DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) A group campaigning to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled to legalize gay marriage is being bankrolled by a conservative Mississippi-based group, and opponents said Wednesday the campaign's organizers are trying to mask it as a local campaign.
Bob Vander Plaats, who leads the group Iowa For Freedom, dismissed the criticism, saying the group is abiding by the law.
"What we're doing is we're running an effective campaign according to the letter of the law," Vander Plaats said.
Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, said at a news conference Wednesday the campaign maybe legal, but she questioned whether "it is moral." She noted Iowa for Freedom is financed entirely by the American Family Association, a conservative group that believes Muslims should not serve in the military and that gays and lesbians should not hold public office. Campaign disclosure records show AFA's political action arm, known as AFA Action Inc., has given about $100,000 to Iowa for Freedom.
"It is gravely concerning to us that a hate-mongering group such as the AFA is the single funder of an effort to insert its narrow political agenda into Iowa with the sole purpose of disrupting our fair and impartial courts," said Terrell.
A total of nearly $320,000 has been spent on the campaign to oust the justices. Besides money spent by AFA, the National Organization for Marriage has spent $235,000 on television ads.
Documents filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board underscore the relationship between Vander Plaats' group and AFA.
"AFA intends to make independent expenditures that expressly advocate a 'no' vote on judicial retention for specific Iowa Supreme Court justices," the group said in the filing. "AFA's campaign will be known as 'Iowa for Freedom.'"
The Iowa Supreme Court last year unanimously struck down a state law defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. Critics of the decision failed in an attempt to push the Legislature to set up a statewide election to overturn that decision.
Following that failed effort, gay marriage opponents targeted the three justices Michael Streit, David Baker and Chief Justice Marcia Ternus who are on the ballot this year. Judges in Iowa are not elected, but face retention elections every eight years, which usually get almost no attention.
In late August, the Iowa for Freedom sought a clarification from campaign finance regulators about disclosing donors, noting AFA would be the only financial supporter of the group. In an advisory opinion, regulators said contributions to AFA don't have to be disclosed unless the giver offers specific requests for how the money should be used.
Vander Plaats dismissed complaints about Iowa for Freedom's financial link to AFA.
"They can't defend what the justices are doing so they're attacking something else," he said.
David Lane, a spokesman for AFA Action Inc., said the group has a heavy presence in Iowa and has every right to get involved in a campaign in the state.
"AFA has a 2.5 million member Internet constituency, and 26,500 of those are Iowans," said Lane.
The three justices on the ballot have not formed committees to campaign for retention, but records show some of their backers have spent money on their behalf. With backers spending about $32,000, their efforts are dwarfed by the critics.
"Iowa's judicial system is under assault," said Matt Mardis LeCroy, a Des Moines minister at Wednesday's news conference opposing the effort to oust the justices. "Iowa for Freedom is not from Iowa and it is not for freedom."