The controversy surrounding the involvement of a Back Mountain Chamber official in an alleged hate group took a twist Wednesday, with former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta coming out in support of the man and the organization.
Executive Director Bill Leandri has come under fire for listing a planned speech by author Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT for America, on the chamber’s official calendar. At the time of the posting, Leandri was the head of the group’s local chapter.
Groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League allege ACT for America is an anti-Muslim hate group.
But in a statement provided to The Citizens’ Voice, Barletta, a Republican, came out in support of the group and Leandri.
“During my time as mayor and as a member of Congress, I was proud to work with ACT for America on issues of national security, like stopping terrorism, securing our border, and supporting law enforcement and our military,” said Barletta, who represented the 11th District of Pennsylvania in the U.S. House for eight years and served as mayor of Hazleton. “ACT for America advocates for the safety of every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. Bill Leandri is a friend and has been a leader in our community for many years. It is a shame that the Southern Poverty Law Center is smearing a good man and organization simply because they disagree with them politically.”
The Back Mountain Chamber has launched an investigation after The Citizens’ Voice first reported on the calendar listing for the event, which was billed as a speech during which Gabriel would throw “political correctness out the window in a no holds barred speech on immigration, the left’s culture war, and radical Islam.”
The event has subsequently been canceled.
Gabriel, who is a Lebanese-born Christian, has been criticized for her anti-Islam views, including statements such as that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes ACT for America as a hate group, alleging it “pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.”
The Anti-Defamation League similarly alleges the group is intent on restricting Muslims’ religious freedom by “propagating the conspiracy theory that Muslim Americans are trying to impose Sharia Law in the United States.”
But Thomas Hern, grassroots director for ACT for America, said in a written response to questions Wednesday the notion of the organization being a hate group is “beyond absurd.” The group has more than 1 million members of all races and religions, and explicitly prohibits discrimination, he said.
ACT for America is focused on ensuring the “safety and security of Americans against all threats, foreign and domestic, while simultaneously preserving civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Hern maintained the group does not allow media to attend its events because “the media has proven itself untrustworthy to report based on the facts” and could link the opinions of attendees to the official position of ACT for America.
He asserted the Southern Poverty Law Center targets the group and other conservative organizations as part of a fundraising campaign.
“The SPLC traffics in smears against those they disagree with them politically, in order to raise money off their far-left donor base,” Hern said. “The SPLC’s smears are not only exclusive to those on the right, but anyone who dares to stray from their politically correct world view. ... It’s a sad state of affairs, but the SPLC has lost all credibility on the subject of hate.”
©2019 The Citizens’ Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)