Alleged Hate Group Event Canceled After Chamber Post
A presentation by the controversial leader of an alleged anti-Muslim hate group was abruptly canceled Monday after the Back Mountain Chamber posted the event on its official online calendar.
ACT for America and its founder, author Brigitte Gabriel, were scheduled to host a “Rise in Defense of Freedom” event at Cross Creek Community Church the evening of April 18.
According to a calendar entry on the chamber’s website, Gabriel planned to throw “political correctness out the window in a no holds barred speech on immigration, the left’s culture war, and radical Islam.”
Gabriel, a Lebanese-born Christian, has come under fire for her anti-Islam views, including comments that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America” and that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes her ACT for America organization as an “anti-Muslim hate group” — although the group disputes that characterization.
The group’s Back Mountain event, which was billed as being open to the public but closed to the media, was removed from the chamber’s calendar by midday Monday.
Chamber Executive Director Bill Leandri — who acknowledged being the local chapter leader of ACT for America in a phone interview — said he removed the listing after getting an email message indicating it might be controversial.
“We post all community events on the calendar — whoever has anything going on,” said Leandri, the former president of Luzerne National Bank. “I deleted it. If it’s going to cause an issue for the chamber, we deleted it from our calendar so it’s no longer there.”
Within minutes, Pastor Dave Martin told The Citizens’ Voice he had withdrawn his approval to hold the event at his Cross Creek Community Church in Kingston Twp. He said when Leandri contacted him about holding the event at the church he initially did not know who Gabriel or ACT for America were.
After investigating the event further, Martin said he decided not to allow the event at the church.
“At this point, we don’t need any controversy,” Martin said. “We preach Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. And so we pray for Muslims. We pray for the Arabs and try to win them for Christ because Jesus died for them too — for the world.”
Leandri then called back to report the event had been canceled altogether.
Board members of the chamber — which was formed in 2012 to promote economic growth in the Back Mountain — appeared to have been unaware of the event.
Dr. Thomas Botzman, president of Misericordia University, said through a spokesman that he did not know about it and that it had not been sponsored by the chamber.
Board member Jim Reino said he knew little about ACT for America and the chamber had no involvement in the event “other than posting a public service notice on our website, as we do for anybody that pretty much asks for it.”
He noted the chamber is a part-time entity and Leandri, a part-time contractor, is responsible for maintaining the website.
“I’ve known Mr. Leandri a long time and I would say that there was no malicious intent,” Reino said. “He just put it on like he would put on a Kiwanis meeting, or whatever. In his mind, that was an important event. Now, whether it was good judgment or not, that’s a whole other discussion. But this will definitely generate some internal discussions among our board, and I’m sure we’re going to enact something going forward.”
ACT for America describes itself as the “nation’s largest and most influential national security grassroots advocacy organization” and claims to have no tolerance for religious discrimination.
But the Southern Poverty Law Center describes it as an anti-Muslim hate group “because it pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam.”
The SPLC is a civil rights advocacy group with a long history of fighting groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations in court. But in recent years, it has been criticized for placing a number of conservative activist groups on its hate group roster.
The ACT for America website describes the SPLC as a “discredited” organization that has “waged a war against ACT for America and every other national organization that espouses conservative viewpoint and values.”
Leandri disputed the characterization of ACT for America being a hate group, but deferred further comment to the group’s grassroots director, Thomas Hern.
“It’s not a hate group. That’s another person’s opinion,” Leandri said. “I will not discuss it further.”
When reached by phone, Hern declined to discuss the matter in an interview and asked a reporter to email questions to him. He did not immediately respond to the emailed questions.
While Leandri acknowledged being the local chapter head of ACT for America in a phone interview Monday afternoon, a lawyer acting on his behalf emailed The Citizens’ Voice Monday evening saying Leandri “is not currently a member” of the group.
Asked for clarification, Leandri said he had been the local chapter head for the group during the initial interview but that he resigned later Monday afternoon.
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