There’s no denying that 2018 was rough for advocates of church-state separation. The Supreme Court dealt some blows to the church-state wall. Efforts to weaponize religious freedom as a means to discriminate accelerated. President Donald Trump and his allies continued to cater to the Religious Right’s agenda of inserting their narrow vision of Christianity into public policy.
But there were reasons to celebrate as well. In particular, the new year will arrive with new, diverse advocates in Congress and across the country who will serve as a strong bulwark against those who would undermine America’s fundamental promise of religious freedom.
Here’s a look at the year that was – the top 10 church-state stories from 2018 and how they might affect 2019.
1. Trump and the Religious Right: Religious Right activists continued to wield unprecedented influence on the Trump-Pence administration. Their input is evident in a multitude of federal policy proposals, and members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board often appeared by his side. AU demanded that the administration shut down the advisory board until it complies with federal transparency and public access laws.
2. DOJ fails at religious liberty: Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions established a new Religious Liberty Task Force to enforce his guidance for using religion as a blueprint to discriminate. AU sent a formal demand for information about the task force because the Department of Justice has been tight-lipped on its purpose, policies and activities.
Trump forced out Sessions and appointed Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker – who believes federal judges should have a “biblical view of justice.” In December, Trump nominated former George H.W. Bush attorney general William P. Barr to be Sessions’ permanent replacement; his views on church-state relations are equally troubling.
3. Weaponizing religious freedom: Attempts to misuse religious freedom as justification to discriminate continued at both the federal and state levels. Trump policies included finalized rules to allow employers and universities to block women’s access to birth control and a proposed refusal of care rule that would allow any health care provider to refuse to treat patients, particularly women and LGBTQ people. Several states, including Kansas, Oklahoma and South Carolina, want to allow publicly funded foster-care agencies to cite religious beliefs to turn away prospective parents, especially those who are LGBTQ or of a different religion.
4. Project Blitz: Researchers exposed Project Blitz, a coordinated national effort by several Religious Right groups to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. They’ve distributed 20 model bills to over 750 state legislators; the legislation is aimed at promoting “Judeo-Christian heritage” in public schools and defining “public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.”
5. The Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling: The Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Colorado bakery that cited religious beliefs when it refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. But it wasn’t the knockout victory the Religious Right was seeking: The court’s decision was narrowly tailored to that specific case, and the court reaffirmed the longstanding rule that businesses open to the public must be open to all.
6. Rachel Laser arrives at AU: Americans United in February announced the hiring of Rachel Laser as AU’s new president and CEO. Laser became the first woman and the first non-Christian (she’s Jewish) to lead AU in the organization’s 71-year history. An attorney with extensive experience in nonprofit advocacy, Laser provided a welcome shot of adrenaline as she steered AU through the church-state challenges of the past year and plans AU’s future.
7. Trump’s Muslim ban: The Supreme Court upheld Trump’s Muslim ban that blocks immigrants and travelers from five predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The high court wasn’t swayed by voluminous evidence that the ban stemmed from Trump’s publicly stated animus toward Muslims or by the plight of American Muslims separated from their families.
8. Kennedy Out, Kavanaugh In: Swing-vote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement in June. Kennedy leaves a mixed legacy on church-state separation, but his replacement’s record is even worse: Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh has spoken of the “wall of separation” metaphor as “wrong as a matter of law and history.” He has supported religious employers’ efforts to obstruct women’s access to reproductive health care, school-sponsored prayer in public schools and government funding of religious displays.
9. Religion in public schools: On behalf of several families, AU in February filed a federal lawsuit against the Bossier Parish public schools in Louisiana to end widespread, school-sponsored promotion of Christianity. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering whether to review the case of a Washington state football coach who is challenging Bremerton School District’s right to protect students’ religious freedom by stopping him from leading them in prayer. New Mexico and Arizona public schoolchildren scored clear victories when efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in science classrooms failed.
10. Inclusive invocations: AU celebrated a courtroom victory in August when a federal court declared the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ practice of forbidding nontheists from offering invocations during House sessions is discriminatory and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also left in place a lower court ruling that a North Carolina county’s practice of favoring Christian invocations at public meetings was unconstitutional. A federal appeals court is considering whether the refusal of the U.S. House of Representatives’ chaplain to allow nontheists to give invocations violates religious freedom. House chaplain the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy also was in the news last spring when he was briefly fired, reportedly because he criticized the Republican tax bill.
That’s a look at the year that was! Americans United is ready for the challenges of 2019. We hope you are, too.