Last week, the state of Vermont launched its annual drive to encourage its employees to give money to charitable organizations. Called VtSHARES, the state-sponsored program has raised more than $8 million over 35 years by letting state workers deduct contributions directly from their paychecks.
And while the vast majority of that money has gone to noncontroversial causes such as fighting hunger and curing cancer, at least two state-recognized organizations receiving funds are devoted to a very different mission: virulently opposing homosexuality and fighting for “traditional” marriage.
One of them, the Mississippi-based American Family Association, has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group. The other, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, has been cited in the past by the SPLC as an antigay organization.
While the latter group has attempted to soften its hardline image in recent years, the former continues to call homosexuality “a poor and dangerous choice” that “has been proven to lead to a litany of health hazards to not only the individuals but also society as a whole.”
To Kim Fountain, executive director of the Burlington-based gay rights group RU12?, the two organizations’ inclusion in the program, called VtSHARES, doesn’t square with the state’s long history of opposing discrimination.
“If people want to go home and write these groups a check, that’s fine. Absolutely,” she says. “But for the state of Vermont to have laws on the books to protect LGBTQ folks and then turn around and let the VtSHARES campaign fund a program that opposes LGBTQ rights — I don’t know what kind of mental gymnastics have to happen to make that work.”
Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, whose office oversees VtSHARES, sees it differently. He says that as long as a charitable organization meets 11 criteria established by the state and is approved annually by a committee of state workers, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration shouldn’t second-guess it.
“I think people would probably be alarmed if the Shumlin administration was playing some sort of selectivity game in only putting in organizations that meet our views of the world,” says Spaulding, adding that he wasn’t familiar with the two groups in question.
Spaulding says he’s not sure how much money state employees have contributed over the years to Focus on the Family, nor how long the group has participated in VtSHARES, because his office only has access to four years’ worth of data. But in that time, workers have contributed between $230 and $700 annually to the group. This is the first year the American Family Association has been included.
Spaulding further argues that the cost to the state is “pretty insignificant.” According to VtSHARES’ policy manual, the state contributes its payroll-deduction service and permits organizers to spend “a reasonable block of time” on the government’s dime administering the program — but that doesn’t amount to much, Spaulding says. The state does not match employee contributions.
Wayne Besen, executive director of Burlington-based Truth Wins Out, says the state should not in any way enable organizations whose values “are against Vermont’s values.”
“The fact is, if even a penny is spent on this, it’s too much,” he says.
Which groups make the cut is determined by a seven-member committee of state workers advised by Green Mountain United Way executive assistant Laurie Kelty. Every March, Kelty says, the committee spends a day sifting through applications and ensuring that each charity meets established requirements, such as nonprofit certification and responsible governance.
“As long as they meet the criteria for the campaign, we don’t put them out because they’re different,” Kelty says. “It’s up to the individual whether they want to donate or not.”
Included in the list of approved charities are local outfits such as Champlain Housing Trust, national organizations including the American Red Cross and international NGOs such as Save the Children. A number of faith-based charities, such as the Christian Military Fellowship and MAZON, a Jewish antihunger organization, also make the grade.
One requirement, according to VtSHARES’ policy manual, is that charities’ “operations are truthful and nondeceptive, include all material facts and make no exaggerated or misleading claims.”
Whether the American Family Association and Focus on the Family pass that test is debatable.
In the past two years, Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s director of issue analysis for government and public policy, has repeatedly disparaged gays, African Americans and Muslims, according to SPLC research.
In a June 2011 blog post, he falsely claimed that “homosexual or bisexual men are about 10 times more likely to molest children than heterosexual men.” Islam, Fischer said on his AFA radio program, Focal Point, “is the spirit of Satan.” And welfare, he wrote in an April 2011 blog post, “has destroyed the African American family by telling young black women that husbands and fathers are unnecessary and obsolete.”
According to SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok, the “propagation of known falsehoods” that can encourage “criminal violence” is a sure way to land on his organization’s “hate group” list, as AFA consistently has. He calls it “sad” that the state would include such a group in its charitable giving program.
“The American Family Association is by far the most extreme of what were once thought of as mainstream religious-right groups,” Potok says. “It is hard to believe the state of Vermont wants to help workers send money to an organization that blames gay people for the Nazi Holocaust, among many other things.”
Asked for comment about its mission and beliefs, AFA volunteered Fischer — of all people — for an interview. Though he proudly acknowledged his group’s abhorrence of homosexuality, he questioned its inclusion on the SPLC’s hate list.
“The truth is, we don’t hate anybody,” Fischer told Seven Days. “We love everybody and we love them enough to tell them the truth about homosexual conduct.”
“And that truth is?” we asked.
“That it is immoral. That it is unnatural. And that it is unhealthy,” he responded.
And does he really believe gays are responsible for the Holocaust?
“The truth is that the Nazi Party was formed in a gay bar in Munich. The truth is, the bulk of Hitler’s storm troopers were homosexuals. These are indisputable, historical facts. They are not open to interpretation,” Fischer said. “So if someone has a problem with those assertions, their problem is not with me. Their problem is with the historical record.”
For its part, Focus on the Family has moderated its message in the years since its outspokenly antigay founder, James Dobson, retired from the group in 2009. But even that group, according to its website, still directs its funding toward defending “family values” from the “homosexual curriculum” and “revisionist gay theology.”
“They’re not as bad as they used to be, but they still use backwards views and junk science to promote discrimination against LGBTQ people,” Bresen says. “It’s appalling they’d be part of any kind of charitable fund.”
Focus on the Family did not make anyone available for comment.
While Spaulding says he sees no immediate problems with VtSHARES, he says he was already planning to review the program after the current campaign ends “to make sure the vetting process works as well as it should.”
In the meantime, he says, “I’m not ready to cast judgment on any particular organizations.”
Fountain, who calls that position “embarrassing,” says she hopes it isn’t shared by Spaulding’s boss, Gov. Shumlin, a strong supporter of gay rights and the architect of the state’s 2009 legalization of same-sex marriage.
“What I’m going to assume is that Gov. Shumlin doesn’t know these groups are on the list,” she says. “And I’m also going to assume that once he finds out, something is going to be done about it.”
It’s been a big week in the small, navel-gazing world of Vermont media.
Last Thursday, Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly announced she’d hired Valley News editor Jeff Good to lead Seven Days’ news team. A winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, Good spent 12 years at Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, three at the Burlington Free Press and the past 13 at the Valley News.
Good replaces former news editor Andy Bromage, who left the paper in July to return to his native Connecticut.
Good told us last week he “could have cheerfully spent another 13 years working with the talented staff” of the Valley News. But he found Routly’s entreaties to return to Chittenden County, where he attended St. Michael’s College, and work for Seven Days “very hard to resist.”
Separately, Routly announced this week that Seven Days has hired Mark Davis, the Valley News’ cops and courts reporter, as a staff writer. Raised in Baltimore, Davis landed the gig at the Valley News soon after graduating from the University of Maryland in 2004.
“I think I’m leaving one of the best small papers in the country, but I have long been an admirer and reader of Seven Days,” Davis tells us. “It was just too much to pass up.”
In a memo he sent his staff to announce Davis’ departure, Valley News editor-at-large Jim Fox made light of the double dose of bad news.
“Although Mark’s departure for Seven Days is entirely coincidental with that of Jeff Good, and in fact was news to Jeff,” Fox wrote, “I have invoked my emergency powers to authorize a drone strike on the operational leaders of Seven Days in Vermont, believed to be sheltering in the tribal areas surrounding Burlington.”
Fox tells Seven Days he’ll serve as the Valley News’ interim editor until the paper can find a permanent replacement.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Vermont Public Radio announced that veteran journalist John Dillon has been named the station’s news director. A former Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus reporter, Dillon has covered state government for the statewide radio network since 2001. He replaces Ross Sneyd, who left VPR in May for a job at National Life Group.
“I’ve been a Vermont journalist, in the trenches, for a really long time, and I wanted to apply what I’ve learned to the next level,” Dillon explains.
Joining Dillon in the leadership ranks will be “Morning Edition” producer Melody Bodette, who was tapped Tuesday to fill a new deputy news director position at the station.
After conducting a national search to replace Sneyd, VPR senior vice president John Van Hoesen says it was “extremely rewarding to find the top candidate right here in Vermont.”
Lastly, the Rutland Herald made a few announcements of its own this past week. Last Wednesday, the paper’s Gordon Dritschilo reported that the Herald put its own building up for sale — with a price tag of $995,000.
Just last month, Herald publisher John Mitchell sold a Barre building that housed his family’s other paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. He tells Seven Days he’s following a similar model in Rutland: trading in a costly, underutilized building for a downtown rental.
On Monday, the Herald announced it has moved business editor Bruce Edwards and editor Darren Marcy into new local reporting beats. According to several people close to the situation, not all the new assignments were voluntary.
In June, the paper laid off at least four employees, including a veteran photographer and sports editor.
Left unannounced Monday was the news that veteran Sunday reporter Kevin O’Connor is no longer a staff writer. His work will continue to appear most Sundays for the time being, though he’s now a freelance “correspondent.”
Calling the transitions an “internal” matter, Mitchell declined to directly address the personnel changes — but he tells Seven Days they mark a shift in the paper’s approach to coverage.
“I think the needs of our organization in the future are not to specialize as much, but to have general assignment reporters. That traditionally has been the role of small newspapers,” Mitchell says. “We’re just so small it isn’t wise for us to be specializing.”