LGBTQ+ foe joins National Prayer Breakfast board

Gun Rights

A longtime foe of LGBTQ+ rights has joined the board of the group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast. The annual event is scheduled to take place on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Former Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) had a consistent record of voting against both LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights during his six terms in Congress. The website of the new National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) Foundation board identifies Roe as one of two new board members; the other is former Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI).

On the site, Roe calls himself “an ardent supporter” of the breakfast, which he says is bipartisan, but which for years has been used by organizers to elevate right-wing, anti-LGBTQ+ networks.

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Roe’s history with the breakfast includes secret meetings connected to the event while he was in Congress. He met at least twice in 2016 with Guatemalan politicians and breakfast insiders who were later instrumental in shielding that country’s anti-LGBTQ+ president from a UN corruption probe.

Last year’s interim chair of the NPB Foundation board, a trustee of the right-wing Concerned Women for America, has been replaced by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), but apparently remains on the board. Other board members also have anti-LGBTQ+ track records.

The entire board remains Christian despite the event’s ostensibly non-sectarian nature. No member is known to be openly LGBTQ+.

International advocacy groups have warned Democrats for years that participation in the event helps make it an effective networking tool for right-wing insiders at the organization behind it, the Fellowship Foundation, popularly known as The Family.

Although The Family officially spun the event off last year, the group has worked to maintain ties with the new NPB Foundation board, which includes many Family insiders. The board responded to Democratic congressional concerns with vows of transparency last year, but those pledges remain unfulfilled.

In October, the 2023 NPB honorary co-chair, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), traveled to Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast on a trip paid for by The Family. In his keynote speech, Walberg urged Ugandans to “stand firm” behind their new anti-LGBTQ+ death-penalty law.

Last year’s American NPB on Capitol Hill, in February, was simulcast to The Family’s event, now called the NPB Gathering, attended just a few miles away by several proponents of severe anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in their countries. Also there was The Family’s point man in Uganda, a key player in that country’s annual prayer breakfast who supports the parliamentary prayer group behind the new death-penalty law. 

Pres. Joe Biden greeted The Family’s guests remotely from the new NPB.

Roe’s Record

Roe’s record in Congress included votes against transgender rights and same-sex marriage. 

He had a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign when he left office in 2021. His track record includes voting against transgender rights, against enforcement of anti-gay hate-crime laws, and against making orientation and gender identity protected classes under the Civil Rights Act.

Like a number of Family leaders, Roe leans on a revisionist notion of religious freedom, one that even some Democrats have embraced. Historically, religious freedom has referred simply to the ability to practice one’s religion free from persecution targeting one’s beliefs.

In recent years, the right has expanded the concept to include special treatment under the law, carving out exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

Roe is on record supporting this revisionist version of religious freedom, voting to allow anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination that would be illegal if not based on religious belief.

On the question of reproductive rights, Roe describes himself as “adamantly” anti-abortion, believing that human life — meriting full legal rights and protections —begins the moment a sperm cell fertilizes an egg.

As a longtime obstetrician-gynecologist, however, Roe does not join some of his more extreme Family insiders in opposing contraception. Although he’s hostile to government involvement in providing contraception, Roe told Politico, “I’ve doled out thousands of prescriptions for birth control over the years to women that needed it.”

Nevertheless, he got a zero rating from Planned Parenthood while in Congress.

Family Meetings

Neither meeting was public, but in 2016 Roe met twice with Guatemalan politicians and Family insiders at events connected to that year’s U.S. National Prayer Breakfast. Those insiders included American politicians — who would later save Guatemala’s evangelical president from prosecutors — and a civilian later revealed to have ties to Russian operatives.

One of the meetings was revealed in a Guatemalan politician’s Facebook post, which was archived before it was made private. In the post, Guatemala’s Paul Briere recounts traveling to Washington for the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast.

Briere ultimately balked at the direction his fellow Guatemalans took — and was ostracized from the breakfast for it — but several of the Guatemalans involved were Family allies who became key players in the successful right-wing effort to run a UN anti-corruption task force out of the country. 

As I reported, destroying the task force enabled then-Pres. Jimmy Morales to evade prosecution on suspicion he won office by violating campaign-finance laws. Morales was an evangelical who opposed LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. His rich, right-wing donors had been drawn together at his country’s own prayer breakfast, which The Family had helped created.

Briere wrote about the Guatemalan delegation’s time in Washington for the breakfast and related events, naming several Family insiders. “We shared on a personal level,” Briere wrote in reference to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), and then-Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Reid Ribble (R-WI), and Roe. Also named was former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC), a longtime Family leader.

Vargas has a history of participating in Family events — including prayer breakfast spinoffs overseas — that were run by anti-LGBTQ+ advocates and explicitly used to promote right-wing causes. Unlike Vargas, Hultgren was an active opponent of LGBTQ+ rights in Congress, and had an even more extensive record with The Family.

Hultgren was already on the board of the new NPB Foundation even before Roe’s arrival.

And Roe has another connection to The Family much closer to home. His district included Johnson City, TN, home to a Chick-fil-A owned by a longtime Family operative.

As I reported, Chick-fil-A franchise owner Tim Burchfield wasn’t just deeply involved with The Family’s Guatemala efforts, he was also tied to Russian operatives. In fact, just prior to the 2016 NPB, Burchfield was connected to both Maria Butina, later convicted of failing to register as a Russian operative, and her handler, Alexander Torshin.

The man who connected Burchfield to the Russians was Tennessee millionaire Joe Gregory, a donor to both Roe and the National Rifle Association, which was also involved in the Russia networking. Burchfield sits on the board of a charity — tied to anti-LGBTQ+ Christian organizations — that was started by Gregory’s brother, also a Roe donor.

And according to an internal Family document I obtained, it was Burchfield — along with another Family insider — who invited Guatemala’s chief justice to the 2016 U.S. NPB. The justice’s records show that on Feb. 2, 2016, two days before the breakfast, he had lunch with Family insiders including Burchfield, Roe, Lee, and then-Rep. Mike Doyle (R-PA).

Roe never publicly discussed any of these meetings. (My email with questions and a request for comment to Austin Peay State University, where Roe sits on the board, was not returned.)

But Roe’s connections to Family insiders have emerged on occasion. He and past NPB co-chair Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) participated in National Day of Prayer events. Roe co-authored an op-ed with Walberg, who refers to Roe as his “friend.”

The campaign of Roe’s fellow Tennessean, then-Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), donated to Roe. Heitkamp’s post on the NPB Foundation website suggests that Roe is taking Wamp’s seat on the board.

She writes that Wamp “transitioned off in 2023.” It was Wamp, a longtime breakfast leader, who inadvertently confirmed The Family’s continued ties to the new event when he cc’ed me on an email last year in which he told the board’s then-president not to talk to me, writing, “I made it very clear you would be wise not to,” and calling me a snake.

The New Board

The NPB Foundation board president at the time was former Sen. Mark Pryor (R-AR), who had told me in an hour-long interview that the new board was committed to being nonpolitical and transparent. Pryor said that past right-wing Family donors — including anti-LGBTQ+ crusader Franklin Graham and right-wing Trump megadonor Ronnie Cameron — would be barred from donating to the new NPB.

Explaining last year’s revamp of the breakfast, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said “[Q]uestions had been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we knew exactly how it was being organized, who was being invited, how it was being funded. Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”

Pryor said the new board would discuss what information it would release about its donors, but there’s been silence from the board since. 

According to Heitkamp’s post, Pryor “chose to resign last summer for professional reasons.” (Pryor’s work as an attorney includes guiding clients “through sensitive state AG matters and congressional investigations.”)

The board solicits checks online, but it’s not clear whether donors are vetted. And the new event rules announced by Pryor last year were violated by multiple members of Congress.

The new rules limited members of Congress to one guest, a constituent or family member. As I reported last year, multiple members broke those rules. In addition, a longtime Family insider got to go, as did lobbyists.

The office of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) justified him bringing Kari Lake, a non-constituent, because “At no time did Jesus ask where Kari Lake lived before accepting worship.” Lake reportedly used her attendance at the breakfast “to stay buzzworthy as a potential 2024 candidate.”

There’s no indication that the NPB Foundation took any steps in response to the rule violations, or implemented new measures to prevent them this year. I emailed questions for Heitkamp to the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, which she now oversees, but got no response.

Heitkamp writes that the board voted in October to make her chair, but doesn’t say exactly when. An archived version of the board’s site says that as of Oct. 15, the interim chair was still Caroline Aderholt, wife of Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL). Both are longtime Family insiders, and opponents of LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.

Aderholt has also been chief of staff and trustee of Concerned Women for America (CWA). As I reported, her work there included overseeing lobbying for the group, which opposes LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights and espouses a theocratic vision of government.

I emailed both CWA and Aderholt on Oct. 17, asking about Aderholt’s role. My story detailing her anti-LGBTQ+ activism was published on Oct. 21. There was no public statement at the time of Heitkamp replacing Aderholt.

The NPB Foundation site still lists Aderholt as a board member and suggests she remains involved with The Family’s parallel event, the NPB Gathering. The site says, “Since 2012, she has served as committee co-chair for The Women’s Events for the National Prayer Breakfast.”

Also still on the board is Stan Holmes, a longtime Family insider and veteran operative of the breakfast movement, who has been close to Aderholt’s husband. The board’s bio for Holmes describes him as having “been connected to the US Senate and House Prayer Breakfast Groups since 1981.”

Warning Signs

Secular groups have opposed the breakfast on First Amendment grounds for decades. But in recent years, the concerns have broadened. So has the opposition.

Last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation led a coalition of 30 organizations, including faith groups, asking Biden and Democrats to sever ties with the event.

The coalition wrote to Biden and members of Congress, calling the breakfast “an active marketplace of Christian nationalism, and … not the bipartisan event that it purports to be.”

Citing reporting by me and others, the FFRF coalition letter said the National Prayer Breakfast “has become a nexus for religious extremism, infiltration by Russian agents, and organized bigotry (anti-LGBTQ and anti-labor).”

LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have warned for years that even well-meaning Democrats are facilitating right-wing network-building by lending a bipartisan veneer to prayer breakfasts.

“[P]arliamentary prayer breakfasts, while superficially apolitical and multi-confessional, include speakers who echo extremist positions,” according to a 2021 report by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. Christian politicians, the report found, “socialised political elites onto regressive positions through prayer breakfasts.”

That same year, the European group Forbidden Colours sent an intelligence brief on the subject to congressional Democratic leaders and the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. The brief warned that “the international ultraconservative movement will try to find partners … within the Democratic Party. Therefore, they will use misleading terms such as ‘prayers breakfast’, ‘pro-family’ and ‘religious freedom’.”

Heitkamp’s stance on “religious freedom” was one reason she got only an 82% rating from the Human Rights Campaign while in office. She voted against preventing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being used to allow discrimination in the name of religious freedom.

The HRC also cited her votes to confirm then-Pres. Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch and her opposition to classifying so-called “conversion” therapy as fraud.

Before last year’s revamp of the breakfast, leading Democrats had begun fleeing The Family’s event. The office of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told me he’d no longer be attending. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) didn’t show up in 2022. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) gave me a  statement saying he’d no longer be going.

Even earlier, in light of the Butina scandal, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) distanced themselves from the event.

Last year, after Coons vowed a reset, Pelosi and other top Democrats attended once again. But outrage over Walberg’s actions in Uganda is just one sign of lingering concerns.

Historically, the co-chair positions — one Republican and one Democrat — have rotated every year from House to Senate. On Thursday, however, the event will be chaired by House members for the second year in a row, raising the possibility that no Democratic senator would go along this time.

And the 2024 co-chairs, Reps. Tracey Mann (R-KS) and Frank Mrvan (D-IN), both have previous history with the breakfast, suggesting there may have been difficulties getting new faces from the House for the event. A White House pool report said the Capitol Visitor Center was “about ⅔ full” for last year’s breakfast.

Jonathan Larsen is a veteran reporter and TV news producer. He created Up with Chris Hayes at MSNBC and was a key part of the teams that launched Anderson Cooper 360 at CNN and led MSNBC’s Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann. Most recently he oversaw all original and investigative reporting at TYT.

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