An online donation processing company’s recent decision to sever ties with family-advocacy organization The Ruth Institute has come under fire from religious liberty and traditional marriage advocates, who argue that it is proof of the corroding of civil discourse and increasing attempts to harass religious groups out of existence.
Vanco Payment Solutions, which processes online donations for more than 20,000 churches and non-profit religious groups across the country, cancelled the Ruth Institute’s service August 31. The group had been flagged by Card Services as “a product/service that promotes hate, violence, harassment and/or abuse,” and “[m]erchants that display such attributes are against Vanco and Wells Fargo processing policies,” according to a portion of Vanco’s letter posted on the Ruth Institute blog.
The Ruth Institute (an organization the author has occasionally worked for as an independent contractor) says it has been listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map” since 2013, and believes that designation is what led to Vanco’s move. The SPLC, located in Montgomery, Alabama, is a source widely used by the media and other organizations to identify hate groups. According to the SPLC’s website, Ruth Institute founder Jennifer Roback Morse has “used Catholic doctrine to assert LGBT people are ‘intrinsically disordered’ and that they should remain celibate (or leave ‘the gay lifestyle’) and not act on their attractions.”
After the Ruth Institute’s publicizing Vanco’s decision, the company’s CFO, Jennifer Dorris, contacted the Ruth Institute and told Morse the company was willing to re-establish a business relationship with the non-profit. Morse stated she emailed Dorris and told her that in order for the Ruth Institute to consider using Vanco’s services again, she would need an explanation of why they were terminated, what Wells Fargo’s role was in them being terminated, and a private and public apology, among other requests. Dorris did not respond to any of those demands, so Morse said the Ruth Institute will not be doing business with Vanco any time soon.
“Vanco’s decision to abruptly end its business relationship with the Ruth Institute was disruptive for the organization,” Morse said in an interview with CWR. “Their initial decision to drop us was very inconvenient, as you may imagine. Our monthly donors were the ones immediately impacted.”
“We had to call all of them, and tell them what was going on, that their donations would be interrupted until we could find a replacement,” Morse said.
Vanco, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Card Services (the company named by Vanco as having “flagged” the Ruth Institute as a hate group) were all contacted for this article, but none responded to interview requests. Wells Fargo Communication Manager Jim Seitz responded via email that Wells Fargo did not have a comment for the story.
“These people—Vanco, probably Wells Fargo, and certainly the SPLC—participated in a public slander of my organization,” Morse said. “It isn’t just me, though. Indirectly, they are shaming every person who has ever given me 10 bucks. I won’t stand for that anymore. I decided that my supporters deserve better than for me to keep my head down and hope it all goes away. I felt the time was right to speak out, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, said she thinks the Ruth Institute’s pushback against Vanco is a good step, but that much more needs to be done to fight the SPLC.
“It’s a dangerous trend for the mainstream media and organizations we rely on to evaluate charities—and even give to charities—to irresponsibly cite the SPLC,” Kao said.
“There is a growing trend of hostility toward religion,” she added. “The SPLC—they’ve openly said they are going to destroy these organizations.”
“The most important thing is for Vanco and other organizations to stop using the SPLC as a credible source, because they aren’t a credible source,” Kao said. “I think an apology [to the Ruth Institute] is appropriate in this situation, but the most important thing is that Vanco…and other groups don’t espouse the SPLC’s political vandalism, and that people who care about religious liberty speak up for religious liberty—that people who care about the family speak up for, support, and give to groups that support the family.”
Hunter Baker, a fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, said that unmasking the SPLC’s partisanship is critical.
“We need to make SPLC famous,” said Baker, who teaches political science at Union University. “Every American needs to know that the media defines a hate group based on what the SPLC says. That means we need to publicize everything about their operation. How do they determine a group is a ‘hate group’? Are they using their ‘hate’ designation for any good purpose, such as uncovering dangerous extremists? Or are they simply trying to destroy political and religious dissent in American society? Everyone needs to understand that SPLC is basically a very lucrative marketing organization aimed against Christians and conservatives.”
“Whenever this kind of thing happens to groups like the Ruth Institute, we have to resist on their behalf,” Baker said. “Don’t leave them on their own. Don’t let them be isolated and blackballed. Christians who use Vanco should seriously consider using a different company.”
Morse expressed similar sentiments. “Find someone else,” she said of Vanco. “They are not serious about their mission to service churches and non-profit organizations.”
Morse and Baker both said conservatives need to take a closer look at how corporations are framing the narrative with regard to religious liberty, marriage, and family.
“We need to start talking about the Beltway-Silicon Valley-Hollywood-Wall Street nexus and the way they are working to destroy religious liberty,” Baker said. “Why did [Georgia Governor] Nathan Deal veto religious liberty legislation in Georgia? Intimidation from this cultural nexus.”
Morse sounded a similar warning. “The activist organizations are increasingly partnering with Big Business,” she said. “Conservatives who think Big Business is on their side need to wake up. Corporate America is committed to supporting the Sexual Revolution. Do not be naïve about this.”
“The environment will become more hostile because the political left realizes that gay marriage is an ideal wedge issue,” Baker said. “They’ll amp up the pressure since there is a natural lull on their side after the Obergefell decision. They got what they wanted. In order to keep the movement going, it makes sense to identify the enemies—that’s us, unfortunately—and try to gather wins.”
“The Trump presidency, whether you like him personally or not, provides a period of relative safety,” Baker added. “The federal bureaucracy won’t be coming after conservative Christians in the next four years. Hopefully, the fervor will die down and people will have time to reevaluate the importance of religious liberty.”
As for Morse, if she had the chance to speak directly to the SPLC, what would she say?
“Find honest work,” she said.