By Kevin Jones
The New York-based Arcus Foundation was founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker in 2000. Arcus is a partner of the U.S. State Department’s Global Equality Fund, which engages in LGBT advocacy around the world. One of its board members is Darren Walker, the president of the deeply influential Ford Foundation, which gives out about $500 million in grants each year.
Since CNA’s February 2015 report on a multi-million dollar campaign against religious freedom protections, the Arcus Foundation has given an additional $2.8 million in grants earmarked for projects aimed at restricting legal protections for religious freedom, especially religious and conscience exemptions in state and federal law.
.- One wealthy activist is continuing to fund coordinated efforts to limit religious freedom and to foster dissent on abortion and LGBT issues within American Christianity and other religious groups.
Among its recent donations is an ACLU grant designed to “beat back” laws protecting freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
In fact, a CNA examination of grant listings and other documents has shown that the Arcus Foundation has funded a variety of coordinated projects, focused on limiting religious freedom, redefining religious liberty, and perhaps even shaping religious doctrine itself.
Redefining Religious Liberty
On June 30, 2016, the Arcus Foundation said that “countering religious exemptions to anti-discrimination law in the United States is the aim of grants to the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholics for Choice, and the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University, all of which are working to reframe religious liberty in inclusive terms, whether through the courts, religious bodies, or policy-making bodies.”
Since 2016, $450,000 in Arcus grants went to the Center for American Progress, which was founded by John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s last presidential campaign manager.
The grants funded projects like promoting religious liberty “as a core progressive American value that includes LGBT equality and women's reproductive health and rights.” The Center for American Progress sponsors a self-described “Religious Exemptions Public Literacy Project” that will oppose “religious exemptions policies that have a negative impact on women, LGBT, and POC (person of color) communities.”
Since June 2016, the Arcus Foundation appears to be focusing on controversies at Catholic institutions and schools where staff who publicly support or contract a “gay marriage” have been fired for contradicting Catholic doctrine. Some Catholic institutions have faced lawsuits over such employment decisions and invoke religious freedom protections as a defense.
In an apparent complement to its work on religious freedom limits, the foundation has also been funding some self-described Catholic groups that reject Church teaching on marriage and sexual morality, among them Dignity USA, the Equally Blessed Coalition, New Ways Ministry, and Catholics for Choice.
The Arcus Foundation outlines its strategy in a section on its website. It aims to mobilize “moderate and progressive faith leaders” and to leverage “strategic opportunities in historically resistant faith communities,” including Roman Catholic churches. It said that some resistant communities “still afford opportunities for making limited but significant progress.”
“In keeping with the focus on religious exemptions, Dignity USA and the Equally Blessed Coalition are working to combat the firing of LGBT staff and allies, who support marriage equality, at Catholic Institutions,” the foundation’s June 2016 announcement continues.
The Arcus Foundation gave a $250,000, two-year grant to Dignity USA to fund the Equally Blessed Coalition, in order to “ support and give voice to the growing majority of Roman Catholics who support full acceptance and equality for LGBT people.”
A 2017 grant gave $35,000 to New Ways Ministry to help develop the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics and its work “to connect the work of pro-LGBT Catholic organizations in every region of the world.” The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics had engaged in advocacy related to the Church’s Synod on the Family.
In February 2010 Cardinal Francis George, then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a statement on New Ways Ministry, which is also part of the Equally Blessed Coalition. Cardinal George rejected the claim that the group presents an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and Catholic practice. “Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination,” he said.
In October 2016 New Ways Ministries gave its Bridge Building Award to Father James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of the Society of Jesus’ America Magazine. The priest’s lecture at the award ceremony was the basis for his book “Building a Bridge,” on Catholic-LGBT relations
In 2016, the Arcus Foundation gave a one-year grant of $125,000 to Catholics for Choice, to fund a coalition of religious leaders to oppose “discriminatory religious exemptions,” as well as a different coalition to oppose “religious intolerance” in southern and eastern Africa.
The U.S. bishops have frequently criticized Catholics for Choice, saying it is not affiliated with the Catholic Church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, speaking as the bishops’ pro-life chairman in September 2016, charged that it is “funded by powerful private foundations to promote abortion as a method of population control.”
Arcus Foundation grantees have been linked to doctrinal changes within mainline Protestantism as well, including groups that helped split the Anglican Communion. In 2011 and 2012, the Arcus Foundation provided financial support to raise the national profile of Center for American Progress’ expert V. Gene Robinson, whose controversial election as the Episcopalian Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 helped split the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion.
Non-Christian religions are also a focus.
A June 2015 grant of $100,000 to Muslims for Progressive Values suggests religious exemptions sought by some Muslims are also unacceptable to the foundation. The grant listing voiced hope that the group’s advocacy at the United Nations would assist “in asserting that ‘religious exemptions,’ such as reservations on the basis of Sharia law, are unacceptable on matters of human rights.”
CNA took a screenshot of the Arcus Foundation’s grant listing to Muslims for Progressive Values in mid-2016. Since that time, the grant listing on the foundation website appears to have been changed to read simply “general operating support,” rather than directly listing advocacy against religious exemptions. The grant is one of several six-figure Arcus grants to the group, including one given to cultivate LGBT activists among imams and other Muslims
Kevin Jennings, a co-chair of Muslims for Progressive Values, is a former Arcus executive director and Obama Administration official. Reza Aslan, the controversial Iranian-American author of the book “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” is a consultant for the group, according to its website.
Fighting Religious Exemptions
In 2016, the Arcus Foundation gave the ACLU a $150,000 grant to implement “a national coordinated media and public-education campaign to beat back religious exemptions at federal and state levels.”
This year, the foundation gave a $300,000 grant to the Proteus Fund’s Rights, Faith and Democracy Collaborative. The collaborative brings together wealthy activists who aim to restrict legal protections for religious freedom, in order to advance its vision of reproductive health and LGBT causes. According to CNA’s examination of grant listings and tax forms, the collaborative’s donors and others have spent at least $8.5 million in projects to advance a similar, narrow vision of religious liberty.
The Proteus Fund’s Civil Marriage Collaborative, which worked to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, closed in 2015 after spending more than $153 million over 11 years on various U.S. projects.
The Arcus Fund has given grants totaling $300,000 to Faith in Public Life: one to rally faith leaders to advocate “fair and balanced” religious exemptions, especially in the states Georgia, Florida and North Carolina; and the other for “pro-LGBT public education campaigns” and to organize “moderate clergy to inform state and national policymakers about the negative impact of using religion to deny the civil rights of LGBT people.”
A $125,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to Columbia University’s gender and sexuality law center backs the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project “to promote progressive and nondiscriminatory views on religious exemptions.” This builds on Arcus’ previous support for the project, whose co-sponsors have included the deeply influential Ford Foundation.
Another $200,000 has gone to the ACLU, including support for its “religious refusals” communications hub and for ongoing research to gauge what it considers to be “the harm of anti-LGBT religious refusals.”
Arcus has also given $200,000 in grants to the D.C.-based Civitas Public Affairs group’s Religious Liberty and Equality Project aim “to advance equality protections and respect for personal autonomy, while dissolving public support for religious carve-outs that go beyond what is already protected in the First Amendment”; and to “reframe the current debates over religious exemptions by bringing together some of the most experienced thinkers and advocates within the reproductive justice and LGBT movements.” Another $100,000 2016 grant to NEO Philanthropy appears linked to this project, “to counter religious exemptions.”
The Arcus Foundation backs several news media projects, including National Public Radio, The Atlantic LGBT summit in 2015, and a series on LGBT issues for the public radio show Faith Matters. Many of those grants did not list religious freedom specifically, but the foundation did give $200,000 for the University of Southern California-based news site Religious Dispatches’ reporting on religious liberty and LGBTQ issues.
About $450,000 spread across four grants went to the Public Religion Research Institute to create “comprehensive state maps” of public attitudes on religious exemptions and non-discrimination policies. Other funding aims to track public opinion on “religious refusal legislation,” among other topics; and to help develop strategies “to stop the expansion of religious exemptions.”
The Interfaith Alliance was also funded in the amount of $75,000 to explore mapping state laws related to religious exemptions, for policy development, and for training of “skilled messengers to educate state and federal policy makers.”
The Pride Foundation received $150,000 in 2016 to strengthen coordination “among groups opposed to discriminatory interpretations of religious freedom,” and for “emergency-response grants to key public-education initiatives.”
Soulforce, which became prominent for busing LGBT activists to demonstrate at various colleges, received $100,000 to organize students of color in the U.S. South to challenge both “anti-trans policies at conservative Christian schools” and religious exemption statutes.