Religious Minorities

State Legislatures Are Back In Session – And Church-State Separation Is At Risk

  Nik Nartowicz

The start of the new year means that state legislatures are coming back into session. By the end of the week, 41 states will have gaveled in, and Americans United is already working to defend religious freedom across the country.

While many people are focused on what has been happening in Congress, it’s important to pay attention to your state legislature – that’s where the majority of bills are introduced and passed each year, and they often can have an even bigger impact on your life.

Last year, AU tracked nearly 1,500 bills that would affect religious freedom across the state legislatures. This year, we’re already tracking more than 400 bills, and even more will be introduced as the sessions continue. It’s impossible to be certain about which bills will move through the legislative process, but here’s what we’re expecting:

Private School Vouchers

We will again have to fight bills that would create or expand private school voucher programs. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and Texas Governor Greg Abbott have vowed to create private school vouchers in their states. And we are already seeing voucher bills filed in states like Missouri and South Carolina.

Each year, legislators push these policies in an attempt to divert desperately needed taxpayer dollars away from public schools to fund private and religious schools. But vouchers are bad policy for many reasons: they don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, fund discrimination, can exacerbate racial segregation, and harm religious freedom. Instead of pushing vouchers, state legislatures should instead ensure that public funds are spent on public schools that welcome all children. As leaders in the fight against vouchers, including co-chairing the National Coalition for Public Education, AU will be working hard to defeat these bills.

Bills That Use Religion To Harm Others

Legislators have also already introduced bills that would allow religion to be misused to discriminate against people where they work, where they shop, or when they try to get health care they need. This includes bills like HB 1136 in North Dakota, a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which could be used to trump nondiscrimination laws and justify discrimination, and HB 319 in Texas, which would allow health care providers and facilities to cite religion as a reason to refuse to provide nearly any medical service – or even refuse to refer patients so they can get the health care they need somewhere else. Bills like these harm women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and the nonreligious the most. These bills misuse religion to justify discrimination: but religious freedom is a shield to protect, not a sword to harm.

Coercive Prayer In Public Schools

Because of the Supreme Court’s recent troubling decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, we expect legislators to introduce bills that are designed to promote religion and ritualized prayer in public schools. In Bremerton, the high court undermined the religious freedom of public school students by allowing a football coach to say an allegedly private, personal prayer on the 50-yard line immediately after games – even though he was surrounded by students. We expect legislators to distort that decision to push legislation that would allow teachers and other school officials to require or pressure students to pray. State lawmakers must fight to ensure our public schools remain inclusive and don’t promote religion or compel students to take part in religious activities. All public school students should feel welcomed and included, regardless of their religion or beliefs.

State legislatures can be unpredictable. They also move fast – a state bill introduced today could pass by the end of the week. AU will continue to monitor legislation, engage with partners across the country, and actively oppose bills that would undermine religious freedom for all. If you want to help, you can use this action alert to send a message to your state legislators urging them to uphold the separation of church and state and oppose the types of bills described above.

You can also become an AU member and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to stay informed about all the work we do to fight for religious freedom.

Photo: Members of the Texas Legislature meet in a special session in 2022. Getty Images.

Can't make it to D.C for SRF?

Join us at the Summit for Religious Freedom virtually!

If you can’t make it to the nation’s capital for the Summit for Religious Freedom, you can still participate in an impressive virtual program of live, curated sessions from the comfort of your home, local coffee shop or anywhere with an internet connection.

Find out more and register today!