During the Values Voter Summit (VVS) over the weekend, leaders and followers of the Religious Right made clear they plan to continue their attempts to weaponize religious freedom as a means to justify discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ people and women.
Undermining the wall of separation between church and state was a common refrain throughout the two-day summit, which is sponsored every year in Washington, D.C., by the anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive rights, anti-religious diversity Family Resource Council.
Since President Donald Trump opted out of speaking at VVS after making consecutive appearances there, Vice President Mike Pence was the event’s headliner. On Saturday, he ticked off several ways he claims the administration has “taken action to protect and promote … the freedom of religion.” In reality, the Trump-Pence administration has attacked true religious freedom at every turn; Americans United has compiled a timeline that tracks these attacks.
In referring to the federal law that protects the integrity of nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring they don’t endorse or oppose political candidates, Pence erroneously claimed, “We ended enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.” Not only is the law still in effect, but Trump, Pence and the contingent of Religious Right leaders who want to boost their own political power by repealing the Johnson Amendment are ignoring the more than 4,500 faith leaders around the country who’ve said they support the current law that protects their organizations’ missions and prevents them from being entangled in partisan politics.
Speakers including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Fox News personality Todd Starnes and a video from the American Family Association promoted school-sponsored prayer in public schools. And the vast majority of speakers, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to NRA TV personality Dana Loesch defended Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, despite his abysmal record on church-state separation and the proliferating accusations that he sexually assaulted women when he was in high school and college.
But an even more common refrain throughout the two-day event was the push to use religious freedom as a sword to harm others, rather than as the shield of protection that is intended to be.
A featured speaker was Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Colorado business that wanted the Supreme Court to legitimize its decision to cite religious beliefs as justification for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop because the justices felt Colorado officials showed animus toward religion when they ruled the bakery had violated anti-discrimination laws, the Supreme Court did NOT rule that a business has a religion-based right to refuse to serve same-sex couples and repeatedly reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to combating discrimination against LGBTQ people in businesses open to the public.
Joining Phillips onstage was Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney from the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing several more businesses that are going to courts around the nation to seek the right to use religion as the basis for discrimination.
Also lauded were attempts around the country to allow taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies the right to use religion to deny children loving homes by discriminating against prospective parents. FRC President Tony Perkins announced the organization’s inaugural State Legislator of the Year award would go to Kansas state Rep. Susan Humphries (R-Witchita), who helped to shepherd the passage of one of these laws in Kansas earlier this spring.
AU and allies – including many faith leaders – vehemently objected to the proposal, but Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) signed it into law in May. “Religious freedom should never be used to justify discrimination against people or cause them harm – yet that is exactly what this law does,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser. “It gives taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies the right to elevate their religious beliefs over what children need.”
Emilie Kao, Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the conservative Heritage Foundation, spoke at a breakout session about discriminatory adoption laws several states have passed and encouraged them to support a similar bill at the federal level. Kao noted that nearly a half-million children are in need of foster or permanent homes nationwide, but instead of recognizing that laws like these would reduce the number of prospective parents, Kao claimed, “These children need as many adoption agencies as possible.” Her claim ignores that it’s loving homes these children desperately need and that there are plenty of faith-based child-welfare agencies that have been operating for years.
Pence hyped the administration’s proposed rules that would allow employers and universities to cite religious beliefs to deny women access to birth control coverage (these rules face several court challenges, including one filed by Americans United and allies). Pence and Reagan-era Education Secretary Bill Bennett both also touted the administration’s proposal to allow health care providers to make religion-based refusals to provide care – even lifesaving care – to patients in need, no matter how much harm it will cause. And multiple panelists made religion-infused statements opposing the transgender community and policies that would allow transgender people to use public restrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.
It’s clear these attempts to undermine and redefine religious freedom won’t end any time soon. Americans United will continue to stand sentinel on the church-state wall – which ensures religious freedom for all, not just for some. We’ll be busy, but we’re up to the task. I hope you join us.
(Photo: FRC President Tony Perkins awards the "State Legislator of the Year Award" to Kansas state Rep. Susan Humphries; Vice President Mike Pence; former Education Secretary Bill Bennett; and Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips.)