June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Project 2025: A Christian Nationalist playbook outlines a broad scheme to overthrow American democracy and install a theocracy

  Liz Hayes

"Close up of gavel, bible,and scale of justice on marble surface. Reflection of American flag in scale of justice.For more legal images click here:"

Project 2025: a blueprint for theocracy (Getty Images)

In discussions about burgeoning threats to American democracy, church-state separation and the many rights and freedoms that depend on them, a movement called Project 2025 looms large.

“This initiative, spearheaded by the billion-dollar Shadow Network of Christian Nationalist organizations and their political allies we’ve been warning you about, is a substantial threat to church-state separation and the future of our democracy,” Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said in an April email to AU supporters. “And it’s a threat that not enough people are taking seriously.”

At the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) that Americans United and allies convened in April, Project 2025 was a frequent topic of discussion. In fact, one session hosted by the nonprofit Democracy Forward was dedicated to ringing alarm bells about the initiative.

“We talk about Project 2025 as … a turning point, an existential crisis for our country,” Megan Uzzell, director of strategic initiatives at Democracy Forward, told the SRF crowd.

But what, exactly, is Project 2025?

“Project 2025 offers a 900-page playbook for restructuring the federal government in order to accomplish the policy goals of Christian Nationalists,” Laser wrote. “Rolling back the rights of LGBTQ+ people, ending marriage equality and even restricting divorce options, banning abortion and limiting reproductive health care, throwing up roadblocks to racial justice, eliminating the Department of Education and diverting public funds to private religious schools, and redefining religious freedom as a license to discriminate.”

Uzzell and her Democracy Forward colleague, Max Levy, noted that part of the Project 2025 plan involves terminating large swaths of nonpartisan federal workers whose expertise serves to ensure the safety of our food, medicine, transportation systems, environment and national security. Many of those employees or their entire agencies would be eliminated under the plan; others would be replaced with partisan political allies.

The plan is presented as a four-pound book divided into 30 chapters. Each chapter, written by a different author, outlines a plan for restructuring a specific area of the federal government, from the Department of Defense (Chapter 4) to the Department of Education (Chapter 11) to the Department of Health and Human Services (Chapter 14) to the Department of Justice (Chapter 17) to the Federal Election Commission (Chapter 29).

Heritage Foundation President Kevin D. Roberts writes in Project 2025’s introduction of their goal to begin “deleting the terms sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’), diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’), gender, gender equality, gender equity, gender awareness, gender-sensitive, abortion, reproductive health, reproductive rights … out of every federal rule, agency regulation, contract, grant, regulation, and piece of legislation that exists.”

Many of the sections advocate policies that would undermine church-state separation and religious freedom. Here are some of the prime examples:

Public education

“Federal education policy should be limited and, ultimately, the federal Department of Education should be eliminated,” is how Project 2025’s chapter on the Department of Education begins. Written by Lindsey M. Burke, a private school voucher advocate who works for the Heritage Foundation, the plan calls for federal funding of “education choice” and “education freedom” code words for funneling taxpayer dollars to private, predominantly religious schools that can indoctrinate and discriminate.

Even more coded language is used to describe how Project 2025 would shift the Education Department’s responsibility away from protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ+ students, Black and Brown students, students with disabilities and others from historically marginalized communities.

Abortion and reproductive health care

Under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) chapter, Project 2025 proposes wide-ranging changes that would especially attack abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. This chapter was written by Roger Severino, another Heritage Foundation employee who previously worked at HHS and was involved in several regulations that AU challenged in court. Severino also previously worked for the Becket Fund, a key organization in the Shadow Network that is working to advance Christian Nationalism.

The very first goal in Severino’s section signals Project 2025’s anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, laid out in typical Christian Nationalist code. He urges the department to adopt “a robust agenda to protect the fundamental right to life, protect conscience rights, and uphold bodily integrity rooted in biological realities, not ideology.” There’s language about life beginning at conception a theological belief, not a scientific definition, that typically informs anti-abortion policies that enshrine narrow religious beliefs into law.

“HHS should return to being known as the Department of Life by explicitly rejecting the notion that abortion is health care and by restoring its mission statement … to include furthering the health and well-being of all Americans ‘from conception to natural death,’” Severino writes.

Project 2025 calls for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ramp up “abortion surveillance,” particularly in “liberal states [that] have now become sanctuaries for abortion tourism.” It also says CDC’s studies should only focus on “the risks and complications of abortion” and not permit comparisons to the risks of childbirth.

Severino also touches on two abortion issues that are at the heart of cases the Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of June: whether EMTALA (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) requires hospitals to provide stabilizing abortion care to pregnant patients in medical emergencies, and whether the Food and Drug Administration was wrong to approve the drug mifepristone, which has long been proven safe and effective for abortion care and miscarriage management. Unsurprisingly, Project 2025 argues EMTALA should not protect pregnant patients’ rights and calls for revoking FDA approval of mifepristone.

Birth control access also is on the chopping block in Project 2025. The plan calls for a renewed religious exemption for employers and universities so they can deny workers and students access to affordable birth control that’s required by the Affordable Care Act. The plan would also eliminate coverage of emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill or by the drug brand name ella), wrongfully describing it as an abortifacient.

LGBTQ+ equality

Throughout Project 2025, and especially in Severino’s section on health care policy, the plan’s architects call for ending anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people.

Severino’s section of Project 2025 calls for a return of policies similar to the Denial of Care Rule that was implemented while he worked at HHS; courts blocked the rule after AU and allies sued. The rule would have allowed medical professionals to cite their personal religious beliefs to deny care, even in emergencies. While the rule was primarily an attack on reproductive health care and care for LGBTQ+ people, it was written so broadly that anyone could be denied treatment.

He also writes, “The CDC should immediately end its collection of data on gender identity, which legitimizes the unscientific notion that men can become women (and vice versa) and encourages the phenomenon of ever-multiplying subjective identities.”

‘Biblical’ family structures

Project 2025 would have HHS prioritize policies that “maintain a biblically based, social science-reinforced definition of marriage and family” also referred to as “heterosexual, intact marriage.” Severino writes that HHS should “proudly state that men and women are biological realities” and that “married men and women are the ideal, natural family structure because all children have a right to be raised by the men and women who conceived them.”

His section adds, “Families comprised of a married mother, father, and their children are the foundation of a well-ordered nation and healthy society.” He claims HHS currently focuses too much on “‘LGBTQ+ equity,’ subsidizing single-motherhood, disincentivizing work, and penalizing marriage. These policies should be repealed and replaced by policies that support the formation of stable, married, nuclear families.”

Severino would especially focus on supporting “working fathers [who] are essential to the well-being and development of their children.” He’d prioritize “faith-based programs that incorporate local churches and mentorship programs … [that] affirm and teach fathers based on a biological and sociological understanding of what it means to be a father not a gender-neutral parent.”

Foster care discrimination

Project 2025 would support taxpayer-funded foster care agencies that deny children loving homes by turning away qualified parents who can’t pass a religious litmus test. Severino references Americans United’s legal work to fight for the rights of parents like Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram of Tennessee and Aimee Maddonna of South Carolina, who were denied the opportunity to help foster children by government-contracted agencies that refused to work with them because they were the “wrong” religions (Jewish in the case of the Rutan-Rams, Catholic in the case of Maddonna).

“Unfortunately, many of the faith-based adoption agencies that serve these children are under threat from lawsuits, or else their licenses and contracts have been halted because they cannot in good conscience place children in every household due to their religious belief that a child should have a married mother and father,” Severino writes.

Public health policies

Project 2025 would also prioritize personal religious beliefs over public health and safety. Severino criticizes the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including for allowing local and state officials to apply temporary limits on large public gatherings to houses of worship. “[H]ow much risk mitigation is worth the price of shutting down churches on the holiest day of the Christian calendar [Easter] and far beyond as happened in 2020?” Severino asks. “What is the proper balance of lives saved versus souls saved? The CDC has no business making such inherently political (and often unconstitutional) assessments and should be required by law to stay in its lane.”

Severino makes clear he’d grant religious exemptions to those who object to vaccines that are developed using fetal cell lines obtained from abortions and would prohibit vaccine manufacturers from using fetal cells in the future.

Department of Labor

The Department of Labor chapter continues the Project 2025 theme of calling for an end to anti-discrimination projections for LGBTQ+ people and efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The plan would have the department make it “more explicit that [religious] employers may make employment decisions based on religion regardless of nondiscrimination laws.”

Jonathan Berry, a member of the conservative Federalist Society, wrote the chapter dedicated to employment policy. He previously worked in the Departments of Labor and Justice; while at the latter, he assisted with the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. While at a private law firm, Berry worked on the Supreme Court case to keep the towering Bladensburg Cross on public land in Maryland.

His chapter is full of Christian Nationalist rhetoric. In the introduction, he writes, “The Judeo-Christian tradition, stretching back to Genesis, has always recognized fruitful work as integral to human dignity, as service to God, neighbor, and family.” It continues under a subsection called “Sabbath Rest,” where he opines, “God ordained the Sabbath as a day of rest, and until very recently the Judeo-Christian tradition sought to honor that mandate by moral and legal regulation of work on that day. … Unfortunately, that communal day of rest has eroded under the pressures of consumerism and secularism.”

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Project 2025 touches on everything from immigration to law enforcement to environmental policy to voting rights.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, in partnership with more than 100 allied groups and political operatives, spearheaded Project 2025. Although Heritage has regularly produced a “Mandate for Leadership” for the past 40-plus years, the Project 2025 revision is being compared in scope and potential influence to the first such manifesto that informed the Reagan administration.

“That book really became the bible of the Reagan Revolution. That’s kind of what we’re working from,” Paul Dans, director of Project 2025, told Politico.

Leonard Leo, a longtime leader in the Federalist Society and a political powerbroker for various far-right causes, and the Koch brothers, billionaires known for funding conservative initiatives, reportedly have indirectly funneled millions into Project 2025.

Research by Accountable.US, a nonprofit that exposes the special-interest groups and dark money influencing American politics, found that Leo’s and the Kochs’ networks have directed more than $50 million into the organizations on Project 2025’s advisory board.

“Leo, Koch and others should be held to account for propping up a policy platform that puts special interests over everyday Americans and poses an existential threat to our democracy,” Accountable.US Executive Director Tony Carrk told NBC News.

The Project 2025 Advisory Board is a who’s who of groups Americans United has identified as part of the Shadow Network of Christian Nationalist groups and political power brokers working to enshrine their narrow religious beliefs into our laws. They include Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, First Liberty Institute, American Center for Law and Justice, America First Legal Foundation, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and Concerned Women for America. Conservative Christian colleges Liberty University and Hillsdale College also are on the committee.

“It’s a [situation of] pick your issue and whoever you’ve been working on the other side of is probably on the [Project 2025] steering committee,” Levy said. “This is one of the more coordinated and more coalesced efforts that we’ve seen.”

“The threats are going to require a big tent [to combat them],” Uzzell added. “It’s really important that we all find ways come together in that big tent.”

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