The results of November’s midterm elections provided a welcome shot of adrenaline for church-state separation advocates battling ongoing attacks on religious freedom around the country.
Rachel Laser, Americans United’s CEO and president, said the switch of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control will likely halt the more dangerous aspects of President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda.
“The House flip provides an important check on the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on separation of religion and government,” Laser said.
One of the most striking victories for religious freedom was the historic diversity of the newly elected officials – including religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ community and people of color. Laser noted that without separation of religion and government, many of these candidates never would have been elected because they represent groups that traditionally have faced discrimination in the name of religion.
At least 100 women were elected or re-elected to Congress, including the chamber’s first two Muslim women: Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Omar wears a hijab and came to America as a Somali refugee – traits that are also firsts for a member of Congress.
Also elected were the nation’s first Native American women to serve in the House: Democrat Sharice Davids, who is also the first LGBTQ person to represent Kansas in Congress, and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.).
These victories were noteworthy in the face of attack ads around the country that attempted to use anti-Muslim, xenophobic fears to discredit candidates and paint religious minorities and people of color as threats. Many of the ads were funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Other noteworthy women heading to the House include Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D-Texas), who defeated John Culberson; Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), who beat Steve Russell; and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who unseated Barbara Comstock. Wexton is a welcome addition to the House because she has voiced opposition to legislation that would allow taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies to use religion to discriminate against prospective parents and children in need.
The defeat of Culberson, a Houston-area Republican incumbent of more than 15 years, removes from office a frequent foe of the Johnson Amendment – the federal law that ensures houses of worship and other nonprofits don’t endorse or oppose political candidates. And Russell was the author of the “Russell Amendment” – an attempt in 2016 to sneak language into a federal spending bill that would have allowed religiously affiliated organizations receiving taxpayer-funded grants and contracts to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.
Also elected was an impressive number of LGBTQ candidates who should help stand as a bulwark against the agenda of far-right fundamentalists who would weaponize religious freedom as a means to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and others. Joining Davids of Kansas as their state’s first openly LGBTQ members of Congress are Democrats Chris Pappas in New Hampshire and Angie Craig in Minnesota. Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first LGBTQ senator, also was re-elected.
The House flip provides an important check on the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on separation of religion and government.
~ AU President and CEO Rachel Laser
Many state-level LGBTQ candidates also were elected. One notable candidate is Jared Polis, the first openly gay governor of Colorado – the same state that’s home to Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery that sought the Supreme Court’s blessing to cite religious beliefs as a reason to deny service to a gay couple. And two transgender women elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives – Democrats Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker – will join Virginia state Delegate Danica Roem, elected last year, as the only openly transgender members of any state legislature.
In Rowan County, Ky., voters decided they’d had enough of Kim Davis, the county clerk who became a Religious Right hero when, after the Supreme Court granted marriage equality nationwide in 2015, she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In her first re-election bid since she cited religion as the reason for refusing to do her job, Davis lost by more than 600 votes to Elwood Caudill Jr., the man she’d defeated by a mere 23 votes four years earlier.
Gubernatorial races also provided some welcome news. Scott Walker, a voucher booster, was ousted in Wisconsin. Democrat Tony Evers, the former state superintendent of public instruction, has vowed to look at rolling back the program.
In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, a Religious-Right-style ultraconservative. Kelly said one of her first acts will be to look for ways to block enforcement of a new law that allows adoption agencies to cite religion in refusing to place children in the homes of prospective parents.
Election night also saw good news in three state ballot referenda. In Arizona, voters handily rejected Proposition 305, a massive expansion of private school vouchers that would have drained money from public schools and diverted it to private, mostly religious schools. The grassroots effort to stop the expansion was led by moms and teachers, and it worked: The final tally was 65 percent to 35 percent.
Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that maintains the state’s antidiscrimination law that protects transgender people. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker two years ago signed the law that allows trans people to use public places, including restrooms, that match their gender identity, but opponents – many of whom often cite religious beliefs in opposition to gender identity – were able to get Question 3 on the ballot in an attempt to strip these protections. Voters overwhelmingly supported the antidiscrimination protections by a 2-1 margin.
And in New Hampshire, nearly 80 percent of voters approved Question 1, which restored taxpayers’ access to the courts and ability to hold government accountable. The referendum reverses a 2014 state Supreme Court decision that limited citizens’ ability to challenge unconstitutional and illegal activity by the state, like the passage of private school voucher schemes and other violations of freedom of conscience.
Unfortunately, a ballot initiative that undermines church-state separation passed in Alabama, with 71 percent of voters supporting an amendment to the state constitution that allows the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings, including schools, as long as they “compl[y] with constitutional requirements.” While disappointing, the amendment’s success isn’t terribly surprising in a state that nearly elected notorious “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate last year, despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers.
“The people we were hearing from are super excited to have this opportunity to go down in history as the first state to acknowledge that we want God – that is the Christian God – in their Constitution,” Dean Young, the chief advocate for the amendment and Moore’s former campaign strategist, told the statewide news website AL. com. “This is the first time in the history of the country that a state has taken such a stand in acknowledging the God of the Old and New Testament.”
“This ballot initiative, aimed at driving particular voters to the polls, was pure exploitation of religion for political purposes,” AU’s Laser countered. “Government-sponsored religious displays on public property clearly violate the core constitutional principle of religious freedom and put the seal of approval on one religion over another. And many of these displays will no doubt end up in court at the expense of the taxpayers.”
Government-sponsored religious displays on public property clearly violate the core constitutional principle of religious freedom and put the seal of approval on one religion over another. And many of these displays will no doubt end up in court at the expense of the taxpayers.
~ AU’s Rachel Laser
Alabama wasn’t the only place where religious freedom took a hit in the midterm elections. The most notable threat looms in the U.S. Senate, where those aligned with Trump not only maintained power but may have even gained a few seats. Not only does the Senate include church-state separation opponents like Ted Cruz in Texas and newly elected Josh Hawley in Missouri (a vocal Johnson Amendment foe), but the Senate’s political leanings also mean Trump’s attempts to undermine religious freedom through federal judicial appointments could escalate.
The repercussions of the last major judicial battle – the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court – were believed to have had an impact on several Senate races. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) – a strong proponent of public schools – was defeated, as were other Democratic senators from battleground states who opposed Kavanaugh: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and very possibly Bill Nelson of Florida. (At Church & State’s press time, Nelson was narrowly trailing outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott and had demanded a recount, which is now in progress.)
The need for checks and balances on the Trump-Pence administration was immediately evident the day after the election. That Wednesday, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and named Matthew G. Whitaker acting attorney general. Whitaker has emphasized his “Christian worldview” and once asserted that that no “secularist” judges should be appointed.
“We know we face challenges ahead,” Laser said. “We call on everyone who values the crucial role that church-state separation plays in protecting religious freedom to join us in the fight.”