THE FAITH of a persecuted people, many of whom starved to death on their trek to Utah, Mormonism has always emphasized the role of marriage and childbearing (hence its early practice of polygamy) to boost its numbers. Mormons must marry and have children to achieve the highest levels of divinity. There's not much room in that scheme for same-sex marriage, at least not among a leadership dominated by men in their 70s and 80s. In 1995, the church made its position official by issuing a proclamation carrying the weight of scripture that declared marriage between a man and a woman the bedrock of society.
Even before that, the church had been working behind the scenes to block gay marriage nationwide—and aligning itself with the Catholic Church, which, elders noted in internal memos, had "more respect" than the Mormons. To execute that vision, the church used its public affairs committee, a body organized much like a political consulting firm. Its leadership has included high-ranking church elder Richard B. Wirthlin, a legendary California political consultant who was Ronald Reagan's pollster. Wirthlin was a major player in the Prop 8 fight (some of his relatives even appeared in ProtectMarriage.com's TV ads). The public-affairs committee for decades tracked gay-marriage efforts in every state, almost single-handedly blocked it in Hawaii in the 1990s, and had a significant role in killing it in Alaska.
The documents Karger obtained, some of which he has posted at mormongate.org, show that in Hawaii, the church went to the trouble of creating a front group to hide its role. Memos detail how the church looked for an "articulate middle-age mother who is neither Catholic nor LDS" to represent the organization—which would claim to also focus on prostitution and gambling, but would, in fact, be devoted solely to abolishing gay marriage.
The documents convinced Karger that the Mormons had also created a front group to fight gay marriage in California. That group, he believes, is NOM, which has also been active on the issue in Massachusetts and Maine, and which was primarily responsible for putting Prop 8 on the ballot. Its board had deep connections to the church, including a former Brigham Young University professor whose family is part of the top church hierarchy. NOM's president is Maggie Gallagher, the family-values activist who was exposed in 2005 for failing to disclose payments she received from the Bush administration.
Karger began hounding NOM for information about its finances, such as the tax forms every nonprofit must make available to the public. He contacted the IRS, various NOM offices, even sent an ally to the group's headquarters in New Jersey—where, despite repeated visits, no one answered the door. He struck out.
Brian Brown, NOM's executive director, says Karger is guilty of "religious bigotry." There is, he says, no factual basis for his claims that NOM is a front for the Mormon Church. "Fred Karger has a history of being untruthful and making false attacks on NOM and in general trying to intimidate and harass [NOM] supporters. Frankly he's an embarrassment to those who want to civilly debate the same-sex-marriage issue. He has no basis in reality. We see Fred Karger as someone who is wasting our time."
Yet Karger's muckraking has clearly struck a nerve with NOM. In January 2009, with the help of the Indiana-based Christian right law firm Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, the group sued the state of California, challenging the law that requires disclosure of ballot-initiative donors. NOM alleges that the requirements prompt harassment of donors—in good part, court documents suggest, via lawn-sign theft.
It's a serious case from a group of lawyers who have an excellent track record at overturning campaign finance laws. (James Bopp [pdf], one of the firm's name partners, brought the original lawsuit in Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court case that in a seismic January ruling led the court to throw out federal limits on corporate spending in elections.) The California lawsuit could have implications far beyond the state, striking at the heart of more than 40 years of transparency legislation. In connection with the suit, NOM has subpoenaed Karger—demanding, ironically, the exact same kind of financial information it's refusing to give him. Karger is fighting the subpoena.
While the lawsuits proceed, Karger is continuing to poke NOM with a stick. When news of Carrie Prejean's sex tapes leaked, he demanded to know if NOM would fire the former Miss California, who had appeared in one of its ads. He's sent out press releases calling on Maggie Gallagher to take a lie-detector test. But if his opponents took the gimmicks to mean Karger wasn't serious, they were in for a surprise.
AFTER PROP 8, the gay-marriage battle moved to Maine, whose legislature legalized same-sex marriage last spring. A ballot initiative to void the law soon followed, and Karger started tracking Maine campaign filings. Right away, he noticed that few individuals from Maine had given any money to the local group working to get the initiative on the ballot. Instead, the group, Stand for Marriage Maine, was getting a huge share of its money from NOM.
Maine law requires any organization raising more than $5,000 for a ballot initiative to register with the state and report the names of donors who give more than $100. But NOM never registered in Maine. Karger suspected that the boycotts had scared donors, and that NOM was trying to funnel their money to the Maine campaign anonymously. Sure enough, he intercepted 79 emails NOM sent out to supporters after the success of Prop 8 in California and found that 16 of them were essentially fundraising appeals for NOM's work in Maine. "Every dollar you give...is private, with no risk of harassment from gay marriage protesters," one promised. Another read, "Donations to NOM are...NOT public information."
Armed with those emails, Karger asked Maine election officials to investigate what he called NOM's "money laundering." And on a gloomy day in October, he traveled to Augusta to testify on his complaint. He was going up against some of the nation's top campaign finance lawyers, and he was pumped.
"I've spent 30 years in politics, managing campaigns," Karger told the ethics board, a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor and the legislature. "I've filed and read literally thousands of campaign reports in probably 25 states. I've never seen this type of blatant disregard for election laws." The commissioners sat in stony silence. Karger was convinced he'd lost.
A career in politics has trained Karger to make realistic assessments. The night before the hearing he predicted, correctly, that gay marriage would go down to defeat in Maine. Putting a minority's civil rights on the ballot is always a dicey proposition, and the movement, in his view, was "not ready for prime time." His strategy now is effectively the same one he'd once deployed in the tobacco fight: slow down the other side, force them to spend their money, and embarrass them where you can. (In that spirit, Karger recently launched an ad campaign encouraging viewers to ask Mitt Romney "to urge the Mormon Church to stop its nasty campaign against gay marriage.")
It's likely to be a long fight—in Maine, too, the anti-gay-marriage measure prevailed at the polls last fall—but Karger did score at least a tactical victory. At the conclusion of the Maine ethics hearing, the commissioners voted to investigate NOM, and a federal judge cleared the way for the state to release NOM's donor list. After the announcement, NOM director Brown ended up side by side with Karger among the TV cameras. Karger may be a gay man fighting a movement that considers him an offense to God, but he is first and foremost a political operator. He shook Brown's hand and joked with NOM's lawyer about his impending deposition. Afterward, leaving the building, Karger was buoyant. "If I had a budget, I'd be dangerous," he said with a big smile.