- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2015

GoFundMe’s old policy on crowdfunding may not have been enough to justify its decision last weekend to kill campaigns on behalf of a Christian-owned florist and bakery — but its new policy is.

The website quietly expanded its list of banned crowdfunding activities this week shortly after The Washington Times questioned GoFundMe’s reliance on its policy against campaigns in defense of “formal charges of heinous crimes” to pull fundraisers for Arlene’s Flowers and for Sweet Cakes by Melissa.

The new policy, which includes a ban on campaigns in defense of “claims of discriminatory acts,” would appear to make it more difficult to raise money on behalf of businesses facing crippling civil damages awards after refusing to provide services for gay weddings for religious reasons.

Travis Weber, a lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said GoFundMe’s revised policy “could exclude and discriminate against all types of fundraising.”

“Who will determine what a ‘discriminatory act’ is? Will the term be decided according to legal standards? If so, which standards?” Mr. Weber said. “Or will it be subject to the same arbitrary decision-making we’ve seen from GoFundMe so far?”

The previous policy barred “Campaigns in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts.” The new policy bans “Campaigns in defense of formal charges or claims of heinous crimes, violent, hateful, sexual or discriminatory acts.”

The old policy was in place last weekend when the website removed the bakery and florist crowdfunding campaigns. Lawyers interviewed by The Times had challenged that policy, saying that it should have only applied to fundraising on behalf of those facing criminal charges.

Neither the Kleins, who own Sweet Cakes by Melissa, nor Arlene’s Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman have been charged with criminal offenses. In a series of messages starting Monday, The Times asked GoFundMe about the apparent discrepancy between its policy and its decision to remove the campaigns.

GoFundMe did not respond to The Times’ inquiries, but screenshots of the website’s policy show the wording was overhauled after the Klein and Stutzman pages were removed. A note on the terms and conditions page, which includes the list of prohibited campaigns, says it was updated Wednesday.

A message sent Thursday to GoFundMe asking for comment about the policy change was not immediately returned.

Mr. Weber accused GoFundMe of cobbling together an “ad hoc and hasty improvisation” to provide cover for its decision to remove the crowdfunding pages.

“GoFundMe may want to appear as if it has a neutral policy prohibiting funds from being raised for certain activities,” said Mr. Weber in an email. “But it is apparent that GoFundMe is seeking to slap several words onto their ‘policy’ merely to cover up the reality that they actually dropped the Kleins’ page because they were scared of cranky LGBT activists.”

Kristen Waggoner, the Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing Arlene’s Flowers, said in an interview Tuesday that GoFundMe’s decision to drop the page, even though Ms. Stutzman has not been charged with a crime, raises questions as to whether GoFundMe is discriminating on the basis of religion.

“We’re looking at legal options that she might have,” said Ms. Waggoner. “There have been other campaigns on GoFundMe that haven’t been shut down. To me, this may be discrimination based on religion.”

GoFundMe yanked the successful crowdfunding efforts under intense pressure from gay marriage supporters, who had complained to the company and urged others to do so on Facebook pages such as “Boycott Sweet Cakes by Melissa.”

“It’s really quite startling, the approach that GoFundMe has taken, because it’s clear that it’s not enough to have the government just redefine marriage or punish those who disagree, but they’re really trying to ruin every aspect of the lives of those who disagree,” Ms. Waggoner said.

The Klein campaign raised $109,000 in less than eight hours before being shut down Saturday, while Ms. Stutzman’s page had collected more than $174,000 before it was removed shortly thereafter.

GoFundMe has also said in statements that the Kleins and Ms. Stutzman will be able to keep the money raised at the time the campaigns were terminated. An Oregon administrative judge proposed Friday a $135,000 damages award against the Kleins.

After removing the Sweet Cakes by Melissa campaign, GoFundMe issued a statement explaining its decision and pointing to its list of campaigns “Not Allowed on GoFundMe,” which appears on its terms and conditions page.

The heading “Not Allowed on GoFundMe” has been changed to “What’s Not Allowed.” On that list of 35 banned activities, the only one that refers to “formal changes” is the prohibition on crowdfunding in defense of “heinous crimes” that was expanded this week to include “claims.”

The company has also broadened the disclaimer at the top of the page, which now says, “GoFundMe relies on its terms as a guideline in the decision-making process to arrive at its long-standing right to remove any campaign at any time for any reason. GoFundMe will continue to reserve the right to amend its terms as it deems necessary to support the wide and varied use-cases it encounters on its growing platform.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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