When the Honolulu Star-Advertiser began reporting on a story about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and the Science of Identity Foundation, a religious organization founded by a local spiritual leader named Chris Butler, the organization began aggressively arguing that the newspaper was using religion as a “political weapon” and was fomenting religious bigotry.
The Science of Identity Foundation has been of interest to the Star-Advertiser, in part, because its adherents have had a history of entering politics and the newspaper is exploring what influence Butler may have on their political views — in particular views relating to LGBT issues.
Political analysts have also argued that, fair or not, the Science of Identity Foundation could prove a political liability for Gabbard as she embarks on a campaign for president. People who say they are former adherents of the Science of Identity Foundation have made a litany of allegations against the organization that have at times been picked up by the press. The organization has vehemently denied those allegations.
The Star-Advertiser sought to explore those issues further.
In response, Butler and the Science of Identity Foundation hired a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney who threatened to sue the newspaper. Their primary focus was on ensuring the Star-Advertiser didn’t publish allegations from people who say they were former practitioners of the religion, including two who told the newspaper they grew up listening to Butler’s lectures.
The “false allegations” under consideration by the newspaper “paint our clients as charlatans and hypocrites,” said attorney Anthony Glassman, in a letter to the Star-Advertiser. He said that if published it “will severely damage SIF’s and Mr. Butler’s well-deserved reputation in their community, as religious, spiritual and moral guides (and Ms. Butler’s reputation as a yoga instructor.)”
The firm, Glassman Media Group, also warned the Star-Advertiser that if it publishes “false and defamatory allegations that are eventually published in Ireland,” then SIF planned to also file a lawsuit there that would be litigated by Paul Tweed, a high-profile media attorney known for suing news organizations on behalf of celebrity clients. It’s not clear why the story would be of interest in Ireland, but The New York Times explained in a story last year that Tweed has “made his name suing news organizations like CNN, Forbes and The National Enquirer on behalf of Hollywood movie stars, winning high-profile cases for celebrities like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake by hopscotching among Belfast, London and Dublin to take advantage of their favorable defamation or privacy laws.”
The Star-Advertiser asked SIF questions about the claims from people who say they were followers of Butler, much of which has been published elsewhere.
Jeannie Bishop, president of the Science of Identity Foundation, and Butler declined interview requests for the Star-Advertiser story. But amid the reporting the Science of Identity Foundation last week purchased a 30-day ad on the Star-Advertiser’s website that suggests Butler would be speaking soon. The ad reads: “Uncensored: Exclusive Interview with Chris Butler” and “Read Now.” A link in the ad leads to a website that doesn’t have an interview with Chris Butler, but promises it’s “coming soon.”
Gabbard also didn’t respond to an interview request for the Star-Advertiser story or a detailed description of areas the story was exploring that listed questions for the congresswoman. The Star-Advertiser asked to speak with Gabbard about religious bigotry, a topic she has been outspoken about in the past, and whether she thought that could play a role in her presidential bid.
The newspaper also hoped to learn more about her religious upbringing, including two years that she spent in the Philippines as a teenager at a school reportedly run by followers of Butler. (The Honolulu Advertiser had reported in the 1980s that Butler had set up a nonprofit educational arm and that it was leasing spaces for schools in the Philippines. However, Bishop told the Star-Advertiser last week that “SIF and Chris Butler did not and do not own the schools in the Philippines and have never been affiliated with them.”)
While Gabbard didn’t respond to the Star-Advertiser’s inquiries, or even acknowledge them, the Science of Identity Foundation did jump in to advocate on her behalf.
Bishop sent a letter to the Star-Advertiser, signed by three dozen people from multiple states and diverse backgrounds, that criticized the newspaper’s past reporting on Butler and the foundation, as well as recent stories published by The New Yorker and The Intercept.
The letter said the Star-Advertiser “has a decades long history of slandering Chris Butler, his students and the Science of Identity Foundation, a spiritual organization in the Hindu Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.”
“It has sought to discredit and vilify Chris Butler, SIF and its adherents for political purposes by otherizing and casting doubt about the ‘Americanness’ of their spiritual beliefs and practices, giving voice to anonymous sources to promote false and defamatory information, and citing biased and questionable sources which echo their animosity towards this religious community.
“The Star Advertiser is now broadening its target to the broader Hindu American community. A reporter, in her questions to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu American to be elected to the US Congress, and now first Hindu American to run for president, has made clear once again, that the intent of the next Star Advertiser story is not to provide accurate information, but to validate yet another anti-Hindu narrative.”
The letter also took aim at stories published in The New Yorker and The Intercept, referring to them as “disreputable sources.” They accused The New Yorker of publishing a profile of Gabbard that portrayed her religion in a “salacious and bigoted manner.”
Bishop also said in a separate email to the Star-Advertiser that The New Yorker article had “many inaccuracies, but it has outright lies and misrepresentations, as well as quotes used out of context in order to change the meanings of Chris Butler’s words. This is not a he said she said situation because we have an actual recording of the interview. And the sections in the article pertaining to Chris Butler are full of damaging inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and falsehoods — using his quotes out of context to change the meaning, obviously for malicious purpose.”
SIF did not cite any specific inaccuracies in the story published by The New Yorker. A spokeswoman for The New Yorker said by email that: “This piece was carefully reported and thoroughly fact-checked, and we stand by it.”
The Star-Advertiser contacted a dozen people who signed the letter. Many didn’t respond to emails or phone messages. But those whom the Star-Advertiser did speak with said they weren’t familiar with the past reporting by the Star-Advertiser or other news organizations cited in the letter. But they were told the newspaper was seeking to portray Gabbard’s religion in a negative light.
“The concern that I understood was that you were going to draw attention to her religious affiliation and kind of like spoof that as a ‘that is not a good person to pick for president of the United States,’” said local attorney Jack Schweigert, one of the letter signers. “That was basically it.”
He said he had been told there was going to be something disparaging written about Gabbard.
Gurudev Allin, also a local attorney, said he had similar concerns.
“My concern is that I don’t want to see Tulsi’s faith marched out there and used as a basis to criticize her,” he said. Allin, who said he is Hare Krishna but not a member of the Science of Identity Foundation, said that as a member of a religious minority, it’s something about which he is particularly sensitive .
The Star-Advertiser story seeks to explore the intersection of religion in politics, a topic Gabbard herself has not shied away from as a politician in raising questions about what she has referred to as “radical Islamic extremism” and its role in political and military conflicts in the Middle East.