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After conservative backlash, charity tracker GuideStar removes ‘hate group’ labels

Pamela Geller, the head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative who is known for her vitriol against Islam, speaks at a conference in New York. (David Karp/AP)

Earlier this month, GuideStar, the world’s largest source for information about charities, added a new feature to its website: warning labels flagging would-be donors to nearly four dozen nonprofits accused of spreading hate.

The outcry was immediate and most vehement from conservative groups, including Christians who said they’d been targeted as hateful for opposing same-sex marriage.

The complaints prompted GuideStar to reverse its course. The company said it’s removing the labels “for the time being” beginning Monday, in part because of concerns raised about their objectivity but also because of the threats against employees.

“Dismayingly, a significant amount of the feedback we’ve received in recent days has shifted from constructive criticism to harassment and threats directed at our staff and leadership,” said a statement posted to GuideStar’s website on Friday. “With this development in mind — driven by both our commitment to objectivity and our concerns for our staff’s wellbeing,” the labels are being removed.

The “hate group” designations used by GuideStar came from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog organization that tracks such groups, which it says includes the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The “hate group” banners used on GuideStar’s website linked to the law center’s website, according to the Associated Press.

The SPLC lists 52 “anti-LGBT” organizations on its website, including several churches and nonprofit Christian ministries, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which it says “has supported the criminalization of gay sex and currently is working to enact so-called ‘bathroom bills’ around the country to prevent trans people from using public restrooms … in accordance with their gender identities.”

“These groups are not listed on the basis of opposition to same-sex marriage or the belief that the Bible describes homosexual activity as sinful,” the SPLC’s website said.

But some conservative organizations complained that the center’s lumping them together with violent racist groups wasn’t based on objective research but on a political agenda. GuideStar’s usage of the center’s designation, they said, undermined the website’s policy of “neutrality.”

“One may or may not like the legal advocacy of the Alliance Defending Freedom, but they’re not a bunch of hooded-sheet Klanners burning crosses,” wrote Mark Kellner for the conservative-leaning “Get Religion” website, which focuses focused on religion coverage in the news media.

GuideStar announced its decision to remove the labels last week, two days after being sent a complaint letter signed by 41 people, largely representing conservative organizations, including Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes,” and Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, a group the SPLC says is staunchly anti-LGBT.

“The ‘hate group’ list is nothing more than a political weapon targeting people it deems to be its political enemies,” the letter said. “The list is ad hoc, partisan, and agenda-driven.”

The letter called the SPLC a “progressive political organization” that had “gained credibility attacking Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and skinheads — many of who were engaged in violence.” But now, the letter stated, the center had expanded its “tactics” into debates about immigration and “sexual-identity” politics.

The letter also claimed the SPLC “has been linked to gunmen who carried out two terrorist shootings” in the D.C. area, including a 2012 shooting at the Family Research Council and the recent shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise at a baseball field in Alexandria.

In the first instance, the gunman said that he targeted Family Research Council after seeing it was listed as “anti-gay” on Southern Poverty Law Center’s website. In the second instance, the letter simply stated the gunman “liked” the SPLC’s Facebook page.

The letter complained that the SPLC continued to “list” Scalise on its website. A 2014 posting on the center’s website says Scalise gave a speech to a “well-known group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis” years ago in his home state of Louisiana. Scalise said he wasn’t aware of the group’s views, a claim with which the SPLC took issue.

Conservative media outlets seized upon GuideStar’s warning labels and the organization’s decision to remove them. A headline in the Daily Signal, a news platform for the conservative Heritage Foundation, blared: “Nonprofit tracker smears dozens of conservative organizations as ‘hate groups.'” Breitbart News reported: “Institutional Left Loses Again: Nonprofit Tracker Withdraws Inaccurate Leftist-Driven Labels Hurting Conservative Groups.”

For its part, GuideStar said in its statement that designating “hate groups” is more complicated than it had realized when it first starting using the labels.

In the weeks and months since, we have heard from both supporters and critics of this decision, many of whom have presented reasonable disagreements with the way in which this information was presented. We are always open and willing to have conversations with our users and nonprofit groups and welcomed this feedback. We acknowledge there is a deep, nuanced conversation to be had with Americans of all political, cultural, and religious backgrounds regarding how we address — and identify — hate groups.

GuideStar said it will continue to make the “hate groups” information available “on request.”

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