There’s no denying that last year was rough for advocates of church-state separation. The Supreme Court dealt some blows to the church-state wall. Efforts to weaponize religious freedom as a means to discriminate accelerated. President Donald Trump and his allies continued to cater to the Religious Right’s agenda of inserting their narrow vision of Christianity into public policy.
But there were reasons to celebrate as well. In particular, the new year arrived with new, diverse advocates in Congress and across the country who will serve as a strong bulwark against those who would undermine America’s fundamental promise of religious freedom.
Here’s a look at the year that was – the top 10 church-state stories from 2018 and how they might affect 2019.
1. Trump and the Religious Right: Religious Right activists continued to wield unprecedented influence on the Trump-Pence administration – their imprint was especially evident on everything from federal proposals that would allow religion to be used to deny women, LGBTQ people and others access to health care to a new policy that allows government disaster money to fund the rebuilding of houses of worship.
Members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board often appeared by his side, including during the National Day of Prayer ceremony in May and at a White House “state” dinner in August. Americans United demanded that the administration shut down the advisory board until it complies with federal transparency and public access laws.
(Photo: Evangelist Paula White and President Trump at the White House "state" dinner for evangelicals. Screenshot from The Washington Post video.)
2. DOJ fails at religious liberty: Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in late July announced a new Religious Liberty Task Force commissioned to enforce the “religious liberty” guidance he’d issued almost a year earlier. The guidance serves as a blueprint for using religion to discriminate through religious exemptions that would trump anti-discrimination provisions. However, the Department of Justice has been tight-lipped on the creation, purpose, policies and activities of this task force, so Americans United sent a formal demand for information in November.
The same month, Trump forced out Sessions and appointed Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker – who believes that federal judges should have a “biblical view of justice,” a stance that was condemned by AU and faith leaders. In December, Trump nominated former George H.W. Bush attorney general William P. Barr to be Sessions’ permanent replacement – and his views on church-state relations are equally troubling.
(PHOTO: Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing his "Religious Liberty Task Force." CREDIT: DOJ video)
3. Weaponizing religious freedom: Attempts to misuse religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against people continued at both the federal and state levels. Trump policies included finalized rules to allow employers and universities to block women’s access to birth control and a proposed refusal of care rule that would allow any health care provider to refuse to treat patients, particularly LGBTQ people and women.
Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services also was considering a request from South Carolina to allow federally funded foster-care agencies to cite religious beliefs to turn away prospective parents, especially those who are LGBTQ or of a different religion. South Carolina passed a state law allowing such discrimination, as did Kansas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, a child-placement agency in Philadelphia sued after the city refused to contract with agencies that discriminate.
(PHOTO: AU staff join allies to protest the proposed refusal of care rule.)
4. Project Blitz: In the spring, researchers exposed Project Blitz, a coordinated national effort by several Religious Right groups to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. In a 116-page playbook that’s been distributed to over 750 state legislators, Project Blitz’s architects prioritized 20 model bills for states that escalate from legislation aimed at promoting “Judeo-Christian heritage” in public schools to resolutions and legislation that would “define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.”
Bills to display “In God We Trust” in public schools and buildings were the most overt sign of Project Blitz at work in 2018; more than two dozen were proposed, and they passed in five states. Americans United and allies were organizing a coalition to block Project Blitz’ agenda in 2019.
(PHOTO: The November 2018 issue of Church & State magazine detailed Project Blitz. CREDIT: Harry Knox.)
5. The Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling: The Supreme Court delivered a blow to church-state separation and LGBTQ rights in June when it ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Colorado bakery that cited religious beliefs when it refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. But it wasn’t the knockout victory the Religious Right was seeking: The court’s decision was narrowly tailored to that specific case, and the court reaffirmed the longstanding rule that businesses open to the public must be open to all.
The murky opinion sets the stage for continued legal battles over whether businesses, particularly wedding vendors, can use religion to justify discrimination. Two businesses already have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear similar arguments, and the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom is shepherding several related cases through courts across the country.
(PHOTO: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser speaks outside the Supreme Court about the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling.)
6. Rachel Laser arrives at AU: Americans United’s Board of Trustees in February announced the hiring of Rachel Laser as AU’s new president and CEO. Laser became the first woman and the first non-Christian (she’s Jewish) to lead AU in the organization’s 71-year history. She replaced the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, who retired after 25 years at AU’s helm. An attorney with extensive experience in nonprofit advocacy, Laser provided a welcome shot of adrenaline as she steered AU through the church-state challenges of the past year and plans AU’s future.
“We’re impressed with the public face Rachel presents on behalf of Americans United,” AU Board Chairman Neal Jones said at AU’s Annual Meeting in late October. “But we are perhaps even more impressed by her behind-the-scenes work of [ensuring] that AU will be better prepared to meet the challenges of our changing social and political landscape.”
(PHOTO: Rachel Laser arrives at AU.)
7. Trump’s Muslim ban: The Supreme Court also upheld Trump’s Muslim ban that blocks immigrants and travelers from five predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. AU filed two lawsuits and numerous legal briefs in related cases to call out all three iterations of Trump’s ban as unconstitutional religious discrimination against Muslims. The high court wasn’t swayed by voluminous evidence that the ban stemmed from Trump’s publicly stated animus toward Muslims or by the plight of American Muslims separated from their families.
AU continues to challenge the government’s questionable national security justification for the ban and the lackluster waiver process that’s supposed to be available for people from banned countries. Meanwhile, the xenophobic, white Christian nationalist rhetoric that spawned the ban continues to fuel hate crimes directed at Muslims, Jews and people of color.
(PHOTO: AU staff members outside the Supreme Court the day the Muslim ban ruling was announced.)
8. Kennedy Out, Kavanaugh In: Just as the Supreme Court was adjourning for summer vacation, swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. Kennedy had a mixed record on church-state separation, but his replacement’s record is even worse: Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh has spoken of the “wall of separation” metaphor as “wrong as a matter of law and history.” He has supported religious employers’ efforts to obstruct women’s access to reproductive health care, government-sponsored prayer in public schools and government funding of religious displays.
(PHOTO: Brett Kavanaugh testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. CREDIT: Screenshot from CSPAN)
9. Religion in schools: It was a year of mixed results in the unending campaign to prevent school-sponsored prayer and proselytism in public schools. On behalf of several families, AU in February filed a federal lawsuit against the Bossier Parish public schools in Louisiana to end widespread promotion of Christianity in the classroom, at school-sponsored events and in athletic and extracurricular programs. AU was trying to negotiate a settlement with the district over the summer, but talks fell apart, and the case is heading to trial this spring.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to review the case of a Washington state football coach who is challenging a federal appeals court ruling that Bremerton School District was right to protect students’ religious freedom and stop him from leading students in prayer on the 50-yard line after football games. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Arizona public schoolchildren scored clear victories when efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in science classrooms failed.
(PHOTO: A Bossier Parish student leading a prayer during a school event.)
10. Inclusive invocations: AU celebrated a courtroom victory in August when a federal court declared the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ practice of forbidding nontheists from offering invocations during House sessions is discriminatory and unconstitutional. The House allows prayers to solemnize their sessions but passed a policy that denies nontheists equal access. The Supreme Court in 2018 also left in place a lower court ruling that a North Carolina county’s practice of favoring Christian invocations at public meetings was unconstitutional.
A federal appeals court in October considered whether the refusal of the U.S. House of Representatives’ chaplain to allow nontheists to give invocations violates religious freedom; a decision is expected this year. House chaplain the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy also was in the news last spring when he was briefly fired, reportedly because he criticized the Republican tax bill. Conroy was reinstated, but his firing triggered accusations of anti-Catholic animus, as some voiced support for replacing Conroy with a Christian who isn’t Catholic.
(PHOTO: AU's plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Pennsylvania House of Representatives include Scott Rhoades, Brian Fields, Deana Weaver and the Rev. Neal Jones, from left.)