By Lisa Keen
The National Organization for Marriage, which formed two years ago to take the lead to oppose equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, is coming under increased scrutiny.
Two civil rights groups in Iowa filed a letter with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Aug. 31 requesting an investigation into the National Organization for Marriage. A pro-gay group in California filed a similar request Aug. 13 with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices.
The Iowa groups – One Iowa and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund – allege that NOM is violating state laws that require the public disclosure of contributors to political activities in the state. The law kicks in whenever an organization raises more than $750 for a campaign.
The NOM sought and, on Aug. 10, was granted preliminary certification as a “political corporation” in Iowa, enabling it to make independent expenditures for or against state and local candidates. The designation required NOM to disclose who its donors were.
On Aug. 20, NOM filed a report with the Disclosure Board indicating it had spent $86,060 in the campaign to fill a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives. But the report did not include where the money came from.
In an Aug. 27 letter to NOM Executive Director Brian Brown, the Iowa Disclosure Board warned that if the group accepted more than $750 for political activities in Iowa, it has to disclose its contributors. Disclosure Board Director and Legal Counsel Charlie Smithson confirmed that the board “is conducting an investigation.”
Brown did not return a reporter’s call for comment. But the organization’s attorney told the Iowa Independent newspaper that the funds spent in Iowa came from NOM’s general treasury.
Californians Against Hate raised similar objections against Stand for Marriage Maine, a group trying to repeal the state’s recently passed equal marriage law. According to state campaign finance reports filed thus far, all but $400 of the more than $343,000 raised by Stand for Marriage has come from the National Organization for Marriage and two other groups. The records show NOM has donated $160,000 to the campaign, the Portland diocese of the Roman Catholic Church has donated $152,000 and the state chapter of Focus on the Family has donated $31,000.
By comparison, the key group working against the referendum – “No on 1: Protect Maine Equality” – has raised $143,290, all but $35,000 of which came from individuals ($25,000 from the Human Rights Campaign and $10,000 from the ACLU). Equality Maine, another group working to defend the equal marriage law, has raised $63,561, all but $20,000 of which came from individuals (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force contributed $20,000).
In an Aug. 13 letter to the Maine Commission, Californians Against Hate leader Fred Karger suggested NOM is “trying to hide the true identities of those contributing to the campaign.”
Jonathan Wayne, head of the commission, said Karger’s letter “lacked sufficient specificity” to trigger an investigation, but he asked Karger to “reformulate” his request and provide more specifics. Wayne said the commission has also asked Stand for Marriage Maine to be prepared to respond to formal allegations.
The disclosure of the identities of contributors has become one of several stark battle lines in the repeated clashes between pro and anti-gay political campaigns. Anti-gay groups in California and Washington mounted challenges against state financial disclosure requirements, claiming pro-gay activists are using the public information to intimidate donors to anti-gay campaigns. Their request was turned down in California but won at least a temporary stay in Washington.
According to the National Organization for Marriage Web site, NOM was founded in 2007 to establish “an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures,” but it acknowledges involvement in “marriage-related initiatives at the state and local level.” The group is organized as a 501(c)(4) organization – the same tax status as the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign. HRC has a separate political action committee which it uses to make contributions to various candidate and issue campaigns around the country. NOM’s Web site indicates it has a NOM Marriage PAC that “will raise funds for direct involvement in targeted races of strategic importance around the country.” A Federal Elections Commission spokesperson said the NOM PAC is not registered with the FEC, but does not need to unless it becomes involved in federal campaigns.
According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(4) status means a group must be non-profit and “must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” The IRS defines promoting social welfare as furthering “the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements).”
Such groups are permitted to engage in lobbying and “some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.”