Religion writers and communications professionals – including yours truly – descended on Columbus, Ohio, last week for the annual conference of the Religion News Association (RNA). From beginning to end, many of the discussions centered around religious freedom and church-state separation.
Before RNA announced its annual writing awards during the Saturday night banquet that closes out the conference, two Ohio women took the stage to share their compelling story of how discrimination – often in the name of religion – has harmed them and countless LGBTQ people around the country.
Jimmie and Mindy Beall have the dubious honor of being among the first couples featured in the Beyond I Do project that was launched earlier this year. Sponsored by the Gill Foundation and the Ad Council, Beyond I Do tells the stories of people who have been harmed by their states’ lack of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
Jimmie Beall spoke of how, years earlier, she’d been let go from her job as a longtime public school teacher because the district learned she was a lesbian. “I didn’t know they could do that. I was a government teacher – I didn’t think that was legal.” She went to an attorney, who explained that Ohio doesn’t have laws protecting LGBTQ people from being fired due to their sexual orientation. The lawyer told her, “You don’t have the same rights as everyone else.”
Jimmie got a new job, which led to her meeting Mindy, whom she married on Valentine’s Day 2016. And she got a new purpose – standing up for LGBTQ rights. She said she began to live out the message on a poster she kept in her classroom: “Stand for what you know is right, even if you’re standing alone.”
Jimmie isn’t standing alone: As Gill Foundation program officer Brian Rossbert explained at the conference, a coalition of organizations around the country are working to increase protections for LGBTQ people and fight legislative proposals that would allow religion to be used to justify discrimination. Americans United, through our Protect Thy Neighbor project, is proud to be part of the effort to ensure religious freedom is a shield that protects people, not a sword used to harm others.
Earlier Saturday, a panel of legal experts spoke about “Trump and the Judiciary” – highlighting the ways that President Donald Trump is affecting the courts, not just through the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (who has shown hostility toward church-state separation) to the Supreme Court, but also through appointments to all federal benches. Howard Friedman, a law professor and editor of the Religion Clause blog, joked that stacking the courts with conservative judges is “the only part of the Trump Administration operating smoothly.” (Friedman’s remarks came before Sunday’s story in The Washington Post about the California professor who has come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.)
Friedman and the other panelists – Susan Becker from the ACLU in Ohio and Robert Alt, CEO of a libertarian-oriented group called the Buckeye Institute – also spoke about the evolution of how religious freedom is treated by the federal courts.
“Religious liberty has become the battleground on which the culture wars are being fought,” Friedman said, noting that views that began as cultural objections are being transformed into religious objections in an attempt to gain wider acceptance.
Alt noted how a change in the Supreme Court’s “swing” justice changed how the court ruled on church-state separation cases. Alt said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor framed such cases as whether they presented government favoritism toward a religion, whereas Justice Anthony Kennedy was more concerned with whether religious coercion was involved. Alt’s comments underscore the concerns of AU and others about what’s at stake with Kennedy’s departure from the court and how a Trump appointee could change the balance of power for a generation.
The RNA conference also kicked off with a discussion on church-state separation work, including mention of several cases in which AU has been involved. Of particular note were two cases involving government displaying Christian crosses – in a park in Florida and on a county seal in Pennsylvania – in which federal judges ruled that these practices were unconstitutional, but expresses regret and indicated they thought higher courts should reinterpret the Constitution on these issues.
Issues such as the Trump administration’s Muslim ban and the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case were also discussed. The ways in which Muslims and other religious minorities, especially Sikhs and Hindus, are treated differently from mainstream religions – namely Christianity – was another frequent theme throughout the conference.
We at Americans United know that church-state separation – the linchpin of religious freedom – is under attack. It’s a good sign that the journalists who write about religion and how it intersects with government are aware too.