November 2018 Church & State | Cover Story

At the beginning of 2018, when Americans United’s legislative staff members were tracking new state proposals affecting church-state separation, they noticed an unusual trend: More than two dozen bills calling for the display of “In God We Trust” in public schools had been proposed in states across the country.

Compared to the three “In God We Trust” bills proposed a year earlier, this was a marked increase. AU recognized a coordinated effort similar to those made by conservative lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and state Focus on the Family affiliates that suggest model legislation to state lawmakers.

Working alongside Frederick Clark­son, an AU ally and veteran researcher of the Religious Right, AU soon discovered who was behind the “In God We Trust” bills and dozens more model bills attacking church-state separation: far-right evangelical Christian groups – including the Congressional Prayer Cau­cus Foundation (CPCF), WallBuild­ers and the National Legal Foun­dation – which had banded together to launch an initiative they call “Project Blitz.”

Project Blitz is described as an effort to push “traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.”

Americans United takes issue with that. In an analysis prepared for religious-freedom advocates concerned about the initiative’s true agenda, Americans United translates the mission statement as follows: “Project Blitz is a coordinated national effort working to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. It is part of a national trend to redefine religious liberty as a sword used to harm others instead of a shield that protects people.”

Project Blitz is a coordinated national effort working to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. It is part of a national trend to redefine religious liberty as a sword used to harm others instead of a shield that protects people.

~ Americans United

In a 116-page Project Blitz playbook that was distributed to over 750 state legislators, its architects lay out a game plan in which the “In God We Trust” bills are just the beginning because “[t]hey are likely to receive the least opposition,” particularly from “organized outside” opponents.

“Despite arguments that this type of legislation is not needed, measures such as the ‘In God We Trust’ bill can have enormous impact,” the playbook assures. “Even if it does not become law, it can still provide the basis to shore up later support for other governmental entities to support religious displays.”

They divide Project Blitz’s priorities and 20 model bills into three escalating categories. First, Project Blitz focuses on legislation aimed especially at “young students” to promote “our Judeo-Christian heritage” in public education. In addition to the sample National Motto Display Act to post “In God We Trust” in public buildings, especially schools, this category includes sample bills encouraging the display of religious documents and “Bible literacy” curriculum. The playbook cites a Bible-literacy law passed in Kentucky last year that an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigation determined has led to widespread proselytism in public schools.

Next, the Project Blitz playbook recommends that legislators expand on the “America as a Christian nation” myth by issuing proclamations for days, weeks or years recognizing the Bible, Christian heritage and Christ­mas. There are no such suggestions for recognizing other faith traditions or their texts or holidays.

Project Blitz’s supporters acknowledge that these proposals will face opposition for “being divisive because they are favoring Christianity or Judaism over other religions.” But since legislators and religious-freedom advocates who oppose the bills can then be branded as anti-Christian or un-American, even a defeat on a particular legislative battle can be cast as a victory.

Opposition to the bills “do[es] not play well among members of the general public  … ” the Project Blitz playbook notes. “Even if these proposed bills/resolutions do not pass, sometimes making opponents take a re­corded vote against them is a victory in and of itself. For such measures, a vote is a win, regardless of whether the bill passes or is defeated.”

There’s more than a little truth to the Blitzers’ claim here. Take, for instance, this Fox News headline from May about opposition to one state’s “In God We Trust” display bill: “Minnesota Democrats wage war on God, faith and American history.”

But the true goal of Project Blitz is to build up resolutions and legislation that would “define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality” and advance claims about “the enormous costs of homosexual intercourse and gender confusion.” The suggested resolutions include defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, rejecting transgender identities and favoring policies that permit adoption only to “intact heterosexual, marriage-based families.”

The legislative proposals in this Project Blitz category would grant wide-ranging permission for people to cite religious beliefs as justification for discriminating against and harming others.

Examples could include allowing taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to deny children loving homes with prospective parents who are LGBTQ, unmarried or the “wrong” religion; obstructing access to health care, particularly for women seeking reproductive care and transgender people; and allowing people – including businesses, government employees and taxpayer-funded organizations – to refuse to provide goods or services to LGBTQ people or religious minorities. The legislation includes state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and First Amendment Defense Acts that could be used to limit the rights of just about anyone in the name of religion.

“Their later bills use state governments to create religious exemptions that undermine advances in LGBTQ people’s and women’s equality,” said AU Legislative Advocate Samantha Sokol, who has comprehensively researched the 2018 Project Blitz legislation. “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.”

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.

~Samantha Sokol, AU Legislative Advocate

Project Blitz’s organizers acknowledge these bills would have “the greatest immediate impact” but are “hotly contested.” They advise legislators to proceed with caution, and not to propose this legislation that has extensive power to harm people unless the lawmakers are confident it will pass. “More care must be taken to avoid bringing this legislation to a vote unless the vote can be won. A defeated measure can often hurt more than help and will put allies and leadership in a difficult position.”

So far, state legislators who support Project Blitz’s goals appear to be following this advice. According to So­kol’s research, about 74 Project Blitz model bills were considered during the 2018 state legislative session. More than 60 percent involved promoting Christianity in public schools; more than a third were “In God We Trust” display bills. Also popular were bills encouraging schools to teach the Bible and encouraging students and teachers to express religious beliefs in school – both of which can lead to proselytism or denigration of non-Christian faiths.

By comparison, only about 36 percent of the Project Blitz model bills proposed in 2018 dealt with allowing religion to be used as a justification for discrimination. Among the most common were FADAs and RFRAs (respectively called “Marriage Tolerance Acts” and “Preserving Religious Freedom Acts” by Project Blitz).

But even if the Project Blitz strategists are not yet focusing on the most damaging of their legislative proposals, their efforts still can cause harm – and that harm is targeted at vulnerable schoolchildren, particularly those who do not believe in an extreme version of Christianity. Students in five states returned to schools this fall that could be liberally plastered with references to God because legislators in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Tennes­see passed a version of the “In God We Trust” display bill.

In God We Trust School Bus

(Photo illustration by Harry Knox.)

“For students who don’t believe in God or have non-traditional concepts of a deity, this is a fundamental violation of their right of conscience,” AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett told Clarkson for his “Religion Dispatches” exposé on Project Blitz. “Gov­­ernment should be neutral in matters of religion and certainly should not be using public schools to tell young people that there is one God and they must trust that God.

“The message isn’t subtle and it suggests that if you don’t agree, you aren’t welcome, and you even may be un-American,” Garrett added. “That’s a lot of pressure when you’re in elementary school.”

Writing in The New York Times, Kath­­erine Stewart, an investigative journalist and member of AU’s National Leadership Council, described the Project Blitz bills as “a means of spreading the message that Christian conservatives are the real Americans, and everybody else is here by invitation only.”

In Clarkson’s article for “Religion Dis­patches,” David R. Brockman, a non­resident scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Project Blitz is a “covert campaign for conservative Christian dominion over law and pub­lic policy.” At the same time, he noted the bills’ drafters urge legislators to avoid framing the legislation in biblical terms to avoid court challenges.

Sponsors of the “In God We Trust” display bills have tried to follow this game plan by claiming they simply are trying to display the national motto. But they’ve repeatedly slipped up. When Florida state Rep. Kim Dan­iels (D-Jacksonville) spoke on the House floor about the display bill she sponsored, she referenced a Bible quote and talked about how “God is … the light. And our schools need light in them like never before.”

Daniels went on to say that “as a believer, we do not have to get in our closets to worship God” and “we cannot put God in a closet when the problems we have are bigger than us.” Florida Rep. Larry Lee (D-Ft. Pierce) has said he supports displaying “In God We Trust” in schools because the nation was “built on God” and, “We’re taking God out of everything.”

Stewart noted in The Times that organizers of Project Blitz and supporters of its mission are feeling quite emboldened about their prospects of scoring legislative touchdowns. After all, white evangelical Christians were able to elect President Donald Trump, and he’s been paying them back by pushing their policy agenda at the federal level and remaking in their favor a federal judiciary that now includes a U.S. Supreme Court with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench.

“We have a window of opportunity now; I think we’re all feeling it,” said Lea Carawan, a member of the Project Blitz steering team and co-founder and executive director of CPCF. “We believe this is just the beginning.”

Carawan’s words came during a 2016 conference call with state legislators to promote Project Blitz. During the same teleconference, another steering-committee member outlined the Project Blitz strategy for bombarding opponents with legislative proposals to undermine church-state separation throughout the states.

“It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side,” said David Barton, a faux historian and “Christian nation” propagandist. “It’ll drive them crazy that they will have to divide their resources out in opposing this … they won’t know what to do with this and it’ll be great!”

Barton, who makes his living peddling “Christian nation” mythology to fundamentalist Christians through his group WallBuilders, has been on Americans United’s radar screen since 1993. His fake history has been repeatedly discredited, and a 2012 book Barton wrote purporting to debunk myths about Thomas Jefferson was pulled from circulation after mainstream historians pointed out its numerous errors. Yet he remains a rock star to the Religious Right.

Advocates who recognize church-state separation as the foundation for true religious freedom for all Americans are fighting back against Project Blitz’s agenda. Americans United and allies at the state and federal levels are working together to defeat the blitz. Of the 74 legislative proposals in 2018, only a handful were signed into law. And allies are already working on strategies for 2019 to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield which protects people, not a sword brandished to harm others.

“Project Blitz is a threat to all of us: women, LGBTQ people, public school students and families, religious minorities, the nonreligious and virtually everyone – including many Christians – who do not share this far-right, evangelical Christian worldview,” said Rachel Laser, AU’s president and CEO. “I’m glad so many of our allies recognize this threat and are joining the fight to ensure that religious freedom remains a promise for all of us, not just some of us.”                          

Project Blitz is a threat to all of us: women, LGBTQ people, public school students and families, religious minorities, the nonreligious and virtually everyone – including many Christians – who do not share this far-right, evangelical Christian worldview. I’m glad so many of our allies recognize this threat and are joining the fight to ensure that religious freedom remains a promise for all of us, not just some of us.

~ Rachel Laser, AU president and CEO