The Religious Right organization Family Research Council (FRC) made clear at its annual Values Voter Summit that it would be promoting an anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive-rights, anti-religious-diversity platform heading into the midterm elections.
The Values Voter Summit (VVS) is FRC’s annual gathering in Washington, D.C., that aims to motivate white evangelical Christians just before the November general election and encourage them to vote in line with FRC’s priorities. Judging by the issues, speakers and candidates showcased during the three-day gathering in September, FRC’s agenda continues to be weaponizing “religious freedom” (their narrow version of it) as a means to justify discrimination.
Vice President Mike Pence – the first sitting vice president to address VVS – voiced several of these goals during his headlining speech on Sept. 23. A frequent VVS participant, Pence was the highest-profile elected official on stage this year, since President Donald Trump opted not to speak. (Trump has addressed the group on two prior occasions.)
(Photo: Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Values Voter Summit in September 2018. Credit: Church & State/Liz Hayes)
Pence made several claims that overstated or mischaracterized the administration’s efforts to undermine church-state separation. He spoke of action “to protect the conscience rights” of medical professionals – a reference to the proposed, but not yet finalized, refusal-of-care rule announced in January by the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposal would allow doctors, nurses, other health care workers and medical facilities to use religion as a justification for refusing to serve patients, even in emergencies or when lifesaving care is needed. The proposal would be particularly harmful to LGBTQ people and to women seeking reproductive health care.
Pence also repeated the oft-used, inaccurate claim that he and Trump have “ended the last administration’s assault on the Little Sisters of the Poor” – a reference to the organizations that sued over the Affordable Care Act benefit that ensures employees have access to no-cost birth control in employee health insurance plans.
Last fall, the Trump administration announced new rules that would allow employers and universities to cite religious beliefs to deny employees’ and students’ access to birth control. The rules have been blocked by federal courts from going into effect due to several legal challenges (which include a lawsuit filed by Americans United and allies against the administration and the University of Notre Dame).
All under the guise of protecting religious freedom, Pence also touted the administration’s anti-abortion stance and claimed, again erroneously, “We ended enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.” But the federal law that protects the integrity of our elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring that tax-exempt organizations don’t endorse or oppose political candidates, remains in effect – despite the efforts of Pence, Trump and the contingent of Religious Right leaders who want to boost their own political power by repealing the Johnson Amendment.
Pence’s attacks on church-state separation were par for the course at VVS, especially in terms of using religious freedom as a weapon to harm others. The night before, FRC President Tony Perkins announced the organization’s inaugural State Legislator of the Year award would go to Kansas state Rep. Susan Humphries (R-Wichita) “in recognition for her courageous legislative work” earlier this year to shepherd into law a bill that allows taxpayer-funded adoption and foster-care agencies the right to deny children loving homes by discriminating against prospective parents in the name of religion.
(Photo: FRC President Tony Perkins, right, and his son present Kansas state Rep. Susan Humphries with FRC's inaugural State Legislator of the Year award. Credit: Church & State/Liz Hayes)
In her brief remarks to the VVS crowd, Humphries said it was a joint effort that included divine intervention because “only God could orchestrate” the exact number of votes Kansas legislators needed to pass the bill, which Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer signed into law.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) was another speaker who was lauded for his efforts to advance the agenda of allowing child-welfare agencies to use religion as a reason to reject prospective parents, especially those who are LGBTQ, unmarried or of a different faith.
When Emilie Kao, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the conservative Heritage Foundation, introduced Bevin, she noted he had organized a handful of governors to file a legal brief opposing Philadelphia’s decision to stop working with Catholic Social Services after learning that the agency was violating the city’s anti-discrimination laws by refusing to place children with LGBTQ parents.
Rather than agreeing to put kids first and work with all available prospective parents, Catholic Social Services sued the city (Americans United filed a legal brief in support of Philadelphia on Oct. 4).
In a breakout session at VVS, Kao spoke more about discriminatory adoption laws that several states have passed and encouraged attendees 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. She claimed, “These children need as many adoption agencies as possible” – ignoring that it’s loving homes children desperately need and that these laws decrease the pool of prospective parents.
Kao also praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which came down in favor of Masterpiece only because the court felt that some comments made by members of the commission showed bias against religion. Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, also was a speaker at VVS, along with an attorney from the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents him and several other businesses seeking the legal right to use religion to discriminate. Kao, Phillips and others at VVS who talked about the case failed to mention that the Supreme Court’s ruling did not grant businesses the right to discriminate and reaffirmed the longstanding rule that businesses open to the public must be open to all.
(Photo: Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, left and Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jonathan Scruggs talk about their Supreme Court case. Credit: Church & State/Liz Hayes)
Religion-infused arguments for denying the civil rights of the LGBTQ community were common during the summit. Several speakers demonized transgender youth. An entire panel was dedicated to explaining “How Gender Ideology Harms Children” and included the executive director of the American College of Pediatrics – a small fringe organization labeled an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – and an anti-transgender psychiatrist who was profiled in The Washington Post last year after Johns Hopkins Hospital began resuming gender-reassignment surgeries after he had “derailed [the] pioneering transgender program” at the hospital for four decades.
VVS’s “Putting Faith to Action” panel of local, state and federal elected officials and candidates included Fairfax, Va., County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz, whom The Washington Post has described as “the mostly liberal board’s brash and loquacious conservative” who has made headlines for opposing the board’s decision to include gender identity in the sex-education curriculum – a policy she lamented at VVS.
Sharing the stage with Schultz were two men running for U.S. Congress who have a history of opposing LGBTQ rights. Dr. Mark Green, a Republican Tennessee state senator and former Army Special Operations flight surgeon, was Trump’s nominee for Army secretary until he withdrew from consideration last year amid criticism of his past derisive comments about LGBTQ people, Muslims and others. Green’s record on LGBTQ rights includes supporting state bills that would allow mental health professionals to refuse to treat LGBTQ patients and that would effectively bar transgender high school and college students from using public restrooms. In a radio interview discussing his sponsorship of an anti-transgender bathroom ban, Green said his responsibility as a state senator was to “crush evil.”
Mark Harris of North Carolina, who was the senior pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church until he resigned last year to run for Congress, was a leader in the 2012 campaign to pass Amendment One, which reaffirmed the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. In addition to speaking at VVS, Harris also joined Perkins during FRC Action’s “Values Bus Tour” when it stopped in North Carolina in early October.
(Photo: The Values Voter Summit's "Putting Faith to Action” panel of Republican elected officials and candidates included, from left, Mark Harris of North Carolina, West Virginia Delegate Kayla Kessinger, Tennessee state Senator Dr. Mark Green and Fairfax, Va., County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz. Credit: Church & State/Liz Hayes)
The Values Bus (actually two buses touring the country) was unveiled at VVS and aims to “encourage and equip voters to vote their values.” The bus trips were one of two voter initiatives announced by FRC Action (the nonprofit’s political arm) at the summit. The other was “Pray Vote Stand,” which encouraged followers to pledge that, “For the sake of America, I pledge to pray, to vote, and to stand for my biblical values.”
Those who signed up would get a weekly prayer guide leading up to the Nov. 6 election. FRC’s voter blitz will culminate with “The Event” the Sunday before the election. Featuring Perkins and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among the keynote speakers, the live webcast is billed as an opportunity for “millions of Christians” to “learn how we can keep our nation moving in the right direction.”
Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins interviewed several religious-studies scholars who noted some conundrums about VVS. One is that those involved should feel victorious about the election of Trump and his efforts to advance their policy agenda, but “their rhetoric of being besieged has continued. It’s as though no one feels victorious,” said Daniel Williams, a professor of religion and American politics at the University of West Georgia.
Another discrepancy is the apparent disconnect between the “values” the Religious Right espouses and those held by the politicians for whom they vote.
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the claim of being “values voters” can fall flat, and the difference between the summit and other prominent right-wing political gatherings such as the Conservative Political Action Conference is harder to discern.
“They’re not really Christian values anymore – their values are more religious Republicanism,” she said.