As reported by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy, the number of "nones" who claim no religious affiliation has reached record levels in America. While the majority of "nones" still believe in God, more than 13 million of them are self-described atheists and agnostics, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public.
Along with the rise of the "nones" and specifically, the non-believers, institutionalized religious privilege has been challenged with more frequency by groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which opposes the promotion of religion by public institutions. A current example of an FFRF action is its challenge to cheerleaders at a Texas school using "run through banners" filled with bible verses on the football field. American Atheists has not only become more aggressive with its billboard campaigns, but it has also challenged public religious displays, such as its action against the State of Utah for erecting twelve large steel crosses to honor fallen troopers. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science recently announced that it will be producing a documentary that exposes the tax subsidized lifestyles of the rich and religious.
'Attacks' on Religious Liberty.
Over recent years, a number of court cases involving the use of public funds for religious groups have evoked calls of "loss of religious freedom" by religious right activists. One of these cases occurred in June 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed and remanded a lower court's findings in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which stated that the California Hastings College of the Law was not required to give public funds or recognition to a Christian-only student group that denied non-Christians or gays membership in the group.
This spring, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that "religious liberty is under attack" and announced a campaign to "restore religious liberty." Among other things, the Bishops complained that "Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities adoption or foster care services out of business by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit." The Bishops implied that religious liberty means that the government should excuse religious organizations from following the law based on their religion, and that religious freedom also means that the government should fund any religious group that uses the funding to further its religious agenda.
Perhaps more than anything else, the mandate in the Affordable Healthcare Act requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for birth control access has raised complaints from a united front of Catholics, Protestants, and Christian politicians that religious liberty is in jeopardy in America. On August 1, when the mandate went into effect, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican, fretted, "I know in your mind you can think of the times that America was attacked. One is December 7, that's Pearl Harbor Day. The other day is September 11, and that's the day the terrorists attacked. I want you to remember August 1, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is a date that will live in infamy along with those other dates."
Merging church and state in defense of the 'Judeo-Christian' tradition.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) was "established in 1976 to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues." According to its website, Congressman Paul Ryan, who is GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's running mate, says, "The Ethics and Public Policy Center is a wonderful resource for creative and savvy policy proposals that are faithful to America's founding principles. I regularly draw on the broad-ranging expertise of EPPC scholars."
One of EPPC's projects is the "American Religious Freedom Program," which "is dedicated to protecting and strengthening Americans’ God-given and constitutional religious freedoms. The program brings together individuals and organizations of all religious faiths, regardless of ideological or political affiliation. The program fights the trend to delegitimize religious expression in public life, defending Americans’ ability to live out their religious beliefs beyond the walls of their places of worship. Working in the 50 state legislatures as well as in Congress, the program promotes proposals and caucuses that protect religious freedom."
The American Religious Freedom Program's board members include representatives of the Catholic, 7th Day Adventist, Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon and Baptist faith communities. Some (but not all) of its members are Chuck Colson (in memoriam), who helped to author the theocratic Manhattan Declaration, Elder L. Whitney Clayton, Presidency of the Seventy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a senior Mormon Church official involved in the Proposition 8 campaign to overturn marriage equality in California, Dr. Richard Land, who is retiring next year from his role as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission after a plagiarism scandal, controversy over racially inflammatory remarks, and an internal investigation, and Dr. George O. Wood, General Superintendent, Assemblies of God, USA.
EPPC has garnered 120 state legislators to promote the "American Religious Freedom Program" through legislative caucuses. It announced in a press release issued Tuesday:
On behalf of a bipartisan group of over 120 state lawmakers serving in statehouses across the country, prominent legislative leaders from nine states today announced the formation of the nation's first state religious freedom caucuses. The national teleconference announcement was organized and hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP). The announcement is the first installment in a national plan to have religious freedom caucuses in all 50 state legislatures by the end of 2013.
The new caucuses are composed of lawmakers in prominent leadership positions in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. The caucuses will help legislators set state-specific agendas for strengthening religious liberties, learn from the experiences of sister states, and formulate religious freedom policy based on input from each state's diverse faith communities.
"Faith communities across the nation have begun working together to secure and strengthen our cherished religious liberties on behalf of all Americans of all faiths," said Brian W. Walsh, ARFP's executive director. "Today the movement to defend religious freedom is being joined by a bipartisan group of highly effective legislators in nine state capitals who will provide unifying leadership on these issues."
Rep. Lance Kinzer, a founding member of Kansas's religious freedom caucus, spoke about today's announcement. "Kansans and all Americans recognize the indispensable role that our remarkable religious freedoms have played in making America a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples across the globe," said Rep. Kinzer. "Legislative caucuses focused on religious freedom will help ensure that each statehouse is a bulwark against overreaching government officials and policies that would corrupt or curtail those freedoms."
Rep. John J. DeBerry, Jr., is one of the founders of Tennessee's religious freedom caucus. According to Rep. DeBerry, "Religious diversity in America is increasing greatly, and the only way we will hold together as one people is by continuing to ensure robust religious freedoms and rights of conscience for all Americans." DeBerry added that "some government leaders seem to have forgotten that freedom of religion includes keeping government out of matters that properly belong to America's faith communities."
Leaders of each state caucus will guide that state's agenda for enacting specific protections for religious freedom. The American Religious Freedom Program will work with a broad range of legislators, religious leaders, and other coalition members to help form additional caucuses and produce state-specific educational materials on religious freedom.
EPPC's American Religious Freedom Program is devoted to protecting and strengthening Americans' God-given and constitutional religious freedoms. The program brings together individuals and organizations of all religious faiths, regardless of ideological or political affiliation. ARFP is fighting the trend to delegitimize religious expression in public life, defending Americans' ability to live out their religious beliefs beyond the walls of their houses of worship.
Fighting 'aggressive secularists.'
The announcement directs readers to ReligiousFreedom.org for further information. There, a brochure explains the goals of the American Religious Freedom Project and includes a litany of perceived "Rising Threats to American Religious Freedom." Quoting the brochure, these threats include:
ATTACKS ON THE FREEDOM OF AMERICANS OF FAITH TO FORM RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS AND OTHER ASSOCIATIONS
Aggressive secularists have begun attacking a deeply cherished and previously unquestioned American freedom—the right of individuals to join together and choose their leaders based on their religious faith. Before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Justice Department argued for the first time in history that the First Amendment provides no greater protection for a church, synagogue, mosque, or other faith community to choose its own leaders than the right enjoyed by trade unions, for-profit corporations, and fast-food restaurants. This year, all nine Supreme Court justices characterized the government’s position as “remarkable” and unanimously rejected it. However, administrators at a bevy of state and state-funded universities are using the Court’s decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010) to fashion policies tailor-made to drive religious student organizations into extinction—unless, that is, the students capitulate to the schools’ secularist orthodoxy and agree not to require their own leaders to adhere to their faith.
GOVERNMENT MANDATES TO PROVIDE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT VIOLATE RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS
Federal and state mandates increasingly force individuals, communities of faith, and religiously affiliated organizations to choose between violating the law and violating their religious convictions. The recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires religious employers to pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs is the most highly visible example. Such violations are certain to proliferate, however, if Americans continue to allow government officials to bring all areas of life undergovernment control.
STATE LAWS THAT CRIMINALIZE THE CARE AND SHELTER OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Many individuals and communities of faith zealously pursue their faith’s commandments to welcome and care for the poor and the stranger. Some state laws that criminalize assistance to illegal immigrants do so using language broad enough to deem faith-based humanitarian aid to be “criminal.” It is cold comfort that such laws have not (yet) resulted in individuals being prosecuted for doing faith-based charity. Any law that criminalizes morally laudable conduct will deter and “chill” such conduct. Criminalizing humanitarian aid criminalizes the free exercise of religion.
VIOLATIONS OF THE CONSCIENCE RIGHTS OF STUDENTS, HEALTH CARE WORKERS, AND OTHER PROFESSIONALS
Overreaching government bureaucrats require individuals to perform health care procedures, dispense drugs, or make moral affirmations that violate their religious convictions. For example, Illinois and Washington State regulations require pharmacists to dispense abortion-inducing drugs even if doing so violates their religious convictions. Trial courts in separate cases recently held that these regulations violate the First Amendment, but the decisions have been appealed. If overturned, the regulations could drive many religious pharmacists out of their profession. Similarly, state university officials have expelled students from professional programs for refusing to agree and affirm that conduct that is censured by their religious faith is instead good and moral.
STRIPPING THE PUBLIC SQUARE OF RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND EXPRESSION
Anti-religious activists have waged a decades-long campaign of acrimonious litigation that seems designed to expunge all evidence of religion from public life. Whether it is the insistence that courts strip "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, demands that religious symbols be torn out of military cemeteries, or attacks on the American tradition of opening legislative and school board sessions with prayer, this cottage industry of anti-religious litigation has been highly divisive and destructive of civil discourse. Lawsuits in which plaintiffs promote their hostility to religion should be vigorously resisted, and legislators should help prevent frivolous anti-religious litigation.
STATE CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISIONS ROOTED IN DISCRIMINATION AGAINST FAITH COMMUNITIES
Much as some states retain (unenforced) laws reflecting the ugly history of Jim Crow segregation, many also have discriminatory constitutional provisions, known as “Blaine Amendments,” that trace their roots to the 19th century’s “Know Nothing” party and the then-influential Senator James Blaine. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the anti-Catholic bigotry that is enshrined in state Blaine Amendments. Today they are frequently used as a weapon, for example, to block school-choice programs that enable students attending religious and other private schools to benefit from public funds on an equal basis with public-school students. Florida will vote to repeal their Blaine Amendment in November 2012. All other states with Blaine Amendments should follow suit.
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST HOUSES OF WORSHIP SEEKING TO EXERCISE RIGHTS TO USE PRIVATELY OWNED PROPERTY OR ENJOY EQUAL ACCESS TO PUBLIC PROPERTY
Increasingly, local governments use their regulatory powers to block faith communities’ use of property for houses of worship, in some instances because the faith community or its teachings are unpopular with local officials or their constituents. For example, relying on a deeply flawed understanding of the First Amendment, New York City recently suspended its longstanding policy that recognized the right of houses of worship to rent public school buildings on an equal basis with other, non-religious organizations.
REDEFINITIONS OF ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAW THAT LACK ROBUST PROTECTIONS FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
State court decisions and new state statutes that redefine anti-discrimination law to include sexual conduct generally lack robust protections for religious freedom. For example, in Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, faith-based adoption agencies were forced to cease placing children for adoption rather than capitulate to new legal requirements that violate their religious teaching about the family. Some of the more recent statutes acknowledge on their face the substantial political and constitutional issues inherent in redefining discrimination in the arenas of marriage and the family. But the actual “protections” have been woefully inadequate. The new laws still often force religious employers to make hiring decisions or assist in adoption placement in violation of their religious beliefs.
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST FAITH-BASED PROVIDERS
Government agencies routinely use competitive bidding to outsource work to faith-based and other private sector providers. When faith-based organizations serve the public through partnerships with the government, it is not a government subsidy of religion. But some bureaucrats believe it is improper to respect the religious autonomy rights of faith-based providers. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refused to renew a grant to a highly rated religious provider of care to human trafficking victims merely because the provider would not take affirmative steps to offer abortion services.
PUBLIC CENSURE OF POLICY ARGUMENTS INFORMED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Secularist voices in the public discourse increasingly seek to delegitimize arguments and positions that have any connection to religious beliefs. Based on a distorted view of the “separation of church and state,” they claim that such arguments have no place in the public square. This approach is vigorously but selectively applied. No reasonable American disdains the work of the Quaker abolitionists or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s overtly religious civil rights advocacy. The 20th century demonstrated that secularist intolerance is at least as dangerous to civil society as other forms of intolerance. Secularists should abandon attempts to devolve freedom of religion into a partisan issue. Respecting every person’s freedom to express faith-based views in the public discourse on matters of moral significance is a quintessentially American value.