Steve Smith, an Ohio 10th-grade student in a public school, was taking a test for his Introduction to Geology class when he encountered the following question: How old is the Earth?
Smith is a fundamentalist Christian who rejects evolution and the idea of an ancient planet and believes that the account of Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis is literally true, so he wrote down “6,000 years.” His answer is factually wrong – evidence shows that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old – but since Smith’s answer was motivated by his religious beliefs, under Ohio law his teacher could not mark it wrong, and he got credit for the answer.
This scenario is fictional. But it’s something that could play out in Ohio and possibly other states if the Christian nationalists at Project Blitz have their way.
Legislation called the Student Religious Liberties Act passed the Ohio House of Representatives in November. The bill in part says that public school teachers and other education officials may not “penalize or reward” students on the basis of their religious beliefs, and how those beliefs translate into speech in the classroom and in assignments.
Versions of the bill have appeared in other states. Evidence indicates that they are tied to Project Blitz, a theocratic drive to pass legislation in the states that weakens the separation of religion and government.
The bill’s backers in Ohio insisted that the measure was not inspired by Project Blitz, but the British newspaper The Guardian reported Nov. 22 that the bill’s language is nearly identical to the wording in a piece of model legislation that appeared in a playbook issued by Project Blitz in 2018-2019.
Americans United says this is no coincidence.
Maggie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy, noted that the ideas behind the Ohio legislation are not new; but, she told The Guardian, they’ve been adopted by Project Blitz.
“This bill has been around since before the Project Blitz campaign, but the bill is part of the Project Blitz playbook,” said Garrett. “We will be seeing more of these bills in the future because we’re certainly seeing an increase in other Project Blitz bills.”
The legislation, HB 164, will likely spawn confusion in the classroom, AU noted. After the bill cleared the Ohio House, a spate of stories appeared in the media asserting it would allow students to give wrong answers on tests and other school work as long as they claimed they’re motivated by religion.
The bill’s sponsor, Ohio Rep. Timothy Ginter (R-Salem), insists it doesn’t go that far and says it’s not even a Project Blitz measure. But The Guardian reported Dec. 9 that Ginter has clear ties to Project Blitz: He was listed last year as the co-chair of the Ohio Prayer Caucus, which is the state chapter of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF) is one of the groups behind Project Blitz.
Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state policy counsel, said the main problem with the bill is that it’s dangerously ambiguous.
Nartowicz noted that the bill says that teachers “shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.” Critics of the bill, he said, have concluded that this provision would allow students to turn in science homework with biblical answers and provide protection to a student like Steve Smith.
“If lawmakers and policy experts can’t agree on what the bill means, you can be sure that public school teachers, principals and other school employees will be confused by what is and isn’t allowed,” Nartowicz wrote on Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “If a confused teacher allows students to violate the law, families whose religious freedom has been violated will likely have no choice but to challenge the schools in court. Such litigation can be costly to school districts and taxpayers.”
AU and other critics of the legislation note that spreading confusion may be part of the bill backers’ plan. If a teacher is uncertain about accepting an incorrect “biblical” answer on a student’s test, he or she may decide to err on the side of caution and award credit for it even though it’s wrong.
Although the Ohio bill has yet to pass the state Senate and be written into law, its ability to clear the House is a rare victory for Project Blitz. The Christian nationalist groups behind the theocratic push have been desperately working to retool their scheme after it was exposed by Americans United and other groups.
In October, journalist Frederick Clarkson obtained a recording of a Project Blitz strategy call. Although the group’s leaders tried to spin their recent difficulties as good news, it’s clear that all of the media exposure had unnerved the Blitzers. They’re even trying to change their name, now calling the effort “Freedom for All.” (One problem: There’s already a group with that name; based in New York City, it works to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The name is also very similar to the group Freedom For All Americans, which works to end discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.)
During the call, Lea Carawan, executive director of the CPCF, reported that activists in nearly 20 states have stopped using the Blitz name. She asserted that organizations that oppose Project Blitz’s agenda have been befuddled by this, and as a result “they’re talking about something that nobody else is really even talking about – we’ve renamed and moved on.” (See “Stung By Opposition, Project Blitz Seeks A Lower Profile,” December 2019 Church & State People & Events.)
In fact, Carawan’s depiction of the situation was only so much spin. The truth is more complex. After Clarkson, a long-time ally of Americans United, began writing about Project Blitz in 2018, AU and other groups put a spotlight on the group’s agenda. The resulting media exposure has led the group to retrench. For example, copies of the Project Blitz playbook containing model bills it hoped to see introduced in the states were removed from the web. The name change, critics say, is just another example of the group trying to “go stealth.”
Project Blitz was premised on a simple, yet nefarious, idea: The three groups that launched the effort – CPCF, the National Legal Foundation and WallBuilders (a group led by Texan David Barton that promotes bogus “Christian nation” history) – planned to work with sympathetic legislators in the states to introduce a slew of bills that would weaken church-state separation.
The idea was to start with bills these groups reckoned many Americans would consider non-controversial, such as legislation requiring the posting of “In God We Trust” signs in public schools and other government buildings. From there, the Blitzers would move on to more controversial measures, such as bills restricting LGBTQ rights and allowing business owners to refuse service on the basis of their religious beliefs. (See “Bracing for the Blitz,” November 2018 Church & State.)
Project Blitz did see an initial burst of success. Several states, for example, passed the “In God We Trust” bills. But more ambitious Blitz efforts are running into obstacles. In fact, research by Americans United’s Public Policy Department shows that in 2019, bills similar to the one in Ohio were proposed in three other states – Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. None passed.
On a larger scale, AU found that more than 50 Project Blitz measures in the states failed last year. Many never even got a vote.
Despite these failures, the Blitzers have no intention of giving up and are marching forward under their new name. During the October call, former U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who helped form the group, boasted about CPCF creating a new “state of the art” facility he called a National Strategic Center that will presumably serve as a home for the Blitzers.
Forbes described the facility as having 10,000 square feet of space – although he didn’t say where it is or who will work there. The center’s purpose, Forbes said, is to provide “strategic, legal, and grassroots support” to the theocratic push and analyze “strategies that are being used against you.”
Regardless of what Project Blitz calls itself, where it’s located or who’s running it, Americans United will steadfastly oppose any and all attempts to impose religious law on the American people.
“Thanks to our members and supporters, Americans United was able to defeat dozens of misguided Project Blitz bills last year,” Nartowicz said. “We’re going to do all we can to repeat that success in 2020 by continuing to keep a close eye on state legislatures.”