidate or specific situation would be presented.
CNA searches of the DNC e-mails published by WikiLeaks did not reveal further discussion on the meeting with the Movement Advancement Project. A spokesperson for the Movement Advancement Project told CNA July 26 that Benenson Strategy Group is “a contract researcher that has done work with MAP.” It had arranged the meeting to share recommendations from its messaging guidance “Talking about Religious Exemption Laws.”
“Further information around the messaging recommendations can be found in the guide,” the spokesperson said. “MAP does not have a relationship with the DNC beyond being invited as a guest to that meeting. MAP also provides messaging briefings to a myriad of allies on both sides of the political aisle,” the spokesman continued.
The Movement Advancement Project has published several editions of its messaging guidance, which lists as partners both Benenson Strategy Group and the Center for American Progress. The guide’s 2016 edition aims to build “effective conversations” about “harmful” religious exemptions that it says undermine public safety, legal protections for people who identify as LGBT, and women’s “reproductive freedom.”
Other leaked e-mails from the DNC mention Tim Gill and Jon Stryker, the Arcus Foundation founder and wealthy heir. Their names are mentioned in the context of invitations to the White House, donor outreach, and using LGBT advocacy to engage millennial voters. The Movement Advancement Project has organized strategy to advance LGBT advocacy within U.S. religious denominations, seminaries, clergy coalitions and media “to counter religious opposition,” the Gill Foundation’s 2006 annual report said.
The Gill Foundation and the Arcus Foundation are also backers of groups like Catholics United. The Arcus Foundation has funded Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic dissenting groups including Call to Action, Dignity USA, and New Ways Ministry. Some funding aimed to shift the narrative on LGBT issues at the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family.
The source of the leaked emails is uncertain. In previous months, the Washington Post reported that some cybersecurity experts believed the hackers who had penetrated the DNC’s computer network had links to Russian intelligence. Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, also cited these claims about the leaked emails in a Sunday appearance on CNN’s show State of the Union.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told NBC News there is “no proof whatsoever” that his organization acquired the emails from Russian intelligence. He said DNC servers have had security holes for years and many sets of documents have been made public through multiple sources. CNA contacted the DNC and the Benenson Strategy Group for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.