Why Do Republican Officials Keep Partnering With Christian-Nation Extremist David Lane?

In pursuit of conservative evangelical voters, GOP candidates embrace far-right political operative who is raising an ‘army’ to fulfill his ‘Christian nation’ vision

On Saturday, June 13, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will host a day-long, Christians-only prayer rally organized by political operative David Lane. Lane, who organized similar events for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, is trying to recruit 1,000 conservative evangelical pastors to run for office, which he believes would mobilize hundreds of thousands of election volunteers and lead to conservative election victories in 2016.

Lane prefers to work outside the glare of the national media. Although his close connections to Republican officials and presidential candidates have drawn some notice, the extremism of the agenda he is promoting deserves far more attention than it has received to date.

When one-third of the Republican National Committee took a nine-day junket to Israel in January with the American Family Association picking up the tab, things got a little ugly. Israeli media started asking questions about the extreme positions taken by AFA spokesman Bryan Fischer, including his claims that the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections apply only to Christians and that gays were responsible for the rise of the Nazi Party. In damage control mode, the AFA disavowed some of Fischer’s most inflammatory statements and took away his title – but not the radio show that continues to give him a bigotry-spewing platform. Meanwhile, the actual organizer of the trip, Christian nationalist David Lane, slipped out of the spotlight and got right back to building political alliances between high-level Republican politicians and conservative evangelical pastors, especially those in key primary states.

David Lane runs the American Renewal Project, which functions as a project of the American Family Association. Bad publicity over the Israel trip did not keep Lane from inviting all 168 members of the Republican National Committee to an Iowa Renewal Project “Pastors and Pews” event on March 9 and 10, which was headlined by two Republican presidential hopefuls, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Bobby Jindal, along with Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. It didn’t prevent the RNC’s faith outreach arm from teaming up with Lane to present a breakout session at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in May. And it hasn’t kept Gov. Haley from endorsing Lane’s latest “Response” prayer rally.

Why David Lane Matters

David Lane promotes a vision of America as a nation founded by and for Christians; denounces court rulings upholding church-state separation; calls for Christianity to be established as America’s official religion with the Bible as a primary textbook in public schools; vehemently opposes legal equality for LGBT people; and demands the impeachment of judges who rule in favor of allowing same-sex couples to be legally married. Lane matters because these are not just the opinions of a far-right fringe figure. They are the explicit agenda of a political operative who is working closely with the highest leaders of the Republican Party. The explicit goal of Lane’s political organizing is to advance his particularly narrow and divisive vision of America. Republican politicians who embrace Lane in the hope of winging votes are playing with fire, giving credibility to his divisive worldview and troubling political agenda.

David Lane’s Worldview

In Lane’s worldview, there are essentially no gray areas: America will either be a Christian nation or a pagan nation and there will be no peace until we decide which. Judges who uphold the right of same-sex couples to marry must be impeached. The Supreme Court’s rulings upholding the separation of church and state have imposed a destructive secularism on America and must be reversed. Secularism and homosexuality are twin evils from which America must be rescued. This quote gives a pretty good summary of Lane’s worldview:

Who will wage war for the Soul of America and trust the living God to deliver the pagan gods into our hands and restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture?...

As to the future of America – and the collapse of this once-Christian nation – Christians must not only be allowed to have opinions, but politically, Christians must be retrained to war for the Soul of America and quit believing the fabricated whopper of the ‘Separation of Church and State,” the lie repeated ad nauseum by the left and liberals to keep Christian America – the moral majority – from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning, and pagan media….

Christian America is in ruins…

You ask, “What is our goal?” To wage war to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage with all of our might and strength that God will give us. You ask, “what is our aim?” One word only: victory, in spite of all intimidation and terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, America will ultimately collapse.

Lane has no patience for those who don’t see the world as he does. His message to lawmakers: “Vote to restore the Bible and prayer in public schools or be sent home,” he has written. “Hanging political scalps on the wall is the only love language politicians can hear.”

Lane’s emails to activists, often including garbled syntax and repetitive rhetoric, nonetheless give a good sense of his approach to the world. These are excerpts from a January 27, 2015 email from Lane:

  • “This struggle for the Soul of America is merely the ongoing battle since the beginning of time, “man says” or “God says.” God has said multiple times over thousands of years that homosexuality is wickedness – just like stealing or committing adultery, it is sin – but to double-down on the U.S. Supreme Court, in its omniscience, sanctioned and legitimized homosexual marriage in 2014 as a diverse and acceptable lifestyle, well inside the cultural norm.”
  • “God says” or man says” is the choice facing America. “We the people” must hold the Judicial, Legislative and Executive Branches of government accountable or be ready to answer to God; this is our point of no return. The secularist ideology is more than a mere political philosophy, dueling for ideological supremacy, it is a Weltanschauung (a world view), a religion. Secularism – the false idol instituted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 – has finally bloomed, blossomed, and produced fruit, it’s stench is nauseating.

He made similar points in a January op ed for Charisma:

“More to the point, there can be no reconciliation of opposites, particularly the spiritual and the secular. Therefore, we need to establish if America is a pagan or Christian nation and get on with it- the sooner the better….We have to make the peace: either secularism of Christian values are going to reign supreme….The grandiosity and recklessness of the radicalized, secular United States Supreme Court in the last century is mind-blowing. The Court has birthed a full-scale catastrophe, corrupting 500 years of natural law and threatening America’s long-term, sustainable freedom. Congress has failed to fulfill its historic role to check and balance the judicial and executive branches of government. It’s up to us “we the people” to hold them accountable.”

Last November he told the Washington Times:

“Government is not going to save America. Wall Street is not going to save America. The Republican party is not going to save America. If America is going to be saved it will be done by Christian men and women restoring a Judeo-Christian culture to the country….

He argued that America was established as a Judeo-Christian nation and that separation of church and state was never meant to keep religion out of politics.

“There’s no truth to that, the Constitution says the state is to keep out of the church, it doesn’t say the church is to keep out of the state,” Mr. Lane said, adding that secularism is another religion that’s being imposed on Americans.

“It’s just a matter of somebody’s values are going to reign supreme,” Mr. Lane said, “It’s just a little minority imposing their values. It’s part of a spiritual battle. If we are going to survive as a nation, we have to have a spiritual resurrection”

Christian Nation Covenant versus Secularism/Paganism

“Secularism is paganism clothed in tolerance,” Lane wrote in a January 21 email, “its ubiquitous chant, ‘We are a pluralistic society,’ is not the same nation bequeathed to us by our Founders.” 

Lane’s belief that America is “a nation founded by Christians…for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith” is not based on the people traditionally seen as the nation’s Founding Fathers – the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Lane looks back to the pilgrims and the Mayflower compact, and even further to the covenant declared by Robert Hunt, founder of the Jamestown, Virginia, colony in 1607:

“We do hereby Dedicate this Land, and ourselves, to reach the People within these shores with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to raise up Godly generations after us, and with these generations take the Kingdom of God to all the earth. May this Covenant of Dedication remain to all generations, as long as this ear remains, and may this Land, along with England, be Evangelist to the World.”

That covenant, Lane insists, “is still in force.” In May 2015, he ranted, “Egregious and scandalous is the Church’s submission to secularists,” and the abandonment of that founding “mission.”

“America was a Christian nation,” he says. But now, “America has boarded the wrong, secular train. Now we’ve lost our Judeo-Christian heritage and its byproduct – a Christian culture.”

“It’s evident we’ve lost the culture, and we’ve lost our heritage now,” he said in a fall 2014 interview.  “I mean, with Obama, you’ve got red ink as far as the eye can see, homosexuals praying at the inauguration, 55 million babies dead.” He sounded a similar theme in Charisma in January:

 “Ah, but what has godless secularism produced? Red ink as far as the eye can see: racism, injustice, the murder of fifty-five million babies, the advancement of the homosexual agenda, fatherless homes, an epidemic of drugs and crime and the widespread acceptance and usage of pornography, especially among America’s youth.”

Punishing and Purging Judges

Who is to blame for secularism and its attendant evils? According to Lane, it’s the Supreme Court, secularists in the schools, politicians who promote the secularist agenda – and pastors who don’t stand against all these evils. He complains that the “the Church didn’t even shudder when the Bible, prayer, Jesus, and the Ten Commandments were removed from the public schools in 1963.” And he says there was “not a peep from the Christian Church” in response to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, when the church “should have initiated riots, revolution, and repentance.”

By ending Bible reading in public schools, he says, the Supreme Court removed the foundation for real knowledge and the transmission for wisdom and virtue. He wrote in August 2014:

Virtue is required for sustainable freedom. Secularists have successfully removed the transmission agent (The Word of God) for the accumulation of wisdom and knowledge, which created freedom in America. The nation is now basically biblically illiterate. Let’s be clear, the secularists and their priests — i.e., public education, higher learning, Hollywood and Media elite — have a coordinated, deliberate, sustained effort, a blitzkrieg, imposing an intolerant and aggressive false religion on America — Secularism.

This false god of Secularism — embedded in public education by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 — has glamorized, exalted and now normalized sin in America, creating a spiritually decadent, godless society.

This is why the work of Lane’s American Renewal Project is so urgent, he explained in a March 2015 email: “Unless Christianity resurrects in America and the moral underpinning restored, secularism’s amoral ideology will eventually collapse, along with Western Civilization.”

One response is to go after judges who don’t share Lane’s view of the Constitution. In October 2014 Lane told the Washington Post  that the American Renewal Project would “take aim at lower court judges who have overturned anti-gay marriage statutes and constitutional provisions.” Says Lane: “I want a fight over this,” he said. “I think the way to address it is to start removing these unelectable and unaccountable judges who are doing this to our country. They have no right to rule a free people. What they’re doing, it’s judicial anarchy.”

Lane has said he is looking for a member of the House of Representatives to introduce an impeachment bill. “The way we address this is we start removing unelected an unaccountable judges,” he said. “And then we remove the members of Congress who don’t vote to impeach them.” Lane was deeply involved in the 2010 purge of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted for marriage equality.

This approach to the courts is one reason Lane seems so fond of Huckabee, whose win in the 2008 Iowa caucus is often attributed to Lane’s efforts. (Evangelical strategist Doug Wead described Lane as “the mysterious, behind-the-scenes, evangelical kingmaker who stormed into Iowa in 2008 and tilted the whole thing from Romney to Huckabee.) Huckabee has signaled for some time that he would make attacks on “judicial supremacy” central to his campaign. His call for a rejuvenated nullification movement among the states has been taken up by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and the state Supreme Court.

Republican Party Loves Lane

While Lane often expresses his contempt for “establishment” Republicans who don’t embrace his radical vision for a Christian America in which the Bible is a primary textbook in public schools, GOP officials like party head Reince Priebus attend and promote his events. Priebus was scheduled to participate in Lane’s trip to Israel in January before controversy flared; he ended up not making the trip, saying he needed to attend a funeral.

Indeed, Republican Party officials seem unconcerned with Lane’s extremism and are eager to make use of his network of conservative pastors. The invitation letter for the Israel junket came from Priebus himself; although he said it was not an RNC trip, committee members interested in participating were told to RSVP to the RNC’s Member Services department. Priebus praised David Lane by name in October during a television interview in which he reiterated the Party’s support for a federal constitutional ban on same-sex couples marrying, which would overturn marriage equality in every state that now recognizes it.

TIME reported that the RNC members’ trip to Israel was organized by the American Family Association and Lane’s American Renewal Project, “in concert with RNC faith director Chad Connelly.” When Right Wing Watch reported in August 2014 that Cruz and Huckabee were planning to appear at a Lane-sponsored event in Michigan, the RNC’s Connelly posted on his Facebook page, “My buddy David Lane is drawing the attention of the God-haters and left wingers, but I repeat myself, out there! We had a great Michigan event and I’m convinced that the faith component is what will bring our nation together!” Connelly’s post was shared by the American Renewal Project, as was one of Connelly’s photos from the event, with Connelly’s caption: “honored to speak and give my testimony to a terrific crowd of enthusiastic pastors at the Michigan Renewal Project last night!” A few days later, Connelly bragged, “The RNC was well represented tonight at the California renewal project conference….”

Lane returns the love by helping Republicans win elections. Last year, his American Renewal Project teamed up with four potential 2016 candidates – Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee – to record radio ads urging “God’s people” to vote in the 2014 mid-terms. The ads were reportedly meant to run on almost 300 radio stations in more than 35 states. Those ads capped off the American Renewal Project’s 12-state strategy to turn out conservative evangelical voters in the 2014 cycle, a strategy that reportedly included a $2 million registration, education, and turnout ground game in North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa and Arkansas, states with key Senate races

Lane’s love for the GOP, however, is far from unconditional. In April 2013 he complained that the Republican Party establishment was not taking a strong enough stand against homosexuality and said there was a war for ideological supremacy – “the moral against the immoral” – within the Republican Party between “establishment moderates and the biblically conservative grassroot, precinct-level ground forces.” He has praised GOP officials who speak out against marriage equality, as he did when  Iowa State GOP Chair AJ Spiker wrote:

“While inclusion is important, elected Republicans (we all know the most recent example) and National/State Party leaders who embrace so-called same sex marriage are doing grave harm to our Party and the whole of society.

Lets not forget, so-called same sex marriage is an irreconcilable difference with the Republican PARty’s largest constituency…Committed Christians.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

All of Lane’s events are designed to promote conservative GOP candidates by introducing them to networks of politically engaged conservative pastors who are willing to turn their churches into GOTV operations on behalf of the right kind of right-wing candidate. Lane claims those events have engaged some 15,000 pastors since he began conducting them in the 1990s.

Bobby Jindal is one beneficiary. In January, Jindal hosted “The Response,” the Lane-organized prayer rally that was modeled on a similar event that Lane put together in 2011 to help Rick Perry launch his ill-fated presidential bid. Two months later, Lane organized a meet-and-greet for Bobby Jindal with pastors in Greenville, South Carolina. Jindal has also accepted Lane’s invitation for his own trip to Israel this summer, where he will be joined by evangelical pastors from the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Rand Paul talked about his own trip to Israel with Lane this past fall at a meeting Lane organized for Paul with a group of North Carolina pastors.

Lane also picked up the tab – reportedly a million dollars -- for a group of pastors from Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina (four early primary contests) to join Mike Huckabee on a European tour. It was a pilgrimage to Poland, London, and California to celebrate the leadership of Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. Right-wing blogger Bethany Blankley joined Huckabee’s European tour, on which the subpoena of Houston ministers’ emails and sermons were apparently cited to suggest American Christians were facing Nazi-like persecution. “On route to Auschwitz,” she wrote, “Lane reference similarities between 1930 Germany and 2014 America.” Huckabee said at Auschwitz that the horrors carried out by educated Germany “should be a sobering reminder that unless we stand against evil in our own time,” another Holocaust to another people group “will happen again.”

Lane, who calls himself a political operative, still tries to portray some of his events – like the Perry and Jindal prayer rallies, as spiritual and not political. But Huckabee was clear about the political benefits of his European junket:

“A lot of them asked the obvious question – sort of the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Why are pastors from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada the lion’s share of participants on this trip?” Huckabee said. “And I think some of them probably honestly, and perhaps somewhat cynically, probably said, ‘Is it because you’re trying to secure their support, if, in fact, you decide to run?’ My honest answer was, ‘Fair enough. If I should run, would I like to have your support? Sure.’”

Also on the trip were people like Rich Bott, president of a Christian radio conglomerate, whose support could be very useful.

During the flap over RNC members’ trip to Israel, Lane told Ha’aretz that he made his first trip to the country in 2008 or 2009 and has since taken seven or eight trips, including the one with Rand Paul in 2013, abou which Lane says, “A lot of people believe that after Rand Paul went in January 2013, his views evolved and he saw how wonderful the Jewish people are.” Researcher Rachel Tabachnik reports that Perry has also taken one of Lane’s trips to Israel.

Lane’s American Renewal Project also hosted an event for Rand Paul in October 2014 with 400 anti-abortion pastors in North Carolina. At the event, which was closed to press except for Breitbart, Paul reportedly said that “a civilization cannot long endure that doesn’t respect life from the very beginning to the very last breath.”

“When we talk about freedom or liberty people say that can get carried away you can’t have too much of that. I tell people thought that the fabric of our country though wasn’t just liberty and freedom. It was liberty and freedom and tradition.”

In organizing these events, Lane works with other Religious Right leaders. Among those listed in promotional materials for an event in Michigan were right-wing radio host Dennis Prager, “historians” David Barton and Bill Federer, the American Family Association’s Don Wildmon, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver, former Congressman Bob McEwen, and Pastor Laurence White of the Texas Restoration Project.

Lane’s 2016 Political Strategy

Lane himself is not a pastor; he describes himself as a political operative. He believes America is in the sad state it’s in because pastors have not preached more aggressively, and conservative Christians have not been active enough in the public arena. He told the New York Times’ Jason Horowitz in March that his goal is to raise up “an army.”

Right-wing blogger Bethany Blankley quotes Lane saying, “With the retreat of evangelical pastors from the public square, it’s no accident that America’s city halls and statehouses are spiritually empty. The only currency to rebuild America is God’s economy rooted in righteousness – beginning with a contrite spirit for what we believers have allowed to happen to America.”

In 2016, Lane’s political strategy has two major prongs: one is using “Pastors and Pews” events, trips to Israel, and public prayer rallies to promote politicians he likes and mobilize political engagement by conservative evangelicals. During controversy over Israel trip, Lane told Ha’aretz, “The Lord gave me this model of mobilizing pastors to try and engage the culture. Somebody’s values are going to reign supreme. America was founded by Christians for the glory of God and the Christian faith.”

Lane clearly hopes these efforts to vet presidential candidates will help conservative evangelicals coalesce around a single champion. He says he will not endorse in the primary, but he has complained bitterly about Jeb Bush’s hiring of pro-marriage-equality campaign staff. Lane bemoans the fact that divided evangelical voters allowed McCain and Romney to take the GOP nominations in 2008 and 2012. He told the Houston Chronicle in 2013, “We’re going to try to eliminate the stuff that they [GOP leaders] do to us every four years, which is picking somebody who has no chance of being viable and they kill us off and we have the McCains and Romneys left.”

Lane ally Bob Vander Plaats of the Iowa Family Leader said in November that the only way that will happen will be through prayer that God will reveal to us… that’s the one we need to coalesce around.”  Lane said something similar to the Christian Examiner in January 2015.

“Only a merciful God can cause America to change, and God works through His people,” Lane said.

That’s why prayer is so important; people need God’s guidance about whom to elect, Lane explained.

In a March 3 email, Lane summed up the quest this way: “The challenge is this – can we find a man or a woman whose faith is so great that they will voluntarily abandon those things which men cherish, including their very life, to defend against the seemingly invincible omnipotence of secularism?”

The other prong of Lane’s 2016 strategy is an effort to recruit 1,000 conservative evangelical pastors to run for office themselves. Lane says he was inspired by his own pastor, Rob McCoy of Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, California, who decided to run for the state assembly last year. McCoy won the Republican primary but was defeated in the general election. In both races he was outspent but managed to mobilize hundreds of volunteers. Lane figures that if he could replicate that experience on a grand scale, “would revolutionize the political process” and dramatically change the political climate in America.”

Here’s how he described the plan to the Washington Times in January:

“Our goal in 2016 is to have 1,000 pastors running for city council, county commissioner, school board, mayor, Congress — who attract an average of 300 Christian volunteers per campaign,” Mr. Lane explained.

“That would amount to a total 300,000 grassroots, evangelical, precinct-level conservatives — from the bottom up — in 2016,” he added. “It would change America for good, a step toward restoring the nation to our Judeo Christian heritage and reestablishing a Christian cultur.”

In January, Lane put on a recruitment and training session for pastors thinking about running for office. Jindal signed an invitation letter, which said, “There is a great need for the kind of leaders we read about in the Old Testament, ‘The Men of Issachar’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). We need such men and women of wisdom today who will accept the challenge to restore our Judeo-Christian heritage in America.” Jindal and Sen. Steve Lankford of Oklahoma were among the speakers at the event, which was held the day before “The Response,” the Lane-organized, Jindal-hosted prayer rally.

Lane says he sent an invitation to 100,000 pastors on his list, in which he spelled out his vision:

A thousand pastors running in 2016-and three to four hundred pastors winning their political races – would ignite a spiritual movement in the public arena of America not seen since America’s Founding. Again, the flock of God hungers for leadership in the battle for restoring America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and reestablishing a Christian culture.”

Among similar “Issachar Training” events Lane is holding across the country were a training for pastors in Las Vegas in April and one in Oklahoma City in May (featuring Ted Cruz and Sen. James Lankford).  Jindal will host an Issachar training in Charleston, South Carolina this Friday before Nikki Haley’s prayer rally and fellow presidential contender Mike Huckabee will host one in Orlando on July 9 and 10.

Funding Lane’s Christian-Nation Politicking

Lane’s American Renewal Project operates under the umbrella of the American Family Association, a nonprofit organization that is not required to disclose its donors. Lane has always refused to name the big donors who pick up the tab for flying pastors and politicians around the world, or picking up the meals and lodging for preachers to attend one of his state “Pastors and Pews” events with elected officials. But we know where at least some of Lane’s money is coming from.

 In 2013, the Christian Broadcasting Networks’ David Brody reported on one of Lane’s Iowa events. Brody’s story included short clips of comments by brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, who were identified only as members of Lane’s Pastors and Pews group. Brody introduced the brothers by saying, “The Wilks brothers worry that America’s declining morals will especially hurt the younger generation, so they’re using the riches that the Lord has blessed them with to back specific goals.”  Dan Wilks told Brody, “I just think we have to make people aware, you know, and bring the Bible back into the school, and start teaching our kids at a younger age, and, uh, you know, and focus on the younger generation.”  Brother Farris said, “They’re being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right.”

As Right Wing Watch reported in 2014, Farris and Dan Wilks made billions of dollars in the fracking business and have since become major funders of Religious Right organizations and groups associated with the Koch brothers’ networks. Farris also pastors a church founded by the brothers’ father, and his sermons make it clear that he shares much of Lane’s anti-gay, anti-secular, Christian-nation worldview, and has been inspired by Lane to do more to shape America’s future. RH Reality Check reported this year that the Wilks brothers’ are big funders of right-wing radio host Denis Prager’s right-wing propaganda site, Prager University.

Each of the brothers has, with their wives, set up charitable foundations: Farris and Joann created The Thirteen Foundation and Dan and Staci the Heavenly Father’s Foundation. The Thirteen Foundation in particular became a source of millions for right-wing political groups. According to the 2013 990 forms filed by the foundations with the IRS, The Thirteen Foundation gave 922,000 that year to the American Family Association. It is not clear how much of that was for Lane’s projects, but the filing from Heavenly Father’s Foundation is more explicit, reporting $750,000 to the AFA for three Pastors and Pews conferences.

Lane is, not surprisingly perhaps, a fan of today’s big-money approach to politics. Speaking about a post-Citizens United World, Lane told NBC News’s Perry Bacon in 2014: “The problem used to be, you had to raise $2,500 per person, so you had to come up with the bundlers. With Citizens United, I don’t think it’s as big of a hurdle. Now you can have somebody who gives $15 or $20 million into a super PAC and that changes the game.”

CBN’s David Brody as David Lane’s Personal Press Agent

David Lane has been careful over the years to manage his media presence, preferring with few exceptions to do his work beneath the radar of the national news. But he has often relied on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, who calls Lane “a good friend,” to promote his events or videos, reported breathlessly by Brody as “exclusives.”

One good example of Brody serving as Lane’s public relations man came in a March blog post, in which Brody enthused about the upcoming event featuring Jindal and Cruz: “The influential David Lane has done it yet again, pulling together a big event in Iowa where the two soon-to-be presidential candidates will speak in front of a couple hundred pastors next week.”

Brody added a message directly to reporters:

“Hey mainstream media: you better pay attention to these events. These spiritual events are authentic as can be and here's some straight talk for the media as well: don't think that Cruz, Jindal, and others do these events for political purposes. They are both authentic Christians who believe every word of what they say when they talk to these pastors. They are NOT ashamed of the Gospel.

Will there be some political benefit? Well, of course but their heart is in the right place. And after all, God looks at the heart.”

Is it remotely possible that David Brody really believes that Cruz and Jindal do not go to Lane’s explicitly political events “for political purposes”?

David Lane, the GOP, Gideon and Rahab the Harlot

Lane ends just about every email and column with the question, “Will a Gideon or Rahab the Harlot please make a stand?” As RWW has noted, in the Old Testament, Gideon is called by God to defeat the armies of enemies of the Israelites and end the worship of false gods. Rahab the Harlot enabled the Israelites’ conquest of Jericho by helping two spies sent into the city by Joshua. She and her family were the only ones spared when the city was destroyed and every other man, woman and child was killed. Politicians who stand with Lane might consider asking him just what he means by his frequently repeated calls for a Gideon or Rahab to stand up among American evangelicals.

Appendix: A David Lane Primer

  • Argued that “homosexuals praying at the Inauguration” of President Obama in 2013 will provoke God’s wrath in the form of “car bombs in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Des Moines, Iowa.”
  • Feared that God might destroy the U.S. just as he punished Nazi Germany: “If we get judgment like Nazi Germany, I’m assuming we go to rebel, and God says ‘I’m done.’”
  • Urged conservative Christians to prepare for martyrdom in their fight to “save the nation from the pagan onslaught imposing homosexual marriage [and] homosexual scouts.”
  • Warned that homosexuality has created an unparalleled “moral crisis” and “threatened our utter destruction.”
  • Favorably quoted a Christian author who said that “same-sex marriage practiced universally is suicide. To survive gays and lesbians are parasites, depending for their cultural survival on couples that birth the next generation.”
  • Explained why homosexuality is a threat to freedom: “Homosexuality is debauchery. God’s loyalty and fidelity — that guard the nation — make sustainable freedom dependent on seeking virtue.”
  • Predicted that homosexuality will lead to the destruction of America: “Homosexual desire and marriage is unnatural and — more so — is a symptom of advanced cultural decay and precursor to the collapse of the Republican Party and the nation.... The mark of a decadent society is the exaltation and normalization of sin — which leads to the death.”
  • Said homosexuality is part of a Marxist “psychological conditioning” plot.
  • Attacked gay Republicans Richard Tisei and Ken Mehlman along with GOP marriage equality supporters Rob PortmanLaura Bush, Barbara Bush and Cindy McCain for trying “to impose homosexual marriage — and indecency — on Christian America.”
  • Compared Republicans who support marriage equality to politicians who backed slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.
  • Called the separation of church and state a “lie” and a “fabricated whopper” used to stop “Christian America – the moral majority – from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.”
  • Claimed that while “America was a Christian nation” since its founding, now it must choose between being “a Christian nation or a pagan nation.”
  • Said America needs a “thorough cleaning from pornography, abortion, homosexuality, filth from TV and Hollywood, racism, and injustice.”
  • Asserted that the “false gods of multiculturalism, political correctness and secularism must be removed from Christian America.”
  • Disclosed that “our long-term strategy must be to place the Bible in Public Schools as the principle [sic] textbook of American education.”
  • Congratulated a pastor for exposing Mitt Romney’s belief in the “false god of Mormonism” during the 2012 GOP primaries.
  • Lamented that the “‘religion of secularism’ has produced red ink as far as the eye can see, homosexuals praying at the Inauguration, tax-funded abortion, homosexual marriage in several States, Evangelicals held in contempt, and God expelled from the classrooms of America — and the public square.”
  • Warned that while America has “grovel to the false god of Islam,” “America, a Christian nation in heritage and culture, is being dismantled brick by brick.

Hobby Lobby: 'Closely Held' Does Not Mean 'Mom and Pop'

In the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby, the Court held for the first time ever that a for-profit corporation counts as a “person” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that a “closely held” corporation basically shares the religious exercise rights of its owners.  This leads American law into a treacherous minefield, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg made clear in her dissent.

It’s worth pointing out, as Justice Ginsberg also noted, “’Closely held’ is not synonymous with ‘small.’” Hobby Lobby is a massive corporation employing some 13,000 people, but there are other closely held companies that are much larger. In a footnote, Ginsberg mentions family-owned Mars, Inc. and closely held Cargill, which are both among the largest five private companies in the country. Guess which is number two? Koch industries, with $115 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. Brothers David and Charles Koch reportedly own 84 percent. Rounding out the top five private companies are Dell and Bechtel. Those five companies employ more than 436,000 people. What religious claims might their owners find useful to make in undermining laws that protect their workers?

PFAW Foundation

Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.

Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony.  He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)

What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.

But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.

Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece.  For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.

The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.

Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”

But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request.  A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.

Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers.  Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”

It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”

That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”

The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.

And that is not the American Way. 

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Declines to Review New Mexico Rejection of Wedding Photographer Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a request to consider Elane Photography v. Willock, a case brought by a wedding photography business that had been penalized for violating a New Mexico law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. After the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously rejected its free speech and religious liberty claims, the company appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that taking pictures is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment, and that the government has no right to force a photographer to take a particular picture. The Supreme Court declined to take the case.

People For the American Way is committed to religious liberty, freedom of expression, and LGBT equality, and recognizes that people who support both religious freedom and full legal equality for LGBT people can and do disagree on where lines should be drawn in such cases.  A small business person who wants to run a business that reflects their values can be a sympathetic figure. Some believe a mom-and-pop company whose owners have religious objections to same-sex marriage should have the right to turn away a gay couple under those circumstances.  But it is hard to identify a legal principle by which a business covered by an anti-discrimination law would be allowed to ignore the law on the basis of the owner’s religious beliefs on marriage, but not on the basis of his religious beliefs on segregation or gender inequality.

The tension between the rights of a business owner and the ability of a legislature to ban discrimination as a matter of public policy finds eloquent expression in New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Bosson’s concurrence in the Elane Photography case.  The court unanimously upheld a finding by the state’s Human Rights Commission that refusing to provide services to a same-sex couple had violated anti-discrimination law. Bosson wrote that the court’s ruling means that the business owners “are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives. Though the rule of law requires it, the result is sobering.”

More from Bosson’s opinion:

On a larger scale, this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins [the business owners] are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish, they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life…In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs , so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.

Bosson’s opinion recognizes that there are competing interests at play and that can make line-drawing difficult.  He treats the religious liberty questions respectfully.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Religious Right from portraying the decision, and Bosson’s opinion, as pure tyranny.  A lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom called the decision “a blow to our client and every American’s right to live free.” Cases in Colorado and Oregon involving bakery owners that declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and faced punishment for violating anti-discrimination laws have generated similar rhetoric. 

Most Americans do not see tyranny in the balancing act that legislatures and courts are engaged in. They believe the principle staked out in PFAW Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics: it is legitimate for government to require religious organizations and individuals to abide by rules and regulations that promote the common good. A poll conducted by Third Way and HRC just before the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act found that 68 percent of Americans believe that small business owners should not be allowed to refuse service to gays or lesbians, regardless of their religious beliefs. When asked specifically about wedding-related services like catering, flowers, or cakes, nearly as many – 64 percent – were opposed to laws that would allow small businesses to deny services based on their religious beliefs.


The Perils of Religious Politicking

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.

In Pryor’s new ad, he doesn’t talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”

The centrality of faith in Pryor’s life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: “The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently.”  But I don’t see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring’s attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor’s Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response “bizarre and offensive.”

The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for “basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to Gold Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth.” But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor’s “I’m not ashamed” line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the Religious Right’s charge that Christianity is under attack in America.

Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012 which starts with very similar “I’m not ashamed” language but then gets “much more vulgar.”

A more recent example of the “a lot worse” school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.

Broun’s remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of “this mistaken idea that we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government.” (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)

Broun calls the Bible “the basis of our nation,” and says the fact that we aren’t running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic.  The founding fathers, he says, were “Bible-believing Christians” who believed that “every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God’s inerrant word. That’s what I believe in. That’s what we should all believe in.”

This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is “from the pit of hell” and that the Bible is a “manufacturer’s handbook” that “teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society,” as well as our lives as individuals. “That’s the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C.”

There are important distinctions between Pryor’s ad and Broun’s speeches.  It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. These “rules of the road” are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the 12 Rules:

Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.

Pryor’s ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.

In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other Religious Right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter.  Broun’s insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, “It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy.” In contrast, Pryor’s ad explicitly says that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.

A Religious Right critic of Pryor’s ad broke another of PFAW Foundation’s rules: “Religion should not be used as a political club.” As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was “outraged” by Pryor’s ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible “the furthest thing from the truth” because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn’t denigrate the sincerity of Pryor’s faith because he disagrees.

Still, Pryor’s ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate.  It can come across as saying, “vote for me because I’m a Christian,” a message that fails to respect America’s constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, “vote for me because I’m the right kind of Christian.” Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office. 

With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there’s little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.


Challenging the Right on Religious Liberty

The ongoing campaign by the Religious Right and its conservative Catholic allies to redefine religious liberty in America – which has been covered extensively by PFAW and Right Wing Watch – is the focus of a new report released on Monday by Political Research Associates, a think tank that also monitors right-wing organizations. “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” was written by Jay Michaelson, who published a condensed version in the Daily Beast.

Michaelson’s report reviews the organizational players and the strategies they employ, among them: mixing fact and fiction; claiming that there is a war on religious liberty; and reversing the roles of victim and oppressor to portray as religious liberty “victims” people who claim a right to discriminate against others. He notes that Religious Right disinformation has had some success in shaping public opinion: in Minnesota last year a large plurality of marriage equality opponents believed that if marriage equality became the law, churches would be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages, even though there is universal agreement that the First Amendment guarantees that churches are and will always be free to choose which relationships to bless or not to bless.

The PRA report includes the following recommendations for social justice advocates:

1. Define and publicize the campaign to redefine religious liberty

2. Organize a unified response

3. Counter misinformation

4. Reclaim the religious liberty frame

5. Develop academic responses

6. Leverage religious communities

7. Ongoing research and monitoring

Religious liberty was also the topic of a forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., cosponsored by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, Moment Magazine, and the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches. Moment, an independent Jewish Magazine, has also published a special Religious Freedom issue for March/April 2013.  At the conference, two large panels brought together a range of religious and secular voices to discuss and debate the meaning of religious liberty and the claims that liberty is under attack in the U.S. today. It's impossible to give complete coverage in a blog post but here are some highlights.

Charles Haynes, the First Amendment expert who heads Newseum’s religious liberty committee, noted that the broad coalition that came together to back the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the 1990s is no longer.  Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested a reason: that the coalition had intended RFRA to be a shield against government restrictions on the free exercise of religion, but that conservative groups had turned RFRA into a spear used to attack anti-discrimination laws.

One central principle of PFAW’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics became clear: while people can agree on the broad principle that religious liberty protects the freedom to live in accord with one’s religious beliefs, that consensus breaks down quickly when deciding how law and policy should react when religious liberty comes into tension with other constitutional principles like equality under the law. Indeed, panelists strongly (but civilly) disagreed on to what extent organizations – whether religiously affiliated institutions or business corporations – should be able to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws or the HHS requirement for insurance coverage of contraception. 

Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee argued for a shades-of-gray, rather than a black-and-white approach, saying organizations should be viewed on a spectrum, with churches and sectarian institutions on one end and corporations at the other. Foltin said the AJC has submitted amicus briefs in favor of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, but also believes that there are significant religious liberty questions that courts will have to deal with as marriage equality is implemented.  (As noted at another point during the day, the states that now recognize marriage equality all have somewhat different religious exemptions.)

Michaelson proposes five tiers of organizations with differing levels of claims to religious liberty: churches/denominations; religious organizations; religiously affiliated organizations; religiously owned business, and religious individuals. The right-wing, he says, keeps trying to “move the sticks” from the first three groups to the latter two.  He notes that the Mormon Church owns extensive business interests, including shopping malls, and says that if business owners are allowed to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws and other regulations based on religious belief, many employees will have their rights and interests restricted. 

Author Wendy Kaminer argued that the religious liberty of institutions is over-protected rather than threatened, saying that she believes some claims for religious liberty are actually demands for religious power to impose their beliefs on others.  If business owners are allowed to claim a religious exemption from generally applicable civil rights laws, she asked, what would be the limiting principle to such claims? Could business owners cite religious beliefs to ignore child labor laws, or to refuse to hire married women?  Kaminer challenged what she called an emerging legal double standard: when it comes to taking government funds, advocates say religious organizations need a level playing field and should be treated like every other organization. But when it comes to free exercise claims, and groups like Catholic Charities say they shouldn’t be subject to generally applicable laws, they don’t want a level playing field but special privileges.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that overblown rhetoric about threats to religious freedom is damaging to public understanding of religious liberty. She suggests that the first response to someone who talks about threats to religious liberty should be to ask them what specifically they are talking about.  For example, while people may be concerned when they hear about “an assault on religious liberty,” most Americans do not see a problem with requiring religiously affiliated institutions to abide by anti-discrimination laws or meet contraception requirements.

Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen suggested that on church-state issues, the Supreme Court justices could be divided into three camps: religious supremacists, advocates of “religious neutrality,” and strict church-state separationists.  The separationists, he said, had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that the courts have been moving more toward a “religious neutrality” approach, which he said in some cases is really a cover for the religious supremacists yearning for an openly religious state.  He said a landmark of the triumph of “neutrality” over separation was the 1995 Rosenberger case, in which the court said a public university could not deny funding from a religious publication because of its religious nature.  In the future, he said, Justices Breyer and Kagan may be willing to embrace a “religious neutrality” approach in hopes of winning votes to try to keep Robert and Kennedy from joining the Scalia-Thomas religious supremacists.

Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate and which has urged the Supreme Court to uphold Prop 8 and DOMA, portrayed religious liberty issues not as part of a culture war but as the necessity in a pluralistic society of recognizing that differences exist and allowing everyone the maximum ability to live according to their beliefs. He suggested that most church-state conflicts are blown out of proportion and can be resolved relatively easy with a willingness to work around individual religious liberty claims. Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society endorsed that view, and noted that the Supreme Court will likely be deciding cases in the near future about what constitutes a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious beliefs and what might qualify as a “compelling state interest” that would justify that burden.

Michaelson challenged Rienzi’s portrayal, saying that “religious liberty” itself has become a code word for a new tactic in the culture war against LGBT equality and reproductive rights, and that it was wrong to pretend there would be no victim if a business owner were granted the right, for example, to ignore laws against anti-gay discrimination.  Pharmacies, he said, used to have lunch counters that were segregated. Would it have been OK to justify that discrimination by saying there was another lunch counter down the street, the argument used by advocates for allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide some drugs based on their religious beliefs?

The ADL’s Lieberman said that from his perspective as an advocate for minority religions these do not seem like small or easily resolved issues, and said there was a clear prospect that individual rights would not be safeguarded if, for example, majoritarian school prayer were permitted.  Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council also noted the reality of a major power differential between members of majority and minority religions.  Dan Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, noted that there are widespread abuses in public schools, citing an example of a South Carolina public school that set aside a day explicitly intended to try to convert as many students as possible to Christianity.

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who moderated the first panel, noted that even on the day the First Amendment was passed, not everyone agreed with it or agreed with what it meant. We’ve been working it out ever since then and can’t quit, he said.  Charles Haynes made a similar point in his closing remarks, noting that in spite of all the differences evident in how we apply First Amendment principles, the ability to continue having the conversation is a reminder of how well those principles have worked to protect religious liberty in an increasingly diverse nation.


Advocate for Church-State Separation to Lead White House Faith Office

Good news out of the White House today for advocates of religious liberty and church-state separation: President Obama has selected Melissa Rogers as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She will also serve as a Special Assistant to the President.

Rogers is a widely respected scholar on religious freedom and an exceptionally thoughtful advocate for the position that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of religious liberty. People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation have frequently worked in coalition with Rogers, particularly during her tenure as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  She is also a former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Rogers was the first chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and in 2011 she was appointed to a subgroup of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Rogers steps into her new position at a time when the definition and scope of “religious liberty” are being strongly contested in the public arena, with conservative religious and legal groups using the term to challenge health care reform and push for broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, Rogers will face ongoing questions about an issue left unaddressed during President Obama’s first term: the president’s campaign pledge to ensure that organizations using federal funds to carry out social services cannot discriminate with those funds in hiring staff.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who could do a better job than Melissa Rogers at dealing with these challenges,” says People For’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “The American people need a thoughtful and convincing voice like Melissa’s to help us sort through the real religious liberty issues as well as the phony ones.”


Federal education vouchers funding creationism curricula

Federally funded private school voucher and tax credit programs are more numerous than ever. Moreover, studies show that the curricula in many of these programs have included the teaching of creationism.

The Perils of Teaching About the Bible in Public Schools

Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight.  People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.

But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:

  • "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"
  • "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."  
  • "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"
  • "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"
  • "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.

But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.

Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?

PFAW Foundation