THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is the ongoing fallout from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s decision to label leading, anti-gay religious right organizations as “hate groups.”

In November, the SPLC, a respected source for decades on monitoring extremists and hate-based organizations, raised quite a few eyebrows with its updated lists, which included some leading religious right entities — including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association — along side mainstays like the KKK.

The religious right movement, not surprisingly, was apoplectic — they want to spew hate without being labeled a hate group.

This week, however, the groups received some higher-profile backing.

A number of prominent Republicans have signed on to the Family Research Council’s “Start Debating, Stop Hating” campaign in response to a Southern Poverty Law Center annual report that labeled the Family Research Council a “hate group.” […]

Unsurprisingly, the FRC was not happy about the designation, and labeled the list “slanderous.” And today they launched a “Start Debating, Stop Hating” website, and took out a full page ad in Politco, Dave Weigel reports.

The ad says: “The surest sign one is losing a debate is to resort to character assassination. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal fundraising machine whose tactics have been condemned by observers across the political spectrum, is doing just that.”

More interesting than the ad is who undersigned it: incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), and even Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).

The Republican Party isn’t always reliable when it comes to passing legislation the religious right movement wants, but when it comes to defending the groups’ extremist and hate-filled rhetoric, the GOP has its allies’ back.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Atheists have purchased some ads on four city buses in Fort Worth, Texas, and the New York Times reports that it’s led to a “clash of beliefs” that has “rattled” the city. Among the responses: ministers organizing a bus boycott, a push to ban all religious advertising on public buses, and my personal favorite, a decision from local businesses to hire a “van with the Christian message to follow the atheist-messaged buses around town.”

* Following up on earlier reports about Kentucky helping finance the development of a creationist theme park with tax incentives, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) insisted this week that the state will not allow the theme park to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring employees. That’s good news, but it doesn’t quite reconcile the subsidies problem.

* And the Vatican scandal stemming from the sexual abuse of children took another turn in Ireland this week: “The Vatican tried to stop Irish church leaders from defrocking a paedophile priest whose abusive behaviour was known about from the early 1970s, a previously censored chapter from a report on clerical child abuse in Dublin revealed today. Father Tony Walsh, who was imprisoned for raping boys last week, is named in the report as one of the worst child abusers in the Dublin archdiocese.” (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.