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Anti-gay nonprofits, businesses received millions in Covid-19 aid

Alleged "anti-LGBTQ hate groups," schools that bar gay teachers and a business that illegally fired a transgender worker all received pandemic relief funds.
Image: Rainbow flags on the eve of Madrid's WorldPride on June 23, 2017.
Rainbow flags on the eve of Madrid's WorldPride on June 23, 2017.Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP/Getty Images file

A number of organizations, schools and businesses with either a history of anti-LGBTQ advocacy or policies that explicitly discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals have received millions in pandemic relief funding, according to an NBC News analysis of data released last week by the Small Business Administration.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — which was intended to help small businesses amid the Covid-19 crisis — gave nearly $5.3 billion in the potentially forgivable loans to 5,160,000 recipients, with the average loan being $101,409.

Seven of the organizations that received funding — the American College of Pediatricians, American Family Association, Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), Church Militant/St. Michael’s Media, Liberty Counsel, Pacific Justice Institute and Ruth Institute — have been designated as “anti-LGBTQ hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) due to their alleged vilification of queer people. These seven groups received nearly $2.5 million combined.

The lion’s share of that money went to the American Family Association, which received nearly $1.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds. The Mississippi-based organization uses its resources, in part, to combat what it calls the “homosexual agenda.” Through its One Million Moms initiative, the organization rallies its supporters to boycott brands and media outlets that promote “homosexuality and transgenderism.”

Liberty Counsel, which received $428,000 in pandemic relief funds, is a conservative legal organization that, according to the SPLC, advocates for “anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” The organization made national news last year after trying to get gays removed from protection in a federal anti-lynching bill.

Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the SPLC, criticized the Trump administration for “letting millions of Americans and small businesses suffer” while providing “financial support to groups that tear at the fabric of our democracy.”

“Extremist movements thrive in climates of political uncertainty,” she said. “Now, the government is doing even more to help hate groups by handing them millions of dollars in forgivable loans.”

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The American Family Association, Ruth Institute and Pacific Justice Institute did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment on the SPLC’s “hate group” designation and how they used their Paycheck Protection Program funds. The other four groups all disputed being labeled a “hate group,” and two of them shed light on how they used their relief loans.

The American College of Pediatricians said it used the loan to “fund the covered payroll period as designated.” It called the SPLC’s hate group designation a “mischaracterization” of its organization and pointed to its detailed response to the criticism. Liberty Counsel, which said it used its funds to avoid laying off any of its 35 employees, accused the SPLC of wanting to “destroy those with whom they disagree.”

Dr. James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family, offers a prayer before an appearance by President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo.David Zalubowski / AP file

At least four other organizations that received Paycheck Protection Program funding — Concerned Women for America, Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, Family Leader and First Liberty Institute — have a demonstrated track record of anti-LGBTQ advocacy or espousing an anti-LGBTQ ideology, though they have not been designated “hate groups” by the SPLC. These organizations received nearly $2 million in pandemic relief money combined.

The Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which received $663,700, is dedicated to combating what it calls the “radical homosexual agenda.” The Colorado-based organization has described LGBTQ-inclusive sex education at a public school district as “vile” and “indoctrination of the most horrible variety.” The group’s founder, James Dobson, has also warned of the “dangerous transgender movement targeting our youth.”

The Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, Concerned Women for America and Family Leader did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment on how they used the aid and their response to assertions that their organizations have a track record of anti-LGBTQ advocacy. First Liberty Institute’s general counsel, Mike Berry, sent a brief response saying his organization “advocates for the religious liberty of people of all faiths” and said “First Liberty repaid, with interest, all PPP funds by June 30.”

Two private schools that made national news over the past two years due to their anti-LGBTQ policies — and their high-profile conservative backers — were also on the Paycheck Protection Program recipient list.

Immanuel Christian School, a private K-10 in northern Virginia where Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, teaches, received $724,900 in aid funding. As NBC News reported last year, the school explicitly bars its employees from engaging in or condoning “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity” and “transgender identity.” And in its parent agreement, the school states that it may “refuse admission” or “discontinue enrollment” of a student whose household condones “sexual immorality,” such as “homosexual activity or bi-sexual activity.”

Trinity Schools, a group of private Christian schools where newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett was once a trustee, received over $1 million. As The Associated Press reported in October, the schools effectively bar admission to children of gay parents and make it clear that openly LGBTQ teachers are not welcome in the classrooms.

Immanuel Christian School did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. Trinity Schools President Jon Balsbaugh sent an email saying his institution used the funds to “ensure that economic disruption of our employees and staff due to the pandemic would be lessened” and said Trinity Schools does not “unlawfully discriminate with respect to race, color, gender, national origin, age, disability, or other legally protected classifications under applicable law.”

Several companies and organizations that have been at the center of high-profile lawsuits regarding their policies of excluding LGBTQ people have also received Paycheck Protection Program funding.

Catholic Social Services, which received over $2 million, is at the center of a case currently before the Supreme Court. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia stems from the faith-based child welfare agency’s policy of not considering same-sex couples as potential parents for foster children.

R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which received more than $150,000, was part of a landmark Supreme Court case that resulted in the justices ruling that workplace discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity violates federal civil rights law. The Michigan funeral home’s involvement in the case stemmed from its termination of an employee after she came out as transgender. In November, the business agreed to pay $250,000 to the estate of the terminated employee, who died earlier this year, to settle the lawsuit.

Roncalli High School, which received nearly $1.8 million, was sued by two lesbian guidance counselors last year who said they were terminated when the school discovered they were married to women. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indiana, which oversees the school and was also named in the women’s suits, received over $2.4 in pandemic relief funds. In response to the lawsuits, which are still active, the Indiana archdiocese told NBC News last year that it has “a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the school’s religious mission.”

Arlene’s Flowers, which received nearly 34,000, was found to have violated a state anti-discrimination law by the Washington Supreme Court last year after refusing to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding ceremony. The flower shop appealed to the Supreme Court for the second time last year, and its petition is still pending.

Catholic Social Services, R.G. & G.R Harris Funeral Homes, Roncalli High School and Arlene’s Flowers did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Warped priorities’

Kyle Herrig, president of government watchdog Accountable.US, said it’s “shameful” that the Trump administration provided pandemic relief funds to “organizations promoting bigotry, intolerance, and hate” with “so many small businesses forced to shutter since the start of the pandemic.”

“It is hard to find a clearer example of the Trump administration’s warped priorities than allowing countless mom-and-pop shops to go under without proper relief while bailing out wealthy and well-connected anti-LGBTQ enterprises on Americans’ dime,” he said in an email.

Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, shared a similar view.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said, “that the Small Business Administration led by the Trump administration would put the needs of avowed anti-LGBT organizations before hardworking small-business owners.”

Nelson said he’s seen first hand how LGBTQ-owned small businesses have struggled during the pandemic and how many have been unable to receive government relief.

“These folks are worried about keeping the lights on,” he said. “We had a number of businesses that applied, and only a small number that received funding.”

Nelson, whose organization works with thousands of LGBTQ-owned businesses around the country, said it’s frustrating to see large, well-funded organizations with anti-LGBTQ track records collect large sums of relief funding while thousands of small businesses have had to close their doors permanently. He noted that his chamber did not apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan so as not to take away resources from the businesses most in need.

The Small Business Administration said in a statement that it does not comment on individual borrowers or loans. An agency spokesperson said the agency designed a “robust loan review process to ensure that only eligible borrowers received loans that fully complied with the program requirements” but added that just because a loan was issued, doesn’t mean the recipient was eligible or that the loan will ultimately be forgiven.

The first round of Covid-19 relief funding ended in August, and, as NBC News reported Thursday, new coronavirus relief negotiations are hitting an impasse.

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April Glaser contributed.