Christian Right Pushes State-Level Policies to Erode Church-State Separation

If conservative religious leaders have their way, the words “In God We Trust” and the Ten Commandments will soon be affixed to the walls of all U.S. classrooms and courthouses. Every gathering — PTA, library or school board meeting, city council hearing and sporting event — will begin with a prayer, and we’ll all be expected to lift a glass in celebration of an annual Religious Freedom Day and Christian Heritage Week. What’s more, doctors, therapists and other health professionals will be able to refuse care to those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression they dislike. So will clergy, business people and social service providers.

And there’s more. Much more.

A 51-page document, “Model Religious Freedom Measures Protecting Prayer and Faith in America,” lays out a wish-list, complete with ready-made model legislation and talking points for conservative, Christian activists to use in statehouses throughout the country.

The “model measures” are the brainchild of what was once called Project Blitz — a campaign coordinated by the Congressional Prayer Caucus (CPC) Foundation, a 33-state coalition of Christian nationalist lawmakers “advocating for the right of individuals to engage in public prayer and the expression of faith” — and the National Strategic Center, the CPC’s training arm. Another sponsoring group, the National Legal Foundation, works to “glorify the Lord Jesus Christ” via legal action, and its litigation has included representation of Philadelphia Catholic Social Services’ refusal to place foster children with same-sex couples and opposition to Pittsburgh’s 15-foot abortion clinic buffer zone to keep anti-abortion protesters from accosting patients. The fourth sponsor is WallBuilders’ ProFamily Legislative Network, whose mission is the promotion of “Biblical values.” According to its website, this includes seeking redress for what they see as “a serious shortfall in many educational systems,” most significantly, the lack of religion in the public square.

The effort is more than the pie-in-the-sky pipe dream of the far right. In fact, so far in 2021, 74 bills supported by these groups have been introduced; 14 have passed, including Ten Commandment Display acts in Texas and North Dakota and four proclamations recognizing Religious Freedom Day on January 16.

Fighting for Church-State Separation

But resistance to the religious right’s agenda is building. Since Project Blitz first launched in 2017, progressives, civil libertarians and people concerned with the erosion of church-state separation have gotten organized, not only monitoring state legislation, but pushing back against discriminatory bills and efforts to bring faith into public schools, courtrooms and secular gatherings. Called Blitz Watch, the coalition includes 13 groups, among them: American Atheists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance, and Jews for a Secular Democracy.

Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at the Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, an organization that focuses on researching the far right, told Truthout that the Blitz-driven measures are “part of a coherent plan to bring the U.S. to religious dominion.” This, he explains, is the belief that God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking charge of each and every political and cultural institution.

“All of the legislation they’ve proposed makes interrelated sense to them,” Clarkson says, whether it’s posting “In God We Trust” on walls; taking over public library boards to control what books children can access; declaring that the U.S. is built on a foundation of Christian precepts; offering elective classes in Bible literacy in public high schools; or opposing comprehensive, LGBTQIA+-inclusive sex education classes.

“They are a formidable adversary,” he says, “Proponents of these bills are the same people who deny climate change and oppose changes in our understanding of race and gender, and they are now hijacking the idea of religious freedom.”

Clarkson has studied the religious and secular right wing for decades and says that people who crafted Project Blitz have a clear strategy: start with seemingly noncontroversial measures and build from there. “‘In God We Trust’ has been the national motto since 1956,” he explains, and since it is already on all paper currency, the expectation was that it could be painted on walls and added as an option on car license plates with minimal opposition. They may be right: already, 20 states give drivers the option of purchasing an In God We Trust license plate.

Since these wins, Clarkson continues, the religious right has moved beyond slogans to craft carefully strategized political campaigns that zero in on local policymaking.

“They started with low-hanging fruit, but the idea of taking over school and library boards, for example, is not new,” Clarkson says. “Back in the 1960s, the John Birch Society — an explicitly racist group founded by candymaker Robert Welch in 1958 to oppose communism and the growing welfare state — realized that they could take advantage of low-turnout elections to get onto school boards and oppose sex education classes.”

The strategy has gained traction.

Legal Challenges to the Right-Wing Religious Push

According to Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists, Project Blitz activists understand that bills surrounding the posting of the national motto are difficult to contest. “Courts have determined that in order to have legal standing in federal court, you need to be able to show that you’ve been harmed, and it’s hard to prove that seeing the words ‘In God We Trust’ has hurt you,” she told Truthout.

In addition, Gill continues, courts have repeatedly found the phrase to be “symbolic” or “historic,” rather than religious.

License plates, however, may provide an opening for challenges. “Mississippi puts the motto on all tags, unlike other states which make it one of many options that people can voluntarily purchase, and residents have to pay an additional $32 to buy a plate without the phrase,” she says. “Several groups, including American Atheists and Mississippi Humanists, have sued the state about this, charging that it is discriminatory, and the case is currently in discovery.”

Still, Gill concedes that support for the motto is extensive. “The movement to put ‘In God We Trust’ everywhere began to move forward after school shootings became more common,” she explains. “Many people believe that bringing God back to schools will be a shield and protect students and staff. It seems like a desperate measure, though, since young people today are the least religious generation we’ve ever seen.”

Gill is right: Researchers have found that 21 percent of Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2015 identify as atheists and a third say they have no religion.

Sanctioning Discrimination

Despite trends toward less religiosity among younger people, Gill notes that many Christian nationalists are pushing for religion to have a more invasive place in public life, holding that religion and government should not be separate. Nowhere is this clearer than in promulgation of state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs.

“RFRAs effectively create religious exemptions in the law whenever religious groups say that their beliefs are burdened by the government,” Gill says. “For example, if a religious group claims that a state law that prohibits discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people interferes with its religious exercise, a state RFRA may require an exemption that allows discrimination. We defeated a raft of RFRA and ‘In God We Trust’ bills so far this year, but I expect we will continue to see more being introduced next year and beyond.”

The threat is extremely serious.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that over the past 28 years, 21 states have passed RFRAs — giving religious conservatives the right to refuse to take part in abortions, gender affirmation surgery and anything else they consider “morally objectionable.”

This was not the original intent of RFRA — initially a federal bill — when it first passed Congress in 1993. At that time, the law stipulated only that “government should not substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling justification.” This changed in 2014 when the Supreme Court expanded RFRA to allow an employer (in this case, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialists) to rescind employee health coverage for contraceptives. The court found that the religious beliefs of the employer superseded the rights of workers to comprehensive health care. Since then, Blitz Watch and other right-wing monitors have seen the “religious exemption” invoked to justify discrimination against religious minorities, nonreligious people, women and the LGBTQIA+ community.

More recently, Gill adds, RFRA has been used to keep churches open during COVID — allowing them to eschew mandatory masking, vaccination requirements and maintenance of social distancing — by deeming these health protections a “substantial burden.” Since the start of the pandemic, Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota have used mandates to shutter churches as a pretext to pass local RFRAs.

Gill calls the COVID rationale “ridiculous,” and notes that it is imperative that lawmakers and the public be educated about the devastating impact these measures can have on impacted individuals and communities.

“The best place to challenge RFRAs and other ‘model legislation’ is at the legislative level,” Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told Truthout. “Educating lawmakers about the aim and consequences of these bills is better than suing later.” But, she adds, bringing progressive faith leaders into the fight is paramount. “They can help counter false claims that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and speak directly and compellingly about the harms these bills cause for religious minorities, women and LGBTQIA+ people.”

Public pressure, she adds, is key. “People of faith are especially effective in making clear that these bills are not supported by all Christians and can offer cogent arguments as a counterbalance to the Christian nationalists.”

Another important argument, members of Blitz Watch say, is emphasizing that the founders of the U.S. considered religious freedom sacrosanct. “The concept of religious freedom is that everyone gets to decide for themselves what religion, if any, to follow. This is why the idea of religious freedom has thrived,” Nikolas Nartowicz, state policy counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Truthout. “Efforts to bring religion into schools and government are not new, and the effort to rewrite our history and think of ourselves as a Christian nation has always been both wrong and incredibly dangerous. What’s new is that the right-wing effort is now very well coordinated.”

Clarkson agrees. “We should know in our bones that we can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “When we get complacent, it leads to misplaced optimism in the inevitability of progress, but progress needs to be constantly defended…. As progressives, we can’t let [the Christian right] run away with the meaning of religious freedom. But to be effective, we need sufficient knowledge of the other side to know how to respond.”