Focus on the facts

SUMMARY: A leading conservative Christian group is blasting away at Sen. Barack Obama's record in hopes of portraying him as too liberal to win the White House. But they misfire on many of their facts.

While influential evangelical Christian leader James Dobson once said he could not vote for Republican Sen. John McCain because he did not believe McCain was a true conservative, Dobson's organization has apparently decided Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is much worse.

A letter from Focus on the Family Action makes a multifaceted attack on Obama in an attempt to portray him as someone who would be "the most left-wing president in our nation's history." Focus on the Family Action is the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, an organization founded by Dobson.

"Dear Friend," the letter begins. "What does it take to be the most liberal member of the United States Senate — farther left than Ted Kennedy, John Kerry or even Hillary Clinton? For the answer, take a look at a man who could be the next president of the United States: Barack Obama."

The letter, written by Tim Minnery, the lobbying group's senior vice president, was posted on the organization's Web site and widely circulated via chain e-mail. It tries to paint Obama as bad for families, accusing him of everything from trying to further "the homosexual agenda" to being soft on the war against terrorists.

The letter purports to lay out Obama's position on a number of family issues, but too often mischaracterizes and sensationalizes the effect of some of the measures Obama supports for dramatic effect.

• For example, Minnery alleges that a bill Obama supports could put churches "at risk if they preach the truth about homosexuality."

He says: "He (Obama) has pledged to homosexual leaders that he will sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (forcing businesses to defend themselves against discrimination lawsuits should they not hire a particular candidate who then announces he or she is homosexual or transsexual). He also supports hate-crimes expansion (potentially putting churches at risk if they preach the truth about homosexuality)."

Obama has, in fact, strongly supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and hate crime expansion. It's the explanations in parentheses that are misleading.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007 would make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against an individual on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation. The law would provide employment protections to gay, lesbian and bisexual employees similar to those in the Civil Rights Act. Minnery told PolitiFact it could lead to this scenario: "Someone applies for a job and they are turned down, and later they identify themselves as a homosexual and claim that is why they weren't hired. How is an employer supposed to defend themselves against that charge? Proving a negative is nearly impossible."

Arthur Leonard, a professor of law at New York Law School and an expert in gay rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation, said Minnery has twisted the effect of the proposed law. "They have to have known or thought the person was gay for there to be a discrimination claim," Leonard said.

Brian Moulton, associate counsel for Human Rights Campaign, a strong proponent of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, said Minnery's hypothetical scenario is a red herring.

"The burden of proof under ENDA is on the employee who has made a claim of discrimination," Moulton said.

Minnery's concern about the expansion of hate-crime laws as "potentially putting churches at risk if they preach the truth about homosexuality" is also off base. An amendment co-sponsored by Obama sought to expand federal hate crime laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to Minnery, that could lead to this scenario: Someone hears a sermon about the Bible teachings on homosexuality and then goes out and commits a crime against an innocent person who is gay; the perpetrator claims the sermon inspired them to act the church gets charged with a hate crime. "It would have a chilling effect on teaching that part of the Bible that deals with homosexuality," Minnery said.

Leonard, the law professor, said: "That's ridiculous."

The First Amendment would protect the church against any kind of action like that, Leonard said.

Minnery distorts the content of the bills. We rule this statement False.

• Minnery goes on to assert that Obama supports teaching school children "in second grade no less" about homosexual relationships.

This is in reference to a question that was asked in a Democratic debate in New Hampshire in September 2007. The candidates were asked if they would be comfortable having a fairy tale about a prince who marries another prince read to their children.

It was a question based on a controversy in Massachusetts in which two parents filed a federal lawsuit (later dismissed) because their second-grade children were taught a book called King and King about a prince whose mother pressures him to find a princess but who ends up falling in love with and marrying a princess' brother.

Obama said he'd be okay with it.

"You know, the fact is my 9-year-old and my 6-year-old I think are already aware that there are same-sex couples," Obama said in the debate. "My wife and I have talked about it. One of the things I want to communicate to my children is not to be afraid of people who are different, because there have been times in our history where I was considered different, or Bill Richardson was considered different."

But that answer is different than support for teaching about homosexuality to second-graders.

Although Obama's campaign did not respond to inquiries for this story, there is nothing in Obama's stated education platform that speaks to any initiative to require or encourage teaching second-graders about homosexuality. We rule this statement Barely True.

• The Focus on the Family Action letter also points out one of Obama's votes as a state senator in Illinois to portray him as antifamily.

"As a state senator, he (Obama) even refused to support a measure to stop sex businesses from opening near schools or places of worship!"

It's true. But before you go fitting Obama with Hugh Hefner pajamas, some explanation:

The bill that came before the Illinois state Senate on March 29, 2001, sought to prohibit adult businesses from being located within 1,000 feet of elementary or secondary schools, public parks, places of worship, preschools, day care facilities, mobile home parks or any areas zoned residential. Obama argued that kind of regulation is better handled by local officials through zoning.

Addressing the assembly, Obama stated: "It seems to me that if there's ever been a function that has historically been relegated to local control and it is appropriately there, it's these kinds of zoning matters. I would urge a No vote."

But Obama didn't actually vote "no." He and four others voted "present." In the Illinois state Senate, lawmakers sometimes vote "present" instead of "no" to block bills without officially opposing them. The bill narowly failed. (PolitiFact previously reviewed Obama's history of voting "present" when he was in the Illinois state Senate.)

Minnery's statement is correct that Obama "refused to support" a bill that would have prohibited sex shops near schools and places of worship, but it's wrong to imply that's the same as supporting sex shops. We rule this statement True.

• On the foreign policy front, Minnery warns that Obama sponsored legislation that commits the United States to drastically increasing foreign aid.

"Among his pet projects is a bill he sponsored called the Global Poverty Act, which would commit the U.S. to spending 0.7 percent of gross national product on foreign aid," the article on the group's Web site says. "Over 13 years, that will amount to a whopping $845-billion increase over current foreign-aid spending! Get your checkbooks ready!"

It's a claim that Minnery said originates with an article by Cliff Kincaid for Accuracy in Media on Feb. 12, 2008, and which reached a much wider audience when Rush Limbaugh parroted Kincaid's claim on his nationally syndicated radio show.

The Global Poverty Act, introduced by Obama on Dec. 7, 2007 — along with Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and Democrat Maria Cantwell — would "require the president to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to further the United States foreign policy objective of promoting the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people worldwide, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day."

Kincaid takes that statement to mean that the bill is an adoption of all of the United Nations' Millenium Project recommendations, one of which is that high-income countries like the United States should increase their foreign aid to 0.7 percent of gross national income by 2015.

But according to staff members for several of the legislators pushing the bill, Kincaid has misread the legislation. The act adopts only the first recommendation from the U.N. Millenium Project, the one that requires countries to develop strategies to halve by 2015 the number of people who live in extreme poverty, on less than $1 per day.

"The bill simply requires the president to develop and implement a U.S.-determined strategy to reduce global poverty and does not mandate any new spending," said Jordan Stark, press secretary for U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel. Again, a Republican.

But don't just take his word for it. The Congressional Budget Office on March 28, 2008, estimated the cost of implementing the bill would be less than $1-million per year. We rule this statement False.