A correction on the purported “plausible deniability” quote

The Perry hearings have been underway for a few days now, and yesterday’s hearing contained some particularly interesting material.

Yesterday’s hearings certainly contained some helpful material for marriage equality advocates. For instance, as Shannon Minter notes at Pam’s House Blend,

In some of the most dramatic evidence presented to date, Professor Segura commented upon a number of documents that provided a shocking glimpse of just how deeply the Catholic and Mormon churches were involved in supporting Prop 8 and intertwined with the official pro-Prop 8 campaign. “One document sent by executive director of the Conference of Catholic Bishops to bishops in California thanked the Catholic Conference for its “unusual” efforts in supporting Prop 8 and applauded the Mormon church for its “financial, organizational, and managerial contributions” to the campaign.” Other documents detailed the Mormon Church’s extensive collaboration with the campaign, including mobilizing more than 20,000 volunteers and coordinating messaging and fundraising. Professor Segura testified that this level of coordination among powerful religious groups to target a particular group was unprecedented.

All of this is correct; and it’s also correct that the paper trail being established (including yesterday) will be immensely helpful for marriage equality advocates.

However, an overstated report of an “explosive” document about plausible deniability has also been making the rounds. That report is incorrect. Its genesis lies in the somewhat circuitous reporting process for the hearings. Because the hearings are not being televised (thank you, SCOTUS), various observers have been posting short summaries of the proceedings online. One of the best sources has been the Courage Campaign’s Prop 8 Trial Tracker. However, in this particular instance, the summary-and-paraphrase approach led to a chain of claims, some of which were ultimately incorrect.

The initial Courage Campaign trial report stated that:

S: Reads document. Says Brother Jansen said LDS not to take lead, but to work through Protect Marriage. SLC had teleconference with 159 of 161 stake leaders in CA. Goal is $5million at $30 minimum donation per head.
S: Director Holland highlighted the luxury of having Mark Jansen key committees and that eh will received direct communicate (sic) from him.
S: With respect to Prop. 8 campaign, key talking points will come from campaign, but cautious, strategic, not to take the lead so as to provide plausible deniability or respectable distance so as not to show that church is directly involved. We might look at religious belief as source of opposition and think that some folks would vote their religious conscience, but we would not know that this sort of direct church power is engaged. I have never seen this level of coordination in a political campaign.

Note that this description is limited: It is one attendee’s summary of one witness’s testimony about a document. There’s no claim that the document contains this language in the CC report. There may be some ambiguity about what exactly the document said. However, within hours various marriage equality supporters were describing the plausible deniability language as a direct quote. (See, e.g., Queerty blog). The same plausible deniability language has now been posted by Andrew Sullivan (also as a direct quote).

The published transcripts make clear, however, that the plausible deniability language was not a direct quote from the document being examined. Rather, it was a characterization of that document, by the plaintiffs’ expert witness. Take a look at the transcripts yourself (you’ll want to go to pages 155-160).

The Prop 8 campaign document being discussed does contain some detailed instructions on coordinating the church and political sides. The language quoted in the transcript includes this: “Brother Jannson emphasized that we are not to take the lead on this proposition but to join in coalition with ProtectMarriage.com. Salt Lake City conducted a teleconference with 159 of 161 Stake presidents in the State of California, and told the presidents LDS are involved in this issue but are not to take the lead.”

The plausible deniability quote comes from later questions to plaintiffs’ expert witness, Gary Segura. When asked about the reasons for the particular language in the coordinating document, professor Segura suggested: “But there was this cautious strategic not-to-take-the-lead notion so as to provide a — I don’t know, plausible deniability or respectable distance between the church organization per se and the actual campaign.”

That’s the source of the quote — and as such, it is factually incorrect to attribute it to an internal church or Prop 8 campaign document.

I’m all for supporting marriage equality through discussion and legal action. The Perry hearings have already provided a variety of helpful materials (as noted in Shannon’s summary), and I expect that more helpful material will come out in future hearings as well. But mischaracterizations don’t advance marriage equality; and there are enough accurate arguments and facts in favor of equality, that mischaracterizations are unnecessary anyway.

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2 Responses

  1. AYY says:

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t understand what this testimony is supposed to be relevant to. Where does it say in the federal constitution that religious organizations can’t work together to try to pass a state constitutional amendment? How is that different from people getting together to fund the litigation that challenges the amendment?