The Rise and Fall of the National Organization for Marriage

Legal Defeats

NOM became the juggernaut of the anti-marriage movement by offering potential large donors one benefit: anonymity. Donor secrecy quickly became NOM’s fixation in the wake of public scrutiny following California’s Proposition 8 campaign, as the organization focused on funneling undisclosed money from a handful of mega-donors into anti-LGBT political campaigns.

The way NOM made this work, as first revealed in internal documents obtained by HRC, was to promise these donors that if they gave to NOM, their contributions would remain secret. The donors would be told that NOM would pass through their funds to state campaigns, and the donor disclosed to campaign finance authorities would be NOM rather than the person or organization that actually made the contribution.

The problem with this scheme was that while it served as NOM’s lifeblood, it also was plainly illegal under state disclosure laws. NOM’s leadership knew this but thought that the organization could escape consequences by filing massive amounts of frivolous lawsuits and stonewalling state investigations.

However, in Maine, NOM ran up against state investigators unwilling to turn a blind eye to blatant violations of the law. In 2009, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices launched a nearly five-year investigation that exposed the inner workings of NOM like never before, resulting in a stunning and comprehensive 37-page investigative report and a $50,000 fine, the largest in Maine campaign finance history, issued in 2014.

Using its power of subpoena, including depositions of Brian Brown, the Maine Commission obtained access to information and documents and finally peeled away the layers of an organization whose central purpose was to evade disclosure laws to protect its few donors’ identities. The Commission found that “NOM intentionally set up its fundraising strategy to avoid donor disclosure laws.”

Across the country, NOM either violated disclosure laws to maintain secrecy or went to court to challenge long-standing and widely-supported laws that inform the public who is funding political campaigns.

In Iowa, NOM received a stern warning from state regulators that “the independent expenditure process in Iowa is not a vehicle to shield political contributors.” Later, documents disclosed as part of the Maine investigation revealed that NOM’s assertion that it had abided by Iowa disclosure laws was untrue. 

While NOM’s stated focus was working against marriage equality, most of NOM’s court battles implicated disclosure laws and not marriage. Besides numerous legal challenges to Maine’s disclosure laws, NOM and its partners went to court in California, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Washington to try to evade disclosure. In every jurisdiction that NOM and its allies tried to undermine public disclosure, they lost.

Besides arguing that the laws were burdensome and unconstitutional, NOM also asserted that LGBT rights advocates and their supporters would harass or intimidate the donors should their identities be known. Serious scrutiny of these claims revealed inaccurate and questionable reports and, more often than not, legitimate acts of public criticism typical of any hard-fought campaign. Uniformly, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, strongly rejected these false allegations. But vilifying the LGBT community became part of NOM’s fake victimization crusade.

NOM’s Brian Brown went as far as to set up his own legal shop, ActRight Legal Foundation, to continue the legal battle to maintain NOM’s crusade for secrecy by taking on state regulators and the IRS. Just as the anti-marriage movement lost the legal arguments for DOMA, Prop 8 and other state marriage bans, NOM and ActRight’s efforts to gut disclosure laws were a total failure.