LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (AP) — The lawyer for a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue licenses for gay marriages stood onstage in a Washington, D.C., hotel and pointed to a photo on the screen. It showed 100,000 people packed into a Peruvian soccer stadium, and Mat Staver told the crowd, they were all there to pray for the Kentucky clerk battling against gay marriage.
The crowd erupted.
It wasn’t true.
Staver’s firm, the Liberty Counsel, which revealed Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ secret meeting with Pope Francis, has been accused by advocacy groups of peddling misrepresentations in the past. Yet it has become the main source of details about the controversial pope meeting.
Online sleuths quickly debunked the Peru story Staver told at the Values Voter Summit, a conference for the conservative Family Research Council. The photo was from a year-old gathering unrelated to Davis, who spent five days in jail for defying a court order and refusing to license gay marriages. Staver could provide no evidence of a massive Davis rally. On Monday, he called it a mistake and blamed miscommunication with the Peruvian authorities who gave him the photo.
The next day, the firm dropped a bombshell. It said Pope Francis, on his celebrated visit to America, secretly met with Davis. The pope hugged her, thanked her for her courage and told her to “stay strong,” Liberty Counsel said. The Vatican on Friday said the pope had a brief meeting with Davis that should not be seen as support for her stance.
Many on the religious right hail the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which bills itself as a non-profit legal group committed to “restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family.”
“They’re willing to stand up for our rights under the Constitution, they’re not backing down,” said Nick Williams, a probate judge in Alabama who has also pledged never to issue a marriage licenses to a same-sex couple and sought guidance from the Liberty Counsel. Williams compared the federal court system to the tyrannical kings in the Bible: “I’m glad we have a law firm willing to stand up to the kings of our time.”
But critics watched in exasperation as the organization rocketed to national celebrity alongside Davis.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Liberty Counsel as an anti-gay hate group for spreading false information.
“A group that regularly portrays gay people as perverse, diseased pedophiles putting Western civilization at risk are way, way over the line,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center.
The Liberty Counsel has connected homosexuality to higher rates of promiscuity and incest, Potok said, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The firm opposes laws banning hate crimes and supports discredited conversion therapies that purport to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. Staver once declared that the Boy Scouts would become a “playground for pedophiles” once it allowed gay troop leaders.