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6 Biggest Religious Right Threats to America

With many legislatures tilting right and "prayer" caucuses on the prowl, Church-State separation may be in trouble in the coming year.
 
 
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Multiple courts have said “no” to states that want public schools to teach “intelligent design” creationism in science classes, but that doesn’t faze Montana State Rep. Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings).

Fiscus, a Tea Party favorite whose professional background is in real estate, asked the legislative services staff of the Montana House of Representatives in November to come up with a bill for the 2013 legislative session that would “require public schools to teach intelligent design along with evolution.”

Lawmakers like Fiscus often push their agenda in defiance of established constitutional law, and sometimes hope they can create a case to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn previous decisions that contradict their personal beliefs. Americans Uni­ted combated a wide array of state-level leg­islative schemes in 2012 that sought to tear down the critical safeguards that keep church and state separate.

With most state legislatures starting their annual sessions this month, here is a look at some of the top threats to church-state separation expected in 2013, including school voucher bills, creationism ploys, “conscience” exemptions, anti-shar­iah legislation and so-called “religious freedom” and “prayer” caucuses.

1. Religious School Voucher Subsidies

Americans United anticipates proposals that benefit religious and other private schools to surface in many states this year, with major pushes expected in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee.

In New Jersey, a voucher scheme is likely in the works thanks to the persistence of Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie tried to implement a program in 2012, with a proposal that would have cost the state $825 million. It would have provided 40,000 eligible students with vouchers –$8,000 for elementary school and $11,000 for high school – the NewarkStar-Ledger reported.

Christie said in June of 2012 that the bill was dead for that year, but vowed “to continue to push for it,” the Teaneck Patch reported.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is expected to seek the expansion of an existing voucher subsidy program. He said in November that his agenda for the coming year includes doing more to push vouchers, though he didn’t go into specifics, the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel reported.

Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was quick to criticize Walker’s mission to “hyper scrutinize” public schools while giving more taxpayer money to private schools that are “unaccountable”  and have been shown in studies to produce students who perform no better than their public school peers, the Wisconsin State Journal said. 

In Texas, meanwhile, a serious showdown is expected over private school vouchers, with sharp divisions even among members of the state GOP. State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), founder of his state’s Tea Party Caucus and chair of the Senate Education Committee, held a one-sided hearing in August featuring a parade of “school choice” advocates.  

The Austin American-Statesman noted that Texas cut $5.4 billion from public schools in the last legislative session. Patrick seems to subscribe to a philosophy of siphoning even more money away from those schools and then blaming them for their supposed failures so he can turn around and fund private schools.

“No student should be locked into a poor performing school because that happens to be where they live,” he told the American-Statesman. “I’m a big supporter of public education, and we have a lot of schools that are doing a great job, but we must also recognize the truth that we have a lot of schools that are not performing at the level that they need to be.”

Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dew­hurst (R) were expected at press time to announce their voucher legislation within a few weeks, but it seems they may not get the warmest reception for the plan – even from some fellow Republicans.

The American-Statesman reported in August that Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) said she is gearing up for a fight over vouchers. Texas, she insisted, should be focused on improving aspects of the public school system, such as bolstering magnet and charter schools, rather than dumping money into private schools.  

“We’re on code red,” Diane Patrick said.

A November op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram penned by education experts also slammed vouchers.

“Many private schools are par­ochial, and the religious orientation may not be appropriate for some families, also raising the question of separation of church and state,” wrote Jamie Wilson, school superintendent of the Denton school district; Steven Waddell, superintendent in Lewis­ville, and Jerry R. Thomas, dean of the University of North Texas’ College of Education. 

In Tennessee, a major drive for vouchers is expected. In 2012, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) ducked a political battle by setting up a task force charged with examining vouchers and making recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.

That task force offered its suggestions in November, calling for discussion about accountability, subsidy amounts and which private schools and students should be eligible.

Haslam asked the nine-member group only to study how Tennessee might use tax dollars to allow some public school students to attend private schools. Critics noted that study group members turned to voucher advocates for advice, which undermined the report’s usefulness.

“The task force seemed to rely on reports that made representations about the success of voucher programs in other areas, but seems to wholly ignore the steadily increasing avalanche of empirical evidence that goes the other way,” Americans Uni­ted State Legislative Counsel Aman­da Rolat said in a press statement.

Rolat told Church & State that she anticipates an uphill battle on this issue in Tennessee, which is why Americans United has reached out to friendly state legislators to get a better understanding of how AU can work with them.

Advocacy groups have worked hard to build support for vouchers.  StudentsFirst, the Memphis Commercial Appeal says, has given thousands of dollars to candidates in legislative campaigns in the last two years. The newspaper said that group donated $427,000 through its Tennessee PAC between January and November 2012 alone.

When it comes to pro-voucher spending nationwide, however, few can match the wealthy and powerful Betsy DeVos. DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and wife of Amway fortune heir Dick DeVos, has poured millions into voucher advocacy.

Her American Federation for Children claims that hundreds of “educational choice” lawmakers were elected to state legislatures in 2012, many of whom were endorsed and funded by the group. This ensures that DeVos’ influence will not wane anytime soon, and she can be expected to continue funding voucher campaigns in many states. 

2. Creationism In Science Classes

Every year, legislators attempt to introduce religion into public school science classes. In addition to Fiscus’ Montana creationism crusade mentioned above, an Indiana lawmaker is leading a similar effort.

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) proposed a bill last year that would have mandated the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution in public schools. That measure passed the Senate but died in the House after some lawmakers realized that it was blatantly unconstitutional and would have led to lawsuits.

Kruse is back with a new proposal, and this time he claims his goal is to promote critical inquiry in the classroom.

“If a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true,” Kruse told the Indianapolis Star. 

But Micah Clark, executive director of American Family Association of Indiana, was a little more forthcoming about the bill’s true intent. He told the Star that he sees the proposal as a form of protection for teachers who want to discuss creationism and intelligent design.

Kruse is reportedly working on the measure with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that advocates for creationist concepts in public schools. Josh Youngkin, a program officer for Discovery Institute, told the Associated Press that the law would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“The teacher would not be barred from saying: ‘Let’s look at both sides of the evidence and you guys can basically make a judgment,’ rather than just accepting passively or memorizing by rote these facts and stating back these arguments on a test which would eventually determine where you go to college,” Youngkin said.

Advocates for sound science and church-state separation, however, rejected the need for a supposedly “balanced” presentation of the origins of life on Earth. Religion, they said, should not be introduced into the biology classroom under the guise of science.

And public school advocates said students and teachers already have vibrant discussions.

 “If Senator Kruse had education experience he would know that students across the country are already [questioning information] every day in the public school classroom,” Sen. Tim Skinner (D-Terre Haute), a longtime public school teacher, told Indiana Public Media. “[Students] question everything, and I think a teacher who’s actually doing their job will answer those questions.”

 

3. Prayer And Proselytizing In Public Schools

Legislators regularly come up with new schemes to allow coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, and Americans United staffers expect this year to be no exception.

In Virginia, a proposal was filed just ahead of the 2013 legislative session that would create a state constitutional amendment to “secure further the people’s freedom of speech and right to acknowledge God” on public property and presumably in public schools.

This could lead to numerous lawsuits if it passes. Advocates of church-state separation said it is somewhat similar to Missouri’s deceptive “right to pray” amendment, a problematic constitutional provision approved by the voters last year. It opens the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, allows students to skip homework if it offends their religious beliefs and infringes on the religious liberty rights of prisoners.   

4. ‘Conscience’ Exemptions

The news media has reported widely on the campaign by the Cath­olic bishops and the Religious Right to win “conscience” exemptions from provisions of the Obama health care reform, but this issue has also filtered down to the state level. Sectarian lobbies want to exempt religious institutions and individuals from a broad range of laws that ensure civil rights and civil liberties.

A leading proponent of this type of legislation is the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington, D.C., group that advocates public policy based on the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition.”

The EPPC is trying to create “religious freedom” caucuses in all 50 state legislatures by the end of 2013. As of press time, it had already established them in nine states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Although the effort claims to be bipartisan, that’s hardly the case in Kansas, where the caucus consists of 26 Republicans and one Democrat.

Critics say the campaign seeks to give conservative religious groups and individuals preferential treatment under the guise of “religious freedom.” They note that Brian W. Walsh, head of the EPPC’s American Religious Freedom Program, is a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law. 

The National Catholic Register reported that the “religious freedom” caucuses comprised a total of 120 state lawmakers as of mid-October. Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale) was described as the group’s legislative “brain trust.” She authored a law that permits the state’s religiously affiliated employers to opt out of the new federal contraception requirement.

Americans United’s Legislative Department is very concerned that these conscience exemption measures will be overly broad and undercut the rights of other Americans.

AU has strategized in the past with the ACLU, Catholics for Choice, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Def­amation League on how best to defend church-state separation against this type of threat and will continue to work with such organizations in 2013.

 

5. State ‘Prayer’ Caucuses

A similar movement to the one orchestrated by the EPPC is under way thanks to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Forbes, a Religious Right favorite, is head of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Through the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), attempts are being made to establish “prayer caucuses” in every state legislature.

The CPCF website indicates that at least eight states currently have a prayer caucus – Maine, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, Colorado and Mississippi. It says the goal of the organization is the “successful collaboration of prayer and action at the state level, [which] will accelerate the rate at which religious freedom is secured at the national level.”

That may not sound so sinister, but critics say it’s every bit as misleading as the EPPC “religious freedom” caucuses. The CPCF claims to encourage state lawmakers to “partner with churches and para-church organizations, and ultimately preserve faith in God as lifeblood of America.”

In fact, church-state separation supporters say the campaign intends to pervade government with religion.

The CPCF has shown its influence of late, having scored a major victory last year when the deceptive “religious freedom” amendment, officially known as Amendment 2, was added to the Missouri Constitution. It was authored by Rep. Mike McGhee (R-Odessa), who chairs the Missouri Prayer Caucus.

The CPCF backed McGhee’s proposal, calling it a necessity in a press statement and claiming that there are “anti-God groups bent on erasing God, prayer and Judeo-Christian influence from the public square.”

 

6. Anti-Shariah Laws

The U.S. Constitution already prohibits government enforcement of religious law, but right-wing groups are insisting that legislatures take the extra step of banning shariah – Islamic law.

As of press time, anti-shariah legislation had been pre-filed for the 2013 legislative sessions in Alabama and Florida. Texas has pre-filed a bill proposing a ballot measure to amend the state’s constitution to prohibit enforcement, consideration or application of any “religious or cultural law.”

An anti-shariah bill has also been sitting dormant in Michigan’s House Jud­iciary Committee for over a year, and some state lawmakers were pushing for a vote on that legislation at press time.

Critics say measures of this kind are proposed without a credible threat from Islam and seek to stigmatize a single religion and its adherents.

These bills have been on the rise of late. They have evolved slightly, thanks in part to a ruling by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2012, which declared unconstitutional an Oklahoma ballot measure that sought specifically to ban shari­ah law.

As a result, more recent anti-shariah bills have been slightly subtler, forgoing specific language targeting shariah in favor of banning courts from applying “foreign law” generally. For example, the Michigan legislation would “limit the application and enforcement by a court, arbitrator, or administrative body of foreign laws that would impair con­st­itu­tional rights.”

“These laws are a solution in search of a problem and motivated by sheer animus toward a perceived Muslim threat,” said AU’s Rolat.

Will The Religious Right Succeed?

Americans United expects the Religious Right and the Catholic hierarchy to lobby state lawmakers heavily in 2013, and these sectarian pressure groups may find particular success this year thanks to a changing party lineup.

The New York Times reported recently that the office of governor and the majorities in both legislative houses will be controlled by one party in 37 states this year, the most in 60 years. Twenty-four states will have GOP control of the legislature and the governor’s office.

The Times noted that this is a marked change from just two years ago, when 30 states were split. The report speculated that more bills will be passed and fewer of those proposals will be moderate as a result of single-party control.

Americans United’s Lynn said that sort of environment plays right into the hands of the Religious Right.

“Those who oppose church-state separation thrive in extreme political environments,” he told Church & State. “The more extreme the makeup of legislatures becomes, the more likely it is that a bad bill will become law. We expect to have our hands full.”    

 

Simon Brown is a communications associate at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
 
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