Churches and Elections

New Year, New Congress, New Hopes For Church-State Separation

  Liz Hayes

Americans United is happy to welcome the new members of Congress today as they take the oaths of office and get to work. After the midterm elections in November, we saw historic victories by diverse candidates across the country – religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ community and people of color.

As Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress to wear a hijab, said in response to a critic: “(T)he floor of Congress is going to look like America.”

Some of the diverse new voices in Congress include:

  • At least 100 women were elected or re-elected, including the first two Muslim women: Omar and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

  • The nation’s first Native American women: Democrat Sharice Davids, who is also the first LGBTQ person to represent Kansas, and Democrat Deb Haaland of New Mexico.

  • At least three other states also elected their first openly LGBTQ members of Congress: Democratic Reps. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire and Angie Craig in Minnesota and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first LGBTQ senator, and Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, New York’s first gay representative, also were re-elected.

  • Five new Jewish members join the House: Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich).

  • ReWire reports that seven new representatives and a new senator are religiously unaffiliated: Reps. Davids, Hill, Sean Casten (D-Ill.), Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), and Sinema in the Senate. Additionally, all 10 members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus that was formed last year remain in office kept their seats.

These new members of Congress will have their hands full trying to check the Trump-Pence administration’s assault on church-state separation. We realize they’ll have some immediate business to take care – you know, like funding the government and ending the Trump shutdown.

But once they get settled, AU looks forward to working with them to protect religious freedom for all. We urge them to voice their support for the Johnson Amendment – the federal provision that protects the integrity of our elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring nonprofits don’t endorse or oppose political candidates. Trump has repeatedly threatened to undermine this longstanding law, and a few GOP leaders have tried to gut the Johnson Amendment in spending, tax and other bills over the past two years.

We also urge the new members to sign on as sponsors of the Do No Harm Act, which would restore the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to its original intent: Preserving the law’s power to protect religious exercise while also clarifying that it may not be used to harm others. Trump allies in the Religious Right are trying to weaponize RFRA and use it to justify discrimination against women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, nonreligious people and others.

The freshman members also should stand firm against the agenda of Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to expand federally funded private school voucher programs. Innumerous studies and investigations have shown that vouchers don’t work, they allow private schools to discriminate against students with public money and they violate taxpayers’ religious freedom by funneling public money to private, mostly religious schools. Public money should fund public schools, which educate the vast majority of American schoolchildren.

Those are just a few resolutions on our list for this new year and new Congress. We’re ready to make these wishes a reality.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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