Since U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., won the Oct. 25 election for House speaker, the public has gotten a crash course on the previously low-profile congressman. As details of his political life emerged, a social media influencer claimed in a viral video that he has been affiliated with a hate group.
Johnson previously worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that played a pivotal role in the case that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down protected federal access to abortion.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks and labels hate groups, named the alliance a hate group in 2016, the same year Johnson won election to Congress.
“The man who was just elected speaker of the House used to be the spokesperson for a designated hate group,” said Emily Amick in an Oct. 25 video on her Instagram account “Emily In Your Phone,” which offers political commentary and analysis. Amick also heads up For Facts Sake, which says it “builds social media campaigns to drive social change.”
The law center and the alliance have sparred for years about the hate group designation.
The law center’s “hate map” has drawn controversy before, with critics saying the label conflates groups that preach hatred, such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, with ones that do not share the law center’s political preferences. For example, the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports lower immigration levels, disputes its place on the list of 1,225 organizations.
Jeremy Tedesco, Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior vice president of corporate engagement, shared that sentiment.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center’s ‘hate map’ targets groups with mainstream conservative and religious viewpoints that they disagree with,” he said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has racked up 15 Supreme Court case victories, including the case that overturned Roe v. Wade and others centered on LGBTQ+ rights, such as a baker who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding and a website designer who didn’t want to create wedding websites for same-sex marriages.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists LGBTQ+ rights as a signature issue.
“Extremists like ADF, who use religious rhetoric to demonize LGBTQ+ people and claim faith gives them a right to discriminate against others, do not speak for all religious people — in fact their anti-LGBTQ+ views are out of step with most Americans and most religious Americans, too,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
We reviewed the evidence and found that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s criticism of ADF pulls from examples of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from the past 23 years, with many examples that are more than a decade old.
Here, we take a closer look at the Alliance Defending Freedom, Johnson’s role in the organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate group” designation and criticism of the label.
What is Alliance Defending Freedom?
From 2002 to 2010, Johnson served as senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.
The alliance calls itself a Christian law firm committed to “protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”
Alliance Defending Freedom reported $104 million in revenue for the fiscal year that ended in June 2022, a 33% increase from the year before, according to its Internal Revenue Service Form 990 on ProPublica’s database.
Johnson’s history on LGBTQ+ issues
As an attorney for the alliance, Johnson wrote in a 2004 editorial in The Shreveport Times newspaper that “homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural” and a “dangerous lifestyle,” CNN reported. He also wrote that the legalization of same-sex marriage could “place our entire democratic system in jeopardy by eroding its foundation,” floating that it would lead to equal protection for pedophiles.
Johnson’s past public statements and actions on LGBTQ+ issues include:
Arguing in defense of Lousiana’s same-sex marriage ban before the state’s Supreme Court in both 2004 and 2014, The New Yorker reported.
Writing in a 2004 article that “homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”
Criticizing a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision on sodomy laws, saying that “states have many legitimate grounds to prescribe same-sex deviate sexual intercourse, including concerns for public health… safety, morals and the promotion of unhealthy marriages.”
Introducing in 2022 the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, which would prohibit federal funding for any event, program or literature for kids younger than 10 that involves “any topic involving sexual orientation, gender identity, gender dysphoria.”
Expressing opposition to gender-affirming care for trans youth in a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
ADF did not specifically identify Johnson as a spokesperson for the organization, but his affiliation was listed in many editorials he wrote about LGBTQ+ issues, and he was a public face of the organization who was quoted in news stories.
SPLC cites examples it says show ADF’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance
The Southern Poverty Law Center says Alliance Defending Freedom is an anti-LGBTQ+ organization, citing legal cases, public writings and quotes from the group’s leadership and affiliated people. Several of the examples date back a decade or more.
For example, the law center points to a 2003 amicus brief filed by Alliance Defending Freedom in the Supreme Court’s review of Lawrence v. Texas, which held that Texas’ anti-sodomy law criminalizing same-sex intimate sexual contact was unconstitutional. The brief argued, in part, that same-sex sodomy was a risk to public health.
The Southern Poverty Law Center also reviewed a 2003 book co-authored by then-ADF President Alan Sears, titled “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.” The law center highlights quotes from the book that refer to the “homosexual agenda” and link being gay and engaging in pedophilia. Sears served as president until 2017.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s more recent examples for its hate group designation are legal actions and public statements made by Alliance Defending Freedom and its affiliates to challenge transgender-inclusive policies in schools, bathrooms and sports.
The ADF has rebutted the hate group label, writing lengthy pieces to address specific claims and also criticizing SPLC’s leadership and history. The two groups have engaged in a back and forth involving videos and op-eds.
SPLC’s hate group list has been weaponized, critics say
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s website defines a hate group as “an organization that, based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities, has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics” including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.
It says an organization “does not need to have engaged in criminal conduct or have followed their speech with actual unlawful action to be labeled a hate group.”
In recent years, the SPLC has been criticized by those who argue that the “hate group” label has become too broad.
William Jacobson, a Cornell Law School professor and critic of the hate group list, says it has been weaponized against the “conservative movement.”
“If you have a religious Christian group or a religious Jewish group or a religious Muslim group that espouses the tenets of their faith and doesn’t you know, beat somebody up in an alleyway, they go to court to litigate it, I don’t see why that group should be on a hate map,” Jacobson said.
Richard Cohen, former Southern Poverty Law Center president, addressed the inclusion of more traditional advocacy and policy organizations on the hate group list in a 2017 op-ed.
“We think it’s more important to call out hate groups that operate in the mainstream than those that operate at the fringes,” he wrote. Those groups’ proximity to the mainstream, he said, “does not mean they don’t sow the seeds of hate. In fact, it means they have bigger, more powerful megaphones to spread their divisive, anti-democratic message. And that’s all the more reason to call them out.”