January 2015 Church & State | Featured

Jim Inhofe, a Republican U.S. sen­ator from Oklahoma, believes the making of public policy should be left to a higher power.

“[G]od’s still up there,” Inhofe, a Religious Right ally, opined in 2012. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”  

Whether or not you agree with Inhofe on climate change is a secondary matter: The fact is, he wants to craft legislation based purely on dogma favored by a handful of people instead of policies that would help the entire country. Inhofe, a former insurance executive, has ascended to the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – granting him a powerful platform from which to spread his ideas.

Inhofe received his promotion partly due to the Religious Right, which mobilized millions of voters who hate President Barack Obama ahead of the November elections. Thanks in part to the fact that 78 percent of white, evangelical Protestants who participated in an election last year voted for Republicans, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are under conservative control for the first time since 2006. As a result, defenders of separation of church and state can expect a steady flow of congressional measures that could harm religious liberty.

The issues in play will include school voucher expansions, “religious freedom” exemptions to secular laws, the role of religion in the military and attempts to provide direct federal funding for houses of worship. 

Since many far-right candidates rode into office on a wave of fundamentalist support, they will likely do the bidding of the GOP base/Tea Party constituents who sent them to Washington. Here are the bad bills you can expect to see this year:


A Variety Of Voucher Schemes

Although one of the loudest voucher proponents in Congress, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), was booted from office during the primary elections, plenty of lawmakers are lining up to take his place.

In a November op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged to push for “school choice” expansion.

Boehner and McConnell, perhaps aware of the unpopularity of the term “voucher” among voters, crouched their agenda with language referring to charter schools.

Others were not so reticent. In a recent manifesto of sorts, Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made similar remarks: “We should also do all we can to expand educational choices for parents and children….”

Unfortunately, voucher-loving legislators will likely have plenty of choices in 2015 when it comes to schemes to divert taxpayer money into the coffers of sectarian schools, as multiple failed bills from previous sessions seem likely to resurface.

In 2014, two federal voucher bills were introduced: the Scholarship for Kids Act and the CHOICE Act. The Scholarship for Kids Act (H.R. 4000/S. 1968) would use federal Title I money, which is intended to fund programs at schools with high concentrations of low-income students and a variety of funds from other federal education programs and convert them into a gigantic private school voucher plans.

The CHOICE Act (H.R. 4773/S. 1909) is also proble­matic. It would do three things: expand the ineffective Washington, D.C. voucher program, redistribute federal tax dollars    reserved for students with dis­a­bilities into a private school vouch­er program and create a private school voucher program for students living on military bases.

Americans United’s legislative team reported that the main lawmakers driving these dangerous bills will likely be Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), who spon­sored the Scholarship for Kids Act and co-sponsored the CHOICE Act, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who also sponsored the Scholarship for Kids Act and co-sponsored the CHOICE Act, as well as Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Messer, Alexander and Scott will have increased power this year since Messer was elected head of the House Republican Policy Committee, while Alexander is the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Additionally, vouchers could crop up in a new stand-alone bill or tucked into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which would allow for what policy wonks call “public school portability.” The plan would allow for Title I funds to be allocated on a per-student basis, and many critics believe it is a step toward a voucher plan.

The “portability” concept was introduced as an amendment to ESEA in 2013 by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Scott, and has been proposed as an amendment to other forms of legislation as well. Cantor was a proponent of portability, which he called an “imitation voucher,” but even without his influence it is clear this ploy has many advocates left to fight for it.


Direct Tax Aid For Religious Organizations

Although Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast more than two years ago, the Religious Right is still using it as an excuse to provide direct federal money to houses of worship. The new Congress may be receptive to the idea.

Houses of worship are currently eligible to receive low-interest loans to repair storm damage, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is prohibited from distributing direct grants to churches, temples and so on – although certain religious organizations can qualify for this aid as they seek to repair property damaged in natural disasters.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, however, several bills were proposed that would have changed that. The primary measure was H.R. 592/S. 1274, which easily passed the House in February 2013. It was then sent to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for consideration but did not advance.

Then-committee chair Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) opposed the bill, saying it was unconstitutional. But now that the GOP holds control of the Senate, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) may have the opportunity to reconsider the FEMA bill. Johnson, who once served on the finance council of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, may feel differently about the constitutionality of the measure.


Religion In The Military

The issue of religious freedom in the U.S. military is one that comes up annually in Con­gress, thanks primarily to the National Defense Reauthorization Act (NDAA). This massive, omnibus bill sets the U.S. defense budget and must be renewed each year. Thus, it often becomes a magnet for dangerous proposals in the form of riders and amendments.

In 2014, NDAA (H.R. 4425/S. 2289) passed the House with problematic amendments that would have allowed chaplains to deliver sectarian prayers at mandatory events and to give the government land upon which the Mt. Soledad Cross near San Diego sits. (The “memorial” is a 43-foot tall Latin cross that was dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1954 as a “gleaming white symbol of Christianity.” Its defenders have since claimed it is a war memorial and it has been the subject of litigation for over 20 years.)

It is clear that issues of religious expression in the armed forces are of ongoing interest to Congress – after all, there were two House hearings on the matter in 2014 alone. More hearings and problematic bills can be expected in 2015, which is why Americans United took a preemptive step to debunk dozens of overstated Christian “persecution” claims by the Family Research Council in its 2014 report “A Clear and Present Danger.” The report purports to document dozens of incidents in which Christian service members were denied freedom of expression. (See “Clear and Present Falsehoods,” p. 9.)


Demands For ‘Religious Freedom’ Exemptions

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s harmful decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which said that secular, for-profit corporations have the right to make intensely personal medical decisions for their employees under the guise of “religious freedom,” Americans United’s legislative team expects to see numerous types of congressional action that would permit religious refusals from health care and anti-discrimination laws.

Some of these bills were introduced in 2014, including the EACH Act (H.R. 1814/S. 862), which would have allowed people to exempt themselves from the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act if they have a religious objection to health care. It passed the House but not the Senate.

The new Congress may also move to protect the “right” of individuals to discriminate against same-sex couples. In 2014, a bill was introduced called the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 3133/S. 1808), which would have given opponents of same-sex marriage broad new powers to refuse to serve or accommodate LGBT citizens. It didn’t move, but it may find a friendly reception this year.

The First Amendment already protects houses of worship from being forced to perform any wedding to which they object, but some Religious Right activists want to go way beyond that and extend these same protections to the owners of secular, for-profit businesses.

The measure didn’t pass either chamber, but it could be reconsidered in 2015. Another piece of legislation that did not pass either the House or Senate in 2014 but could be resurrected is the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2014 (H.R. 5285/S. 2706), which would have prohibited the government from cutting off support to religious adoption agencies that accept tax aid but still refuse to place children with LGBT clients based on those agencies’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” 

It’s likely that bills like these and other religious refusals will only increase next year. Said Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett: “The Religious Right is anxious to test the bounds of Hobby Lobby. Fundamentalists will be looking to determine just how much they can get away with when they act under the guise of ‘sincerely held religious beliefs.’”


Finally: Expected the Unexpected

            With so many Religious Right-friendly legislators in power, just about anything could happen. In previous years when far-right lawmakers have had power, they have pushed legislation or amendments promoting the teaching of creationism in public schools and even advocated constitutional amendments to promote official prayer in public schools.

A resolution was introduced in the House last year designed to protect the “symbols and traditions of Christmas.” It could resurface this year. There have also been proposals to encourage the display of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols at the seat of government. Other bills would make it harder for people to even file church-state cases in federal courts or would strip the courts of their power to hear these challenges.

In addition, Obama’s judicial appointments to the federal courts are expected to face more grilling and much rockier paths to confirmation.

How did the country get to this point? The GOP took control of the Senate and built its largest House majority since 1928 – and this occurred just two years after the reelection of Obama.

Analysts agree that turnout was down sharply in 2014. In fact, it hit the lowest level since World War II. But one group did not stay home: far-right religious conservatives.

The Religious Right’s aggressive manipulation of churches also played a role. Groups like the Faith & Freedom Coalition, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the American Family Association, the Family Research Council and others urged houses of worship to distribute biased “voter guides” in houses of worship prior to the election.

At a post-election press conference in Washington, Faith & Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed claimed that his group distributed 20 million voter guides in 117,000 churches. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn examined some of these guides, which were available online, and determined that they were clearly designed to promote Republicans.

“I’m sure groups like the ADF and the Faith & Freedom Coalition feel good about their success in dragging churches into partisan politics, which may very well have affected the outcome of some races yesterday,” Lynn said in a media statement. “But it’s important to remember that their success is made possible in part by the IRS, which continues to sit on its hands instead of enforcing our nation’s laws.” 

The IRS recently claimed that it has an enforcement mechanism in place for houses of worship that don’t follow the rules on politicking, but it remains unclear if, not when, the agency will once again enforce those rules.

 “Houses of worship that knowingly break the law by intervening in partisan elections should be stripped of their tax-exempt status,” Lynn said.

Ultimately, observers say 2015 could be a cataclysmic year for church-state separation since the Religious Right’s entire agenda is in play in Congress.

AU will be working harder than ever to defend the church-state wall.

“With the far right in power, almost any issue related to supposed ‘religious freedom’ could come up,” Garrett said. “All it takes is one bogus ‘horror’ story on Fox News and the next day a hearing will be scheduled so that the Religious Right can lobby Congress for more special privileges.”