Every legislative session, AU tracks hundreds of state bills that, if passed, would undermine religious freedom in nearly every state. We often see trends arise across states. Lawmakers in different states introduce similar bills, and sometimes even the same exact bills with the same exact language. And we can usually figure out why that happens: conservative lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and state Focus on the Family affiliates often shop model bills around to state legislators, who then introduce these model bills in their states. The lobbying groups also share strategies with legislators to help pass their bills. The result: Similar harmful bills appear and pass in many different states in a nationwide onslaught.
This year, we started seeing a trend we couldn’t explain. Why were there suddenly dozens of new bills introduced, all over the country, requiring public schools to post the national motto “In God We Trust”? Last year, there were three of these bills introduced, but this year, there were over 25. Why were these “In God We Trust” bills at the top of legislators’ priority lists – passing in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee – when states are currently facing so many other pressing issues?
Thanks to an important discovery by longtime Americans United ally and veteran researcher of the Religious Right Fred Clarkson, we now know why. Fred shared the Project Blitz playbook: a 116-page guide for state legislators published by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), WallBuilders and other evangelical Christian political groups. CPCF is so closely entwined with state legislators that they organize “prayer caucuses” in many statehouses – with, for example, 65 public officials on board in Iowa and 28 in Tennessee. The playbook includes 20 model bills and a variety of strategies state legislators could use to pass them. And of those 20 model bills, “In God We Trust” bills are the first ones on their list.
Project Blitz starts with simple bills that promote Christianity and belief in God, which, of course, violates one of the most critical principles of religion freedom: that church and state remain separate. Once they erode this bedrock principle, promoters of Project Blitz encourage legislators to pass even more extreme bills. These bills aim at changing the meaning of religious freedom entirely, transforming it from a shield used to protect our rights to believe or not to a sword that can be used to harm others. Their later bills use state governments to create religious exemptions that undermine advances in LGBTQ people’s and women’s equality. These bills commandeer state governments to promote a particular, narrow set of evangelical Christian political beliefs: that LGBTQ people should not have equal rights, that women should not have access to reproductive health care and that people of minority faiths and nonbelievers do not deserve the same protections.
The Project Blitz playbook starts with “In God We Trust” bills. Project Blitz acknowledges that some may consider these bills unnecessary or symbolic, but says they “can have an enormous impact,” creating a “significant ripple effect on subsequent measures, policies, and agency actions.” These bills are not just about reminding students of the national motto; they’re about encouraging students to believe in God, which public schools are not allowed to do. Our public schools are supposed to bring Americans together and make all kids feel welcome, but these bills make some kids feel like outcasts in their own communities.
Project Blitz also explains that “In God We Trust” bills are a stepping stone to bills that would create even more egregious violations of our religious freedom. The bills range from proclamations to honor our country’s so-called “Christian heritage,” to bills that encourage public schools to teach about the Bible, to broad bills that create religious exemptions to each and every state law. After reading all 20 model bills in the Project Blitz report, I found that Project Blitz had been extremely successful in urging state legislators to introduce many more model bills, not just “In God We Trust” bills. I compared the Project Blitz bills to all of the bills that we track in the states and found nearly 75 bills with similar language or intention. See the chart below for more information about the number and type of Project Blitz bills I identified that were introduced in the states.
We were already fighting back against many of these bills without knowing that they were a part of a shadowy, concerted strategy. Through our Protect Thy Neighbor project, we’re fighting Project Blitz bills that allow religion to be used to discriminate – follow our legislative tracker here to see our efforts to defeat those bills.
After yesterday’s limited U.S. Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop – in which the court stopped short of deciding whether all businesses beyond the specific bakery in this case can give a religion-based refusal to serve same-sex couples – we can expect that some legislators might be emboldened to introduce more bills like those in Project Blitz.
And we’ll always fight “In God We Trust” bills and other bills that others might consider trivial, because we’ve always known that they are a first step in undermining our religious freedom. And, of course, they cause real harm to millions of Americans who are nontheists or members of minority faiths.
Religious freedom is for all Americans, not just for the select few who may follow the faith espoused by Project Blitz. Religious freedom means the right to believe or not as we see fit, but not to use religion to harm or discriminate against others.