The couple's photo as used by Loudoun Supervisor Delgaudio's conservative nonprofit. (Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center)

A conservative nonprofit organization led by Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) is facing potential legal action after the group allegedly altered a same-sex couple’s engagement photo and distributed it without permission on campaign fliers in Colorado.

Delgaudio’s group, Public Advocate of the United States, was designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center this year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an internationally recognized civil-rights organization, has taken up the case on behalf of Tom Privitere and Brian Edwards, a New Jersey couple who saw their engagement photo — originally posted on a blog they created to document their wedding — appear on a campaign flier opposing gay marriage.

Christine Sun, deputy legal director at the SPLC, said the organization was actively investigating claims against Delgaudio’s group.

“We’re looking into copyright claims for the photographer, and also state law tort claims on behalf of Brian and Tom,” she said. “That would include misappropriation of image and infliction of emotional distress.”

In recent years, Delgaudio’s Falls Church-based organization has frequently been mired in controversy and media attention over its anti-gay messages. Delgaudio has decried airport pat-down procedures, anti-bullying legislation and a boisterous Florida pirate festival as evidence of the proliferation of “radical homosexuality.”

When asked about the use of Edwards and Privitere’s photo, Delgaudio did not confirm Public Advocate’s possession or distribution of the image.

“I am looking into this,” he said in a statement.

Delgaudio said that Public Advocate is a nonprofit organization — it is registered as a 501(c)4, according to IRS records — and that the group makes “no money” from its “educational materials.” In recent years, the group has raised about $1 million annually in donations, according to IRS records.

Delgaudio’s statement also said that opposing political organizations have used content from Public Advocate’s Web site.

“Other groups make fair use of our materials or 2,000 photos from our Web site,” he said. “We acknowledge a limited use of many of our own materials, by other groups, under parody, some fairly strong critical attacks from our political opposition on our efforts, as part of a robust debate.”

On their blog, Edwards and Privitere said they learned that their photo had been used on a campaign mailer after a friend alerted them to a news article about it. The flier, which includes Public Advocate’s name and address, targeted Republican Colorado state Sen. Jean White, who had supported a bill to allow same-sex couples to form civil unions, the Denver Post reported.

Edwards wrote of his reaction when he first saw a copy of the altered image, which shows the couple kissing, but the original background, the New York City skyline, had been replaced by snow-covered trees, and a bright red banner emblazoned with the words “State Senator Jean White’s Idea of Family Values?” cut across the center of the photo.

“First off, I want to share what this picture means to me,” Edwards wrote on his blog. “It represents my long-term relationship with my best friend, my partner, and now husband — love we share and obstacles we have overcome.”

Seeing the altered image, he wrote, was shocking.

“Now, I see it faded and brown with a big red, blood-emulating slash across our bodies,” he said. “It cuts us in half just below our hearts. . . . I’m angry and I’m hurt and I’m flabbergasted and I’m livid.”

After Public Advocate was deemed a hate group by the SPLC, Delgaudio told The Washington Post in March that he disagreed with the designation but had grown accustomed to such allegations.

“I think the term ‘anti-gay’ is wrong, but I’m not going to cry about it,” he said.

“I would categorize [Public Advocate] as pro-family, pro-
traditional marriage. We’re opposed to the legislation that’s being promoted. We’re opposed to federal gay rights legislation.”

Delgaudio became one of the two longest-serving members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors after winning a fourth term in November.