Fighting Discrimination

State Legislatures Are Coming Back Into Session, And We’re Already Seeing Threats To Religious Freedom

  Nik Nartowicz

It’s January, which means state legislatures around the country are coming back in session. While the Trump administration’s continued attacks on church-state separation keep making headlines, the fight to protect religious freedom in the states can’t be ignored.

Each year, Americans United monitors hundreds of bills working their way through state legislatures, and we organize local activists to oppose legislation that would harm religious freedom. Last year we tracked more than 500 bills, and we expect to do the same for the 2020 session. While we don’t have a crystal ball, the bills already filed and the influence of harmful Trump administration policies give us an idea of some trends we expect to see this year.

First, state legislators will continue to copy model bills that harm church-state separation, including those from the Project Blitz playbook. Project Blitz is a nationwide political movement to impose a narrow set of religious beliefs on our state laws and ultimately establish the U.S. as a Christian nation. Many of the bills pushed by the organizers of this agenda harm our public school students. Already we know we will have to fight 30 Project Blitz bills this year – with many more coming down the pike.

The Project Blitz playbook starts with bills like HB 1346 in Missouri, which would require public schools to display “In God We Trust,” and HB 341 in Florida, which would mandate that public schools offer Bible classes. These bills aim to promote Christianity in public schools and to lay the groundwork for future bills that would misuse religious freedom to justify discrimination. Last year, AU coordinated 43 national organizations to oppose Project Blitz because its goal is to incrementally tear down the separation of religion and government.

We’ve also seen a troubling trend across the country of bills that would allow religious discrimination – like the one Indiana’s then-Gov. Mike Pence signed in 2015. With the Trump-Pence administration pushing out federal policies month after month that allow religious freedom to be misused to justify discrimination, we have no doubt the states will continue to follow suit.

For instance, Tennessee’s HB 836 would allow taxpayer-funded agencies to turn away couples seeking to foster or adopt children because they are LGBTQ or the “wrong” religion. This lines up perfectly with the Trump-Pence administration’s nationwide rule to allow all foster care agencies to discriminate based on religion. But our client, Aimee Maddonna, knows the harm these bills can cause not just to the prospective parents they turn away, but to the nearly half-million children nationwide who are in need of loving homes. That’s why, with our help, Aimee is suing her home state of South Carolina and the federal government to stop these discriminatory policies.

We also expect to see more bills like HB 4775 in South Carolina, which would allow student groups at public colleges and universities to discriminate against students on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. Because funding for these student groups comes from taxpayer dollars and, often, mandatory student activity fees paid by students, many public universities have nondiscrimination policies that guarantee students are not forced to fund a group that would reject them as members. But these bills mean students could be denied the opportunity to participate in, join or seek leadership in a student group because of who they are, who they love or what they believe. Unfortunately, five states passed bills like HB 4775 in 2019. And we expect to see more state legislatures try to force schools to support discrimination in 2020.

This year we will again have to fight bills that create or expand private school voucher programs, like HB 1733, which has already been introduced in Missouri. Year after year, legislators push these policies in an attempt to divert desperately needed taxpayer dollars away from public schools to fund religious education. On the national scale, voucher programs are about to get a big media boost this month when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which could overturn state constitutional provisions that protect church-state separation and have successfully stopped the spread of vouchers in many states. If the Supreme Court opens the voucher floodgates, we could see an explosion of new private school voucher bills across the country.

State legislatures should instead make sure that public funds are spent on public schools that welcome all children. Voucher programs fund discrimination because some private religious schools reject children and families if they don’t follow the school’s religious tenets, if they are LGBTQ or if the child has a disability. Vouchers lack accountability, prop up poor quality schools and in many states have been shown to harm students’ academic achievement. Some voucher programs even allow people to game the system by “donating” to a voucher program and then make money off the “donation.”

State legislatures can be unpredictable. They also move fast – a state bill introduced on Monday could pass by the end of the week. But protecting church-state separation in state capitols is vitally important because the states are the front lines in the fight to stop religious freedom from being misused to harm others. AU will continue to monitor legislation and actively oppose bills that would undermine religious freedom for all.

You can help – join us to stay informed about what’s happening in your state and how you can make a difference.

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Louisiana's new Ten Commandments Law violates the separation of church and state and is blatantly unconstitutional. Politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools.

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