Sarah Jones, Focus On The Prize: Storied Religious Right Group Changes Strategy, But Not Goals, Wall of Separation

Focus on the Family’s public policy arm, CitizenLink, has undergone a leadership shift in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.

Political Research Associates’ L. Cole Parke reports that Tom Minnery, who has led the group for 30 years, just stepped down in favor of hand-picked successor Paul Weber.  Weber had previously served as the vice president of communications and development for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Kim Trobee, a producer for CitizenLink radio, announced the transition in a video message to supporters. “Our president, Tom Minnery, has decided to take a step back on a new project,” she said.

In the same video, Minnery states, “Paul’s talents go far beyond mine in building an organization and helping us reach more people with our message, so I am so pleased that he said ‘yes.’”

Added Weber, “CitizenLink is planning on going back to the firm foundation that Tom has established,” he said. He and Minnery took care to clarify that Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and of Citizen Link, is, in Minnery’s words, “at the root of all this.”

Dobson stepped down as the head of Focus in 2010, turning control over to Jim Daly,  regarded by many as a less vociferous culture warrior. But CitizenLink’s most recent announcement makes it clear Dobson still casts a shadow over the organization.

“His principles still endure, and our friendship with Focus on the Family endures, and Jim Daly and the Focus on the Family board are wonderfully supportive of CitizenLink going in this new direction,” Minnery added. (Citizen Link is legally separate from Focus on the Family.)

So what is this “new direction?” Parke speculates that Weber’s appointment is a signal that the group is preparing itself for an aggressive response to marriage equality; most observers believe the Supreme Court is likely to rule in favor of equality at some point in the next week.

Weber’s experience at the ADF, then, would be useful to a fiercer CitizenLink.

The ADF is arguably the largest – and most aggressive – legal organization within the Religious Right, and they’ve already taken up a number of so-called “religious refusals” cases.  These cases, which are marketed as part of a broader “religious freedom” push, typically involve devout business owners who discriminate against LGBT customers in deliberate violation of local public accommodation laws.

CitizenLink, of course, is no stranger to this strategy. Via its network of state-level “Family Policy Councils,” it has advocated for bills like Arizona’s infamous (and ultimately doomed) version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That bill would have permitted business owners to discriminate against LGBT customers regardless of any local anti-discrimination ordinances that might be in place.

The organization has also campaigned against openly LGBT candidates for office, opposed legal civil unions for same-sex couples, and defended same-sex marriage bans.

Weber’s appointment is evidence that the group has likely resigned itself to a loss at the Supreme Court – but not necessarily to the reality of legal same-sex marriage. Parke notes, correctly, that religious refusals cases are “[A]n echo of the anti-abortion movement’s state-by-state chip away strategy – a nod to the lesson that no defeat is ever final.”

As for Minnery, he’s not stepping away from the group entirely. Instead, he’ll helm CitizenLink’s “Statesmen Academy.” There’s little public information about the “academy,” but CitizenLink’s website claims that it’s intended to “…encourage statesmen with the training, resources and community they need to advance biblical values through their calling to public service.”

The culture wars aren’t over just yet.


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