Michael Anthony Peroutka and David Whitney, who are vying for the same seat on the Anne Arundel County Council, are members of the League of the South, an organization whose stated goal is the secession of Southern states.
Peroutka also believes elected officials should return to a "Biblical worldview" of the founding fathers, and Whitney preaches at his Pasadena church that God is essential in government and that current political leaders are "wicked and corrupt."
Such views and affiliations have landed Peroutka and Whitney on a list of "extremist candidates" compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based nonprofit that tracks hate groups. Peroutka, a Republican, and Whitney, a Democrat, are the only Maryland candidates identified by the law center this election year.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said views espoused by Peroutka and Whitney are not in line with mainstream Americans. The law center classifies the League of the South as a "neo-Confederate hate group."
"This isn't standard-issue conservatism where you're concerned about the size of the federal government or tax policies. They think the federal government is evil and should not exist, and it would have been better if the Civil War would have been won by the South," she said.
Peroutka and Whitney reject any suggestion they are anti-government or racist.
"They can criticize me all they want. They are free to criticize," Whitney said. "They are … trying to smear me for holding the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson."
Peroutka also said the center's criticism is misguided.
"The purpose of civil government is to protect God-given rights," he said. "There are some people who have socialist or Marxist views of government, and when they don't agree with you, they call you names.
"An intellectually honest understanding of my position would be that I believe, like many Americans, that taxes are too high, that government at all levels is out of control, and this is caused by government officials who ignore the limits placed on government by God and the Constitution," Peroutka said.
Beirich said Peroutka, Whitney and the League of the South have the right to express their beliefs. She said the center wants voters to know more about their choices. Maryland's primary is Tuesday.
Whitney and Peroutka are part of a field of challengers — two Democrats and four Republicans — running for the Anne Arundel County Council against incumbent Republican Dick Ladd in a district that includes Severna Park, Arnold and the Broadneck Peninsula.
"We don't want them injecting these ideas into the mainstream. … We're not talking about stopping these people saying what they believe, we just don't want them to give them a platform," Beirich said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the League of the South, also based in Alabama, have tangled for years, ever since the league was labeled by the law center as a hate group in 2000, said Michael Hill, the league's founder and president.
"They always call us a neo-Confederate group. We are not a neo-Confederate group. We are a Southern nationalist group," Hill said. "We believe in a free and independent South. Our focus is on the present and the future, not the past. We don't want to bring back the 1850s or the 1860s."
The league advocates for Southern secession to create a new governance for Southern states, including Maryland. Hill said the group first must get candidates elected to local offices before formally pursuing secession.
The organization, founded in 1994, advocates ideals such as reverence for Christian teachings, men who respect and protect "our women," a monetary system backed by gold and silver, abolishment of most taxes and the revival of state militias, according to its website.
The group seeks to "advance the cultural, social, economic, and political well-being and independence of the Southern people by all honourable means," and "separate ourselves from the cultural rot that is American culture," according to the website.
Whitney is chaplain of the league's Maryland chapter, and Peroutka was a speaker at the League of the South's national conference last year.
Hill won't say how many members the League of the South has but said that about half a dozen members are running for elective office this year. He praised Peroutka and Whitney for their leadership in running for office and publicly discussing their beliefs.
Peroutka was the Constitution Party's nominee for president in 2004, and Whitney was a candidate for the House of Delegates with the Constitution Party in 2006.
Peroutka said his current campaign includes a pledge not to raise taxes and to restore "American view of law" to the County Council.
Whitney is campaigning on a platform of abolishing stormwater fees, lowering taxes and scaling back government.
In addition to the League of the South affiliation, Peroutka was criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center for courses he teaches in the Institute on the Constitution, a Pasadena-based organization he co-founded with his brother Steve in 2000. The law center said the organization "pushes false claims" about the Christianity of America's founders, and that Peroutka is a "right-wing historical revisionist."
Peroutka said the institute grew out of a study group on constitutional issues and now sells in-person and online seminars on the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Constitution, the Anne Arundel County Charter, jury duty and sheriffs' duties, among others. Whitney is a frequent participant and speaker at institute events.
The center also accused Whitney of preaching an anti-government message at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena that advocates citizen militias to "help keep government tyranny at bay," and suggesting vigilante justice as an acceptable response to abortion.
Whitney said that's a misrepresentation of his sermons, which he said discuss the position that homicide can be justifiable, such as in self-defense. Abortion, on the other hand, he said, is unlawful homicide.
Political party officials are generally barred from discussing the merits of candidates in primaries. Joe Cluster, director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the party can't dictate who registers to join the party or who decides to vie for office.
"I can't pick and choose who runs. My voters will pick the best Republican for the race," Cluster said.
Patrick Armstrong, an Arnold resident facing Whitney in the Democratic primary, said he's spent much of his time on the campaign trail explaining that Whitney has different beliefs than most Democrats.
"My goal is to make sure as many people know the differences between the two of us," Armstrong said.
Bob Fenity, director of the Maryland Democratic Party, would not comment on Whitney, but said he hopes voters are educated before they cast their ballots.
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