There’s no denying that 2017 was a tough year for advocates of religious freedom and church-state separation. Yet despite the barrage of assaults from the Donald Trump-Mike Pence administration, Americans United saw important victories in and out of court.
As we look ahead to 2018, here’s a list of what are, in our opinion, the top 10 church-state stories from 2017:
GOP attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment fail: Earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a provision in federal law that protects the integrity of houses of worship and other tax-exempt entities by ensuring they don’t intervene in electoral politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. This fall, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to make good on Trump’s promise by inserting a provision in the tax bill that would have severely undermined the amendment.
Americans United, which since 1996 has run Project Fair Play, an effort to educate lawmakers, clergy and citizens about the importance of the Johnson Amendment, mobilized to defend the provision and worked with allied groups to keep it intact. Members of AU’s Legislative Department educated members of Congress about the amendment and what it does (and does not do), setting the record straight by correcting misinformation circulated by Religious Right groups. Through the Faith Voices project that AU and allies helped to launch, we pulled together 4,300 faith leaders who spoke out in favor of keeping the Johnson Amendment. Many of our faith leaders and supporters around the country also wrote op-eds and held in-district meetings with their members of Congress and their staffs. In addition, more than 10,000 AU activists urged Congress to protect the current law through calls, emails and petitions.
This hard work paid off. The language undermining the Johnson Amendment was not included in the Senate version of the tax bill, and it also failed to be included in the final bill that Trump signed.
Trump’s Muslim ban struck down by several courts: Trump made several attempts to bar or restrict Muslim entry into the United States through executive orders. A number of lawsuits were filed against his actions, including two by Americans United and our allies. Several federal courts weighed in on the matter, with most striking down the ban in whole or in part. Legal observers agree that the matter is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an ongoing, highly important legal action, and AU intends to remain in the thick of it.
Americans United challenges Trumps birth control regulations: The Trump administration in October issued regulations that allow employers and universities to cite religious or moral objections in order to deny employees and students health insurance coverage of birth control. Americans United, the National Women’s Law Center and the global law firm Dentons immediately filed suit against the regulations on behalf on five women who are at risk of being denied birth control coverage. The plaintiffs in Shiraef v. Hargan include three students at the University of Notre Dame, including doctoral student Mary Shiraef; an employee at a university in Illinois; and Alicia Baker, an employee at an Indiana church whose insurance provider objects to some forms of birth control.
Several state attorneys general also filed lawsuits against the Trump maneuver. Two federal courts have already put the regulations on hold, and AU is optimistic that it will win a favorable ruling as well.
Supreme Court rules in favor of church in tax-aid case: The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that the state of Missouri could not deny taxpayer aid to a church-owned preschool that sought to take part in a grant program that provides funding for the purchase of recycled tires that are used for playground resurfacing. The high court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer contained language stating, “[T]his case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” Thus, while the decision is disappointing, its full impact remains to be seen.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn announces retirement: Lynn, an attorney and a United Church of Christ minister, had led Americans United since 1992. Under his tenure, the organization greatly expanded its legal, legislative and grass-roots advocacy. The organization held a gala event Nov. 2 to celebrate Lynn’s quarter century of service (and the 70th anniversary of Americans United). His retirement became official in late November.
Houses of worship demand taxpayer aid after hurricanes: In the wake of a series of devastating hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida, a Religious Right legal group went to court seeking taxpayer assistance to rebuild religious structures under programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Americans United pointed out that houses of worship can be reimbursed for funds they spend housing and taking care of people post-disaster but that rebuilding aid is usually limited to entities that provide a public service, such as schools, hospitals and libraries. A federal court in Texas denied an emergency appeal for aid, but the cases are ongoing.
Supreme Court to decide legality of religion-based discrimination claims: The high court in early December heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, an important case dealing with whether religion-based claims can trump civil rights laws. The case concerns a Colorado bakery whose owner wants to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community and possibly others who offend his religious beliefs. If the court rules in his favor, it could open the door for for-profit businesses to deny services not just to LGBTQ Americans but also to non-believers, single moms, cohabitating couples or virtually anyone who is deemed to run afoul of a business owner's theological views.
Roy Moore loses race for U.S. Senate: Moore, formerly the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has twice been removed from that position – once for defying a federal appeals court ruling to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the judicial building in Montgomery and once for ordering state probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality (AU was involved in litigation in both cases). He ran for U.S. Senate in a special election in December and lost to Democrat Doug Jones by about 21,000 votes. During the race, Moore was dogged by allegations that when he was in his 30s, he sexually harassed and assaulted teenage girls. Despite these credible allegations, Moore received significant support from white evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for him. Religious Right groups also stood by him.
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos push vouchers: Trump’s decision to name DeVos, a billionaire with no education experience, to the lead the U.S. Department of Education was controversial, and she got the position only after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking Senate vote in her favor. Trump and DeVos have vowed to promote a nationwide voucher plan, and DeVos has even called it one of the department’s top priorities. Although no legislation has yet been unveiled, Americans United continues to monitor the situation. AU has pointed out that voucher plans don’t improve students’ academic performance and noted that Americans don’t support the concept. (For example, in November voters in Douglas County, Colo., removed a pro-voucher slate and replaced them with a faction that supports public schools. The new school board immediately voted to end a voucher program that AU and allies have been challenging in court since 2011.)
President Trump appoints Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court: Trump named Gorsuch, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to an open seat on the high court. (The seat became vacant nearly two years ago when Justice Antonin Scalia died, but Senate Republicans refused to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.) Americans United opposed Gorsuch’s nomination, noting that his record on church-state cases while he was on the appeals court was poor. Gorsuch got the seat only after Republicans in the Senate invoked the “nuclear option” and suspended a rule that would have allowed Democrats to filibuster the nomination.
Americans United is prepared to face these challenges and any others involving religious freedom that come our way in 2018. I hope you’ll join us in standing up for church-state separation.