A controversy has erupted in the usually progressive state of Vermont after an investigation by the independent newspaper Seven Days revealed that the state's worker-directed charitable giving program has approved two viciously anti-gay groups for employee donations.
The program, called VtSHARES, works like this: charity-minded state employees opt in, select their favorite nonprofit organization from an approved list, and decide the amount they'd like to give. The state then deducts that amount from each paycheck and sends it to the employee's designated charity.
Sounds good so far, right? But then there's this:
[While] the vast majority of that money has gone to noncontroversial causes such as fighting hunger and curing cancer, at least two state-recognized organizations receiving funds are devoted to a very different mission: virulently opposing homosexuality and fighting for "traditional" marriage.
One of them, the Mississippi-based American Family Association, has been designated a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group. The other, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, has been cited in the past by the SPLC as an antigay organization.
While the latter group has attempted to soften its hardline image in recent years, the former continues to call homosexuality "a poor and dangerous choice" that "has been proven to lead to a litany of health hazards to not only the individuals but also society as a whole."
That's right: the American Family Association -- the hate group whose spokesman, Bryan Fischer, cheers anti-LGBT laws in Russia and Uganda, equates equality supporters with Islamic terrorists, and refers to the Boy Scouts of America as the "Boy Sodomizers of America" -- is on a list of organizations approved by the state of Vermont for employee "charitable" giving.
Needless to say, this is not going over well with Vermont's LGBT community. Seven Days reports:
To Kim Fountain, executive director of the Burlington-based gay rights group RU12?, the two organizations' inclusion in the program, called VtSHARES, doesn't square with the state's long history of opposing discrimination.
"If people want to go home and write these groups a check, that's fine. Absolutely," she says. "But for the state of Vermont to have laws on the books to protect LGBTQ folks and then turn around and let the VtSHARES campaign fund a program that opposes LGBTQ rights -- I don't know what kind of mental gymnastics have to happen to make that work."
But Vermont Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding played the false equivalency game, telling the paper that the administration of pro-equality Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin shouldn't intervene. "I think people would probably be alarmed if the... administration was playing some sort of selectivity game in only putting in organizations that meet our views of the world," Spaulding said. He added that he was "not ready to cast judgment on any particular organizations," which RU12's Fountain calls "embarrassing" given that as a state senator, now-Governor Shumlin was one of the driving forces behind the state's successful marriage equality battle in 2009.
Spaulding (pictured at left with Gov. Peter Shumlin) told Seven Days that this is the first year that the American Family Association has been included on the state's approved list. However, Focus on the Family has been on the list for at least four years, during which time state workers have contributed between $230 and $700 annually to the group.
While Focus on the Family has downplayed its homophobia over the last several years, its website is still full of anti-LGBT propaganda, ominously warning pearl-clutching fundamentalists about the menace of "homosexual curriculum" in the public schools and "revisionist gay theology" in the churches.
Seven Days was unable to speak with anyone at Focus on the Family for comment, but the AFA's Bryan Fischer gladly spoke on the record, using his time with reporter Paul Heintz to share his disgusting and baseless belief that gays -- who were among the groups systematically targeted by the Nazis for extermination -- were responsible for the Holocaust.
That the state of Vermont is willing to write checks to these kind of repugnant, hateful organizations is an absolutely shameful disgrace. I wonder: would they also be willing to enter into relationships with racist or anti-Semitic hate groups, or is it just the anti-gay ones that get a free pass?
The Shumlin administration should immediately drop the anti-gay American Family Association and Focus on the Family from the list of approved organizations for the state's employee giving program.
Photo of Jeb Spaulding and Peter Shumlin via Shumlin for Governor.