July/August 2008 Church & State | Editorial

Religious Right leaders have suffered some setbacks in recent months, and church-state separationists should take pride in knowing we helped those events happen. But this is no time to rest on our laurels.

Congress is less fertile ground for Religious Right antics these days, so much of the legislative action attempting to undermine the First Amendment has shifted to state and local governments.

Consider the following developments:

South Carolina legislators have unanimously passed a law authorizing a new “Christian” license plate. The “I Believe” plate contains a cross and a stained-glass window. It was created by special action of the legislature, completely bypassing the normal procedures.

That’s just the beginning. Lawmakers in South Carolina have been on a bit of a theocratic tear lately. One new law in the state permits the display of “heritage” documents – including the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer – at the seat of government.

Another new measure purports to protect government-sponsored prayer before meetings of local government. The law was based almost word for word on a policy drafted by the Alliance Defense Fund, the leading Religious Right legal group.

None of these measures attracted significant opposition. All are being celebrated by the Religious Right, and there is already talk about exporting them to other states.

Florida residents face a slick, well-funded effort to remove the very concept of church-state separation from the state constitution. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has cleverly manipulated an obscure state tax commission to put two amendments on the ballot that would fling the door wide open to vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools and ministries.

Bush is aided and abetted in his scheme by a former education staffer      who attended the militantly fundamentalist Bob Jones University. Religious Right groups have eagerly endorsed the crusade. The Florida battle is being touted as a model to duplicate in other states that have strong church-state separation provisions that the Religious Right would like to eviscerate.

• Louisiana faces yet another attempt to water down the teaching of evolution. A so-called “academic freedom” bill sailed through the legislature with the enthusiastic backing of the Religious Right. The measure would allow teachers to use “supplemental” materials in class when discussing certain topics, among them evolution.

Opponents say the law is just another scheme to bring “intelligent design,” the latest variant of creationism, into Louisiana’s public schools. Again, this bill has been proposed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a staunch ally of the Religious Right, has pushed through the legislature a voucher bill to subsidize religious and other private schools in New Orleans.

These are just three states where church-state action has been particularly hot. Others abound.

In Texas, a major battle is likely to occur in upcoming months over religion in public schools. Religious Right forces on the state school board are looking for new ways to inject religious concepts into science classes.

The Alliance Defense Fund is prodding pastors to openly defy federal tax law and endorse candidates from their tax-exempt, supposedly non-partisan, pulpits. Instead of condemning this reckless stunt, leaders of other Religious Right groups egg it on.

Media pundits continue to insist that the Religious Right is fading away. Their evidence for this seems to be that some evangelicals have expressed an interest in issues like poverty and global warming. What the media “experts” overlook is that the evangelicals who have expressed this view tend to be not terribly prominent, nor do they have multi-million dollar non-profit enterprises and political pressure groups behind them.

A recent poll mentioned in The New York Times found that younger evangelicals – the generation that is supposed to lead the flock away from right-wing politics – is just as obsessed with stopping legal abortion and same-sex marriage as the older generation. The younger crowd may be interested in climate change as well, but they apparently believe they can tack that issue onto their culture-war agenda without too much difficulty.

Americans United continues to take the lead in standing up to the Religious Right. In South Carolina, for example, we’re challenging the “I Believe” license plate in court. AU’s national office continues to monitor Religious Right publications, Web sites and other activities by these organizations. We see no signs of a slowdown. In fact, our research shows that many of these groups are pulling in unprecedented sums of money.

Like all political movements, the Religious Right faces occasional defeats. Thanks to the hard work of Americans United members, chapters, staff and allies, the theocratic movement has accomplished much less than its supporters would have liked. But a bad day at the ballot box does not spell the end of these organizations. Indeed, they simply pick up the pieces and begin rebuilding for the next fight.

The Religious Right has long been adept at focusing on local and state politics and creating a significant grassroots presence. We’ve seen evidence of that in several states recently and are likely to see more of it if current trends continue.

In short, don’t believe everything you read about the so-called demise of the Religious Right. Chances are, there’s more to the story.