Trump’s top lawyer Jay Sekulow spending millions on fighting women’s and LGBT rights across Europe, says openDemocracy

US Christian right groups have built a ‘frightening global empire’ with $270 million of ‘dark money’, a new report from global news website openDemocracy has revealed.

US Christian right groups linked to Donald Trump’s administration and peddlers of COVID-19 misinformation have spent millions pushing anti-rights agendas across the world, openDemocracy reveals today.

One of the groups is led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow. With Rudy Giuliani, Sekulow will be coordinating any legal challenges brought by Trump against the US election results on 3rd November. They also led Trump’s defence against impeachment.

Between them, the 28 Christian right organisations investigated by openDemocracy have:

Filed court briefs backing the Polish government’s controversial abortion restrictions, including those introduced in a landmark ruling last week

Publicly supported Poland against the European Commission in their ongoing dispute over ‘LGBT ideology-free’ zones

Backed contraception, divorce, abortion, same-sex adoption and trans rights restrictions across Europe: from Italy to Austria, Norway and France

Supported campaigns for the death penalty for gay people in Africa;

Pumped out misinformation – including about coronavirus

Many of these groups have also been partners of the controversial World Congress of Families network that has increasing ties with far-right politicians in Europe. Speakers at its 2019 summit included Italian far-right leaders Matteo Salvini and Georgia Meloni.

openDemocracy’s scrutiny of thousands of pages of US financial filings reveal how these groups have spent more money in Europe (at least $88 million) than anywhere else outside of the United States, followed by Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Politicians and rights advocates have responded with alarm and have called for urgent action to further investigate these groups’ activities, funding and spending – whether or not Trump wins the next election.

Trump-linked Christian ‘legal army’ – funded by dark money

The majority of the ‘dark money’ into Europe came from the Christian right ‘legal army’ Alliance Defending Freedom(ADF), which has close links to the Trump administration through its former staffers, and the Christian right legal advocacy group the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose chief counsel Jay Sekeluw is Trump’s personal lawyer.

Together these two groups have spent at least $25 million – the ACLJ ($14 million) and the ADF ($15 million). Trump’s solicitor general until earlier this year was one of the thousands of ‘allied attorneys’ ADF says it has globally.

ADF has significantly increased its European spending since 2015 (the year before Trump’s election and when same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in the US). According to EU records, ADF International has seven lobbyists in Brussels and spends up to €300,000 a year on EU lobbying. In Europe, these US groups have together been involved in at least 50 legal cases including numerous cases challenging sexual and reproductive rights at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

They have intervened in at least seven cases in defence of the Polish government’s policies, including around abortion and divorce. They’ve also opposed same-sex adoption in Austria and trans rights in France. And they’ve publicly supported Poland against the European Commission in the dispute over ‘LGBT ideology-free’ zones (accused of inflaming anti-LGBT rhetoric and hate crimes).

“It's time for the world to wake up. Do not stumble into our mistakes [in the United States] and do not think it could not happen where you live. The rising influence of dark money in US politics was not inevitable. It happened because of a long-standing process to erode accountability and transparency. It was inevitable that these individuals, powering these organisations, would seek to internationalise their influence” – Quinn Mckew, director of the transparency NGO Article 19

‘Copy and paste’ - in UK and European courts

ADF says it also intervened in a UK high court case defending a baker who refused to bake a cake with a marriage equality slogan on it – a very similar case to one it took to the US Supreme Court. Observers say they have witnessed increasing activity by these groups in Strasbourg and believe it’s because they want to stop progressive precedents that could be later invoked in US courts. One academic who’s researched Christian conservative legal advocacy in Europe also described a “copy-and-paste approach” in which US activists say they take briefs filed to US courts and repackage them for European ones.

● “The help that we need in Europe from people within the United States is help in combatting prejudice and upholding rights and freedoms, not encouragement for those seeking to diminish them” – Lord John Mann of Holbeck Moore in the UK House of Lords

● “The data unveiled in OpenDemocracy's probe into ultraconservative organisations' actions across the EU cast a new light on the push against human rights over the last few years. It is clear now that action needs to be taken by member states to ensure full protection of EU citizens against predatory organisations. This isn't a question of ideology. This is a question of security, health of our citizens, and a question of transparency.” – Croatian MP Bojan Glavasevic, member of EPF’s executive committee

Case studies: human impact

openDemocracy spoke to people in Italy, Poland and Norway about the human impact of what these US groups are trying to bolster in Europe

In Poland, the constitutional court voted on Thursday (22 October) to overrule one of only three legal grounds for abortion (in cases of fatal foetal anomaly). At the ECHR, there is also an ongoing case in which a woman has sued Poland for not allowing her an abortion after a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly. The European Centre for Law and Justice has intervened in both cases, submitting legal arguments in defense of the government.

In Warsaw, openDemocracy spoke to a woman who had an abortion this year after such a diagnosis. She said that if the new changes “had been in place earlier, I would have been in a tragic situation.” She said: “As soon as I received the results, I knew I had to terminate the pregnancy… I was aware that continuing the pregnancy meant placing a huge burden on my body. Since I’d like to have more children, I’d like my body to allow me to give life again in the future.”

● “It is outrageous that groups that are playing with women's lives and safety are allowed to operate in the darkness. They should be forced to comply with the basic principles of transparency and accountability, like all democratic civil society must” – Irene Donadio at the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network

● “This investigative report reaffirms the existence of an organized and well-funded attempt to fuel the backlash against women’s rights. It is the duty of governments to ensure that women’s rights are not eroded through misinformation and ideologically motivated campaigns. There are real-life and often dangerous consequences for women as result of these campaigns” – Melissa Upreti, human rights lawyer and member of the UN working group on tackling discrimination against women

In Italy, Stefano said that when he and his husband moved to Perugia from London in 2014 they became “practically strangers” under the law. If one of them were in hospital, the other “wouldn’t be able to access it or to know how the partner was doing,” for example. Both the European Centre for Law and Justice and Alliance Defending Freedom have argued against LGBT rights in European courts – including against same-sex adoption in a case involving Austria and against same-sex marriages in Italy.

In Norway, Helina was denied contraception aged 16. Even though it had long been legal, the family doctor in her small town refused her on religious grounds. “To me it felt like some kind of indirect slut shaming,” she recalls.

On its website, ADF International says it successfully supported its allies in Norway to defend a doctor who refused to provide women with IUDs (intrauterine devices, a form of long-acting birth control), because of her Catholic conservative religious beliefs.

Helina now fears the result of doctors refusing contraception – as she experienced aged 16 – could be more unwanted teen pregnancies.

“When you’re young, it can be embarrassing to talk about contraception,” she explained. “If you take the courage and ask a doctor for it, but then get rejected, it becomes something scary. Like you are doing something wrong.”

Call for transparency

Policymakers and human rights advocates across Europe have called for urgent action in response to openDemocracy’s investigation.

Earlier this year the Associated Press revealed that Trump’s lawyer Sekulow and his family and companies they control had received at least $65 million over the last decade from the several non-profits that Sekulow controls. In the US, Alliance Defending Freedom has gone to the Supreme Court to defend donor secrecy (in a case that is still ongoing). Its few known donors include the family foundations of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos

None of the 28 groups investigated disclose the identities of their donors – though several have links to famous conservative billionaires such as the Koch brothers, who helped to bankroll America’s Tea Party Movement – and few disclose details about how exactly their overseas money is spent. MEPs and NGOs from across the European Union and the UK have called for urgent action to ensure that US groups lobbying against equality have to disclose more details of their activities, and their donors, if they are funding projects abroad.

● “Every organisation should be transparent and it should be obliged to disclose its donors and the method of financing” – Polish MP Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, MP Poland

● “In Europe we are facing an increase of anti-gender rhetoric and I have personally witnessed these organisations trying to infiltrate our democratic institutions. We should put in place strict mechanisms on accreditation and screening before allowing them access to influence the democratic processes in Europe” – Austrian MP Petra Bayr, president of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and chair of the equality committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Mary Fitzgerald, Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy warns: “On the eve of the US election, these findings show how Trump-linked groups have built a frightening global empire, deploying increasingly sophisticated tactics across the world to restrict our lives, and advancing agendas fundamentally incompatible with human rights and democracy.”

“We need urgent action to halt this imminent threat, whether or not Donald Trump wins on 3rd November.”

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