U.S. Rep. Scott Perry met recently with the leader of an organization labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "the largest grass-roots anti-Muslim group in America."
On. Dec. 14, the Dillsburg Republican posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself with Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT for America, whom he describes as "someone who demands (and deserves) to be heard about the security of our nation."
ACT, which stands for American Congress for Truth, is a nonprofit organization that compares itself to the National Rifle Association, but for national security, according to its website.
Among its stated goals, the organization lists: confronting terrorism, preserving the Constitution, securing the border, energy independence, empowering women, preserving American culture and standing with Israel.
The group claims about 400,000 members in more than 1,000 chapters nationwide, including five chapters in Pennsylvania.
Perry said his meeting with Gabriel and one of her staffers was relatively routine, as he meets with people and groups of all backgrounds throughout the year.
The three of them spoke about what Donald Trump's presidency might look like, how best to fight ISIS and certain pieces of legislation ACT for America hopes to influence, Perry said.
The meeting went well, he said, and so they took a picture, which he posted on his official Facebook page.
Criticism: The photo drew several comments, some of which thanked Perry for meeting with Gabriel and others that questioned why he would meet with someone whose organization appears on Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hatewatch" list.
The photo set off red flags for Charles Weise, a Gettysburg College economics professor, who said he remembered seeing Gabriel on television.
Weise did some research, finding that ACT for America was also denounced by the Anti-Defamation League and Center for New Community, and he decided to send a letter to the editor that was published in the Gettysburg Times and The Evening Sun of Hanover.
Weise, a registered Democrat, said his brief research led him to believe the group spreads hate and misconceptions about the Muslim religion as a whole.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center, said Gabriel in particular is "nothing more than a Muslim-hating propagandist" who conflates all Muslim groups with terrorists.
The center put together a profile on ACT for America, pointing out that Gabriel said a “Practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah … who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day — this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.”
Gabriel has written two New York Times best-selling books, "Because They Hate" and "They Must be Stopped," in which she describes growing up in Lebanon and seeing the destruction caused by Islamic militants.
Potok said he cannot point to any direct negative effects from Gabriel's rhetoric, but he said her group and groups like hers are a big reason for a recent spike in hate crimes committed against Muslims.
According to the FBI's most recent report on hate-crime statistics, there were 257 documented incidents of hate crimes committed against Muslims across the country in 2015. That figure represents a nearly 67 percent increase over 2014 and is the highest it has been since 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the report.
The FBI defines a hate crime as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity."
Potok said his organization's hope in labeling ACT as a hate group is that people will not give credence to its propaganda.
Perry response: Perry called the Southern Poverty Law Center an "extremist left-wing organization" and said anyone referencing its viewpoint is ill-informed or without merit.
"The fact that they would condemn anyone is laughable," Perry said, urging anyone who reads this article to do their own research before accepting the center's definition of hate group. "One person's hate group is another person's patriot."
Perry said he doesn't see ACT as anti-Muslim but rather as an anti-religious discrimination and anti-radical terrorism group.
"I'm not going to be bullied by ideologically driven, radical organizations into not taking meetings," he said.
Potok said the center is a nonpartisan group that tracks radical, right-wing organizations. Its hate map includes organizations that it considers anti-Muslim, white nationalist and neo-Nazi, among others.
Weise said he wishes Perry would make an effort to learn more about all his constituents, including Muslims, rather than just those who voted for him.
"When you don't know people, it's a lot easier to (believe) all sorts of misconceptions," he said.
Perry said he's happy to meet and take pictures with people and organizations on all sides of a debate.
Perry couldn't recall meeting recently with a Muslim organization, but he pointed to a September Homeland Security meeting when he invited Dr. Zuhdi Jasser and Shireen Qudosi to discuss the importance of moderate voices in the Muslim community and the ability of moderate Islam to exist in Western society.
David White, a spokesman from ACT for America, wrote in an email Monday that Gabriel is traveling for the holidays, but questions would be forwarded to her. Neither Gabriel nor White had responded to the questions by the end of Tuesday.