FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—Katrina Lantos Swett—founder of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and a co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Summit, which took place in Washington, D.C., earlier this week—responded to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s attack on the summit in a statement to The Daily Signal on Friday.

The SPLC, a left-leaning advocacy group notorious for putting mainstream conservative and Christian organizations on a “hate map” alongside KKK chapters, warned that some of the summit’s sponsors “have ties to anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigrant extremist organizations and the global far-right network.”

Lantos Swett, a lifelong Democrat and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, co-chaired the Jan. 30-31 summit alongside Republican Sam Brownback, a former Kansas governor, senator, and ambassador-at-large for religious freedom under then-President Donald Trump. 

She responded to the SPLC attack by emphasizing the broad coalition of different faiths the summit brings together, urging respectful civic dialogue in a pluralistic society, and suggesting the SPLC’s attack is detrimental to that effort.

“My co-chair, Ambassador Sam Brownback, and I are incredibly proud of the diverse coalition that the IRF Summit has brought together, which includes 90 partner organizations from virtually every faith community and belief system, cultural background, and political perspective,” she told The Daily Signal.

Members of atheist, Baha’i, Eastern Orthodox, Falun Gong, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sikh, and Yazidi organizations took part in the summit, as did Christian minorities such as Assyrians and Copts. The summit’s speakers, such as House Speaker Mike Johnson, highlighted the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in China, and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, among others.

The SPLC, regrettably, seems to have missed the forest for the trees and has forgotten a simple truth: namely, that disagreeing profoundly about some matters does not mean we can’t find common ground on others,” Lantos Swett added. “Such civic goodwill goes to the essence of a pluralistic and tolerant society, and that is precisely the kind of community we are proud to have built at the IRF Summit.”

“If the SPLC truly cares about promoting religious freedom around the world, we encourage them to join us at the summit to see firsthand what a unifying event it is, even amid these deeply divided times,” she said.

Lantos Swett, whose father was a 14-term Democratic congressman from California, emphasized that the summit focuses on “our collective commitment to advancing freedom of religion or belief worldwide.”

“We don’t vet summit partners based on other causes they have funded or advocated for, but we do keep close guardrails to ensure that the focus at the Summit remains squarely on international religious freedom,” she explained.

The SPLC mostly used guilt-by-association attacks to suggest the summit supported hate or extremism.

On Jan. 30, the SPLC published an article in “Hatewatch” noting that two of the religious freedom summit’s sponsors, The Hungary Foundation and the Religious Freedom Institute, have connections to the Center for Immigration Studies, which the SPLC brands an “anti-immigrant hate group,” and Alliance Defending Freedom, which the SPLC brands an “anti-LGBTQ+ hate group.”

As I wrote in my book “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the SPLC took the same Intelligence Project it used to bankrupt Klan groups in the 1980s and weaponized it against conservatives, partially to scare donors into ponying up cash and partially to silence ideological opponents.

After the SPLC fired its co-founder amid a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal in 2019, a former staffer claimed that the SPLC’s accusations of “hate” are a “cynical fundraising scam” aimed at “bilking northern liberals.” Critics across the political spectrum have voiced opposition and alarm at the organization’s hate group smears.

The Center for Immigration Studies advocates for the enforcement of immigration law amid the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Alliance Defending Freedom has won numerous Supreme Court cases on religious freedom issues.

The SPLC report also faulted the summit for inviting Ján Figel’ to speak. Figel’, a Slovak politician and a former European Commission special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union, filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights opposing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on religious freedom in Slovakia.

The SPLC did not explicitly clarify what it found so objectionable about Figel’ addressing the summit, but it did note that Alliance Defending Freedom’s international organization represents the Slovak politician in his COVID-19 restriction complaint. The SPLC noted that eight members of the European Parliament wrote a letter in 2020 expressing concern with his “association with religious-extremist organizations from the fringes of Christianity, which actively pursue an anti-choice agenda, targeting in particular LGBTI and women’s rights around the world.”

This framing ignores Christianity’s long history of defending life in the womb and upholding the biblical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

The SPLC noted that the Religious Freedom Institute, a summit sponsor, received financial support from ADF in previous years, partly for religious liberty work. The SPLC put the term “religious liberty” in scare-quotes, suggesting it is insincere.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., defended her decision to attend the summit when the SPLC reached out to her office for comment.

“Throughout my career, I have strongly and unequivocally supported religious freedom and freedom of conscience, including fighting for separation of church and state, defending the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and countering discrimination against Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities,” she told the SPLC. “I will affirmatively underscore these core principles in my summit remarks.”

Lantos Swett pushed back against SPLC attacks on the summit last year, as well. The 2023 SPLC report condemned her co-chair, Brownback, and alleged that “the extremists sponsoring and participating in the summit define religious freedom as the legal privilege of white, straight, cisgender, conservative Christians to discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. We reject that definition.”

The SPLC’s 2024 report made no mention of the Family Research Council, which the 2023 report condemned at length. In 2012, a terrorist targeted the council for a mass shooting, and he told the FBI that he used the SPLC’s “hate map” to find his target. The SPLC condemned that act of terror, but kept the Family Research Council on the map.

Republican senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Katie Britt of Alabama, have raised the alarm following the revelation that a top official in the Department of Education under President Joe Biden met with SPLC staff one year before the SPLC put parental rights groups on its “hate map.”

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