You could say Liberty Counsel had a bad September.
When Mat Staver, founder of the Religious Right legal group, announced that Pope Francis secretly met with his client, Kim Davis, during the recent U.S. papal tour, it should have been a moment of glory for the organization.
Francis, after all, had been crowned a liberal darling by many for statements that exhorted Catholic clergy to show more compassion to LGBT people. And Davis was known primarily for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Ky. A Vatican endorsement for her religious-freedom claim would have represented a public relations coup for the Orlando, Fla.,-based group, even though Staver and Davis are Protestants.
"Fie [Francis] held out his hand, and she clasped his hands and held them," Staver told The Washington Post. In a statement on the Liberty Counsel's website, he also insisted the pope encouraged her to "stay strong."
But many journalists refused to believe the meeting had even happened.
That's arguably Staver's fault. Just two days prior to his papal announcement, he'd been forced to retract a very public claim about international support for Davis' case.
During a brief appearance at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., Staver displayed a photo that purportedly showed roughly 100,000 Peruvian Christians gathered at a prayer meeting on Davis' behalf.
"That, my friends, is happening around the world," a beaming Staver announced to the rapturous crowd. "When one person stands it has an impact, and Kim Davis will continue to stand for her lord and savior Jesus Christ."
Except that isn't what the photo showed at all.
The progressive site ThinkProgress investigated the photo and discovered that it showed a Peruvian prayer rally that had taken place in 2014. Obviously the event hadn't been organized for Davis, who was a non-entity then. Staver doubled down on the claim before finally issuing a retraction. It didn't do much for his reputation, which was already tarnished for his virulent anti-gay politics.
If Staver misled people about the prayer meeting, observers reasoned, maybe he'd fib about the pope, too.
The Vatican eventually delivered him from disgrace--to a certain extent. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Frederico Lombardi confirmed the meeting to The New York Times but refused to provide any further information about what Francis may have said to Davis. Later, Lombardi told press the meeting should not be construed as support for the clerk's religious freedom claims. (See more on this in "People & Events.")
What did Liberty Counsel hope to gain from the meeting? If the group hoped the pope would issue a more specific endorsement of its work, Staver and company were disappointed. And Francis has no authority to influence the outcome of Davis' case, even if he'd wanted to.
To Liberty Counsel's critics, the claim of a papal endorsement was simply the latest in a long line of desperate stunts.
There's little debate that the organization, founded in 1989, is indeed desperate. Staver recently failed to convince a series of federal courts Davis deserved a religious exemption from authorizing...