Multi-state legislative agenda may impact rights of minority faiths

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MIAMI –  The legislative session in many US states begins in January. This month also marks the start of a US national election cycle that will likely result in increased attention to white evangelical voters. Across the United States, some proposed state legislation intends to codify a conservative Christian worldview that may undermine the rights of  Pagans and other non-Christians.

These legislative proposals may also be coordinated. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation, and Wallbuilders Pro-Family Legislators Conference have developed Project Blitz. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State President, Rachel Laser described Project Blitz as “a nefarious political movement aimed at establishing the U.S. as a Christian nation.“

In the face of widespread criticism, Project Blitz may have reduced the visibility to operate more covertly. It lacks a website is reportedly functioning under a different name, “Freedom for All”. According to Political Research Associates, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation web site no longer references Project Blitz. Instead, it offers a “Religious Freedom Measures Toolkit (Legislator only)” but only to legislators. All references to Project Blitz in this article refer to its most recent publicly available, “Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America: 2018-2019.”

Project Blitz has produced 21 model bills to promote its agenda. Those 21 model bills form a coherent framework for promoting a conservative Christian basis for Constitutional, legal, and political thought in the US.

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The Front of US Supreme Court at dusk [Wikimedia]

Project Blitz has organized those 21 model bills into four categories. The first category confuses civics with conservative Christian traditions. The second category conflates freedom with conservative Christian traditions. As of press time, no state legislation relates to the second category. The third category involves  “religious freedom.” The fourth category provides arguments against LGBT+ rights and transgender identity.

Not all current Christian right bills reflect the model bills of Project Blitz, but they have many similarities.

Current proposed legislation that confuses civics with conservative Christian traditions

In Missouri, HB 1346, “National Motto Display In Schools,” would require all schools to display signs that say “In God We Trust”. As of press time, no hearings are scheduled.

Ben Baker (R), a minister, introduced HB 1346 and HB 2044 “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act.” He graduated from Ozark Bible Institute where he formerly taught.

In Florida, Kimberly Daniels (D) introduced the “Study of the Bible and Religion,” HB 341. It would require each school district to offer electives courses about Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible. Three committees are now examining this bill. Senators have brought an identical bill before the Senate.

Daniels, a minister, founded Spoken Word Ministries, Kimberly Daniels Ministries International, and Word Bible College. She had previously introduced a Project Blitz model bill, the National Motto Display Act, in the Florida Legislature

Current legislation involving so-called “religious freedom.”

These “religious freedom” model bills could have serious consequences. They can undermine anti-discrimination law, deny medical services, and invalidate transgender identity. These model bills use and extend the logic of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cake Shop cases. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that for-profit businesses have “religious rights” in order to protect the rights of shareholders, officers, and employees. In the Masterpiece Cake Shop case, the Supreme Court avoided a broader ruling but affirmed a lack of neutrality by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in reviewing discrimination cases.

These principles threaten access to range from personal freedoms as well as reproductive and sexual healthcare that conservative Christians consider immoral.

On January 24, the Governor of Tennessee signed into law HB 0836. While it differs from the model bills of Project Blitz, it has many similarities. This law allows foster care agencies to deny placing a foster child with certain families if that agency has religious objections to that family. Nine other states have passed similar laws.

A South Carolina legal case, Maddonna vs. US Dept. of Health and Human Services, however, shows a much larger potential impact. In that case, a Protestant evangelical foster care agency refused for religious reasons to place a child in a Catholic home. That case is currently being adjudicated.

South Carolina HB 4750, “Student and Faculty Freedom of Religious Speech Act” would require schools to provide limited public forums for students. That bill would prohibit any limitations on religious speech at those forums and possibly lead to increase proselytization and prayer in classrooms. The Judiciary Committee is now examining that bill. This bill differs from a similar Project Blitz model bill.

Project Blitz fails to directly address several key Christian right concerns: abortion, censorship, and school vouchers. It addresses abortion indirectly through its advocacy of expansive “religious freedom” among medical staff, including receptionists and janitors.

Censorship

PEN reported that a Missouri Bill, “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” HB 2044, would create “parental library review boards.” These boards would review and label some library materials as “age-inappropriate sexual material.” Under this bill, libraries could not allow minors to access those materials. Libraries could lose public funding for noncomplying. Librarians could face fines and up to one-year imprisonment. Ben Baker (R ) introduced this bill on January 8. It has been read twice, but no hearings are currently scheduled.

The American Library Association (ALA) has said it “strongly opposes any effort to limit access to information, ideas and programs that patrons wish to explore”.  Various protests efforts have been scheduled including a nationwide event on March 7 including on led by drag queens in support of the ALA and “Drag Queen Story Hour”, a project for reading stories to children in libraries that would be banned under the bill.

School vouchers

The pro-voucher coalition is now promoting tax reductions as part of their school voucher agenda. Their new goal would allow people to claim tax credits for donating to a scholarship fund for school vouchers. This effort is occurring at the Federal level and in at least one state.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) have introduced the “Education Freedom Scholarship” bill. That bill would provide tax credits, a tax cut, to people and businesses that donate to a voucher fund.

Missouri house bill HB 1733 “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program” would enact this tax credit policy at the state level. It had its second reading in the Missouri House on January 9.

The Wild Hunt will be following the progress of the legislation during this season.