The “hate group” meets in a beige strip mall. Its pastor sports an Abe Lincoln beard. The congregation sits in chairs instead of pews. Sometimes they have potlucks after Sunday services.
Scenes from America’s early days — rifle-bearing pilgrims walking to church through the snow, the first prayer of the Continental Congress — decorate the walls, clues to the church’s stance on the Second Amendment and the role of religion in government. Pastor Warren Mark Campbell is not shy about sharing his beliefs: For example, he says gays who flaunt their sexuality should be prosecuted.
This is Lordship Church. Regional human rights watchdogs seem unaware that it exists. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has named it one of 12 hate groups in Idaho — under the category “general hate” — alongside infamous, sometimes violent organizations like the KKK and neo-Nazis.
Founded to fight racism and poverty, the SPLC helped bring about Idaho’s biggest human rights victory: the court ruling nearly 20 years ago that bankrupted the Aryan Nations. But it has also aroused mistrust over how it compiles the Hate Map, a unique online guide to the locations and ideologies of 954 U.S. groups.
The center, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, has grown rich. It has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly from donations solicited online and by mail. The bulk of that money sits in reserve accounts, some of it parked in places like the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands and Bermuda, according to the most recent federal tax records available.
Co-founder Morris Dees and President Richard Cohen draw salaries of more than $350,000, according to those records, last updated in 2015. At least nine executives earn more than $140,000 a year.
The SPLC’s opulence has drawn criticism for decades. Outsiders and former employees say the practice of putting violent and nonviolent groups on the same list allows Dees and his cohorts to exaggerate the number, power and threat of hate groups. The goal, they say, is to scare donors, especially uninformed liberals, into parting with their money.
“Basically, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a fraudulent operation,” said Stephen Bright, a Yale University law professor and former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which focuses on the death penalty, mass incarceration and other issues. “The mailings they send out make it seem like, ‘We need your help.’ And they have all these celebrities who sign off. Oh man, it’s sad. Because those people are being duped.”
And the center’s targets accuse the organization of waging war against conservative, politically active Christians.
“The SPLC uses hate as a wedge to marginalize us as Christians,” Campbell said.
That’s nonsense, said Heidi Beirich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors extremism and hate activity across the country.
“The range of conservative thought is pretty broad in the United States,” Beirich said. “If we were to list groups on that basis, which these folks always allege, imagine the number of churches. We would list thousands and thousands and thousands of groups.”
Supporters point to the SPLC’s accomplishments, such as desegregating the Alabama State Police, forcing the city of Montgomery to pave roads in black neighborhoods, and securing health protections for cotton mill workers. Dees and the SPLC should be feared, they say, but not by honest, tolerant people.
“I’ve seen Nazis, and you mention Morris Dees, and they start shaking like a leaf,” said Norm Gissel, a Coeur d’Alene attorney who worked alongside Dees in a 1999 case that bankrupted the Aryan Nations. “A, because he is ‘Satan’s child,’ and B, because they fear him so much. They just start shaking.”
Gissel called Dees “very nearly the smartest person I’ve ever met” and “impeccably honest.” He wouldn’t call all of the organizations on the SPLC’s list hate groups, though.
“My criteria would be, if they’re not committing a crime, we’ll meet in the marketplace of public policy and have dialogue,” he said. “I’m very Jeffersonian. I believe that my principles — freedom, equality, fairness and the rule of law — ultimately are going to prevail over any religious set of views that set one group of people over another.”
Idaho Statesman efforts to contact Dees were unsuccessful.
How the Hate Map works
Many states have more groups on the Hate Map than Idaho’s 12. Just in the West, Washington has 26. California has 75.
News media regularly share the map’s contents without question. It drew major attention last August, shortly after violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia left one dead.
It categorizes hate groups by ideologies ranging from “neo-Nazi” to “Black Nationalist.” (The latter is this year’s leading category, with 233 total organizations listed.)
The SPLC says it lists groups that “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” These groups “vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity — prejudices that strike at the heart of our democratic values and fracture society along its most fragile fault lines.”
Researchers compile information from groups’ own publications and websites, as well as news reports and law enforcement reports, to determine whether they belong on the Hate Map, Beirich said. If there’s any question as to whether an organization should be considered a hate group, Beirich said, she reviews the information herself and might talk to other leaders, such as Cohen.
It’s unclear if the center contacts the leaders of hate groups as part of this process. Campbell said he never heard from them.
The process is not foolproof. In February, Politico documented an Illinois town’s efforts to get off the list after local officials couldn’t verify the SPLC’s claims. “After months of futile appeals,” Politico wrote, the town was removed.
The little church in Coeur d’Alene
According to the SPLC, most of Idaho’s hate groups proclaim racist or anti-Semitic views. Lordship Church is different.
Campbell took over the church from his son after moving to Athol in 2015. Before that, he shepherded the Church at Kaweah near Visalia, California, which his father founded in the 1960s.
In 2012, the SPLC published a blog post accusing the California-based church of “ramping up paramilitary activities and forging alliances” with racist groups, “patrolling the banks of the Kaweah River” and “conducting joint exercises with Minuteman groups along the Mexican border.”
Campbell said the group’s claims were inaccurate. Yes, he and several Kaweah church members operated like a militia, conducting firearms training at a shooting range on church property. But they never patrolled the banks of the Kaweah River, he said.
And Campbell said he went on his own to the Mexican border to watch for people entering the United States illegally, but it was not a joint exercise with Minuteman groups. It’s difficult to confirm how the SPLC’s Minuteman claim originated; several other online mentions of it refer back to the organization’s post.
Now, Campbell said, it’s absurd to call his church a hate group. He points out that its members include ethnic minorities. He objects to Islam, but not to Muslims’ ethnicity. He does not believe in using violence against anyone who disagrees with his creed.
“I believe that Christianity wins in the marketplace of ideas,” Campbell said. “We have God’s word. Let’s take it out. Let’s talk. Let’s engage people.”
His congregation does not include anyone who’s openly gay. “I would not baptize a Sodomite,” he said. “I would call them to repentance.”
And, he told the Statesman, he believes anyone displaying overtly gay behavior should face criminal charges.
That’s over the line, Beirich said.
“If you’re advocating for criminal penalties, criminalization for gay people, you’re going to get on our list,” she said. “We think that it’s particularly hateful if you’re going to go down the road of throwing people in jail for private sexual behavior. In fact, that’s a lot worse than saying gay people are diseased. You want to put them in handcuffs.”
One of the church’s minority members, Puerto Rico native Ed Reillo, objected to his church being lumped in with “all these crazy right-wing extremists.”
“All that we have experienced here is love from this congregation,” Reillo said. “I would like to know where (the SPLC is) getting all their facts... I haven’t seen any crazy guy running around with a pointy hat.”
From the cotton farm to the courtroom
Dees, now 81, grew up on a cotton farm about 25 miles east of Montgomery. He always had a knack for getting money, from selling pigs as a youngster to fundraising for presidential candidates.
He earned a law degree in 1960 from the University of Alabama and ran a successful business selling cookbooks, tractor cushions and other products, according to his autobiography and news reports. He sold the business in 1969 for $6 million — about $40 million in today’s money.
Dees and fellow lawyer Joseph Levin founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971. The center’s attorneys, often led by Dees himself, won several landmark civil rights cases. They successfully argued for better representation of blacks in the Alabama Legislature and helped force the Montgomery Police Department to open all of its jobs to female candidates.
There were hiccups. Lawsuits between Dees and another attorney, Millard Farmer, drew public attention amid a dispute over a project aimed at keeping people off death row. The center helped start the Team Defense project in 1976 but backed out the following year.
“They quit funding us,” Farmer told the Statesman. “They called me to Atlanta, very politely, and everything and said, ‘Listen — we’re not making any money with this project.’ ... I said, ‘What do you mean we’re not making any money? How do you think we’re going to make money?’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah, we make money on our projects.’”
Dees claimed Farmer spread the funds among more cases than the pair had agreed to and wanted a better accounting of the money, according to an Associated Press report from 1977.
SPLC, a fundraising giant
Death row and civil rights cases put the SPLC on the map. The next decade, the Ku Klux Klan made Dees a star.
In 1981, two KKK members in Alabama grabbed Michael Donald, a young black man. They beat him with a tree branch, cut his throat and hung his body from a tree on a residential street in Mobile. The murderers, Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles, were convicted.
With the SPLC representing her, Beulah Mae Donald, Michael’s mother, sued the United Klans of America in 1984. She won a $7 million judgment against the Klan and several individual members in February 1987.
She collected less than $52,000 because the Klan declared bankruptcy. But the SPLC, which featured the case on fundraising mailers for years, saw a windfall. Between 1985 and 1989, its reserve accounts grew from $12.2 million to $30.6 million, according to numbers the center provided the Statesman.
Bright, the Yale professor, said his colleagues at the center were frustrated by what they saw as a misguided obsession with the KKK.
“That’s what you could convince northern liberals, and Jewish people particularly, of — that the Ku Klux Klan was still a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “When, in fact, it wasn’t, and there were other kinds of basic things like roads not being paved in the black community and other kinds of discrimination against African Americans. But Dees had no interest whatsoever in pursuing because it didn’t have any fundraising potential.”
‘Hate and extremism ... are long-term problems’
The SPLC formed Klanwatch in 1979 to track the KKK. In 1990, that effort expanded to include other hate groups, eventually growing into the Hate Map.
The center’s coffers have also grown. It claimed more than $432 million in its endowment fund’s net assets on Oct. 31. 2017, according to its annual financial statement.
Donald Trump — and the fear of extremism his presidency has stoked — has been good for fundraising. The SPLC received $44.2 million from donors in 2015 and $49.1 million in 2016, according to figures obtained by the Statesman. Last year, it raised $129.7 million.
Income from the endowment’s investments generate tens of millions of dollars every year to sustain the SPLC’s litigation and other programming.
“Morris had always said, ‘Well, when we get to $50 (million), we’re going to stop. When we get to $100 (million), we’re going to stop.’ But of course, they just breezed right past those,” Bright said.
The center no longer has a finite goal for its endowment, according to an email from the organization.
“Hate and extremism, poverty, and discrimination, unfortunately, are long-term problems, and our goal is to help as many people as possible, for however long it takes,” according to the email. “Our donors share the same goal.”
Farmer, Bright and other critics say the SPLC uses today’s rhetoric and publications, including the Hate Map, the same way it used the Donald case in the 1980s: to hype the powers of relatively toothless groups and attract well-intentioned donors’ cash.
“I reject that criticism completely,” said Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “If we wanted to hype the threat, why would we report many times that the numbers (of hate groups) have gone down? It just doesn’t make any sense on that front. This is our accurate read of the problem faced in this country.”
A few miles west of Coeur d’Alene, between the Idaho border and Spokane, Washington, Pastor Shahram Hadian gathers the Truth in Love Christian Fellowship congregation in a small, nondescript event center that might’ve hosted a wedding reception just a few hours earlier. Energetic and demonstrative, Hadian talks a mile a minute as he sets up the church’s props: American and Israeli flags, the Ten Commandments and a big-screen image of Truth in Love’s sword-heart-Bible symbol.
Hadian himself is caught between two swords. In America, the SPLC has named his ministry a hate group. In his birth country of Iran, he said, he’s an apostate — a traitor to Islam — and could be marked for death if he ever returned.
Hadian’s family fled Iran at about the time the SPLC was starting Klanwatch.
His father served in the Shah’s military until December 1978 — three months before the Shah was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. Hadian said his father could see what was coming. Though the family was Muslim, they were not devout, and his father didn’t want to live under the Islamic theocracy the revolution promised.
“He just came home one day and said, ‘We’ve got to pack our bags. We’re leaving,’” Hadian said. “And literally we caught the next flight out.”
Hadian was 8 years old when his family arrived in the U.S. He became a Christian in 1999 and a pastor in 2002. He also entered politics, running for governor of Washington in 2012. In 2015, he lectured Idaho lawmakers on his belief that Islamic law could soon apply to America’s courts, contributing to fears that killed a bill on collecting child support and forced lawmakers to hold a special session to fix the problem.
He founded Truth in Love in 2010, moving it to Spokane Valley in 2014. Last year, the church appeared on the Hate Map, labeled as anti-Muslim.
Hadian speaks with conviction about the America he sees: a country and culture under attack from an alien ideology that seeks to overthrow Christianity and undermine the foundations of this nation. He predicts that Islam’s leaders, left unchecked, will exert Sharia law in the U.S., no matter what the Constitution says. Christians who try to be inclusive of Islam are simply enabling that treachery, he said.
“Absolutely, Islam is a false religion,” Hadian said. “And it’s not just a religion. That’s the other part of this equation that we are having a hard time embracing here in the West. ... It is a political, totalitarian ideology.”
But like Campbell, Hadian says he’s not anti-Muslim.
“If somebody who’s supporting our ministry ends up putting something online about hate or wanting to go harm anybody, I’ll be the first one to denounce them,” he said. “We must love individual Muslims and seek to share the truth with them. I want to see them ... rescued out of an ideology that is destructive.”
Hadian believes the SPLC shares the motivation of Islamic leaders — or has at least become their pawn. Due in part to being identified as a hate group, he said, his church has a team of members who greet the congregation and double as an armed security force. They have to pass background checks and obtain permits to carry concealed weapons, he said.
Beirich called Campbell’s and Hadian’s anti-Islam, pro-Muslim stance “a distinction without a difference.”
An SPLC post last year on Hadian’s ministry included criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose executive director in Seattle said Hadian’s “inflammatory speech leads to kids being bullied in schools, adults being taunted at work, vandalism of property and hate crimes.”
Hadian said the quote borders on libel because he knows of no evidence that he’s ever directly incited attacks.
Northwest hate today
The landscape that Campbell and Hadian inhabit has changed since the Aryan Nations collapsed.
Retired Lockheed aircraft engineer Richard Butler formed the group in 1977 in Hayden Lake. He admired Adolf Hitler and preached about creating a homeland for whites. His followers became known for vandalism, harassing families and children, and for setting off a bomb in 1984 at Congregation-Ahavath Israel Synagogue in Boise.
In July 1998, Victoria Keenan’s Datsun Honey Bee backfired on Rimrock Road outside the group’s 20-acre compound north of Hayden Lake. Guards at the compound, reportedly drunk, thought the noise was a gunshot. They piled into a pickup and chased Keenan and her son, Jason, for more than a mile — firing at her, running her off the road, beating her and threatening her before fleeing when another car approached.
Keenan told her story to local attorney Gissel, who’d already become alarmed at the Aryan Nations’ increasingly sinister activities. Gissel turned to Dees, who brought star power and deep pockets to bear against the Nazi-sympathizing Aryans.
In September 2000, the Keenans won a $6.3 million judgment, bankrupting the Aryan Nations and forcing the group to turn its compound over to the plaintiffs. Echoing Beulah Mae Donald, the Keenans sold the property to Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr, who destroyed all of the buildings and donated the land to North Idaho College. It lies undeveloped to this day.
“I don’t doubt that there’s still people around that have some of those beliefs, but they’re without any kind of organization,” said Jared Reneau, a detective for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department. “They don’t meet and get together, at least that we know about. And I’m not saying that we don’t have any problems, but we don’t see the same problems that we did 10 years ago.”
Reneau said he’d never heard of Lordship Church.
Today, neo-Nazis and the related Patriot Front groups are the most common hate ideologies in the Northwest, said Dave Neiwert, an SPLC correspondent and author of the book “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.”
“The Patriots aren’t nearly as virulent and problematic as the neo-Nazis are, although the huge numbers that we see in the Patriot movement in the interior Northwest are very much a problem,” Neiwert said.
Statesman efforts to contact several other organizations listed as hate groups in Idaho and western Montana were unsuccessful.
Beirich said she doesn’t know of any violent behavior on the part of either Truth in Love or Lordship Church. That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous, though, she said in comments that recall how Butler inspired his supporters to action.
“People are often critical of us and say, ‘You shouldn’t put nonviolent groups on the list,’” she said. “The problem for us is the ideology of the nonviolent groups often ends up justifying violence, right?
“If (white nationalist magazine) American Renaissance tells you black people are psychopathic killers, even though no one in that group has committed violence, we know Dylann Roof read American Renaissance and went and killed people.”
The SPLC list in Idaho
Here are the 12 groups currently listed on the Hate Map, their location and how the SPLC categorized each.
▪ Endangered Souls RC/Crew 519: Statewide, “neo-Nazi”
▪ Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan: Statewide, “KKK”
▪ Crew 38: Statewide, “racist skinhead”
▪ True Cascadia: Statewide, “white nationalist”
▪ Northwest Hammerskins: Statewide, “racist skinhead”
▪ Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center: Buhl, “anti-Muslim”
▪ ACT for America (local chapter): Meridian, “anti-Muslim”
▪ America’s Promise Ministries: Sandpoint, “Christian identity”
▪ Pig Blood Bullets: Priest River, “anti-Muslim”
▪ Campaign for Radical Truth in History: Coeur d’Alene, “Holocaust denial”
▪ The Brother Nathanael Foundation: Priest River, “general hate”
▪ Lordship Church: Coeur d’Alene, “general hate”