Prop. 8 opponents take fight online with petitions, blacklists

The passage of Proposition 8 has led to dozens of online protests and petitions from opponents of the initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California. These range from the snide and humorous to more serious efforts targeting individuals and businesses.
But the top goal of many—depriving churches that donated to the campaign of their tax-exempt status—isn’t likely to come to pass anytime soon, say experts of both sides of the divide.

The more tongue-in-cheek approach to the protests was evident in an online petition that appeared the day after the election. “As they [California voters] take their scripture seriously, let’s help them out and make divorce illegal in the state of California!” read the “Californians Against Divorce” petition. It goes on to call on the California Supreme Court to “prohibit divorce immediately.”

Other Web sites offer form letters that can be sent to Thomas S. Monson, the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, informing him that a donation has been made in his name to a campaign to repeal Prop. 8.

Much of the online discussion has focused on efforts to remove the tax-exempt status of churches, particularly the Mormon Church. Petitions and letter-writing campaigns to the IRS and politicians are being promoted through sites such as MormonsStoleOurRights, which notes the religion’s own past as a persecuted minority with non-standard ideas about marriage: “The Mormon story is possible because our country is a tolerant and forgiving place. America believes in the rights of its citizens to determine their own fates, and grants rights to individual communities to determine their own norms and values.”

Efforts to target the tax status of churches that make large political donations comes up periodically. But these often run into a roadblock in the form of opinions from the Internal Revenue Service, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Madison, Wis., based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

While 501(c)(3) religious organizations are significantly limited in their ability to endorse particular candidates, they are much freer to do “issue advocacy,” she said. This gives churches a major financial advantage over their opponents in these types of campaign, Gaylor added. Members can deduct their donations from their own taxes, then the church itself doesn’t have to pay taxes either. Other organizations can get the same non-profit status, she said, but have to go through a far more onerous process than churches, she said.

“They’re not going to take the tax status away from these churches because in the IRS these churches have done nothing wrong,” Gaylor said. She added, “It’s about time that gay rights groups get angry at their enemy, the Mormon, Catholic and fundamentalist churches. They need to pressure the IRS to change its interpretation.”

A spokeswoman for the Franchise Tax Board confirmed that California follows the IRS’ eyes guidelines in determining the tax status of organizations. Several other state agencies also have a role in overseeing the political activities of religious groups. Most prominent of these is the Fair Political Practices Commission, which makes sure organizations properly disclose their political contributions.

Andrew Pugno, an attorney for the Protect Marriage Yes on 8 campaign, said that part of his role helping make sure religious groups stayed on the right side of the law. While much was made of donations from religious groups, particularly the $15 million plus donated by members of the LDS Church, most of these were really donations like any other.

“Most of the contributors were individuals,” Pugno said. “There definitely were some individual churches who contributed. They are allowed to do so.”

He also noted the IRS distinction between endorsing candidates and advocating on issues. Churches are allowed to express support for legislation and initiative campaigns. This is part of the distinction that allowed for the most prominent mailer in the campaign. Just before election day, millions of Californians received a Yes on 8 mailer featuring the face of Barack Obama and quoting him, twice, saying he does not approve of gay marriage. The back showed the names, pictures and affiliations of four prominent black pastors.
Churches can advocate on issues as long as it takes up no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of their money, Pugno said.
“If you have a million dollar budget, you could potentially put $150,000 into lobbying and still be within the IRS guidelines.”
More successful are websites targeting those who gave to Protect Marriage. Websites with names such as GoodAsYou, DataLounge and AntiGayBlacklist listed all the individuals and organizations that helped the campaign rack up a war chest of nearly $40 million.
A pair of prominent Sacramentans have gotten swept up in this post-election backlash. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the California Musical Theater, where he has worked for a quarter century, has been lambasted for contributing $1,000 to Yes on 8. In online discussion boards and newspaper stories, some have called for a boycott of the theater. Others have called for the firing of Eckern, a Mormon who in 1983 earned a Masters of Fine Arts in acting from Brigham Young University, the school named for an early leader to the LDS Church. He resigned on Wednesday.
“If they do, I think they’ll be in a lot of trouble,” Pugno said of any company thinking about firing someone for supporting Prop. 8, warning there were lawyers ready to take on their cases. He added, “There are people whose careers have been absolutely ruined by this.”
Pugno said this appeared to include Dr. Jane Anderson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-signed the Yes on 8 ballot argument. She is being shunned by most of her colleagues, he said. He also said many several churches have been vandalized with spray-painted No on 8 slogans.
Another example would be Dave Leatherby, owner of Sacramento’s Leatherby Family Creamery, who gave $20,000 to the campaign. In online discussions, some said they would be more likely to go there. But others called for a boycott.
“I know I will never spend a dime in a Leatherby’s ice cream store after their corporate donations to the Yes on 8 campaign,” read one typical post on Yelp, a Web site where users rate different businesses.
Meanwhile, an insurgency of sorts has appeared within those who opposed Prop. 8. The No on 8 campaign has come under criticism for having run what some see as an ineffective campaign, especially for having failed to anticipate the Yes side’s emphasis on children, as well as for not featuring gay couples prominently in their ads.
A group called the Courage Campaign has positioned itself as a kind of alternative. Late in the campaign they ran a television ad showing pair of Mormon missionaries barging into a lesbian couple’s home and tearing up their marriage license. The ad garnered huge criticism from religious groups, but also made far more of a splash than many of the official No on 8 ads. The group is now working with CREDO mobile, a company which bills itself as a socially-conscious wireless provider, on a petition to repeal Prop. 8 that has gathered over 100,000 signatures.

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