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Bob Vander Plaats 2010
Bob Vander Plaats (File Photo)

WATERLOO, Iowa --- Two national organizations involved in the campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices were called "hate groups" in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala.

Local conservative activists involved in that effort denounced the pronouncements by the SPLC, a civil rights organization founded in 1971.

The National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Assocation were among 18 groups the center said engaged in "repeated, groundless name-calling" against gays and lesbians. The organizations spent nearly $1 million against the retention of Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and justices Michael Streit and David Baker, which the report noted.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of Iowa For Freedom, a state affiliate of the American Family Association, said the designation misinterprets the intent of the campaign.

"Anybody who followed the Iowa For Freedom campaign knew number one, it wasn't about hate," Vander Plaats said.

Vander Plaats and others involved in Iowa For Freedom say the goal was to send a message to judges they believed acted beyond the scope of their powers. Being called hateful and extreme by the center and other groups was "disappointing and disheartening," Vander Plaats said.

"They are calling the majority of Iowans extreme," he said. "They are calling the majority of Iowans hateful."

Chuck Laudner, Iowa for Freedom campaign director, said the report follows similar attacks from gay rights advocates and opponents of the ouster effort.

"That's all they've had in their bag the whole way through, is name calling," Laudner said.

But, he said, the groups didn't seem to debate whether the Supreme Court overstepped its bound by issue its ruling.

The law center, which has monitored extremist groups and hate speech for 40 years, is known for its successful litigation against white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. The group said it listed groups like the American Family Association because they "have continued to pump out demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities." The report said mere opposition of same-sex marriage isn't enough to get listed as a "hate group."

The center said the AFA and the National Organization for Marriage didn't just oppose same-sex marriage, but also called for the criminalization of homosexuality and spread "falsehoods about homosexuals being pedophiles and gay men having extremely short life spans."

In Iowa, statements like that led to an emotionally charged atmosphere for people on both sides of the court's decision, said the Rev. Maureen Doherty. Doherty works as the campus minister for the University of Northern Iowa and is the director of New City Ministries.

"I think anytime we use that kind of language, it's very, very dangerous," she said.

Doherty, a lesbian who is married to her longtime partner, is active with One Iowa, the state's leading gay rights advocacy group, and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, which has countered more conservative groups like the Iowa Family Policy Center.

She said she wasn't sure if the comments like those by the AFA made them deserving of the "hate-group" designation, but that it can make the conversation about gay and lesbian issues more heated.

CORRECTION: The original story misidentified the church in which the Rev. Maureen Doherty is affiliated.

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